“Slave driver, the table is turned; Catch a fire, so you can get burned.” - Bob Marley
I am crouched on the edge of Port-au-Prince rooftop, a hooded figure with a blunderbuss and a rusty machete strapped to my back. A throng of white men in frock coats and silk stockings bustles by below, some on their way to a nearby slave auction. There, a line of shackled men stand on a platform, under posters reading “Nègres À Vendre”—“Blacks For Sale.” It’s broad daylight, and my rooftop ledge stands only a few feet off the ground. Yet, the men below don’t seem frightened. It’s possible they can’t believe their eyes: Black assassins on rooftops aren’t quite commonplace in colonial Saint-Domingue. Whatever the reason, their loss is our gain.
A slave driver in a red bandana—our target—leads a chain gang of slaves toward the auction platform. “Animals!” he shouts, in a cartoon villain’s rasp. I release the space bar; Adéwalé leaps into action. He rises like a bird of prey with bulging biceps for wings, drawing his blade midair before crashing down upon his victim like a metric ton of reparations checks. The crowd of planters shrieks. Extracting his machete from the dead man’s body, Adéwalé leaps to his feet—but another treacherous overseer is already coming at him with a cutlass. He knocks the man off balance, circles him on tiptoe, then splits his head open like a melon. A glitch freezes the gruesome animation just as one of the liberated slaves begins to express his gratitude. “You would do the same,” says Adéwalé, “if you could.” The overseer has nothing to add to the conversation—moaning, he hangs in the air like a kebab.
There’s no denying it: Freedom Cry, like every game in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series, is as thrilling as it is ridiculous. As Adéwalé, a self-emancipated slave and member of the Assassin Brotherhood, the player sails the Caribbean in a tricked-out former slave ship called the Experto Crede. Assisted by a crew of Maroon rebels and grateful freedmen, you get to infiltrate plantations, dredge up sunken treasure, wrestle sharks, chase down slave ships, and fire broadsides into the splintering hulls of evildoers. Mostly, you get to kill masters with the tools of slavery—because nothing says poetic justice quite like a slave’s machete harvesting a sugar-planter’s neck.
When Dr. King Schultz shoots the sadistic Calvin Candie at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, he turns to Django and says, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist.” He might as well be speaking for American culture at large: audiences have become fixated on stories of slaves’ revenge. Freedom Cry was released in the same year that Django won an Academy Award, and James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird—a novel about John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry—won the National Book Award for fiction. These may be three very different works in three different media, but their success says something about the kind of slavery fictions today’s audiences crave. They want catch-a-fire stories; narratives of master’s comeuppance.
For some, slave revenge in fiction represents progress. As TheGrio’s Danielle Belton writes in a review of Django, “A black historical revenge fantasy means… confront[ing] the ugliness of our origins.” A valid opinion, but one that shouldn’t prevent us from looking into the sometimes troubling origins of these revenge narratives. Specifically, we must recognize that among the first readers craving stories of master’s comeuppance was master himself. The fear of slave rebellion haunts early American literature—not only the forgotten propaganda of slavery’s apologists, but the books of some of the greats. Foremost among these is Herman Mellville’s novella Benito Cereno, the story of a slave mutiny at sea told from the perspective of the “heroic” Captain Delano, who brings it to a bloody end. At the end of the book, Delano addresses the slave ship captain he has rescued, asking “what has cast such a shadow upon you?” “The negro,” he replies.
Indeed, the shadow of “the negro”—and the masochistic thrill whites found in contemplating it—was the first impetus behind slave revenge fiction. Slave owners and white abolitionists alike believed that slavery (and the presence of Black people in the United States) was an unstable and potentially explosive social contradiction. Slave revenge was the fantasy of its swift resolution—a vision of divine justice for some, an apocalyptic nightmare for others, and largely useless to slaves themselves.
