This special issue focuses on the plantation, the postplantation, and the afterlives of slavery to consider how we have inherited and continue to be structured by the plantation form. The essays here rethink the biopolitics of plantation slavery and its legacies to interrogate the plantation as a form, logic, and technology by which inequalities of power, personhood, and value are realized. They consider the plantation from a variety of points across the geographic and temporal ranges of American literary studies, including the spaces of the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States and the periods of plantation slavery proper in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to its subsequent iterations in the Jim Crow and civil rights eras, and up to the neoliberal present in which the carceral state props up fantasies of postracialism. This is not to say that we can simply map the plantation’s form onto all contemporary forms of racial injustice or that the slave past wholly determines our present, the meaning of blackness, or the grounds for political affiliation. Rather, there is something to be gleaned from interrogating this structure and resistances to it, not perhaps for liberal humanism’s heretofore failed project of human rights and racial equality but to change the ground (sometimes literally) of the discussion, to approach the archive aslant, and to imagine different possibilities of relation.
This reconsideration of the plantation heeds recent calls to challenge the omission of race in much current theory of biopolitics and bare life. As Alexander G. Weheliye (2014: 32–36) and Zakiyyah Iman Jackson (2013: 670) note, Michel Foucault’s biopolitics and Giorgio Agamben’s state of exception and bare life—arguably the predominant critical frameworks for analyzing state violence and inequality as constituent aspects of democratic formation—neglect the history and legacy of racialization, colonialism, and slavery. Foucault’s biopower and Agamben’s state of exception helped shift the conception of modern political sovereignty away from the belief in a democratic community ordered by rational subjects and toward a view of the state as defined by its power to organize and regulate populations. This power includes the right to kill, let live, or expose to death certain subgroups. Although Foucault (2003) names “racism” the mechanism through which the state demarcates these subgroups and Agamben (1995, 2005) chooses “the camp” as the exemplary state of exception for those who are divested of political status and reduced to bare life, Achille Mbembe (2003: 21) notes that slavery “could be considered one of the first instances of biopolitical experimentation” and “the plantation system and its aftermath . . . the emblematic . . . figure of the state of exception.”1 The essays here thus examine the biopolitics of the plantation form to explain “how particular populations are rendered vulnerable to processes of death and devaluation over and against other populations, in ways that palimpsestically register older modalities of racialized death but also exceed them” (Hong and Ferguson 2011: 1–2).
Poststructuralist theory’s critique of the West’s supposed rational social organization challenged conceptions of the subject. If the modern state is structured by its power over life and death rather than its composition by a polity of autonomous subjects amalgamated through collective rationality, then what of “man,” its ideal citizen? The Enlightenment conception of man as a rational, conscious individual produced the subject of human rights and democratic citizenship; however, this ostensibly universal category in fact distinguished white men from those considered irrational, primitive, and ignorant of the rule of law—including women, blacks, and other nonwhite peoples. In the 1990s a burgeoning posthumanism critiqued the modern conception of the human as a historically contingent construct rather than transcendent truth (see, e.g., Jackson 2013: 671–73). This line of inquiry is usually traced to poststructuralist critiques of epistemological certainty, but anti- and postcolonial writers such as Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and later Sylvia Wynter had since the mid-twentieth century noted that the category of man is circumscribed by its foundational role in the modern Enlightenment project that gave rise to colonial slavery. This other genealogy provides a crucial corrective to posthumanism’s continued investment in Western rationality and hierarchies of knowledge. We ask how a racially aware posthumanism illuminates what we mean by Black Lives Matter and why we still need to declare it.
As we reconsider the time and space of the plantation from beyond the liberal humanist idiom, we must guard against “reductive claims” of dehumanization that “obscure more nuanced argumentation” about the ways that racist ideologies construct and sustain hierarchical relationships among humans (DeLombard 2018: 805). As Jeannine Marie DeLombard explains, “Far from denying black humanity, slaveholders extracted profit from recognizing and exploiting that humanity” (800). Conversely, it was the slave’s status as both human and property that made slavery abhorrent to abolitionists and unassimilable to our notions of humanness today. How to account for the compatibility of human and property status in the racial ideologies of the plantation slavery era? Bearing in mind this important caveat to distinguish between the liberal humanist subject man, which excluded people of African descent, and the species category of the human, which did not, we might ask, How did eighteenth- and nineteenth-century law and science, as mechanisms of biopower, divide the human species into hierarchically arranged racial subcategories to enable slavery and its legacies?
