The Emancipatory Visions of a Sex Magician Paschal Beverly Randolph’s Occult Politics
Erotic magic, Black emancipation, gender fluidity, interplanetary spirit realms — these were but a few of the topics that preoccupied Paschal Beverly Randolph (b. 1825), an occult thinker who believed that his multiracial identity afforded him “peculiar mental power and marvelous versatility”. Lara Langer Cohen considers the neglected politics of Randolph’s esoteric writings alongside the repeated frustration of his activism: how dreams of other worlds, above and below our own, reflect the unfulfilled promises of Emancipation.
February 8, 2023
Born in Five Points, Manhattan to a Black mother and a white father who left soon after his birth, Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825–1875) grew up in poverty that deepened after his mother died of cholera when he was six. After a difficult, itinerant childhood, he recounts working on ships sailing between New England, Cuba, and Britain, before beginning to lecture on spiritualism and perform as a trance medium. In 1858, however, he publicly broke with the spiritualists, citing their racism, the hypocrisy of their radicalism, and their narrow view of the immaterial world. In a series of lectures, he attacked the characters of leading spiritualists, ridiculed their trances as “jugglery” (or worse, demon possession), dismissed their “business of world-bettering” as hypocrisy, and railed against some of their central tenets, such as the belief popularized by Andrew Jackson Davis that only select souls are immortal and thus all spirits are good. He concludes, “My crime was rete mucosmal”, residing in the color of his skin.1 Randolph relates that after a harrowing suicide attempt (or, as he explained it elsewhere, a transformative experience with Egyptian hashish), he finally left spiritualism behind.2
While Western occultists balked at a “tawny student of Esoterics” like Randolph, they often invested their knowledge with power by racializing it, attributing its secrets to Oriental, Chaldaic, Persian, Egyptian, Asiatic, or Arab sources.3 Randolph trafficked in this manufactured exoticism too, but also developed a philosophically and politically complicated theory of the occult anchored in his own racialized identity. “I owe my successes,—mental,—to my conglomerate blood; my troubles and poverty to the same source”.4 He spent two of his most productive writing years in Louisiana, where he encountered the area’s rich African diasporic religious life. Although in one of his lectures he boasts of exposing “the whole tribe of voudeaux in New Orleans”, he also concedes “it was from one of the voudeaux queens . . . that I gained much of my knowledge”, and elsewhere he cites hoodoo and obeah practices and flaunts the secrets he learned from “the quadroons of Louisiana”.5 His self-identification as a “sang mêlée” — Randolph’s curiously feminized form of the colonial intellectual Moreau de Saint-Méry’s term for people with the smallest fraction of African ancestry — afforded him “peculiar mental power and almost marvelous versatility”.6 Because he already channeled multiple racial identities within his body, Randolph reasoned, he was predisposed to channel other identities, not of this world.
Although at times Randolph insisted that “not a drop of continental African, or pure negro blood runs through me”, over the course of his life he increasingly identified with the struggles of Black people.7 When the Civil War began, he recruited Black troops for the Union army, and during Reconstruction he worked as a teacher and agent for Freedmen’s Bureau schools in Louisiana, participated in important Black and Republican conventions, and served as a correspondent for the Weekly Anglo-African. But from within these established institutions, Randolph was also developing a subterranean praxis that he called “angular and eccentric” and which L. H. Stallings describes as that of a “funky black freak”.8 He founded a series of secret societies organized around his idiosyncratic interpretation of Rosicrucianism, an esoteric religious movement claiming to preserve the wisdom of a mysterious ancient order, and he dreamed of building still more. Randolph produced a huge body of writing, which he mostly self-published with his first wife, Mary Jane Randolph, and his second wife, Kate Corson Randolph, both gifted spiritual practitioners in their own right.9 In handbooks, pamphlets, novels, newspaper articles, manifestos, historiography, a wildly embellished memoir, printed “private letters”, handwritten manuscripts, and more, he taught curious students a kind of DIY occult practice that used their own bodies — through study, sex, and drugs — to make connections with the spirit world. But the gospel of a hallucinatory, cosmic sex magic was not an easy path for anyone in the late nineteenth century, much less a Black man. Randolph struggled against racism (which he deeply internalized), economic precarity, and an abiding sense of being an outsider his entire life. Even when it came to his own theories, he seems to have vacillated between belief and doubt. In 1875, he shot himself in the head at age forty-nine.
