Uncovering the Literature and History of US Slave Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp: An Archival Study at the University of Virginia

In thinking about marronage as an alternative to the more standard narrative of escape to the North that has been codified by the canonization of the slave narrative as the prevailing representation of the US slave experience, voice, and subjectivity, my research is guided by the following overarching questions: What happens to our understanding of slave resistance, collectivity, autonomy, and the geographic coordinates of freedom when we consider representations of maroon slaves and communities in antebellum US fiction?

Sean Gerrity

English Ph.D. Program
The Graduate Center, CUNY
Presented at the First Graduate Center Archival Research Conference
September 6, 2014

In the broadest sense, my proposed dissertation will examine representations of maroon slaves and maroon communities in antebellum United States fiction. By maroons I mean slaves who escaped their bondage and secluded themselves in the dense, inhospitable, and oftentimes nearly impenetrable swamps and forests of the southern United States, often for many years at a time or permanently. Instead of movements into free states, I am interested in lateral and southerly movements within slaveholding territory to places of relative autonomy where escaped slaves established lives for themselves within the juridical reach of the chattel slavery system but outside of its immediate terror, control, and white domination.

In thinking about marronage as an alternative to the more standard narrative of escape to the North that has been codified by the canonization of the slave narrative as the prevailing representation of the US slave experience, voice, and subjectivity, my research is guided by the following overarching questions: What happens to our understanding of slave resistance, collectivity, autonomy, and the geographic coordinates of freedom when we consider representations of maroon slaves and communities in antebellum US fiction? How do these representations challenge critically entrenched notions of the means for slave freedom as they are articulated by the canonization of the slave narrative and its coupling of literacy with liberty? How do representations of marronage offer alternative ways of imagining the experience of enslavement and the routes to and means of slave freedom and autonomy in antebellum African American writing and writing about enslaved African Americans? By pursuing these questions I aim to complicate the North/South, free/unfree binaristic geographical axis through which enslaved and emancipated black subjectivities have predominantly been imagined in US literary and cultural studies.

I arrived at the archives of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia looking for literary and historical sources related to marronage in Virginia. In particular, I was interested in the Great Dismal Swamp region, estimated to have consisted of over one million acres spanning southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina before human activities like logging, shingle making, and canal building interrupted the ecosystem. A critical consensus exists suggesting that the Great Dismal Swamp was probably home to the highest concentration of maroons at any given time between the colonial and antebellum periods. But the structure of the archive reproduces nineteenth-century strategies for denying the existence of maroons in the United States. By this I mean that the search terms “maroon” and “marronage” will only yield results for twentieth-century secondary sources on maroons because Southerners deliberately avoided these terms when referring to the fugitive inhabitants of the swamps and forests around them. Maroon was a word already associated with militant runaway slave communities in places like Jamaica, Suriname, Haiti, Cuba, and Brazil in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries, and Southerners had no interest in drawing a parallel between these radically disruptive fugitives and the ones in their midst. Maroons were also ignored by Northern abolitionists, who preferred for a variety of reasons the compellingness and marketability of the slave narrative’s trajectory from descriptions of the brutality of slavery in the South to the advantages of freedom in the North. Thus, maroons only become legible in the archive when we learn to see through the semantic dissembling and deliberate ignorance that have obscured them from view.

This has meant first identifying search terms that will produce archival sources related to what we now call—and should properly be called—US maroons. Working backward from texts like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred, Martin Delany’s Blake, and antebellum periodical pieces by David Hunter Strother and Frederick Law Olmstead, among others, which deploy the vocabulary used by Southerners to obliquely describe maroons and their activities, I was able to assemble a preliminary list of such terms. Some examples are: bandit, banditti, truant, fugitive, runaway, outlier, depredations, skulking, and lurking, often in a Boolean search combination with swamp, forest, or “obscure places.” These searches began to produce results, though of course further vetting was needed since words like fugitive and runaway, in particular, were primarily used to refer to runaways in the conventional sense as opposed to maroons as I am defining them.

