- 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...