A Lost Institution in #VastEarlyAmerica

Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library under Creative Commons License

Slave courts pervaded colonial society. British settlers founded the first ones in Barbados in 1661 to judicially regulate enslaved Africans. By the mid-eighteenth century, this institution operated in nearly every British colony, and each individual parish or county had its own court. Manned by two to three Justices of the Peace along with a small group of elite planters, in this court the convicted possessed no right of appeal. From trying petty theft to executing accused murderers, these courts had absolute jurisdiction to try, convict, and execute alleged enslaved criminals. Once sentenced to die, court officials examined and evaluated enslaved people to compensate enslavers for their executed property. If the compensation amount did not suit the enslaver, they could petition to transport the slave out of the colony instead and sell them for a potentially higher price on the Atlantic market. The sentence of transportation allowed colonial authorities to reshuffle labor that was meant to be destroyed but was often too valuable to do so. In both the American South and the Caribbean islands, these courts remained in operation until emancipation in the nineteenth century.

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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.

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The Power and Importance of Narrating Stories of Black Life in #VastEarlyAmerica

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When I decided to major in history at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) nearly a decade ago, I never thought I would eventually contribute to historian Karin Wulf’s articulation of #VastEarlyAmerica via a forum like Insurrect!. I did know back then, though, that I did not want to study 20th century Black life like most of my classmates and professors. As an undergraduate student, I yearned to better understand the world we lived in. I gravitated to topics that assessed how Black people encountered violence, and the strategies Black women, men, and children used to resist and survive. History professors at FAMU like Darius Young taught me about why our role as Black storytellers is important to our people’s self-esteem and knowledge of self, while also connecting us to West African traditions of storytelling like that of the griot. Building on my growing base of knowledge, I applied my learning over nearly three years at multiple African American public history sites during my undergraduate and early graduate school training and education. Ultimately, my interest in researching the history of enslaved people and the institution of slavery came in Spring 2017 when I took a Comparative Slavery course at Simmons College (now University) taught by Jessica Parr. Although not on Parr’s syllabus, it was in her class that I learned about Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s book, Never Caught. As Providence would have it, Dunbar would one day become my dissertation advisor. After purchasing my copy that semester, I distinctly remember laying on my couch in Boston and blurting out, “DAMN, I WANNA DO THIS!” And “THIS” meant writing about enslaved women that escaped slavery like Ona Judge. Judge, who absconded from President George Washington’s home in Philadelphia, remained “Never Caught” after settling in Portsmouth, New Hampshire at the end of the eighteenth century. Suffice it to say, great storytelling can positively affect people’s lives! What 2021 has also shown us, though, is that great storytelling can result in incredible controversy. 

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Counter Monument: Notes on Abolition May

Sticker reading "cops off campus" attached to statue

In May 2021, an abolitionist caucus of the University of Massachusetts Amherst Graduate Employee Organization (GEO UAW 2322) joined up with the Cops Off Campus Coalition (COCC) to support Abolition May, “a month-long series of actions on campuses across Turtle Island to demand the removal of ALL campus police.” After a year of political education, we spent the month taking direct action on the UMass Amherst campus to support abolition. As a caucus, we secured a vote from union membership to prioritize abolition during contract bargaining: the police have a long history of busting unions and enforcing the exploitation of workers. For the May 3rd Transnational Day of Refusal we collaborated with the Illuminator Art Collective to project a virtual picket line with crowdsourced abolitionist messaging on the side of Herter Hall. On May 20th, we hosted an abolition “block party” with literature, art, zines, a student-led petition for budgetary reallocation and racial justice, and coalition-building among students, faculty, and local abolitionist organizations.

