A collaborative review of Frances Botkin’s Thieving Three-Fingered Jack and Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism. Reviewed by Gabriella I. Johnson & Gregory Pierrot
Marronage and Discomfort with the Black Rebel: a Collaborative Review
Gabriella I. Johnson, New York University
Gregory Pierrot, University of Connecticut—Stamford
Greg: Frances Botkin’s Thieving Three-Fingered Jack is a cultural history that makes the deceptively simple but necessary argument that things are always more complex than they seem. Botkin’s careful exploration of the figure of Three-Finger’d Jack as he came to us in cultural production, but as importantly in the collective memory of Jamaican Maroons themselves, is an injunction to take portrayals (and these sit at the confluence of history and fiction, I suppose) with a grain of salt. As she unpacks how the fictions of Three-Finger’d Jack intersect with what is known of the events from English publications and Maroon accounts and history, we’re reminded that in memory (and forgetting), storytelling is indeed a practice of community-making and politics. Those practices in turn intersect at odd and sometimes unexpected angles. For instance, Botkin speaks of “the black rebel as a colonial fetish and object of admiration, if not desire” (53). This idea is straightforward, but its implications are incredibly complex. The role and position of Maroons in Jamaica specifically and the Americas at large exemplify such complexity, given that they were sometimes in opposition, sometimes in restricted collaboration with the colonial system. Botkin also suggests in further chapters how these dynamics remain and resonate in how we engage with the texts in our day. Her analysis shows how some of the most basic structures of storytelling—the protagonist, focal point, etc.—routinely participate in and perpetuate systems of oppression that thrive on simplicity. What we learn about marronage and autonomy here is that what about them might be considered heroic is precisely what doesn’t pass the usual muster of heroism—it is in the sometimes unpalatable agreements and actions communities have to resort to in order to guarantee their members’ survival, for example.
What we learn about marronage and autonomy here is that what about them might be considered heroic is precisely what doesn’t pass the usual muster of heroism—it is in the sometimes unpalatable agreements and actions communities have to resort to in order to guarantee their members’ survival, for example.
In thinking about Robinson’s Black Marxism and Botkin’s Thieving, I would say that one thing they have in common is an interest for maroon collective endeavor. Although there is no separating them, Robinson is more concerned with a political endeavor, whereas Botkin puts more of an emphasis on the cultural. Robinson highlights the role of Jamaican Maroons in his genealogy of political thought. For that reason he mostly refers to their struggle against colonial oppression. In fact, when it comes specifically to Jamaican Maroons, I believe he does not mention their treaties with English colonial authorities (though he does in other examples). Far from me to make this a flaw in a book that touches on so many things at once, but this is arguably a way in which Robinson and Botkin’s books can be put in dialogue, and in a cycle so to speak. Robinson has his own story to tell. He does relatively little with literature per se in this book, but he repeatedly reminds us that what we know of historical events is necessarily wound up in the interests and intents that dictated the way the historical record was built. Discussing the Baptist War of 1831, for example, he states “the construction of events is that bequeathed by the interrogators” (161); further on, discussing the way the events are portrayed in those documents, he writes, tongue in cheek, “In all a very neatly drawn scenario” (161). His book of course means to debunk and complicate this scenario, among others, but unavoidably it does so with its own. Again, I don’t see this as a flaw: stories are how we make sense of historical events. Robinson’s dedication to making collectives the center of history I believe is echoed in Botkin’s work on one figure, into whose representations she finds different collectives, their political, cultural and historical imperatives radiating.
Gabriella: I agree that Botkin’s curation of diverse representations and reproductions of a single figure demonstrates the maxim that things are rarely as simple as they may seem. Focusing on the various ways that Three-Fingered Jack has been “thieved” across Atlantic history and culture, her book is not an attempt to provide his “true story,” but rather to examine how the materials of his life are written, arranged, reimagined as a means of (re)constructing the world. In her words, the book examines “what different permutations of this transatlantic story tell us about storytelling in the Atlantic world” (21). Her analysis illustrates how the same figure can be narrated for divergent ends, from propping up the colonial regime to memorializing and imagining Black freedom struggle.
