Beyond Slavery, Knowledge of Freedom: Bakary Diaby and Deanna Koretsky review Stolen Life and Beyond Slavery and Abolition
Bakary Diaby, Skidmore College
Deanna Koretsky, Spelman College
I wanted to get the ball rolling with a confession: I’m a little apprehensive about this review. I’m not sure that these two books, Fred Moten’s Stolen Life and Ryan Hanley’s Beyond Slavery and Abolition: Black British Writing c. 1770-1830, have much to say to each other. While they’re ostensibly concerned with many of the same topics -- most centrally, black intellectual life -- Moten and Hanley are so different in terms of their epistemological groundings that I wonder how they can be put into conversation productively.
Since we’re writing this for Romantic Circles, maybe it can be fruitful to think about these texts as representing two potential -- and potentially irreconcilable -- directions that historically Eurocentric fields such as ours might take if, as many of its practitioners have claimed in recent months, such fields are serious about confronting their ongoing entanglements with institutions of racial violence.
Both texts begin by highlighting gaps in our collective knowledge(s). Hanley is interested in breaking through certain silences in scholarship about slavery in the British Empire. He charts important historiographic ground by widening the contextual frames around eighteenth- and nineteenth-century black Anglophone writers in Britain: Ottabah Cugoano, Olaudah Equiano, Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, John Jea, Boston King, Mary Prince, Ignatius Sancho, and Robert Wedderburn. Thoughtfully positioning them in contexts not always acknowledged as important or relevant to their works, Hanley’s monograph is compelling in its mapping of how the anti-radical years following the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars affected public tastes and rhetorics around religion, celebrity, respectability, and ultimately, the idea of freedom.
Moten, too, is interested in freedom. Stolen Life is collection of writings, many previously published on their own, curated here as “a set of social essays...concerned with how it is that a kind of impossible publicness emerges in and from the radical exclusion [of black people] from the political, as the refusal of that which has been refused” (xii). In both form and substance, these essays shift the ground of Western academic writing. The essay constituting Chapter 1, “Knowledge of Freedom,” highlights “a need to know some things again, as if for the first time, about knowledge and (language and their relation to) freedom” (43). Even as (or perhaps precisely because) Stolen Life is a master class in tracing intellectual genealogies, Moten emphasizes that his core questions exceed the limits of historiography:
So what I’m interested in, here, is freedom and the relationship of certain narratives of slavery to the question of freedom not only in the historical context in which they were written but in the no-less-desperate context of our fiercely urgent now. We know something—narratives and understandings of narrative and understandings of the relation between narrative and freedom—that we need to know we know. Where does that knowledge come from and what are the im/possibilities and political problems regarding our access to its sources?” (43)
It is in light of these provocations that, for me, Hanley’s book comes up short. In its efforts to decenter it from early black authors’ works, Beyond Slavery and Abolition misses opportunities to reflect on the structural significance of slavery to the modern world -- to all subjectivities and positionalities that it produced, including those authors whose blackness Hanley seems to want to complicate (“writing produced by black people during this period reflected not a homogenous ‘black perspective’ but a staggering diversity of views and experiences,” 7) but ultimately leaves unexamined. While it’s true that these writers were, and are, more than their relations to the institution of slavery, the language of “diversity” here smacks of a familiar sort of well-meaning race-blindness that widens the frame around black subjects without acknowledging what it means to recognize these subjects as black.
Moten teaches us that to engage these histories, we must be willing to dwell in and with the related questions of “[h]ow to tell the story of a rupture that has broken the ability to tell and how to have that telling be free and be in the interest of freedom?” (42, italics mine). It is this last part – “to have that telling be…in the interest of freedom”—that I think is missing from Beyond Slavery and Abolition. If one of Hanley’s “key task[s] is to map some of the web-like structures of social relations that surrounded black writers and their work,” why look “beyond slavery and race” without also looking at them (22, italics mine)? Can we really appreciate the ways in which “eighteenth-century black intellectuals were important actors in the development of modern British society” (22) if we don’t deal with racism as one of that society’s organizing structures?