Some permutation of these terms, the specifics of which I cannot now recall, led me to a text I’d like to elaborate a bit on today, an 1856 play based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s second antislavery novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, published the same year. Entitled Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, A Drama in Four Acts, the work was authored by H.J. Conway, Esq. exclusively for the stage at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in Manhattan. The printed version of the play was released by New York based John W. Amerman Printers in 1856, and this was the original text I read. A bizarre marriage of an already strange and somewhat episodic, disjointed 600+ page novel featuring a heroically portrayed maroon insurrectionist; the rowdy, mass cultural appeal of Barnum’s entertainment industry; the blackface minstrelsy tradition that had been booming in New York since the 1840s; and the success of stage adaptations of Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this play’s existence was and remains rather mind boggling to me. It’s hard to imagine just how the crowd on the play’s opening night would have reacted to the titular character Dred clutching the mutilated body of a fellow bondsman who had been killed by slave hunters and proclaiming in unison with his maroon compatriots:

A Brother’s blood! A Brother’s blood,
By cruel white men slain!
Aloud to Heaven it sends a cry,
Shall it cry in vain?
    No, no, we swear, [Elevating their rifles]
    No, no, we swear,
Just vengeance we decree;
Blood for blood shall be our cry,
We swear on bended knee. [Thunder claps]

A low comedy part was written for some-time Barnum star General Tom Thumb, the “world-renowned and celebrated man in miniature,” whose likeness adorns the cover of the play. Nevertheless, the play is militantly antislavery and we are meant to sympathize with Dred’s plight in a an over the top, melodramatic death scene in which he calls for ruthless vengeance against slave masters and complicit Northerners who acquiesce to the South’s demands. The next stage of my research on the play will focus on its critical and popular reception, and it will be an integral part of my dissertation chapter that uses Dred as its set piece to initiate an exploration of the novel’s cultural work and its impact on the attitudes of the reading public and theater-going populations’ toward maroons and their experiences as a facet of US slavery. Maroons existed as a kind of open secret in Southern society, but citizens’ knowledge of them is harder to assess in the North. For me, this almost entirely forgotten and understudied play will serve as a generative start toward beginning to investigate these questions moving forward.

“Chronicles of Illustrious Women”: A Feminist Approach to the Spanish Conquest in the Americas

Challenging the dominant patriarchal narrative of the Spanish conquest in Latin America, Dr. Patricia Tovar’s project incorporates the history of women as wives, landowners, businesswomen, servants, warriors, foes and friends.

“Women’s studies are not just about women—but about the social systems and ideological schemata which sustain the domination of men over women within the other mutually inflecting regimes of power in the world, namely those of class and those of race.”

-Griselda Pollack, “Feminist Interventions in the Histories of Art: An Introduction.” In Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (Routledge: London, 1988), 1-17.


Challenging the dominant patriarchal narrative of the Spanish conquest in Latin America, Dr. Patricia Tovar’s project incorporates the history of women as wives, landowners, businesswomen, servants, warriors, foes and friends. Focusing in part on the geographic area of Santa Maria, a colonial settlement in present-day Columbia that lasted fifteen years, Tovar’s project recounts the conquest through the lens of Spanish, indigenous and enslaved women, joining several contemporary scholars (such as art historian David Lubin) who defy the conventional domestic or promiscuous portrayal of women in the early modern period.

On Thursday, Tovar introduced her talk by debunking common myths about the early conquest, including the one recounting that prostitutes, servants and indigenous women were the only women present in the New World. Tovar provided countless examples of women holding diverse positions in the Americas. One of the most striking stories is of Isabel de Barreto, a Spanish woman who led an expedition from Peru to the Philippines after her husband, the ship’s captain, died en route. Another one is Columbus’ official request for thirty women to travel on his fourth voyage to the Americas.