The book’s dissatisfaction with simplicity calls the reader’s attention to those moments in the text where Botkin reduces the legend of Three-Fingered Jack to its component parts. She does this, it seems, to get the reader on the same page regarding the basics of Jack’s story, but even these simplifications are reproductions of his story that generate meaning. For instance, on the first page of the book she writes, “A thief and a killer, Jack was also a freedom fighter who sabotaged the colonial machine until his grisly death at its behest” (1). This formulation attempts to characterize Jack as a figure rife with contradiction, wedging in an “also” that implies (or reveals) a common-sense notion that “freedom fighter” is at odds with “thief” and “killer.” The sentence is working from a particular understanding of morality without acknowledging that presupposition. (Later she writes that “slavery and colonization blurred traditional boundaries of right and wrong,” without interrogating the “traditions” out of which those boundaries are erected .) The sentence does not imagine that these identities could be already compatible rather than contradictory. In contrast, Cedric Robinson’s account of slave rebellions – which included destroying plantations, plantation owners, and other whites – demonstrates how the behaviors of killing and stealing are practices of freedom fighting.
Greg: Your point about Botkin’s hesitation regarding Jack’s moral valence gets to essential elements of anticolonial and anticapitalist traditions of struggle and, crucially, their representations. I agree with you that there can be no discussion of morals in colonial surroundings without questioning the meaning of the term in those circumstances. What makes a thief or a killer in a society where the same person who was considered property could have been killed in the street with impunity? Isn’t Jack only symbolically a freedom fighter, in his recuperation by admirers?
He is, as Botkin discusses as well, a “bad man,” and the subversive potential of bad men makes them scandalous favorites among the oppressed the world around. Bad men like Jack, Stagger Lee, Mandrin the French highwayman, etc. all derived from real-life people, do not even pretend to work for the people. In a slightly perverse way, it is precisely their utter and shameless individualism that makes them heroes. I would argue that what, if anything, makes them subversive, and possibly (symbolic) freedom fighters is that they shine a light on the hypocrisy of the economic and social system from which they sprung. We remain familiar with this characterization, of course—intimately too, inasmuch as the postcolonial period is also the time when colonial forms of policing came home to roost, so to speak. I’m thinking of France, here, particularly, but really we see it echoed every day in the way victims of police violence are criminalized as a matter of course, no matter the circumstances in which they have been brutalized. It is difficult not to bring up Fanon here, when he writes that “the colonial world is a Manichean world,” and “the native… represents not only the absence of values, but also the negation of values. He is... the absolute evil” (Wretched). And yet, if all subversive action in a colonial system is ‘evil,’ not all ‘evil’ action is necessarily subversive.
Gabriella: Another moment in which Botkin provides an occasion for thinking about the complexities of marronage and anti-colonial struggle happens when she links Three-Fingered Jack to Black Lives Matter: “In its most basic form, the story of Jack Mansong tells the tale of a black man who resisted white authority and died for it, killed by the lackeys of a police state” (14). Jack was killed and decapitated by Maroons. In the previous formulation, Jack’s death is attributed to “the colonial machine” – granting the Maroons no autonomy – and here it is attributed to “lackeys” – granting the Maroons perhaps too much autonomy, and degrading them in the process. These simplifications alongside Botkin’s more complicated analyses bespeak the varying levels of autonomy the Maroons had as they worked within and against the colonial apparatus, as well as the multiple forms of marronage that can be practiced based on these levels of autonomy. As Botkin puts it, “The inextricable relationship between Jack and the Maroons who killed him creates a critical space to think about different ways to practice marronage” (8). When interrogating the (representations of) the relationship between Jack and the Maroons, it is also important to keep colonial power in mind because, as Botkin notes, the Maroons “tactically shifted their loyalties [to the colonial treaties] to protect their freedom” (27). This ever-shifting matrix of relations suggests something about the continual construction of freedom-fighting practices.