These are very different times, but it’s hard not to see similar impulses at work in our own slave revenge renaissance. We live in a world that has largely failed to address the legacy of Atlantic slavery, and revenge fantasies offer the clean, cathartic satisfactions of retroactive resolution. History can be a painful thing to contemplate, and going back in time to punish villains is more immediately satisfying than trying to imagine the past on its own terms. Rather than slavery as it might have been, revenge fantasies address themselves to modern guilt or outrage over what the Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire once called “the atrocious inanity of our reason for being [here].” They have more to do with our own feelings than the lives of the dead. But satisfying as they are, the revenge stories audiences love today have little to do with the real lives of slaves and slave rebels.
What differentiates slave revenge fantasies from other stories of slave resistance is their emphasis on crime and punishment. They like to linger pornographically on slavery’s horrors, which justify and intensify the pleasures of imagined retribution. At their best, they are premised on the principle that “it is beautiful that sin should exist to be punished.” But in the context of slavery, stories of sin and punishment cannot help but center on masters. No matter how much time Django or Adéwalé spend on screen, they are not really the heroes of their stories. Subordinated to our contemporary desire to fix history, they are reduced to mere instruments of justice. Slavery and slave-owners remain the stars of the show: as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in a column on Django: “Slave revenge has the luxury of making slavery primarily about white people.”
James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird is a brilliant subversion of this kind of revenge narrative. Throughout the novel, McBride juxtaposes John Brown’s Quixotic mission to destroy “the infernal institution” with the pragmatic strategies of resistance practiced by the novel’s slave rebels and Underground Railroad conductors. For McBride’s John Brown, slavery is a villain in a morality play. For the slaves, it is a lived reality, something to be dealt with strategically. The gap between the two makes for many of the most interesting moments in the novel. The novel’s narrator—a twelve-year-old boy John Brown frees and christens “Little Onion”—has a sharp sense of the divide between his own interests and those of the zealous abolitionists. At a rally where John Brown is speaking, Onion observes the crowd:
“They called for them rebels’ heads, announced they’d trounce ‘em, bounce ‘em, kill ‘em, deaden ‘em where they stood… It was like a big, long lynching. Everybody got to make a speech about the Negro but the Negro.”
As McBride’s novel artfully demonstrates, heroic revenge fantasy tends to upstage the difficulty and complexity of real slave resistance. Adéwalé’s swashbuckling hijinks in Freedom Cry look pretty silly next to the activities of the real slave rebels of the colonial Caribbean—people like Jamaica’s Nanny or Haïti’s François Mackandal. The game’s Maroons look silly, too. Bland freedom-fighters with anachronistic liberal values, they are nothing like the colorful guerrillas of Caribbean history, who allied with native peoples, practiced military magic, and fought to create traditional African societies in the hills of the New World. They had better things to do than punish their former masters.
To give credit where credit is due, Freedom Cry is the first game set in the colonial Caribbean that doesn’t erase slavery altogether—as have twenty years of titles like Pirates, Empire Total War, Age of Empires III, Colonization, and Port Royale. But its fixation on comeuppance—on slavery as a morality play—is a serious limitation. Revenge, in art as in life, is too easy. It’s a way of sidestepping the hard imaginative work necessary to bring historical characters and worlds to life. Slave resistors weren’t puppets in the hands of our modern outrage, but real people making difficult decisions in an uncertain world. Some of them rose up in arms, and others ran away. Some of them turned to traditional African religion, while others re-invented Christianity, appropriating it for their own purposes. Some of them fought to end slavery once and for all, while others—like Jamaica’s Maroons—made treaties with their former masters.
Expecting games to demonstrate this level of nuance might seem farfetched. But many games—especially RPGs and historical strategy games—already do. One of the things that makes games so special is their capacity to simulate difficult choices, the kind you have to make without knowing what happens next. A game that really brought the world of rebel slaves to life would confront players with some of these choices—and their consequences. For all its good qualities, Freedom Cry doesn’t offer such an experience. But it’s too early to count out the genre entirely. Beyond revenge, games might yet have something to contribute to the way slavery is imagined and remembered.