Freedom – Seeing Beyond the Veil: Race-ing Key Concepts in Political Theory

this morning, we’re going to engage the
topic of freedom. We have these two
marvelous interlocutors. I’ve told both of them
that I’m a hard chair. So 20 minutes is the
limit for each paper, and then after that, we’ll take
a moment to catch our thoughts. And then I will
bring the mic to you. I’m going more of a Phil Donahue
Oprah style, Jerry Springer style. I’m going to bring
the mic to you so you don’t have to do that
perp walk to the microphone. Anyway, so first we have Neil
Roberts, who’s going to– oh, his title has changed. I’ll let him tell
you about that, but Neil is over at Williams
and Africana Studies, his marvelous texts
freedom is marronage That has been so impactful,
particularly for our Brown undergraduate community to see
that his brother was a Brown undergrad, played soccer,
came through Africana, and has gone on to such
marvelous– reached such marvelous heights and
the academy is marvelous. But then we also have
Yasmine Syedullah. Did I get that right? No. JASMINE SYEDULLAH: Accent
on the last little– ANDRE WILLIS: Oh, OK. I was close though. And she’s out at Vassar College. She’ll be starting there, and
she’s been there for a while but she’s moving over
to Africana Studies in the fall of ’19 to do a thing
on Africana and prison studies. JASMINE SYEDULLAH:
Also an alum of Brown. ANDRE WILLIS: Oh, so I’m
about to say that now. You know I’m not going
to leave that out. We claiming all our alums. Well, we’ve got too few who have
gone on in academic circles. So Yasmin was also here in my
department of religious studies and she will be sharing with us. So also a change in title. So let me sit down and
shut up and present you with Neil Roberts
and his 20 minutes. NEIL ROBERTS: Oh, man. The burden of 20
minutes with the clock. I’ll try and keep it brief. Good morning. All right. It is a delight. Well, I was trying to
figure out whether this was a pin on freedom or
the Brown alumni panel, I wasn’t really sure. But it looks like it’s
actually both, right? We call that the two for one
as a [? ransom. ?] And so let me get right to it. But I do want to thank Juliette
Hooker and Melvin Rogers and Michelle Rose,
and also all of you because in addition to
the formal presentations, I found particularly generally
of the question and answer period in all of yesterday. So once I get cut off, that’s OK
because there’s certain things and I can bring up
during that time. And so my revised
talk is entitled “How to Live Free in
an Age of Pessimism,” which is connected to the
book in progress that’s listed on the program. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’
Between the World and Me, in his book length letter to
his son he writes the following, “In accepting both
the cast of history and the fact of my total end,
I was freed to truly consider how I wish to live. Specifically, how do I live
free in this blank body? It is a profound question
because America understands itself as God’s handiwork,
but the black body is the clearest evidence that
America is the work of men. I’ve asked the question through
my readings and writings, through the music of my
youth, through arguments with your grandfather,
with your mother, with Aunt [? Kamilah, ?]
your Uncle Ben. I’ve searched for answers
in nationalistic myth, in classrooms, out
on the streets, and on other continents. The question is unanswerable,
which is not to say futile. The greatest reward of
this constant interrogation of confrontation with the
brutality of my country is that it has
freed me from ghosts and girded me against the
sheer terror of disembodiment.” I would submit
Coates also arrives at this similar conclusion
in his collection of Atlantic essays that was published
recently in as We Were Eight Years in Power. I think that there are
reasons why Coates expresses a particular form of
pessimism, and there are reasons why one
may consider even his question, how can one
live free in this black body as a paradox? But it might be a
paradox or a quandary, but I want to suggest that
it is actually answerable. And my response to
that answer will be, the philosophy and
the phenomenology we may call marronage or flight. How might we develop a
conception of freedom that underscores the
historical while revealing the theoretical in generalizable
throughout space and time? How can we
re-conceptualize freedom to bridge the gulf between
its hegemonic articulations? And what I contend are
the two main traditions in western thought. The first we could
call negative freedom. That is different notions such
as freedom as non-interference on the one hand. And freedom is
non-domination on the other. Some of which we heard in the
panel in recent republicanism yesterday. And then on the
other side, we can think of the positive
traditions of freedom. Freedom notions such as
autonomy, self-mastery, generality, and pluralistic
humanism as exemplary. How may our rethinking
repudiate such notions as positing freedom in
immutable static terms? Account for individual
collective imaginings of the free life, indict
orders on freedom, or existence in what the Martin
you can think of friends Fenon called in Black Skin, White
Masks, the zone of non-being, and deserved the possibility for
the realization of revolution. In attempting to answer these
and other related questions, the result of which was my
2015 book Freedom as Marronage, I delved into processes of
creolization conceptions of freedom within and
across myriad epochs in the architecture of the
black radical tradition. The breadth of this
tradition is transnational as scholars, including Angela
Davis, June Jordan, Sheila Mbembe, Paul Gilroy, Tracy
Sharpley-Whiting, Fred Moten, Horton Spoilers, Christina
Sharpe, Cedric Robinson, and others have noted. And it contains
perceptive insights into the imagination, the
interior and the exterior, and interstitial experience. I saw it as a
consequence to gain clarity of our understandings
of black politics, radical, and the black radical
