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White Freedom: the Racial History of an Idea

General Programming

dateMay 10, 2021 timeMonday, 6:30pm EDT locationVirtual Event
  • Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies
  • Department of History
  • Society of Fellows and Heyman Center of the Humanities
  • Maison Française
  • Free and open to the public
  • Registration required. See details.
Cover of White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea by Tyler Stovall and headshot of the author

The era of the Enlightenment, which gave rise to our modern conceptions of freedom and democracy, was also the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. America, a nation founded on the principle of liberty, is also a nation built on African slavery, Native American genocide, and systematic racial discrimination. White Freedom (Princeton University Press, 2020) traces the complex relationship between freedom and race from the eighteenth century to today, revealing how being free has meant being white.

Tyler Stovall explores the intertwined histories of racism and freedom in France and the United States, the two leading nations that have claimed liberty as the heart of their national identities. He explores how French and American thinkers defined freedom in racial terms and conceived of liberty as an aspect and privilege of whiteness. He discusses how the Statue of Liberty—a gift from France to the United States and perhaps the most famous symbol of freedom on Earth—promised both freedom and whiteness to European immigrants. Taking readers from the Age of Revolution to today, Stovall challenges the notion that racism is somehow a paradox or contradiction within the democratic tradition, demonstrating how white identity is intrinsic to Western ideas about liberty. Throughout the history of modern Western liberal democracy, freedom has long been white freedom.

Tyler Stovall is the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Fordham University. He is a historian whose work primarily focuses on the history of modern and twentieth century France. His previous books include Black France, Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light, and Transnational France: The Modern History of a Universal Nation.

Brent Edwards is Peng Family Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia.
Robert Gooding-Williams is Professor of African-American Studies and Philosophy at Columbia.
Madeleine Dobie is Professor and Chair of the Department of French at Columbia.