Marronage and the Specter of Black Autonomy

Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (2014) by Sylviane A. Diouf is a compelling, comprehensive, and original study of slaves in the American South who escaped into the wilderness rather than to the North. The term “maroons” was long reserved for use by Latin American and Caribbean historians, while scholarship and popular understanding of American slavery focuses on runaways who sought refuge in white-dominated free society. Reflecting this white-centric bias, 12 Years a Slave, Mississippi Burning, Amistad, and other pop culture representations depict whites as pivotal, whether as villains or saviours. It is Brad Pitt’s white abolitionist who saves Solomon Northrup.

Telling the story of maroons inverts this metanarrative of white hegemony. Thousands of black men, women, and children escaped to the South’s bayous and forests to live singly or build autonomous communities, living off the land, raiding plantations, and sometimes engaging in shootouts with white pursuers. They endured hunger, frostbite, bloodhounds, and armed pursuers to achieve autonomy and dignity, sans white benefactors.

The story of the American maroons is worth telling, and Diouf does a superb job of it.

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