New Book: Neil Roberts’ Freedom as Marronage


Freedom as Marronage by Neil Roberts. University of Chicago Press, 2015

From the press:

What is the opposite of freedom? In Freedom as Marronage, Neil Roberts answers this question with definitive force: slavery, and from there he unveils powerful new insights on the human condition as it has been understood between these poles. Crucial to his investigation is the concept of marronage—a form of slave escape that was an important aspect of Caribbean and Latin American slave systems. Examining this overlooked phenomenon—one of action from slavery and toward freedom—he deepens our understanding of freedom itself and the origin of our political ideals.
Roberts examines the liminal and transitional space of slave escape in order to develop a theory of freedom as marronage, which contends that freedom is fundamentally located within this space—that it is a form of perpetual flight. He engages a stunning variety of writers, including Hannah Arendt, W. E. B. Du Bois, Angela Davis, Frederick Douglass, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the Rastafari, among others, to develop a compelling lens through which to interpret the quandaries of slavery, freedom, and politics that still confront us today. The result is a sophisticated, interdisciplinary work that unsettles the ways we think about freedom by always casting it in the light of its critical opposite.

Lawrie Balfour, University of Virginia
Freedom as Marronage is an exciting, well-conceived, and passionately argued work of political theory and Africana thought. Roberts’s distinctive understanding of freedom is especially welcome in the context of political theory and philosophy, where slavery still appears largely (if at all) as either a metaphor or a signpost of moral and political progress. As he shows, thinking through the legacies of enslavement and the flight from it is essential to understanding freedom in a postcolonial, post-apartheid, post-civil rights moment.”
Charles W. Mills, Northwestern University
“Could there be a topic in Western political theory as thoroughly analyzed—indeed as exhausted—as freedom? But it all depends on whose liberties have been framing your conceptual investigation. Taking up the perspective of the ‘dread history’ of Afro-modernity—a history of slavery, revolt, and marronage—Roberts opens up for us an exciting new conceptual terrain unexplored by the hegemonic Euro-narrative. In the process, he makes irrefutably clear the extent to which modern Western political theory has been constructed on the silencing of the voices of resistance of the West’s subordinated racial Others.”
Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination
Freedom as Marronage is not only an illuminating exegesis on the self-activity of enslaved people to create free space for living but an utterly brilliant meditation on the fundamental meaning of freedom in the modern world. Political theorists, historians, philosophers, and cultural critics take heed: Roberts is a thinker to be reckoned with.”
Lewis R. Gordon, University of Connecticut, Université Toulouse Jean Jaurès, and Rhodes University
“In Freedom as Marronage, Roberts insists that a new theory of freedom emerges from the Haitian Revolution, but each instance of formulating this new thought seems to demonstrate, instead, a more rigorousapplication of the tenets of freedom and fraternity in the French Revolution. Where there is a difference is through dynamics of creolization, of African, European, and indigenous American conceptions of legitimating practices in the struggle for freedom. That the Black slaves chose, for example, the Native American name for the island as the one for their republic is a case in point. Roberts responds to and builds on these criticisms through theoretical reflection on the concept ofmarronage, whose etymology points to the sea, to what it means to be lost at sea from one perspective, stuck on an island in another. It refers to the consciousness of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, whose hopes to return to Africa (home) were challenged by the sea in every direction. Roberts shows how, in such modern isolation on the one hand and the constant, brutal realities of slavery on the other, the enslaved’s conceptions of freedom were affected; would, for example, being marooned, being ‘stranded,’ lead to a form of stoic resignation as the formulation of freedom or more active forms of resistance, what the revolutionary psychiatrist, political theorist, and philosopher Frantz Fanon refers to as becoming ‘actional’? Roberts works through Hannah Arendt, Phillip Petit, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Frederick Douglass in a debate over such topics as the impact of racialized slavery on conceptions of freedom to problems with the dialectics of recognition as the basis of securing freedom and dignity for the self.  Particularly powerful is Roberts’s discussion of Coleridge’s impact on Douglass’s thought. Roberts reveals, in Coleridge, a profound existential commitment against bondage and an understanding of freedom that transcends mere liberty. This book, then, is an exemplar of the creolization of theory, of theory from the global south reaching beyond the institutional location of its author in northern provinces, to articulate freedom and the quest for human dignity beyond the confines of Euromodernity to the heart and soul of a human world in need of learning much from its always present dark side. It’s a splendid addition to the bourgeoning movement of creative political thought from Afro-modernity and beyond. A must read for those interested in knowing, proverbially, otherwise.”

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