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“Abolition Is…” — A Roundtable

As the language and logics of prison industrial complex (PIC) abolitionism enter the liberal mainstream, they also become subject to increased co-optation, bastardization, and de-radicalization. Black rage, Black grief, and Black militancy are incorporated, distorted, and sold back to us as Black capitalism, Black punditry, and Black “representation” in electoral politics. Burning police precincts becomes an appeal for small budgetary concessions. “Abolish” becomes “Defund” becomes “Reform.” We make promises for more diversity and more inclusion. We issue statements and elect the “lesser” of two evils. From the academy, we get what Joy James terms “academic abolitionism” – the rhetoric of abolition so severed from any Black radical, working-class, or grassroots origins that it no longer has radical potential. “There is nothing about the academy that has revolutionary desire,” James notes in a 2019 lecture, “And if abolitionism is about revolutionary desire, then you’re caught in a contradiction.” We become ahistorical about abolition. Business continues as usual.

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“Insurrection” Usurped

The January 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol building by a rightwing mob has launched “insurrection” into the center of American discourse, demanding that we reckon with this term and its connotations. As a member of the editorial committee that founded this magazine, I have been asked and have had to grapple with whether or not to double down on our controversial name. But to grant the pro-Trump “insurrection” monopoly over the meaning of the word is, I believe, to declare undue defeat.

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We Are Not American!: Teaching and Learning the 19th Century from Hawai’i

There’s a problem with teaching 19th-century American literature in Hawai’i. The problem arises from the fact that during the 19th century, Hawai’i was not, and, according to many Kanaka Maoli still is not, part of America. In 1893, the US overthrew the Hawaiian Kingdom and its sovereign Queen Lili’uokalani, and in 1898 illegally annexed the Hawaiian islands, despite massive resistance from Hawaiian people. Hawai’i’s specific history is a particularly glaring and relatively recent example of the colonial situation under which 19th-century American literature is taught throughout the U.S.: it is all taught on stolen land. Hawai’i’s history and location, and how this place makes it impossible to forget about colonialism, present an opportunity for thinking about the challenges and paradoxes of teaching 19th-century American literature both in the islands and throughout the territories now known as the US. How might the problem of teaching this curriculum-mandated field of literary studies in an explicitly colonized place offer possibilities for teaching and writing with 19th-century American literature more broadly? How might contemplating this question from Hawai’i offer ways to think through how teachers and scholars on the continent could account for the distinct histories of the people Native to the lands on which they teach? And how might it help teachers both in Hawai’i and on the continent frame C19 Am Lit explicitly as literature of colonization? 

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Inauguration 2021: a Roundtable

As Joe Biden’s inauguration looms, we at Insurrect! have turned our attention to transitions, both democratic and antidemocratic, in United States history. Over the last few months, the world has witnessed the attempted judicial overthrow of a presidential election and the breaching of the U.S. Capitol by a white supremacist mob. With these events in mind, we asked three early career scholars: In light of this year’s regime change, how have you been thinking about transfers of power in your own scholarship? 

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The Organizer’s Mind of Martin Delany

In October 1876, Martin Delany, the Black abolitionist later called the father of Black nationalism, endorsed Democratic Party candidate Wade Hampton for Governor from a platform in South Carolina. Black people in the crowd booed him from the stage. Very few would follow Delany’s defection to the Democrats that election. Hundreds would be killed by Democrat mobs as they tried to vote against Hampton, the ex-Confederate General who had been among the nation’s wealthiest slaveholders. Hampton’s victory would usher in a “Redeemer” government to end Reconstruction in the Blackest state in the Union. 

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Cartographic Justice: From Omission to Illumination of America’s Black Communities

I was struck one workday by a 1878 map I picked up entitled Gray’s New Map of Hampton, depicting Hampton, Virginia, in the decade after the Civil War (Fig. 1). The image shows the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, then an agricultural and teachers’ college for Black students, now known as Hampton University. The city’s Black population is referenced through “colored” institutions like cemeteries and churches, but individual names of homes or buildings are only labeled for white businessmen, such as George Dixon’s oyster house visible by the Hampton Creek steamboat landing.

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