Towards a New Grammar of Justice: John Swanson Jacobs’s World-Altering Words

July 23, 2024, 6:00 pm - 7:00 pm

The Redwood, in collaboration with the Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project,  presents John Swanson Jacobs’s remarkable 1855 autobiographical slave narrative, The United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots was lost until Jonathan Schroeder found it in 2016 in a digital archive. Writing from Australia, beyond the reach of American law and humanitarian authority, John Jacobs demonstrates the potential of unfiltered, uncensored, unapologetic Black writing to speak truth to power. The recovery of Despots gives American audiences an unprecedented chance to understand how, when liberated from invisible constraints, African ex-Americans were able to reconfigure the relationship between liberty and truth to call for new, more just worlds. Most remarkably, the second half of the narrative ceases to recount events in Jacobs’s life altogether, with Jacobs instead writing between the lines of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution in order to show that these founding documents were not made for him, but to benefit the slave owner. In reckoning with John S. Jacobs’s world-altering words for the first time, one must reckon with America as a nation that, in 1776, commenced two experiments at once: one in democracy, the other in tyranny.


Jonathan D. S. Schroeder is a historian of literature, medicine and emotion, and a lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 2016, in Australia, he rediscovered John Swanson Jacobs’s long lost autobiographical slave narrative, The United States Governed by Six Hundred Thousand Despots: A True Story of Slavery; republished by The University of Chicago Press in 2024 and profiled in the New York TimesNPR, and elsewhere, his edition features the first full-length biography of Harriet Jacobs’s globe-spanning brother, No Longer Yours: The Lives of John Swanson Jacobs. Schroeder is also the co-editor of Ahab Unbound: Melville and the Material Turn, and the co-director of Congress of the Birds, a 501(c)3 organization that annually rescues, rehabilitates, and releases over 1,000 of Rhode Island’s native and migratory birds. The recipient of long-term fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the John Carter Brown Library, and the American Antiquarian Society, Schroeder is currently editing Lauren Berlant: A Reader, writing and researching Prisoners of Loss: An Atlantic History of Nostalgia, and planning and building a 42-acre forest wildlife rehabilitation center in Chepachet, Rhode Island.


Tuesday, July 23rd

6 pm

Harrison Room


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