Practices of (Micro)Marronage

Manbos, Solidarity, Détours, and Heritage in Fabienne Kanor’s Humus

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
Aaron Thomas Witcher The Penn State University U.S.A. State College PA

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While marronage has come to symbolize paradigmatic resistance to slavery, and by extension colonialism, its primary sense—that of flight from the plantation—has not sufficiently attended to the modes of resistance employed by enslaved women who enacted other, multitudinous forms of marronage. Yet, by foregrounding the experiences of enslaved women in her novel Humus, Fabienne Kanor broadens and reconceptualizes marronage to include figurative modes of “flight” which occur within the plantation space. Through the figures of the domestic and manbo (Vodou priestess), Kanor shows how praxes effected by enslaved women—in the form of espionage, direct confrontation with Whites, or the cultural transplantation of Vodou—resisted, to the same end as literal flight, the social and cultural erasure of the plantation and its consequent dehumanization of the enslaved.

Martinican author Fabienne Kanor’s novel Humus (2006) figuratively starts in Nantes with an archival trace from the journal of a slave-ship captain dated from the end of the eighteenth century. Therein, the captain explains how 14 enslaved women “leaped overboard, from the deck into the sea, all together and in one movement.”1 The cursory passage in the captain’s journal constitutes the only known trace of these women, whose names, ages, and histories remain effaced. In other words, the novel begins with what Saidiya Hartman calls in “Venus in Two Acts” the “silence in the archive,” where the latter “has for the most part focused the historiography of the slave trade on quantitative matters and on issues of markets and trade relations” as opposed to the histories, cosmologies, and experiences of enslaved people (Hartman 2008:3–4). From this archival silence, indeed foreclosure, Kanor seemingly takes up one of the driving questions in Hartman’s article, namely “how does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death, the account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features?” (Hartman 2008:3). The chapters that follow represent Kanor’s attempt at this sort of “recuperation” or, in her own words, “restitution.”

Indeed, Kanor conjures the voices of the 14 enslaved women—the mute one, the old one, the amazon, the slave, the-one-who-flies, the heiress, et cetera—who each narrate a chapter of the novel to explain their lives before, during, and after capture. Thus, each woman explains her story in her own voice, and together, these voices form a polyvocal chorus to explain the trajectories and circumstances that lead to one of the culminating events of the book: the collective jump of the 14 women from the deck of the slave ship into the Atlantic Ocean’s maw. The novel ends with the narration of the heiress, namely the one who discovered the archival trace of the 14 enslaved women, and who grapples with “restituting” their voices and histories.

Spun throughout the 14 narrations, marronage constitutes an important leitmotif of which the development is most acute in the chapters narrated by the-one-who-flies (also known as Cécile) and the heiress. Indeed, if the-one-who-flies describes her experience as an enslaved domestic and manbo2 (or Vodou priestess) in Saint-Domingue, while the heiress speaks from the standpoint of a contemporary descendant of enslaved women, both recast popular conceptions of marronage in order to better account for enslaved women’s experiences and praxes of resistance.

Marronage in its primary sense, particularly in the context of the Caribbean, refers to “flight” (or escape) from the plantation toward uninhabited and largely inaccessible forested and/or mountain regions. By escaping the plantation, Maroons resisted their exploitation and their commodification, as well as the erasure of customs and traditions of African provenance which, with Article III of the Code Noir of 1685, were officially forbidden. As noted by Sylvia Wynter, the conception of marronage-as-flight has come to symbolize resistance par excellence to slavery in the Caribbean (Wynter [1970s–1980s]). Yet, building on the historian Arlette Gautier’s book Soeurs de solitude (Sisters of solitude), which discusses the conditions of enslaved women in the Caribbean, this article extends the argument that we might enrich conceptions of resistance and egress by recentering conceptualizations of marronage (and thus resistance) on the activities of enslaved women who—in addition to marooning in its strict sense, though in a lower proportion than men—practiced other, important forms of escape and flight.

Gautier argues that while there was a lower incidence of women who marooned in the strict sense, this does not reflect a better situation at the plantation for women; nor is it “acceptance” of such a life as was commonly believed (Gautier 1985:234). Rather, it is symptomatic of differential access to opportunities of this particular form of marronage. Simply put, enslaved men—who occupied more of the skilled labor positions, as confirmed by Bernard Moitt in Women and Slavery in the French Antilles (2001:36)—had more opportunity to maroon via flight. Indeed, enslaved men could potentially work as carpenters, barrel-makers, sawyers, refiners, overseers on a plantation, et cetera—positions which granted them not only remuneration (that was often saved with the ambition of purchasing one’s freedom) but also more liberty of movement (Gautier 1985:197). The only skilled labor position largely available to women, however, was that of seamstress which, while remunerated, did not allow any more mobility within and/or among plantations (Gautier 1985:207). Otherwise, enslaved women mainly worked as field laborers. This gendered breakdown of work and responsibilities on the plantation, according to Gautier,3 made it so that marronage-as-flight was more accessible to enslaved men. While researchers since Gautier, such as Moitt, have highlighted the incidence of enslaved women practicing marronage-as-flight, thereby suggesting that it was nevertheless a form of resistance/escape available to them, the conceit that we might enrich and enlarge conceptions of marronage by focusing on other “maroon” praxes of Black women remains compelling as evinced by recent scholarship that both reevaluates what “counts” as marronage and reinvests the meaning of the latter. In this vein, the respective articles of Shauna Sweeney and Crystal Eddins offer examples of the types of reconceptualizations of marronage that inform my reading of Humus.

Indeed, Sweeney’s article, “Market Marronage: Fugitive Women and the Internal Marketing System in Jamaica,” expands the scope of marronage to include a novel form of flight enacted by enslaved women. Sweeney’s development of what she calls “market marronage,” for example, explores how enslaved women in Jamaica, who were more implicated as traders in the informal economy than men, marooned or escaped to larger towns by using their trading skills as “higglers” or hawkers.4 While discussing the inadequacy of dominant conceptions of marronage—which emphasize the creation of sovereign communities—to account for other forms of escape, Sweeney notes that “fugitive market women invite us to disentangle marronage from formal sovereignty and to conceptualize it as a set of antislavery practices with multiple iterations. The movement and evasion intrinsic to marronage transcended the state form and did not necessarily involve a linear flight from slavery into remote hinter-lands” (Sweeney 2019:204).

Eddins, on the other hand, reexamines the significance of typical forms of marronage (such as fleeing into the mornes) in light of enslaved women’s struggles for reproductive autonomy in her article “ ‘Rejoice! Your wombs will not beget slaves!’ Marronage as Reproductive Justice in Colonial Haiti.” Based on the observation that women in the Maroon community of Maniel in Saint-Domingue had a significantly higher child-to-woman ratio than plantation bondspeople, Eddins contends that marronage for enslaved women enacted a form of “reproductive justice” that not only extricated them from the sexual violence of the plantation, but also granted them more control of their reproduction, as well as their children (Eddins 2020:563).