Deeply interested in cross-Atlantic relations and kinship, Tovar argues for women’s vital role in the settlement of the New World and their part in maintaining strong ties with ruling women of Spain. In fact, Bobadilla women in the New World were very close to Isabel de Castilla and are found in Latin American until today. While some Spanish women who traveled to the New World are romanticized in novels (one of the only currently available published texts about them), Tovar’s study brings to the fore primary documents—including contracts, passenger lists, travel documents, death registrations, requests to the crown, maps, chronicles of expeditions—that she consulted at the Casa de Contratación in Madrid. These reveal accounts about infidelity, adultery, and requests for funds.


Within the feminist sphere, Tovar is also concerned with marginalized groups of women, including indentured and African slaves, and indigenous peoples. She described the caciques, women warriors who killed men, and fables of islands populated only by women. This multicultural focus adds a layer of complexity to her project; in fact, since Tovar is relying primarily on accounts by Spanish women, how will she draw an objective analysis of these further marginalized groups? During her talk, Tovar discussed the problematic sources, as they clearly reflect the women’s personal ambitions and relate conflicting stories. Some documents do shed light on this problem, such as one that discussed Spanish men being brought to justice for rapping enslaved women.


Throughout her talk, Tovar posed some guiding questions: How was gender and family organized during the conquest? How was femininity constructed in the New World? What were the relationships between marginal and dominant women in this contested space and at this time? It will indeed be very interesting to read Tovar’s socio-biographical narrative of these cross-cultural relationships.

Radical Archival Practices and the Digital Humanities: The Early Caribbean Digital Archive

As much as digital archives promise to make cultural materials accessible to broad audiences, they also present a danger of repeating the power structures that are implicit in the way many Western archives have traditionally been structured. In her talk Thursday, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon discussed a project that is attempting to avoid this reinscription: the Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s analysis of the archive as a means of knowledge production and on Ann Laura Stoler’s work on the epistemologies implicit in colonial records, Dillon made a case for a form of archive that deemphasizes the figure of the author, while encouraging a consideration of the complex relations between people, texts, and historical events.

As a way of illustrating some of the problematic features that archives can exhibit, Dillon discussed the Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) project. The SNAC Web site includes brief biographical notes about historical figures along with links to related texts in multiple databases. But, as Dillon points out, the people included in the SNAC database are almost all white men—a consequence, she argues, not just of the sources from which the archive draws, but also of the form that it takes. SNAC’s biographical records largely imitate the structure of administrative records, and the way the archive represents the relationships between people and primary texts—drawing a sharp distinction between “creator of” and “referenced in”—places an emphasis on the voices of people who were able to claim authoriality over published works. On account of this structure, the archive tends to privilege the voices of the colonizers over those of the colonized.

Dillon discussed two ways in which the ECDA project attempts to avoid repeating colonial power structures—remix and relationality. By remix, she refers to the idea that images and snippets of text can be presented in contexts that can challenge, rather than reflect, the intentions of the author. As an example, she discussed a story about a slave called Emanuel that appears in a book written by Sir Hans Sloane. According to Sloane, Emanuel feigns an illness, and although he deception is eventually found out, he manages to disrupt the activities of the slavers through the distraction he creates. While Sloane presumably meant the story as a demonstration of his own medical acumen, it can also be read as a demonstration of Emanuel’s knowledge of how to enact resistance against his oppressors. Remix, Dillon argues, offers a way of viewing material in a context that emphasizes the agency of people who are not the authors of primary texts.

3a207b871bd136aa454bf1f34ace3550The other strategy that Dillon discussed, relationality, allows for a more complex and polyvalent way of understanding the connections between persons and texts than the notion of authorship. One way ECDA emphasizes relationality is in its use of personography and placeography, the creation of informational records about persons, places, and the relationships between them. The project uses a data model that can account for anonymous persons as well as those represented in colonial records, and that places authors on equal footing with people who are only mentioned in texts.