Yet in a turn of events that fulfilled some of Randolph’s grandest ambitions, after death his work helped bring about an efflorescence of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century transnational occultism. Better-remembered occult groups like the Theosophical Society, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, and the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn formed in the late 1870s and 1880s and drew heavily on Randolph’s thought.10 The American Rosicrucian R. S. Clymer heralded Randolph as his order’s founder, although his accounts greatly simplified and regularized Randolph’s beliefs.11 Clymer’s Philosophical Publishing Company, the California esoteric publisher Health Research, and other occult and new age publishing companies in the United States, South America, and Europe continued to reprint Randolph’s writings throughout the twentieth century.
The details of Randolph’s cosmology changed from work to work, but they might be summed up by Fred Moten’s statement: “Fuck a home in this world, if you think you have one.”12 He generally believed that all beings begin as “monads”, thoughts of God that scatter over the universe like a kind of divine particulate. Some remain immaterial, and some reach worlds, including Earth, where they are embedded in rocks beneath its surface. Over a long period they materialize in a succession of geological, plant, and animal forms and finally become human souls — a trajectory leading from extraterrestrial worlds to the underground to human beings.13 After death, the souls travel to a vast and heterogeneous system of spirit realms — some located on belts around the planets, some in a zone that encircles all the galaxies, and others still beyond them — and arrive at a location corresponding to their spiritual development. The souls may be stuck where they land, or they may continue the process of spiritual development and move through the “middle states” of the spirit world to reach an unimaginably radiant “soul world”.
Randolph’s criteria for these celestial divisions varied over the course of his career. At times he delineates them in starkly racist terms, asserting that souls of African, Native American, and some Asian people inhabit the lower realms and stand little chance of leaving them. At other times (sometimes within the same text), he describes the dissolution of earthly categories in the afterlife. “Ties, blood, race, or family count for little or nothing over there”, he writes in After Death; or, Disembodied Man (1868).14 And in his late work, he declares that the “choice abodes of spiritland” primarily belong to people of color:
There are people of all kinds there, even “N[—]” and Sangs Melees,— lots of them too, vivat!—and the dark-hued Southern and Oriental races and peoples outnumber the Northern and fair ones in the ratio of about twelve thousand to one hundred; besides excelling them in the same degree in mind, love, knowledge, force of character, and power of soul. . . . [D]ark-hued beings . . . constitute the population of the heavens proper.15
In his descriptions of the spirit realms, Randolph’s racial thought oscillates excruciatingly between replicating the earthly categories that thwarted him and creating a world unto itself. In these latter instances, the spirit realms offer not only an exit from white supremacy but an eternity of redress, which gathers people of color from all over the earth to enjoy dominion beyond it.
Randolph pictured the spheres, divisions, zones, and sections of the spirit world in elaborate detail, including their distinctive environments, architecture, and cultural institutions. The appearance of each sphere, he explains, corresponds to the spiritual development of its inhabitants, because they are a “projection” from the “souls who dwell together and create their own scenery and surrounding”. Randolph means this quite literally: in the spirit worlds, “each thought possesses an inherent vitality of its own, as also form, proportion, and coherence”; in short, spirit worlds are made of palpable ideas.16 As such, they contain both familiar forms of animal life and “entirely different” ones that embody “some salient and positive love, principle, or affection”.17 Human souls look like earthly people but instead of blood, “only a pure, white, or colorless electric current” courses through them. They wear clothes and have no bad teeth or saliva.18 They move through space using magnetism. They have buildings, cities, schools, art, music, and more “fun” than we do.19 They also have better sex, for “up there, and there only, can its deep mysteries be fully known, its keener joys be felt!”20 Souls do get married, but these marriages do not depend on “justice, parson, or priest”, and they “last just so long as the parties thereto are agreeably and mutually pleased with, and attracted, to each other, and no longer”.21