With these reconceptualizations and extensions of marronage in mind, I analyze Fabienne Kanor’s novel Humus, specifically its representation of the activities of enslaved women as powerful forms of marronage which, while regularly facilitating flight, often take on other forms of escape. In this way, Kanor’s novel contributes to further rethinking marronage from the perspective of enslaved women, while also contributing to a growing body of literature that engages with the historical and cultural legacies of Black women.5 Indeed, as Kanor’s novel adds to, and nuances conceptions of, marronage and resistance by underscoring the praxes of enslaved women, it likewise enacts a poetics inspired by and drawn from these same praxes.

In this article, I will thus examine what Moitt might call the “multidimensional” forms of marronage effected by the protagonists/narrators in the barracoon and the plantation in order to assert their humanity and thus resist their “thingification” by colonial ideology (Moitt 2001:126; Césaire 1955:19). In particular, I will consider how the representation of Cécile’s character as a manbo allows Kanor to place her at the center of a number of Maroon and rebellious activities, such as the Bois Caïman (Alligator Woods) ceremony.6 Indeed, Cécile demonstrates how Vodou permitted the transmission and transplantation of cultural knowledge and traditions from Africa, while also cementing bonds of solidarity among disparate ethnic groups. I argue consequently that this cultural transplantation and solidarity-building constitute figurative forms of marronage—ones based less on literal flight from the plantation than on cultural and social forms of escape from slavey ideology and dispossession. Indeed, one can say that these forms of marronage “escape” and resist—in the same way as marronage-as-flight—the slave system’s commodification and dehumanization of bondspeople. Finally, I will focus on how the character of the heiress (whom we come to understand is Kanor) reenacts the practices of manbos as she conjures the voices of Humus’s 14 narrators, thereby effecting in her poetics the same type of marronage as the manbo character, the-one-who-flies, who conjures the voices of Vodou spirits. Thus, I argue that Kanor’s poetics figuratively “maroons” from the archival silence imposed on the histories and experiences of her narrators, just as the one-who-flies’ manbo rituals “maroon” from the analogous space of cultural and social erasure imposed on the enslaved.

1 Beyond Grand and Petit Marronage: (Micro)Marronage and Cultural Transplantation

To better contextualize the ways in which Kanor reconsiders the conceptualization of marronage in light of her protagonists’ experiences, it is worth discussing how marronage has historically been categorized and qualified into two main classes: petit marronage (little marronage) and grand marronage (big marronage). As Amédée Nagapen indicates in Le marronnage à l’Isle de France—Ile Maurice (Marronage on the Island of France—Mauritius Island), three factors have conventionally distinguished petit from grand marronage: the duration of the flight, the number of Maroons, and the putative reasons for the flight. Flights lasting longer than a month were grand, whereas anything shorter was petit (Nagapen 1999:111). A group of Maroons entered the territory of grand marronage, while individual flights were often considered petit, depending on their length. For many colonial authorities and Western historians—as suggested by Christine Rochmann in her discussion of the priest Jean-Baptiste du Tertre, the historian Yvan Debbasch, and their perceptions of marronage—lack of food, poor treatment, and/or a desire to avoid punishments prompted most cases of marronage, which for these same reasons were then considered petit (Rochmann 2000:15–17). Though never stated as such, grand marronage would, according to these authorities, account for only a minority of Maroons who, for reasons typically left vague,7 revolted against the slave system. Yet, as Marie-Christine Rochmann points out in L’esclave fugitif dans la littérature antillaise (The fugitive slave in Antillean literature), the emphasis on so-called explanations of petit marronage tends to minimize the desire for liberty among the enslaved and consequently diminishes both the importance of enslaved/Maroon resistance to slavery and their humanity (Rochmann 2000:15–17). It should be noted, then, that far from merely describing different phenomena, the distinction between grand and petit marronage is fraught with ideological presuppositions about the desire for liberty in enslaved populations. In any case, regardless of the differences that can be enumerated between these two forms of marronage, both revolve around the act of literally escaping the plantation, reaching an outside or exterritoriality, be it the mountains, forest, or sometimes colonial cities. What these forms do not account for, however, are forms of “flight” within the plantation, namely “flight” that “escapes” the plantation from within its boundaries.

Interestingly, in a conversation about Humus, Fabienne Kanor proposed yet another category of marronage—“micro-marronage”—which might account for acts of resistance and “micro-flights” effected by the enslaved on a daily basis within the plantation.8 These microflights are then the multitudinous and protean acts that escape, defy, and stray from plantation ideology and interests: propagating and camouflaging enslaved cultural activity, opposing or bypassing their master’s orders, slowing down the pace of work, feigning illness to not work, playing on stereotypes to manipulate the master-class, et cetera.9 Though more figurative than literal, these forms of “flight” can be said to fall under the purview of marronage insomuch as they, like grand marronage for example, bring about the same types of resistance against the cultural erasure and dehumanization of enslaved peoples, as well as against control of the their bodies and movements.

Considered in aggregate, these micromarronages contributed, then, to a war of attrition against slavery, one which wore and ate away at its ideology and infrastructure. While these practices are not antithetical to the flight of grand/petit marronage—many are indeed complementary as we will see momentarily—they offer another framework for understanding resistance to slavery: one which further acknowledges the agency and rebellious creativity of enslaved women in particular, in the face of the specific forms of exploitation and oppression they endured.10 In the remainder of this article, I explore how Kanor relates the praxes of resistance and evasion of her 14 narrator-protagonists with “traditional” marronage and the Haitian Revolution to better underscore how these praxes enlarge the sense and scope of marronage.

Kanor establishes marronage as an important theme of Humus from the beginning of the novel where she cites a slave-ship captain’s journal that mentions her 14 narrator-protagonists “leap[ing] overboard, from the deck into the sea, all together and in one movement” (Kanor 2006:11). Kanor leaves the citation hanging there, without context or other information, like an open question, before beginning another section which introduces the concept for the novel, namely the “restitution” of these women’s voices. Though outside of the context in which “traditional” marronage took place—namely, the plantation and colonies—I argue that this scene nevertheless reprises many of the dynamics of marronage, like escape (the leaping) from a space of slavery (the confines of the slave ship). Indeed, the 14 women’s leap constitutes a sort of “flight” whereby the ocean—as a space of death and/or a means of conveyance back to Africa—enacts the possibility of egress from slavery. Similarly, it should be noted that not only does this scene begin the novel, but it also represents a culminating moment for each woman’s narration, one built up to with the details of each narrator’s life, as well as her reasons for jumping. Thus, given its prominence and resurgence throughout the novel, I argue that the leap establishes a thematic baseline that frames and inflects from the outset the other actions of the women with the ideas of marronage and resistance.

2 Micromarronage: Practices of Marooning-in-Place

With this framing, Kanor invites readers to reconsider how marronage might relate to many of the narrators’ actions which do not correspond with its strict sense of flight. Indeed, Humus explores a number of acts that fit Kanor’s description of micromarronage, of which the narrator called simultaneously the-one-who-flies, Cécile, and Nulpar (“Nowhere”) offers compelling examples.

