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  • Theorizing Freedom, Radicalizing the Black Radical Tradition: On Freedom as Marronage Between Past and Future

This essay is both a response to symposium commentaries on the author’s book Freedom as Marronage and a wider exploration into the meaning of freedom. It argues that marronage is a conception of freedom emanating from the black radical tradition whose heuristic value spans epochs and intellectual traditions. The essay discusses black politics, Afro-Caribbean thought, the meaning of radical, and the contours of the black radical tradition; posits marronage as a suggestive philosophy and political imaginary to radicalize this tradition in more useful ways than alternative contemporary discourses; and responds thematically to the most challenging critiques to its theorization.

In memory of Grace Lee Boggs, Hyacinth Roberts, and Cedric Robinson

Time would pass, old empires would fall and new ones take their place, the relations of countries and the relations of classes had to change, before I discovered that it is not quality of goods and utility which matter, but movement; not where you are or what you have, but where you have come from, where you are going and the rate at which you are getting there.

C.L.R. James (1963)1

There is a zone of nonbeing, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an incline stripped bare of every essential from which a genuine new departure can emerge.

Frantz Fanon (1952)2

[W]e’ve struggled so long/we’ve cried so long/we’ve sorrowed so long/we’ve moaned so long/we’ve died so long/we must be free, we must be free … But are we really free?

Angela Davis (2016)3 [End Page 212]

The six essays comprising the Freedom as Marronage symposium began as papers presented at the annual meetings of the American Political Science Association, Philosophy Born of Struggle, and Western Political Science Association. Thank you to Charles Mills, Juliet Hooker, George Ciccariello-Maher, Jane Gordon, Andrew Dilts, and Keisha Lindsay for taking the time to revise these thought-provoking pieces for publication; James Martel for deftly framing each author’s contribution; and Jo Anne Colson for expert copy-editing.

Jane Gordon deserves particular mention for assembling the essays and organizing several logistics in a timely manner. Many thanks also to Kennan Ferguson and James Martel for including the forum in the journal’s special twentieth-anniversary issue. Theory & Event is an important venue both for its rigorous engagement with the ideas of scholars and activists seeking to connect concepts and real-world events, and its availability online, which facilitates greater circulation of works via email and social media, especially to persons and communities that greatly benefit from its discourses who otherwise may not have known about its content were it only in print form.

Rather than reproduce overviews of the essays’ respective arguments, which Martel already lucidly offers, I have three objectives. First, I provide autobiographical reflections that help to frame why I wrote the book. Second, I discuss black politics, Afro-Caribbean thought, the meaning of radical, and the black radical tradition. Therein I argue that marronage provides a suggestive philosophy and political imaginary to radicalize the black radical tradition in more useful ways than alternative contemporary discourses and debates. Third, I respond to the most challenging constructive critiques in terms of common themes posed by the commentators, using the reply as an opportunity to elaborate on core principles underlying the theory of freedom as marronage. Sylvia Wynter declares in the Jonkonnu play Maskarade, “The rule is love,” and Frantz Fanon observes in Black Skin, White Masks, “Today we believe in the possibility of love, and that is the reason why we are endeavoring to trace its imperfections and perversions.”4 My response, like the contributors’ essays, echoes these adages: good faith reasonings, asserted out of love and respect, seeking to distill the strengths and weaknesses of argumentation. I also include the implications of the symposium and book for understanding freedom and slavery’s integral role in its articulation. The recent fiftieth anniversary of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, the #Black-LivesMatter movement six-pillar policy manifesto A Vision for Black Lives, calls for reparations for historical injustices across the Antilles, the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student movements in South Africa, Brexit, and more, deserve careful study but are beyond my reply scope. I hope others take up these issues with regards to freedom. [End Page 213]


September 11th augured the writing of Freedom as Marronage although I wouldn’t realize it until years later. I traveled to commence doctoral studies at the University of Chicago on September 10, 2001. However, my original departure from Reagan National airport in Washington, DC, where I had previous residency, was on 9/11. The aircraft was scheduled to depart close to the time the second hijacked plane of the terrorist attack flew into the Pentagon. The trajectories of the two planes, it turned out, crisscrossed in what could have been a mortal result.

I’d changed my itinerary less than a week before following a request by my soon-to-be faculty advisor to meet a day earlier. My family didn’t know of my ticket shift. The next morning, my sister frantically tried to reach me, wondering if I was alive (I didn’t have a cell then). After she finally located me in Chicago, only hours upon my arrival to the city, and allayed that understandable worry, she told me over a landline phone to turn on my television.

Fire. Smoke. Destruction. Death. The world wasn’t the same.

Then came the questions and explanatory hypotheses.

But the logic of discourses on freedom that followed marked a troubling impasse. There ensued a public resurgence of civilizational Manichean language pitting “Us” versus “Them” and asserting persons in the so-called “West” knew and valued what freedom meant unlike those in the “non-Western” world. The state of society in the wake of the neoliberal turn and the persistence of coloniality in the postcolony only exacerbated misguided contentious convictions. “The West is not in the West. It is a project, not a place,” wrote Martinican philosopher and novelist Édouard Glissant.5 Those rampant discursive utterances lent credence to this dictum.

