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The Limitations and Possibilities of Freedom as Flight:
Engaging Neil Roberts’s Freedom as Marronage

What I appreciate most about Neil Roberts’s Freedom as Marronage is its effort to build a contemporary theory of freedom out of a conceptual landscape that is Caribbean. While the idea of marronage and historical examples of maroons are not limited to the archipelago, the most legendary exemplars of this phenomenon are found in the mountainous regions there and the embrace of them as maroons is a distinct character of its political culture and history. In the US, neither hegemonic nor oppositional communities treat our own maroons as national heroes to be canonized; these are not figures we refer to by their first names; pictures of their faces are not in wide circulation. More specifically, the Caribbeanness of Roberts’s book lies in its central use of concepts (of marronage, relation, and Sylvia Wynter’s reworking of liminality) that emerged out of the historical lived experience that was Afro-Caribbean as well as its centering of Caribbean examples, theorists (Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Édouard Glissant, Orlando Patterson, and Sylvia Wynter), and texts. In doing this with the aim of resuscitating an aspiration at the core of modern political theory—the project of articulating freedom—Roberts demonstrates the value of the Caribbean Philosophical Association’s motto of shifting the geography of reason. Put differently, he illustrates how the responses of political actors to the unique features of this porous pocket of the world anticipated many political dilemmas that are now faced globally, making it a distinctive resource for developing ideas for a shared future world.

As is likely the sign of provocative thinking, Freedom as Marronage generates countless questions. To give the reader a sense, some core ones include: What does sustainable rather than fleeting flight mean?1 Is the present impasse in freedom a matter of conceptualization or practical realization?2 Is there a distinctly late modern character to confusions concerning the nature of freedom and unfreedom?

Roberts identifies the contemporary impasse in reflections on freedom in the ongoing willingness to divide negative from positive conceptions of freedom rather than seeking to unify these into a single, coherent account. For this reason, he avidly rejects any attempt to have the temporary and sporadic individual physical flight that marks petit [End Page 182] marronage or the collective, more permanent building of hill communities of grand marronage exhaust the idea’s scope or reach. Since, in his view, this would be to lock marronage purely at the level of negative freedom—in fleeing from—and would fail to achieve what he endeavors to do.

As an antidote, Roberts ambitiously expands the potential range and meaning of flight. While it is always marked by four main characteristics (distance, movement, property, and purpose) these can take four distinct forms: the familiar two already mentioned (petit and grand), but also sovereign and sociogenic marronage. (In the latter two, even as revolutionary leaders seek to become sovereign or collectives engage in revolutionary constitution, they remain in the act of flight.) This enables Roberts to argue that what is evident or manifest in freedom on the model of marronage doesn’t stop in the moment of retreat but can also be present in efforts to transform a location into a site from which one would not need to seek refuge. This conceptual expansion generates a series of new terms, including non-fleeing flight and the emphasis that while marronage can and often does describe relations to certain physical spaces, it need not focus primarily on territory, but can also be a condition. Indeed, Roberts offers, in his conclusion (that is not an ending), an account of how the Rastafari movement, in its full, dispersed, global scope, has embodied this fuller-fledged account of marronage. This is because, in addition to its origins in maroon communities that escaped the plantation and insisted on maintaining spaces outside the jurisdiction of the state, some among them have more recently engaged the Jamaican government as well as invoking international human rights frameworks. Almost all are also centrally involved in projects of alternative living—from dreaded hair to ital eating to renaming and alternative speech. Rastafari, in other words, appears, as Roberts is arguing for, to move beyond the statist/non-statist binary, trying both to tame the Leviathan and recognizing the necessity of maintaining spaces beyond its grasp, exhibiting the full range of forms of flight and suggesting how these can and do combine.

All of this raises a series of questions: Beginning at the end, how much does the viability of a unified conception of freedom hinge on the particular example offered as illustration—if one is not as admiring of Rastafarians, does that create difficulties in terms of the desirability of this model of freedom? Does it matter that different Rastafarian groups might engage in some elements of marronage and not others, enabling us to create an ex post facto unity that we might see in any broad political unit (e.g., one might look at the US and identify all four of these kinds of marronage as well)? Can flight, even in an expanded sense, really be perpetual? To be coherent as movement, doesn’t it need some form of stasis against which to be recognized or is the argument [End Page 183] that degrees of inertia are inevitable and so this conception of freedom is a constant vigilance against those default tendencies? How expansive can the concept of flight be: can it remain coherent if now including staying put or refusing to budge? What is gained conceptually by insisting against the more conventional formula that flight can encompass the transitions into constructing polities? If one is involved in constituting a polity, either as a revolutionary sovereign or collective, surely one is now invested as a constitutive part of, even responsible for, what others might or perhaps will inevitably flee? After all, even if what made one flee fundamentally colors one’s efforts, one has become the site of authority. Does the argument here resemble George Ciccariello-Maher’s in We Created Chavez, that Hugo Chavez needed to be understood as the culmination of a social movement that did not end with his successful election; that Chavez, because of the struggle for which he was a key face, resisted the classic divide between movement upsurges and their institutional routinization?3