Cécile, we are to understand from her narration, is one of the narrators who survived the jump from the slave ship and is now enslaved as a domestic in the colony of Saint-Domingue. As related by the narrator called the old woman, Cécile openly defies and intimidates the mistress of the plantation who accuses the former of stealing a dress. After the mistress levels this accusation, Cécile “in a single bound, gets up. Draws close before letting loose one of these looks … a look to ring all of their bells!” (Kanor 2006:47). Following this exchange, the mistress leaves Cécile alone, while the latter openly wears the stolen dress during a veillée (night party). In this confrontation, Cécile garners herself a larger margin of maneuvering in her relations with the mistress as the latter, ostensibly afraid, retreats from hounding her. Indeed, it is this increased mobility/maneuvering within the plantation—one resulting, what’s more, from challenging the authority and abuses of the planters—wherein we might identify a form of micromarronage or marooning-in-place. Though Cécile remains in the plantation, she ascertains a way—facing down the mistress in this case—to realize to a certain extent her own agenda, like stealing a dress for use during a veillée and daunting the mistress. This expression of Cécile’s agency adeptly circumvents colonial authority as she seizes on a perceived interpersonal advantage against the mistress, namely, the ability to intimidate the latter. In this way, Cécile “maroons-in-place” as she “escapes”—if only to a certain extent and provisionally—the mistress’s attempt to control and discipline her within the plantation space.

In addition to its conceptualization as a form of micromarronage, this episode between Cécile and the mistress also highlights a mode of resistance employed more frequently by enslaved women: direct confrontation. As noted by Gautier, enslaved women were “more numerous than men to engage in verbal and physical confrontations with Whites” (Gautier 1985:223). Historians, however, have tended to interpret this higher incidence of confrontation with planters as a token of the latter’s “permissiveness” toward enslaved women. This conceit, as Gautier observes, reveals in part the gendered biases at work in definitions of marronage and resistance such that the actions of enslaved women are explained as a function of the planter’s indulgence and not as modes of resistance in their own right. Yet, in the confrontation between Cécile and the mistress, Kanor highlights instead the agency and resistance of Cécile, whose look both deters the mistress from harassing her and allows her ultimately to keep the dress, both of which signal—beyond the additional leeway for maneuvering in the plantation—a refusal of the dehumanization or “thingification” (to borrow Aimé Césaire’s expression) concomitant with the plantation. In other words, by facing the mistress, in a threatening posture no less, Cécile refuses to a certain extent to adopt the humbling and self-abasing attitude that her dehumanized status as a slave would have her assume. If marronage-as-flight implies in part repudiation of the dehumanization of slavery, the following remarks by the old-woman narrator regarding Cécile after her confrontation with the mistress reveal the marooning-qua-humanizing potential of direct confrontation: “[I am] sure that she [Cécile] wasn’t an ordinary being, [she] carried in her what we all, slaves and masters alike, had had to renounce: our humanity” (Kanor 2006:47). Along with the threat of violence and anger, Cécile’s “look” also conveys her humanity—namely her refusal to not meet the mistress’s gaze in (feigned) obsequiousness—which the mistress acknowledges to a small degree by desisting from her accusations/harassment.

Cécile, or in this particular instance the-one-who-flies, offers yet another example and articulation of micromarronage, one that revolves around women’s role as domestics in the master’s house.11 The one-who-flies further maroons-in-place as a domestic who furtively overhears conversations from the master-class, conversations which, we come to understand, she relays to a network of enslaved and Maroons both inside and outside the plantation. Indeed, the-one-who-flies dedicates a significant portion of her narration to “repeating” a conversation that she overhears among planters while serving dinner in her role as a domestic. Though seemingly just a glimpse into a part of her experience as a domestic, the-one-who-flies’s relaying of this conversation (wherein, it should be noted, the planters discuss voting rights and potential civil equality for liberated mulattos, a subject they would have hidden from their slaves lest the latter question the racial hierarchy) evokes the networks of information created by the enslaved in order to facilitate marronage proper, poisonings, slave revolts, and eventually the Haitian Revolution.

As Carolyn Fick remarks in The Making of Haiti, “the domestic slaves, largely outside of the plantation itself, were in continual contact with whites and consequently in the best position to receive and disseminate information” (Fick 1990:87). What is more, it is significant that after the-one-who-flies communicates the planters’ conversation, the next section of her chapter jumps to a scene containing Makandal, the celebrated Maroon leader, made famous precisely for the network of enslaved and Maroons who fed him information allowing him to carry out poisonings throughout Saint-Domingue. By having the-one-who-flies relate a private conversation among the White planters in her narration, Kanor thus signals yet another way enslaved women not only “marooned-in-place” in their roles as “loyal” domestics—via the figurative “flight” or dissemination of information—but also contributed to the realization of marronage proper and slave revolts, both of which are metonymically conveyed by Makandal’s presence in the chapter.

If the-one-who-flies does not escape the plantation in grand/petit marronage, she nevertheless uses subterfuge as a form of micromarronage to play on planters’ belief in seemingly loyal and/or oblivious domestics while gathering information that she uses to her own ends. While commonly meaning “deceit used in order to achieve one’s goal,” the Oxford English Dictionary indicates that “subterfuge” is derived from two Latinate etymons—subterfugium and subterfugere—meaning respectively “evasion” and “to escape by stealth, slip away, to avoid by stratagem.” With its roots in the idea of “escape” and flight, this etymology suggests yet another type of micromarronage, based this time on evading and/or duping the perception of colonial authorities. Indeed, the-one-who-flies effectively skirts suspicion and capture (that is, punishment or detainment) from her master insomuch as she is able to project the image of the domestic expected by the planters, while her countervailing intentions and goals—represented by the presence of Makandal—elude their perception. In other words, the-one-who-flies escapes the planters insofar as they take the image she projects as who she is, thereby ignoring the possibility of her (rebellious) agency. This micromarronage-as-subterfuge, then, consists of evading or deceiving the awareness/mistrust of planters in order to mask/obscure enslaved activity, be it cultural, religious, insurrectionary, et cetera.

As these two examples demonstrate, micromarronage offers new possibilities for conceptualizing modes and acts of resistance, survival, and escape implemented by the protagonists of Humus. Indeed, the qualifier “micro,” while in no way to be understood as indicating the importance of such acts, rather opens up the notion of maroon flight to praxes and actions undertaken within the plantation, thereby acknowledging to a greater extent the agency and resistance of the enslaved women in the positions they occupied on plantation islands.

What is more, in addition to highlighting instances of micromarronage, Kanor also insists on the centrality of enslaved/Maroon women in the realization of two pivotal series of events in the history of Haiti: Makandal’s marronage—which acts as an archetypal example of grand marronage—and the Haitian Revolution, which Neil Roberts calls an example of “sovereign marronage.”12 If, as Joan Dayan asserts in Haiti, History, and the Gods, women, “as opposed to men of the [Haitian] Revolution, … left no records,” Kanor (re)writes women into these histories from which their presence and acts have been largely ignored and/or neglected (Dayan 1995:46).

3 Cultural Transplantation as (Micro)Marronage

In this vein, it is useful to linger further on the narrator, the-one-who-flies, as Kanor places her in the center of both Makandal’s history as a Maroon/Vodou leader and the Bois Caïman Vodou ceremony, which was an important flash point of the Haitian Revolution. Indeed, it is through Vodou—a religious and cultural system adapted from West and Central Africa (specifically from the Yoruba, Fon, and BaKongo peoples)—that Kanor connects the-one-who-flies to both Makandal and the Bois Caïman ceremony, as it is obvious from the beginning of her narration that the-one-who-flies is a manbo, or Vodou priestess.