Taking my cue from DeLombard’s study of nineteenth-century slave law in this issue, I would like to consider briefly the example of Supreme Court chief justice Roger B. Taney’s opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford (60 U.S. 393 ), which famously held that people of African descent in the United States were considered “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” (407). Though reviled in the annals of Supreme Court history, the far-reaching decision reflected the position of the pro-slavery faction leading up to the Civil War.2 On the issue of citizenship, Taney ruled that people of African descent, even if freed or born to free parents, cannot become citizens of the United States or find protection under the provisions of the US Constitution. They form no part of “the political body” (404) because the “degraded condition of this unhappy race” (409) proves its exclusion from “universal” (407) conceptions of civilized man and, therefore, from the founding documents’ declarations of the rights of man. For though the Declaration of Independence’s statement that all men are equal and endowed with unalienable rights “would seem to embrace the whole human family . . . it is too clear for dispute that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people” (410). In other words, though this race is human, its members are not among the men referred to by the declaration. Further, the Constitution establishes “the negro race as a separate class of persons, and show[s] clearly that they were not regarded as a portion of the people or citizens of the Government then formed” (410). Taney thus codifies the exclusion of black people from liberal humanism’s man to compromise their legal personhood.3 This reading of the nation’s founding documents renders people of African descent bare life. They exist in a permanent state of exception outside the political body of the sovereign state and subject to the “absolute and despotic power” (409) of the state.
Furthermore, in the hierarchy of human races, the “negro African race” (406) is different from other races not only in degree but also in kind. For “this population was altogether unlike the Indian race” (403) and “the subjects of any other foreign Government” (404) who may become naturalized US citizens.4 Though Taney considers the “uncivilized” Indians “a free and independent people, associated together in nations or tribes and governed by their own laws” (403), he recognizes no such existence for the “negro African race” prior to or apart from slavery.5 Slavery’s mark is eternal because in colonial law black people “were never thought of or spoken of except as property” (410), and those who had been emancipated were “regarded as part of the slave population rather than the free” (411). Moreover, “no one of that race had ever migrated to the United States voluntarily; all of them had been brought here as articles of merchandise” (411). In thus canonizing the natal alienation of US slavery, Taney reserves this special unassimilable status for this “subordinate and inferior class of beings who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority” (404–5). The opinion thus works through a tautology whereby members of one race were imported as slaves due to the race’s inferior status, and its inferior status is proved by the fact that its members are slaves. The tautological reasoning required to rationalize liberal humanist democracy’s relegation of only one race to the status of human-as-property, such that its property status is tantamount to its human status, blurs the boundaries of humanity even as it upholds the claim that (white) man is but a subset of the species.
In sum Scott v. Sandford reasons that people of African descent cannot be US citizens and have no rights under the Constitution because they are part of a slave race distinct from civilized man.6 Thus we might yet consider how the slave’s “mixed character” as both human and property made for a hybrid that consternated philosophical, moral, and political categories of humanity. As Saidiya V. Hartman (1997: 5) puts it, “Although the captive’s bifurcated existence as both an object of property and a person . . . has been recognized as one of the striking contradictions of chattel slavery, the constitution of this humanity remains to be considered.” Yet, in reading the opinion this way, am I simply deconstructing its racializing logic along conventional lines, pointing to a node in the “historical nexus when slavery and race conjoined,” as if to find “in the coupling of European colonial slavery and racial blackness a history both inevitable and determined” (Best 2012: 454)? That is not the goal or method of this revision of the plantation form and its permutations. As Stephen Best reminds us, we cannot simply map the slave past onto the present without “divesting history of movement and change” or find in slavery’s dispossession the ethical glue of political affiliation without potentially sacrificing “effective political agency” (454). For these reasons, recent work in black posthumanism has sought less to restore humanity to those rendered differently human than to transform the framework of liberal humanism. For posthumous rehabilitation to humanist Man does not help us recover the modes of being of those rendered bare life by the necropolitics of colonial plantation slavery and its afterlives.
This recent work in racially aware posthumanism, new materialism, environmental criticism, and other methods marks a shift from analyzing Western processes of racialization to uncovering the response, experience, and agency of those oppressed by slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. The new critical assemblage also formulates the question of agency through a “flow of knowledge, archives, and geographic spaces” that includes the Caribbean, a region often sidelined within Latinx or American studies (Fiol-Matta and Gómez-Barris 2014: 494). This turn in transnational American studies, which in its earlier phase focused more on the discursive structures of US imperialism than on the forms of resistance and self-making devised by the colonized and enslaved, also signals a shift in postcolonialism away from the Fanonian psychoanalytic subject and preoccupation with melancholia, which arguably provide only ambivalent possibilities of representing subaltern agency. The essays here thus seek to discover what exceeds, escapes, remains outside, or is made new through, around, and in spite of slavery and later formations of white supremacy. Yet they respect the limits of the archive, avoiding fantasies of historical subjects of unfettered agency, resistance, and revolution. This search for modes of being within the plantation structure and succeeding states of exception offers one way to rewrite histories of slavery other than as dehumanization, dispossession, and determinism.