This last point connects to three quibbles, all intended as friendly, since aimed at fully grasping the implications of freedom as marronage. They focus first on Roberts’s account of “the existentialists,” second on Orlando Patterson’s conception of social death, and, third, on the supposed masculinism of Frederick Douglass.

First, Roberts states that existentialists do not assume, as he advocates, that we are born into a condition of slavery.4 At the same time, when engaging Édouard Glissant, Roberts highlights the existential dimensions of his work; namely, his distinction between being and becoming as well as Patterson’s use of Albert Camus’s use of the myth of Sisyphus.5 Put simply, given the desire to consider the fundamental and permanent relationship between freedom and unfreedom more richly, wouldn’t an existential starting point of human beings as both free and constrained, capable of transcendence and irredeemably factical, be precisely what Roberts wants and needs? Isn’t this indispensable to conceptualizing the agency of enslaved people? The maroons, as Roberts skillfully describes them, seem to be some of the best empirical evidence of this organizing thesis in existentialism.

Second, many commentators, among them Vincent Brown, have criticized Orlando Patterson for supposedly arguing that slaves were socially dead, pointing to the evidence of the social worlds of enslaved people and many instances of their creative resistance as the clear contradiction to Patterson’s central claim.6 However, as I read him, Patterson was not arguing that slaves were socially dead but instead that they were treated and expected to behave as if they were socially dead. In other words, the project of turning a human being into a slave was to make that person socially dead through an entire political economic edifice of law, social sanction, and disenfranchisement. The maroons were key, through their marronage, for turning the conflation of the aim with its [End Page 184] actualization into a site of vulnerability for those who relied on the achievement of enslavement. I raise this not only because there is a line of scholarship that I think is based on a fundamental misreading but also because the mistake is at the core of many arguments of Afro-pessimist scholarship which collapse the project of making human beings abject with the achievement of their abjection (which the authoring of such arguments themselves appears to contradict). The alternative to this conflation is clarified through comparison with Frantz Fanon’s zone of non-being on which Roberts heavily relies. One could as easily criticize Fanon for claiming that the colonized were non-beings, when his aim was to illuminate the effort to make the colonized into flunkies or non-beings. While Fanon is emphatic that this project is totalizing, it is never in fact complete. In other words, I think Roberts’s engagement with Fanon and refusal only to discuss Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death point toward a more accurate and fruitful account of what the idea of social death illuminates, which I would describe as political projects of creating fundamentally anti-political relations between the free and unfree.

The third point, concerning Frederick Douglass, is one I want to emphasize because it is another position that seems to have accumulated unmerited currency. Even so, Roberts’s statement of it is far more subtle. He states, “Masculinism permeates the lexicon of Bondage, and it functions to justify Douglass’s association of freedom with manhood. By masculinism, I mean discourse affirming the male as the normative agent in a society. Masculinist language uses the lexicon of man/men rather than human or woman/women, treats effeminacy as weakness, constructs a lack of manhood as an epistemological, physical, and spiritual deficiency and views progress as an effect of manhood.”7 Roberts qualifies that Douglass’s masculinism is not incompatible with pro-feminism and is not synonymous with patriarchy or misogyny but, he writes, it does “reify the conventional gender roles of an era.”8 Given that the project of enslavement aimed to make slaves into permanent children, is there something worthy of criticism in a slave wanting to occupy the world as an adult? Relatedly, if the particular slave writer is gendered as well as racialized, doesn’t seeking adulthood mean desiring to be a man or a woman? After all, Mary Prince and Harriet Jacobs, in addressing a primarily female audience, emphasized their desires to live a particular conception of womanhood. Finally, if Douglass was able to seek a version of manhood that was neither patriarchal nor misogynist, would that not fundamentally belie the conventional gender roles of his day?

