By Jeanette Charles
September 5th, 2018
VA’s Jeanette Charles reviews Maroon Comix, a book that tells the tales of maroons’ fight for freedom and self-determination and their legacy for today’s struggles.
“Today in Venezuela, the history and heritage of maroons are celebrated and continued as part of an ongoing revolutionary process.” Maroon Comix, pg. 25.
African and Indigenous peoples across the Americas have honored and embraced their maroon roots throughout time. In the case of Venezuela, the Bolivarian Process and Afro-Venezuelan movements have revitalized these histories on a national scale through a variety of political spaces and campaigns. Today, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela confronts hegemonic powers principally in the shape of sustained and overt US aggression, ranging from corporate media defamation campaigns, economic sanctions, political intervention to military threats. Moreover, grassroots movements and the Bolivarian state continue to grapple with necessary and urgent debates about how to strategically manifest 21st Century Socialism under these conditions. Maroon Comix: Origins and Destinies (PM Press 2018) offers a critical window into these conversations from the perspectives of maroon histories of self-determination.
The examples of self-liberated peoples in their exercise of self-governance, and the quest for national sovereignty against colonial empires, surface as relevant paradigms to study, understand and apply in contemporary struggles. The book’s editor and illustrators highlight key connections with the African and Indigenous peoples who “escaping slavery in the Americas, maroons made miracles in the mountains, summoned new societies in the swamps, and forged new freedoms in the forests.” This innovative comic-book inspired collection serves as a political testament to the will of all African peoples and Indigenous nations, and their descendants’ unwavering fight for freedom.
What is Maroon Comix?
Maroon Comix, edited by Quincy Saul, skillfully weaves together anti-colonial struggles from Latin America and the Caribbean, the African continent as well as the United States. “And so to tell maroon history is a paradox: How to reveal the majesty with reverence for the mystery? How to tell their story in a form which fits their freedom?” poses Saul. In the book’s chapters, the Maroon Comix team attempts to answer these question as they share the stories of the Palmares Maroon Republic from 17th century Brazil; the Haitian Revolution waged and won by enslaved Africans; the multiracial alliances between African, Indigenous and white communities within the US American Seminoles; Queen Nanny and maroon settlements of Jamaica, as well as the resistance histories of pre-independence Venezuelan leaders and spiritual icons, including María Lionza, King Miguel, José Leonardo Chirino and Guaicaipuro, among others.
Maroon Comix features artwork by Songe Riddle, Mac McGill, Seth Tobocman, Hannah Allen, Emmy Kepler and Mikaela González. The comics’ diverse genres are captivating and evoke political reflection as well as emotional responses. Maroons, largely characterized by their anonymity in history, have few official portraits (1). They live on almost entirely through oral histories transferred from generation to generation with few archival sources. The historical importance of the illustrative work palpitates from each page as these struggles transcend time. Maroons are honored as heroes and heroines in ways unmatched in other literature. Selections from US political prisoner Russell Maroon Shoatz and citations from Trinidadian Marxist historian C.L.R James, anti-colonial leader and Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, US anthropologist Richard Price and others, are incorporated into the book’s narration, reminding us of the historical weight and reverence of these societies throughout time. Maroon Comix is an unparalleled opportunity to engage in what Saul refers to as “A mosaic and a manifesto, a genre and a genealogy, a maroon methodology!”
While some struggles mentioned in the book occurred simultaneously, others create a non-linear chronology. Spanning such broad histories takes tact and Maroon Comix does not disappoint. The work steers away from romantic tendencies, often attributed to the re-telling of maroon societies, and chronicles these struggles with a level of political sophistication and radical eloquence. While each contribution is a strong stand-alone piece, also printed in black and white, offering readers to apply their own imaginations in color if they wish; together, the comics build a collective approach to storytelling. In addition, Maroon Comix reminds us that this is only the beginning and admits to historical shortcomings. This work, spanning abolition to African socialism, invites other collectives and communities to envision new chapters and incorporate other stories to reverse the historical silencing of maroons.
Anyone who dedicates time to reading, or simply admiring Maroon Comix’s illustrations, will learn lessons from these self-determinant societies and engage in profound political questions. What defines reformist, radical, or revolutionary strategy? How did maroons build decentralized and democratic societies? What does it mean to build, share and live communally? What were the connections between guerrilla warfare, communal governance and ancestral spiritualities? How did maroon movements teach political integrity and ensure comradery? How did maroon communities challenge colonial powers and win? These questions remain consistent with ongoing concerns that international movements face today.
