Kathryn Olivarius, of Stanford University, has reviewed S. Charles Bolton’s Fugitivism: Escaping Slavery in the Lower Mississippi Valley, 1820–1860 in the April 2020 issue of Environmental History. Environmental History is an interdisciplinary journal that addresses issues relating to human interactions with the natural world over time, and includes insights from history, geography, anthropology, the natural sciences, and many other disciplines.

Fugitivism,” Olivarius writes, is “a magisterial meditation on escape from the Lower Mississippi Valley. … By retraining our eye from the macro—the slave system being resisted—to the micro—the experiences of individual, idiosyncratic escapees—Bolton uncovers a history of flight so directionally and motivationally varied as to defy simple categorization. Sometimes escape approximated a choice with ‘the pull of self-actualization and anticipated happiness’ as important to an escapee as ‘the push of exploitation.'”

Olivarius discusses “the corrective ‘fugitivism,'” explaining that “‘Runaway’—a person who absented himself or herself from slavery— is overly narrow, camouflaging enslaved people’s motivation(s), obfuscating the substantial risks of escape, and—crucially—giving no hint to where a person was headed or why they chose that destination. Moreover, subset descriptions of runaways like “maroon” apply more readily to the Caribbean while ‘truant’ is laden with ‘schoolchild associations.’ There is no specific word for urban ‘walkaways.’ Historians may balk at introducing a new, quasianachronistic term, but most will sympathize with lexical constraints. Labels like ‘proslavery’ and ‘antislavery,’ after all, ineffectively convey political beliefs; there is an argument to replace whitewashed ‘plantations’ with ‘labor camps.’ ‘Fugitivism’ does indeed capture the ubiquitous nature of flight better than “runaway,” as well as the multidirectional and multimethodological nature of escape.”

Fugitivism, Olivarius concludes, is “less of an argument-driven monograph than a beautifully woven tapestry of snapshots. … Collectively, these fragments form a kaleidoscopic vista of Southern society perennially unable to reconcile the “double nature” of slaves as both property and people.”

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