Looking for language to describe the relation between our familiar world and the mysteries of the spirit realms, Randolph reached for the subterranean. Specifically, Randolph envisions the interplanetary spirit realm as this world’s underground. Through occult study and practice, he promises, one could cultivate “the ability, by self-effort or otherwise, to drop beneath the floors of the outer world, and come up, as it were, upon the other side”.22 Randolph reused the phrase “to drop beneath the floors of the outer world” multiple times in his writings to describe practical occultism; its image of the spirit world’s simultaneous proximity and exteriority to everyday life seems to have resonated with him.23 But he also used the image of the underground to explain that the spirit world was interior, buried within a person’s soul, because the “abysses, labyrinths, and most secret recesses of your being” themselves hold a microcosm of the universe.24 To be clear, for Randolph, these subterranean regions of the soul are not a metaphor. They are an actual portal. Randolph charts their egress to unknown worlds in the first half of Dealings with the Dead: The Human Soul, Its Migrations and Its Transmigrations, which is narrated (through the medium of Randolph) by a disembodied soul named Cynthia Temple. After dying, Temple recounts how the “soul-principle” within her “rapidly sunk down into one of the profoundest labyrinths of its own vast caverns”:
Down, down, still lower and deeper into the awful abyss of itself it sank, until at last it stood solitary and alone in one of its own secret halls. The outer realm, with all its pains and joys, cares, sorrows and ambitions, hopes, likes, antipathies and aspirations; all its shadows and fitful gleams of light, were left behind, and naught of the great wide world remained.25
Having descended into her own soul, Temple then finds herself in the “Soul-world”, an inconceivably beautiful place of heightened sensory experience where she joins her fellow spirits, including an ancient Egyptian king and Rosicrucian with the enviable name Thotmor, who becomes her lover. This “boundless realm of mysteries”, as Randolph described it elsewhere, reveals earthly existence to be simply “the outer realm” of unimaginably greater, unguessed worlds.
Sex Magic Collectives
At the same time he was conceptualizing occultism in subterranean terms, Randolph was also working hard to build occultism into an underground movement. As he moved around the United States, propelled by hardship and restlessness, he founded a series of secret societies devoted to his interpretation of Rosicrucianism: the Supreme Grand Lodge of the Triple Order in San Francisco in 1861, the Rosicrucian Club in Boston in the late 1860s or early 1870s, the Brotherhood of Eulis in Nashville in 1874, and another incarnation of the Supreme Grand Lodge — now of the Triplicate Order — in San Francisco in late 1874. The precise relationships between these organizations remain unclear, but Randolph framed all of them as alternatives to the mainstream spiritualist circles that mistreated him. “Ostracized by those for, and with whom I had labored since 1848; met with ingratitude at every step, I gladly accept the ostracism of the many for the good companionship of the few”, he declared, “yet not so few after all, for day by day . . . our Brotherhood of Thinkers has increased”.26 Randolph’s swelling “Brotherhood of Thinkers” was probably fantasy. None of the lodges seems to have lasted more than a few months, and Randolph’s biographer John Patrick Deveney wonders to what extent they existed at all.27
In addition to founding secret societies, Randolph sought to construct a virtual occult underground through a sub-rosa body of writing, offered through mail-order, that his more widely available publications hinted at but could not themselves contain.28 In interpolated statements, footnotes, and publishers’ advertisements, Randolph promoted a shadow repertoire: pamphlets, “privately printed letters”, handwritten manuscripts, formulas, and correspondence disclosing secrets that “cannot well be printed in [a] book”.29 Texts like “The Golden Letter”, “The True Oriental Secret”, “The Ansairetic Mystery”, “The Mysteries of Eulis”, and “The Golden Secret!” showed readers how they could use their sexuality — in combination with a good diet, drugs (namely hashish), devices like magnets and mirrors, mental concentration, and study — to exercise their paranormal capacities.30
Randolph may have run his clandestine mail-order business for profit, although the prices of most texts were so low (or in some cases, nonexistent) that this motive seems insufficient. It’s also possible that Randolph created it in order to avoid scrutiny, particularly after New York passed a state law prohibiting the sale of obscene materials in 1868, which in turn prompted Anthony Comstock to lobby Congress successfully to outlaw the distribution of obscene materials through the US mail in 1873.31 The fact that Randolph was a Black man writing about sex probably would have made him a particular target of state authorities; the fact that he was a Black man writing about how sex might “revolutionize the globe” could only have compounded his danger.32 Randolph may also have concluded that such subterranean writing offered the best way to reach the “democratic underlayer of society”, where he believed true sexual knowledge belonged, and to circumvent the media dominance of “the upper strata”, whose “newspapers by myriads” spread “gross and culpable non-knowledge” about “all the vital points that cluster around the one word ‘sex.’”33 But beyond being instrumental, the relation between the underground circulation of Randolph’s writings and their sex magic content seems reciprocal: underground circulation heightens their occult capacity.