Greg: I do agree that calling the Maroons ‘lackeys’ is problematic, to say the least, especially considering how much Botkin means to include Maroon voices, then and now, into her tapestry. Her own book demonstrates that the Maroons feature in a much more complex position in the Jamaican colonial system and history. This slippages expose the terms of our scholarly work and the difficulty of maintaining a critical, measured outlook on material so ideologically fraught, and dealing with institutional surroundings and demands of our own, and whose pressure we do not always question directly. In evoking the story’s “most basic form,” Botkin provides simultaneously an angle and an interpretation—in many of the fictionalized versions of Jack’s story, Maroons tend to be either champions of Christianity and English civilization, or servants of oppression—nuance can get in the way of drama. She singles out the heroic version of Jack rather than the antiheroic, arguably, but I don’t think she necessarily condones it. Still: everybody likes a revolutionary hero. And in this, this sentence evokes to me an issue one may run into often in Haitian Revolutionary Studies—support for the revolution is taken for granted (who in 2020 would disagree with a slave revolt?), but many scholars have much to say about the so-called ‘unfinished revolution’: i.e. the fact that Dessalines created an Empire rather than a Republic, in short that the state of Haiti was not as much of a liberal democracy as one might have hoped. The similarity I see here is in ‘disappointment’ (not always spoken) with the Maroons for compromising with colonial authorities—for being ‘lackeys,’ then. It would be so much simpler if Maroons had never treated with colonial authorities. They’d be better heroes in this sense. But that is a fundamental difference between Jamaican Maroons and Jack, or what we have of him, which is mostly a myth—Maroons lived, and they made a community, and maintaining a community alive demands sacrifices, compromises, tactical choices, etc. There is no purity in politics or survival. I’ve said elsewhere that I’m not in the habit of judging the decisions of the enslaved—but our primary texts do nothing but.
There is a connection to these concerns in anarchist ‘illegalism’—in a French context (my background), the obvious example would be the Bonnot gang at the turn of the 20th century, who robbed banks and rich people for a time. They also had an ambiguous aura, with a certain support in the working class and profound hatred as well from all parts of society. Their feats led to French anarchist movements breaking from illegalism and so-called individualist anarchism, and this term I think also sheds light on the discomfort Botkin or anyone else really might feel at Three-Finger’d Jack. Jack’s actions may indeed qualify as subversive, to the extent that he is an enemy of the colonial state, but the question remains: if actions benefit only one or a small group of individuals, do they truly amount to freedom fighting? If an enslaved person fights for themself only, they necessarily challenge the colonial order, but is it necessarily revolutionary? The last lines of Botkin’s book address just this issue, by way of Colonel Lumsden and Colonel Sterling’s comments: “Three-Fingered Jack robbed and killed for his freedom, using guerilla methods that impressed even fierce Maroon warriors. Freedom fighting, however, takes different forms” (171).
I have written elsewhere about the fact that so many colonial texts that often seem to offer a modicum of admiration or support for the Black protagonist also will suggest that Jack was a revolutionary—thus merging elements that do not necessarily belong to his story so much as to a long history of revolt in the slaveholding Americas. But in so doing they systematically subsume collective action to the will, or extraordinary presence of the one hero. Often, in those scenarios, the hero is betrayed by the mass of his followers—he alone is admirable, while the mass are groveling fools. Earle’s Obi evokes Behn’s Oroonoko in this way—he ends up fighting along with his pregnant wife, having cursed his followers as ‘natural slaves.’ These are the morals of slave society: the idea that while some extraordinary people may have been enslaved by mistake, some are slaves by nature. There is no individual arc that can possibly challenge such an outlook, and it explains the universal popularity of ‘bad men’ narratives: their challenge against authority taking place at an individual level is antithetical to actual freedom fighting. But it is pleasing—and it reinforces the comfortable dichotomies and simplifications we struggle to depart from.