Even among persons rejecting this Manicheism, debates on freedom transpired that separated entirely freedom’s meaning from slavery, a condition I contend, not without controversy, that is the foundational human condition. Moreover, the lack of inquiry into Afro-modern figures, movements, and ideas and the meditations of Afro-modern actors on politics, the political, and what it meant to be free baffled me. For instance, from among the rich modern tradition of Afro-Caribbean thought, where were the conversations on Wynter, Fanon, Glissant, Mary Prince, Claudia Jones, C.L.R. James, Marcus Garvey, Amy Ash-wood, Jeanne and Paulette Nardal, Suzanne and Aimé Césaire, Wifredo Lam, Walter Rodney, George Lamming, Wilson Harris, Maryse Condé, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Jamaica Kincaid, Peter Tosh, Audre Lorde, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Stuart Hall, Derek Walcott, Erna Brodber, Edwidge Danticat, Gloria Rolando, Paget Henry, the New World Group, the Haitian Revolution, the Cuban Revolution, Vodou, Santería, and [End Page 214] Rastafari? Why wasn’t there significant discursive ruminations on Afro-Caribbean articulations of republicanism in relation to the opinions of African-American political thinkers including W.E.B. Du Bois, Anna Julia Cooper, Frederick Douglass, and Angela Davis, and European and Euro-American intellectuals such as Hannah Arendt, Thomas Jefferson, Judith Shklar, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, who attempted to address similar questions? Where was the broad conversation on textual forms—written, oral, visual, digital—and resources we use to explain freedom as a concept and phenomenon? Why hadn’t we acknowledged our creolized modern world, whose dynamism and movement operative everyday couldn’t be explained by crass declarations of universalisms, static mixture, and comparison?

I was determined to tell a different story, a decolonial story that didn’t claim inventionism but instead captured the dialectic of slavery and freedom in a manner representative of long, vibrant traditions cultivated at what Latin American philosopher Enrique Dussel6 calls the “underside of modernity”; a story that would expose not merely silence but the more pernicious disavowal of slavery and slavery agency at the heart of hegemonic modern conceptualizations of freedom; a story that wasn’t anti-Western but post-Western; a story whose effects would be, as the Caribbean Philosophical Association adage states, “shifting the geography of reason;”7 a story, in short, about the world we’ve lived in and how an idea of freedom, forged in a particular historical milieu, could describe the transhistorical phenomenon of flight applicable throughout space and time. Freedom as Marronage and the concept of marronage (flight) buttressing it is that story.

Surprisingly, the widest reception of the book thus far has been among historians and persons with historicist interests.8 This was quite unexpected. For starters, I avowedly push against fundamental premises on the meaning of marronage established by historians over the last few centuries and vigorously defended as convention by subsequent historians and anthropologists.9 Two, I assumed, perhaps with naiveté, that scholars in black studies, Caribbean thought, philosophy, and political theory would be the main ones to wrestle with the text initially. That we are having this symposium in Theory & Event indicates a chord, however discordant, has begun to play in the latter field, with the verdict still out on its melody. I’ve also never considered myself a historian, though I agree with others who believe the late modern mythos of a “history”/“theory” binary is erroneous. Theory and history are mutually reinforcing, not opposing.10 We’re never outside of history, and I employ the historical whenever context to present the theoretical warrants it.

To millions, there’s an acute sense of urgency of interpreting this all in the Age of Trump. The worry, or perhaps downright climate of fear, is that freedom may not only be on the retreat for those living a [End Page 215] free life; but that large populations might never be able to experience what it is to be free. The November 2016 US Presidential election of an undeniable authoritarian reminiscent of Jefferson Davis who relishes in demonstrating his authoritarian personality and doesn’t distinguish between “rule” and “governance” has national, hemispheric, and global repercussions.11 Struggles and resistance to authoritarianism and its mob enforcers have started. And more struggles await us.

Yet these obstacles, arduous as they are, aren’t new.

They’re the story of slaves.

It’s easy to forget that, as long as there’ve been attempts to contain and suppress the enslaved, slaves have resisted arbitrary interference, domination, and sovereign power. In addition, the enslaved have visualized their desired naming, state of society, modes of constitutionalism, blueprints of freedom (vèvè architectonics), interactions with self and others, and non-sovereign ways of being and doing. To reduce the imaginings on freedom of the enslaved either to negative or positive notions, or to a singularity, is to misapprehend freedom’s contours.

Humans are plural and multidimensional, and freedom is a relational condition comparative in nature.

The actions and creativity of multifaceted individuals and masses in the face of unfreedom have fostered—and continue to foster—imaginings on alternative visions of freedom. Flight is perpetual, constant, never static, and subject to contestation, the outcome of which may be progress or regress. This is hard for some to accept, yet I argue it more accurately reflects the range of human experiences. “But then again,” as I wrote in the book’s fifth chapter, “the absence of a struggle to survive on the landscape would mean that we had never experienced the process of becoming free in the first place.”12 May the lessons of Freedom as Marronage serve as a resource to reassess the past, evaluate our present plight, and prepare for what the future holds.

Now let me take a step back.