Randolph often explicitly addresses his writings about sex to the personal needs of heterosexual married couples, but this address is at odds with the powers he ascribes to sexual activity, as well as with the capaciousness of his ideas about gender and sexuality. “I believe in love, all the way through”, he declared, “and while I live will help every man, woman, and the betweenities to win, obtain, intensify, deepen, purify, strengthen and keep it, and I will help all others to do the same. There! That’s me! I mean it!”34 He deemed earthly gender identity as “provisional,—that is, limited to a given arc of the universal polygon of souls’ duration”, while God is both male and female in his account.35
Accordingly, while Randolph taught both “feminine” and “masculine” occult practices, these correspond not to the practitioner’s gender identity but to the types of power they exercise.36 The entire universe, he held, was organized around male and female forces, but he saw earthly notions of physiological sex difference as a ruse: “[I]t don’t follow that all who wear the Penis are in soul true males, or that a vagina is the sign of womanness”.37 Randolph’s conception of what Benjamin Kahan calls “misattuned bodies and souls” leads Kahan to identify him as “the first theorist of inversion”, the late nineteenth-century sexological theory that explained same-sex desire as a matter of being externally one sex but internally another.38 But I am less sure we can fold Randolph’s ideas into the taxonomies of sexology. His ideas about sex exceed inversion’s binary model, extending to the “betweenities”, mutability, and the possibility of holding multiple sexual subjectivities simultaneously in a single body. Moreover, his sweeping rejection of physiological sex differs markedly from sexology’s attempts to reify it, stigmatizing “perceived sexual ambiguity” through “a tendency to racialize it”, as Siobhan Somerville observes.39 Randolph seems not to be thinking in the emerging terms of modern sexuality so much as working out an erotic praxis that lies both in their shadow and on an entirely different plane.
Randolph also departed from the most prominent sexual dissident movement of the day, free love, which by the late nineteenth century was dominated by individualist anarchists who saw sexual freedom as an expression of individual sovereignty.40 Instead, Randolph called back to an earlier incarnation of free love, the Fourierist utopian communities of the 1850s, where “passional attraction” organized new forms of erotic and social life.41 More specifically, Randolph’s theory of sex amplified his theory of mediumship, which he believed did not involve yielding oneself to the direction of a spirit (as most spiritualists supposed) but was instead a “strange blending”, by which the medium could hold “mixed identities” in a single body.42 Both these theories, in turn, seem homologous to Randolph’s belief that his position as what he called a “composite man” (i.e., racially mixed) specially qualified him for acts of supernatural communion.43 Sex offered the most expansive possibilities for such communion because “soul-power and sex-power are co-efficients and co-dependents”. By cultivating their sexual capacities, practitioners could become connected to celestial forces and harness their “power, knowledge, energy”. But this can happen “only at the moment, the very instant, of the holy, full, mutual and pure orgasm, or ejection of the three fluids and two auras—i.e., prostatic, seminal, and female lymph or lochia”.44 Mutual orgasm, in other words, opens a momentary pathway to the cosmos, enabling humans to connect with spirits.
Randolph’s sex magic promises an array of earthly benefits, including heightened pleasure, physical health, guaranteed love, the empowerment of women, and the production of intellectually superior children. But in his subterranean publications he reveals that its real value goes beyond this. “Churches and marriage exist as repressions, — our system in expansion”, he asserts in “The Asiatic Mystery”: “Love forever, against the world!”45 Once adepts cultivate their latent powers, he predicts they will “revolutionize the globe”, “bidding farewell to many of [the] modes, moods, opinions, sentiments, thoughts, and procedures” of current civilization and ushering in “a new epoch of human history”.46
Randolph’s Black Revolutionary Prophecies
Randolph’s occultism is both so totalizing and so out there that it can seem utterly disconnected from earthly events. Yet his most prolific writing years were also a period of intense political activism, when he was recruiting Black soldiers for the Union army, helping found the National Equal Rights League, teaching in and advocating for Freedmen’s Bureau schools in Louisiana, participating in various Colored Conventions, and lecturing and writing in support of these endeavors. John Patrick Deveney describes this work as “almost entirely removed from Randolph’s usual occult concerns”, and other scholars have likewise tended to consider his occultism and political activism as separate tracks in his life.47 But references to anti-Black violence and scenes of Black liberation materialize in his occult writing like its own attendant spirits. These moments invite us to consider the politics of Randolph’s occultism, particularly in light of the repeated frustration of his political activism, and to read his dreams of “upheaving the world” and joining other worlds alongside the unfulfilled promises of Emancipation.
