Distraction Free Reading

Black Geographies: New Maroon Studies and the Politics of Place

Jamaican Maroons are the descendants of Africans who escaped enslavement on plantations in the early colonial period. Mentions of the Maroons in the colonial record begin around 1655, when the British, having routed the Spanish from Jamaica, started facing fierce guerrilla resistance from groups of Africans who had established free communities in the hills. The Maroon population grew as frequent revolts on the plantations facilitated the flight to freedom in the hills. The British unsuccessfully tried to subdue the Maroons by force of arms. Ultimately, they signed peace treaties with the leaders of the two main Maroon groups in 1739. The treaties included land grants and recognition of Maroon autonomy, but also included stipulations that the Maroons help capture runaways and subdue revolts in the future.

Studies of the Maroons have focused on their credentials as black freedom fighters: scholars disagree on whether the Maroons are heroes or traitors. I view this hero-traitor bifurcation as an analytical trap, one into which many writers have fallen. It is a trap because it encourages limited analysis beyond either a romanticized defense of the Maroons’ accomplishments, or a denunciation of their inconsistency. Given this hero-traitor characterization, many view the Maroons ambivalently or choose to focus on aspects of their cultural history that are considered peculiar, such as their linguistics or spiritual practices. Among the crucial areas of research elided due to the hero-traitor trap is Maroon spatial politics, the geographies of maroonage.

The spatial politics of the Maroons and their geographic sensibilities promise entirely new lines of research for examining the nature of maroonage. Such an approach would shed light on the ways in which the Maroons took place and continue to take place in their contemporary struggles for recognition and territorial rights. Taking place, here, means how the Maroons positioned themselves and were (and are still) positioned by others in material and symbolic space—or, put differently, how the Maroons affect the conceptualization and contestation of space. Positioning the Maroons as agents who make competing spatial claims and whose actions have spatial consequences would make clear the ways in which the Maroons and their communities, as physical and symbolic plots of land, have shaped Jamaica’s national and subnational geographies. This means considering the Maroons as spatial laborers, examining their spatial grammars, and charting geographic histories of the Maroon communities as distinctive spaces. The emerging scholarship in Black Geographies has great purchase for such a research program of mapping maroonage.

a picture of the forested landscape surround Accompong, Jamaica, one of the major Maroon communities on the island

View of the rugged Cockpit Country surrounding Accompong, one of the major Maroon Communities in Jamaica (photo by the author)

The key insight of Black Geographies scholarship has been the clarification of a Black sense of place: an understanding of place that is tied to Black experiences in the very places that are often deemed uninhabitable or unfit for human habitation. As a critical geographic methodology and emergent body of scholarship, Black Geographies focuses on Black spatial agency and poetics. These provide glimpse of the creative expressions of Black spatial knowledges, geographic desires, and placemaking practices. Black Geographies also challenges traditional geographic treatment of Black experiences as simple and transparent or reducible to transatlantic movement as cargo. Black Geographies, therefore, helps scholars examine how Black spatial experiences and expressions critique antiblack socio-spatial violence and (under)development, as well as analyze how Black life flourishes in settings designed to capture or subdue it. In doing so, Black Geographies discloses the rich processes of Black socio-cultural and spatial reproduction through the developing of kinship, articulating of Black agency, and exhibiting of social ethics, all of which escape the enclosures of slavery, underdevelopment, and traditional human geographies.

Importantly, Black Geographies is not just for geographers. While Black Geographies insists on attention to spatial theories and black human geographies, as an approach to scholarship, it can provide an epistemology and methodology for scholars of human-environment relations and politics, broadly speaking. Indeed, Black Geographies has emerged from quarters outside of formal geography.

In this regard, the work of Sylvia Wynter is particularly noteworthy. Wynter’s work offers a number of concepts that are rather brilliant for both their purchase as a framework of mapping maroonage, and how they can be used by scholars across disciplines. One of these concepts is ‘the plot.’ Wynter (1971) develops an analytic of the plot through theorizing the relationship between slave provisioning grounds and plantations, a relationship that parallels that of the novel and non-fictional historical writing. Wynter argues that

The novel form reflects [the] critical and oppositional stance to a process of alienation which had begun to fragment the very human community, without which the writer has neither purpose, nor source material, nor view of the world nor audience. The novel form, a product of the market economy, its exchange structure, its individual here set free to realize his individuality by the ‘liberal’ values of individualism, linked to the very existence of the market system, nevertheless, instead of expressing the values of the market society, develops and expands as a form of resistance to this very market society. In effect, the novel form and the novel is critique of the very historical process which has brought it to such heights of fulfilment” (Wynter 1971, 97).

The plot is a space both material and symbolic. It emerged as the ground on which Black subsistence took place, and represented the space of Black freedom and self-nourishing. The plot and the plantation sit in tension, and there is ambivalence and possibility in this tension. The plot is a demonic ground, which refers to

a frame of reference which parallels the ‘demonic models’ posited by physicists who seek to conceive of a vantage point outside the space-time orientation of the humuncular observer. This would be, in or case, in the context of our specific socio-human realities, a ‘demonic model’ outside the ‘consolidated field’ of our present mode of being/feeling/knowing, as well as of the multiple discourses, there regulatory systems of meaning and interpretive ‘readings’ through which alone these modes as wearing expressions of human “life”, including ours can effect their respective autopoiesis as such specific modes of being. (Wynter 1990, 364)

Wynter’s form of Black Geographies shows how to map the Maroons by examining the socio-natures reproduced by their actions and the state’s reactions. This does not elide attention to the contested nature of either the Maroons’ or the state’s actions. Maroon plots come into view, then, as not only socio-political plots—constituted by the strategies of connivance, resistance, accommodation—by which the Maroons maneuvered a terrain of power, but as affective domains where African diaspora life was staged and given space. Situating these spaces in the Atlantic, especially the Black Atlantic, shows how Maroons shaped the shifting geographies of empire, economic development, cartographic projects, and imaginaries of space. These spaces where the Maroons (as fugitive or hero, or however else conceived) stayed put are imbricated with spatial meaning and the Maroons’ experiences of geographies of state building, race, and environmental transformation. These elements of spatial consciousness of life on the Maroon plots have not been knowable from traditional studies. Mapping maroonage attends to the view from the demonic grounds of Maroon plots.

What Black Geographies helps us see in the context of maroonage—namely the complicated spatial practices of Maroons in the context of empire—offers broader insights for scholars of race, space, and human-environmental relations more generally. Black Geographies calls human-environment scholars to notice how affect and embodiment are wrapped up in space-making, and how an attunement to black spatial agency and poetics reveals racialized space as both a technology of oppression and a space of potential.

References

Wynter, Sylvia. 1990. “Beyond Miranda’s meanings: Un/silencing the ‘demonic ground’of Caliban’s woman.” In Out of the Kumbla: Caribbean women and literature, edited by Carol Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido, 355-372. Trenton, NJ: Africa World.

Wynter, Sylvia. 1971. “Novel and history, plot and plantation.” Savacou 5: 95–102.

Further reading
Bledsoe, Adam, Latoya E. Eaves, and Brian Williams. 2017. ‘Introduction: Black geographies in and of the United States South.’ Southeastern Geographer 57 (1): 6-11.

McKittrick, Katherine. 2006. Demonic grounds: Black women and the cartographies of struggle. University of Minnesota Press.

McKittrick, Katherine, and Clyde A, Woods (eds). 2007. Black geographies and the politics of place. South End Press.

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