A Mountainous Freedom

minkahToday, we continue our roundtable on Neil Roberts‘s Freedom as Marronage with a contribution from Minkah Makalani, associate professor in the department of African & African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Makalani works on intellectual history, black political thought, racial identity, and diaspora in the Caribbean, U.S., and Europe. He is the author of In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (UNC Press, 2011), and is co-editor (with Davarian Baldwin) of Escape from New York: The New Negro Renaissance beyond Harlem (Minnesota, 2013). His articles have appeared in Souls, Social Text, and The Journal of African American History, and in the collections White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism (2003), Outside In: The Transnational Circuitry of U.S. History (forthcoming), and C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary Fifty Years On (forthcoming). Makalani is currently writing a history of C. L. R. James’s return to Trinidad from 1958-1962, tentatively titled, Calypso Conquered the World: C. L. R. James and the Politically Unimaginable in the Trinidadian Postcolony.

*Dr. Makalani’s post follows an introduction by Jared Hardesty and contributions by James Martel, Annette Joseph-Gabriel, and Gregory Childs. Neil Roberts will offer closing remarks tomorrow.


In possibly her most well-known and widely read work, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt identified a central paradox in the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. In joining human rights to national sovereignty, she argued that the Rights of Man effectively confined those “essential rights that were at once claimed as the inalienable heritage of all human beings” to “the specific heritage of specific nations.”1 As such, where the nation-state protects and ensures the rights of its citizens, it leaves non-citizens and those who are stateless without rights. C. L. R. James had taken up the same question over a decade earlier in The Black Jacobins, though he focused on slavery, the holding of property in human beings, as a foundational feature of the French Republic to which enslaved Africans responded. Though both James and Arendt found flaws in the French Revolution that left the freedom it claimed to herald as a universal right in question, James viewed the slave uprising in Saint Domingue as an expression of mass political will insisting on their freedom. By contrast, Arendt never considered Saint Domingue, nor allowed for the possibility that enslaved people anywhere might engage in political action. In her view, “slavery’s fundamental offense against human rights was…that it excluded a certain category of people even from the possibility of fighting for freedom,” an approach that rendered enslaved Africans not so much stateless (like Jews in World War II Europe) as outside the realm of politics altogether.2 For James, the slave uprising had a world historical importance that resonated into the twentieth century. As he once put it in the late 1960s, “the origins of our nation are the Maroons who ran away from the plantations and hid in the mountains. Those are the real originators of the Haitian nation. Believe me!”3

C.L.R. James
C.L.R. James

Neil Roberts’s impressive study, Freedom as Marronage, broaches the implications of James’s observation by taking as a mode of thought the actions of those maroons in the mountains. A major contribution to contemporary black political thought, Freedom as Marronage asks what insights we might gain into a conception of freedom by studying black peoples’ experiences of and responses to slavery. Roberts set himself no easy task. As a political theorist, he writes in a field whose conceptual tools and protocols of inquiry are, in some respects, well suited to such a project. But as he points out, “western thought alone cannot explain flight emerging from the interstitial” (p. 15). Roberts thus ties marronage to fugitivity, which he defines, somewhat akin to Barnor Hesse’s treatment of black fugitivity as an escape from the hegemony of Western liberty, as an “interstitial mode of flight connecting” slavery and freedom that “is at once episodic and yet a permanent facet of everyday politics”(p. 86).4 As such, marronage provides him a tool with which to rethink “conceptualizations of freedom in Western theory,” though doing so still requires that he draw on a range of intellectual traditions–like Caribbean political thought, black feminist thought, postcolonial theory, and Latin American philosophy–in order to cover such diverse topics as the writings of Frederick Douglass and Angela Davis on slavery and freedom, the political character of the Haitian Revolution, the literary production of Martinican thinker Edouard Glissant, and the spiritual-political implications of Rastafari in order to outline a theory of freedom as flight.

Roberts clears considerable theoretical terrain within western political philosophy by highlighting the ways in which theorists of negative (non-interference) or positive (mastery) freedom like Isaiah Berlin, Phillip Petit, and Hannah Arendt engage in a disavowal of slavery, the simultaneous acknowledgment and dismissal of slavery’s significance. Rather than rescue either of these, Roberts turns to marronage as a “multidimensional, constant act of flight” wherein the enslaved move “from the negative, subhuman realm of necessity, bondage, and unfreedom toward the sphere of positive activity and human freedom” (pp. 9, 15). Freedom appears as a dynamic practice that resists a static, fixed social or political reality. This conceptual excavation is the basis upon which he thinks through marronage “to explain evanescent flight, modes of fugitivity, and intrastate flight focused on the attainment of freedom through the macro-level reorientation of civil society and state institutions—most notably revolutions” (p. 11).