As a religion and system of thought, Vodou is a keystone of Haitian culture and life that continues to be practiced today in spite of a series of antisuperstition campaigns effected in turn by colonial authorities, the Catholic Church, U.S. occupation forces, and even the Haitian government since its inception (Ramsey 2011:1–2). As Maya Deren explains in her work exploring Vodou, Divine Horsemen, many of its practices and traditions hearken back to African religions: “The majority of the deities [lwa] are Dahomean and the rites of these are called Rada” (Deren 1953:60). While acknowledging the predominance of Dahomean influence, Alfred Métraux signals that one also finds influences and the names of deities “from the Congo and other parts of Africa,” which is why there are “Nabo gods, Siniga (Senegalese), Anmine (Minas), Ibo, Congo, and Wangol (Angolese) gods” (Métraux 1972:28). Yet, as Patrick Bellegarde-Smith indicates, the particularity of Vodou is that it “preserves African traditions by transforming and transcending them” as practitioners adapt to the specific conjuncture of Saint-Domingue as a French, slave colony (Bellegarde-Smith 2006:23). Haitian Vodou was thus born from the contact between African metaphysics and the realities of slavery in the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue.

According to Claude Planson, an ethnologist of Haitian Vodou, “Vaudou comes from the word Vaudoun, which in the Fon dialect, means ‘spirits’ [lwa in Haitian Creole]” (Planson 1974:29). Indeed, Vodou contains many lwa (Legba, Damballa, Erzulie, Ghede, Marinette, et cetera) who assume different aspects according to the type of ritual performed (be it Rada or Kongo-Petwo, for example) (Planson 1974:119–20). While the most visible and caricatured aspect of Vodou in the Occidental world concerns “possession”—the ceremonies where the lwa mount an initiate13—Bellegarde-Smith, Deren, Claudine Michel, and many others emphasize rather that Vodou conveys “intellectual and spiritual discipline” through, in part, engagement with the lwa and the principles which they embody (Bellegarde-Smith 2006:21; Deren 1952:73; Michel 2006:33–34). Indeed, according to Deren, the lwa personify important principles and practices for structuring one’s spiritual and material life. In this sense, sèvi lwa—the phrase used by initiates to designate their practice of Vodou and which means to “serve the spirits”—constitutes the transmission of beliefs and principles or, simply put, a moral and practical “education” (Deren 1953:90). In this vein, both Willy Apollon and Gerson Alexis underscore that Vodou is not reducible to a strictly religious phenomenon; rather, it also represents a philosophy about the world, everyday life, and how to live well (Alexis 1976; Apollon 1976). As Claudine Michel indicates in the edited volume Haitian Vodou,

Vodou is more than rituals of the cult, temple, and family. As a comprehensive religious system, it ties together the visible and invisible, material and spiritual, secular and sacred. It is a philosophy, a way of life for the majority in Haiti that permeates and sustains their entire being and brings coherence where there might otherwise be chaos.

Michel 2006:33–34

Many scholars and practitioners further identify Vodou as a form of therapy and resistance against the violence of slavery and its afterlives. Joan Dayan argues that the rites of possession in Vodou have represented in part a response to the physical, social, and spiritual “dispossession” inflicted on enslaved populations by the slave system. To be mounted by a lwa constituted, then, the transcendence of the dehumanizing conditions of slavery. As Dayan explains: “The dispossession accomplished by slavery became the model for possession in Vodou: for making a man not into a thing but into a spirit” (Dayan 1995:36). Similarly, Alessandra Benedicty-Kokken emphasizes the therapeutic function of Vodou “possession,” which helps “work through” and heal trauma, while denouncing the DSM-V’s pathologizing of these rites (Benedicty-Kokken 2014:35, 135). Beyond its capacity for healing, Vodou likewise served as an important rallying point for the enslaved and Maroons who, despite disparate ethnic backgrounds, cultivated solidarity through practicing the shared rites and values provided by its belief system. This solidarity, as observed by Eduardo Grüner in his analysis of the Haitian Revolution, played an important part in bringing the revolutionary struggles of the enslaved to fruition (Grüner 2020:95).

In the Vodou community, it is often the manbo14 or priestess who leads rites and ceremonies, while also being responsible for a hounfò, or the house of spirits, where ceremonies and meetings among practitioners take place. In addition to facilitating this unifying function of the hounfò and of Vodou in general, the manbo communes with the lwa or is often mounted by them as they speak to the congregation through her. Indeed, the manbo is trained in the sacred and often secret rites that only the highest-level initiates may know and which she performs in service of the lwa and of her own community of practitioners. Though Deren is referring to the oungan—the Vodou priest—in this phrase, we could also say that the manbo is “the means by which the great cosmic forces are made manifest. And when the loa [sic] comes, his first act is to salute the priest[ess]” (Deren 1953:172).

It is with this context and explanation of Vodou in mind that much of the narration of the-one-who-flies assumes its full meaning. Indeed, as I will argue, the-one-who-flies represents a manbo figure whom Kanor places at the center of Makandal’s history and the Bois Caïman ceremony, thereby suggesting at once the centrality of Black women in revolutionary activities in Haiti and an expansion of the conception of marronage to include Vodou activities.

The narration of the-one-who-flies begins in the slave ship’s hold whence she travels in spirit to Saint-Domingue to meet Makandal. As the-one-who-flies observes Makandal’s camp, the latter senses her spirit and traps her. Makandal then questions her about her origins and the reasons for her being there. The-one-who-flies responds that she comes from Guinea and that “Hogbonu, the great papa priest” who practices “Vôdoun” sent her; she continues, “I am here to transmit his science to you. [I] [w]ill teach you how to deceive the human heart, move like water, run faster than the wind” (Kanor 2006:205). In other words, if Makandal was a renowned Maroon who inspired, in part, the struggle for liberation that ended eventually in the Haitian Revolution, Kanor insists that it was thanks to the-one-who-flies, an enslaved woman, who transmitted precious cultural knowledge like Vodou. Kanor places the-one-who-flies at the origin of the “science” practiced by Makandal, namely his knowledge and praxis as a Vodou priest and Maroon, which allows him to out-maneuver (“to move like water”) and deceive colonial authorities, all while becoming a Vodou priest in his own right. Thus, Kanor recenters marronage on the actions of women as agents of cultural transplantation (in the form of Vodou), which facilitated marooning-as-flight. From this perspective, Humus intimates how the cultural transplantation realized by the-one-who-flies constitutes a significant form of marronage, one which “escapes” the social and cultural erasure brought about by the Middle Passage and the code noir, while also facilitating more “traditional” forms of marronage, such as flight.