Even as it valuably expands certain contextual frames around early black writers in Britain and the wider Anglophone world, Hanley’s work, I think, exemplifies why scholars in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century studies need to engage seriously with black studies. This is true across the board, not just in scholarship that focuses or claims to focus on black people: as Moten writes in Chapter 6, “Black Op,” and reinforces throughout Stolen Life, blackness and black studies are “not but nothing other than Western civilization” (156). However—and I know this is a question you’ve thought a lot about too—I’m not sure if the opposite is true: does black studies need eighteenth- and nineteenth-century studies (at least as these fields are currently constituted)?
Really looking forward to thinking with you, Bakary!
Hi Deanna! It’s great to be in conversation with you on these books; thanks for sharing your thoughts and getting the ball rolling on this.
First off, I must say that we agree for the most part. These are, undoubtedly, two very different books trying to do very different things. As I read the books, I had a tough time trying to establish criteria applicable and fair to both. They are focused on different topics and harbor different first principles. One is about writing, the other discourse; one is expanding a canon, the other conflicts with canonicity. And while we can use them to wade into the cliché theory versus history battle, the differences (or divisions?) between them are probably even more stark. In short, I think of this as a “whither black romanticism?” review.
Let’s take as an example a key textual overlap between Hanley and Moten: Equiano and the narrative bearing his name(s). Hanley does an impressive job illuminating the interlocking networks that led to The Interesting Narrative and the subsequent (though complicated) celebrity status of its author. On the other hand, Moten really swings for the fences in that first chapter (parts of which appeared originally in 2004, I believe). Moten finds in Equiano (and others) a clear case of the contradictions and complexities of being black and of black being. On just this one figure, Moten and Hanley diverge quite noticeably in terms of method, goals, and interpretation. So while, in a sense, the two books cover similar content (following your lead, we can say something like “black freedom”), the principles animating them are so different.
In this vein, I wonder how these books would answer the question “what is blackness?” What are the epistemological, ethical, and political implications of their answers? Is modernity assumptive and conscriptive, or is it accretive and progressive? To be frank, I don’t think Beyond Slavery and Abolition meditates on these questions, but maybe we shouldn’t expect it to? Or—and this is perhaps the heart of this review—is that the same as saying that fields like romanticism shouldn’t be expected to? I don’t think either of us thinks Eurocentric fields should be exempt from that work.
Beyond Slavery and Abolition will, I hope, expand the number of eighteenth and nineteenth century black authors that are read, studied, and taught. Works like Hanley’s are crucial in this regard because we do need to look beyond The Interesting Narrative and Mary Prince (without looking past them); we do need to examine the “diversity” of black thought. One virtue of the Hanley book worth mentioning is how undergrad friendly it is, especially in comparison to Moten. But I feel somewhat unfulfilled by its goal to only “map” things. To echo your point, what is the nature of the “beyond” in his title? While reading, I asked myself this question because—and maybe I’m not being fair—I felt like it hardly goes beyond slavery or abolition! I assumed “Black British Writing” in the period from 1770 to 1830 would include other kinds of texts, narratives, and verse (and even music!) on a larger range of topics. I enjoyed the book, and I did learn a lot from it, but I think it is deceptively titled.
What I’ve gathered from both of our notes thus far is that the Hanley book would benefit from an engagement with black studies, especially of the last decade or so (e.g. Hartman, Moten, Sharpe, Wilderson, etc.). But does the Moten book need the Hanley? No, not in my estimation.
This question of “need” became the central one at the recent “Black Studies & Romanticism” conference: does black studies “need” eighteenth and nineteenth century studies? Nicole Aljoe and Annette Joseph-Gabriel both offered ways to think, well, “beyond” this question. Joseph-Gabriel in particular suggested that instead of the logic of exchange, we could think about encounter. These two can meet, making new configurations perceptible. Personally, I swing from really cynical on this question to less cynical, but I’m slow to give any form of “yes;” I look forward to what the field decides to offer, but I think much of that work will be done by emerging scholars and current grad students.
At the very least, I think black studies needs to not cede ground! What that means with regard to romanticism is, I think, present in scholarship like your own.
I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this!
So many wonderful thoughts and questions to consider -- thanks, Bakary!
