- Hegel, Liberia
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while they have them their the cow hide is hardly ever off of their backs and when they come here they feal So free that they walk about from morning till evening with out doing one Stroke of work by those means they becom to Sufer— Samson Ceasar, letter to Henry R. Westfall, June 2, 1834
Starting from the Subject as though this were a permanent ground, [the speculative sentence] finds that, since the Predicate is really the Substance, the Subject has passed over in to the Predicate, and, by this very fact, has been upheaved.— G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit,1807
In the first part of Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, Susan Buck-Morss makes a powerful case for the debt Hegel’s theoretical formulations on speculative knowledge owe to the Haitian Revolution.
In this essay I suggest that an under-examined archive from the black Atlantic opens up a possibility that Buck-Morss does not consider: that the most seemingly quotidian and apparently concrete historical moments can offer deeply theoretical and profoundly speculative reflections on freedom. The archive of letters written by black American settler-colonists in colonial Liberia to their family, friends, and former masters during the early to mid-nineteenth century looks, by all accounts, like an empirical record of everyday life. These letters are saturated with greetings and goodbyes, news of births and (much more often) of deaths, requests for food and supplies, and descriptions of daily events. Consequently, they tempt us to read them according to protocols that are common in new social history and social theory, in which such documents offer the raw material for historical recovery and theoretical reconstruction. However, such protocols foreclose the possibility of reading these letters as theoretical treatises in their own right, in the root sense of the word “theoretical,” the sense of contemplation or speculation, as in “beholding a spectacle.”
Taking inspiration from the encounter Buck-Morss stages between Hegel and Haiti, in which she argues that Hegel derives an overly abstract theory of freedom from the “raw” and “concrete” reality of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Haitian freedom struggles, I stage a more appositional encounter between Hegel and Liberia. In letters to their former masters, I contend, ex-slaves who had been freed from servitude in the United States on the condition that they be deported to Liberia speculate about the very meaning of freedom. Although not directly related to Hegel through the kind of coordinated intellectual history Buck-Morss establishes—“Hegel andHaiti”