In a similar vein, Kanor focuses on the role played by the-one-who-flies—whose other name, Cécile, becomes significant here—as a manbo during the Bois Caïman ceremony on the night of August 21–22, 1791. It was during this ceremony that Maroons and enslaved alike agreed upon the plans for insurrection that would precipitate the events leading to the Haitian Revolution. As Carolyn Fick points out in The Making of Haiti, while the Bois Caïman ceremony often marks the beginning of the Haitian Revolution in the popular imaginary, “slaves in the North had been consciously preparing and organizing themselves for weeks before the fateful night of 22 August” (Fick 1990:91). Delegates from plantations in the North would meet secretly at a given location on Sundays in order to discuss the strategy for a large revolt. One particularly important meeting took place on August 14, 1792 on the Lenormand plantation, a meeting “where issues were discussed, points of view and differing strategies presented, where a final agreement was reached, and a call to arms issued” (Fick 1990:94). Though there were already many important leaders among the delegates at this point, Dutty Boukman (an oungan), along with a manbo called Cécile Fatiman, would later lead the Vodou ceremony at Bois Caïman during which the plans for the insurrection agreed upon on August 14 were sanctified. On this occasion, Boukman would famously say, “Throw away the image of the god of the whites who thirsts for our tears and listen to the voice of liberty which speaks in the hearts of all of us” (Fick 1990:93). This would later become a famous refrain for the Haitian Revolution. More importantly, as Fick points out, while the Bois Caïman ceremony “confirmed and solemnized” the August 14 plans for insurrection, it also committed the participants “to utmost secrecy, solidarity, and a vow of revenge” (Fick 1990:94). From this perspective, this ceremony and Vodou in general provided a means for “political organization,” as well as an “ideological force,” which would contribute to the tenacity and success of this first part of the Revolution in the north of Saint-Domingue (Fick 1990:94). In other words, Vodou offered a social framework for organizing both the enslaved and Maroons alike as they planned revolt against the Saint-Domingue slavocracy.

With this context in mind, the-one-who-flies’s other moniker, Cécile—along with allusions to her participation in a Vodou ceremony just before the Haitian Revolution—references the real-life manbo Cécile Fatiman, who presided over the Bois Caïman ceremony. If we consider Fatiman’s role in this ceremony (discussed below), we can read Kanor’s use of this reference as emphasizing the centrality of the manbo for the Haitian Revolution and other rebellious activities since, through enacting Vodou rites (via a cultural system she helped to transplant into Saint-Domingue), she created solidarity and cultural/religious bonds among the enslaved and Maroons alike. Indeed, I propose that this solidarity, along with the social, cultural, and religious identity conferred by Vodou, constitutes a form of (micro)marronage that not only figuratively escapes the dehumanization of the plantation, but also leads to instances of grand marronage and revolution. In this sense, Kanor suggests that the manbo be considered a Maroon figure.

During the Bois Caïman ceremony, it is believed that Cécile Fatiman sacrificed a pig whose blood she used to make a potion that the participants would drink as a sort of initiation and pact to carry out an insurrection against the slave system (Fick 1990:241). By drinking the potion the participants were thus sworn to secrecy and unable to break the pact. One of Cécile Fatiman’s roles was therefore to help forge and reinforce the solidarity, indeed the group identity, of the participants through rites that enacted a common and collective culture. While discussing how Vodou ceremonies in Haiti conferred a sort of “invulnerability” to their initiated, Sylvia Wynter points out in “Black Metamorphosis” that:

The point of the initiation rite was that psychologically and physically, while the old man [the un-initiated] was vulnerable to the power of the planter, the new man [the initiated], reborn, is not. And it is on the condition of his group loyalty and group existence that he is guaranteed this invulnerability. [my emphasis]

Wynter [1970s–1980s]:124

From this perspective, a part of the revolutionary and Maroon dynamic of the Bois Caïman ceremony comes from the affirmation of a group identity derived from Vodou, one which, moreover, opposes the slave system’s individualizing ideology. By referencing Cécile Fatiman, Kanor effectively highlights the importance of the manbo in particular in bringing about Vodou’s cultural and social forms of resistance to slavery.

Here, I would suggest that the line between marronage and micromarronage wears thin. The forging of these bonds of community and solidarity permits a micromarronage by which the enslaved reaffirm, through social ties, their humanity, thus “escaping” the slave ideology that relegates them to the status of “chattel.”15 Moreover, it is because of this reaffirmation of their humanity that many of the enslaved decide to maroon in its strict sense and/or revolt against the slave system, as suggested by the evocation of Cécile Fatiman and the Bois Caïman ceremony, which had this very effect. In this way, Kanor rejects a hierarchization of different forms of marronage and emphasizes their interdependent and synergistic quality. Indeed, the micromarronage of cultural transplantation effected by manbos—with its transmission of “rebel” knowledge and its promotion of solidarity—occasions not only marronage-as-flight but also revolution.

This solidarity is, in fact, a leitmotif of Humus, one established at the very beginning and reprised throughout both the form and content of the novel. Indeed, Kanor adapts this aspect of Cécile’s (micro)marronage into a poetics by which she—as “the heiress” (namely the last narrator)—“restitutes” the voices of the Black women who came before her and retraces her own past. In other words, by performing this act of restitution—the recounting of which is juxtaposed to the voices of the 14 women narrating the other chapters—Kanor signals her own solidarity with these women and their histories of the Middle Passage and slavery. Indeed, Kanor’s is just one more voice within the chorus that comprises Humus. As Emmanuel Bruno Jean-François notes in his article analyzing Humus, the narrators’ jump from the ship and concurrent “war cry” not only marks a collective act of resistance against the colonial system but also signals their “parole collective” (“collective word/speaking”) or, as I would suggest, narrative solidarity.

From the unity of this jump, then, Kanor proceeds with a polyvocal form for Humus in which all of the chapters, despite being narrated by separate voices, are intertwined. In other words, in order to fully understand a given chapter, one must situate it in relation to the other chapters. Indeed, it is only by reading relationally—that is to say, in the presence of the other chapters’ voices—that the reader realizes that the-one-who-flies, Cécile, and Nulpar all refer to the same person. Moreover, it is the old woman’s chapter that suggests Cécile’s involvement in the Bois Caïman ceremony. Furthermore, it is the queen’s chapter that reveals the pact made by the 14 women before embarking on the slave ship. And so on and so forth. All of these individual chapters reveal details of larger, more collective narratives. Aside from being nonlinear, then, the chapters, characters, and even the meanings of the novel relay, relate, and link to each other in feedback loops that invite and enrich rereadings. In this way, the solidarity created by Cécile—or the manbo generally—manifests itself in the narration, such that it is the ensemble of chapters that gives meaning to each individual chapter, just as it is the group identity/existence conferred by Vodou that restores and defines each narrator’s individual identity and humanity.

The solidarity-qua-relationality of the chapters also implies a recursive reading practice by which repeated readings yield new meanings, a practice Tanya Shields—author of Bodies and Bones—would call “rehearsal.” According to Shields, “Feminist rehearsal is a methodological approach to reading texts that promotes multivalent readings and foregrounds gender, encouraging unity and consensus building through confrontation with overlapping histories of knowledge, power, and freedom” (Shields 2014:12–13). One can say, then, that the overlapping chapters of Humus enact at the level of the novel a form of history predicated on this consensus-building or solidarity, which nevertheless leaves room for multiple readings and perspectives as each narrator recounts her experience of the Middle Passage and slavery.