tradition under-girding what I can see of as the free life. The short version of this is
not everything is radical. I feel like a lot
of times you see blogs, articles, has
something x, y, and z, and the black radicalism, x,
y, and z, the black radicalism. It can’t all be radical. And so I just want
to be able to– I’m trying, in the
book I’m finishing, to discern some of
these distinctions. 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. Such a framing obscures
genres of blank visions between past and future. Black politics includes get
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 many others, including
Lester Spence as well 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. Black radicalism, however, to
describe a political tendency within black politics is
not merely its critique. It’s one of the
other elements I’m trying to argue is that
it’s often framed as there’s something called black
politics over here in its liberal libertarian
and conservative forms, and the black radical
tradition over here as a critique of that. But I think we should think
of the black radical tradition whatever that is to be
within this larger spectrum. So to be radical is to be,
if you guys are looking at me kind of left of center,
and often in recent years to the left of quote
unquote, progressive, which is a vague classification
much like being– you know people say today, I’m
not religious, I’m spiritual. You try and figure out. Sounds great, but
what does that mean? So it’s rather
than religious, but of the political
[? disposition ?] that at times encompasses
the liberal yet, is frequently short
of the radical. So just look at
authors, for instance, that the nation
magazine publishes now compared to the 1990s and
before, and you get the point. So if radical isn’t
necessarily a progressive, then is radical a militant
as Alan Badu argues? Or something else? In volume one of the philosophy
opinions of Marcus Garvey, Garvey writes, quote,
radical is a label that is always applied to
people who are endeavoring to get freedom, end quote. Garvey though, specifies
a compelling outlook on the object of
the radical instead of defining the agent itself. So what exactly is radical? Radical from the
Latin radicalise originally meant over relating
to a root or to roots. The transformation of the
term in middle English, middle French, in 13th to
15th century British English introduce definitions of
radical denoting plant roots, a foundational mechanism,
bodily organs, humors, and moisture vital to
human life functioning in the roots of a word. The long 18th
century, otherwise, called the age of
revolution, brought about another
definitional mutation. Not only did radical come
to and for in mathematics to forming the root of
a number or quantity. For the first time, radical
acquired a political valence such as 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. It is unsurprising then that
Hannah Arendt located the shift from revolutions astronomical
backward looking denotation to its modern forward-looking
political meaning. That is a new order of
things, a birth, natality. At the same historical
moment that radical obtained a political denotation, the
repercussions, however, Arendt wrote about this through
analyzing the American and French rather than the
Haitian revolutions, are stark 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 disavowals in regarding the acknowledgment
and denial of specific events. So the black radical
tradition then, may be understood provisionally
as a modern tradition of thought and action begun
after transatlantic slavery’s advent concerning essentially
the revolutionary politics and preoccupation with freedom
for the souls of black folk. In the 1983 text Black
Marxism, Cedric Robinson furnishes the classic
genealogy of this. One distinguishing feature
of Robinson’s account in his examination of what
he calls racialism and claim counter to numerous
periodizations of humanist and
social scientists, that the emergence
of racial orders and racial difference
in western Europe occurred prior to Europeans
encounter with non-Europeans and, thus, before
the modern age. Robinson’s inquiry
into the radicalization of the Irish views of
the English is exemplary. Another distinguishing
feature is Robinson’s analysis of what
he terms racial capitalism, and the extent to which
black radical politics and attendant
modes of resistance respond to the phenomenology
of un-freedom experienced by blacks in Africa and
the African diaspora due to the advent of slavery,
and the transatlantic slave trade. Walter Johnson and Manisha Sinha
state in a recent Boston review retrospective on the
book that Robinson quote, argues that the historical
development of capitalism and racism were inseparable. And a return to the insights
of racial capitalism will facilitate the black
radical traditions revival. Echoing Robinson
though not naming him as such, Sheila Mbembe, in his
recent critique of black reason states that, quote, the
birth of the racial subject and therefore
blackness is linked to the history of
capitalism, end quote. Mbembe’s remarks, as well
as the chapter Requiem for the Slave states racial
capitalism is the equivalent of a giant necropolis. It rests on the traffic of
the dead and human bones. For the sake of
time, I’ll kind of pass through some of
this other discussion. But in addition to
critiques of Black Marxism, but while Black Marxism
shall remain a vital tome, it does have its limitations. Black women radicals Marxists
and otherwise receive little treatment and
even before the periods that he talks about,
as we’ll hear soon with regards to Harriet
Jacob and others, the book ontologizes black
culture and by extension, the black radical
tradition thereby eclipsing the traditions
heterogeneity and dynamism. It also contains a useful,
but also too concise delineation of marronage that
only broaches the surface of its true significance. Subsequent treatises
on black feminist and the black
radical imagination, are essential [? corrections. ?]