To get a sense of the connection between Randolph’s occult undergrounds and his post-Emancipation politics, consider the migration of a phrase that recurs throughout his writing: “We may be happy yet!” In Randolph’s occult works, this is an expression of esoteric knowledge: it appears in the mouths of all the spiritually gifted characters and as the “formula” of the occult secret society the Mysterious Brotherhood in The Wonderful Story of Ravalette; he identifies it as his own “motto” in another novel, Tom Clark and His Wife; and he uses it as the finale to the second part of Eulis!48 But in between these works, Randolph reused the phrase in another context: the 1864 National Convention of Colored Men in Syracuse. The convention, which led to the founding of the National Equal Rights League, gathered a who’s who of the leading Black political voices of the era, including Frederick Douglass, who was elected president, Henry Highland Garnet, William Howard Day, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, J. W. C. Pennington, John Mercer Langston, William Wells Brown, Peter Clark, and Jermain Loguen. One wonders how the other delegates received Randolph. He had earned a reputation as a provocateur in antislavery meetings, often more concerned with proving his own “angular and eccentric” character than aiding the movement. Even as he wrote eloquently about his alienation from white people, he sometimes seemed actively to alienate himself from Black people.49 At the same time, what room did the National Convention of Colored Men’s resolution to “promote everything that pertains to a well-ordered and dignified life” leave for a sex magician?50
Over the next five years — as the war ended, Reconstruction began, and Randolph moved south to take part in it — he developed a new vision of a revolutionary destiny for Black people. After Death; or, Disembodied Man (1868), his fullest account of “the worlds of disbodied, unearthed peoples”, builds to a prophecy of world-shattering upheaval.51 The “disbodied, unearthed peoples” to whom Randolph refers are technically the spirits of the dead in the afterlife. But the adjectives’ peculiar negative construction, which implies something done to peoples, and the word peoples itself, with its connotations of group rather than individual identity, also evoke the situations of Black people in “the afterlife of slavery”, to borrow Saidiya Hartman’s phrase — an association reinforced by references to racial violence that thread through the book. Randolph wrote After Death while working for the Freedmen’s Bureau in Louisiana, where he first taught in New Orleans and then tried to build new schools in the countryside to the west, chronicling his experiences for the Anglo-African Weekly and the Religio-Philosophical Journal. The work was extremely dangerous. Randolph was in New Orleans on July 30, 1866, when a mob of armed white men, backed by the police, attacked a march of Black and white Radical Republicans and their supporters in what would be known as the New Orleans Massacre. “If hell is any worse than New Orleans, I pity the damned”, he informed the New York Tribune, and in the countryside it was little better.52 The writer Edmonia Goodelle Highgate, who was teaching just fifteen miles from Randolph, recounted that white supremacists shot at her and her students, and “the rebels here threatened to burn down the school and house in which I board before the first month was passed”.53
While the politics of Randolph’s other writing often remain below the surface, he explicitly frames After Death’s ideas in the context of his work for the Freedmen’s Bureau and especially the experience of being terrorized by white supremacists. He explains that these circumstances shaped his conceptualization of the book:
[F]or weeks together, I was obliged to sleep with pistols in my bed, because the assassins were abroad and red-handed Murder skulked and hovered round my door. Daily threats of summary strangling seasoned many of my meals, while writing out the first edition of this revelation, the offense being that, under the orders of my Country’s officers, I taught some thousands of “negroes”—black and white too,— the sublime arts of reading and penmanship. And yet the work laid out was accomplished then,—finished now.54
Reminders of the book’s conditions of production pepper the text, abruptly transporting the reader from the resplendent landscapes of the spirit worlds to the grim scenes of this one: “I am, at the writing of the first edition of this book, here in the carpenter shop of Auguste Landry, in St. Martinsville, St. Martin’s Parish, Louisiana, May 12, 1866”; “I am in this barn in St. Martinsville, penning the lines now before the reader’s eye”.55 These uncanny conduits between St. Martinsville and the soul realms suggest that Randolph’s visions of life beyond the grave may reflect his efforts to imagine a line of flight out of this world.
