Radiant Ephemera: Abolition In The Archives Of Atlantic Slavery, 1785–1865
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the expansion of humanitarian movements to end legalized chattel slavery coincided with the emergence of liberalism as the ideological foundation of Anglo-American political economy. In this context, the emancipatory demands that self-described abolitionists made on behalf of enslaved people remained in the horizon of liberal subjectivity, equating black liberation with transit from servitude to self-possession and from legal non-personhood to citizenship. However, this transit did not introduce the once-enslaved to a condition of substantial freedom. Rather, it renewed their fungibility and exploitability, reattaching them to adaptive regimes of racial capital accumulation as destitute proprietors of nothing but their own labor. In this dissertation, I suggest that black diasporans in the United States and the British Caribbean anticipated this failure of political imagination. I recover the heterodox theories and practices of abolition that enslaved, freed, and fugitive black people generated in their writings and their everyday lives. Reading autobiographies, gallows confessions, slave conspiracies, stories of marronage, and works of fiction, I illustrate that these subjects critiqued the proprietorial genre of freedom embraced by liberal abolitionists and, moreover, crafted their own visions of life apart from slavery rooted in the refusal of that freedom, and of proprietorship in all forms. Neglected in prior literary and historical studies of black lives in the early Americas, their ephemeral visions of black thriving are radiant flashpoints in an alternative history of abolition. It is the history, I argue, of a movement among the enslaved and their accomplices not to outlaw slavery and become workers or peasants, but rather to abandon racial capitalism, to make present other worlds unmarred by that system’s enabling constructs.