- Freedom on the Move: Marronage in Martin Delany’s Blake; or, the Huts of America
Maroons and the concept of marronage—broadly imagined as individual or collective flight from slavery into the relative security of woods, swamps, or mountains—have recently experienced a swell in critical attention by historians and social scientists studying slavery, freedom, resistance, and geography in the United States. While marronage has long been studied in the context of Central and South America and especially the Caribbean, its significance in British North America and the United States has until quite recently been downplayed or outright ignored.1 This is in large part because the Caribbean and Latin American models of marronage—most closely associated with places such as Jamaica, Suriname, and Brazil, where large-scale maroon communities won autonomy from colonial control through military action—have dominated the critical discourse surrounding the practice since the 1970s.2 In his landmark study of enslaved resistance in the United States, for example, Eugene Genovese discounted the presence of US maroons precisely because their tactics and potential to instantiate widespread political revolution did not resonate with those of the famed Caribbean maroons: “[T]hey [US maroons] typically huddled in small units and may be called ‘maroons’ only as a courtesy” since “[t]hey occupied unfavorable terrain with only minimum security and rarely had an opportunity to forge a viable community life. Consequently, many degenerated into wild desperadoes who preyed on anyone, black, white, or red, in their path” (77).3
However, three recent works—Sylviane Diouf’s Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (2014), Neil Roberts’s Freedom as Marronage (2015), and Daniel Sayers’s A Desolate Place for a Defiant People: The Archaeology of Maroons, Indigenous Americans, and Enslaved Laborers in the Great Dismal Swamp (2014)—have sought to push back against the kinds of assertions exemplified by Genovese by definitively establishing the presence of maroons and marronage in British North America and the United States and by expanding the terms by which we apprehend marronage.4 Diouf and Sayers painstakingly detail, through archival/documentary history and cultural archaeology, respectively, the [End Page 1] fact that marronage in various forms was indeed a feature of the landscape of enslaved resistance in North America from 1619 through the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. Roberts builds on this work, along with that of Caribbean thinkers such as Aimé Césaire and Édouard Glissant, to argue for a conceptual heuristic through which we might comprehend freedom as marronage, where marronage is understood to be perpetual movement or flight that is “multidimensional, constant, and never static” (15).
These new broader, multidimensional understandings of maroons and marronage allow us to see what has been in front of us all along but which has been obfuscated by “restrictive definitions of marronage that do not correspond to the reality” (Diouf 4).5 Thus, Martin R. Delany’s Blake; or The Huts of America (1859, 1861–62) can be valuably understood as a work about marronage and the dialectics of black freedom, of which it is a part. At the same time, Diouf, along with others such as Martha Schoolman and Steven Hahn, have sought to break away from a one-to-one application of the Caribbean model of marronage to the US context. According to Hahn, “Perspectives on marronage . . . have for the most part been informed by rather limited and one-dimensional imaginations and understandings of what a maroon is” (26). Instead, these scholars favor an approach that attends more carefully to historical, geographical, and cultural particularities that differentiate the landscape of slavery and resistance in the United States from that in the Caribbean, even as they continue to recognize the hemispheric and circum-Atlantic nature of marronage as an African diasporic practice.6
I examine the “quest for freedom” in Blake through the lens of marronage, arguing for Henry Blake as a maroon figure and suggesting that his peregrinations throughout the US South can be generatively understood as acts of marronage. Moreover, I contend that Henry’s marronage draws other varieties of resistant practices into a sharper focus that reveals their association with marronage according to the...