Moreover, this type of “rehearsal” plays out within the chapters themselves; namely, each chapter recounts the same series of events from the perspective of each woman: life before capture, the capture, the barracoon, the slave-ship hold, the jump from the slave ship, and if they survived, life in the colonies. In other words, each narrator repeats or “rehearses” these events, thereby contributing to a “collective” version of capture, the slave hold, the jump, et cetera. Even if each narrator recounts these events slightly differently or from a different perspective, the narrations—as they relate to or “confront” one another—nevertheless build a (multivalent) narrative solidarity in what gets represented. Indeed, the iterative nature of each chapter reenacts the manbo and (micro)maroon solidarity that Kanor adopts into her poetics. Each iteration informs the collective patchwork memory that the heiress, as the contemporary narrator trying to “restitute the voice” of the 14 enslaved women, then assumes as she reckons with the legacy of slavery in the form of the historical and archival silence surrounding these women’s stories.

4 The “Heiress” as Manbo-Maroon

The solidarity enacted by the 14 women in their jump and narrations finds itself reprised in the writing practice of the heiress, the last narrator, whose name signals the ever-present, ever-tangible heritage of slavery. Not only does the heiress seem to adopt/adapt Vodou to conjure their voices (as I will discuss later), but she also establishes intertextualities, indeed solidarities, with Afrodiasporic literatures by other Black women writers—like Toni Morrison, Maryse Condé, and Évelyne Trouillot—who likewise grapple with the longue-durée effects of slavery. Indeed, if the 14 enslaved women operate like the spirits of the unclaimed dead in Vodou,16 their presence in Humus—as noted by Aurélia—also signals a space of intertextuality with a number of Black women writers who have used revenants to evoke and think through, as Christina Sharpe puts it in In the Wake, “the continuous and changing present of slavery’s as yet unresolved unfolding” (Sharpe 2016:14). According to Aurélia

Kanor/the one-who-flies reveals herself to be the heiress of Simone Schwarz-Bart, Paule Marshall, Maryse Condé, who display in their novels that which Toni Morrison defines as the concept of “black cosmogony,” represented by the enrolling of the ghost character who marks, as absent, all those bodies, those anonymous voices, drowned during the Middle Passage or dead during the time of slavery.

Aurelia 2011: 86–87

Like the 14 women of Humus, Kanor rehearses this “Black cosmogony” while contributing to a space of intertextual solidarity with Afrodiasporic texts that emphasize the experience of enslaved/Maroon women (that is, Moi, Tituba, sorcière by Condé; Beloved by Morrison; Rosalie l’infâme by Évelyne Trouillot, et cetera). Like these texts, Humus uses the figure of the specter or revenant to indicate the haunting “presence” of slavery’s and colonialism’s so-called past. Though Aurélia indicates the-one-who-flies specifically as this ghost figure, all 14 women—whose simultaneous presence in, and absence from, the slaver’s journal haunt the “heiress” as they evoke the violent erasure of the Middle Passage and slavery—act implicitly as revenants. The 14 narrator-specters enact, what’s more, a spectral temporality by which the past and present interact and make demands on each other.

In light of the demands of a past not yet at rest, the heiress works to “restitute the voice[s]” of the 14 enslaved women whose spirits compel her to travel to Benin and Nigeria in search of any remnant of their pasts (Kanor 2006:234). The word choice of “restitute” (or “réstituer” in French) proves revealing both in terms of its ambition and what it implies of the novel’s temporality. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “restitution” denotes “the action of restoring or giving back something to its proper owner, or of making reparation for loss or injury previously inflicted.” Given the word’s preponderant application in legal contexts, its use in this context implicitly transforms the 14 women into juridical subjects whose presence/absence not only evidences “injury” and “loss,” but also indicts Western archives for the epistemic violence they inflict on the “voices” of others.

Moreover, “restitution” indicates a present-day reckoning with the violence of the past, thereby implying the latter’s “as-yet-unresolved” and revenant-like quality. In other words, the past remains an active interlocutor of the present, a relationship that Kanor further invokes with the figure of the revenant or “fantôme”; hence the protestation of the heiress against those who would tell her to leave the past alone: “leave me to my phantoms” (Kanor 2006:246). With this spectral temporality by which the past “comes back”17 to make demands on the present, one is reminded of the work of Condé, specifically her novel Moi, Tituba, sorcière, which is premised similarly on “restituting” the life and voice of Tituba, the only Black witch persecuted during the Salem Witch Trials. The character Tituba laments the heritage of these persecutions:

As soon as the end of the [17th] century, petitions would circulate, judgements would be rendered which would rehabilitate the victims [those persecuted during the Salem Witch Trials] and restitute to their descendants their possessions and honor. I, however, I will never be among them. Forever condemned, Tituba! // No attentive or inspired biography recreating my life and my torments! [My emphasis]

Condé 1986:172

Like Condé, the heiress/Kanor feels compelled to “rehabilitate,” if only partially, the 14 women of the slaver’s journal from the place of “unritual”18 (to borrow a term from Valérie Loichot) to which they have been relegated, namely a place of violence, death, and dehumanization, where sacred rites and remembrance are not observed. Yet, as Loichot makes plain in her development of the concept of “unritual,” the longue-durée effects of slavery and colonialism (the main motors of “unritual”) resonate as much in and through the present as in the past. Thus, the heiress’s quest to “restitute the voice[s]” of the 14 enslaved women represents at the same time a search for her own past and identity, as evinced by the self-reflection that follows shortly after the “women speak” to her for the first time: “Who were we in this night without end? If not shadows seeking their bodies, feet searching for the path, phantoms [or revenants!] still ignoring of whom they are phantoms.”19 Indeed, the 14 women-revenants signal at once past “unritual” and its “as yet unresolved unfolding” in the present, an unfolding that risks exposing the “heiress” to strains of violence and dehumanization left in the wake of slavery and colonialism while transforming her, too, into a “revenant.”

Yet, to the threat of physical, epistemic, and ontological violence posed by such looming “unritual,” the heiress’s chapter offers a potential response in exploring the dynamics of enslaved praxes of resistance—like those of (micro)marronage—which inform Antillean cultures and religions—like Vodou. By looking at the heiress’s actions, with Édouard Glissant’s conceptual pair of “retour/détour” in mind, we see that Kanor’s response to the continued “unritual” of slavery and the Middle Passage lies not in her trip to Africa, which might be construed as “retour” or return to so-called origins as explained below, but rather in her “détour” (meaning literally “detour” or “digression”), that is to say her revision of marronage in light of enslaved women’s experiences. In other words, (micro)marronage as cultural transplantation, preservation, and adaptation underpins Kanor’s approach to Afrodiasporic memory, history, and identity.