Monique Allewaert’s essay in this issue, “Super Fly: François Makandal’s Colonial Semiotics,” does just this work of reconsidering what counts as knowledge, agency, and object of study in relation to the transnational circuits of eighteenth-century colonial plantation slavery in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti). Allewaert examines the ritual practices of the legendary hero François Makandal, whose fetish making and alleged poisoning of whites, as well as his evasion of execution by transforming into an insect, was said to inspire the Haitian Revolution. She considers the textual evidence in the French colonial archive as well as the vernacular history that circulates in Haiti even today, finding that the archival evidence on Makandal is, in fact, as fully implicated in the very practices of syncretic assemblage it ostensibly documents. That is, both the French colonial text about Makandal’s fetish making that Allewaert examines and Makandal’s fetishes themselves constitute material artifacts that mediate among domains of knowledge, culture, and environment. In this way, she reconsiders the archival text as something that acts on the world, like a fetish, rather than something that provides authoritative knowledge about fetish making. This approach to the artifact checks contemporary scholars’ tendency to privilege colonial European knowledge about enslaved nonwhite peoples and proposes new ways of reading the archive of slavery.
Jeannine DeLombard’s “Dehumanizing Slave Personhood” makes a crucial intervention in black posthumanism by clarifying that slavery recognized and exploited black humanity rather than denying it. For this reason, she argues, we can best understand slavery and its carceral afterlives by focusing on the figure of the legal person rather than the human or citizen. Examining a nineteenth-century case of slave law, United States v. Amy (1859), DeLombard demonstrates how the case shows the “lethal legacy of slave personhood as a debilitating mixture of civil death and criminal culpability.” That is, the law recognized the slave as a legal person primarily to subject her to criminal prosecution and punishment. The result is that slave law naturalized black humanity as criminality, a legacy that persists in the mass incarceration, police misconduct, and racist profiling in US law and culture today, all of which enable the prison-industrial complex to exploit black humanity for profit. Against this criminal visibility and civil invisibility, black people have long offered a politics of counter-civility. Analyzing the dash cam video of Sandra Bland’s encounter with Texas state trooper Brian Encinia in 2015, DeLombard explains how videos of police misconduct reveal in real time and space the confrontation between the criminalization of black people and African Americans’ counterassertions of civil personhood.
Shifting to the early twentieth century, Jarvis C. McInnis’s essay examines circuits of control, communication, and self-determination in plantation spaces of what he calls the global black south. Here the plantation takes a corporate form—in the Delta and Pine Land Company (DPL), which employed thousands of black sharecroppers, tenant farmers, and day laborers in the Mississippi delta, and in the United Fruit Company (UFCO), which operated across the Caribbean and Central America, including the site in Panama he discusses. McInnis uncovers the production and circulation of the Cotton Farmer, a paper published by the black tenant farmers of the DPL and circulated through the DPL’s eighteen plantations in the 1920s. Learning that the Cotton Farmer’s editor received a subscription request from a reader in Panama, which the editor speculated was due to the paper’s positive attitude toward Marcus Garvey, McInnis traces this route, as well as those of laborers who migrated throughout the US South, Caribbean, and Central America, to reveal “a dynamic, yet relatively underexplored geography of black transnational mobility and diasporic affiliation” that works within and against the modern management practices of the corporate plantation. Like Allewaert, McInnis attends to the biopolitical mechanisms of plantation control of bodies, labor, cultural practices, and knowledge, even as plantation laborers enact modes of self-determination, affiliation, and communication within their spatial-political constraints.