How might we develop a conception of freedom that underscores the historical while revealing the theoretical and generalizable throughout time and space? How can we reconceptualize freedom to bridge the gulf between its hegemonic articulations in the two main traditions in Western thought—negative freedom (freedom as non-interference and non-domination) and positive freedom (freedom as autonomy, self-mastery, generality, and pluralistic humanism)? How may our rethinking repudiate such notions as positing freedom in immutable, static terms; account for individual and collective imaginings of the free life; indict orders of unfreedom, or existence in what Frantz Fanon calls the zone of nonbeing; and discern the possibility for the realization of revolution? [End Page 216]

I delved into processes of creolization, conceptions of freedom within and across myriad epochs, and the architecture of the black radical tradition. The breadth of this tradition is transnational, as scholars including Angela Davis, June Jordan, Achille Mbembe, Paul Gilroy, Robin Kelley, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Lewis Gordon, Fred Moten, Oyèrónke Oyĕwùmí, Carole Boyce Davies, Hortense Spillers, Christina Sharpe, Walidah Imarisha, and Cedric Robinson have noted, and it contains perceptive insights into the imagination, the interior and the exterior, and interstitial experiences.13

I sought, as a consequence, to gain clarity on our understandings of “black politics,” “radical,” and the “black radical tradition” undergirding how I’ve come to conceive of the free life. Black politics comprises viewpoints, ideologies, and actions spanning the political spectrum. Scholars in the United States, however, unfortunately tend to think of black politics in provincially nationalistic or hemispheric terms. In Not in our Lifetimes, for instance, Michael Dawson defines black politics as “African Americans’ ability to mobilize, influence policy, demand accountability from government officials, and contribute and influence American political discourse, all in the service of black interests.”14 Dawson reaffirms this definition in “The Future of Black Politics” and his Du Bois Lectures Blacks In and Out of the Left.15 Such a framing obscures genres of black visions between past and future.

Black politics includes and exceeds the US and the wider Americas, and there isn’t anything intrinsically radical about its various articulations. As Walter Rodney, Donna Murch, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and Lester Spence note, the neoliberal turn in black politics, reflections on international development, and black political economy are reminders of the heterogeneity of black agents’ opinions on black interests notwithstanding important areas of issues convergence.16 Black radicalism, however, describes a political tendency within black politics, not merely its critique.

To be radical is to be left of center and often in recent years to the left of “progressive”—which is a vague classification of a political disposition that at times encompasses the liberal yet is frequently short of the radical. Just look at which authors The Nation magazine publishes now compared to the 1990s and before and you get the point. If the radical isn’t necessarily a progressive, then is the radical a “militant” as Alain Badiou argues?17 Or something else? In vol. 1 of The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, Garvey writes, “‘Radical’ is a label that is always applied to people who are endeavoring to get freedom.”18 Garvey, though, specifies a compelling outlook on the object of the radical instead of defining the agent.

What exactly is a radical?

Radical, from the Latin radicalis, originally meant: “Of or relating to a root or to roots.”19 Transformations of the term in Middle English, [End Page 217] Middle French, and thirteenth to fifteenth century British English introduced definitions of radical denoting plant roots, a foundational mechanism, bodily organs, humors and moisture vital to human life functioning, and roots of a word. The long eighteenth century, or Age of Revolution, brought about another definitional mutation. Not only did radical come to refer in mathematics to “forming the root of a number or quantity.” For the first time, radical acquired a political valence: “change or action,” “advocating thorough or far-reaching political or social reform,” “representing or supporting an extreme section of a party,” and, most importantly for our purposes, “Now more generally: revolutionary.”20

It’s unsurprising then that Hannah Arendt located the shift from revolution’s astronomical, backward-looking denotation to its modern forward-looking political meaning—a new order of things, a birth, natality—at the same historical moment that radical obtained a political denotation.21 The repercussions of how Arendt wrote about this through exploration into the American and French Revolutions but without reference or analysis of the Haitian Revolution and Arendt’s overall disavowal of the agency of slaves are also crucial for us to comprehend. Black radical thought for centuries has responded to silences as well as the intentional simultaneous acknowledgments and denials of events.22

The black radical tradition, therefore, may be understood as a modern tradition of thought and action begun after transatlantic slavery’s advent, concerned centrally with revolutionary politics, and preoccupied with freedom for the souls of black folk. In Black Marxism, Cedric Robinson furnishes a classic genealogy of it. A distinguishing feature of Robinson’s account is the analysis of “racial capitalism” and the extent to which black radical politics and attendant modes of resistance respond to the phenomenology of unfreedom experienced by blacks in Africa and the African diaspora due to slavery. Robinson examines Marxist theory, thereby distilling a unique lineage of black radicals who were also Marxist scholar-activists.

Robinson’s text culminates in case studies of three figures: W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, and Richard Wright. Additionally, Robinson emphasizes movement, situates accurately the tradition’s transnational character, and rejects the bifurcation of theory and history, developing theoretical assertions within meticulously documented historical milieus.

While Black Marxism shall remain a vital tome, it does have limitations. Black women radicals, Marxist and otherwise, receive little treatment.23 It also contains a useful but all too concise delineation of marronage that only broaches the surface of its true significance. Subsequent treatises on black feminist thought and the black radical imagination are essential correctives. More rethinking, however, is needed. [End Page 218]

Exploring marronage philosophy further offers us a way out of these limitations and a heuristic to radicalize the radical wing of black politics.

The radicalization of the black radical tradition highlights how the lives and lessons of the damnés, the enslaved, are essential bulwarks between past and future for revolutionary change and cultivating freedom. Acts of marronage in their different types, and inquiry into the liminal and transitional spaces of slave escape between poles of political imagination, exemplify this. Freedom is not from-to but rather as.

So why marronage and how, as Angela Davis asks,24 do we know we’re free?

