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Concluding Reflections on "Arts of Freedom"

jschlosser's picture

In "Arts of Freedom," we began with Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014) as a kind of invocation for the entire course. We continued to return to Rankine throughout the semester. Rankine raised the question of what it means to be a citizen in the United States, a democracy that still prides itself on freedom yet also contains within it various modes of subjection and subordination, especially continuing racial domination and the highest per capita rate of imprisonment in the world. Rankine invokes these themes while also crafting what we came to call an art of resistance in the poem itself, a stunning and powerful creative act against the broader structures she details.


I think Rankine’s text worked the best and influenced all of us the most. This influence appeared in experimental essays that played with her form, our return to the subjective experiences of racism and difference, and the emphasis on the arts of resistance as going beyond what is articulable in language (i.e. using images, poetic forms, and so forth). That said, I’ve been impressed how much Tocqueville and DuBois have stayed in the conversation even as we have moved to more contemporary social movements. Despite writing about the United States over a century ago, both of these writers recognized problems from which America has not yet escaped. My hope that these “canonical” figures could help us see a tradition of radical democratic resistance to white hegemony seems fulfilled.


What would I do differently? When planning the course, I toyed with having a course much more about incarceration and detention. I also considered focusing on freedom more philosophically or theoretically. I opted to examine the meaning of freedom as actualized by social movements. The staying power of “freedom” has impressed me. While I think the term still remains vague for many of us (including me), it has persisted as a useful category. As I think about “Freedom Forgotten,” I return to the idea of transformative freedom that Joel Olson described in the chapter we read from The Abolition of White Democracy, an idea that made sense, I think, only in light of the social movements we had studied in the months previous. This seems like a vision many of us find compelling, a vision that we see absent and neglected. The next iteration of “Arts of Freedom” may have more focused treatment of freedom from the beginning but I also imagine still examining freedom movements in comparative perspective as we did.


The experimental essays were an experiment – and I think they worked quite well. I learned a great deal: I never read Tocqueville’s footnotes with so much attention before; I had not fully come to terms with the ambivalence deep in DuBois’s project; I came to a new appreciation of the inadequacies of 1960s and 1970s liberation struggles. But more important than that, I think we all learned a great deal from one another: seeing how ideas and arguments could translate into images (or even t-shirts!); being surprised by the connections others made in their writing; finding occasions to integrate contemporary events into academic reflections. I hope you all leave the course with a sense of how to integrate personal, reflective writing with academic writing, encouraged to take risks in this way in your other courses, to experiment when possible and push your writing and thinking into new forms of expression and areas of inquiry.


Perhaps most of all I learned from each of you. The degree of trust and openness we all developed together was remarkable. Holding this space did not always happen easily, but I think it led most if not all of us into unfamiliar but also beneficial areas of thought and engagement. You all exceeded the aspiration of which I wrote in the course’s syllabus that “we can collaborate and learn from one another as we bring this community of learning into being, making space for silence as well as voice, for dissent as well as agreement, for personal transformation as well as political deliberation.” Thank you for creating this community with me.