As such, I don’t think there is actually such a thing as “individual rebellion.” There can’t be an “enslaved person that fights for themself only.” That is a narrative construct that depends on and reproduces liberalist values. In life, the rebellion that a so-called individual enacts is the visible sign of accumulated, collective rebellious action and thought. And, it will produce subsequent rebellions that are therefore never “individual,” either.
Gabriella: Your reflections on the individualism central to stories about Jack are useful for thinking about the perceived ongoing tensions between individual and collective, reform and revolution. I agree that stories about Jack that figure him as an individual rebel betray the storytellers’ liberalist assumptions and desires. You write that individual freedom may be cited as the drive for freedom struggle even as it remains “distinct from” freedom struggle. I wonder about this formulation because I don’t think that neat distinctions can be drawn – as you later write, “There is no purity in politics.” In further deliberation about the role of the individual in freedom work, you ask, “if actions benefit only one or a small group of individuals, do they truly amount to freedom fighting? If an enslaved person fights for themself only, they necessarily change the colonial order, but is it necessarily revolutionary?” These are great questions that again bring us back to a need to define “freedom fighting” and “revolutionary,” two things that can never be definitively described. They are processes that are ongoing and interdependent; the first halves of your questions gesture toward an open content that may define freedom fighting and revolutionary struggle in one moment and not necessarily in the next. As Angela Davis teaches, freedom is a constant struggle – our freedom fighting and revolutionary action today produces a new terrain for such work tomorrow. As such, I don’t think there is actually such a thing as “individual rebellion.” There can’t be an “enslaved person that fights for themself only.” That is a narrative construct that depends on and reproduces liberalist values. In life, the rebellion that a so-called individual enacts is the visible sign of accumulated, collective rebellious action and thought. And, it will produce subsequent rebellions that are therefore never “individual,” either.
As you mention, the popularity of the singular Black protagonist, the “bad man,” in colonial texts discloses the comfort and pleasure that the writers of those texts find in containing freedom fighting at the individual level. Anyone who subscribes to the story that freedom fighting begins and ends at the individual limits their own revolutionary imagination. Anyone who tries to do the work of freedom fighting soon learns that it neither starts nor ends with the individual. Given this, I don’t think the individual level itself is “antithetical” to freedom fighting; rather, it is the elision of interdependence in these narratives that risks sabotaging freedom fighting. In this context, it is fascinating how Botkin’s book appears as a story about an exceptional individual – and at times animates that narrative – but also uses a cultural obsession with that individual to trace the interdependencies of communities across centuries and geographies.
Greg: There is something here at the heart of Botkin's engagement with the story of Jack in all its forms that engages with the notion of individual rebellion, which you define as "a narrative construct that depends on and reproduces liberalist values." I agree, but I wonder if Jack’s story has been, or can be, told in any other way. I wonder to what extent these are the default values of most forms of linear narrative, in fact, but that may be a discussion for another day. Actively opposing them demands enormous and constant self-awareness and effort on the part of the storyteller—something which is missing from most of the versions of Jack's story that we have and use, and which in turn is precisely what drives Robinson to emphasize Black collective action in his own ‘historytelling. ’ He makes a crucial point in his conclusion, echoes of which certainly resound in Michel-Rolph Trouillot's Silencing the Past: “though rebellion might appear warranted to the Europeans who witnessed the uprisings of African peoples, the forms that Black resistance assumed were incomprehensible” (309). I believe elements of our conversation over “freedom fighting” and revolution follow the same pattern. We are bound to use a vocabulary and language that is non-Black, if not profoundly anti-Black, by design, and in the process we perhaps miss out. This is what you were pointing out in my own comments regarding 'individual rebellion.' Terms like 'revolution' evoke overthrowing regimes and states, concerns that rather clearly did not matter as such to 18th century enslaved or to the Maroons. We can portray quilombos as state forms, but in doing so we miss much of their intent and practice. To quote Robinson further, “Black slave resistance naturally evolved to marronage as the manifestation of the African's determination to disengage, to retreat from contact… When separation was not possible, open revolts might fester; where rebellion was immediately impractical, the people prepared themselves through obeah, voodoo, Islam, and Black Christianity. Through these they induced charismatic expectations, socializing and hardening themselves and their young with beliefs, myths, and messianic visions that would allow them, someday, to attempt the impossible.” (310) In this Robinson’s words also support your point that Jack’s rebellion will always “produce subsequent rebellions.”
