How do we narrate revolution, its actors, constitutive acts, and locations? Thinking with three recent texts on revolutionary action—in the early national Atlantic world and in our contemporary moment—this short reflection considers questions of method and historiography. The three items under consideration in this essay are Betsy Erkkila’s “Phillis Wheatley on the Streets of Revolutionary Boston and in the Atlantic World,” Shelby Johnson’s “‘The Fate of St. Domingo Awaits You’: Robert Wedderburn’s Unfinished Revolution,” and a conversation between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Chris Hayes regarding the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Erkkila’s article departs from traditional literary and historiographic methods in order to locate Wheatley amid the interracial, working-class crowds who protested Parliament taxation, British occupation, and British military violence. Her reading prioritizes Wheatley’s surviving and nonextant war poetry, emphasizes geographic proximity—Wheatley lived just houses from where the Boston Massacre occurred, for example—and extrapolates her involvement in street protest from Jupiter Hammon’s poem to her. The most significant aspect of Erkkila’s method is the conceptual weight she gives to probability. Rather than demanding absolute proof in the form of existing historical documents, she insists that Wheatley was “probably a participant in the street action on King Street and other crowd actions in Boston during the American Revolution.”1 Indeed, modal verbs, adverbs, and adjectives abound in her article: probably is used six times, probable one time, may have eight times, possibly five times, and likely four times.2 This writing and research methodologically sutures two simultaneous truths about Black life in the archives: Saidiya Hartman’s claim that enslaved Black people appear in early archives vis-à-vis an encounter with power, so we must critically fabulate to tell the stories of which only traces remain; and Tara Bynum’s insistence that there is a lot of Black life in early archives, but we need new methods for accessing them.3 Through her own methodological revolt, Erkkila recasts the lone child-genius at her writing desk as a cosmopolitan whose revolutionary poetry was read at processions and distributed by hand, giving us “a rare window into the prospect of a broader—and more threatening—American Revolution,” one that arguably remains unfinished.4

Johnson also foregrounds an interracial working class through a reading of Robert Wedderburn’s prophetic orientation toward revolution. Wedderburn was born in Jamaica in 1762 to an enslaved mother who negotiated his freedom with his biological father, her enslaver, but he lived most of his life in London as a journeyman and activist. Like Erkkila’s turn to nonextant poetry, Johnson’s reading of Wedderburn is grounded in a speech whose traces remain in a spy report used to charge Wedderburn for sedition in 1819. From this report Johnson excavates a “prophetic polyvocality,” a method by which Wedderburn incorporates a coalition of voices into a jeremiadic foretelling of revolution.5 His prophetic speech is also “a radical historical sensibility”: an orientation toward revolutionary potential that tethers Jewish resistance to Caribbean uprisings.6 Methodologically, this “long durée of colonial resistance” stresses incompletion and suspension, thereby conceptually incorporating “finitude as constitutive of revolution” so that events like the Haitian Revolution are reframed as unfinished projects.7 The mythologies we’ve inherited about late eighteenth-century revolutions—Hamilton included—represent revolutionaries as middling-class white men (small business owners, entrepreneurs, lawyers, printers, diplomats, etc.). Erkkila and Johnson remind us that the real insurrectionists were poor, jobless, or of the precious laboring classes, often from multiracial and diverse ethnic backgrounds, those “on the margins of respectable society.”8

With this reframing in mind, how are we to understand the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot? For Coates and Hayes, this event and the shock it elicited are products of how we have, and have not, narrated revolution.9 Early in their exchange Coates makes an important point: if, as some media outlets and politicians claimed, there really was a powerful group rigging elections, involved in child pornography, and about to take control of the White House, why wouldn’t insurrection be the appropriate response? Both thinkers agree that if the narrative’s premises were true, then the response accords with what we’ve taught our citizenry about tyranny and the revolutionary war. But the premises were not true. For Coates, the Capitol rioters are a predominantly white “anti-democracy” political minority leveraging false premises to stage a coup—not unlike Southern white Democrats’ reascendancy to power in 1877. US history is replete with such events, and widespread shock is the result of dominant historiography omitting a long tradition of white reactionary violence.

But is this antidemocratic constituency a political minority with “disproportionate power” throughout history, as Coates describes them? If they are the minority, who constitutes the pro-democracy majority? Surely not moderates, whom Martin Luther King Jr. astutely critiqued for preferring order and peace over the tension that produces justice.10 Is it the political Left, a constituency responsible for the 1994 crime bill and still heavily invested in expanding the carceral state?11 If there is a pro-democracy majority, why does the “racial calculus” that drove enslavement still devalue Black lives, producing “skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment”?12 Despite acknowledging generations of anti-Black mob violence, voter disenfranchisement, a predatory carceral system, and an elite leadership class born and bred in Ivy League schools, Coates and Hayes believe in the progressive existence of a democracy—even if, as they say, its establishment is recent and it remains “challenged.” This premise is why Hayes can ask, “What does democratic governance look like [under Trump]?” So much does this premise structure their thinking that the word democracy appears twenty-three times in their exchange.

The cognitive dissonance that runs through their exchange occludes one of two facts: either democracy is congruent with anti-Blackness, as Wheatley said in her 1774 letter to Samson Occom (“how well the cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive power over others agree”), or democracy—as we conceive and claim to practice it—has never existed.13 Erkkila’s and Johnson’s articles underscore how deploying different methodologies to highlight subjugated voices reveals that democracy, as we claim it, is a mythological production of dominant historiography. How do such stories change, asks Christina Sharpe, “when we proceed as if we know this, antiblackness, to be the ground on which we stand, the ground from which we attempt to speak”?14 Might we then see the reverberations between John Adams’s claim that Crispus Attucks was a “stout Molatto fellow, whose very looks was enough to terrify any person” and Darren Wilson’s claim that Michael Brown looked “like a demon”?15 Perhaps we might then listen to the millions of Black and Brown voices, on the streets and in the academy, insisting that the revolution is unfinished—and coming.

Notes

2

“Probably a participant” (Erkilla, “Phillis Wheatley on the Streets,” 352, 353), “probably saw” (355, 356), “probably among the mourners who marched” (358), “probably knew personally” (362), “probable street-level activism” (368), “may have” (352, 353, 358, 359, 360, 361, 368n1, 369n11), “possibly” (354, 363 [twice], 365, 367), “likely” (354, 356, 360, 368).

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