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Massimiliano Tomba: Insurgent Universality and the Question of Human Rights

Passive juridical citizen or agentic human being? This was one of the political and ideological tensions explored by Massimiliano Tomba, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Padova, in his presentation ‘Insurgent Universality’ on November 6th at the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) seminar.

Passive juridical citizen or agentic human being? This was one of the political and ideological tensions explored by Massimiliano Tomba, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Padova, in his presentation ‘Insurgent Universality’ on November 6th at the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) seminar. The room was filled to capacity with faculty and students eager to hear Professor Tomba speak, and on his birthday no less (Happy Birthday!).

Dr. Tomba presented two starkly distinct notions of human rights, as inscribed in the French Revolution’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and in the far more radical reworking of this document in 1793, the latter never officially adopted in France. Dr. Tomba explained that the 1789 declaration instantiates a type of juridical “universalism,” in which individuals have rights (e.g. life, liberty, property) that are protected by governments, but which have “limitations,” and can easily be suspended in the interest of “public order and national security,” economic interest, war, or states of declared emergency. In contrast, the 1793 declaration, written by the Jacobins, specifies no limits, instead writing that these freedoms “cannot be suspended, forbidden, nor limited.” The 1793 document emerged from an ongoing process of what Dr. Tomba calls insurgent universality, embodied in the radical praxis of slaves, women, and the poor during the French and Haitian Revolutions.french rev

While the 1789 document safeguards the natural right to “resist oppression,” it also regards resistance to the law as an offense, as the law is taken to be the direct expression of the people’s will. The 1793 declaration does not take this for granted, however, averring that the law must be the expression of the will of the people. Furthermore, one of the most radical articles in the 1793 declaration states “When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people and for each portion of the people the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.” Here, any portion of the people (not just elected representatives) can act as “representatives” of the whole people by rebelling on their behalf. Dr. Tomba argued the poor, women, and slaves at the time did not merely claim the privilege to belong to an unjust order, but rather practiced “disbelonging” to “disorder” the existing unjust order. This is an example of people acting as “citizens” beyond the narrow legal boundaries of “citizenship,” as bestowed by the state.

Dr. Tomba concluded his lively talk by emphasizing that the 1789 framework sees people as passive subjects who lack agency and whose “universal” rights need protecting. On the contrary, the 1793 declaration promotes agentic praxis that may transcend the state and current political order. Given our current crisis of formal democracy in the US and globally, Dr. Tomba suggested that we think about this insurgent “path less travelled” (which is hardly mentioned in post WW2 thinking). In the wide-ranging question and answer session following the talk, discussion took up Marx’s interpretation of related issues of political, social, and human emancipation, as well as questions about the praxis involved in movements like Occupy Wall St., and even the question of animal rights and agency in relation to humans. One important part of the discussion was the question of the Reign of Terror in France as being related to the 1793 way of thinking. Dr. Tomba pointed out that the radical 1793 declaration was actually one of the first casualties of the Reign of Terror, as the new bourgeois state forcibly curtailed liberties amidst the foreign and civil war in France.

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.