Intervention – Liberalism’s Slavery and the Geographies of Freedom

Chris Taylorby Christopher Taylor, University of Chicago

Almost immediately following Barak Obama’s re-election, an image began circulating through Twitter and Facebook that positioned the electoral cartography in a particular historical trajectory. The image is composed of two maps arranged along a vertical axis. The first, entitled ‘Election Results 2012’, depicts how states broke in the 2012 election. The second, doubly entitled ‘Civil War Map 1846’ and ‘Free and Slave States, Before the Civil War’, depicts which states and territories allowed (or disallowed) slavery in their domains. The viewer’s eye moves from the first map to the second, from the top to the bottom, from the present to the past. She learns that states that allowed slavery form the bloc of states that broke for Romney. Implicitly, the spacing of slavery structures the spacing of our political present; the former rests beneath the latter as its historical and ideological foundation. Slavery assumes the tense of a durative present. If the viewer’s gaze moves through time, history itself remains static. Or statist.

Electoral Maps, Antebellum MapsI was disconcerted by the image and the kinds of reactions it generated. Many responded to the image with some variation of “Interesting…” or “That explains a lot.” But what, really, could these juxtaposed maps explain? For whom, and for what political project, could this image be apprehended as making something explicable or historically coherent? In a post entitled ‘Electoral Maps, Antebellum Maps: Or, How Liberal Self-Satisfaction Dissolves History into a Racist Mess‘, I argued that this image was functional for a racist liberalism. This liberalism constitutes itself by inscribing itself in the durative present of slavery. In so doing, it poses the Democratic voting bloc that propelled Obama to victory as the inheritor of Northern freedom. This freedom achieves only a minimal form: freedom appears as the spatial negation of slavery. The two maps work together to produce a cartography of freedom minimally defined by what states do—how they vote, how they develop legal regimes opposed to slavery. Confronting racial neoliberalism, the future-anterior of state liberalism (Obama’s “hope” and “change”) grounds itself in the past of antislavery, articulating a liberal narrative of progress in which states today will have been as successful in maintaining freedom as Northern states had been historically. The space of freedom is preformed as state space and, indeed, it is the state that bears the modifier ‘free’. But—and this is the critical question I posed—were the freedom dreams of antislavery activists isomorphic with state space? Why do our imaginaries devolve to these statist cartographies?

In the antebellum world, the space of freedom was never coextensive with or isomorphic to the space of states. From the work of C L R James, Julius Scott, Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh, David Kazanjian, Sybille Fischer, Rebecca Scott, Cassandra Pybus, Jane Landers, Sara Johnson, and many more, we know that Atlantic creoles’ worlds of freedom materialized above and below the unit of the state. This isn’t to say that slaves and free blacks never sought recourse to state protections or that they never embedded themselves within statist territorialities. It is rather to say that the geography of states was subordinate to a more unruly, anarchic, entangled geography of (possible) freedom, one fleetingly assembled by practical, on-the-ground negotiations with or resistances to unfreedom. Established states contested and attempted disciplining these alternative cartographies of freedom at the time of their emergence. (Just think of the US engagements with Spanish Florida, for instance, or the infamous Negro Seamen’s Act.) We participate in this disciplining when the spaces of freedom are recoded and remembered as state spaces—when states provide the condition of possibility for making freedom or unfreedom legible.

Positing a continuity between antebellum state structures and contemporary electoral zonings, the image renders this non-statist history of black freedom illegible—this history of substantive freedom, a freedom that attaches not to state structures but to embodied practices taking place in lived worlds. This illegibility is comforting for liberalism, which has to misremember histories of freedom in order to maintain hope for its future. Indeed, as my post circulated through Facebook and Twitter, liberal respondents took me to task for raising the question of freedom. This map, they asserted, is about racial slavery and racial voting, the continuities between slavery, Reconstruction, and the racialization of electoral politics today. Do I think that histories of slavery can explain nothing about our present? I was encouraged, in short, to not talk about freedom, to get back to the work of critiquing the endurance of slavery in our political present, to return to a discursive terrain comfortable for liberal ideology. I was encouraged to talk about slavery so as to allow liberalism to quietly conscript a history of freedom that always exceeded liberalism’s mode of spacing.

This conscription of freedom allows Obama liberals to pass off the state as the only game in town, as the only instrument capable of maintaining and protecting freedom—however minimal and attenuated this freedom may be. Indeed, as the bankruptcy of parliamentary modes of political life becomes more and more apparent to ordinary people—those, say, who participated in Occupy last year, or those who, in the wake of Obama’s reelection, turned to the petition as a means of redressing deficiencies in mechanisms of voting—people not only need to be conducted to participate in the state, but need also to learn to not expect too much from this participation. By coding the political present through the enduring present of slavery, the image performs both operations. Voting for Obama appears as akin to supporting the free spaces of the antebellum U.S., but this similitude also makes clear that the effects of such support won’t amount to a wholesale revolution. We’re imaginatively in 1846, after all, far from the juridical generalization of freedom. We can’t expect too much. Progress is slow. This is the future-anterior of liberalism: We will have been free. Until then, endure.

And thus the scandal of the unruly, anarchic, entangled geography of (possible) freedom, the scandal that the image manages by elision. This geography orients our imaginaries from the state toward other worlds, toward forms of life produced by those whom history would like to remember as subjects requiring pastoral care. This transnational geography shows freedom not as the product of a kind of temporal endurance, as something that will-have-come, as that for which one hopes, but as something that one seizes—and, indeed, as that which seizes one, dragging one across spaces, tracing out a not-too-comfortable world of negotiation and flight. What if we were to approach our contemporary moment not from the durative present of slavery but from the odd tense of a forgotten freedom, this freedom that did not wish to endure slavery but that attempted to flourish against, outside, and inside its spaces? A history of freedom that moves, that continues to move, leaving tracks illegible to those who see like—and through—a state? On this question, the image is silent.

Chris is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Chicago. His research and teaching focuses on the hemispheric Americas in the 19th century, exploring how these islands were linked to worlds beyond the boundaries of the British Empire. Working at the edges of economic history, political theory, and literary studies, Chris studies how West Indian creoles drew on the ideas and texts that circulated through these entangled worlds to develop norms and model polities opposed to slavery, economic liberalism, and expansionist imperialism. He blogs at and his work has appeared in American Literature and Social Text.


  1. Phil Hood

    I don’t think one has to be a kneejerk liberal to find fascination in the map. I grew up in the south. It didn’t surprise me at all but made me wonder anew about the power of culture to linger long after its initial causes are gone. When Kennedy was shot I remember standing in the living room as my Dad’s cousin said “that nigger lover got what was coming to him.” My father, who voted for Kennedy, had to remain fairly silent, when around his mom’s relatives. Of course, slaves and emancipated blacks fought for freedom even within the confines of unfree states. But I think it was natural to look to the government for help. There are many kinds of freedom and a couple of main ones are enforced or confiscated by government, but they are incredibly important. I think I’ll read the blog. It looks good.