Ethical Geography: How abolitionists used spatial practice to reject their own authority

Ralph Waldo Emerson ca. 1857. 
Photograph: George Eastman House Photography Collection

Assistant professor of English at Florida International University

I. Toward a New New Abolitionism

Abolitionism, the movement formulated in the United States north to bring about an immediate end to slavery in the US south, was, in its moment, the watchword for rabble-rousing, for the unsettling of social hierarchies, for threats to the racial, religious, and economic order. In the hundred and eighty-plus years since its coalescence as a social movement circa 1830, its fortunes have fluctuated wildly. It has been used as a term of approbation or disdain, from the right and from the left, often depending on the racialized politics of assumed knowledge and posited solidarity that accompany its invocation.

Perhaps abolitionism’s most important period of post-hoc reimagining occurred in the middle 1960s, as white academic historians’ late-dawning acknowledgement of the history-making work of the civil rights movement reframed the terms of their inquiry into its clear historical precursor. This watershed in mainstream historiography brought about a new appreciation of the interracial abolitionist movement, a new focus on the pervasiveness of resistance among the enslaved, and the long-overdue granting of testimonial authority of the ex-slave narrative.

However, this important victory for abolitionist historiography—which perhaps tellingly dubbed both its own efforts and those of the civil rights movement “the new abolitionism”— served to magnify the ethical hazards of interracial advocacy, past as well as present.

As the critic Ashraf Rushdy has noted in his indispensible exploration of the emergence of the neo-slave narrative in African American literature of this period, “At precisely the time when academics were responding to the early civil rights movement by producing newly sympathetic histories of American abolitionists, white northern volunteers arrived in Mississippi and demonstrated to the African American social activists just what was problematic about certain kinds of abolitionists. Many of these white students […] were utterly insensitive to the traditions and cultural practices of the African American people of Mississippi. They also seemed to have brought with them the abolitionist belief in their presumed responsibility for the souls of those whom they would save.”

By this account, academics learned from the civil rights movement what they had forgotten about the historical agency abolitionism, even as the micropolitics of interracial cooperation in the present appeared to mark a certain limit to any purely adulatory view of the abolitionist movement. Thus, we might wish to say, as Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested in 1844, “That we are indebted mainly to this movement, and to the continuers of it, for the popular discussion of every point of practical ethics.” But, from a more suspicious angle, we could just as easily find cynicism, careerism, and an early articulation of the formation now widely known as the “white savior complex.”

We can, after all, see such a movement adumbrated in Rushdy’s own language, in which the ethical lapses of “some abolitionists” shade into a generalized “abolitionist belief” in the availability of enslaved African souls for their saving. It is this version of historical abolitionism that has become a synonym for racial discipline disguised as care.

This contemporary view of abolitionism lodges an important critique of liberalism’s tendency to equate self-determination with the acquisition of a white male political subjectivity. However, it leaves another cherished liberal fallacy largely untouched—the notion that history always discloses forward progress, and that the present always has superior critical leverage on the past. The result of this fact for contemporary cultural studies, I argue, is that we have prematurely ruled out the possibility of abolitionist self-critique precisely because we find its offenses so very familiar.

With Abolitionist Geographies, I make a claim for a new “new abolitionism.” One capable of articulating its own ethical risks, and, crucially, one inclined to use the literary imaginary’s status as the realm of the possible as the place to work them through.

Cutting against the image of the abolitionist as prefiguration of the Civil Rights movement’s bluff white college man striding into Mississippi, the literary abolitionism I examine is precisely concerned with the fight against slavery as a problem of spatial practice.

Abolitionist geography is the name I give to the literary mode in which abolitionists ponder solutions to the problem of their own spatial remove from the institution they are trying to overthrow.

II. Mapping Dissent

“I am looking into the map to see where I will go with my children when Boston & Massachusetts surrender to the slave trade.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Geography, especially understood in narrow terms as cartography, often appears to be the very essence of spatialized discipline. The fixing of borders and mapping of terrain is a technology of war, of nation building, and of conquest. Its salient visual orientation—the aerial view—belongs to the surveillance craft and the skyscraper. This angle of vision required by cartography survives in maps as perpetual reminder of the violence of conquest.