In Symbioses d’une mémoire—which examines religious creolization, like Vodou, in the Caribbean—Anny Dominique Curtius offers a concise account of the dynamics of the Glissantian conceptual pair, “retour/détour.” She explains that “retour” or “return” refers to the first impulse of a transplanted population—such as the enslaved brought from Africa—whereby this population aspires to the restoration of a former order, along with its values and ways of life. Simply put, “retour” expresses a desire to return to a place of origins. Yet, given the trauma of the Middle Passage and the circumstances of the “New World,” such “retours,” according to Glissant, are not possible and cannot therefore constitute the primary dynamic at work in the creation of culture, memory, history, and identity (Curtius 2006:91). The “détour” on the other hand designates the strategies employed by Afrodiasporic populations to “constitute and reinforce a framework for identity and culture,” especially as they resist “domination by an Other” (Curtius 2006:91; Glissant 1997 [1981]:48). According to Glissant, strategies of “détour”—of which he notably identifies Vodou—are only effective if they cope with actual sociopolitical realities, as opposed to being preoccupied with a “desire to return to the dream of origins” (Curtius 2006:91). If the “retour” cannot constitute an end in itself, it can, nevertheless, serve as a footing for strategies of “détour” which (re)build and (re)shape identity and culture from such an original impulse of return; hence the syncretic nature of Haitian Vodou, which finds its origins largely in the traditions of the Fon, Yoruba, and BaKongo peoples of Africa but still responds and adapts to the social, cultural, and economic conjuncture in Haiti.

The actions of the heiress seem to bear out the dynamic of “retour/détour,” while also signaling the larger importance of revising conceptualizations of marronage to reflect the experience of enslaved women, since the latter impelled the creation and implementation of strategies of “détour.” With regard to the retour/détour dynamic, it is revealing that while in Benin and Nigeria—supposed sites of origin for the 14 women (and, by metonymic extension, herself)—the heiress finds nothing of the women and very little to suggest the erstwhile presence of slave markets, barracoons, and other remnants of the slave trade. Instead, the silence she meets in this “return” produces a breakdown or decomposition of her own language: “There go my steps, through the former slave market that is impossible to locate but must be somewhere, dammit! // I regret having come, r’gret having come, gret’ hav’n com’. ‘t’s hot. ‘t’s bullshit.”20 Let us remark how the language begins to collapse as the heiress confronts the overwhelming erasure of the slave trade and the 14 women—vowels and whole syllables fading away with each iteration of her “regrets.” Moreover, she repeats the same phrase and words as if stuck on a loop. In other words, not only does her “return” to Africa in search of any trace of the 14 women yield silence from the former slave-market space and from the spirits of the women, but this tremendous erasure produces what Kanor refers to in the avant-propos as “the death of the word, aporia”21 when discussing the effects of the Middle Passage on the enslaved (Kanor 2006:14). Not only does this ostensible “aphasia” signal the inefficacy of a strategy of return for a “framework of identity and culture [and memory],” but it also establishes the erasure of these traces and their histories/memories as an epistemic corollary of the violence of slavery and the Middle Passage.22 Indeed, as Jenny Sharpe remarks in Ghosts of Slavery, the “lost stories [of slaves] can be thought of as a violence analogous to the uprooting that denied New World Africans their burial rites” (Sharpe 2003:xi).

5 Conclusion: (Micro)Marronage, Cultural Transplantation, and the Black Radical Tradition

A strategy of “return” having thus failed her, the heiress goes to Gosier, Guadeloupe where she employs Vodou as a tactic of “détour”—indeed of (micro)marronage—which results in the 14 women-spirits finally speaking to her. Later in her chapter, the heiress visits a friend’s art studio where she arranges around herself the blank pages that, we are to understand, will compose her novel on these women. There, two details indicate the importance of Vodou as a means of “détour” which reprise the (micro)marronage of the narrator Cécile in her role as a manbo: the tree symbolism of this scene and the subsequent mention of “papas-feuilles.” First, the heiress explains, “I sat down in the middle of the room. Laid out my papers around me in a circle. Were they the leaves of the tree we’d all had to walk circles around? The one-who-flies. The mute one. The little one … I let the women speak” (Kanor 2006:246). If this mention of a tree alludes to the tree of forgetfulness in Ouidah around which the enslaved walked seven times in order to efface their ties to Africa, I contend that it also functions as what is called a tree-altar (arbre-reposoir) in Vodou ceremonies. Believed to facilitate communion with lwa, these trees function as symbolic crossroads where the mortal and spiritual planes cross (Deren 1953:181). Tree-alters represent then an important constituent of Vodou ceremonies, and it should be noted that they are prominently featured in the two Vodou ceremonies discussed in Humus, namely the ceremony at Bois Caïman and the ceremony during which the 14 women make the pact to jump from the slave ship.

The allusion to this tree image, especially as the 14 women/spirits begin to speak to the heiress, evokes therefore the figure of the manbo mounted by and communing with spirits, thereby recreating, indeed rehearsing, the Vodou ceremonies performed by Cécile. Thus, by becoming a sort of manbo(-Maroon), the heiress gains access, so to speak, to the 14 women-qua-spirits, who in turn reclaim their history and agency in narrating their chapters. In other words, it is through a “détour” via the Vodou of her (micro)marooning antecedents that the heiress can fruitfully speak with the 14 women and ultimately deal with a past pockmarked by the rupture of Middle Passage and the violence and erasure of slavery.

The second detail that suggests the use of Vodou as a tactic of détour comes from the friend of the heiress, Pedro, who says—in the penultimate passage of the novel, just after the 14 women begin to speak—“we are papas-feuilles” (Kanor 2006:247). It should be noted that papas-feuilles and mamans-feuilles (“papa-leaves” and “mama-leaves”) refer respectively to oungans and manbos in their capacity as healers who, as suggested by this epithet, have significant knowledge of flora and fauna, which they use in ceremonies to treat Vodou practitioners (Planson 1974:73). This comment, then, further suggests the pertinence of Vodou—as (micro)marronage in the form of cultural transplantation—in the heiress’s quest to “restitute the voice[s]” of the 14 women and thereby heal, in the tradition of maman-feuilles, the archival silence (or “unritual”) to which they have been relegated. In the same way that Cécile’s Vodou ceremonies “maroon” from the cultural and social erasure of slavery by promoting solidarity and group identity, the heiress likewise “escapes” the foreclosure of Black women from Western, colonial archives and histories by (re)creating and restituting memories and voices from a fragmented past—what Toni Morrison refers to as “literary archaeology” (Sharpe 2003:xi).

Fabienne Kanor’s Humus—with its exploration of (micro)marronage, cultural transplantation, et cetera—not only renews conceptualizations of marronage and resistance to further attend to enslaved women’s experiences but also demonstrates the continued pertinence of thinking through Maroon dynamics for the “descendants” of these enslaved women. As the last chapter makes clear, (micro)marronage through manbo rituals permits the strengthening of memory, culture, and identity for those living “in the wake” of the Middle Passage, slavery, and their afterlives. By channeling their forms of (micro)marronage and resistance into her poetics, Kanor innovates a form for recognizing the lives and experiences of these women without reproducing the “grammar of violence” (to borrow a phrase from Saidiya Hartman) conveyed by the archival silences that surround them and the histories that ignore them. Indeed, Kanor’s novel enacts Christina Sharpe’s idea of “aspiration,” which she developed in response to the following queries:

What is the word for keeping and putting breath back in the body? What is the word for how we must approach the archives of slavery (to “tell the story that cannot be told”) and the histories and presents of violent extraction in slavery and incarceration; the calamities and catastrophes that sometimes answer to the names of occupation, colonialism, imperialism, tourism, militarism, or humanitarian aid and intervention? What are the words and forms for the ways we must continue to think and imagine laterally, across a series of relations in the hold, in multiple Black everydays of the wake? The word I arrived at for such imagining and for keeping and putting breath back in the Black body in hostile weather is aspiration (and aspiration is violent and life-saving).