Moreover, more rethinking, however, is needed as
it may as a consequence call into question
whether we’re describing the black radical
tradition in the singular or the black radical
traditions plural. The radicalization of the
black radical tradition or traditions, highlights how
the lives and lessons of what Fenon called the [? damnay, ?]
the damned, the condemn, the enslaved. Our essential bulwarks
between past and future for revolutionary change
and cultivating freedom. Acts of marronage I’ve argued in
their different types and forms and into the liminal and
transitional spaces of slave escape, between poles
of political imagination exemplified this. So unlike what
John Hope Franklin argued in a seminal text
from Slavery to Freedom, the flush of marronage is
not a from, too, right? But it’s as. It’s the actual process
of our different flight, from different flight
from different regimes of enslavement across time. Therefore, put tersely, freedom
is not from too but rather as. OK. Because I know my time
check is getting short. ANDRE WILLIS: You’ve
got eight minutes. NEIL ROBERTS: Eight minutes. All right. So why marronage or how is
Angela Davis asked in lectures on liberation and freedom
is a constant struggle, how do we know when
we are becoming free? The idea of marronage
historically referred to Spanish [INAUDIBLE]
who then took escape and then went to the hills. If we recall the tsunamis
in East Asia few years ago that killed several
hundred thousand people, one thing we know
from GPS tracking is that the elephants a few
days before actually went into the mountains because they
were sensing that there was going to be something coming. And then after the tsunami
hit, then the elephants and went back down. In the new world
context, initially, the idea of marronage referring
to Spanish [INAUDIBLE] fleeing to the hills
then indigenous Amerindians taking
flight from plantations, and then by the 1530s,
enslaved Africans trying to create autonomous
communities on the one hand within a larger state, and then
on the other individuals taking flight such as Frederick
Douglass in his writing about in his different
autobiographies. Or Colson Whitehead
for those who’ve read the Underground Railroad
with the protagonist Cora who then is on a Georgia
plantation, who then is in trying to escape through
the swamps and the marshes, eventually making her way
by the end of the novel without giving it
out in the Midwest. And so on the one hand,
people may think marronage historically, is Janis face. It explains either
individual escape or collective individuals trying
to form collective communities or in collective spaces within
a larger regime of enslavement, but it doesn’t take into
account traditionally entreaties and also how historians
and anthropologists have thought about it. The actual restructuring of
a social and political order. And so what I’ve tried to
introduce in calling two terms. The idea of sovereign
marronage on the one hand, and sociogenic
marronage on the other is to think about, what
does it mean to transform a social and political order
itself as a form of flight not merely physical but also the
actual restructuring of apology from the only time you’ll hear
me use the term trickle down. I think of sovereign marronage
as trickle down freedom instead of trickle
down economics because the neoliberal turned. The idea of sovereign
marronage, what does it mean for
collectivity like us here to then have
freedom trickle down through some type
of sovereign entity, call it a deity or God, or a
deity or a political leader, and then in it go down. And then sociogenic
marronage taking from Fenon the idea of trying to
forward to becoming free from the ground up. I would be remiss
to then not actually mention the ways in
which this idea gets misrepresented in the
current debate between– you guys know these groups? Afro pessimists, and
the Afro optimist. Michael Dobson, in
his longer paper, actually had a discussion and he
didn’t talk about it yesterday, of Afro pessimism. Julie Hooker, I believe,
had a discussion. And many of you
have been ensconced. It’s funny. It’s a debate where
there’s a one group called Afro pessimists and then
there’s a single Afro optimist, Fred Moten, which
is very interesting. Fred Moten, of course, has
a recent trilogy not only Black and Blur, the stolen life,
and also the universal machine but there’s really these
two camps some of whom avowedly say they’re
Afro pessimists, others who then don’t actually
agree with that label. But nonetheless,
there’s something that is indicative here. Afro pessimists and
the Afro optimist are indicative of two
contemporary positions that take seriously the
condition of the enslaved and the question of freedom. However, despite their
differential articulations of their respective camps
and divergent opinions on whether slaves ever avoid
in the language of Claudia Rincon, the condition
of constant morning. Afro pessimists and Afro
optimist startlingly share fundamental
conviction, which is the following
conviction, which is the belief that slaves
across epochs exist and what Orlando
