Robin D. G. Kelley's introduction to The Liquid  Plain

Naomi Wallace found the title The Liquid Plain in Phillis Wheatley’s 1773 poem “A Farewell to America,” a stanza from which serves as the play’s epigraph. Do not skip over it, for Wheatley’s verse does much more than serve up a neat, picturesque metaphor for the Atlantic as a vast highway between Old and New Worlds. The play and the poem share much in common. Both are based on actual events: “A Farewell to America” tells of Wheatley’s real life journey from Boston to London in 1773 whereas The Liquid Plain takes off from the trials of James De Wolfe, a slave ship captain and prominent New England citizen indicted in 1791 for throwing an enslaved woman overboard because she contracted smallpox. John Cranston, a crew member who refused orders to assist in the killing, testified against De Wolfe causing something of a sensation. Once feted by abolitionists and reviled by slave traders, Cranston faded from historical memory until Marcus Rediker’s magnificent book, The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007), resurrected him. 

And yet, in both cases “actual events” mask deeper, more fundamental truths. 

The African-born Wheatley, early America’s most famous poet, took off for “Britannia’s distant shore” partly to improve her health, partly to seek out a publisher. Paradoxically, she traveled in the company of her slave master’s son, Nathaniel Wheatley. In other words, she was property. The poem’s apparent nostalgia for New England veils her recognition that the England of old had just become liberated territory for the enslaved. A year prior to her journey, a fugitive from slavery named James Somerset successfully sued for his right to freedom in the British high court. Chief Justice Lord Mansfield ruled that because England never passed a law legalizing slavery, masters could not force fugitives back into slavery as long as they were on English soil. So when Wheatley writes in the same poem, “But thou! Temptation hence away / With all thy fatal train / Nor once seduce my soul away,” it is not clear whether she is speaking of England or America—the former, the temptation to seize her freedom; the latter, the temptation to return home without it. Either way, we know it was on her mind when she penned “A Farewell to America,” however camouflaged behind flowery verse. We also know that she returned to New England a slave, choosing to negotiate her freedom over a fugitive life in the sanctuary of Britannia. She was finally freed upon the death of her master, John Wheatley, in 1778, and she herself died six years later at the age of thirty-one, broken and penniless. 

In The Liquid Plain, reversing sail across the Atlantic also serves as a possible path to freedom. The rough, cold waters first experienced as the nightmare of the Middle Passage—young men, women and children packed tightly into dark cargo holds, chained together, suffering from dysentery, fever, malnutrition and brutality—appeared as the dream of returning home. Except that Wallace’s characters chose fugitivity, self-liberation, and Africa over the kindness of white men, the fairness of white law, and the paternalism of England. Indeed, she succeeds in transforming a tale of white bourgeois villainy and white working-class courage into a story that centers on the struggles of black women for freedom and justice. 

Set in Bristol, Rhode Island, the first act takes place in 1791, the year of De Wolfe’s trial and the first year of the Haitian Revolution—the massive slave insurrection that not only destroyed slavery on the island but established the first independent black nation in the Western Hemisphere. Act One opens with two lovers, Adjua and Dembi, fugitives from slavery, hustling along Bristol’s docks with dreams of returning to West Africa and raising a free child on soil they can call home. As they await passage on a ship captained by a former slave named Liverpool Joe, they pull what they think is a corpse from the water in search of valuables. The man turns out to be John Cranston—still alive but temporarily devoid of memory. Thus begins a journey that defies summary, whose tragic and prophetic twists and turns can only be experienced on the stage or in the pages that follow. 

Suffice it to say, Adjua does bear a child, a girl named Bristol, who appears in Act Two and Act Three as a forty-six-year-old woman. The year is 1837, three decades after the abolition of the slave trade and three years after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. She makes the transatlantic voyage to the Rhode Island port city for which she was named, but from England, not Africa. And the point of her journey was not to seek freedom—at least not at first—but to exact justice. In the brilliant and determined Bristol Waters, the former slaver-turned-senator James De Wolfe will face his reckoning. And in Bristol’s own reckoning with history, death, Africa, ancestors, and the ghost of poet William Blake, she will discover her calling. Bristol’s dialogue with De Wolfe is a veritable masterpiece, a brilliant exposé of the conceits of Enlightenment-era civilization that transmuted people into cargo and capital, that made murder an economic calculation, that cloaked the bloody business of human trafficking in the refined garments of humanitarianism, and that built a paradise from the bones, sinew and sweat of African people. Bristol strips De Wolfe and the entire system naked, exposing his/its true identity: Butcher. Executioner. Criminal. 

Wallace’s brilliance is her ability to reveal the system of modern slavery, its consequences and contradictions, without ever representing slaves, the Middle Passage, or the brutal operations of the plantation. While the play stays anchored in the lives and struggles of black women seeking freedom and justice, Wallace is sensitive to the ways in which slavery pulled everyone into its bloody fold: Europeans and Africans, children and adults, women and men, the rich and the dispossessed. Inevitably, a system of industrial-scale kidnapping bound together the Atlantic world—a world comprised of Africans escaping bondage, sailors resisting impressment, laboring women fighting concubinage, masters and owners and managers wrestling with their own dehumanization. 

And yet, Wallace avoids the lure of “equivalency,” of treating impressed sailors or the suppressed European laborers as equally oppressed by the Atlantic slave system. John Cranston is neither a hero nor the star of the story—yes, he is victimized, but he is also a victimizer. Likewise, Dembi, Adjua, Liverpool Joe and Bristol are never victims—indeed, they are never slaves. Wallace grasped what most historians have yet to understand: that slaves only existed in the white imagination, and that the African refused to become a “slave”—which is to say a saleable, docile commodity ready and willing to create surplus for her owner. On the contrary, they were the system’s executioners, soldiers of liberty whose hatred of bondage and love of humanity drove them to act, often constructively but sometimes destructively. 

So get ready. Batten down the hatches. Throw all assumptions overboard. And prepare for a voyage that will leave you astonished, edified, and at times utterly breathless. 

Robin D. G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at UCLA, is author of Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times and Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.