By Saidiya Hartman, Anarchist Library
Esther Brown did not write a political tract on the refusal to be governed, or draft a plan for mutual aid or outline a memoir of her sexual adventures. A manifesto of the wayward: Own Nothing. Refuse the Given. Live on What You Need and No More. Get Ready to Be Free — was not found among the items contained in her case file. She didn’t pen any song lines: My mama says I’m reckless, My daddy says I’m wild, I ain’t good looking, but I’m somebody’s angel child. She didn’t commit to paper her ruminations on freedom: With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of potentialities? The cardboard placards for the tumult and upheaval she incited might have said: Don’t mess with me. I am not afraid to smash things up. But hers was a struggle without formal declarations of policy, slogan, or credos. It required no party platform or ten-point program. Walking through the streets of New York City, she and Emma Goldman crossed paths, but failed to recognize one another. When Hubert Harrison encountered her in the lobby of the Renaissance Casino after he delivered his lectures on “Marriage versus Free Love” for the Socialist Club, he noticed only that she had a pretty face and a big ass. Esther Brown never pulled a soapbox onto the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue to make a speech about autonomy, the global reach of the color line, involuntary servitude, free motherhood, or the promise of a future world, but she well understood that the desire to move as she wanted was nothing short of treason. She knew firsthand that the offense most punished by the state was trying to live free. To wander through the streets of Harlem, to want better than what she had, and to be propelled by her whims and desires was to be ungovernable. Her way of living was nothing short of anarchy.
Had anyone ever found the rough notes for reconstruction jotted in the marginalia of her grocery list or correlated the numbers circled most often in her dog-eared dream book with routes of escape not to be found in Rand McNally’s atlas or seen the love letters written to her girlfriend about how they would live at the end of the world, the master philosophers and cardholding radicals, in all likelihood, would have said that her analysis was insufficient, dismissed her for failing to understand those key passages in the Grundrisse about the ex-slave’s refusal to work — they have ceased to be slaves, but not in order to become wage labourers — she nodded in enthusiastic agreement at all the wrong places — content with producing only what is strictly necessary for their own consumption — and embraced indulgence and idleness as the real luxury good; all of which emphasized the limits of black feminist politics. What did they know of Truth and Tubman? Or the contours of black women’s war against the state and capital? Could they ever understand the dreams of another world which didn’t trouble the distinction between man, settler, and master? Or recounted the struggle against servitude, captivity, property, and enclosure that began in the barracoon and continued on the ship, where some fought, some jumped, some refused to eat. Others set the plantation and the fields on fire, poisoned the master. They had never listened to Lucy Parsons; they had never read Ida B. Wells. Or envisioned the riot as a rally cry and refusal of fungible life? Only a misreading of the key texts of anarchism could ever imagine a place for wayward colored girls. No, Kropotkin never described black women’s mutual aid societies or the chorus in Mutual Aid, although he imagined animal sociality in its rich varieties and the forms of cooperation and mutuality found among ants, monkeys, and ruminants. Impossible, recalcitrant domestics weren’t yet in his radar or anyone else’s. (It would be a decade and a half before Marvel Cooke and Ella Baker wrote their essay “The Bronx Slave Market” and two decades before Claudia Jones’s “An End to the Neglect of the Problems of the Negro Woman.”)