Marronage is a noun that means “flight,” yet it has the effect of a verb. The vocabularies of contemporary philosophy and political theory have been unable to explain the activity of flight and the mechanisms operational in its occurrence. Furthermore, their overwhelming descriptions of unfreedom and freedom as static states belie marronage’s perpetual nature. Marronage defies inertia.

The ongoing act of flight, which transpires in multiple dimensions, encompasses what I contend are the four interrelated pillars of distance, movement, property, and purpose, with movement serving as the central fulcrum connecting the others. Whilst facets of these pillars pertain to the turn to diaspora, diaspora cannot capture their full import. The framework of diaspora describes flight either in a single direction or the return to a beginning location in the manner of a boomerang. Yet it assumes transformations aren’t occurring both at and between the points and spaces where an agent leaves and arrives. Additionally, diaspora can’t explain genres of fugitivity, evanescent flight, and intrastate flight focused on attaining the free life via the macro-level reorientation of state institutions and civil society exemplified by revolutions.

If, per one of the polemical assertions of my theory, all human beings are born enslaved, then, to borrow from The Matrix and Glissant’s ruminations on antillanité (Caribbeanness), humans negotiate distance, movement, property, and purpose to exit slavery and become free.25 Freedom ossifies in the process of becoming itself. Freedom results from acts of flight informed by our experiences and valences of the psychological, physical, social-structural, cognitive, and metaphysical. Freedom encompasses moments that are episodic, durable, and overlapping. Freedom is, in short, a condition, not a place.

The debate between Afro-pessimists and Afro-optimists is indicative of two contemporary positions that take seriously the condition of the enslaved and the question of freedom.26 However, despite differential articulations of their respective camps and divergent opinions on whether slaves ever avoid, in the language of Claudia Rankine, the condition of constant mourning,27 Afro-pessimists and Afro-optimists [End Page 219] startlingly share a fundamental conviction: the belief that slaves across epochs exist in a state Orlando Patterson prominently calls social death in which, as a consequence of powerlessness, dishonor, and natal alienation, slaves are said to lack an inherent capacity for action.28

To be socially dead is to be a living zombie. To be a racialized slave in late modernity, for instance, is to be a non-agentic being subjected to relentless antiblackness. A slave can never be free, the logic goes, unless a free agent grants terms of the free life to the slave. Classic examples are manumission enacted by a master and emancipation proclamations resulting from a polity’s decree rather than slave resistance.

The premises of social death are misguided and antithetical to marronage philosophy. Afro-pessimists and Afro-optimists also mistakenly conflate the notion of social death with Fanon’s concept of the zone of nonbeing. Whilst a slave’s existence in the zone is hellish, the zone of nonbeing is “an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an incline stripped bare of every essential from which a genuine new departure can emerge.”29 Experience inside the zone of nonbeing actually furnishes the possibility for consciousness-raising, individual and collective flight, and the becoming that is freedom.

Acts of marronage demonstrate the intrinsic agency of slaves. It’s the degrees of materialization of purposive movement that in part distinguishes slaves and non-slaves. It’s for these reasons and more why marronage still matters.

Discourse on marronage, which distills the aforementioned, conventionally refers to two forms: petit marronage (individual fugitive acts of truancy) and grand marronage (isolationist, autonomous, territorially bounded communities outside the parameters of a regime of unfreedom). These are models of flight normatively accepted in both extant anthropological and historical scholarship on maroon societies and archival documents. Studies on these types of marronage emphasize their manifestation in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, but they have been and are still present throughout the globe, the United States included. The recent National Geographic feature story on the Great Dismal Swamp and Colson Whitehead’s 2016 National Book Award-winning novel, Underground Railroad, underscore this.30

Underground Railroad issues a searing portrayal of the protagonist-cum-fugitive slave Cora and the communities and activities Cora confronts and participates in. The protagonist takes flight from her plantation in Georgia and traverses the Carolinas, Tennessee, the North, and subsequently a new frontier, often with the assistance of the underground railroad network. Cora’s flight initially is in conjunction with another fellow dreamer and fugitive named Caesar and later it is in the manner of petit marronage on her own. Grand marronage ossifies when Cora reaches Indiana farther into the story. [End Page 220]

Whitehead’s underground railroad contains elements of Afrofuturism, particularly in its depiction of the railroad as just that: an actual series of locomotives and underground stations rather than railroad as metaphor commonly understood.

Yet this makes sense. Robin Kelley remarks in a forum on black art matters and aesthetics of the black radical tradition that, whilst “Afrofuturism is wonderful,” “it is also a new word for a longer Black radical tradition of Marronage, seeking out free space, liberated territory.”31 Whitehead captures much of this in Cora’s tale.32

Petit and grand marronage, especially the second form and the politics of recognition habitually connected to it,33 nevertheless frequently encounter problems. They don’t aim to dismantle at the structural level the social and political orders of slaveholding polities, thereby remaining unreflective of mass revolutionary politics seeking to shatter the entire fabric of the state of society. Embarking on these modes of flight, however, can be linked to revolutionary processes as the brilliant writings of Frederick Douglass attest, for the psychological, cognitive, and metaphysical valences of freedom are noteworthy in this regard.

“Fight versus flight” is often a mantra classifying acts of marronage. I reject this. There are types of flight wherein the fight to exit regimes of slavery are paramount.