Maroon Comix Captures the Roots and Reality of the Bolivarian Process
Along Venezuela’s coastal towns and its mountainous countryside, entire Afro-Venezuelan and Indigenous communities have deepened their political commitment to studying anti-colonial struggles and incorporating these orientations, tactics and struggles into their current struggles. Since 1999, the Bolivarian Process has radically transformed the political landscape of the nation by: unearthing maroon historical figures and inscribing them into Venezuela’s national identity, even elevating figures such as Guaicaipuro, Juana La Avanzadora and Negro Primero to the National Pantheon, implementing educational initiatives; developing political, economic and cultural ties with other nations heavily inspired by maroons such as the Caribbean; as well as empowering political campaigns responding to the interests of the African and Indigenous working class and poor majority.
One of the cornerstone debates in Venezuela centers on the communal state (2). Comandante Hugo Chávez’s last political call to action definitively declared that the Venezuelan path to 21st Century Socialism would be defined by: ¡Comuna o Nada! The commune or nothing. Afro-Venezuelans, through a maroon inspired lens, have adjusted this revolutionary cry proclaiming: ¡Toda Venezuela Una Cumbe! All Venezuela [is] a Cumbe! urging the country’s socialist model to draw from marronage (3). Since 2008, Afro-Venezuelans have organized rutas del cimarrón (maroon routes), identifying, documenting and retelling the stories of their maroon communities. As a result, Afro-Venezuelans have invited other grassroots movements to partake in these efforts and have presented their maroon references to the Bolivarian state and the Ministry of Communes as a way to look toward other influential self-governance models pre-dating the Paris Commune and even the 18th century Venezuelan commune in the Andean state of Mérida. (4)
Afro-Venezuelan woman in a march to support President Maduro, June 2016 (Venezuelan Ministry for Women)
One of the regions where the rutas del cimarrón have taken flight is in the state of Yaracuy. In this agricultural and densely populated Afro-Venezuelan region, communities proudly resonate with their maroon past. Spiritual traditions and militant organizing in this community remain constant. Maroon Comix refers to this lineage highlighting the story of Indigenous Queen María Lionza, whose history and likeness has been adapted in Venezuelan films, music and literature. Today, she lives on in everyday Venezuelan life as an essential figure within Afro-Indigenous religious practices. Saul writes, “Maria Lionza is revered in Venezuela, and her spirit is said to inhabit the mountains outside Yaracuy. Born to an indigenous chief, she has become immortalized in a pantheon of maroon spirits: also in her holy trinity are the indigenous chief Guaicaipuro and the African warrior Negro Felipe, both of whom lived and died fighting against the Spanish colonists. A goddess of nature, she represents a synthesis of African, indigenous and European maroon cultures.” María Lionza, Negro Miguel and Guaicaipuro are honored in prayers, local celebrations and depicted on candles, cards and posters found in many Venezuelan homes and communally managed spaces. They are powerful historical leaders revered as both revolutionaries and deities.
Veroes, one of the Yaracuy’s fourteen municipalities, poignantly ties the past to the present. Andrés López del Rosario, known as Andresote, was a maroon from this region who launched African and Indigenous rebellions against Spanish crown and early monopolies in Venezuela. He similarly founded one of the largest maroon networks in Venezuelan history in the early 18th century, as documented by Afro-Venezuelan historian Jesús Chucho García. García attests that archival literature suggests that Andresote’s cumbe network reached the island of Trinidad. In Veroes, he established the Cumbe Río Chiquito which also existed as a cumbe móvil, a mobile cumbe, which fought off against colonial forces across the countryside. Fundamental in the pursuit for freedom during colonial times, Andresote had an incredible impact on Venezuela’s maroons and on African as well as Indigenous descendents. The citizens of Veroes continue to influence national politics in the same regard. Veroes was the community where Chávez first publicly self-identified with his African and Indigenous ancestry on his television program Aló Presidente and where dozens of international as well as Venezuelan organizations gathered to celebrate the First EcoSocialist International in November 2017.
Drawing inspiration from prior communist internationals, the First EcoSocialist International responded to “the cry of Mother Earth” seeking “to reverse the destructive process of capitalism, we will return to our origins, recuperate the ancestral spirituality of humanity, live in peace, and end war.” This unprecedented summit gathered approximately “100 people from 19 countries and five continents, 12 original peoples from Our America, and ecosocialist activists from 14 states of Venezuela.” And, as Kanya D’Almeida explains in her reflection of the gathering, “[The First Ecosocialist International] could only happen here, in Venezuela, where many millions are infused with a revolutionary spirit which they are determined to share with the world.” Undoubtedly, this spirit permeates Venezuelan political traditions, not only of contemporary efforts to build 21st Century Socialism, but is also rooted in the maroon martyrs of the nation’s anti-colonial past.
