“The Rebels” is a “rememory” project starting in the hidden world of maroons living in the margins of plantations in the 18th century, and stretching across time to present-day counties surrounding New Bern, NC. Maroons were enslaved people who had escaped their captors, but did not flee to the North. Instead they choose to create a life in hard-to-access swamps or in the wild spaces between plantations.
The survival strategies and techniques the maroons used to survive in the ungoverned space between plantations can be thought of as “freedom practices.” Through these recently reclaimed threads of stories, we can begin to radically re-envision Black people’s connection to the American landscape.
With this in mind, I have been looking for portals within this southeastern coastal landscape—liminal spaces that slip in-between the past, present and future and are not limited to physical doorways. They can be seen in the eyes of present day people who continue to survive in this landscape. As a long-form visual storyteller, this project builds on my past work within archives, where I challenge the ways archives are used to make meaning in the United States.
The Rebels utilizes archival fragments, historic ephemera, and my own images to focus on individual stories of slaves, maroons, and runaways whose existence is only now revealed through traces in the collective archive. This project works to expand narratives about the Black experience and our connection to the “American” landscape. This work has been guided by local historic archives of runaway slave ads, lynching news articles, Black folklore and other location specific historical events.
This project starts in the hidden world of the southern borderland of the US and gives voice to maroons who lived in the margins of plantations in the 18th century, and reaches across time to present-day counties surrounding New Bern, NC, established in 1710. Historically, the port city of New Bern's location on the coast made it a hub for the historic trade of human beings. This region, rich with important historical moments, is extremely relevant as one of the earliest colonized spaces in the United States.
Since the first slave stepped foot on American soil in 1619, the relationship between American capitalism, the bondage of certain human beings and this cultural landscape has been commodified within America’s DNA. In order to inflict slavery on other human beings, whole systems of legal codes and social norms had to be adopted to ensure the success of America’s racial project through the control and commodification of black bodies.
From the beginning of slavery there have been people who refused the institution in different ways. Marronage became an everyday feature of slavery that was ever present in the minds of slave owners and white society of the time. There was even a mental illness created to name the phenomenon, called drapetomania. Marronage could take different forms in 17th and 18th century America. Slaves would outright escape their bondage and never return. But many more would just flee or disappear for short periods creating an existence in the liminal spaces in between plantations in the nearby woods and swamps.
The major goal of my work is to locate and redefine the black body in the American social, political and physical landscape. The black body has often been rendered invisible in these spaces. I want to push beyond the typical historic narratives that surround the black experience of the American environment that focus solely on slavery. There is much more to black life than survival and resistance. The American landscape, which includes national parks, forests and farmlands play an important role in our national identity and we as a collective society have specific visual imaginings of who belongs and doesn’t belong in these spaces. It’s time for Black people to research, understand and rectify the American narrative forced upon us.
Raymond Thompson Jr. is an artist, educator and visual journalist based in Austin, TX. He currently works as an Assistant Professor of Photojournalism at University of Texas at Austin. He has received a MFA in Photography from West Virginia University and a MA in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. He also graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a BA in American Studies. He has worked as a freelance photographer for The New York Times, The Intercept, NBC News, NPR, Politico, Propublica, The Nature Conservancy, ACLU, WBEZ, Google, Merrell and the Associated Press.