To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1929, the New York Times published an exhaustive account of the incident as it had unfolded over the course of several days. According to one of the few surviving eye-witnesses, the event had “unexpectedly [captured] the attention of the whole nation”, and cemented John Brown’s identity as a hero for his determination to ignite rebellion in the American South (“John Brown” XX12). However, not once did the article mention the range of populations that took part in the insurrection, or the large numbers of female radicals who displayed a “zealous commitment to the cause” (Cliff 16). It certainly failed to address the fact that African-Americans had continuously worked toward shaking off the manacles of colonialism on their own. Michelle Cliff would interpret this account as one of erasure, and devotes much of her own writing to capturing forgotten histories of resistance. In Free Enterprise, she conceives freedom as the realization of solidarity and purpose in the face of imperially dictated destinies. And though the novel offers numerous instances of personal liberation, it also lingers on failures, near successes and countless what-ifs; thus forcing readers to question whether one can ever truly be free.
The term “freedom” is deeply imbued with idealism. Its allure rests on a sense of universality; the fact that liberty is ultimately beneficial to everyone. Though for peoples of African, Asian and Native descent living throughout the Americas in the preceding centuries, the word carried an ironic ring, as it was often on the lips of their enslavers. African-Americans, in particular, were acutely aware that “liberation [was] not achieved, but handed down” (Cliff 137). Even on the rare occasions that they do manage to triumph over hardship, their deeds were not recorded, and therefore not really. The maxim that was perpetually forced down people’s throats was: “that man is superior, and that white man is supreme” (Cliff 56). Thus, only when members of the dominant race deem change to be necessary, will there be serious and dedicated attempts to stimulate emancipation. However, until that time arrives, members of the black community will remain entrapped within the parameters laid down by colonial constructs, and exist as fragmented beings. After all, the colonial machine is in need of dispensable parts, and has no use for whole, functioning peoples.
Cliff stresses such a reality by exploring the use of discrete, self contained categories to undermine notions of collectivity among colonial subjects. For instance, it was determined that the child of a Spaniard and an Albino woman would be Torna atrás, and that the offspring of a Torna atrás woman would be a Lobo, and so on. More importantly, for each type of classification, there is a corresponding set of opportunities and available resources. And it just so happens that the lighter the shade of one’s skin, the greater the number of privileges. Annie, Cliff’s protagonist, recalls her mother’s elation at becoming une femme de gens inconnu — a member of a better and coincidentally fairer class of people. She says:
[My] mother’s family tree was constructed of mythopoetic tales . . . [branching] into swashbucklers, riders on the Spanish Main, swordsmen, petty nobility, an aide-de-camp to the Duke of Wellington . . . but never the guineaman, the driver, the cane cutter, the furious Maroon. (Cliff 20)
The order of Gens Inconnu represented the culmination of tremendous effort on the part of Annie’s family. They had petitioned “as far as the Custos of St. Ann” for the sake of reaping some marginal benefits from the colonial system (Cliff 13). One cannot help but wonder why the same passion was absent for instigating revolutionary fervour. Annie’s mamà — among countless others — is adamant that being half free and half slave is the best possible outcome in the colonies. At the expense of being severed from her ancestral roots, she resolutely clings to her convictions of superiority.
Annie rejects her fellow islanders’ willing acceptance of colonial prescriptions, and revels over the possibility of transgression. She was born in the Caribbean, a confused universe that had “no center and no outward edge”, and was oversaturated with foreign “languages, people, [and] landscape” (Cliff 6). From the beginning, Annie is denied a traceable point of origin beyond the tiny territory of Jamaica, and can be considered a person without ancestry. One can go so far as to argue that genuine connections are not only out of reach but perhaps unattainable altogether for New World populations, as re-crossing the Atlantic will not bring them closer to any known community. To worsen matters, Annie’s “carefully inbred skin” entraps her in a state of bondage, rendering her incapable of experiencing rapport with others (Cliff 9). This is evident in the detached manner that she describes her former nurse, Nanny. While others may speak of the bonds they created with their former caregiver, Annie recites impersonal facts. Bearing in mind that she is taught behaviours that are in accordance with notions of hierarchy, such a lack of attachment is perhaps not too surprising. What her family — and the larger system of colonial exploitation — has failed to account for, however, is her preparedness to combat processes of alienation from both the self, as well as others.
When Annie decides that “it is hopeless to struggle [on home ground]”, she joins the abolitionist movement in the United States, hoping to be able to further a worthwhile cause (Schwartz 2). Working in collaboration with the illustrious Mary Ellen Pleasant and other antislavery radicals, she draws up plans to arm the slaves and formulates the constitution for a separate African American state. The latter aim is particularly significant, as it acts as a counter-measure to the ramifications of centuries-long estrangement and dislocation. However, such ideas immediately evoke strong condemnation from legions of White Americans, and troublingly, many self-proclaimed Liberal abolitionists. It goes without saying that the radicals’ enterprise diverges from what “[they think] should be in [their] or [their] God’s or [their] blasted Union’s hands” (Cliff 15). Therefore, in order to avoid compromising a conventionally accepted future, the aforementioned Liberals have grown increasingly hostile. They maintain that there is a stark distinction between affirming community-identities and outright “Africanization”. For this reason, anti-slavery movements cannot be allowed to escalate into violence, separation and anarchy, and must “accommodate to . . . [the so-called] laws [of the universe]” (Cliff 12). It would seem that despite having escaped a life of abuse in Jamaica, Annie is still a long way away from attaining the freedom she craves.
