“Imagining Freedom: Toni Morrison and the Work of Words,” 11/17 Colloquium with University of Virginia’s Lawrie Balfour


Highlighting Toni Morrison’s vital contributions to democratic inquiry, University of Virginia James Hart Professor of Politics Lawrie Balfour’s talk will explore how, in reimagining moments that have been left out of official histories, Morrison’s novels and non-fiction works cultivate an enriched understanding of freedom that is not predicated on the enslavement of others. The talk will take place on November 17 at 3:30pm in Jesse 410.


When Toni Morrison declares that she “can’t wait for the ultimate liberation theory to imagine its practice and do its work,” she raises an issue at the heart of modern political thought: How should we understand freedom? At the same time, Morrison highlights a problem too often disregarded by political theorists and philosophers: What does freedom mean in the shadow of racial slavery and colonialism? For Morrison, the two questions are conjoined, the former not thinkable without the latter. Morrison’s novels and non-fiction wrestle with the difficulty of sustaining individual and collective life in the face of the subjection and terror at the heart of modern experience. While there is a substantial body of scholarship examining her literary achievements, Morrison’s contributions as a political thinker deserve more sustained study. Her attentiveness to the experiences of people “no one inquired of” and, especially, her commitment to the lives of Black women and girls reorients democratic inquiry. By reimagining moments that have been left out of official histories, Morrison challenges readers to conceive forms of freedom that are not predicated on the enslavement others.


University of Virginia James Hart Professor of Politics Lawrie Balfour is the author of Democracy’s Reconstruction: Thinking Politically with W. E. B. Du Bois (Oxford University Press) and The Evidence of Things Not Said: James Baldwin and the Promise of American Democracy (Cornell University Press). A 2020-21 Guggenheim Fellow, she has also held fellowships from the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard Divinity School, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She serves as editor of Political Theory: An International Journal of Political Philosophy, and her articles on race, gender, and democracy have appeared in journals including Perspectives on Politics, American Political Science Review, Hypatia, and The Du Bois Review. Prof. Balfour will serve during 2023 as the John G. Winant Visiting Professor of American Government at Oxford University.