Yet I still do believe this network functions mostly at the narrative and symbolic level, and not quite as neatly when it comes to actions themselves; not now in the 21st century, in any case. When you say “Anyone who subscribes to the story that freedom fighting begins and ends at the individual limits their own revolutionary imagination. Anyone who tries to do the work of freedom fighting soon learns that it neither starts nor ends with the individual,” I feel like you gloss over the distance between analysis and action, “subscribing to the story” and “doing the work of freedom fighting.” Story and acts are related, but not neatly: one can subscribe to a story (or not) and perform revolutionary acts, but one can also subscribe to revolutionary beliefs and never do anything beyond stating said beliefs—something I would not characterize as a revolutionary act, however difficult defining the nature of such an act might be. Ultimately I think I may be as uncomfortable declaring writing equivalent to fighting as I am declaring writing equivalent to marronage--I think it too easily lets us off the hook from having to critique our own position in circles of power such as the institutions where we work. Robinson contrasts the scholarly, ultimately top-down approach of a Du Bois or a James with that of a Richard Wright for whom “whatever the objective forces propelling a people toward struggle, resistance, and revolution, they would come to that struggle in their own cultural terms” (315). Tellingly for me, when Botkin engages with just such terms in her book, Jack’s legacy appears more ambivalent than ever, and not just for Maroons. If there is a ‘badman’ line connecting Jack to Dudus Coke (and other “shotta dons”), the latter’s reputation rests in no small part on what he did do for their community as “benevolent, brutal and beloved patriarch” (161). Our analyses for the most part rest on published, white variations of Jack’s story, and seldom on the local Black renditions of the same. This, of course, is where Botkin’s book shines the brightest, in making the effort of putting traditional literary analysis with what Robinson calls with poetic efficacy “the resonances of Black [American] consciousness in its contests with reality” (315).
Gabriella: What are your thoughts on her claim to practicing “discursive marronage” (19) and the other stories she tells about herself as a researcher?
Greg: I have to say I’m not so sure about “discursive marronage” as metaphor for academic practice of any kind. I’m no fan of metaphors that borrow from slavery, partly because, historically they’ve contributed to downplaying the horrors of slavery. I’m thinking of how Enlightenment-era European thinkers systematically compared their situation to slavery, for example. But I’m also wary of marronage metaphors in particular (Botkin is not, of course, the only scholar to speak of metaphorical marronage, she’s in illustrious company) even when they come from African diasporic writers. But then, surely that metaphor signifies much differently when for example the Martinican poet Césaire addresses the Haitian poet Depestre for what he saw as subservience to obsolete, European poetic forms (and the Communist party). But, quite simply, Césaire would never have asked a white poet “marronerons-nous?” (“will we maroon?”). This to me is especially important in light of Robinson’s book, and the Black radical tradition he delineates. Marronage signifies differently for writers and thinkers of the African diaspora. So in my opinion, there is a necessarily racial dimension to Botkin’s claim and it does bother me, perhaps even more because it is applied to scholarly writing. Still, it feels to me like an exaggeration of the stakes of our work, and a bit like it downplays the circumstances, strictures and structures in which that work is produced.
