The University of Texas at Austin - Civitas Institute

Words Like Freedom

Lunch discussion with Chiyuma Elliott

March 30
Chiyuma Elliott

Like so much historical and contemporary political philosophy, Langston Hughes’s poetry about race in America often conflates the terms “freedom,” “liberty,” and “democracy.” But his famous 1967 poem “Words Like Freedom” is an exception because it suggests that freedom and liberty are distinct and related words. It suggests also that each exists in its own category with other like words. But what are those other words like freedom and liberty? And how does Hughes’s poem define and use its key terms to inspire political reflection in us, its readers? As political theorist Hanna Fenichel Pitkin notes, “[s]peakers of English have a unique opportunity: They get to choose between ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom.’ No other European language, ancient or modern, offers such a choice” (1988, 523). In this workshop, we will make use of the unique opportunity English language poetry affords us to test one of Hughes’s core premises. We will ask whether there are, in fact, other words like freedom or liberty. And we will apply what we learn to three instances when connotative and denotative differences between those words are useful: Pitkin’s account of hidden linguistic and conceptual problems in Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, James Ceasar’s 2010 taxonomy of contemporary American conservatism in “Four Heads and One Heart,” and George McKenna’s 2022 essay on liberty, virtue, and moral harm in contemporary American debates about abortion and free speech.

Lunch will be provided.

Chiyuma Elliott is Nonresidential Fellow of the Civitas Institute and Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she directs the African American Intellectual Traditions Initiative, a project that explores religious and classical influences on African American intellectual life. Her scholarly work and teaching focus on poetry and poetics, African American literature, intellectual history from the 1920s to the present, and Black Geography/Cultural Geography. Prof. Elliott is the author of four books of poems: Blue in Green (2021), At Most (2020), Vigil (2017), and California Winter League (2015). She is currently at work on a poem cycle about technology and migration, and a scholarly monograph tentatively titled The Rural Harlem Renaissance, about rural life and art in the 1920s. She completed her Ph.D. in American Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

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