Dillon concluded her talk by opening some theoretical questions about the possibility of escaping colonial epistemologies while employing digital technology, and the discussion continued in a similarly theoretical vein. Do the limitations of ECDA’s sources cause it to miss things? Are some of the problems that she discussed “baked in” to digital technologies? Dillon argued that scholarship about the Caribbean can take advantage of the fact that texts often say more than they mean to, which is what enables narratives like the one about Emanuel to be recontextualized as anti-colonial. In response to the question of whether computer technology is inherently problematic, she suggested that the humanities could play a central role in understanding the structures of power that are implicit in technologies. One way that we could do this would be by following the advice with which she ended her talk: that instead of treating a technology like a black box, digital humanists must ask who made the box and what it occludes.

Chad Goldberg on sociology of culture, Jewish studies, and collaboration

The following interview is with ARC Distinguished Visiting Fellow Chad Alan Goldberg, Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At UW-Madison Goldberg is also affiliated with European Studies, Jewish Studies, and the Mosse Program in History. His primary research interest is the historical sociology of citizenship, broadly understood to include the development of citizenship rights and duties over time, changing levels and forms of civic engagement and political participation, and shifting patterns of civil inclusion and exclusion. He is the author of Citizens and Paupers: Relief, Rights, and Race, from the Freedmen’s Bureau to Workfare (University of Chicago Press, 2008).


Question: Please tell us about your research project.

Answer: I’m completing a book that compares the portrayal and meaning of Jews in the French, German, and American sociological traditions from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. This is the discipline’s formative period, when its fundamental ideas first took shape. Those ideas were a response to the big upheavals that shook Western societies during the long nineteenth century from 1789 and 1914, including democratization, modern industrial capitalism, and urbanization. Sociology’s raison d’être was to interpret and explain the modern world that those upheavals produced. The thesis of my book is that ideas about the Jews formed an important part of the cultural toolkit with which classical sociologists constructed their understanding of modernity in an era of rapid social change. One chapter focuses on the perceived relationship of the Jews to the French Revolution within the French sociological tradition. Another chapter examines the perceived relationship of the Jews to modern industrial capitalism in the German tradition. A third chapter turns to the Chicago School of American sociology, where the key metaphor of modernity was neither democracy nor industrial capitalism, but the city, partly conceived by reference to Jewish immigrants as a quintessentially urban people. I plan to conclude with a chapter that highlights the relevance and implications of the study for the present, particularly in regard to how modernity and European and American identities are defined today.


Q. What is about this research most excites you?

A: I started this project thinking I’d draw on expertise I already have: at the University of Wisconsin, I’ve been teaching classical sociological theory for years, and I’ve been affiliated with Jewish Studies for nearly as long. But in fact, I’ve learned an enormous amount in the course of researching and writing the book. It’s always exciting to have your intellectual horizons expanded that way, and ARC has been a big part of it. My project connects in one way or another to all three of this year’s themes—immigration, inequality, and religion—and my conversations with other fellows and with faculty at the Graduate Center have really stimulated my thinking in fruitful ways. The meaning of American and European modernity today is still constructed in relation to out-groups. New minority groups make up part of that dynamic today; immigration scholars at ARC have provided engaging conversation on this subject, particularly on the importance of Muslim immigrants in Europe. At the same time, I don’t think that Jews have disappeared as a touchstone. At the end of my book I want to draw out these contemporary resonances from my research. Overall, I suggest that we need to not just reflect on the past but to historicize ourselves as contemporary inquirers, regardless of our discipline.


Q: How is this research interdisciplinary?

A: I believe the book will have strong interdisciplinary appeal: it engages scholarship in sociology, Jewish studies, and history, and it is also relevant for scholars in anthropology, cultural studies, and European and American studies. I hope that it will provide some insight and inspiration to other scholars interested in broadly similar questions about the formation of the social sciences, the representation of out-groups, and the uses to which those representations have been put.