I like the provocation to think past the logic of exchange between fields. I agree that “exchange” is neither a suitable nor generative framing. But I feel like “encounter” also minimizes something crucial about the project of black studies, at least, as Moten frames it in Stolen Life: its transformational demands on our most basic assumptions about the worlds and bodies we inhabit, the socialities that drive our lives as we (come to) know them, and ultimately, what we know about knowing and knowledge itself. Take, for instance, the following question:
What if the study of comparative racialization begins to extend and deepen its critical and imaginative relation to the terms abolition and reconstruction in a genuine, fundamental, fantastic, radical, collective rethinking of them that will take into account their historical ground while also propelling them with the greatest possible centrifugal force into other, outer, space? (158)
Moten leaves room here for the kind of “historical ground” covered by Hanley, but demands so much more of it, and of us (by which I mean, those of us who choose to engage in this work). Moten shows us what it is to think beyond (what we think we know about the language, events, people, and structures associated with) slavery and abolition. Hanley’s book, on the other hand, expands a certain kind of knowledge that is broadly organized by its relations to slavery and abolition, even as it claims to move away from them, without delving into the assumptions necessary to accept this kind of knowledge as knowledge in the first place.
To be clear, I think Beyond Slavery and Abolition is excellent as a work of historiography. Like you, I learned a lot from reading it. And like you, I’m struggling with whether the task we’ve been given to read these books alongside each other is really fair to either or both. But I also think Beyond Slavery and Abolition undermines its own mission statement by not even considering, even if it were to ultimately reject, possibilities opened by work like Moten’s; although, to return to our broader question, maybe it doesn’t because it can’t.
It’s possible that this is a failure of imagination on my part, but I’m just not sure how fields rooted in Eurocentric critical methods can encounter black studies without fundamentally changing their most basic epistemic, ethical, and political assumptions and practices. Or maybe what you, via Joseph-Gabriel (really sorry to have missed that conference!) are saying is that that is the encounter?
Stolen Life is, to not an insignificant degree, interested in Europeans. The volume opens with a piercing and, for anyone claiming knowledge of romanticism, indispensable reading of Kant’s racialization and sexualization of that most essential staple of romanticist study, the imagination. That reading also draws in Menninghaus, Hegel, even Wordsworth, and later chapters engage many others. In Stolen Life, Europe and Europeans are indispensable to, even as they (or, more precisely, commonplace readings of them) are transformed by the book’s central project. It forces readers to grapple with the demand placed on people of the African diaspora to live both in and against a world in which one’s being is structured by the ongoing tension of “dwelling in a deep and fundamental paradox where you try to tell the story of the denial of access to subjectivity by way of exemplary assertions of subjectivity” (233).
Even as Moten is also duly critical of black studies’ entrenchment in Western academic institutions, I think the core demands and orientations of the field as he describes them are antithetical to fields like romanticism. I’m somewhat more open to thinking about how romantic figures themselves -- that is, some of the figures the academy has taught us to read under the category of “romanticism” -- also aspired toward social, political, and epistemological transformations, albeit with quite different goals and results. I guess what I’m driving at here is, maybe there’s something romantic about what Moten calls “black study”? I’m hesitant to go too far down that particular rabbit hole, though, because I think there’s a danger there in sidelining the material (ins)urgencies at the core of both black studies and black study.
So instead, I’m going to raise something else entirely, which we haven’t broached yet, that both books unfortunately have in common. To riff on your phrasing: whither black women? Hanley’s book gives more than passing attention to only one, Mary Prince, nominally the focus of a chapter examining “how Prince’s abolitionist network edited and marketed her and her work, deliberately engineering a gendered perception of her as a passive victim of abuse and exploitation” (78-9). In practice, however, the chapter is not really about Prince or her public persona. It focuses much more on how the publication of The History of Mary Prince affected the professional lives of the people most directly involved in its dissemination, Thomas Pringle and Susannah Strickland. To some extent, this may reflect the extant historical sources, but it is also a missed opportunity to engage with black feminist historians and literary critics who have developed ways of looking at archival lacunae instead of past them -- I’m thinking here, especially, of work by Marisa Fuentes, Saidiya Hartman, Jessica Marie Johnson, Jennifer Morgan, and Sasha Turner, none of whom so much as appear in Hanley’s bibliography. At the very least, the chapter would have benefitted from some discussion of the gendered and racialized frameworks it identifies.