Patterson prominently calls social death, which is as
a consequence of three notions, the condition of powerlessness,
dishonor, and NATO alienation. The belief that
slaves are said to lack an inherent
capacity for action. In other words, in my view,
not Patterson’s language, slaves [? show ?] that is the
living zombie, and the idea that anyone who can become free. It has to be an external
agent who then either grants your freedom as
Glissant would critique or makes the slave become free. And this is why enslaving
social Patterson spent so much
time, for instance, talking about manumission. Afro pessimists and Afro
optimists incorrectly conflate Fenon’s idea the
zone of non-being emerging with the idea of social death
because in the first three paragraphs of Black Skin,
White Masks, Fenon says, black and tilling in the
colonial period and the period of enslavement descends
like Dante’s, circles of hell into the zone of
non-being, which Fenon says is a sterile and arid region in
which an authentic upheaval can be born. Meaning that Fenon was
arguing that as hellish as the zone of non-being
is, as hellish as it means to be a slave across
time, the phenomenology our existence as a slave
creates not the guarantee, but it creates the capacity
or the possibility of coming into not just consciousness
but self-consciousness the self-reflective ability for
us to realize our condition, which is the possibility
to say, you know what? There is another
world possible or is Audre Lorde says
in Sister Outsider when she says the most
fundamental idea that blacks in the modern period have to
realize is that you were never meant to survive. And yet here we are. So this conflation, if you
find between social death and the zone of
non-being is something that, quite frankly,
I don’t even bother with this
whole Afro pessimists, Afro optimist debate
in any serious content because it’s missing what’s
fundamental to the concept of marronage is the belief
that however difficult it is to actualize
our consciousness of our intrinsic capacity
for action and change, that that change nonetheless
is possible, whether or not it is our individual
conception of freedom on an individual
level of escape, as Edwidge Danticat would
talk about in the Children of the Sea, sometimes it might
not be a collective escape that we have to, sometimes we may have to
take our chance on a raft or doing something else in
an arduous space like Cora in Underground Railroad. Or it is something at the
sociogenic level where we’re all from the bottom
up trying to then think about the world that may be. Since I have only
2 and 1/2 minutes I just want to end
with this, but there’s a lot more I could say including
discussing Frederick Douglass. But nonetheless, I
want to reiterate this. Traditions we must
remember, still have multiplicity as
in competing ideals. Modern traditions after
the Treaty of Westphalian operate overwhelming within the
structures of the nation state. The nation state, however,
doesn’t interrupt marronage as many might argue, I
believe that, if anything, the nation state with its modern
and late modern shortcomings catalyzes marronage in its
fugitive and long [? duray ?] challenges to
statecraft legitimacy. Structures, and this is
important because as much as James Scott’s work has been
so influential to many of us. And especially The Art of Not
Being Governed most recently, Jim actually mistakenly
conflates the idea of rule and governance. Structures of rule and
governance mutate across time and types of marronage,
exist prior to, during, and after moments
of transformation. The desire for rule, which isn’t
to be confused with governance, is an aspiration of the central
Asian underlying sovereign marronage. Governance, in
contrast, is a condition of what aren’t called no rule. Or of what CL James called,
the idea in his pamphlet that every cook
can govern, right? Of neither ruling
nor being ruled. Governance is an outgrowth of
the massive sociogenic flight. What follows here
then, and I promise last paragraph, what
follows here is not as James Scott writes, The
Art of Not Being Governed, but rather the ongoing
art I call of no rule. By adopting this framework,
we are better equipped to interpret individual
and collective actions, social movements, popular
uprisings, rebellions, revolutions, and
how we understand the relationship between
race and political theory. In addition, more
specific to our panel, of how the idea of
freedom pertains to them. So in short, in trying
to think beyond the Gulf and western thought between
negative and positive streams of freedom, beyond the ideas
of thinking about freedom and solely static
terms, and beyond the nationals provincial
understandings of what the black
radical tradition is, I’d like us at
least to meditate, even if you all think I’m
wrong, to at least meditate on the possibility that if
social death, as both Afro pessimists and Afro
optimists, fundamentally mistakenly conflate with Fenon’s
idea of the zone of non-being. If slaves actually have
the capacity for change, then that means a
complete re-shifting of the very concept
of freedom, even if it’s as Coates mentioned,