Sovereign marronage and sociogenic marronage are terms I’ve coined to denote two other types of flight and models of freedom that address mass revolutionary politics unencumbered by an individual’s wants or collective isolationist desires. Whereas sovereign marronage posits freedom emanating from the authority of a sovereign entity such as a lawgiver-political leader and subsequently trickling down to a mass of people, sociogenic marronage refers to the non-sovereign forging of freedom by the masses from the bottom up.

Sovereign marronage risks sullying the radicalism of marronage on a mass scale by the very concept of sovereignty that can stunt the input and visions of everyday people. Sociogenic marronage reflects the idealized scale and vision of versions of revolutionary politics, and by extension the most suggestive articulations of politics within the black radical tradition, devoid of hierarchy and the quest for unanimity sovereign moorings foster. Traditions, we must remember, still have multiplicities and competing ideals.

Modern traditions after the Treaty of Westphalia operate overwhelmingly within structures of the nation-state. The nation-state, however, doesn’t interrupt marronage. If anything, the nation-state, with its modern and late modern shortcomings, catalyzes marronage in its fugitive and longue-durée challenges to statecraft legitimacy. Structures of rule and governance mutate across time and types of marronage exist prior to, during, and after moments of transformation. [End Page 221]

I argue the four types of marronage simultaneously manifest themselves in the world. Taken as a whole, they allow us to bridge the gulf between the negative and positive streams of freedom theorizing in Western thought.


The symposium commentators posit five main critiques in their analyses of Freedom as Marronage (henceforth FM): 1) the scope and ambition of the book is too broad; 2) the assertion of slavery as the foundational human condition is wrong; 3) the examples of, and categorical relationship between, sovereign marronage and sociogenic marronage are questionable; 4) the idea of social death gains a premature dismissal; and 5) experience-based politics is messy and impedes proper interpretation of freedom.

Charles Mills directly interrogates the first objection. Mills’ adroit usage of words to make his case is on full display. Mills situates FM within a trajectory of scholarship from the Global South aiming to de-colonize forms of knowledge. He reads FM as “black liberation from ‘white liberty’”; that is, a study that disrupts de-historicized, de-raced narratives of freedom all too prevalent in whitewashed treatises in modern philosophy and political theory. “By taking this subaltern history as his archive,” writes Mills, “Roberts demonstrates what rich political raw materials lie waiting for the theorist with the courage to stray beyond the bounds of the Western estate” and “investigate those parts of the estate which are now mysteriously fenced off, with NO TRESPASSING signs prominently posted above chained doors.” What words! So much parrhesia there.

But Mills has reservations. He’s skeptical about how much marronage can explain. Mills claims since freedom is such a precious value and unfreedom the experiential reality that has characterized the majority of the world’s peoples, then flight might not be the rubric we should embrace to discuss freedom. Yet the failure of enslaved agents to attain the free life doesn’t mean they haven’t engaged in acts of flight all along.

Mills is hesitant to apply marronage to the struggles facing genres of white feminism, class-based politics, and other movements. Yet are scholars doubtful when applying Machiavelli to feminist politics, Plato to Black Panther theory, or Rawls to claims for racial justice? Maybe we should be.

If we’re doubtful of marronage’s scope, then we should hold the same standards of adjudication to ideas emanating from all intellectual traditions.

Mills also has his own understanding of “movement.” I suggest that, were Mills to adopt my usage of movement and notion of flight, [End Page 222] he may agree that marronage is indeed quite useful to the various movements he contends would dilute marronage’s conceptual utility. I fully agree, though, that marronage isn’t an interpretive panacea. I’ve sought to make it a valuable one nonetheless, both to those working in the black radical tradition and to a larger array of interlocutors.34

Jane Gordon’s probing essay presents so many stellar questions I’m unable to address here, but I’ve learned greatly from their posing. I shall, though, address two of her key points, one later and the first now surrounding my treatment of “the existentialists” and its pertinence to the second main objection to the book. Gordon asks why I defend the position that slavery is the condition humans are born into while simultaneously employing the work of various existential thinkers. She wonders if accepting the view that humans as born both free and constrained would actually bolster my theory.

This is where we must return to the intersections of history and theory. To declare all humans are born free is, to me, unsubstantiated in history, in our current moment, and likely into the future. In writing FM, I grappled with the implications of the opposite premise, for it appeared to have the weight of history in its favor.

If humans indeed were born enslaved, I thought, then how would they become free? Marronage is my answer.

Existentialists and other theorists of existence are helpful in describing an agent’s state in the world, the struggles we encounter, and our being and becoming in the wake of struggle. Gordon correctly notes that, in spite of this crucial disagreement with existentialists I define elsewhere as “inverted foundations,”35 existential thought is of enduring impact on my thinking.

Juliet Hooker and George Ciccariello-Maher both shift focus, emphasizing not only the micro- and meso-, but also the macro-political vis-à-vis sovereign and sociogenic marronage. Hooker wonderfully phrases in the interrogative the vantage point of FM when stating, “What does it mean to theorize freedom from the perspective of the enslaved?” Hooker meditates on the repercussions of the book’s foregrounding of slave agency for black studies and political theory. Whereas she finds the examination of Douglass’ concept of “comparative freedom” among the more persuasive aspects of the text, the elucidation of sociogenic marronage puzzles her.

