Reflections on the Crisis at Hand: a Roundtable, Part 1

Insurrect! is a new digital space for radical thinking in Early American Studies. Our first roundtable features early career researchers who are attuned to colonialism as an ongoing system of power, and whose work spans disciplines of study as well as geographies outside of nationalist borders. In response to the upheavals of 2020, the editorial team thought it only fitting to begin our roundtable by asking this question: How has this moment of anti-colonial uprisings and demonstrations by Black Lives Matter and Indigenous activists shifted your work in early American studies—either as a researcher, an educator, a curator, a public historian, or an activist?

Bradley Craig, Barra Postdoctoral Fellow, McNeil Center for Early American Studies 

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about gardens—how, in the midst of a pandemic that has laid bare widespread social inequalities, as well as ongoing state violence against Black people in the United States, they have come to represent care for self and community, mutual aid, and autonomy, especially for the most vulnerable.  Imani Perry has recently written about the ways that these gardens have become spaces in which communities are nurturing freedom dreams, constituting a set of practices rooted in the Black Radical Tradition.  As a historian interested in marronage and histories of radical Black modes of living, I have also been thinking about the secluded places where Maroons cultivated and tended to life beyond the reach of enslavement.  Two sources on the history of Jamaican Maroons, Robert C. Dallas’s The History of the Maroons (1803) and Bryan Edwards’s The Proceedings of the Governor and Assembly of Jamaica, in Regard to the Maroon Negroes (1796), discuss these plots of land as a way to measure the Maroons’ civility and suitability for self-determination.  While Edwards disapproved of the fact that Maroon women performed agricultural labor and claimed their grounds were in decay, Dallas was far more celebratory about the Maroons’ ability to support themselves by living off the land.  But I have found myself interested in thinking more carefully about how these gardens figured in the broader politics of marronage.  Certainly, the long history of Black resistance tied to land and cultivation has been shaped by colonial violence, dispossession, enslavement, and their afterlives.  These same forms of violence have shaped the sources we rely on to tell the history of Maroon communities.  Still, we can imagine the radical freedom dreams sown in gardens in ways that aren’t fully constrained by the violence of colonial archives.  As communities across the United States have mobilized in the form of protests, marches, and demonstrations, we might continue to think about the practices that, to borrow from Kevin Quashie, are quieter.  Even as we loudly pour into the streets, we are also quietly tending to our gardens, finding sustainability, care, and pleasure.  

Shavagne Scott, PhD Candidate, New York University 

Recent events have illuminated so vividly that we continue to live “in the wake” of slavery and colonization. Not only in the disproportionate deaths of Black and brown people at the hands of capitalist systems of oppression, but in the way the very people oppressed choose to respond to the knees on their necks. In many ways, I am reminded of the maroon women I study. How maroon women choose to resist slavery, as well as the reactions to recent events, highlights that resistance comes in many forms. For maroon women, undoing slavery meant literally escaping to live in isolated communities.

Most of all, I am reminded of how invisible Black women remain both as victims and resistors of capitalist exploitation. In the historiography on slavery and freedom, maroon women are rendered invisible, both by an unsympathetic archive and by scholars who capitulate at the supposed finality of the archive. I see parallels in the stories of Breonna Taylor, Shantel Davis, Kyam Livingston, and the countless other Black women who have died at the hands of a racist police state and whose murderers continue to walk free. I think of the Black women whose precious act of giving birth often sends them to an early grave. It is thus imperative for me to stress through teaching and writing that we situate black women at the center of discussions on capitalism, resistance, and freedom. The exploitation of their reproductive and social labor during slavery and today has rendered them inheritors and producers of racial and sexualized dispossession. Above all, their very centrality to these processes means that they have a history of understanding and responding to systems of oppression. 

Recommended Reading: 
Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Hannah Manshel, Assistant Professor, University of Hawai’i at Manoa

The other day, yet another video of someone aggressively refusing to wear a mask came across my Twitter feed. This one featured a young white man—muscular, with a military-style haircut—in a Fort Myers, Florida Costco, yelling “I feel threatened,” after reportedly being asked to wear a mask by an elderly employee. This kind of video, of white adults preposterously declaring their own fear and vulnerability in response to being asked to take a minor step in the name of public safety, has become, in the last few months, a staple of the social media landscape. This particular video, however, literalizes the fact that the way we conceive of Early America matters deeply to this moment: the man in the video wears a bright red shirt that reads “Running the World Since 1776,” above a graphic silhouette of the continental United States. Even a good faith reading of this t-shirt would suggest a profoundly imperial worldview: that since 1776, the continental US has been “running the world.” This military-looking man, in a bulk consumer goods warehouse store, yelling at the bystander who was filming him, is himself a metonym of the imperial hubris and history to which his shirt attests. 

