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Theorizing Slave Agency:
Neil Roberts’s Freedom as Marronage

If freedom has been a central concept in Western political thought, slavery has long been the dominant metaphor for unfreedom, and since the advent of popular sovereignty the denial of political representation in particular has been framed as a condition akin to enslavement. Yet the perspective of the actually enslaved, particularly people of African descent in the Americas during the Age of Revolution, has not been mined as a resource for thinking about freedom in political theory. Neil Roberts’s Freedom as Marronage admirably begins to fill that gap. In so doing it makes an important intervention in political theory, as well as African Diaspora Studies.

Despite the pervasive use of slavery as a metaphor for unfreedom, it is striking how much modern experiences of enslavement and slave agency are absent from analyses of freedom in political theory. This absence is of course symptomatic of the erasure of modern slavery and colonialism generally from so much of Western political thought, which often reads as if it was all a form of “ideal theory” à la Rawls.1 There are some recent exceptions to this trend, which point us to think about the concrete experiences of enslavement that have informed canonical theories of freedom in Western political thought, such as Susan Buck-Morss’ Hegel and Haiti, which traces how the Haitian Revolution, the first and only revolution carried out by fugitive ex-slaves, informed Hegel’s master-slave dialectic.2 Roberts goes beyond the historiographical work of showing how slave uprisings in the Americas served as a source for European theorizing about freedom, however, to plumbing the ideas and practices of freedom enacted by the enslaved themselves.

What does it mean to theorize freedom from the perspective of the enslaved? Roberts argues that the key concept on which such an account should be based is marronage, the experience of flight or escape from slavery. Roberts has an expansive understanding of marronage that goes beyond accepted usage of the term as referring to communities created by fugitive slaves outside of (but co-existing with) colonial and post-colonial (since slavery persisted past independence in the US and Brazil, for example) slave societies in the Americas. Marronage becomes Roberts’ central analytical concept for investigating how [End Page 188] the enslaved enacted freedom. It encapsulates the principal intervention he wishes to make into the way freedom has been conceived in Western political thought. Pointing to Isaiah Berlin’s influential categorization of Western notions of freedom into positive or negative liberty (e.g., those that emphasize self-mastery and collective political participation versus those that conceive freedom as non-interference and non-domination), Roberts persuasively argues that both of these conceptions assume that freedom is a static condition, which subjects either do or do not possess. Moving beyond this polarized, static conception of slavery and freedom, Roberts suggests instead that freedom is the process of flight. Roberts thus turns to marronage because he is interested in “the liminal and transitional social space between slavery and freedom.” Political theory, he argues, “must pay attention to the process by which people emerge from slavery to freedom.”3

In addition to reframing the terms of the debate about freedom in Western political thought, and introducing a third, relational understanding of freedom, Roberts’s formulation of freedom as the process of flight or fugitivity from enslavement also destabilizes an important debate in African Diaspora Studies and black political thought about the contemporary relevance of slavery. In recent years, following the publication of Saidiya Hartman’s influential intervention in Scenes of Subjection, scholars of African Diaspora studies have begun to engage with the question of slavery’s afterlife, of how practices pioneered during enslavement have continued to shape post-emancipation polities and black self-making in particular. Much of this scholarship, under the rubric of Afro-pessimism, has focused on continued forms of black subjection. Afro-pessimism theorizes blackness as a condition of ontological death or fungibility; for afro-pessimists the conditions of post-emancipation societies are contiguous to those of slavery, such that the plantation may have been replaced by the prison but the relation of a fundamental structural antagonism between blackness and (what is seen as) the human remains the same. Within this schema the enslaved cannot serve as rich sources for thinking about freedom, because to do so would be to offer facile solutions to an irreconcilable opposition. When Roberts argues that: “during marronage, agents struggle psychologically, socially, metaphysically, and politically to exit slavery, maintain freedom, and assert a lived social space while existing within a liminal position” he is rejecting the notion of slavery as “social death” in Orlando Patterson’s famous formulation, which is foundational to Afro-pessimism.4 Roberts’s theorizing about marronage reframes the debate between Afro-pessimists and Afro-optimists in African Diaspora Studies by focusing on slave agency and refuting the idea that the slave had no capacity for action. Freedom as Marronage is instead precisely focused on the capacity for action of the enslaved, or more precisely on the potentiality for such action (the moment when [End Page 189] the enslaved realize that they can resist and begin to contemplate doing so). It is the entire span of such actions, not just the physical act of escape, which Roberts seeks to capture by arguing that we should conceive of freedom as marronage, as a process of flight and movement.

One of the principal achievements of Freedom as Marronage is thus how it seamlessly brings together these two strands of contemporary thinking about slavery and freedom, and makes a powerful intervention into both by introducing the generative idea that it is philosophically productive to focus on the liminal space between freedom and slavery, thereby centering the agency of the enslaved, which is under-emphasized in both Afro-pessimism and Western political thought. Roberts destabilizes the dichotomy between freedom and un-freedom that is central to conceptions of negative and positive liberty in Western political thought, and shows how the impulse to flight has been a central feature of the politics of the enslaved, thereby reorienting us to the figure of the fugitive.

Indeed, one of the most persuasive chapters in the book is Roberts’ nuanced reading of Frederick Douglass as a theorist of slave agency. Roberts’s careful analysis of Douglass’ notion of “comparative freedom” in his middle autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, is particularly illuminating and stands in contrast to readings of Douglass as an assimilationist thinker within African-American political thought. In Roberts’s view, “Douglass develops a tradition of political theory centering attention on the psychological and physical acts of struggle and assertion that are integral to slave agency.”5 Roberts’s reading of the middle autobiography provides a more complex picture of Douglass, by emphasizing the radical potential of Douglass’s theorization of slave resistance, even as he ultimately shied away from endorsing collective revolutionary violence to overthrow slavery in the US context.