This isn’t because Hooker contests the idea of collective flight implemented by masses from the bottom up. Rather, Hooker argues, with striking precision, there’s insufficient exploration into the actions of the enslaved themselves who comprise the very revolutionary agents FM contends we should study in order to learn from. Hooker doesn’t observe, for example, a similar dissonance in my account of sovereign flight, the actions of lawgivers, and the elucidation of Toussaint L’Ouverture as emblematic of the sovereign marronage model. On this [End Page 223] charge, Hooker is right. I hoped the book’s third part would further illuminate sociogenic marronage’s meaning, yet the examples in the Saint-Domingue sections in part two could have been expanded.

Hooker highlights conversations on marronage in the Caribbean and United States that FM generates, but underscores its missed opportunities on freedom discourse by not including marronage in Latin America, particularly Brazil. Such inquiries are welcome, though the iconic case of Brazilian grand marronage Hooker invokes, Palmares, had its own limitations we can explain using the fourfold marronage typology. We shouldn’t forget, as Hooker notes, that along with Brazil’s august legacy of grand marronage, Brazil was the last polity in the Americas to abolish racial slavery. There’s a reason for that.

Ciccariello-Maher scrutinizes the categories of sovereign and sociogenic marronage and invites us to rethink the radicalism of grand marronage. Like Mills, he writes with poeticist verve. Yet in this instance, there’s a trade-off between intoxicating prose and justifiable argumentation.

Ciccariello-Maher objects to my labeling C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins—a classic text illustrating sovereign marronage via its portrayal of the Haitian Revolution told through the lens of Toussaint—a black Jacobin philosophy. He remarks, “Roberts is absolutely correct to insist that, ‘Black Jacobinism is freedom from above,’ but I argue that James was ultimately ambivalent toward his own chosen title. While the title Black Jacobins certainly evokes the view from above of a hero bringing freedom to the masses—and while this title might have reflected James’ original purpose, to write a biography of Toussaint— this vision effectively unravels during the course of the text.”

This reading elides the content of the original 1938 and revised 1963 editions. And one doesn’t have to take my word for it. James, in his “Lectures on The Black Jacobins,” confirms this during the comparison of his methodology to that of W.E.B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction in America.36 Readers can consult FM chapter 3 where I discuss this.

On the sovereign/sociogenic marronage relationship: Ciccariello-Maher is most convincing in flagging junctures of categorical fluidity. He writes, “[Jean-Jacques] Dessalines provides a bridge from sovereign marronage to sociogenic marronage, albeit not in a way that Roberts intends, and in so doing threatens the very distinction between the two categories that he hopes to establish.” What Ciccariello-Maher fails to mention is that I describe this very example in the book’s fourth chapter (!) and the complexities of the marronage in the Saint-Domingue revolution and the revolution’s afterlife. That’s why I wrote the third part of the book, which he neglects to address.

In upholding the value of grand marronage for radical politics, Ciccariello-Maher asserts: “isn’t the move to categorize grand marronage as isolationist itself a sovereign and even a colonial act, since it entails [End Page 224] accepting sovereign and colonial borders as given?” He remarks additionally, “grand marronage as a reservoir of power for an eventual counterattack aimed not only at the abolition of slavery, but the abolition of the very ontological and social structures that are its most pernicious legacies.”

Grand marronage may be a region of refuge, but central to its conception is an isolationism that obliterates slavery only for inhabitants within its borders. Grand marronage more often than not yields complicity between inhabitants and colonial powers culminating in the signing of treatises reifying—not abolishing—colonial territoriality and the agreement that community members turn over new runaways. Grand marronage communities that have resisted treaty signings usually have had temporal limits to their existence. FM chapter 5 deals with this thorny issue and the promise and perils of grand marronage for catalyzing either revolution or acquiescence.

Andrew Dilts issues the fourth critique in his fascinating revisiting of the notion of social death and its bearings on social life. His perspective, as James Martel observes, is from one of respect that nevertheless holds nothing back in its questioning. Dilts nicely frames his commentary around three points: social death and social life, Fanon’s phenomenology, and prison riots.

Dilts acknowledges that my exegesis of Patterson’s thought includes works of Patterson before and after Slavery and Social Death. Nonetheless, instead of rejecting outright Patterson’s notion of the slave as socially dead, Dilts presses me to account for two types of social life (parasitic, and non-parasitic) he suggests we may locate in Patterson’s articulation of the theory of social death.

Dilts contends. “As I read it, Roberts’ basic response to Patterson is to offer a divergent account of social death which refocuses our attention on the psychology of the slave agent, in so far as the practice of flight itself ‘creates possibility for actualizing revolutions against slavery through natality embedded in its processes of movement.’” I fear my response here is inadequate because, as stated earlier with regards to Afro-pessimists and Afro-optimists, I think, in Patterson’s rendering, the slave can never be an agent. Marronage unsettles this epistemological assumption.

Fanon is a critical bridge to points one and two. The zone of nonbeing and exit from its hellishness reveals non-parasitic forms of human social life and parasitic activities masking themselves as apparatuses of the free life. The seventh chapter of Fanon’s Black Skin details this best.

And speaking of Fanon, I was surprised Dilts interpreted FM as separating Fanon the psychiatrist and revolutionary from Fanon the phenomenologist. That wasn’t my intention. I aspired to build upon Fanon the existential phenomenologist who, in Black Skin, “Racism [End Page 225] and Culture,” plays, psychiatric journal articles, Year Five of the Algerian Revolution, The Wretched of the Earth, and Toward the African Revolution cultivated lived theory for consolidation of “healthy,” non-parasitic ways of living..