the Between the World and Me. One that’s a inconvenient truth. Thanks. ANDRE WILLIS: Thank you, Neil. He came in right at 20 minutes. NEIL ROBERTS: Thank you. I tried to [INAUDIBLE]. ANDRE WILLIS: Oh, well, I want
you to feel rushed or brother. But since he called us to
a moment of meditation, can we take a breath
before Jasmine jumps in? I did not say much about– I didn’t say anything actually
about your marvelous text, Radical Dharma that
she co-authored with Lama Rod Owens and Sister
Reverend angel Kyodo Williams. And that text has been quite
a very accessible text, and is dialogical. So she co-authored
it, but is dialogical in the breaking
bread sense of things how you guys laid it out. This text has been kind
of a hit with the students who brought it to
me because it’s doing so much
empowering kinds of work at the very fundamental level. So I didn’t want to neglect, I
don’t want to leave that out. So as I mentioned
his texts, I said let me do this sister some justice. But OK. I think we’re ready now– JASMINE SYEDULLAH: All right. ANDRE WILLIS: — for
your big 20 minutes here, and then we’ll take a second and
then I’ll get to the questions. So Jasmine. Thank you so much, Andre. And thank you so much, Neil. This is an incredible
panel to be on. I’m really, really, really,
really blessed to be here. And thank you of course,
to Juliet and Melvin. This is an incredible convening,
epic as I posted on Facebook. So I did change the
title of the talk. Now it says “The Kind of
Lost Her Freedom Cost.” “The Kind of Lost
Her Freedom Cost.” Harriet Jacobs,
abolitionist theory of contract and captivity. And so I was inspired
by Neil’s presentation to begin in the words of
Miss Major, the black trans woman and queer
liberation elder, who threw the first brick
at Stonewall who says, we are still here. So in one of her most
well-read and off cited books are prisons obsolete,
Angela Davis writes to assume that men’s
institutions constitute the norm and
women’s institutions are marginal is in a
sense to participate in the very
normalization of prisons that an abolitionist
approach seeks to contest. Her study of women’s
experiences of incarceration is then not only an extension
of her work as a feminist, it includes those
often marginalized within the field
of prison studies, not only because they represent
her own political affinity for or identification with
this particular population because she brings an
abolitionist analysis that requires we interrogate
our assumptions about the difference between
glory and guilt, guilt and innocence, respectability
and deviance, perpetrator and victim. As many of you
know, abolition is more than a movement for
Davis or Dubois or Douglass. Abolition is more than
a political ideology or a historical movement
of a certain era either to end slavery or realize
the obsolescence of prisons. Abolition is as Gaye
Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin write in The Introduction
to Futures of Black Radicalism quote, the destruction of racial
regime and racial capitalism. A radical protocol,
I argue, for learning to tell what time it
is, for learning to read the writing on the wall, or as
Dr. Martin Luther King reminds us, how the moral universe
bends towards justice. Rather than imagined abolition
as a top down breakdown of intersecting structures of
racial capitalism from above or an overthrow of an
insurgent take down from below, my work traces the movement
of abolition as an inside job, as an embodied
practice of breaking through carceral
imaginations of freedom to live in the loopholes of
the peculiar institutions, criminalization, policing, and
punishment that have evolved to shape political ideals of
emancipation, race, place, gender, and belonging during
slavery and in its after lives within the US and all places
subject to its jurisdiction as the 13 states. So the paper I submitted
for this panel is part of my current book project,
Fugitive X, Black Feminist Abolitionisms, and fugitive
acts asks how to black women abolitionist narratives,
testimonies, letters, memoirs, speeches, and essays retreat
from the kinds of freedom free people hold dear to
articulate a kind of freedom as fugitive slave and,
abolitionist mother Harriet Jacobs writes in 1861,
that is not yet realized. Rooted in the 19th
century writings of antislavery abolitionist,
Harriet Jacobs, namely the implications of her
initial escape from slavery documented in the
narrative to a tiny garret space who refers to as
her loophole of retreat. Fugitive X series is a relay
of black feminist abolitionism between the time of slavery and
the rise of mass incarceration to teach us how the work of
black feminist abolitionisms bend the arc of the
moral universe in defense of criminalized
lives documenting how criminalized communities
create themselves, their own conditions
for protection, and their own conditions
of possibility for what liberation feels like. So this is from
Chapter 2 and it begins with a quote from
Harriet Jacobs that says, the more my mind became
enlightened, the more difficult it was for me to consider