Similarly, in in the comic chapter “Modern Maroons”, editor Saul writes, “All over Venezuela maroon heritage is recognized and celebrated — not only remembered but resurrected. The work of the original maroons is carried on in the context of an internationalist ecosocialist movement dedicated to overcoming colonialism and capitalism by returning to ancestral production and trading practices.” As Venezuela faces some of its most challenging political and economic times to date, the emphasis on maroon-like tactics, strategies and visions plays an instrumental role in facilitating transformations within Bolivarian Socialism.
In this same vein, Yaracuy is not isolated in its historical significance. The legacies of maroon resistance have arisen in the growing pan-Caribbean campaign for reparations. Unbeknownst to most outside of Venezuela, the Venezuelan 2010 national census confirmed that at least 60% of the population is of African descent or Black-identified. This critical detail underpinned the grassroots pressure on the Bolivarian government to ratify the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent: Recognition, Justice and Development (2015 -2024) in Caracas this March 2018. As a result, subsequent events responding directly to histories of enslavement and emancipation took place in Venezuela. In May 2018, amidst the political whirlwind of the country’s last presidential election, Venezuela hosted its first International Summit on Reparations. The more than 43 distinguished international experts, political leaders, heads of states and grassroots organizers expressed the pan-African and pan-Diasporic demands for legal recognition, economic restitution and reparative justice for the colonial harms of slavery. The Caribbean, African continent, Latin American and the Black nation within the United States participated with varying degrees of representation. Afro-Venezuelan movement leaders and community members, especially young people, attended the event and left with a commitment to build deeper understandings of reparations within Venezuela and their relationship to the Bolivarian Process.
The congress took place on May 8, 9 and 10th in honor of Afro-Venezuelan Identity and History month. These three full days of debates, discussions and presentations were held observing the commemorative dates of José Leonardo Chirino’s African- and Indigenous-led rebellion in Coro, state of Falcón, in 1795, embodying this maroon spirit. Although Venezuela is only an observing member of CARICOM, the largest economic and political block calling for reparations currently, the Bolivarian government facilitated a necessary space for these nations and others to deepen their actions in support of this joint state and grassroots-led initiative demanding financial restitution, cultural restoration and repair, land redistribution, as well as international legal campaigns seeking justice from colonial powers for their historical crimes against humanity. In addition to CARICOM, other precedent setting cases for reparations include the Haitian 2004 bicentennial demand for reparations from France for the more than $USD 24 billion (which resulted in significant backlash and the coup d’état against Lavalas President Jean Bertrand Aristide) and more recently, the Garífuna communities of Punta Piedra and Triunfo de la Cruz that successfully won two decades’ long cases against the Honduran state at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Long Live the Maroons!
The revival of African and Indigenous inspired political strategies have emerged and continue to emerge in a multitude of ways in Venezuela, from ecosocialism to reparations. The Maroon Comix team is key to this international effort to document, inspire and challenge. Their work offers today’s organizers, farmers, workers, political visionaries, dreamers, and militant generation at large, an invitation to reorient their political and theoretical frameworks from Euro-centric revolutionary models to African and Indigenous historical points of reference. Herein lie the ancestral forms of communalism, socialism and communism — maroons, their societies, their strategies, their republics and their present-day permanence. Herein lie the answers to some of our deepest and most puzzling political questions and historical contradictions.
(1) Sara Johnson, “Statues of Solitude” (Emancipatory Legacies of Marronage:Politics and (Re)presentation, Caribbean Studies Association, La Habana Cuba, June 5, 2018). Johnson highlights the case of Solitude, a maroon woman from Grenada, whose history and image while popular are not entirely certain due to a lack of visual and other primary source documentation not unlike most maroons. http://www.caribbeanstudiesassociation.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/2018_CSA_Conference_Program_web.pdf
(2) At Venezuelanalysis, we have extensively covered the Commune movement in Venezuela and the political debates this movement has engaged in with the Bolivarian State. For more resources, review our analysis and multimedia sections highlighting these critical conversations. Some examples can be found here and here.
(3) Cumbe as collectively
defined by the founding organizations of the First Ecosocialist
International is “a territory of resistance dedicated to an
intercultural way of life; a form of organization, production and
insurgency pioneered by maroons; based on ancestral principles of
solidarity and reciprocity and not in competition.” For more information
Afro-Venezuelan movements convened thousands across the country to mobilize in 2016 around this call to action with the campaign of the same name, “Toda Venezuela un Cumbe.” For more information, listen here.
(4) For more information, Afro-Venezuelan historian Jesús Chucho García details the experiences here.
(5) For more information about Andresote’s legacy, read more of Jesús Chucho García’s work here and here.