To point three, marronage has great significance for describing and even encouraging prison breaks, riots, and uprisings in the domains of the cognitive, metaphysical, and physical. Look at the writings of imprisoned intellectuals. Think of the prison as the zone of nonbeing. Rationalize “abolition-democracy” as involving actions internal and external to the agent and the territoriality of the prison itself.

Examining the US is vital, but so too are examples outside America. I didn’t devote enough attention to Angela Davis’ transnational abolitionist politics. I have a long forthcoming essay on Davis that tries to answer unexplored vistas in the book on flight, prisons, and abolitionism.37

With Keisha Lindsay’s adroit intervention, we confront a final major critique: the messiness of experience-based politics for our discernment of freedom. Lindsay has us contemplate “the value or the lack thereof of experience-based politics.” She accomplishes this by mapping the implications of the disavowal of slave agency described early in the book onto modes of resistance to unfreedom explicated subsequently. The discussions of Douglass and sociogenic marronage are her argumentative hinges.

Lindsay ponders the “contradictory state of affairs” Douglass epitomizes “in which some slaves critically contemplate their experience of oppression in ways that are both anti-racist and anti-feminist.” She states further, “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.”

Lindsay interrogates how I define masculinism, its manifestations in the 1805 Haitian Constitution and Douglass’ middle autobiography, and the tensions between concepts drawn from experience and their potentially anti-progressive political ramifications under auspices of types of marronage such as petit and sociogenic. While Lindsay recognizes my distinguishing of “masculinism” from “patriarchy” and “misogyny” and accepts that agents may be dually masculinist and “pro-feminist,” she implores me to ascertain the full import of black feminist scholarship on the politics of experience. It’s an important observation.

Lindsay highlights my claims that marronage is inertia resistant and subject to flux, and rethinks how anti-racist politics might challenge their sexist presuppositions. [End Page 226]

Gordon has a different nuanced view of Douglass that refrains from castigating his masculinism. For Gordon, “if a 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?”

Although their opinions differ on Douglass and masculinism, Lindsay and Gordon agree that the phenomenology of slaves, their experiences of liminality, their vèvè architectonics, their beliefs in alternative worlds, their struggles to achieve Wynter’s Human after Man, and their capacities for transformation are messy, unfixed, indeterminate, and exciting all at once.

Such is marronage between past and future.

Neil Roberts

Neil Roberts is Associate Professor of Africana studies, political theory, and the philosophy of religion at Williams College. Neil’s books include Freedom as Marronage (2015), the collaborative work Journeys in Caribbean Thought (2016), and the forthcoming A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass. Starting January 1, 2017, he will be President of the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Neil may be reached at Neil.


1. C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), 113.

2. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 2008), xii.

3. Angela Davis, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016), 61, 62.

4. Sylvia Wynter, Maskarade, reprinted in Yvonne Brewster, ed., Mixed Company: Three Early Jamaican Plays (London: Oberon, 2012), 104; Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 24.

5. Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989), 2n1; Glissant, Le discourse antillais (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1997), 14n1.

6. Enrique Dussel, The Underside of Modernity: Apel, Ricœur, Rorty, Taylor, and the Philosophy of Liberation (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities, 1996).

7. See the Caribbean Philosophical Association (CPA) mission statement at:

8. Scholarly periodicals and conferences on the one hand and informal conversations I’ve had in person and through letters on the other illustrate this. For example, see the African American Intellectual Historical Society (AAIHS) roundtable on the book, June 13–18, 2016. All essays are open access:

9. Richard Price, an eminent anthropologist, Caribbeanist, and author of several monographs and edited volumes on marronage including the influential Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas (1973/96), asserts an opinion I’d prepared myself to receive from anthropologists and historians working on maroons once they’d read my book. Price stated in a distinguished public lecture, “In this sense, Saamakas [Surinamese maroons] pioneered the political philosophy argument made by Neil Roberts in his recent book, Freedom as Marronage, though, surprisingly, Roberts makes no reference at all to the thought or ideas of Maroons themselves.” This position, however, assumes a very specific and narrow definition of what a maroon is and how we describe flight. It’s this [End Page 227] parochial view of marronage I seek to unsettle. See Price, “Further Currents in Caribbean Thought,” The Gordon K. and Sybil Farrell Lewis annual lecture, April 11, 2016:

10. On the interrelationship of history and theory, consult Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1993); Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon, 1995); Nell Painter, Southern History Across the Color Line (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Theory & Event symposium, “History and Political Theory” (2016):; Christopher Cameron, “Five Approaches to Intellectual History,” Society for US Intellectual History, April 6, 2016:

11. Neil Roberts, “No-Rule: Thinking about Obama v. Trump Through Hannah Arendt and C.L.R. James,” Public Seminar, August 4, 2016:; Roberts, “On Authoritarianism and Civilization,” African American Intellectual Historical Society, December 4, 2016:

12. Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 171. Henceforth cited as FM.

