About the Symposium

Abolitionism and the Arts in the Long Eighteenth Century

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Opposition to slavery and the slave trade permeated the art worlds of literature, music, and visual art in the long eighteenth century. Europeans and Americans composed poetic critiques of the slave trade, sang songs of sympathy for enslaved people, and engraved images that asserted the common humanity of Africans and Europeans. This one-day interdisciplinary symposium, held at Columbia University on May 6, 2023, brought together musicologists, literary and theater scholars, art historians, and historians to think through the connections between the arts and the history of abolitionism in the Atlantic world. Symposium participants presented research that is grounded in their own disciplines but that speaks to wider historical questions, e.g.:

  • What approaches did writers, musicians, and artists take to the problems of slavery and the slave trade?
  • In what ways did their creative activities subvert or reinscribe stereotypes about Africans and African-descended people?
  • How did the materiality of the objects they produced—musical scores, teapots, broadsides—affect the types of abolitionist messages they promoted?
  • Did these political artworks complement or stray from the official strategies of organizations such as the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade?

The symposium featured opening remarks by Atesede Makonnen (literature, Columbia University), two interdisciplinary panels of read papers, and a plenary dialogue between Adrienne L. Childs (art history, The Phillips Collection) and Patricia A. Matthew (literature, Montclair State University). The day concluded with a concert of rarely-heard abolitionist songs from the long eighteenth century performed by Awet Andemicael (soprano, Yale University) and Magdalena Stern-Baczewska (piano, Columbia University). 

"Abolitionism and the Arts in the Long Eighteenth Century" was organized by members of the Columbia University Seminar in Eighteenth-Century European Culture (Julia Hamilton, Stephanie Insley Hershinow, and Patricia A. Matthew), in collaboration with the Department of Music at Goldsmiths, University of London (represented by Berta Joncus). We hope the conference will create connections between scholars of different fields and inspire new scholarship on the theme of abolitionism and the arts.