When approached from the post-civil rights-era perspective that emphasizes its compromised motives and unconscious biases, abolitionism comes to resemble mapping and map reading in the intimacy it seems to posit between knowledge gleaned from afar and designs for social reorganization imposed from without. As an aesthetic matter, the abolitionist’s angle of vision seems to assume—indeed usurp—the position of the slaveholder by observing slavery from above, the position of authority, rather from below, the position of resistance uncompromised by power and privilege.

Indeed, in contemporary literary and cultural criticism, the prevailing approach to abolitionism has been to deconstruct its claims to moral authority as too enamored of mastery-by-other-means.

Abolitionist Geographies is committed by contrast to the importance of what used to be called “outside agitators” to social protest movements, and the possibility—indeed urgency—of self-critical activism in the past and in the present. Abolitionist Geographies argues that abolitionism developed a spatial vocabulary through which to probe and conditionally resolve its own ethical contradictions.

One nicely compressed example comes from a letter Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to his brother, William, in 1856, during the particularly fraught period around the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In this statement, “the map” is cast not as a technology for mastery at a distance, but rather as a metaphor for New England abolitionists’ increasing sense of themselves as beset on all sides by a hostile state.

Indeed, the period of the late 1850s produced a number of examples of maps and mapping represented as tools of resistance, critique, and subversion, culminating with John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859.

Other examples include:

  •  Harriet Beecher Stowe’s celebration of slave resistance and marronage in Dred (also 1856) in terms of the Great Dismal Swamp’s resistance to mapping:

“The reader who consults the map will discover that the whole eastern shore of the Southern States, with slight interruptions, is belted by an immense chain of swamps, regions of hopeless disorder, where the abundant growth and vegetation of nature, sucking up its forces from the humid soil, seems to rejoice in a savage exuberance, and bid defiance to all human efforts either to penetrate or subdue.”

  • The white antislavery militant Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s admiring biographical sketch of Nat Turner, which circulates a apocryphal story of the rebel as map-reader:

“To this day there are traditions among the Virginia slaves of the keen devices of ‘Prophet Nat.’ If he was caught with lime and lampblack in hand, conning over a half-finished county-map on the barn-door, he was always ‘planning what to do if he were blind;’ or ‘studying how to get to Mr. Francis’s house.”

  •  The Black nationalist Martin Delany’s novel of transnational slave revolt, Blake; Or, the Huts of America, which represented the enslaved person’s escape north in terms of a navigator’s ability to travel long distances by scanning the skies:

After a few minutes “busily engaged with a pencil and paper” the rebel Henry Blake composed a diagram of Ursa Major, and then instructed a group of aspiring fugitives on how to read the relative positions of the stars as the means to find “the North star, the slave’s great Guide to Freedom.”

In contrast to the master’s aerial view, that is, Delany offers a lesson in astronomy as a revolutionary bottom-up alternative, one that can start anywhere, and lead anywhere, and that can be made readily available to the enslaved.

In Abolitionist Geographies, I examine a range of such spatial expressions of abolitionist dissent. Beginning with the 1830s, I trace abolitionists’ attempts to glean lessons from the problematic imperial administration of British West Indian emancipation for their own explicitly anti-authoritarian purposes. In the1840s, I examine Garrisonian abolitionists’ efforts to spatialize the problem of their complicity with slavery, what Garrison called “the guilt of New England,” through the controversial geographic metaphor of “disunion.” Finally, for the period of intensified crisis on the eve of the Civil War, I trace abolitionists’ increasing investment in paramilitary tactics as a spatial manifestation of their ethical claims.  


Martha Schoolman is assistant professor of English at Florida International University. She is the author of Abolitionist Geographies and coeditor of the essay collection Abolitionist Places.

“Abolitionist Geographies offers exciting new ways of thinking about place, time, politics, and form in the antislavery writings of such important antebellum writers as Emerson, William Wells Brown, Martin Delany, and Stowe. Drawing on recent work in diasporic and hemispheric studies, Schoolman shows how key writers of the time made use of spatial experimentation to conceive of the nation well beyond North and South sectionalism. Abolitionist Geographies poses a fresh challenge to scholars of the period to address matters of nation and geography more complexly.”—Robert S. Levine, author of Dislocating Race and Nation

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