Sharpe 2016:113

By “restituting their voices,” Humus puts breath back into the bodies of the 14 enslaved women and thereby “maroons” from the space of “unritual” and violence symbolized by the slaver’s journal. In this way, Humus works toward epistemic justice for enslaved women, who helped define various traditions of (micro)marronage and resistance to the slave system and its legacies. Moreover, we might place Humus alongside the works of Cedric Robinson and Sylvia Wynter23 in their engagement with the Black Radical Tradition, especially as defined by Robinson, in Black Marxism, as “the continuing development of a collective consciousness informed by the historical struggles for liberation and motivated by a shared sense of obligation to preserve the collective being, the ontological totality” (Robinson 1983:171). Kanor effectively demonstrates a “sense of obligation” to the 14 Black women in the slaver’s journal. Indeed, Humus contributes to the articulation of a collective consciousness for the descendants of enslaved populations—those metonymically represented by the “heiress” narrator—who derive a sense of history and identity from its narrators, not to mention continued inspiration and “aspiration” for struggles against “Black subjection” (Sharpe 2016:113, 5). As the old-woman narrator explains, while commenting on the African origins of Cécile’s Vodou and the possibility of ending “Black people’s ordeal”: “A rifle cannot kill a rifle, it’s within ourselves that we must look for weapons” (Kanor 2006:43).


Humus 2006:11; all translations are the author’s unless otherwise specified.


I employ the Haitian Creole spellings for the words that relate to Vodou.


Stephanie Camp makes similar arguments in her book Closer to Freedom, which discusses in part the conditions of enslaved women in the U.S. South. Camp likewise finds that enslaved women in the U.S.A. endured stricter constraints in terms of movement than their male counterparts. She writes, “the geography of containment was somewhat more elastic for men than it was for women, in large measure because the work that provided opportunities to leave the plantation was generally reserved for men” (Camp 2004:28).


As Sweeney points out, planters tolerated the creation of this informal economy since it allowed them to reduce the amount of provisions they had to provide their own slaves.


As Dominique Aurélia (2011:86) indicated in her article “In Search of a Third Space: Fabienne Kanor’s Humus,” Humus dialogues with Toni Morrison, Maryse Condé, and Simone Schwartz-Bart, that is, writers who have given a voice to Black women’s experiences during and after slavery. I would also submit that Humus contributes to a theoretical oeuvre—like Jenny Sharpe’s Ghosts of Slavery and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake—that explores practices of survival, resistance, and re-membering derived from Black women’s experiences.


I will explain the context and significance of this event later in the article, see section 3.


As pointed out in Christine Rochmann’s L’esclave fugitif dans la littérature antillaise (2000:16), colonial authorities (along with many Western historians) interpreted Maroons who fled as soon as they debarked from the slave ship—namely those who never experienced the plantation and its deprivations—as having “psychological instabilities” brought about by the Middle Passage, as opposed to wanting freedom. Thus, the question of freedom was often foreclosed or outright dismissed as illustrated by this excerpt from Jean-Baptiste Du Tertre’s writings “It is necessary to look for other causes for their [Maroons’] flight besides the desire for liberty” (Rochmann 2000:16).


Fabienne Kanor in discussion with the author, March 31, 2021.


Gautier 1985; Lerner 1972; Moitt 2001. Gautier in Soeurs de solitude and Lerner in Black Women in White America offer a number of examples of rebellious acts realized by enslaved women which might be considered micromarronages: openly opposing the master’s orders, entering in verbal conflicts with masters, feigning illness to avoid work, interceding on behalf of fellow enslaved to mitigate punishments, threatening flight in order to keep families intact, et cetera.


Françoise Vergès’s Le ventre des femmes (2017) explores the exploitation of enslaved women’s bodies, which were used to reproduce slaves. Gautier’s Soeurs de solitude focuses on the gendered distribution of work on plantations during slavery, as well as the sexual exploitation of enslaved women. Lerner’s Black Women in White America explores similar themes to those in Gautier’s text, while likewise discussing gender disparities in access to education both during and after slavery.


It is important to note that, according to Gautier, the gendered breakdown of labor functions on the plantation led to a higher concentration of women in the master’s house. Moitt (2001) confirms this tendency.


Neil Roberts (2015:103) defines sovereign marronage as “non-fleeting mass flight from slavery on a scale much larger than grand marronage. Its goal is emancipation, its scope is social-structural, its spatialization is polity-wide, its metaphysics includes the individual and community, and its medium is the lawgiver.”


In Haitian Creole, one uses the verb “monte,” which conveys the sense of being ridden (like a horse) by a lwa instead of being “possessed” by them, which tends to have negative connotations in Judeo-Christian societies.


The oungon, or priest, is the male counterpart to the manbo.


The solidarity of the enslaved in itself seems to elude Western values predicated in part, especially in this time of nascent capitalism, on individualism. In this vein, Sylvia Wynter ([1970s–1980s]:63) points out, “[f]or the plantation owner the individual who had rights of property was the human being. For the slave his social existence affirmed him as a human being” [my emphasis].


I am referring specifically to the ceremony called “weté nò nâ dlo” by Alfred Métraux or “retirer d’en bas de l’eau” by Deren (Métraux 1972:259; Deren 1953:27). It is a ceremony predicated on claiming the souls of those who have died and thus reside in a liminal underwater domain. As Deren (1953:27) puts it, the ceremony is about “the reclamation of the soul of the deceased from the waters of the abyss, the world of les Invisibles. This service for the ancestral dead is not a nostalgia or sentimentality … It is not a moment of return to the past; it is the procedure by which the race reincorporates the fruit of previous life-processes into the contemporary moment, and so retains the past as a ground gained, upon and from which it moves forward to the future.”


“Revenant” is derived from the French word “revenir,” which means to “come back.”


As Valérie Loichot (2020:8) explains in her work Water Graves, which explores how artists, writers, and thinkers of the Caribbean combat the longue-durée effects of slavery and colonialism, “the unritual and the undead dwell in a state of limbo between life and death, where those gone without appropriate rituals persist in dwelling among and haunting the living.”


Kanor 2006:247. “Qui étions-nous dans cette nuit sans bout? Sinon des ombres qui cherchent leurs corps, des pieds qui quêtent le chemin, des fantômes qui ignorent encore de qui ils sont les fantômes.”


Kanor 2006:240. “Là-bas vont mes pas, sur cet ancien marché d’esclaves impossible à localiser mais qui doit bien être quelque part bordel! // Je regrette d’être venue, r’grette d’être venue, gret’d’v’nue. Fait chaud. Fait chier.”


Kanor 2006:14. “l’homme, plongé dans l’obscurité des mers, dans ce noir-bleu qui n’en finit pas, affronte la pire épreuve qui soit: la mort de la parole, l’aporie.”


The breakdown in language also demonstrates what Jenny Sharpe (2003) might identify as a “poetics of loss”: namely, a poetics that reprises the gaps, blanks, and silences which pockmark enslaved experience and history.


As Wynter ([1970s–1980s]:136) signals “slave revolts, like slave-created culture, constitute a central part of a long tradition of labor struggle on the North American continent.”


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