Q: What broad implications does this research present for your field?

A: The book is intended both as a study of social theory and as a study in the sociology of ideas. On the one hand, it aims to advance our understanding of classical social theory by situating it more fully in the historical and social context in which it was produced. I want to expand our view of that context to encompass conversations and arguments about the Jews (including depictions that circulated in the public sphere and negative stereotypes promoted by antisemitic and nativist movements), which in my view is an aspect of the context of classical sociology which has not yet been adequately explored. (An important step in that direction is Antisemitism and the Constitution of Sociology, an edited volume to which I contributed a chapter that the University of Nebraska Press will publish this summer.) On the other hand, my project also aims to contribute to the sociology of culture by identifying patterns in how classical sociologists discussed Jews and Judaism, accounting for those patterns, and showing how recurring patterns in social thought (in this case, about Jews) are reproduced over time.


Q: How have your time and experiences at the Advanced Research Collaborative influenced your work?

A: Thanks to the generous support of ARC, I’ve been able to complete a 24,000-word chapter (including notes and references) of my book-in-progress. I’ve also completed two related articles, one submitted to the journal Jewish Social Studies and another commissioned by the editors of the Enzyklopädie jüdischer Geschichte und Kultur. ARC provided valuable time, library resources, and most importantly, opportunities to share and discuss my work with its director Don Robotham, other fellows, and regular CUNY faculty in a creative, intellectually vibrant, interdisciplinary environment. For example, an informal discussion over lunch with another fellow, Mauricio Pietrocola, about the role of cultural schemas in education—a topic seemingly unrelated to my own—helped me to conceptualize the transmission of the intellectual influences about which I’m writing. My work has really benefited from these cross-disciplinary exchanges, and I hope I’ve contributed in equal measure to others’ work. I particularly enjoyed working with the student fellows, who are embarking on interesting and innovative work of their own. Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t express my gratitude for the very helpful and capable Assistant Program Officer Alida Rojas and Ally Murphy, without whom my time would not have been nearly as productive or enjoyable.


Q: What’s next? Or what other projects are you working on concurrently?

A: Once this project is completed, I’d like to embark on an intellectual biography of Horace Kallen, a twentieth-century American intellectual best known as the architect of cultural pluralism in the Progressive era. This is an interest that partly comes out of my chapter on the American sociological tradition. I’m interested in exploring how Kallen negotiated the tension between his commitment to cultural pluralism and the ideal of a common democratic culture promoted by the American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who exercised an important intellectual influence on him. It seems to me that we’re still struggling with that tension today, so a historical study of Kallen’s thought would very much speak to contemporary concerns.


Q: Finally, where do you hope your field is headed? What do you look forward to seeing more of?

A: Sociology is a very big tent, and it’s pulled in competing directions because like all social sciences it occupies an intermediary position between the “hard” sciences and the humanities. As a result, sociology is always galloping off in multiple directions at once. But I hope my work will encourage younger scholars to see the value of the discipline’s historical and humanistic wing and to take up that kind of social inquiry.

The Crisis in the University

Universities have long enjoyed the pre-eminent position in the social life of cities and, more generally, in the modern public imagination. The 1962 Port Huron Statement, which became one of the founding documents of the Students for a Democratic Society, aptly expresses this view:

The university is located in a permanent position of social influence.
Its educational function makes it indispensable and automatically
makes it a crucial institution in the formation of social attitudes. In
an unbelievably complicated world, it is the central institution for
organizing, evaluating, and transmitting knowledge…. Social rele-
vance, the accessibility to knowledge, and internal openness — these
together make the university a potential base and agency in the
movement of social change.

Do universities still hold this position?