It may be tempting to believe that after the American Civil War drew to a close — thereby officially marking a changing of the tide with respect to slavery — individuals like Annie were finally given the opportunity to lead fulfilling futures. Cliff, however, presents her readers with some inconvenient truths; ones that make slogans such as “now we are all free” and “glory, glory” sound hollow (Cliff 91). One especially telling instance takes place in an alleyway amidst post-war celebrations. Clover, a young photographer, discovers an alley dweller of “some sort of mixed blood”, and immediately asks for permission to take a picture (Cliff 85-86). It becomes apparent that those classified as “coloured” are still regarded as spectacles of otherness by the dominant elite. The alley-dweller, Scheherazade, asserts that she is “a spoil of the war”, and has no role to play in the newly transformed social order (Cliff 90). Her life was entirely devoted to serving her master’s sadistic whims; even when this no longer has to be the case, she is too drained to start anew. As a consequence, she finds herself in dark alleys, for she dampens the festivities and the illusion of victory. Her situation represents a microcosm of a much larger issue — those oppressed slaves that have been “freed" are being driven to the edges of American society, and have no direction, no resources and no means of integrating into the “blasted country [that they had built] from the ground up” (Cliff 151). The message from their benevolent liberators can be summed up as thus: we have given you people a future, do not think about partaking in ours.
For Annie and her comrades, the war for freedom was planned for November 2nd, 1859, but failed to realize its desired ambitions. Years of meticulous planning were wasted; the aftermath of the attack was one of wanton bloodshed. Moreover, the official version of what had transpired became a tale for “public consumption — in both senses of the word” (Cliff 138). In spite of having the exact moment of defeat imprinted on her mind, Mary Ellen Pleasant wills herself to remember that she “[belongs] in the here and now” (Cliff 151). Over the remainder of her life, she achieves smaller victories, but can proudly claim them as her own:
“She kept the faith, kept on pushing . . . That she did. She was, as you no doubt have concluded, a woman of her word. Mary Ellen forced the integration of public facilities in California . . . She, using connections in the state house . . . got legislation through which gave people of African descent the right to testify against people of European descent, [etc.] (197-198 Cliff)
In pursuing such a course of action, Mary Ellen exposes herself to a myriad of dangers. She is forced to align with the hegemonic culture, and must always be mindful of the snares that have been set up for individuals who threaten the dominant order. Despite her plethora of achievements, Mary Ellen is not immune to the machinations of the Fathers of San Francisco, who eventually manage to overwhelm her. When confronted with this reality, it is difficult not to fall prey to feelings of hopelessness. If M.E.P — who according to every standard is considered indomitable — can be brought down, then where does that leave everyone else? Especially considering that her comrades in arms are ill-prepared to carry out the task of introducing sweeping changes. Nonetheless, if the formidable San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is any indicator, Mary Ellen Pleasant will always pose as a force to be reckoned with, regardless of the circumstances or particularities.
Following her experiences in the raid and subsequently in the chain gang, Annie once again reverts to a familiar but intolerable state of isolation. She cannot summon the will to reach out to others, for this would entail an unveiling of her repressed memories. Furthermore, she becomes convinced that she has nothing left to offer to the cause, and feels unreasonable guilt for “seeking [her] own redemption . . . [a supposedly] selfish motive” (Cliff 199). It would be easy, therefore, to assert that Annie’s fight to free herself is far from successful. Such an assumption, however, proves to be untrue. When she finds herself in the Carville leper colony, Annie becomes surrounded by fellow activists who eagerly welcome her presence. Slowly but surely, she allows her emotions to calm and her past trauma to be explored. In Cliff’s words, a “new kinship [is] forged” within the colony, one that provides Annie with the incentive to break out of her self-imposed silence and join in with a collectivity of voices (Cliff 43). And it is ultimately as a result of finding commonalities, telling stories, and hoping that the stories will continue to circulate, that Annie begins to look toward the future.
The raid on Harper’s Ferry held momentous consequences for all those who were involved. Yet despite the ever-present threat of failure and retaliation, the insurrection was carried out with steely resolution. The drive for freedom was the motivating force behind this ill-fated effort. It compelled abolitionists of all colours and origins to take up arms for the chance at creating a future for African-Americans. Even after the attack was brutally suppressed by colonial authorities, the enslaved masses refused to slip back into silence. Instead, social movements grew in scope and intensity, and were led by many exceptional individuals who have been overlooked in history. In Free Enterprise, Michelle Cliff recovers “stories of centuries-long resistance” and affirms enduring conceptions of liberty (Schwartz 1). In particular, she identifies freedom with the realization of purpose and collectivity in the face of imperially prescribed outcomes. The ways of fulfilling these aspirations have been shown to be wide ranging, some carefully orchestrated — like John Brown’s raid — others more spontaneous, natural and unmediated. Sadly, they cannot so readily account for existing inequities, thus leaving many oppressed peoples susceptible to further atrocities. But even so, every effort serves as an act of revolt, and a promise of imminent change.
Frances Chen is a fourth-year Honours English and Psychology student from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. She is interested in issues of gender, multiculturalism, race, and politics. She intends to pursue a career as an educator.
Cliff, Michelle. Free Enterprise. City Lights, 2004. Print.
"JOHN BROWN'S RAID BY ONE WHO SAW IT." New York Times (1923-Current file): 2.
Oct 13 1929. ProQuest. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.
Schwartz, Meryl. Interview with Michelle Cliff. Contemporary Literature 34.4 (1993) : 594. Print.