This is also somewhat muted in Moten’s book. Though he does engage deeply with black feminist thinkers -- Hartman and Hortense Spillers loom especially large in his intellectual genealogy -- there are parts of Stolen Life where I wished for a more thorough, or at least more direct discussion of gender. Take, for instance, his reading of Kantian regulation, metamorphosed, in his consideration of its anabolism within the black radical tradition, as “the black (woman) as regulative instrument and the black (woman) as natural agent of deregulation” (3). While part of me wishes that he’d given us more here, I can see how the phantasmic quality of this framing is part of the point he’s making about the repression of blackness, black womanhood doubly so, in normative politics. No book can be expected to account for everything, but the difference between Hanley’s handling of gender and Moten’s is, I think, this: Hanley announces it as part of his project and doesn’t deliver whereas, while gender may not be a core focus for Moten, neither does his book foreclose on it.
I think this about covers everything I wanted to touch on in my readings of these texts. I’m looking forward to your reply, and to where else your readings will take us! Loving this exchange format!
Hey again, Bakary! I know I said I'd covered what I wanted to say above, but I want to add a few thoughts on Moten's "Anassignment Letters,” which is a chapter in Stolen Life that doesn’t always get the same level of attention as some of the others, but I think it’s really important. I’ve been turning over what you said above about Hanley’s book being more undergrad-friendly, and while it’s definitely a more straightforward read, when I consider, and when I ask my students to consider, what an undergraduate education is actually for, I think Moten’s work (although inarguably denser and, for some readers, perhaps even alienating) offers something immense and rare and worth talking about.
“Anassignment Letters” consists of two long messages Moten sent to his students, in which he lays out an imperative for the work of university learning and teaching that I take really seriously. Moten invites his students and dares his readers (many of whom are professional scholars who, as he wryly puts it, “love to be graded,” 229) to resist the trap of what we have been trained to see as “achievement” or “excellence.”
I think he nails something crucial when he says “grading degrades intellectual practice and what we must consider . . . is what the relation is between the degradation of intellectual practice and the maintenance of the already existing order of things” (229). Without taking us too far into the weeds of my own teaching practice, I’ve been engaged in various forms of ungrading for years now (shoutout to Dr. Alexandra Milsom, who introduced me to the practice) and every semester, students come to these kinds of realizations, and it’s always exhilarating and powerful. But inevitably, eventually, they’re forced back into the mindless “achievement” factory that the “college experience” seems to have become. Maybe it always was that and I was too much of a starry-eyed nerd (no wonder I was drawn to romanticism!) to notice?
I wish we had more space to be honest about precisely what Moten is raising here. What are we actually teaching our students? What kinds of people are we training them to become? I was at a dinner once with a group of professors and I mentioned having volunteered with a suicide hotline and how sharing Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” would help some callers. You know what one of those professors said to me? “But how well did they close read it?” If this is what is produced by the cult(ure) of “achievement” and “excellence,” I want no part of it.
One of the most essential things that I take from Moten’s work, and what I hope students also appreciate when they encounter this chapter in my courses, is this: Fuck our myopic, individualistic striving for “achievement.” Fuck our sycophantic performances of other people’s ideas about “excellence.” Fuck even our tired and limited notions of “freedom”:
This is not about achievement; more specifically, and more generally, as we move in the weighted, weighty air of enlightenment, this is not about the achievement of freedom. This is about escape. Intellectuality is fugitivity, as a mode, and as a quality of life . . . That which we call freedom is not, nor could it ever correspond to, the completion or the achievement of an assignment. Freedom is a practice--a fugitive act--of its own (un)making. (227-228)
Alright, now back to syllabus planning.
Hi again, Deanna!
Yes, I think you’re right about Moten and Hanley in regards to my “undergrad” friendly comment. In hindsight, the very distinction implied in my comment is, well, kind of specious. I want undergrads to be questioning the practices that structure life, work, and scholarship just as much as graduate students—as far as sheer numbers are concerned, maybe even more! If anything, what I might’ve really meant was “it is easier to plan an undergrad lesson with the Hanley book;” in that case, I’m actually concerned with my ease and not so much my students’. Phrased that way, a chapter like “Anassignment Letters” is crucial to the enterprise of (dare I say) antiracist pedagogies. It’s a shame that it doesn’t get the same circulation as some of the others!