myself an article of property and to pay money to those who
had so grievously oppressed me seemed like taking from
my sufferings, the glory of triumph. So the passage above appears
in the last pages of Harriet Jacobs slave narrative,
and is his proclamation of the wrong of manumission. And it emerges
somewhat unexpectedly from the pages of her
now classic testament to the wrongs of slavery. Rather than rejoice,
at the moment of her lawfully recognized
freedom, and emancipation from slavery, she mourns the
loss legitimized freedom costs fugitives from their
place in the institution of the enslaved. These kinds of freedom,
legal and legitimate freedom, came at a cost both
monetary and moral to the fugitives themselves. There was no justice in
this kind of freedom, particularly for a fugitive
who would rather risk her life than remain enslaved. There was no glory,
no redemption in this practice of liberation
from the shackles of slavery. It was a practice that relied
upon secrecy, concealment, and disguise. For Jacobs, it was a practice. Its price was part
of the deeper wrong, the title in Britain
of her new manuscript, “The Deeper Wrong
of Her Subjection.” The terms of her
victory were bound by the same legal
system that continued to hold others in bondage. The terms of her victory
denied her the right to see herself as something
other than an article of property. The terms of her victory
reinforced the indefensibly of her life as a
thing, as a saleable, as an object leaving her
and the two children now only hers to own, vulnerable
to the will of others, even once freed. So Jacob’s no
longer fugitive who immense what is lost in the
welcome of the laws embraced. She has not nearly resigned
to freedom’s dispossession as a fugitive time
and the possibilities of lines of flight– the
possibilities lines of flight could afford. This uncompensated loss was
more than worth her mourning. This was something
akin to triumph. And there was something
akin to triumph in the telling of her
story of liberation. Something that rejects the
seductions of domesticating narratives, those
politics of respectability that recreate fugitive
time in their own image, yoking, suffering to
redemption, promises of progress that have all but
lulled us into forgetting how to remember, how we got free. In writing, by her
own hand, a narrative that retreats from the
protocols of the past and dares to speak the broken
promises of their pretense to all those present,
their rings Jacob’s defensive what she claimed to
be something akin to freedom. So I argue that we inherit
Jacob’s narrative and civil war correspondents and what follows
as a series of fugitive acts of prophetic praxis, methods,
and theories of abolition that reclaim black reproductive labor
as a politics that can neither be domesticated or dispossessed,
though they are routinely surveyed, policed, and punished. It is a freedom
draped in the glory of the triumph of its
victory over containment and domestication. The identity politics
and moral ambiguities that govern her
text, the only record to have been authored
by a fugitive woman, challenge even contemporary
common sense notions of what victory over adversity might
look like rather than tell a story of liberation
that champions the cunning or physical
force of her own individual will to overcome the
bonds of captivity. Jacob’s narrative places
the fugitive mother within a greater community,
an underground network of nameless friends
and accomplices, whose collective reproductive
labors do not only resist slavery, they animate
the very fugitive futures, slavery’s domestication
of black life suspend and advance
the cause of abolition against the bonds of both
contract and captivity. So what glory, then
can come in risking the rewards of political
belonging and recognition? Might there be glory
in remaining fugitive even once freed? I opened my reading of
incidents with the limits many mission imposes on
its author and protagonist in order to pose
a simple question. Why isn’t legal freedom
enough for Jacobs? As Saidya Hartman
so eloquently states in the introduction of
Scenes of Subjection, the effort to examine
the event of emancipation is no less riddled by
inescapable ironies. The foremost of this
being discontinuity between the substantial
freedom and legal emancipation. Of the many inescapable
riddles that mark Jacobs fugitive escape
from slavery to manumission to abolitionist,
here I identify 11 in the paper, not here today. I’ll just talk about a couple. Each section begins
by accounting for the kinds of lost
her freedom costs, they name by negation, the
ideals of freedom slavery deferred, no will, no
guarantee, no home, no fiction. Those very western attachments
to freedom free people hold dear, derive
from Jacobs account of her retreat from both
slavery before the Civil War and the security of national
belonging during the war, and following legal
emancipation this litany of loss represents the interstitial
and habitations of freedom formerly enslaved
people found to move into collective
critique of both slavery and the kinds of freedom its
end made all but inescapable. If, as Hartman suggests
