Shelby Johnson

Shelby Johnson

The material afterlives of slavery and settler colonialism inform my current research projects, including my book, The Rich Earth Between Us: The Intimate Grounds of Race and Sexuality in the Atlantic World. In it, I explore the writings of Samson Occom (Mohegan), Mary Prince, William Apess (Pequot), and Robert Wedderburn as a constellation of texts engaged with the large-scale territorial and ideological ruptures of the Age of Revolution and Removal. These writers draw from repertoires 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 and descent. The project’s aims are twofold: First, I argue that writers of color deploy small plots to contest settler colonial acts of dispossession. And second, I maintain that they reconfigure the patrilineal bonds of a gifted earth to contest colonially enforced kinlessness. As often as writers of color invoke a gifted earth on behalf of a politics of collectivity, they also summon it to encompass worlds that imagine intimacy otherwise. Indeed, these texts’ attentiveness to everyday (or small) repertoires of belonging and care negotiate what Abenaki scholar Lisa Brooks calls “the rememberment of a fragmented world.” The Rich Earth Between Us thus reconsiders how eighteenth-century forms of belonging to the earth—and to each other—allow us think through and beyond colonialism’s persistent ruination of communal and ecological relations. 

I have also begun work on a second book, Climates of Consent: Population Relocation and the Plantationocene, 1783-1840, which 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 nations during Indian Removal (1830-39), where each group had to assent—by treaty or signature—to their own relocation. Resettlement initiatives thus instantiate 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. In his report on Sierra Leone, Olaudah Equiano registers this irony: “[The settlers] fear the design of some in sending them away, is only to get rid of them at all events.” Robert Wedderburn echoes Equiano in The Axe Laid to the Root (1817) when he contends that the British intentionally “transported the whole of” the Trelawny Town Maroons “into a cold climate, which destroyed the chief part of them.” I argue that resettlement projects and climate knowledge form co-constitutive imperial modes for governing non-white populations, and parallel the more studied worldmaking paradigms represented by plantation empires—the Plantationocene. 

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