But why 1776? This video went viral around July 4th weekend, so we might imagine this man might have been festively attired to celebrate the holiday that commemorates, among other things, the announcement by a number of men who enslaved other people, that it was no longer tolerable for the King of England to encourage the warfare of  “merciless Indian savages.” But why not “since 1630,” with the landing of the Puritans at Massachusetts Bay? Or why not trace that “heritage” back even further into Europe, to the Papal Bulls of the fifteenth-century “permitting” colonization? Or later to 1823, when the Doctrine of Discovery was given a re-up and the Supreme Court Seal of Approval in Johnson v. McIntosh? Of course, I’m being pedantic here. But the point stands that a certain white investment in a certain specific mythology of white American “freedom,” “independence,” and, of course, international hegemony, is not only continuous, but perhaps co-constitutive with the proprietary individualism that undergirds the violent anti-community mindedness that has allowed this pandemic—and the structural inequalities that exacerbate it—to spread. 

Janine Yorimoto Boldt, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow, American Philosophical Society

I spent 2019 preparing an exhibition about Benjamin Franklin and science. From the start, one of my objectives as curator was to include stories about how eighteenth-century white scientists and their institutions exploited Black and Indigenous peoples, contributed to the scientific racism that more fully emerged in the next century, and obscured Indigenous and African knowledge. I also wanted to connect eighteenth-century science to contemporary issues. I wanted the exhibition on Franklin to be an entry into understanding challenging issues and to do more than celebrate a “founding father.” My co-curator and I chose objects and wrote labels with these priorities in mind. That was 2019. Unfortunately, the exhibition never opened, as the institution closed due to the pandemic.

Within the last few months, the resurgence of anti-colonial Black Lives Matter and Indigenous protests, the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affects people of color, and the renewed scrutiny and calls for the decolonization of museums has given me and the exhibition new urgency. 

Curators have a responsibility to present material evidence, and an interpretation of that evidence, that helps the average museum visitor come to terms with the past and the present. When I say “average museum visitor,” I mean people with a wide range of backgrounds, educational levels, and politics. I cannot expect most visitors to have more than a cursory knowledge of early American history. Indeed, recent events and the backlash against protests have shown just how little many white Americans understand about the history of race, racism, and genocide in this country. 

Studies have shown that most Americans trust museums as sources of information. That means that curators play an important role in teaching the public; particularly at a time when many people are skeptical of science, experts, and the news. The stories we choose to tell and the objects we choose to collect for institutions can have an impact. Museums, rooted in imperialism and colonialism, are not, and have never been, neutral. 2020 has brought into sharp relief the role that I can play as an emerging early American scholar who is also a curator. I have a special set of tools, including material evidence and gallery space, to engage in contemporary issues and help others understand their historical contexts. My work is just beginning and the upheaval of 2020 has given me a renewed sense of purpose – and the opportunity to prepare the Franklin exhibition catalog and virtual tour, which will introduce the exhibition to a broader public.

To follow some of the conversation regarding the museum field, check out #Museumsarenotneutral and read more here.

Efren M. Lopez, PhD Candidate, UCLA

More than ever, I am thinking about how we can convert intellectuality and research into forms both more pragmatic and insurrectionary. Though these latter two terms may seem at odds, their reconciliation drives my thinking, activism, and academic work. But let’s also pause and investigate why we conceive of 2020 as a new era or shift, considering the way that U.S. history has always been marked by colonial and military domination, especially for Black and Indigenous people. Is it heightened visibility? New social life protocols under COVID-19? Militarized violence extending to middle class and white subjects?

On the other hand, I’m concerned with strategy and the way state violence and surveillance infringe on our visions for liberation. Studying the 19th century, with hindsight, can attune us to these mechanisms. Part of my work examines what might be called insurrectionary ideas circulating during the period leading up to the U.S. Civil War. Abolition encompassed a wide array of tendencies often washed over in official histories of Emancipation and its aftermath. I am thinking about those ideas left on the table, traceable in literature and textuality and often deep in the archives. Because as we approach this election, I am considering the notions and futurities being exorcised out of the political imaginary, withheld in the (understandable) rush to oust the current administration. Studying the machinery by which insurrectionary ideas are deferred, including in the past, drives my analysis of our contemporary current political climate. 

 Yet, my job site, the University, does relatively little to wield its vast capital against contemporary carcerality or racial violence. Yes, at times, it distributes resources to support academics and intellectuality—though often strategically encasing BIPOC to manufacture equity/justice optics. To end, I will offer yet another question: How might we funnel the labor and resources of the university towards abolition and insurrection if we were so inclined?

Part Two of this conversation can be found here.

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