then, the kinds of freedom the end of slavery emancipated
us into are truly inescapable, then no amount of our
returning to these narratives of resistance, as
Neil was saying, can help us get on with the
unfinished work of abolition we face today. If, however, we learn
to pay attention to how the reproductive labor
of their fugitive movement continues to bring
something long hidden from view into the present
day frameworks for thinking about the ethics of freedom and
the ends of liberation, then perhaps there is still
much, as yet, unrealized as Jacob writes in the
relentless mourning of black mothers and in the
incidents of the lives of those still held in bondage. So this is no home. As we near the end
of Jacob’s account of her escape from
slavery, we find there is, in fact, no home
for her and her children and no rewards of glory bestowed
on her manumission, none. Say perhaps, those produced
in the retelling of her story, homeless but free,
lawful but nearly lost to the archive of the
abolitionist tradition. Jacob’s narrative
represents a dream of glory that ends neither
with the bill of sale that ensures her freedom,
nor with the national victory of constitutional
emancipation, rather she chronicles her dream of glory
as a narrative of liberation brought to life by the
clandestine political communities whose labors
made them possible. That’s her readership as well. We’re also talking
about the white woman of the north is an unlikely
Motley crew of allegiance that I think is
really generative of the kind of
politics she desires. So Incidents was
written by herself as she writes to arouse
the women of the North, but did not work alone to break
the silence of 19th century respectability politics
by going public with its sordid tale of
triumph over slavery. Despite the ways the state as
ethnic studies scholar, Lisa Lowe, reminds us,
subsumes colonial violence within narratives of
modern reason and progress, the circulation of
Jacob’s testament against slavery and
others like it continued beyond the time of
emancipation throughout the era of reconstruction
and Jim Crow and was lifted to canonical
status with the arrival of the late 20th
century struggles for civil rights and the vote. Black feminist scholars
in particular bringing the history of
women’s resistance to slavery back
into the literature led to its authentication
and then its connotation in literature syllabi. Though, she herself
laments that there is no home for her
and her children at the end of her
narrative, inscriptions of their dreams of
freedom are nailed on the trap doors of
the peculiar institution and residue of its, as
yet, unrealized elements remain emergent. Some 100 years later in
Americans literature syllabi, in various corners of
slavery studies scholarship, too often the story of
the triumphs of fugitives and outlaws remains
submerged, however, within patrilineal histories
of abolitionist activism, histories that
malign the thinking and tactics of those less
respectable figures, who advance its cause
within its fold through reproductive
domestic labor. Nationalist narratives
written by those who championed abolitionists,
abolition’s final destination, a safe harbor in
the north continue to conceal the as yet unrealized
imaginations of freedom and dreams of glory that were
the property of fugitive slave women, mothers, and
children in veils of shame. The kinds of homemaking
incidents defense, evidence contrary to common sense
notions of political agency, that political recognition,
and national incorporation are not always the primary
or most advantageous aims for social acts of
political resistance. As historian and social critical
theorist, Cedric Robinson, reminds us, creative
reconfigurations of western concepts
live other lives within artistic renderings
of the black experience of black suffering, and
though they have a tendency to be conscripted,
commodified, and consumed, they often resurface
in ways that prove credible to projects of
liberation their creators could not have imagined. The kinds of homemaking
incidents defense, also evidence as feminist studies
collared Gina dent reminds us in her editor’s note of
Black Popular Culture how contestations over oppositional
claims to blackness persist even within
the millions of people that make them up themselves. That diversity of expression
and protocols of debate that make up black social
and political thought are generative of a
kind of knowledge praxis that is radical precisely
because it refuses the paternalism of
universalization, not all monolithic, not at
all monolithic in its nature. So at its best, is dispersed
roots of connections and exchanges retreat from
possessive in relations to property and ownership
and reach underground to circumnavigate the
identity politics that so often organize, tokenize,
and commodify creative labor. In this instance,
it is not the case that racial marginalization
serves as an ontological ground for self-identification
or world making, rather an analytic categorical marker
of identity through difference, blackness is an episteme, a way
of knowing the self in relation to one’s material proximity,
