Towards Usable Histories of the Black Commons

Frances Benjamin Johnston, Potomac River [ca. 1898]. Image: Library of Congress.
Frances Benjamin Johnston, Potomac River [ca. 1898]. Image: Library of Congress.
Since the 1980s, policymakers have extended the market logics of risk and profit to encompass all the basic necessities for human life. Despite the simultaneous rise of colorblind rhetoric, this financialization of life itself has continued to depend on a racist calculus by which financial solvency and profit are prioritized over Black lives. The ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan exemplifies the disastrous effects of these processes. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his appointed emergency manager for the city, Darnell Early, calculated that the health risks posed by lead and carcinogens for Flint’s majority poor Black residents did not outweigh the benefits of cost-saving.

If we consider the ecologically destructive forces of plantations financed by speculators, Black people’s ecological vulnerability underwrote the global market economy. Alongside this history, however, are the efforts of Black people to renegotiate the uneven contours of capitalist landscapes. Taken together, the various threads of alternative land stewardship chart a usable history of a Black commons. For Marx the commons was the “people’s land” prior to enclosure. Black qualifies the traditional consideration of the commons by examining the strain Blackness has placed on notions of “the people” and also by marking the practices of alternative land stewardship as definitively modern and ongoing in the face of unending enclosure and expropriation.

In order to suggest the possibility for the history of a Black commons, I first examine the testimony of famed landscape architect and designer of Central Park Frederick Law Olmsted as he journeyed to the South in 1852. I treat his two-volume journal as an archive of the social and economic geography of the region as well as a testament to the vision he shared with enslavers for the land—dominion. Second, I read Olmsted to locate the basis for alternatives to dominion among the enslaved. Finally, I examine the WPA testimony of a formerly enslaved man, James Deane, to evidence the history of a Black commons.

In Olmsted’s accounts, the Upper South plantation landscapes revealed how spasmodic markets and financing unevenly shaped factories of the field. Olmsted interpreted abandoned land as further evidence of what he considered slavery’s inefficiency. He advocated the return of this land to productivity, arguing that “by deep ploughing [sic] and liming, and the judicious use of manures, it is made quite productive.” While the enhanced farming practices Olmsted advocated would not emerge until the twentieth century, accompanying the recapitalization of the region’s agriculture as part of the truck-farm production for a growing market in Washington, his suggestions show that he shared a critical part of the master’s vision for land.

Lycurgus S. Glover, Potomac River at Williamsport, Md., ca. 1904. Photo: Detroit Publishing Co./Library of Congress.

Olmsted advocated manipulation and enhancement in manners that in the long run have contributed to bringing the delicate ecologies of the Chesapeake to the brink of collapse. The runoff produced by land-clearing for truck farms, and more recently runoff in suburbs of the Anacostia River’s watershed, for example, have shoaled the river. While it was once navigable to Bladensburg, Maryland, the Anacostia’s slow waters have turned toxic due to soil deposits and the runoff of toxic oil byproducts, driven by radical deforestation and suburbanization. Both the master class’s and Olmsted’s visions of managing the land assessed stewardship through the lens of profiteering and dominance.

In addition to his picture of the South’s social and economic ecology, Olmsted unwittingly captured the elements of a Black landscape. The enslaved built this counter-geography through acts of refusal: a politics of disregard, avoidance, and rejection that created the possibility for stolen time and space. Once Olmsted reached the gate of a Maryland plantation, an enslaved person who remained unseen interrupted the idyllic scene. As Olmsted transcribed, fabricating black speech, “Ef yer wants to see master, sah, he’s down thar—to the new stable.” Olmsted continued: “I could see no one.”

For Olmsted, this kind of Black obstinacy, a refusal to be seen and accounted for, represented the ineffectiveness of slavery. Although Olmsted did not write this account sympathetically, he did index the ways that even the smallest acts of throwing gravel in the gears of the system of slavery served as a weapon for the enslaved as they contested the quotidian violence and destruction enacted through surveillance. In the ideology of mastery, surveillance was part of a totalizing vision of accounting, management, and control over humans and the earth. Here the unnamed person countered the dominant politics of seeing, and in looking back, offers the kind of alternative line of vision Simone Brown describes as “dark sousveillance.”

