Diasporic Politics and “What It Means to Write About Black Lives in #VastEarlyAmerica”

Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library under Creative Commons License

Black life in vast early America was molded by a politic of survival that allowed diasporas to adapt, resist, and constitute new life in the violent colonial landscape. Torn from their natal homes, kith, and kin, diasporas recreated new means of belonging and community to avert the threat of social death amidst the changing colonial currents. Spanish Jamaica’s autonomous Afro-ladino communities exemplify the activation of Black survival politics during the Anglo-Spanish imperial contest for the island in the 1650s. The English invasion of 1655 collapsed Spanish colonial society and introduced an opportunity for the island’s Afro-ladinos to create isolated communities or Palenques in the interior hinterland. Some Palenques aided Spanish efforts to defend the island. The Guanaboa Valepalenque led by  Juan Lubolosided with the English, while many others sought to preserve their isolated autonomy. Significantly, Juan Lubolo’s alignment with the English undermined the Spanish defensive campaign, resulting in an English victory. That said, continued Afro-ladino resistance posed by other palenques contested English conquest and limited colonial expansion for another two decades. By the close of the seventeenth century, enslaved runaways drew on this contested geography and formed the island’s notable Windward and Leeward Maroon societies. The case of Jamaica’s seventeenth-century Afro-ladinos is an example of the dynamism of Black freedom practice and how such practices shaped the trajectories of vast early America’s colonial landscape.

Early Black resistance took on many different forms, adopting all sorts of strategies to define meaningful notions of freedom. They ranged from everyday acts of subversion, to flight,  to organized revolt. Black resistance also encompassed performing a sense of bodily autonomy and self-determination in a world that sought to lay a claim over Black life. Freedom was not just a destination to be granted through manumission politics. Instead, it was a practice of survival that aimed at both inhabiting and (re)imaging a secure mode of Black life against the threat of colonial violence, dispossession, and social death. For Juan Lubolo and his palenque, this meant negotiating with the English to protect the interests of his community. For instance, in exchange for admittance into English subjecthood, the treaty stipulated that Juan Lubolo would aid the English expedition force to defeat the Spanish and other non-aligned Afro-ladino palenques. Likewise, some palenques aided the Spanish in exchange for provisions and goods to provide for their communities. Many others also maintained complete autonomy, such as those in the islands remote windward and Leeward hinterland regions hoping to avoid the entire inter-imperial conflict altogether. These different means of adapting, resisting, and surviving show the elasticity of Black freedom practice that was simultaneously contingent, murky, and dynamic.  

Indeed, early black’ freedom practice(s) form the roots of a larger genealogy of Black resistance. At the core of this tradition is the critical question of how to secure and inhabit a liberated mode of Black life such as that posed by today’s #BlackLivesMatter Movement. Likewise, the case of Spanish Jamaica’s Afro-ladinos sheds light on the various means lack people  sought to address this question. The concept of #VastEarlyAmerica is undoubtedly important. It expands our understanding of this early period beyond the thirteen colonies’ geographic confines by emphasizing a broader interconnected and integrated hemisphere via the incorporation of Latin American, Caribbean, and greater Atlantic historiographies. Writing about Black lives in #VastEarlyAmerica turns us to this question of the liberated Black subject in this vast colonial landscape(s). What does freedom look like, and how is it practiced? Furthermore, what were the stakes involved in pursuing and securing a liberated mode of Black life?  The boundaries and limits of imperial power did not reflect the geographic extent of Black freedom practice. 

The rich legacy of Black freedom practice drew me to study and write about how my ancestors radically resisted, adapted, and forged new identities as a politic of surviving slavery.  Despite the relentless violence of enslavers and the colonial state, enslaved men and women continuously (re)invented different methods and mediums to assert their existence. They practiced spiritual resilience, assumed a sense of self-determination and bodily agency, and directly challenged the institution that sought to claim and commodify them as mere chattel. I find that it is not only important to narrate their experiences, but also chart the ways such survival politics shaped, integrated within, and challenged imperial contexts, as seen in the case of Spanish Jamaica’s Afro-ladinos geopolitical resistance. Not considering or understating the importance of Black survival politics in the broader political, social and cultural contexts of #VastEarlyAmerica risks obscuring the complex entangled history of Black freedom practice, empire, and slavery. Centering on the politic of survival provides a lens through which to examine the ways Black people acted on and navigated vast colonial landscapes.

Clifton E. Sorrell III is a PhD student studying empire, the African diaspora and slavery at the University of Texas at Austin. 

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