On the question of black women, I had the same qualms with both of these texts. In this regard, I must once again note my disapproval of the claim inherent in Hanley’s use of the word “beyond.” With the exception of the Mary Prince chapter, this is a book about writing by black men and the racially-diverse networks that helped produce, circulate, and consume their texts. On the intersection of chattel slavery and gender, Prince does a lot of heavy lifting for the book. And, of course, she’s not even a central figure for much of the chapter! To the book’s credit, it notes that “Prince was seen to personify the horrors that plantation slavery held for women in particular,” showing how she was marketed. But dare I note that she might serve the same function in this book? The fact of the matter is, she is the only formerly enslaved woman to have her own chapter. And what’s more, as you noted, it is just as interested in Pringle and Strickland as it is in her.
I don’t mean to single-mindedly kvetch about this, but it is crucial to get this right. One of the reasons I would recommend the book to other scholars is to paint a picture of the age not handed down by and obsessed with whiteness; but, I must recommend it only with the caveat about the nigh-exclusive focus paid to black men. This is not how it should be. And what’s more, there are gendered dimensions with figures like Sancho and Wedderburn that aren’t addressed either. The failure to cite scholars like Fuentes and Hartman is another insult to injury.
That said, Moten isn’t entirely spared either. There are long stretches of the book where black women play a relatively small and often figural role in Stolen Life (the recurrent theme of maternity is one such figurative trace, and I am not convinced it always pays off).To be fair, no book can do everything; I give Moten credit for acknowledging his indebtedness to thinkers like Hartman and Spillers. And I think you’re right about the difference between Moten and Hanley in how each frames gender in their project. But, I wonder if the capaciousness of Stolen Life in terms of topics—blackness, sovereignty, freedom, language, phenomenology, among many others—might dilute the important work it can do regarding black women.
Anyway, now on to your previous points and the very heart of the matter.
I first want to get back to this question of whether these books—and the methodological and period-bound commitments they represent—“need” each other. I wonder from what/whose position is this being asked? I’m going to shy away from speaking for anyone in the fields that we both find ourselves in except myself; I can’t attest to what the answer may look like from other academics, students, or deans.
The language of necessity is one I’d like to avoid since different stakeholders in different fields need different things for different reasons. But, what I think the question is really asking—and what this review is pondering—is “should black study expend energy rehabilitating a field long defined by its own self-expressed revolutionary nature?” And corollary to this, what in romanticism can or should survive this encounter?
In the chapter called “Notes on Passage,” Moten suggests that “the black American intellectual field, by way of its own professional restraint, must singularly disregard itself and its own comportments and go on tour” (233). Can we read this as an urging, as suggesting that black studies should, in fact, engage with a field like romanticism? Or that it needs to (which I take from his using the word “must”)? Since white, Eurocentric romanticism has long been held as originary and singular, I think such a call becomes necessary to resist whiteness’s drive to be imperceptible and a stand-in for the universal. But (and I see this push and pull throughout Stolen Life) I don’t want to focus just on black study’s negative relationship to European modernity.
With all of that said, I want to go back to our earlier sentiment: is it fair or possible to review these two books together? I’m still unsure. But Hanley stands for a kind of historical scholarship that relies too much on a kind of representation that, while immensely important, might leave intact inimical ways of talking about, perceiving, and thinking about black subjectivities. I think the promise inherent in Hanley’s “beyond” is fulfilled only if the book wrestles with the fugal and fugitive nature of blackness. I fear that this book does not fulfill that promise, however. For Moten, blackness and black studies are twined together. To do intellectual justice to one would mean taking up both in all of their fugitivities.
What can we become and—more importantly perhaps—what can we cease to be in a field so tied to its status as a limited and limiting “-ism?” Work like Moten’s is there, waiting not to be engaged like a static manual to follow but as another act to tour with, as a model of how to contend with the interconnected questions of slavery and freedom, imagination and truth. I think we find ourselves in a moment where the field knows it needs to adapt and where most want it to change. In that case then, what are we waiting for?