Douglass’ difficulty in translating his own individual flight from slavery to collective acts of resistance and freedom by the enslaved points to one of the weaker aspects of Roberts’ theorization of marronage. Roberts distinguishes between what he calls sovereign marronage and sociogenic marronage. He defines sovereign marronage as: “non-fleeting mass flight from slavery…[whose] goal is emancipation, its scope is social-structural, its spatialization is polity-wide, its metaphysics includes the individual and community, and its medium is the lawgiver.”6 Meanwhile, sociogenic marronage is defined as: “macropolitical flight whereby agents flee slavery through non-fleeting acts of naming…liberation…and constitutionalism. It is a non-sovereign state of being whose conception of freedom is shaped by…the experiences of masses.”7 The concept of sociogenic marronage, however, raises a number of questions about what a collective political project conceived in terms of marronage might look like. Sociogenic marronage seems primarily defined by non-sovereignty and a social and political order [End Page 190] shaped by the experiences of ordinary fugitives or the previously enslaved who enacted flights to freedom. It is thus curious that for a concept that is supposed to be centrally concerned with the experiences of slave masses, there is in fact very little analysis of the experiences of ordinary ex-slaves during the Haitian revolution (which is Roberts’ primary historical context for the discussion of sovereign and sociogenic marronage).

The closest and most interesting historical example that Roberts offers is a brief discussion of the demands of enslaved women articulated during the plantation assemblies that took place in the immediate aftermath of French abolition of slavery and which he calls proto-constituent assemblies.8 In contrast to this intriguing example, the bulk of the chapter on sociogenic marronage is devoted to analyzing various moments of elite political action, such as the new republic’s adoption of the name Haiti, and its institutionalization of a form of political blackness in its constitution. The impression the reader gains from the chapter is thus that once the Haitian revolution succeeded, sociogenic marronage was displaced, which suggests that collective marronage is in fact episodic, or at least is a condition that is difficult to sustain in the long term. Roberts’ work raises the important question, which remains unanswered in the book, of whether it is possible to be a long-term maroon, particularly in its sociogenic incarnation oriented toward collective non-sovereign freedom.

Despite this important caveat, one of the achievements of Freedom as Marronage is the breadth of the book, which is impressive in its geographical coverage. By bringing together US and Caribbean experiences of enslavement and marronage, Roberts develops a compelling account of how enslaved and fugitive black persons in various locations in the Americas sought to instantiate freedom and how they resisted and escaped enslavement. Roberts thus opens up an important avenue for further comparisons with Spanish-American experiences of marronage, as well as with Brazilian Quilombismo, which are not addressed in the book. It would be interesting for example, to consider how well the concept of freedom as flight that emerges from Haitian and US examples of marronage would “travel,” and what additional elements could be gleaned from incorporating other historical experiences of marronage into the analysis. For example, the largest and most enduring maroon community in the Americas, the Palmares quilombo in Brazil, existed in the last country to abolish slavery in the hemisphere in 1888.9 Historically, then, marronage did not function to dismantle the racial state. In fact, the scholarship on palenques and quilombos in Latin America suggests that the existence of maroon communities of fugitive slaves acted as incentives for better treatment of those who remained enslaved in order to prevent further flights.10 Roberts’s work thus points toward interesting opportunities for comparison among [End Page 191] the conceptions and experiences of freedom that can be gleaned from historical examples of grand marronage throughout the Americas. Given what we know about the political order developed in the Republic of Palmares, for example, it seems to fit somewhere between Roberts’s categories of sovereign and sociogenic marronage, which suggests either the existence of a third form, or an oscillation and interdependence between the two. The decision not to include experiences of marronage from the Spanish and Portuguese Americas unfortunately precluded such potentially generative comparisons.

Similar questions about the contemporary implications of Freedom as Marronage are raised by Roberts’s identification of refugees in Europe and the Rastafari in the Caribbean as modern maroons. What the Rastafari and refugees/immigrants have in common is either a refusal of the nation-state or the condition of statelessness, both of which are consistent with a desire to move beyond state sovereignty as the defining site of collective freedom. But this raises questions about who can be a modern maroon. Beyond limited forms of political imagination encapsulated in investments in the nation-state as the pre-eminent site of freedom, what other contemporary forms of unfreedom can a notion of freedom as the process of flight illuminate or speak to?

These are questions worth grappling with. In this thought-provoking book Roberts refuses comparative political theory’s default binary between Western and non-Western political thought, and points us instead toward the need to develop a “creolized conception of slavery and freedom.”11 In so doing he has opens up a new and fruitful set of questions for political theory.

Juliet Hooker

Juliet Hooker is Associate Professor of Government and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests span comparative political theory, political solidarity, and multiculturalism. She is the author of Race and the Politics of Solidarity (Oxford, 2009). Recent publications include: “‘A Black Sister to Massachusetts’: Latin America and the Fugitive Democratic Ethos of Frederick Douglass” (American Political Science Review 109: 4). Her forthcoming book from Oxford in 2016 is an intellectual genealogy of racial thought in the Americas that juxtaposes four prominent US African-American and Latin American thinkers: Douglass, Sarmiento, Du Bois, and Vasconcelos. Juliet’s email address is juliethooker@austin.utexas.edu


1. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999).

2. Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).

3. Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 4.

4. Ibid., 10.

5. Ibid., 57.

6. Ibid., 103.

7. Ibid., 116–117.

8. Ibid., 129.

9. R. K. Kent, “Palmares: An African State in Brazil,” in Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas, ed. Richard Price (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979).

10. Sherwin K. Bryant, Rivers of Gold, Lives of Bondage: Governing through Slavery in Colonial Quito (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

11. Roberts, 20. [End Page 192]