You’ve probably seen this image. Juxtaposing “Free States and Slave States, before the Civil War” alongside a red/blue breakdown of voting in the 2012 election, the image asserts a kind of continuity—if not a direct causality—between contemporary geographies of party affiliation and antebellum geographies of slavery. You might have smirked. You might have found it revealing. Maybe—as it did me—the image left you with an uneasy feeling, the felt beginnings of a refusal of the claim that the image would like to make.
A full disclaimer: I’m an anarcho-Marxist; I don’t vote; I’m not invested in blue-state- versus-red-state nonsense; my political position does not register on this map. I do, however, study nineteenth-century cultures of slavery and freedom in the Americas. I write about the strange cartographies generated by ordinary black subjects who sought to live free lives—however they defined that freedom—in a hemisphere structured to deny them personal and collective autonomy. I find myself responding to this image not just as a scholar, but as someone with some kind of a felt relationship to the stories I read and recover, someone constantly awed by the resilience and creativity of these people, someone who thinks there’s a future to-come for these myriad freedoms that survive, obscured and only partially legible to us today, in the archive.
This image pulverizes history, transforming histories of slavery into the stuff of cheap political potshots. It shouldn’t need saying, but alas: Voting for Mitt Romney is NOT akin to maintaining juridical support for slavery—an analogy or commensurability that the synchronic axis of the image suggests. This mobilization of an affectively saturated history is repulsive not only for its cheapening of the deep violence of slavery, but also for the way in which it dissolves the instabilities of historical time into a simple one-two diachrony. If we actually look into these instabilities—that is, if we fucking take the politics of slavery seriously—these maps, and the historical narrative that their juxtaposition implies, comes apart.
This image attempts to draw on a historical juridical distinction between slave and free state in order to offer a snarky commentary on the contemporary distinction between red and blue state. This distinction no doubt flatters liberals, ever on the side of progress. But what if we chose another cartographic heuristic? What if we compared the electoral breakdown of 2012 with a map colored according to polities wherein free blacks could vote in the antebellum U.S.? Antebellum “blue states” would shrink to a handful. What if we compared the electoral breakdown of 2012 with a map colored according to polities wherein African Americans faced some form of legal disability? And what if we compared the electoral breakdown of 2012 with a map colored according to, not slave states, but states wherein blacks were enslaveable—that is, states wherein New World blacks, provided a however tenuous legal title could be shown, were susceptible to being seized and carried to a slave state? The map would bleed a bright red, the whole of it.
In 1850, there were no “free states” in the U.S., if by “free” we mean a state wherein an ordinary black subject could live free from the threat of unfreedom, from civil and legal disability. And more: this realm of unfreedom, even when dragging as freedom, was only expanding in the nineteenth century. Indeed, our good liberal mapmaker’s decision to show us a map from a decade or so prior to the outbreak of the Civil War allows him or her to get around the disconcerting fact that the map of the United States would have had far fewer states only a handful of years prior to 1850. (It's unclear to me why the map is dated to 1846.) The map thus elides histories of imperial expansion—into Indian territory, into Mexico, and earlier into Florida and into the Louisiana territory—and thus elides “blue state” connivance in the extension and maintenance of slavery, the North’s compromises and its cowardice. It elides how our proto-Obama-voting “blue states” actively profited from slavery both within the U.S. and throughout the hemisphere, by financing plantations and engaging in the (illegal) slave trade. It ignores how the dynamics of capitalist accumulation—which, in the nineteenth century, ALWAYS implied some form of bonded labor, some form of slavery—cut across sectional lines.
This image posits that the juridical distinction between slave and free is isomorphic with today’s cartographies of parliamentary politics; it implies that today’s Northern liberals have inherited, and protect, the precious freedom(s) denied to so many in the antebellum world. It implies that the rupture of the Civil War was not much of a rupture—continuity is the name of the game here. It thus elides the discontinuous rupture of black political subjectivity: the image would have us believe that today’s political cartography retains the form adjudicated 162 years ago by the desires and compromises of (mostly) white men, all of whom in some fashion profited from the political and juridical de-subjectification of blacks throughout the Americas.
Perhaps most insidiously, by posing electoral politics as the inheritor of antebellum politics of freedom and slavery, this map implies that the political unconscious of freedom and antislavery was always already preformed by the parliamentary cartography of the nation-state. In other words, the image not only disavows imperial histories of expansion, the ways in which the U.S. electoral map was always on the move; it also elides alternative cartographies and trajectories of freedom, however fragile and ephemeral, established by blacks who recognized the difficulties of achieving autonomy in any state, North or South. The nation comes to appear as the natural container of relations of freedom and servitude, of progress and regress. The image doesn’t care about the alternative modalities of being-free that were sought outside of the institutional parameters and geographic boundaries of the parliamentary state; it doesn’t care about modalities of human freedom that cannot be contained or enumerated by ballots. It simply doesn’t matter to this image that blacks in those anachronistically blue states formed political subjectivities around August First or celebrations of the Haitian Revolution, not some act on a Tuesday in November most couldn’t participate in, anyhow.
The radical promise of antislavery—substantive antislavery, the material practices of freedom undertaken by New World blacks—has as little in common with the reduced notions of formal freedom available in the antebellum North as it does with the reduced notion of political freedom enshrined in parliamentary politics. Celebrating liberalism’s present, lambasting remnants of the South’s (but only the South's?) past, this racist image transforms the awesome, terrible, unfinished history of freedom into a persistent structure—one assembled by white men, for white men. But this is what the image, fixated on juridical and electoral geographies, cannot reveal. Even as it tries mobilizing the affectivity of the term, the discontinuous, unemplottable subjectivity of freedom remains elsewhere.