Lessons from Haiti on Living and Dying

tags: Haiti, emancipation, Toussaint Louverture, C.L.R. James

Marlene L. Daut is professor of African Diaspora Studies at the University of Virginia and author of Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789–1865 (Liverpool University Press, 2015). She recently collaborated with Ted-Ed to produce a short animated film, The First and Last King of Haiti.

When the topic of the Haitian Revolution comes up, most people probably think of Toussaint Louverture, the formerly enslaved man who led one of the largest slave rebellions in the world, one that forcefully abolished slavery in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Though he was already an international figure in his day, Louverture owes his enduring fame in the English-speaking world, at least in part, to the late West Indian writer C. L. R. James. In his famous 1938 book, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, James cemented the revolutionary hero’s place in the legend of Haiti’s uprising as “the first and greatest of West Indians.”

Yet James eventually came to regret stating that the Haitian Revolution was “almost entirely the work of a single man —Toussaint L’Ouverture.” In a 1971 speech called “How I would Rewrite The Black Jacobins,” James confessed that he “would only give Toussaint a walk-on part if he were to rewrite it from scratch.” In her new monograph, Making the Black Jacobins: C. L. R. James and the Drama of History, Rachel Douglas carefully compares the first edition of James’s text, published in 1938, and the second edition, from 1963. Douglas notes that while in the later edition James did not alter his previous assertion, he did try to decenter Louverture. This was not because James sought to disavow the importance of one of Haiti’s most storied revolutionary heroes. It was, rather, because James hoped instead to reveal the role played by the Revolution’s masses and less visible leaders, those whom he would come to call the “black sansculottes.” “If I were writing this book again,” James said in the speech, “I would have something to say about those two thousand leaders.”

In hindsight, James could see that it was 18th- and 19th-century European commentators who had catapulted Louverture to center stage in the story of the Haitian Revolution; he worried that his reliance on colonial narratives had made him a bad historian. This is why, in the 1971 speech, James said that, if he had it to do all over again, he “would now find alternative sources from the slaves’ own point of view.”

The question of how many points of view are needed to understand any event — or any life — also surfaces in Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat’s recently published collection of stories, Everything Inside. Danticat’s story “Sunrise, Sunset,” for example, revolves around Jeanne, who has recently had a baby, and her increasing awareness of the deepening dementia afflicting her mother, Carole. Jeanne is forced to accept that the loss of her mother’s memories means that there are now histories she will never know. “‘She’s not a good historian,’” Carole’s doctor says, which was “the doctor’s way of saying that she was incapable of telling her own life’s story.” Ironically, Jeanne also thinks that her mother “is not a good historian,” because “she never has been, even when she was well. Now she will never get the chance to be.” Then, in a fit of dementia, when Carole dangles her infant grandson over a balcony’s edge, the tragic loss of her mother’s point of view explodes in Jeanne’s own mind: “The single most memorable story that will exist about her and [her grandson] will be of her dangling him off a terrace, in what some might see as an attempt to kill him.”

Read entire article at Public Books

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