Like McInnis, Benjamin Child’s essay, “The Plantation Countermelodies of Dunbar and Du Bois,” proposes that black engagement with agriculture during the most repressive Jim Crow era of sharecropping and tenancy “both reflect[s] and create[s] forms of resistance” despite the structural legacies of slavery. Child argues that Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s plantation poems and W. E. B. Du Bois’s cotton novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911), provide imaginative accounts of agricultural life that transform the necropolitical legacies of the plantation into a politics of possibility by showing how “the subject and the nation are inscribed on the ground itself.” This interembodiment of human and nonhuman nature is not just metaphorical but material and historical in, for example, Dunbar’s poems of a tree used for a lynching or a Civil War battleground that absorbed the miscegenational blood of both black and white soldiers. Contrary to the usual accounts whereby the slave plantation’s transition to Jim Crow tenancy perpetuates black political and personal dispossession, Child traces in Dunbar’s and Du Bois’s “agropolitical texts” a radical black embodied selfhood and political agency grounded in the rural landscape.
Julius B. Fleming Jr. picks up on this reworking of the meaning and effect of southern land and plantation ground in his study of the Free Southern Theater’s staging of radical plays in the Jim Crow South during the civil rights movement. Fleming documents how the Free Southern Theater “used plantations, porches, and cotton fields” in Mississippi to stage plays such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1954) for black audiences. Fleming claims that these time-conscious performances “revise[d] the oppressive histories of time rooted in the material geographies of the US South,” thereby calling audiences to action. In other words, the staging of these plays on the actual grounds of the former slave plantations called attention to the ways that slavery’s necropolitics worked through insisting on or requiring black patience with oppression and suffering in order to change the audience’s relationship to the time and space of the slave plantations and their afterlives.
Roberta Wolfson’s essay “Race Leaders, Race Traitors, and the Necropolitics of Black Exceptionalism in Paul Beatty’s Fiction” also considers spaces of black community and modes of political organizing but in the contemporary postracial moment rather than during the civil rights era. She examines contrasting examples of black exceptionalism—a race hero and a race traitor—in two of Beatty’s novels to explain “the necropolitics of black exceptionalism.” That is, US society celebrates or censures exceptional black figures that are marshaled as evidence of a color-blind society only to entrench the social death and civic exclusion of black people generally. As Wolfson illuminates, Beatty places these singular black celebrities in the contemporary necropolitical sites of the basketball court and the segregated urban neighborhood, comparing these spaces to the plantation and its exploitation of black bodies for white entertainment and profit. Beatty’s satirical fictions counter this exploitation with modest proposals for political agency and affiliation through mass suicide and the reintroduction of slavery and segregation, proposals that Wolfson explores in relation to the fraught question of how to organize effective black activism in the neoliberal present.
In his influential work Habeus Viscus (2014), Weheliye asks what agency or resistance might look like under forms of extreme subjection such as slave plantations or concentration camps (2). Noting the question embeds problems of method and epistemology because the terms resistance and agency tend “to blind us, whether through strenuous denials or exalted celebrations of their existence,” he nonetheless calls for “new modes of analyzing and imagining the practices of the oppressed in the face of extreme violence” (2). This collection goes some of the way toward answering that call. What stands out here is less the brutality and persistence of the plantation and its permutations than the creative agency black people have deployed despite them. From passage into insect life, to assertions of civil presence in the face of police misconduct, to recalibrations of plantation time and space through performance, the essays here excavate the afterlives of bare life and civil death to demonstrate that “racializing assemblages of subjection . . . can never annihilate the lines of flight, freedom dreams, practices of liberation, and possibilities of other worlds” (2).
I would like to thank my coeditor, Zita Nunes, for her comments and suggestions on a draft of this introduction. I would also like to thank Monique Allewaert for her help in conceptualizing the topic of this issue.
Weheliye (2014: 37) notes that Paul Gilroy also connects the plantation to the camp.
For a concise account of the political debates over slavery related to Dred Scott, see Jaffa 2008.
Henry Chambers (2007: 218) says that Dred Scott recognized and accepted “tiered citizenship” and “tiered personhood” under the Constitution, though black people were not afforded any citizenship and their “tier of personhood . . . was well below that of other non-citizens.” In fact, Taney’s opinion denies that any rights adhere to black personhood, though he purposely misreads colonial law to do so.
In practice, US statutes barred many groups based on race and nationality, including Native Americans, from becoming naturalized US citizens. See López 2006 for a legal history of the role of race in naturalization law.
I use Taney’s terminology for race to convey but not to naturalize nineteenth-century conceptions.
Chambers (2007: 218) sums up Taney’s equation of blackness with slavery thus: “Because African slaves had been treated as property when brought to the United States, the Negro race was a degraded one whose degradation was passed on to each of its members. Given that supposed history, free black people were to be treated as free slaves rather than free people with slave ancestors. Indeed, Taney suggested that free black people were regulated more like slaves than like other non-citizens.”