- The Brink of Freedom: Improvising Life in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World by David Kazanjian
David Kazanjian's The Brink of Freedom: Improvising Life in the Nineteenth-Century Atlantic World is a smart, readable, and fascinating book that examines the perception of freedom in the Atlantic world by focusing on the year 1847, when Liberia declared itself as an independent nation-state and when the Caste War, the war between the Creoles and the Mayan rebels, began in the Yucatán. The study is distinct and noteworthy for many reasons, but the most obvious is the fact that no one has compared or simultaneously analyzed these two unrelated incidents, what Kazanjian calls historical and global "flashpoints," before. Further, Kazanjian is careful to point out and explain that his method is not a comparative one. Rather, he examines the incidents "appositionally" (9), resisting the privileging of one event over the other. This method, he argues, presents keener perceptions of the separate cultures but also offers insights into what he calls "quotidian globalities" (16), the experience of the global through everyday activities, events, and artifacts. Rather than examining official documents, procedures, and records, he examines materials such as personal letters, popular journals, and even serialized stories in order to capture the sense of freedom at this time. The appositional methodology is a challenging one that invokes postmodern principles—in general and postmodern literary theory in particular—to analyze the artifacts of these historical moments. And what Kazanjian concludes is that the concept of freedom at this time was not stagnant and fully formed. Instead, it was dynamic, often chaotic and contradictory, and improvisational. In other words, freedom is a performance without rehearsal.
For those familiar with Derrida and other postmodern theorists, the method is classic. Kazanjian chooses neglected artifacts to examine the two cultural moments that are not discrete cultural moments. He then highlights the ways both investigate or mimic freedom in often [End Page 122] contradictory and improvisational ways, ways that finally disrupt our understanding not only of each cultural moment but also of our own current concept of freedom. That is, if we acknowledge that these groups of people were struggling to define and experience freedom, then we find ourselves doing so as well.
The stereotypical depiction of the establishment of Liberia by recently freed African-American slaves is one of exuberance. At the very least, a sense of relief. These African-Americans are free, unburdened, and either ready to start afresh by establishing their country or finally home again in Africa. Kazanjian's research, however, complicates this view in several ways. First, there are the West Africans, the indigenous population that is being displaced and overrun by the new settlers. As other scholars have also pointed out, the Liberian state "disenfranchised its native inhabitants," which created conflicts that remain in the region today (54). Second, and unique to Kazanjian's scholarship, are the letters from the recently freed African-American Liberian settlers to their former masters in the United States. And what the letters show is not an exuberant embrace of Liberian freedom but instead a nostalgia, a deep longing for their "home" in the United States and their relationships with their former masters. Kazanjian shows that the Liberian experiment created "unsettled" lives and conflicting interpretations of what it meant to be free.
In the Yucatán, Kazanjian examines the way in which Creole journals depicted the war against the Mayan rebels by casting the Creoles as the guardians of culture and civility and the Mayans as barbarians. Further, the Creole strategy to overcome their enemies was novel—"the assimilation of Indians into liberal capitalist civility" (158). Basically, they sought to "tame" the Mayans. Creole periodicals situated themselves as pro-white and anti-Indian, but Kazanjian illustrates that they were "more unruly than this" (166) and used everything, even contradictory claims and formerly antagonistic and diverse ethnic groups, to persuade their readers that they were protecting the Yucatán, that they were the civilized Saviors. The result was a deconstruction of their mission...