Book Review: Fugitive Movements Commemorating the Denmark Vesey Affair and Black Radical Antislavery in the Atlantic World



University of South Carolina Press, 2022.


Fugitive Movements: Commemorating the Denmark Vesey Affair and Black Radical Antislavery in the Atlantic World, edited by James O’Neil Spady, is a collection of eleven essays developed from papers delivered at the “Black Anti-Slavery in the Atlantic World” conference in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2019. True to its title, the essays included in the book can be placed into two categories. Roughly half of the essays discuss the events surrounding the revolutionary plans of Denmark Vesey and his collaborators in Charleston in 1822, including the continuing speculation that no plot existed at all. The other half of the essays discuss the wider world of Black radical action in the Atlantic, with occasional references to how those actions correlate with the events in Charleston in 1822. The two themes of the text are tied together from the outset in Manisha Sinha’s Preface and James O’Neil Spady’s Introduction. Those introductory chapters place Vesey’s revolutionary plot, and the retributive white injustice that came in response to that plot, within the broader context of the Black radical tradition and the still ongoing struggles against the violences of white racist oppression in the US and beyond. The combination of those two main themes make the book a complementary addition to the scholarly landscape on Vesey, and builds upon recent works such as Douglas R. Egerton and Robert L. Paquette’s The Denmark Vesey Affair (2017) and Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Robert’s Denmark Vesey’s Garden (2018). By placing Vesey side-by-side with discussions of Black Atlantic radicalism, Fugitive Movements presents a bridge between scholarship solely focused upon Vesey and work examining other aspects of the wider Black radical tradition in the US and broader Atlantic, as can be found, for example, in Manisha Sinha’s The Slave’s Cause (2016) and Jennifer L. Morgan’s Reckoning with Slavery (2021).

It is the merging of its two overarching themes that causes the only problem within Fugitive Movements, as the two complementary strands struggle for room against each other within the limited space of a single volume. Essays such as Bernard E. Powers Jr.s and Spady’s, which open the collection, and the joint work of Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle, which closes it, focus primarily upon Vesey, his allies, nineteenth-century Charleston’s melting pot of religion, politics, Black radicalism, and white racist violence, and the short- and long-term legacies of 1822. Roberts and Kytle’s work is particularly powerful. Their essay traces the history of the fight to memorialise Vesey in Charleston against a backdrop of white racist denials of the history of slavery in the US and white racist dismissals of the importance of Vesey, his co-conspirators, and their legacy. That final essay ends where the book begins, with a picture of a statue of Vesey that also features on the cover. Like the impact of that repeated image of him, the essays on Vesey benefit from a repeated focus upon Charleston in 1822; the background of the discussions of Vesey in other chapters gives every Vesey-focused essay a depth and a richness through a more rounded exploration of their subject within the collection. That level of rich analysis is unachievable for the essays that barely engage with Vesey at all and therefore need to do much more foregrounding within the limited space available to them. That limitation is particularly evident in chapters by Lucien Holness on the Free Soil principles that informed Black Pennsylvanian’s radical demands for freedom, Wendy Gonaver on the variations between Susie King Taylor and Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s recollections of the 1862 Georgia revolt, and Douglas R. Egerton on the often overlooked lives of the Black women and children of Black male revolutionaries. All three essays are fantastic but seem attenuated to fit within the word count. This particular issue is almost inevitable in a text of this kind, with many of the essays only able to give a brief insight into their topics due to the limited room available, but it remains a shame that many fascinating strands of those essays seem cut short.

However, that inevitable problem of the battle for space in the collection is the result of its great strength: its awareness, and varied exploration, of the Vesey plot within the larger context of Black Atlantic radicalism. Fugitive Movements provides an excellent overview of the different elements of that larger Black Atlantic context, whilst providing some real, in-depth analysis of the events of 1822. The book would form an excellent base around which to build a course upon Black Atlantic activism and should serve as essential reading for anyone studying Vesey.

About Kiefer Holland

Dr Kiefer Holland is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. His research into nineteenth-century African American women’s lives and literatures is funded by the Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities.
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