UW-Madison Center for the Humanities

Center for the Humanities

Past Faculty Development Seminars

Spring 2012: Slavery and Emancipation in the United States


Led by Stephen Kantrowitz (History)

This seminar has two goals. First, it seeks to create a sustained conversation across the disciplines about the character of U.S. slavery, the forces that converged to dismantle it, and the nature of the “emancipation” that followed. Second, it will serve as a launching pad for a broader and more public conversation during the following academic year (2012-13), which will be the 150th anniversary of the formal, national emancipation that began during the Civil War.

To study slavery and emancipation is to engage critical questions about modernity that stretch well beyond the borders of history as a discipline. The seminar will range across fields, contrasting how scholars from various quarters of the humanities approach these problems. For example, historians and literary scholars will be able to reflect on their divergent approaches to fugitive-slave narratives, texts from which historians either seek validation or which they attempt to validate, but which literary scholars insist must be understood in terms of genre and convention; meanwhile, political theorists and philosophers will be able to situate discussions of “freedom” and “rights” within a key crucible of their modern evolution.

Close study of U.S. slavery and emancipation disrupts conventional understandings of “progress,” “freedom,” “agency,” and “equality.” The capitalist dimensions of American slave society suggest how easily markets can coexist with unfreedom of various kinds. The breadth and complexity of antislavery activity reveal its enmeshment in projects ranging from sentimental culture to territorial conquest, many of them only tangentially concerned with the lives and fates of actual enslaved people. The failure of postwar Reconstruction to establish meaningful political or economic self-determination for most freedpeople raises important questions about the limits of liberal rights of contract and self-ownership. And the troubled adjustment of America to a nominally non-racial order, which took place side by side with a rigid ideological demarcation between “political” and “social” equality, lends authority to Saidiya Hartman’s observation that for the nineteenth-century West, “the social” became “an asylum of inequality.” Humanists and social scientists of many stripes have a stake in these debates.

The seminar will provide a platform for practical discussions of how humanities scholars at UW-Madison can use the ongoing sesquicentennial of the American Civil War to promote a more thoughtful public conversation about the history of slavery and the meanings of freedom. I am beginning to plan “Emancipations,” a series of events and speakers to mark the 2012-13 anniversaries of wartime emancipation itself. Members of the seminar will have an opportunity to shape this series, working together and building on seminar discussions to create an intellectually expansive reconsideration of emancipation as a moment, an idea, and a (perhaps unfinished) project.

Upcoming Readings:

Week Ten (April 18): Thinking Internationally about Freedom

Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question”

Frederick Cooper, Thomas Holt, and Rebecca Scott, "Beyond Slavery: Explorations of Race, Labor, and Citizenship in Postemancipation Societies" (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2000), 1-32.

Week Eleven (April 25): Make-up if necessary for snow day, etc.