CFP – Diverse Unfreedoms and their Ghosts

A One-Day Conference
Rutgers University, Camden
March 31, 2017

Keynote speaker: Orlando Patterson, Harvard University

Deadline for abstracts: October 1, 2016

The killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and the publication of The New Jim Crow in 2010, among other watershed moments, have stimulated renewed anger and attention to the legacies of slavery in the United States, more than a hundred and fifty years after emancipation. This one-day conference brings together research on the diversity of practices, identities, and institutions of unfreedom—in the past and present, in the United States and beyond—and how the ghosts of those diverse unfreedoms continue to inhabit, animate, and haunt the present.

In the West, freedom is often celebrated as a universal and positive goal to which all human beings naturally aspire. But what does freedom mean, and how is it connected to its inverse, unfreedom? The idealization of freedom, from ancient Greece onward, has been formulated in juxtaposition to and through diverse institutions, practices, and lived experiences of unfreedom, of which the most prominent is slavery (Patterson 1991). Slavery is often considered the ultimate denial of freedom, a kind of “social death” which negates humanity and agency (Patterson 1982). However, diverse forms of unfreedom—such as captivity, serfdom, imprisonment, and indentured servitude— co-existed with slavery and have often been overlooked (Green 2015). Furthermore, practices and relationships of unfreedom often changed not through transformation to freedom, but in a replacement of one kind of unfreedom by an adjacent unfree relation, resulting in shifts in practices, rights, and identities associated with these unfreedoms. For example, in the early twentieth century in the southern Gold Coast (now Ghana), wealthy men substituted debt pawns for slaves, and then their own wives and children as well as children of their siblings for debt pawns. This practice allowed them to obtain labor to harvest, process, and transport the export crops of oil palm and cocoa in an increasingly capitalist and global economy (Coe 2012).

Aspirations for freedom may involve subjectivities disciplined in new ways. How does the prospect of “freedom” underwrite new unfreedoms? For example, current articulations around children’s right to education in India contain the promise of ‘freedom’ for child laborers. However, as Sarada Balagopalan (2014) explores, the working out of this right within a class and caste segregated pedagogical apparatus often compels these children to combine school with labor as their parents, who are desirous of formal education, are unconvinced by what the state makes available. In a somewhat different vein, Saba Mahmood (2006), in her study of agency among female participants in Islamic revival movements in Cairo, illustrates that they exercise agency not through the discourse of freedom, but through a discourse of piety, submission, and obedience to God.

Likewise, according to Olaudah Equiano, the most famous first-person chronicler of New World slavery in the eighteenth century, being “completely free” meant becoming a “master” of one’s self, paradoxically linking his manumission to a type of bondage: “Accordingly he signed the manumission that day; so that, before night, I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was become my own master, and completely free” (Interesting Narrative, 137). Subjection in one form or another may be the condition of freedom, desire, and action—of subjectivity itself (Foucault 1980).

This conference aims to explore what freedoms and unfreedoms mean by examining four key moments or sites:

  • Relationships between diverse unfreedoms (such as slavery, imprisonment, captivity, serfdom, domestic service, caste, etc.) as people understand and negotiate them, in autobiographical narratives, fiction, court cases, disputes, etc. How do various unfreedoms inter-relate and how do people negotiate between different relationships of unfreedoms and free/unfree statuses and identities? What kinds of practices and identities are entailed in diverse unfreedoms? How are unfreedoms represented vis-à-vis one another, and how are the differences and similarities understood and marked?
  • Transitions between social institutions and practices of unfreedom: What do the moments of historical, personal, and social transitions from one kind of unfreedom to another look like and how are those transitions accomplished—whether from slavery to sharecropping, slavery to debt peonage, imprisonment to halfway houses, child labor to education? Does inclusive legislation adequately address historical discrimination and what investments does the language of freedom make in new gradations and typologies around transition?
  • Aspirations for freedom and the kind of utopian futures that are proposed as part of those What do aspirations for freedom look like? What kinds of solutions for unfreedoms are proposed, and what kinds of unfreedoms do these solutions entail? Is the aspirational pursuit of freedom tied to the need to give up a more politicized identity?
  • The legacies, echoes, and traces of unfreedom in a context of “freedom.” What are the legacies, traces, echoes, and ghosts of unfreedoms, whether historically or in the life course? These traces and echoes could be architectural, institutional, social, or

We are particularly interested in papers from a range of historical and social contexts, in the United States and globally. We welcome papers using the theoretical and methodological approaches of history, literature, philosophy, law, criminal justice, sociology, anthropology, childhood studies, and education. We expect that an edited volume will emerge from the spirited discussions and papers presented at the conference.

Please send a 500-word abstract to [email protected] by October 1st, 2016.

Sponsored by the Graduate School, and the departments of Africana Studies, Childhood Studies, English, History, and Sociology, Anthropology, and Criminal Justice.


Balagopalan, Sarada. 2014. Inhabiting ‘Childhood’: Children, Labour and Schooling in Postcolonial India. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Coe, Cati. 2012. “How Debt Became Care: Child Pawning and Its Transformations in Akuapem, the Gold Coast, 1874-1929.” Africa 82(2): 287-311.

Equiano, Olaudah. 2001 [1789]. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African, As Written by Himself. New York: Norton Books.

Green, Keith. 2015. Bound to Respect: Antebellum Narratives of Black Imprisonment, Servitude and Bondage, 1816-1861. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Patterson, Orlando. 1991. Freedom. New York: Basic Books.

_____. 1982. Slavery and Social Death. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.