13. On the black radical tradition, see June Jordan, Civil Wars (Boston: Beacon, 1981); Paul Gilroy, ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); Wilson Harris, The Radical Imagination: Lectures and Talks (Liège: Université de Liège, 1992); Oyèrónke Oyĕwùmí, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Lewis Gordon, Existentia Africana: Understanding Africana Existential Thought (New York: Routledge, 2000); Paget Henry, Caliban’s Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2000); Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Robin Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon, 2002); T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Negritude Women (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002); Anthony Bogues, Black Heretics, Black Prophets: Radical Political Intellectuals (New York: Routledge, 2003); Hortense Spillers, Black, White, and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003); Fred Moten, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Carole Boyce Davies, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones (Duke: Duke University Press, 2008); Charles Mills, Radical Theory, Caribbean Reality: Race, Class and Social Domination (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2010); Angela Davis, The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues (San Francisco: City Lights, 2012); Alexander Weheliye, Habeus Viscus: Black Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Duke: Duke University Press, 2014); Katherine McKittrick, ed., Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015); Ashley Farmer, “Mae Mallory: Forgotten Black Power Intellectual,” Black Perspectives, June 3, 2016:; Achille Mbembe, Politique de l’inimitié (Paris: La Découverte, 2016); Vaughn Rasberry, Race and the Total-itarian Century: Geopolitics in the Black Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016); Russell Rickford, We Are an African People: [End Page 228] Independence Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016); Manisha Sinha, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin, eds., Futures of Black Radicalism (London: Verso, 2017); Donna Murch, Revolution in our Lifetime: A Short History of the Black Panther Party (London: Verso, 2017).

14. Michael Dawson, Not in our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), ix.

15. Michael Dawson, “The Future of Black Politics,” The Boston Review, January/February 2012:; Dawson, Blacks In and Out of the Left (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013).

16. Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1981); Donna Murch, Living for the City: Migration, Education, and the Rise of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Lester Spence, Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics (Brooklyn: Punctum, 2015); Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Hay-market, 2016).

17. Alain Badiou, Philosophy for Militants (London: Verso, 2012).

18. Marcus Garvey, “Radicalism,” in vol. 1 of The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, or, Africa for the Africans (Dover: The Majority Press, 1986), 18.

19. Oxford English Dictionary, online edition, “radical, adj. and n.” (

20. OED, “radical, adj. and n.” (

21. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin, 1965), 21–58.

22. FM chapter 1 examines the disavowal of slavery and slave agency.

23. Correctives to Cedric Robinson’s elisions include María de los Reyes Castillo Bueno, Reyita: The Life of a Black Cuban Woman in the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000); Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 2000); Davies, Left of Karl Marx; Gregg Andrews, Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011); Erik McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Carole Boyce Davies, “A Black Feminist View on Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism,” Black Perspectives, November 10, 2016:

24. Angela Davis, Lectures on Liberation (Los Angeles: National United Committee to Free Angela Davis, c. 1971), 1; Davis, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, 62.

25. The Matrix (Burbank: Warner Brothers, 1999); Glissant, Caribbean Discourse.

26. Discussions relevant to the debate include the special issue of rhizomes (2016) on “Black Holes: Afro-Pessimism, blackness and the discourses of Modernity”:; Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” South Atlantic Quarterly 112 (4), 2013: 737–80; and Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013); Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2014); Sharpe, In the Wake. [End Page 229]

27. Claudia Rankine, “The Condition of Black Life Is One of Mourning,” New York Times Magazine, June 22, 2015:

28. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982).

29. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, xii.

30. Richard Grant, “Deep in the Swamp, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom, National Geographic, September 2016:; Colson Whitehead, Underground Railroad (New York: Doubleday, 2016). Although both works were published after my study, they affirm my conclusions.

31. Robin Kelley in “Black Arts Matters: A Roundtable on the Black Radical Imagination,” Red Wedge, July 26, 2016:

32. Whitehead, Underground Railroad. In Whitehead’s text, once Cora reaches North Carolina, she experiences the inverse of Harriet Jacobs’/Linda Brent’s “loophole of retreat” recounted in Jacobs’ slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, for Jacobs the fugitive chooses to steal away to an attic as a means of preserving one’s freedom cognitively. Consult Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009). Cora, in contrast, much to her chagrin and horror, is forced to spend extensive time confined to the attic of underground railroad operates she believed she’d only interact with short-term until the next station in the journey due to fear of the slave catcher Ridgeway and his minions hunting nonstop and catching fugitives and conductors alike.

33. Also in Underground Railroad, Cora manages to escape to a residential space in Indiana, its own maroon community of fugitives, which appears to be a region of refuge. What happens next calls that into question. It’s worth noting that the fate of the fictional bounded Indiana territory echoes the dilemmas of the dialectics of recognition grand marronage communities have faced in the world for centuries and still confront in late modernity. I address this most explicitly with respect to grand marronage in Hispaniola, modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic. For the benefits and limitations of grand marronage as a model of freedom, see FM chapters 3 and 5.

34. FM has been deployed to support both anti-capitalist Caribbean maroon politics on the one hand and, in a gross misreading of its stated aims, a new pro-capitalist clothing and jewelry store on the other. Ideas travel for better or worse. See Patrick Nichols, “Freedom as Marronage as Anti-Capitalist,” Black Perspectives, December 6, 2017:; “Marronage” store:

35. Neil Roberts, “Rousseau, Flight, and the Fall into Slavery,” in Jane Gordon and Neil Roberts, eds., Creolizing Rousseau (London: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2015), 212–17.

36. C.L.R. James, “Lectures on The Black Jacobins,” Small Axe, September 2000: 65–112.

37. Neil Roberts, “Angela Y. Davis: Abolitionism, Democracy, Freedom,” in Melvin Rogers and Jack Turner, eds., African American Political Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming). [End Page 230]

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