In the second half of After Death, Randolph takes this fantasy a step further, picturing not only an exit from this world but the “upheaving” of it. The world upheaval is literal and terrestrial as well as social. He notes that in his 1863 historical-theological-geological study Pre-Adamite Man, he had argued that the prehistoric world was rocked by a cataclysm in which “the molten mass in the earth’s bowels became disturbed, and it vomited forth . . . fire and flame from a hundred volcanic mouths”. But since he wrote that book, he adds — which is also to say, in the five years since the Emancipation Proclamation — “I have become convinced that we are liable to such a catastrophe” occurring again “at any moment”.56 He predicts that soon “a family of asteroids” will strike the earth, which “will cause the northern pole to sink and the southern one to rise”, tilting the planet dramatically on its axis. “Terrific storms, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions” will follow; whole sections of the earth “will sink and again be thrown up”, and “mountains and mountain-ranges will be leveled”. In this tumult, “earth’s bowels will be completely out-turned”, and “gold, silver, precious stones, and metals will be thrown to the surface in quantities that will forever bar them as standards of value”.57
Millenarian prophecies were not uncommon in the late nineteenth century, but After Death is distinctive for the way it frames apocalypse with the author’s experiences of white supremacist violence. These incidents, along with Randolph’s new conviction that “we are liable to” apocalypse, seem to tie the earth’s imminent upheaval to the continuation of Black unfreedom after Emancipation. Notably, the forthcoming cataclysm, and the better world it ultimately inaugurates, coincides with a literal emergence of the underground. When Randolph concludes, “The earth is gestating new and better children: fearful will be her parturition; but joyous will the family be!”, he imagines the earth’s gestation as the quickening of forces within it that will forge new communities above it.58
We might read After Death’s vision of the earth turned inside-out as also imaging Randolph’s conception of the occult underground: contiguous with the extraterrestrial, “against the world”, in his words. Yet by the time Randolph issued a revised edition of After Death five years later, this vision of extraterrestrially induced, seismic cataclysm had vanished. He rewrites the prophecy to predict instead a future of “modified republicanism” in the United States, anchored in racial segregation. He asserts that “Indians” and “the unfortunate mixed race” are destined for “extinction”, white Americans will “dictate laws to the habitable globe” (but benignly), and “the nation will give the negro a vast territory freely”.59 Before the end of 1875, there will come “a literal and unprecedented outpouring of the Spirit (world)”, “especially in the Southern States among the blacks, who will, with almost a frenzied zeal, march off to their Zion in the south-west”. “If I am in the body on that day, I will be their Peter the Hermit, and cast my lot with theirs”, Randolph vowed.
The new empire and the new civilization yet to come out of that poor yet rich and mighty people is destined to be as great in peace and spiritual goodness, as their masters have been in intellect and war. In that new Zion, Science will erect her halls and Art shall build her schools; and in them African genius, untainted for the cuticular hue, God’s doings, not theirs, shall pursue the triumphs of investigation. Ay! And by its warmth and fervor open new doors to the mysterious realms above and around us, that the colder white can never penetrate; and thus the black shall add his quota to the common stock of human knowledge, and the word Justice will have a meaning in this world.60
The apocalyptic fervor and subterranean upheaval of the 1867 edition have dropped out, replaced by the prospect of a spiritually developed Black colony.61 We might see Randolph’s faith in Reconstruction in this vision. But it is hard not to hear despair in his prediction of white global rule, however peaceful; the eradication of Indigenous and multiracial people; and the relegation of Black people to the desert to commune with “the mysterious realms above and around us”. Concluding that “the races can never live side by side on equal terms”, Randolph looks toward a colonization project, directed by the US government, that strongly resembles the efforts of the white-led American Colonization Society to send free African Americans to West Africa in the early nineteenth century.62 As the frontier replaces the underground, Randolph no longer contemplates destroying the world to remake it; he just wants to be left in peace. In this attenuated future, “justice will have a meaning in this world” not when it is upturned, but once Black people “open new doors” into other ones.
Lara Langer Cohen is Associate Professor of English at Swarthmore College, author of The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture, and coeditor of Early African American Print Culture.
This essay is excerpted and adapted from Lara Langer Cohen, Going Underground: Race, Space, and the Subterranean in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Durham and London: 2023). Copyright Duke University Press, 2022.