It is in Frederick Douglass’s writings that Roberts uncovers a notion of comparative freedom, where Douglass “conceives of freedom as a condition involving liberation from bondage” (p. 57). Much like Angela Davis’s reading of Douglass that leads her to argue for “the crucial transformation of the concept of freedom as a static, given principle into the concept of liberation, the dynamic, active struggle for freedom,” Roberts finds in Douglass an insistence on a dynamic, mobile notion of freedom that entails degrees of freedom.5 Writing from this framework, Roberts disentangles Arendt’s felicitous view of freedom as participation in governance, from the ideal political order that is implicit in her thinking about freedom — an order where poverty, slavery, and patriarchy are sequestered to the non-political realm of the social. We might think about this move as Roberts’s decolonial turn, which as Nelson Maldonado-Torres explains, “highlights the epistemic relevance of the enslaved and colonized search for humanity,” and seeks “to open up the sources for thinking and to break up the apartheid of theoretical domains.”6

If thinking through the works of Douglass, Davis, Glissant, and Rastafari are indispensable in such a turn, it is in his treatment of the Haitian Revolution that Roberts makes his most compelling interventions. It is no small irony of history that the most understudied and ignored of the Enlightenment-era revolution is the one that confronted precisely the limitations of the Rights of Man. Far more important than merely securing and protecting the inalienable rights of French citizens, the Rights of Man, as Roberts points out, delimited the very categories of man and citizen so as to exclude Jews, slaves, women, and free blacks in its colonies. Faced with such limited principles, Roberts argues that beyond merely accepting or rejecting them, enslaved and free black colonial subjects in Saint-Domingue chose either to universalize these principles through the abolition of slavery, or “break from the modern social contract tradition” through the “adoption of non-sovereign types of marronage, with mass-oriented flight being optimal” (p. 98). While petit marronage (individual flight) and grand marronage (large groups establishing autonomous communities) as ever present features of slave societies helps him think through freedom as flight, the fleeting nature of the one, and the desire for recognition by the other, produced “a finitude whose freedom is Janus-face and involves strictures deeper than the parameters of spatialization” (p. 102). The Haitian Revolution built on both forms, yet shed the quality of encampment that constricted the very practice of freedom and flight itself.

Modern artistic deception of the Bois Caïman ceremony, where rebels planned the Haitian Revolution. Andre Normil, Ceremonie du Bois-Caiman (1990)
Modern artistic deception of  Bois Caïman, the site where rebels planned the Haitian Revolution. Andre Normil, Ceremonie du Bois-Caiman (1990)

In the Haitian Revolution, Roberts identifies two forms of marronage, sovereign and sociogenic, that exceed petit and grand marronage in their transformation of the social and political order. Sovereign marronage “is a philosophy of freedom referring to non-fleeting mass flight from slavery [whose] goal is emancipation, its scope social-structural, its spatialization is polity-wide, its metaphysics includes the individual and community, and its medium is the lawgiver” (p. 103). While sovereign marronage expands the limits of petit and grand marronage, it is a limited form of freedom that, in the case of the Haitian Revolution, turned on the rule of the lawgiver, Toussaint Louverture. Sovereign marronage thus faltered because it effected in its founding the legal subordination of the Haitian masses to Toussaint’s rule, perpetuated a natural rights philosophy rejected by the Haitian masses, and produced a situation where Toussaint’s sovereignty dissolved into a form of dictatorship (p. 111).

The concept of sovereign marronage offers us better insight into what C. L. R. James’s called Toussaint’s failure. In being “too confident in his own powers, he was making one dreadful mistake,” James tells us. “His error was his neglect of his own people,” assuming, rather incorrectly we now know, “that he had only to speak and the masses would follow.” Later, James draws the point more finely, remarking that “Toussaint’s error sprang from the very qualities that made him what he was.” Rather than a failure to fully assimilate western political norms, “Toussaint’s failure was the failure of enlightenment, not of darkness.”7 If Toussaint existed within a train of Enlightenment thinkers that enabled him to lay claim to universal rights by abolishing slavery, that was also the quality that rendered him incapable of founding freedom.

Sociogenic marronage departs from the structures of sovereignty. For Roberts, sociogenic marronage “denotes macropolitical flight whereby agents flee slavery through non-fleeting acts of naming, vèvè architectonics, liberation, reordering of the state of society, and constitutionalism” (p. 116). Rooting this concept in Frantz Fanon’s observation in Black Skin, White Masks that “beside phylogeny and ontogeny stands sociogeny,” Roberts stresses a sense of sociogenesis where “lived experiences fashion our social world and structure our civil and political orders”(p. 119).8 As the guiding frame for the founding of Haitian state, sociogenic marronage rooted the social order of Haitian society in what he argues is a vèvè architectonics, where the Haitian masses elaborated “a blueprint of freedom that an individual or collectivity imagines in an ideal world,… a pictogram of mass flight that resist sovereign decisionism and institutional designs conducted by the state without authorization, advice, and input from the citizen” (p. 126). This insight into how the Haitian masses approached freedom after independence involved a negotiation around the new civil and political order where the nation and governance structures created the space for citizens to come into being. If for Fanon sociogeny marked the colonized’s departure from the zone of non-being, Roberts locates the new order in the Black Republic where governance, rule, and the citizen come together to constitute “a political, rather than biocentric, notion of blackness” (p. 128). Political blackness becomes the key impulse of Haitian constitutionalism, which is understood as the foundation of freedom rather than drafting of a constitution as such.