Professor Don Mitchell’s talk “Social Justice and the Sausage Factory: Struggles in and over the University in the US and UK” revolved around the paradoxical situation that universities find themselves in within cities in the present. Are universities still a social force for public good within cities, or, are they increasingly turning into capitalist entities? Based on a collaborative project to study universities across four different urban contexts in the US (Denver/Boulder, Oakland/Berkeley) and UK (Manchester, Glasgow), Mitchell argued that universities continue to be an important social force, but they are redefining the ‘public good’ in the process. Universities remain a social force because there is an ever-increasing flow of teachers and students into urban communities, and the rising student protest is reshaping the urban public sphere. However, amid declining public support for universities, which has intensified under the neoliberal recession, these historic sites of political organizing have tried to reinvent their social relevance by emphasizing commitment to community engagement and socially-engaged scholarship. In reality, though, as Mitchell pointed out, these goals are sometimes neither concretely defined nor seriously practiced.

Women in a sausage factory
“A schoolmaster is a productive labourer when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his scholars, he works like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, does not alter the relation” –Karl Mark, Capital, Vol 1


Declining public support has combined with massive transformation within the university culture over the last two decades, resulting in the evacuation of the autonomy that allowed these institutions to perform their social function in society. These transformations, according to Mitchell, include an increased push for professorial productivity, the proliferation of online courses, overemphasis on the “student experience” (leading to massive diversion of funds to non-essential services), instrumentalization of research, etc. Financial considerations determine these changes more than social needs. In cities, where universities historically acted as public forums—aside from being economic engines that provided employment and brought business to local economies—universities are now beginning to close themselves off to local communities by redefining universities as “non-public forums”.

The discussion that followed Mitchell’s talk further interrogated the crisis that universities are facing. Comments ranged from how, despite corporatization, universities remained the only Left public spaces in the US to how this crisis might just be a British-American phenomenon. Commentators further asked if the neoliberal restructuring of universities had shifted the emphasis within the universities from the academic imperatives to the administrative-financial ones. Mitchell, speaking from his own experience as a member of the board of trustees at the Syracuse University, pointed out that university administrators too had little control over the broad direction that the universities were taking.

While the optimism of the talk and the discussion was quite helpful in conceptualizing why universities remain enormously important within cities, a few observations might point to why we need to worry more than ever about the transformation of universities. First, on the question of universities redefining  the ‘public good’, for instance, one can extend Mitchell’s argument to see how the transformation of universities, more than just causing a crisis within these institutions, might in fact be putting them in direct confrontation with local communities, especially in poorer neighborhoods. For instance, Columbia University’s plans to expand into Manhattanville in West Harlem, its demand for exclusive control of the site and ultimate pursuit of eminent domain, has sought to destroy local businesses instead of bringing business to the neighborhood. The university officials saw the local businesses as an “urban blight” that stood in the way of New York City’s knowledge-based economy—a much-touted public good.[1] This is a wider issue, and not specific to a single university. Second, while it is certainly true that the flow of teachers and students into the urban community keeps universities vitally important as a social force, there are also unhealthy trends, like the complicity of institutions, departments of economics and individual academics in establishing and maintaining neoliberal hegemony.[2] David Harvey has expressed this failure of universities in the following manner:

The current populations of academicians, intellectuals and experts in the social sciences and humanities are by and large ill-equipped to undertake the collective task of revolutionizing our knowledge structures. They have, in fact, been deeply implicated in the construction of the new systems of neoliberal governmentality that evade questions of legitimacy and democracy and foster a technocratic authoritarian politics.  Few seem predisposed to engage in self-critical reflection. Universities continue to promote the same useless courses on neo classical economic or rational choice political theory as if nothing has happened and the vaunted business schools simply add a course or two on business ethics or how to make money out of other people’s bankruptcies.[3]

Finally, universities have begun to falter on even their basic promise: that they are a vehicle for upward social mobility. As the army of underpaid adjuncts grows,[4] more and more students find it harder to get decent jobs.[5] The crisis is acute in humanities and social sciences. Instead of finding ways to generate support and sustenance for these critical domains of knowledge, we hear exasperation and calls to reduce the support further,[6] or desperate calls from within the academy to move toward non-academic careers.

