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SNAPSHOT: Slavery, Freedom, and Marronage

By BETH HARPAZ

In the 19th century novel Blake, the main character Henry Blake liberates himself from slavery. “I’m not your slave, nor never was,” he tells a Mississippi plantation owner. Blake then visits every slaveholding state, fomenting rebellion while hiding in swamps, forests, and slave quarters.

But Blake ends without insurrection. Scholars have wondered if its African-American author Martin Delany left the story unfinished.

Hostos Community College Professor Sean Gerrity analyzes Blake in a new light in the journal Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States. Gerrity says Blake personifies “black self-determination, self-reliance, pride, and militancy in the face of systemic white supremacy.”

Slave cabin at Oak Alley Plantation

Gerrity also views Blake’s unfulfilled rebellion as a portrait of “marronage,” which was a type of resistance in which former slaves engaged in subversive acts while living together in secret communities.

Some maroons in other countries “won autonomy from colonial control through military action,” Gerrity says. Maroons existed in the U.S., but received less attention than slaves headed north to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Blake’s story, in keeping with marronage, “represents a possibility for black freedom that does not require white intervention.”

With or without insurrection, by simultaneously running away and refusing to leave, Blake engages in the ultimate act of “defiance and survival.” Instead of seeking freedom via legal emancipation by whites, marronage “delegitimizes” the system altogether. Blake finds community and affirmation, Gerrity argues, while inviting readers to contemplate a “radical” form of freedom.