to political authority. Or as Dent writes, it’s
a knowledge practice rooted in the erotic,
quote, not in its most general and colloquial
sense, but in the way that Audre Lorde has
defined it as our deepest knowledge, a power that unlike
other spheres of knowledge we all have access
to and that can lessen the threat of our
individual difference. For Jacobs, being black
is a knowledge practice of congregational escape from
the living death of slavery. It required taking flight
from a gendered relationship to domination that was
deeply racialized, not once, but as a practice, not alone,
but in concert with others. So there’s also no saviors. In a passage that
concludes the chapter, “What Slaves Are Taught
to Think of the North,” Jacob’s narrator Linda
Brandt introduces her readers to the fantastic
personification of an illiterate enslaved
woman’s dream of freedom. Queen Justice emerges
as a moral critique of the wrong of slavery
with political consequences, material consequence
fashioned by the enslaved themselves over and above study
canonical defenses of abolition mobilized by the free
people of the north. Quote, one woman begged
me to get a newspaper and read it over. Linda explains describing the
encounter with a poor ignorant woman. One of the narratives nameless
chorus of friends, the woman had sought out Linda, who
was taught to read and write by her first mistress
at the age of 12 to see if the paper could
confirm something she’d heard from her husband about
the abolition of slavery having come to pass at the
hand of the queen of America. While this fictive
national matriarch seemed to hail from
no particular origin and possessed no historically
legitimate legal authority, the queen was said
to have arrived on behalf of black
people who had sent word to her of their enslavement,
quote, she didn’t believe it, as a woman recalled. And so went to Washington City
to see the president about it. They quarreled, she
drew her sword upon him and swore that she
should keep him, that he should help
her make them all free. Though the chapter
ends before we discover what news of abolition
the paper did in fact contain in the [INAUDIBLE]
a full retelling of the nameless woman’s rumor,
Jacob presents her readers with a glimpse of the
unfettered insubordinate fervor of the fugitive
imagination of abolition. Quote, that poor
ignorant woman thought that America was governed by a
queen to whom the president was subordinate chides Linda. And then confesses her
own complicit desire to see the realization
of the woman’s fantasy. Quote, I wish the president was
subordinate to Queen Justice. Queen Justice’s arrival is
not a practical solution to the problem of
slavery, rather Justice emerges as a missive
matriarch, a waking dream sent north on the eve
of the Civil War to defend the insurgent
political authority of the dispossessed. Though fleeting, Jacob’s
invocation of Queen Justice seeks to realize the
vision of abolition against a backdrop of western
political authority that could easily lead us to eclipse
the chorus of unnamed couriers of the fugitive
imagination, distilling the fugitive element
of their writing into instances of
radical singularity, and exceptions to their race. Indeed, we might
risk unsettling, the political authority of the
history of will altogether, according to Sarah Ahmed,
one history of will could be understood as
the evacuation of wish and want from the will
requires meaning and force, as that which can eliminate
desires from human intention. So the black reproductive
labor of abolitionists to the imagination
and conclusion is a politics of the future. One that knows what
time it is, knows that if the abolition
of free racial regimes in racial capital is possible
another world is necessary, one whose demands
on the future call not for more freedoms
but far more fugitives. We need fugitives to bore
holes in the constraints of legal freedom
and to get a feeling sense of what otherwise
possibilities for liberation might look like. We need fugitives
to remind us how our own imaginations of
freedom have been born out of stealing away, retreating,
marronage, congregational, containment, complete with
an improbable sense of unity, compassion, conviction,
and possibility. We need fugitives
to teach us how to remember what it meant to
see on September 12th, 1971, a in upstate New York identified
in the historical record only as a nameless
black prisoner take to the mic on the last day of
negotiations between prisoners and prison administrators. At Attica to say, to oppress
people all over the world, we got the solution. The solution is a unity. We need to study why the
public spectacle of solidarity with and among
political prisoners poses such a clear and present
danger to law and order politics. From the plantation
to the prison the realization of abolition’s
dream for the future will require. We tell our own stories, keep
our own account of what counts, and share with all who will
listen, what time it is, where freedom lives,
and if this is it. Thank you all. [AUDIENCE APPLAUSE]

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