Given these crises, it is perhaps not easy to determine if universities will be able to make a turnaround or not. Perhaps the bright spot in this grim scenario is that this has been an ongoing affair for over a century now. Corporatization of universities is not new, but it is unlikely that it is ever going to be complete. We might have to contend with the fact that universities might be less than singular forces for social justice, yet they are more than just sausage factories.


[1] For a detailed study of Columbia University’s plan and its consequences, see Steven Gregory (2013) “The Radiant University: Space, Urban Redevelopment, and the Public Good”, City and Society, 25(1): 47–69.
[2] For more on this see John Brissenden “The Academy is the Crisis” http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/the_academy_is_the_crisis[2]
[4] See James Hoff (2014) “Are adjunct professors the fast-food workers of the academic world?”, The Guardian, 24 January. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/24/exploitation-of-adjunct-professors-devalues-higher-education[4]
[5] For instance, read this recent personal account, Patrick Iber (2014) “(Probably) Refusing to Quit” http://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2014/03/10/essay-about-inability-find-tenure-track-job-academe
[6] See Edward Conard (2013) “We don’t need more humanities majors”, The Washington Post, July 30. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/innovations/wp/2013/07/30/we-dont-need-more-humanities-majors/

Storytelling as Resistance

From chapter 5 of her upcoming book, Dr. Fernandes’ talk centers around the increasing use of storytelling as a campaign strategy for social movements. As she explains, “stories are constructed in ways that promote reconciliation, provide a therapeutic release for the teller, and win sympathy in media circles, among politicians, and the broader public.” In precise details, Fernandes weaves through the ways in which storytelling was invoked in organizing meetings, public hearings and in press conferences throughout the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights campaign. A much watered down bill was passed in 2010 guaranteeing the same basic rights as other workers. Despite its modest legislative success, Fernandes is concerned that the involvement of funders, coaches and advocacy groups in framing of the stories to win legislators over represents a retrenchment from the kind of (more confrontational?) organizing work needed to change the conditions for immigrant workers.

Many interesting points were raised during the Q&A: How effective is storytelling when much of the legislative negotiations tend to happen behind close doors between powerful stakeholders? How does the actual labor process of domestic work, where emotions play a significant role in the employer-employee dynamic, complicate campaign strategies? More broadly, is storytelling part of a larger cultural pattern in American society that valorizes the presentation of the “self” (e.g. reality TV shows, facebook, instagram, selfies)? If we agree on this point, then isn’t storytelling a manifestation of the liberal, and by extension, the neoliberal trope that the “self” must be worked on? This is particularly salient in the framing of victimization in individual stories to win over legislators and the public, as if to suggest only in extreme individual hardships can we make claims for social change.

Still, concerns were also raised over the use of the “American Dream” narrative in stories and public outreach. The idea that these domestic workers work hard and play by the rules and thus deserve basic human dignity effectively appeals to a broader sentiment, but, it also creates a distinction between “good” and “bad” immigrants, sectioning off a certain group to be the undeserving. Indeed, this contradiction speaks to Fernandes’ claim that perhaps storytelling represents the narrowing of space for which social movement work can operate, where the moral high ground is fought over individual troubles and injustices

Not all hope is lost though. The domestic workers campaign effectively brought these private troubles at home/work into the public consciousness. This is particularly relevant to my own research on undocumented Chinese restaurant workers who share some similar working conditions – small family-owned businesses, labor exploitation, abusive treatment, low wages and having to live in the shadows. I share in Fernandes’ interest in thinking through how political subjectivity is formed and in critically analyzing organizing strategies, even when they have progressive intentions. In the end, my take away message is that we should continue to be critical of the ways in which neoliberal thought can mutate and reappear, while keenly aware that we don’t operate in conditions of our own choosing.