- Black Liberation from White ‘Liberty’: Some Comments on Neil Roberts’s Freedom as Marronage
Neil Roberts’s Freedom as Marronage is a welcome addition to a growing body of work that is challenging Western political theory and Western political philosophy from the perspective of a decolonial agenda.1 The book can thus be seen as part of a broader Global South intellectual movement whose aim is a decolonization of knowledge (or what is taken to be knowledge)—a “shifting of the geography of reason,” to cite the slogan of the Caribbean Philosophical Association, of which Roberts has been an active member since its founding more than ten years ago. His title references a subject (“freedom”) of great, indeed seemingly boring familiarity, while simultaneously disturbing and undermining the reflexivity of this judgment by linking freedom to what will be (for the average Western reader) a radically unfamiliar concept: marronage, the African flight from slavery in New World societies.
As a series of recent books has documented2 (vindicating, of course, work from many decades ago by two other Caribbean theorists, C. L. R. James and Eric Williams), Atlantic slavery was central to the making of the modern world, both materially and ideologically. Yet this very centrality has been an obstacle to the political transparency to which liberalism—the dominant political theory of modernity—classically aspires. Precisely because African slavery and other systems of racial subordination were foundational to the creation of the modern liberal world-order they can no longer (in a nominally postcolonial world) be acknowledged to be such. Instead, in modern Western political theory, slavery is far more freely invoked and explored as a metaphor for other kinds of subordination (for example: wage slavery, domestic slavery) than it is in its own literal form. But if liberalism as a term ultimately derives from the Latin liber, free man, then shouldn’t the narrative of the millions of unfree black human beings be part of the overall story?
One of the most valuable features of this book, then, is its self-conscious and explicit drawing on the black slave and post-slave experience—New World African enslavement, marronage of different varieties, the Haitian slave revolution, post-emancipation racial oppression in conditions of nominal freedom—as a resource for political theory. By taking this subaltern history as his archive—“dread history” in the [End Page 177] coinage of the Jamaican Rastafari—Roberts demonstrates what rich political raw materials lie waiting for the theorist with the courage to stray beyond the bounds of the Western estate: marronage in theory, so to speak. Or perhaps more accurately—if we take the metaphor seriously—the courage to investigate those parts of the estate which are now mysteriously fenced off, with NO TRESPASSING signs prominently posted above chained doors.
For Roberts’s decolonial mission is twofold. It is not merely that he wants to challenge the denial that an intellectual political tradition derived from the experience of African slavery exists, or (if its existence is conceded) exists as a worthy entry in global political thought. He also wants to contest and redraw the Western conceptual topography that has excluded this tradition from the map in the first place. Writing with unapologetic partisanship as a black scholar of Caribbean ancestry, he is contributing—within the broader framework of decolonial theory—to that specific strain which is increasingly being termed “Afro-modern political thought,”3 the political theorizing of Afro-descendant peoples in a modern world shaped by black racial slavery and its legacy. And what this means is that a critique of the white Western tradition and the way it has drawn the terrain becomes a crucial part of the agenda since it is, of course, this very community that are responsible for New World African enslavement and post-emancipation anti-black racial subordination. The “West” has chosen to erase as a political theme worth investigating the implications of the central and most blatant unfreedom—African slavery—on which the modern Western world was constructed. Roberts’s mission is to confront mainstream political theory with that historic and current evasion, and to explore the ways in which slave marronage in its different...