The brilliance of Roberts’ intervention lies in his ability to limn the various ways in which slave fugitivity operated as a conceptualization of freedom beyond a negative-positive dichotomy. In an Arendtian register, he views flight as a practice of freedom, a political activity. For Arendt, while freedom is static, it is neither a state of being nor the mere condition of not being in bondage, but action itself. “Men are free…as long as they act, neither before nor after; for the be free and to act are the same.”9 This is the realm of non-sovereign human action — participation in governance. Yet where Arendt rightly concludes that “the status of freedom did not follow automatically upon the act of liberation,” Roberts wants to see the act of liberation itself as a practice (if by degrees) of freedom, or, put differently, the establishment of freedom.

A sign from the 1890s that advertised a small shop, “Au Planter,” The Planter, on rue Montorgueil that sold products from the colonies, including coffee. “Aucune Succursale” announced that you could find these products only at this store. Photo by Minkah Makalani
A sign in Paris from the 1890s that advertised a small shop that sold products from the colonies. Photo by Minkah Makalani

It is, however, in founding freedom through Haitian constitutionalism that Roberts’s treatment of sociogenic marronage encounters the problem of sovereignty. I do not believe that the sociogenic necessarily leads to the sovereign. Rather, in its slippage from discussing the Haitian Revolution to discussing Haiti, Roberts’s analysis encounters certain analytical and empirical problems. If marronage is a “multidimensional, constant act of flight,” it is not entirely clear that Haitian constitutionalism, even if understood as the founding of freedom, does not itself become the normative political act of founding a nation-state. To be sure, one could argue that the grounding of Haitian constitutionalism is a notion of political blackness that resolved the paradox in the Rights of Man, which could be seen in the 1817 Deep Nine case or the 1824 emigration of African Americans to the island. In both instances, Haiti protected the inalienable rights of black people outside its juridical purview, though to do so required a revisions to the 1805 Haitian Constitution (in 1816 and 1818) that departed from Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ subordination of the Haitian masses’ non-sovereign action into his own sovereignty, appointing himself governor for life, and later Emperor Jacques I. Roberts does not ignore that the “mixture of state-as-empire and leader-as-creole-royalist bears a strong resemblance to sovereign marronage and its discontents,” though he might have pursued the implications of this insight further (p. 131). One wonders whether sociogenic marronage encounters its limit with the nation-state? Is the nation-state an arena available to the practice of a dynamic, multidimensional freedom, or does it foreclose the possibility of freedom as marronage? Is it merely coincidental that Emperor Jacques I was followed by Henri I, King of Haiti? Or were these symptoms of the early Caribbean postcolony, the earliest iteration of what Aaron Kamugisha calls the coloniality of citizenship?10

These questions in one way mark a disagreement with the case that Roberts makes for marronage as a more profound conceptualization of freedom. Nevertheless, as suggested by his treatment of Glissant (the chapter where his engagement with Sylvia Wynter comes into focus) and Rastafari, they register my sense that the slippage between the Haitian Revolution and Haiti missed an opportunity to interrogate the nation-state as an interruption of marronage. In my reading, the analytical and political purchase of sociogenic marronage is that it amplifies the Fanonian impulse behind C.L.R. James’s observations about the maroons. For James, freedom involved the masses having an active role in ordering their cultural, social, and political world. The maroons in the mountains, as Roberts work shows, pursued what Fanon called the “real leap…of introducing invention into life.” If we can see freedom as marronage as issuing, at least in part, from the actions of those in Ayiti, then something of the world Fanon was after comes into view, a world continuously constituting itself, or as Fanon might say, a world where we are “endlessly creating” ourselves.11

  1. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Inc. 1976), 230.
  2. Ibid., 297.
  3. For James’s statement about Haitian maroons, see the documentary, W. A. R.: Walter Anthony Rodney (2011), at the minute mark 10:38.
  4. Barnor Hesse, “Escaping Liberty: Western Hegemony, Black Fugitivity,” Political Theory 42, no. 3 (2014): 288-313.
  5. Angela Davis, Lectures on Liberation (Los Angeles: National United Committee to Free Angela Davis, 1971), 4.
  6. Nelson Maldonado-Torres, After War: Views from the Underside of Modernity (Duke University Press, 2008), 7.
  7. C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins (Vintage Books, 1963), 420, 288.
  8. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (Grove Press, 2008), xv.
  9. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future (Penguin, 2006), 151.
  10. Aaron Kamugisha, “The Coloniality of Citizenship in the Contemporary Anglophone Caribbean,” Race & Class 49 (October 2007): 20-40.
  11. Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 204.
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