Returning to the larger points with which I would like to close, Roberts explores the relationship of the maroon to the exile, the refugee, and the immigrant. There are clearly many similarities among members of these often overlapping categories. Key among them: all [End Page 185] must leave. However, the maroon to be a maroon needs to initiate the act of flight, rejecting the idea that he or she fundamentally lacks the right to free movement and capacity for independent willing. In contrast, immigrants move into territories with permission. The maroon acts without permission, making evident the limitations of forceful coercion that reinforces existing law. Finally, the exile, immigrant, and refugee are not understood as stealing themselves from another who rightfully possesses them. Given that there are important distinctions among categories of people all fleeing alienated relations to their most recent places of origin, is the reason to group them to draw attention to the sheer scale of movement in the late modern period and underscore its centrality to how we should understand the relations among what are often taken as primary sites of contemporary political life? Or is there more: perhaps the argument at the core of exploring freedom as marronage is that the willingness—any willingness—to leave is politically indispensable; that we need people who refuse to put up with the existing options to enlarge freedom through political means, especially when this rejection is not permitted. If this is the case, the implication may be that what marronage most contributes to our understanding of freedom is a far richer account of exit, something for which many have called but that few have undertaken. (Think here of the centuries-old line of criticism, inaugurated by David Hume and creatively expanded by many recent feminist political theorists, when he argued that the allowance for exit in social contract theory was the equivalent of telling a man he could jump off an ocean-liner.)

More generally, I am far more ready to use Roberts’s freedom as flight descriptively than normatively. Freedom as marronage is very powerful as diagnosis, contributing greatly to recognizing the effort of those who are worldless to create spaces of refuge and appearance. Indeed, once you read Roberts’s book, you see marronage everywhere! It is evident in the founding of Black Studies, Women Studies, and Ethnic Studies as well as how these fields are occupied by their practitioners. While some make them a space of temporary refuge, for others they are primary. For still others, they exist in hostile relations with more established disciplines, considering them sites into which, as Iris Marion Young quipped, those in the Studies periodically trespass in the role of bandit@s. One can think similarly of the long line of US black artists and intellectuals who sought refuge in Paris and in Latin America.

But while flight may be ubiquitous, I remain reluctant to treat it as a normative ideal. When we read of James Baldwin, who can’t engage the question of the Arab in France since he is not a French citizen, we want him to return to Arkansas where he can weigh in as someone not reliant on generous hosts. It is no accident that the migrant who flees one place, if allowed by law, often wholeheartedly embraces the [End Page 186] new, contributing with all of the enthusiasm of gratitude. Many invest as intensely as they do in the creation of a political home in the hope that their new digs will not descend into another hell that they would also have to flee. In other words, is it not true that flight, in all of its varieties, is something indispensable but ultimately less desirable than achieving a set of conditions from which one might dissent but not need to opt out? If the answer is “yes,” as I think it is, this need not mean, with Glissant, that grand marronage is nothing more than an abridged radicalism.

In closing, most political theorists have concepts or formulations that particularly orient their thought. For Roberts, it is undoubtedly the Arendtian phrase “between past and future.” Roberts locates us temporally both “between past and future” and in the late modern period. Is what makes both essential to freedom as marronage an awareness of continued unfreedom that we are better equipped to struggle against with vocabularies derived from the slave political economies that cast large shadows into the present? Few would argue that the early modern or the period prior to the trans-Atlantic slave trade was one marked by especially rich understandings of freedom. If the argument is not that we retrieve notions from this earlier period, does this oft repeated phrase seek instead to magnify that a key feature of our moment is an awareness and expectation that freedom is a feature of human being while it continues to elude most, if not all, of us?

Jane Anna Gordon

Jane Anna Gordon teaches at the University of Connecticut. She is the author of, among other books, Creolizing Political Theory: Reading Rousseau through Fanon (Fordham, 2014), co-editor (with Neil Roberts) of Creolizing Rousseau (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2015) and (with Lewis R. Gordon, Aaron Kamugisha, and Neil Roberts) of Journeys in Caribbean Thought: The Paget Henry Reader (Rowman and Littlefield International, 2016). She is President of the Caribbean Philosophical Association and currently completing a manuscript entitled When Women Do Political Theory. Jane’s email address is jane.gordon@uconn.edu


1. Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 2015), 160.

2. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 143 and 160.

3. George Ciccariello-Maher, We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution (Raleigh: Duke University Press, 2013).

4. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 164.

5. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 165.

6. Vincent Brown, The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

7. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 84–85.

8. Roberts, Freedom as Marronage, 85. [End Page 187]