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Through the Muck and Mire: Marronage, Representation, and Memory in the Great Dismal Swamp

  • Author(s): Golden, Kathryn B. Elise Benjamin
  • Advisor(s): Small, Stephen
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation is a critical examination of both the history of the Dismal Swamp maroon communities (independent and resistant communities of individuals some would label “runaway slaves”) and of the politics of race and representation of enslaved resistance in public historical narratives and in local Black collective memory. Principally, this is a critical exploration of the legacies of slavery and enslaved resistance evidenced by Black people’s resilience in and around the swamp across time – from maroon resilience through the physical swamp muck and mire, an appealing alternative to bondage, to the present-day resilience of Black community memory of enslaved people’s historical agency, in spite of the metaphysical muck and mire, or the entanglement of race and power that too often silences the narrative of Black resistance.

Once recently an extremely understudied and under-researched topic, my research on the history and legacy of U.S. marronage advances the fields of slavery, public history, and collective memory by: (1) connecting the activities of the Dismal Swamp maroons to a hemispheric Black tradition not merely of flight, but organized violence against slaveholding societies as freedom and self-defense; (2) comprehensively clarifying the specificity of U.S. marronage through a reconceptualization of the phenomenon that fundamentally includes all slaveholding contexts; (3) emphasizing the erasure and marginalization of enslaved resistance, and marronage in particular, in public historical representation, distinct from previous studies in the fields of public history and collective memory that focus on representational silences surrounding the Civil War or plantation slavery more broadly; and (4) by utilizing the voices of descendants of the enslaved as central to the recovering and uncovering of the historical legacy of the Dismal Swamp maroons.

This interdisciplinary project benefits from the use of mixed methods and the methodology of restorative and transformative history. This is the labor of reconstructing and reconnecting with the past toward social change. Racialized and oppressed peoples’ knowledge about the swamp, about history, and their generational memory are key sources in this project. I place them in conversation with written historical archives, with the archaeological record, and with the ethnography of race and representation in the present cultural landscape of the Dismal Swamp. My methodology approaches the swamp as a living archive from which ongoing freedom struggles and racial oppression can be can be read and can be learned from, across time.

The first part of the dissertation focuses on U.S. marronage, its relationship to the maroons of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the activities of maroon communities in the Great Dismal Swamp, a huge morass of swampland straddling the Virginia/North Carolina eastern seaboard. The swamp once covered the space of two thousand square miles and is thought to have contained tens of thousands of self-emancipated individuals throughout the period of 1700-1865. I weigh the historical scale, scope, and impact of marronage in the swamp and its surrounding cities and counties. I investigate autonomous maroon and enslaved community building and organized, collaborative, insurrectionary maroon and enslaved networks of freedom along the peripheries of the swamp. I argue that the presence of the swamp itself greatly influenced opportunities for enslaved resistance, as the rise of marronage and insurrection by the early 19th century threatened the very foundation of the surrounding plantation world, as evidenced by the attempted rebellions of 1792 and 1800-1802.

The second part of this dissertation examines the present-day relationships between the suppression of the history of enslaved agency, marronage, and resistance in public history, and collective memory. I point to the defining role race plays in power struggles for historical representation and the building of memory (or forgetting) about slavery and marronage throughout the swamp’s built landscape. I analyze texts, plaques, signs, markers, tour narratives, and other discourse at twenty-seven historical sites and sites that publicly inform the historical significance of the Dismal Swamp and the surrounding Tidewater region of Virginia and North Carolina, to examine the ways these institutions (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Services, museums, historical societies) control the narratives about the swamp and its interpretive significance. I find that institutional practices of representation privilege the historical and present “logic of whiteness” that minimizes, distorts, segregates, or silences histories involving white culpability and the experiences of those that challenge the status quo. This is particularly applicable to those pasts shaped by Black autonomy (marronage) and violent protest. But despite these silences and ensuing struggles for more equitable and just historical representation, interviews with thirty-two Black people living around the swamp today show how Black communities continue to contest dominant epistemes and create alternative spaces of knowledge and resilient memory that are self-validating, empowering, and that directly inform local Black identity, place, and belonging.

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