I take it that ‘discursive marronage’ most likely means to evoke ‘petit marronage’: temporary flight, small acts of sabotage, with a foot still on the plantation, of necessity. But is a certain form of academic discourse the slavery that one is stepping away—however temporarily, partially, radically—from? Is discursive marronage jeopardizing colonial academic discourse? In what way? I believe there is space for innovative, challenging work in academic publishing, and I appreciate how much of what Botkin does strays away from more traditional academic literary criticism, as well as I appreciate her accounting for the difficulty of moving from archive to counterarchive, paper to people, that she describes on the same page. Botkin speaks of creolizing institutions—I suppose I’m not convinced that our publications have much influence on our institutions. I don’t see this as a pessimistic or negative point—simply that I do think that if there is discursive marronage, it does imply a life—however episodic or temporary—outside of our institutions. Marronage was only ever the first step to challenging the institution of slavery anyway.
Gabriella: I share your annoyance with metaphors that borrow from slavery. They are harmful, in the way you describe, and they are simply unnecessary. That said, I do think Botkin’s description of her method is compelling (an editor could simply have erased the naming of the method “a kind of discursive marronage”): “luck, intrepidity, and trial and error. Reading across genres, periods, and nations … whereby I mimic, engage with, resist, and depart from different academic methods and disciplines” (19). I am also hesitant to assert that these methods step outside of academic discourse or “creolize” academic institutions. Perhaps they open space for a mode of thinking that one day makes the abolition of the institution common sense. Perhaps. Or, more likely, they may state this intention to change academic habits while still perpetuating them and writing the white scholar as dominant. Here I am thinking about the “translations” of the Afro-Jamaican oral histories into what Botkin un-self-reflexively calls “Standard English” (149), as well as the scene of her meeting a “very angry man” during the course of her research: “Instead of Jamaica’s famed violence, I experienced warmth and welcome just about everywhere I went. Once, just once, a very angry man demanded of me (in language harsher than I describe here), ‘What are you doing here?’ His question, I think, held merit, even if his hostile approach did not. What is a white American academic doing in random parts of Jamaica researching a project about a black outlaw of the eighteenth century?” (19, italics original). The writing of this anecdote exemplifies a pattern of white people believing they have the power to regulate the language, emotions, and approaches of Black people. (Granted, she does not explicitly state that this was a Black man, but in any event, her writing of the anecdote implies as much, with the language of anger, hostility, and “Jamaica’s famed violence”.)
Greg: Botkin points to links between the stories of Three-Fingered Jack and Black Lives Matter--how do you read her work in a similar light, in a moment when national and international conversations bear on the political dimension of every form of discourse?
Gabriella: The first moment that Botkin attempts to tie her research to Black Lives Matter is right after she writes the legend of Three-Fingered Jack “in its most basic form,” recasting the narrative elements in such a way that she thinks will demonstrate the story’s resonance with ongoing global struggle against police states. Botkin writes, “The story of a racist police state persists today … Sometimes the black man is armed, and sometimes he’s not; recent statistics show that in the United States, mostly he is not. Sometimes he has committed a crime, and sometimes he has not. Sometimes his crime is being poor, black, and angry, and sometimes he gets incarcerated instead of killed; sometimes he kills the cop … This black avenger has been criminalized and victimized, but he also represents a powerful stance against white oppression. He has inspired the voices that rightly insist that Black Lives Matter” (14). This passage confused me for many reasons, including the unremarked double-use of the word “crime” and the swift transformation of a Black person killed by police into a “black avenger.” I think for the book to compellingly connect the legend of Jack Mansong to the 21st century Black Lives Matter movement, it would need a chapter-length engagement with an example and explication of the claim “sometimes he kills the cop.” In the spirit of intellectual community, another scholar may use Botkin’s Thieving Three-Fingered Jack as a point of departure for theorizing the relationship between stories people tell about Jack and stories people tell about Black Lives Matter, between eighteenth-century marronage and twenty-first-century Black liberation struggles.