Hugh T. Taggart, Map of landholdings along the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. [ca. 1900]. Photo: Library of Congress.
Hugh T. Taggart, Map of landholdings along the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. [ca. 1900]. Photo: Library of Congress.
The refusal to be seen or hiding in close proximity and looking back provided the enslaved with moments of possibility for building an unsanctioned world. Elements of this unsanctioned Black world were forbidden. Yet enslavers tacitly acknowledged others. Even the practices encouraged by enslavers served as a means by which the enslaved maneuvered the geography of plantations and created the possibility for interruptions in the space-time rhythms of mastery and dominion. Fleeting and tentative, these interruptions challenged dominion and totalizing control, enabling the enslaved to create a “largely secret and disguised world” composed of a “system of paths, places, and rhythms that a community of enslaved people created as an alternative, often a refuge, to the landscape system of planters and other whites.”1

Black landscapes were often confined or confining. Yet, as Katherine McKittirick theorizes, they were also points of possibility for acts of rebellion, including effective escape, as in Harriet Jacobs’s case. These renegotiations of time and place facilitated acts of self-liberation and created reprieves in which to imagine and practice a different world.

While enslavers sought to catalog, name, and divide the earth into sellable property, the enslaved reimagined it through a rich cosmology built around what Sylvia Wynter termed the “plot.” The plot was constituted through a parcel of land given to the enslaved by planters “on which to grow food to feed themselves in order to maximize profits.” The system of the plot also allowed “African peasants transplanted” to American plantations to transpose “all the structure of values that had been created by traditional societies of Africa” by which the “land remained the Earth—and the Earth was a goddess; man used the land to feed himself; and to offer first fruits to the earth; his funeral was the mystical reunion with the earth.” In turn the plot incubated “traditional values—use values. This folk culture became a source of guerrilla resistance to the plantation system.”2 Plots anchored alternative modes of earth stewardship that, taken alongside other practices, forged a fleeting Black commons.

Edwin Forbes, Slave cabin near Warrenton, Va. 1863. Image: Library of Congress.
Edwin Forbes, Slave cabin near Warrenton, Va. 1863. Image: Library of Congress.

In his 1937 WPA narrative, a formerly enslaved resident of Baltimore, James V. Deane, described life on a large plantation along Goose Bay, an inlet of the Potomac River, in Charles County, Maryland where he had been enslaved. According to Deane, the enslaved “had small garden patches which they worked by moonlight.” Although there was a physician charged with ensuring the health and productivity of the enslaved, as he described, “the slaves had herbs of their own, and made their own salves.” While the record leaves no evidence of the full parameters of this alternative use of the landscape, it is clear that the enslaved created and maintained a distinctive interpretation of space from a shared vision for social and cosmological integrity.

Deane described an alternative landscape that denies the bounded and strict cartography instituted through the regime of real property and chattel that was the primary source of white patriarchal domination. Critically, this Black landscape overlaid the dominant layout of the plantation and infused it with other kinds of spiritual and social significance in excess of dominion. In addition to the plot that served as a rich site of Black cultural life and healing, Deane also described the river as a commons. Deane relayed, “My choice food was fish and crabs cooked in styles by my mother.” Deane’s preferred foods were products of the delicate watershed and brackish ecologies that remain endangered by the geography of continuous capitalist expansion and sprawl that has defined the area in the twentieth century. Food that the enslaved independently procured from the Potomac’s waters and similar estuary environs served as a currency for Black social life and intergenerational affection in confronting the master class’s vision to lord over Black people’s bodies, lines of social connection, the land, and the river. Enslaved Black people envisioned an alternative system that included a Black commons.

This legacy of a Black commons remains vital, even as we face quite a different terrain from our enslaved ancestors. If financialization has produced new geographies of death in the name of unchecked exploitation, we must continue to subvert the totalizing logics of mastery and reclaim ourselves and the earth from profiteers. Histories of the plot and the Black commons engender usable histories as we face the apotheosis of dominion.

  1. Rebecca Ginsburg, “Escaping Through a Black Landscape,” Cabin, Quarter, Plantation: Architecture and Landscapes of North American Slavery (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010): 54; Stephanie M.H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Dell Upton, “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia,” Places 2.2 (1982): 95–119.
  2.  Sylvia Wynter, “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” Savacou (1971).

J. T. Roane

J.T. Roane is a McPherson/Eveillard Postdoctoral Fellow at Smith College. He is primarily interested in questions of place in relation to black histories and is currently working on a manuscript titled “Sovereignty in the City: Black Infrastructures and the Politics of Place in 20-Century Philadelphia.” Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.

Comments on “Towards Usable Histories of the Black Commons

  • Thanks for writing this. In Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” the first two chapters explore the history of a plot tended by generations enslaved women. Of course, it’s fiction but a beautiful rendering of what you describe here. “The dirt at her feet had a story, the oldest story Cora knew.” (12) “The first color to return was the simmering bown-red of the soil in her family’s plot. It reawakened her to people and things, and she decided to hold on to her stake…” (14) This chapter develops the notion of a plot as a contested space, a place where gender and power come together in ways that are conflictual. Just a note to say that the alternative system that you so aptly describe was also hierarchical.

    • Thanks for this! I will check it out.

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