- Freedom, Marronage, and the Politics of Experience
Freedom as Marronage is a pleasure to read. Roberts’ work is trail-blazing in four important arenas. First, Roberts thoroughly de-constructs the false binary between “freedom” and “slavery” that has long defined Euro-American political thought. Put more specifically, Roberts reveals not that slavery is the opposite of freedom but, rather, how and why marronage is “the important liminal and transitional social space between slavery and freedom” (4). Freedom as Marronage is important, second, because it challenges the “disavowal” of slave agency in Western political thought. By disavowal Roberts means the all too common way in which Euro-American social and political theorists simultaneously recognize and deny the reality of slaves’ agency. In advancing this argument, Roberts pays special attention to: 1) Arendt’s effort to “maintain the integrity of her American revolutionary vision” by both recognizing and remaining silent about slavery’s horrors as well as 2) Orlando Patterson’s presumption that to be and act as a slave is, by definition, to advance one’s own “social death” (36).
Freedom as Marronage is also significant because it offers new and significant conceptual schema even—or better yet, especially—for those of us who have long taken slaves’ agency seriously. It is not enough, Roberts rightfully concludes, to analyze the implications of “petit” and “grand” marronage. We must be equally attentive to “sovereign marronage” and “sociogenic marronage.” The former captures “the activity of flight” led by “lawgivers or sovereign political leaders” (10). The latter describes mass flight from slavery that is collectively led by slaves themselves. Most importantly, these two forms or marronage transcend “limited and one-dimensional images and understandings of what a maroon is” by highlighting new “dimensions of flight experienced and envisioned through large-scale slave revolts, revolutions, and the personalities of a polity’s political leadership” (10).
The paragraphs below explore a fourth, less explicit but equally significant theme in Freedom as Marronage. This theme concerns the value or the lack thereof of experience-based politics. On the one hand, Roberts’ guides us to embrace “sociogenic marronage” or the idea that “mass flight from slavery is achieved” not “through the agency and vision of the lawgiver” or the “sovereign” but, rather, through slaves’ [End Page 207] own interpretation of how and why they experience oppression (11). Roberts assumes, in other words, that “lived experiences fashion our social world and structure our civil and political orders.” Put in more concrete terms, to embrace sociogenic marronage is to assume that slaves’ “lived experiences” determine how they understand their “situation, options, life chances, responsibilities, and humanity” (120).
The particular experience of oppression that Roberts foregrounds when he makes the case for sociogenic marronage is two-fold. Roberts, most obviously, has in mind slaves’ experience of racial oppression. Hence, his declaration that the “experience” of blacks “under slavery” informs not only their “unfreedom” but also their “vision of an alternative future” or their willingness and capacity to foster a new world order that is antithetical to white supremacy (118). Roberts also posits a link between black women slaves’ experience of feminized racism and their practice of sociogenic marronage. Roberts’ point of departure for making this claim is enslaved black women’s demand for “gender equality” during and as part and parcel of the Haitian Revolution. In Roberts’ own words:
[e]nslaved women demanded gender equality, normalizing standards for conditions of work, and the evanescent moments of leisure… By gender equality, black women slaves meant the same norms for hours on the plantation, rest at night, compensation for work, and qualifications for leadership positions in clandestine revolutionary enclaves across the island(129).
Again, the assumption here is that when slaves are able to fully identify and critically analyze their experience of oppression what results is the decidedly “bottom up,” progressive politics of sociogenic marronage or the “revolutionary process of naming and attaining individual and collective agency, non-sovereignty, liberation, constitutionalism, and the cultivation of a community that aligns civil society with political society” (11).
On the other hand, it is not enough to simply conclude that Freedom as Marronage details how experiencing oppression motivates slaves to embrace the...