Shelby Johnson

Shelby Johnson

My teaching and research range through the “long eighteenth century” (1650-1830) across a geographic network linking North America and the Caribbean with Britain and West Africa. My research, in particular, follows figures who are themselves extraordinarily migrant in a period defined by large-scale population relocations. So while I don’t identify with a particular subfield of scholarly interest based in geography (“early Americanist” or “Caribbeanist,” for instance), I do frequently find myself thinking about problems of selfhood and local settings across the colonial transatlantic, and the political traditions (frequently radical) with which they intersect. These problems find a rich and varied expression in spiritual performance, racial and ethnic identities, and colonial ecologies. My published and forthcoming work appears in peer-reviewed journals such as MELUS, The Burney Journal, and The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation. In these and other pieces, I have explored questions of eighteenth-century theatrical renditions of Oroonoko and racial performance, nineteenth- and twentieth-century indigenous legal confrontations and political theology, the Haitian Revolution as an “unfinished” movement in nineteenth-century Caribbean radical thought, and colonial ecologies and population relocation in the aftermath of the American Revolution. 

I was trained at Union University, where I received BAs in History and English in 2010, the University of Tennessee, where I received an MA in English in 2012, and Vanderbilt University, where I completed my PhD in 2017.                       

Currently, I am working on two different manuscript projects, the first of which is Small Plots: Local Sovereignties and Revolutionary Times in African American and Indigenous Literature, 1770-1840. Small Plots traces iterations of Psalm 115:16, “The earth was given to the children of men,” in both influential texts in eighteenth-century political theory, and in African American and indigenous writing. I consider how writers of color repeatedly draw from this scriptural tenet, and from a broader spiritually inflected imaginary of a finite earth, to express alternative arrangements of landed belonging. This imaginary inspired them to inhabit what I call “small plots,” or narrative improvisations and politico-spiritual performances that ground attachments to the earth in the aftermaths of natal alienation, slavery, and displacement. The manuscript’s aim is twofold: First, I demonstrate how theories of property and possession become critically reimagined when encompassed by a local plot – in burial spaces, narrative idioms, or conspiracies. These plots announce that subjects marked by itinerancy still require a piece of the earth. Second, I address how writers of color use these sites to mobilize a futural politics severed from the temporal demands of property and patrilineal inheritance. In one chapter, I consider the Jamaican Robert Wedderburn, who turns to a post-Haitian Revolution historical moment to envision a global anticolonial order. Wedderburn’s radical periodical The Axe Laid to the Root (1817) positions the Haitian Revolution as unfinished, and announces that a “time is fast approaching” for a new revolution to continue its work. He renders black futurity as an outcome of a prophetic announcement, one ventriloquized through women’s voices, making revolution into a matrilineal inheritance.  This prophetic polyvocality dislocates revolutionary agency from a singular speaker, ensuring that radical speech will survive even if Wedderburn does not. Thus, as a narrative orientation, a piece of earth, and an act of insurrection, small plots can encompass something as large as sovereignty and as humble as burial. 

In an essay on Anna Maria Falconbridge (for an edited collection under review at Bucknell UP), I have begun work on a second book-length project on mass population removals and environmental conditions. Climates of Consent: Population Relocation and Settlement, 1780-1800 builds on my research on forms of landed belonging by investigating colonial and evangelical modes for managing free minority populations, especially in 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). In particular, I explore how these populations were relocated using varying tactics of persuasion and coercion in order to obtain consent from Black settlers to their resettlement. In response, Black settlers frequently came to argue that the comparatively hostile climates of the territories operated as pervasive instruments of colonial violence, and even genocide, rather than as acts of providence that expiated white culpability for their mortality.