Shelby Johnson

Shelby Johnson

My research ranges throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and traces the flows of people, commodities, texts, and ideas linking North America and the Caribbean with Britain and West Africa. My scholarship follows figures, especially writers of color, who are extraordinarily itinerant in a period defined by large-scale population movements, forced displacement, and slavery. While I do not identify with a particular subfield based in geography, I do frequently find myself thinking about questions of everyday arrangements of subjectivity and their embeddedness in particular ecologies across the colonial transatlantic, as well as the political traditions (revolutionary, sentimental, heterodox, evangelical) with which they intersect. At these local sites, I am invested in tracing the contours of violence, vulnerability, and rupture that comprise rich and varied performances of race, gender, and sexuality throughout the period. My attentiveness to these intimate entanglements of voice, flesh, and land prompt interpretive practices that align with what Elizabeth Povinelli has called “thick life,” or descriptions of “embodied social relations,” that center the complex material, cultural, and rhetorical positionings taken up by writers of color in colonial print and performance circuits. My published and forthcoming work take up many of the questions I have been discussing and appear or are forthcoming in MELUS, English Language Notes, The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, and The Burney Journal.

Currently, I am working on two book projects, the first of which is Small Plots: Race and Earthly Belonging in the Atlantic World, 1770-1840. Small Plots traces iterations of Psalm 115:16, “The earth was given to the children of men,” across the writings of Samson Occom, Phillis Wheatley, Robert Wedderburn, Mary Prince, and William Apess, a constellation of texts engaged with the large-scale territorial and ideological ruptures of the Age of Revolution and Removal. I contend that these writers draw from this scriptural tenet, and from a broader imaginary of a “gifted earth,” to improvise what I am calling “small plots,” or narrative idioms, forms of dwelling, and local conspiracies that reconceive the grounds of anticolonial dissent/descent. The project’s aims are twofold: First, I argue that writers of color recur to small plots to contest settler colonial acts of dispossession. And second, they reconfigure the patrilineal bonds of an earth given to “the children of men” to express a futural politics responsive to colonial ruptures in genealogy. In a critical methodology informed by Black and Native studies, feminist and queer theory, and political ecology, I address how these texts’ attentiveness to everyday (or small) repertoires of landed belonging, temporal affiliation, and care negotiate in extremis what Abenaki scholar Lisa Brooks calls “the rememberment of a fragmented world.” Small Plots thus reconsiders how eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century writers of color rehearse forms of belonging to the earth – and to each other – that allow us think through and beyond settler colonialism’s persistent ruination of present (and future) communal and ecological relations.

In an essay on Anna Maria Falconbridge’s Two Voyages to Sierra Leone (1796) (forthcoming in an edited collection), I have begun work on a second book, Climates of Consent: Population Relocation and the Plantationocene, 1783-1840. Climates of Consent investigates imperial configurations of consent and coercion that animated the resettlement of Black Loyalists and Jamaican Maroons to Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone after the American Revolution and the Second Maroon War (1795-96) and the displacement of southeastern Native communities during Indian Removal (1830-39), where each group had to assent – by treaty or signature – to their own relocation. In the essay on Falconbridge, I contend that she registers what I call “thresholds of livability” which concatenate colonial administrative malpractice as a form of climate violence. In the larger project, I propose that we read resettlement initiatives as instantiations of what Michel Foucault calls the disciplining of a “people” into an imperial “population,” a transformation in subjectivity revealed in settlers’ claims that the territories’ comparatively hostile climates operated as pervasive instruments of genocide. Resettlement and climate form co-constitutive, rather than conflicting, modes of imperial governance, and parallel the more studied eco-political paradigms represented by the plantation. I argue, then, that histories of “consensual” population relocation ultimately align with the Plantationocene, a global alignment of extractive labor and environmental management that haunts our present.

CV