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 progressive politics of sociogenic marronage. This is so because Roberts also acknowledges something else—that slaves can and do reflect on their experience of oppression in ways that not only challenge but also perpetuate particular kinds of oppression. I have in mind what Roberts makes quite clear—that some slaves, particularly male slaves, embrace a “masculinist” world view. The great Frederick Douglass is no exception. Central to much of Dogulass’ work, Roberts explains, is a flawed masculinism or a “discourse affirming the male as the normative agent in a society” (83). Roberts is equally attentive not just to the fact that enslaved black “women were sometimes abducted [End Page 208] by male maroons” but also to the reality of the “masculinist language of the 1805 constitution” which under Dessaline’s leadership, “decentered woman and made the realities of women’s citizenship status ambiguous” (135). The outcome, according to Roberts, was “the imposition of juridical restriction on measures requested by enslaved women in the proto-constituent assemblies” forged during the revolution (134).
To be clear, Roberts correctly suggests that black masculinism need not be anti-feminist if and when its goal is to assert black manhood in a white supremacist society whose raison d’être is the infantilizing black people (84). What is problematic, Roberts explains, is the means by which Douglass and other black male slaves attempt to assert their manhood. Roberts argues, more specifically, that Douglass and other likeminded commentators often embrace a worldview that “uses the lexicon of man/men rather than human or woman/women, treats effeminacy as a weakness, constructs a lack of manhood as an epistemological, physical, and spiritual deficiency, and views progress as an effect of manhood” (83). Most importantly, in highlighting this particular strain of black masculinity politics, Freedom as Marronage provides even more concrete evidence that when some male slaves contemplate why they experience oppression and how best to challenge their oppression, the results are not always liberatory (101).
What then are the implications of this contradictory state of affairs in which some slaves critically contemplate their experience of oppression in ways that are both anti-racist and anti-feminist? Part of the answer is that the masculinism that Roberts describes is further evidence of what black feminists, from Anna Julia Cooper1 to Patricia Hill Collins,2 have long critiqued—namely, the erroneous but widespread assumption: 1) that black men necessarily bear the greatest burden of racism’s harmful effects and 2) that blacks will be liberated from oppression when black men are restored to their “rightful” status as patriarchs of the race.
It is not enough, however, to simply conclude that common understandings of blackness as a masculine construct explain why black male slaves often interpret their experience of oppression in ways that are anti-racist and anti-feminist. I say this because Roberts himself guides us to consider an additional possibility—that slaves, including the black male slaves he describes, practice a sociogenic marronage that is “inertia resistant” or “subject to flux” (137). The implications of what Roberts means when he suggests that sociogenic marronage is “subject to flux” are important and manifold. Chief among these implications is what “flux,” so defined, might suggest about the normative underpinnings of sociogenic marronage. Put more explicitly, if identifying and interrogating their experience of oppression allows [End Page 209] slaves to challenge racism AND to perpetuate gendered hierarchies of power, is the experience-based politics of sociogenic marronage truly more liberatory than other kinds of marronage?
Let me end by suggesting three lines of inquiry that might be helpful in answering this question. First, sociogenic marronage is normatively complicated or “messy”—always anti-racist AND sometimes anti-feminist—precisely because it is an experience-based politics that is, like all such politics, informed by diverse, often contradictory, normative strains. I have in mind here what on-going debates among Joan Scott,3 Linda Alcoff,4 Judith Butler,5 and other feminist theorists reveal—that the political implications of “experience” or, more specifically, of laying claim to an experience of oppression are difficult to pin down. This is so because while there is ample evidence to suggest, in Roberts’ work and beyond, that acknowledging and analyzing their experience oppression is what motivates disadvantaged social groups to resist their subordinate status; it is also the case that how these groups—be they women, blacks, and/or gays—contemplate their experience of oppression is often already politicized in ways that are not progressive.
Second, what Roberts describes as the “flux” like nature of sociogenic marronage may not be unique. By this, I mean that any black politics that is based on or that gains meaning from black people’s “experience” has to come to terms with its normative complexity—or potential to challenge AND reinscribe existing hierarchies of power. Moreover, this coming to terms necessarily requires anti-racist activists and theorists, including Roberts, to find a way to reap the benefits without succumbing to the limitations that come with proclaiming that black people have a collective experience of oppression. Third and finally, the normative complexity/messiness of sociogenic marronage reflects yet another, important kind of liminality can and should be made more explicit in Roberts’ theorizing. Simply put, it is not only the case that marronage occupies the liminal terrain between “freedom” and “slavery.” The normative value of marronage, including sociogenic marronage, is also liminal. Most significantly, it is this latter kind of liminality that allows us to understand what Roberts so aptly describes—that in conceptualizing a flight from slavery premised on their own understanding of why they experience oppression, many slaves, including black male slaves, ultimately advance a simultaneously anti-racist and sexist politics.
My hope is not only that Roberts will consider these lines of inquiry. It is also that other scholars will join him in the worthy task of forging a new body of literature that fully maps the path-breaking contours of sociogenic marronage. [End Page 210]
Keisha Lindsay is an Assistant Professor in the departments of Gender and Women’s Studies and Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research and teaching interests include feminist theory, the politics of experience, black masculinities, and the gendered politics of black popular culture. Professor Lindsay is presently completing a book manuscript, Chalk it up to Experience: All-Black Male Schools, Intersectionality, and Feminist Politics. Keisha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South, Xenia (Ohio: The Aldine Printing Company, 1892).
2. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 2008).
3. Joan Scott, “The Evidence of Experience,” Critical Inquiry 17(4) (1991), 773–97.
4. Linda Martín Alcoff, Visible Identities: Race, Gender, and the Self (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
5. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990). [End Page 211]