"The Haitian turn": an appraisal of recent literary and historiographical works on the Haitian Revolution.

Author:Joseph, Celucien L.
Position:Essay
 
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The Revolution in North American Scholarship

The literature of the Haitian Revolution is substantially rich. The scholarship that does exist focuses on class and race structures, resistance of the enslaved and marronage, economic and political forces, and Toussaint Louverture. (2) The subsequent paragraphs will review and assess pertinent studies directly and indirectly relating to the subject matter, in order to identify various approaches to the issue.

In North American scholarship, Alfred Hunt was the first to publish a full monograph on Haiti's influence on antebellum America. In Haiti's Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean (1988), Hunt explores Haiti's influence on antebellum America with respect to the social, political, and cultural repercussions of the Haitian Revolution and the meaning of the figure Toussaint Louverture to enslaved Africans in the United States. Very recently, in Toussaint Louverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution (2011), Matthew Clavin provides a judicious analysis of the effects of the revolution on American life on the eve of and during the Civil War. He argues that the Haitian revolutionary leader, Toussaint Louverture, was both a symbol of terror and hope for antislavery and proslavery groups. Clavin's illuminating observation, "The Haitian Revolution proved that whenever slavery existed it was not just black lives that were in jeopardy," (9) should be understood as a call to a higher human ethics of life reverence and preservation. Also, the remark is meant to be a critical engagement with the serious repercussions of slavery as human bondage, including all contemporary forms of human oppressions, abuses, and injustices on a global scale.

Considering Clavin's interpretation of the moral vision of the revolution, it is clear that the illiterate enslaved African of revolutionary Haiti have been among the world's greatest teachers about the danger of slavery and the urgency for human emancipation. In short, Hunt and Clavin, and more recently Ashli White in her richly detailed study Encountering Revolution: Haiti and the Making of the Early Republic (Early America: History, Context, Culture (2010) have informed us that the Haitian Revolution generated much fear and terror in the American South and contributed to the violent American Civil War as well as contributed to the freedom of Black people in North America.

Julius Scott's unpublished dissertation, "The Common Wind," provides a detailed account in the area of Black resistance in the greater Caribbean during the period of the Haitian Revolution. Scott's work is limited to the nineteenth century, yet it stresses the international climate of the revolution in its own era and its repercussions abroad. Scott stresses the agency of the New World enslaved. The latter are defined not as units of production for profit or disposal as pieces of property but as human beings with significant dignity and value who had carried news of liberation and of the basic equality of man across the transatlantic frontier. (3)

In a long time the English-speaking world has not witnessed a full historical study on Toussaint Louverture. Madison Smartt Bell who had previously published his praised trilogy of novels charting the unfolding events leading to the Haitian independence, All Soul's Rising, Master of the Crossroads and The Stone That the Builder Refused on the Haitian Revolution, recently produced a full biography on the Haiti's most important Revolutionary leader, Toussaint Louverture. In Toussaint Louverture: A Biography (2007), Bell offers an intrigue account and complex portrait of a multifaceted personality full of contradictions and great ambitions. This work was well received by historians and students of Haitian studies. It is a marvelous contribution to Toussaint studies.

In 1991 Haitian-born anthropologist-historian Michel-Rolph Trouillot published a book on the philosophy of history called Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Trouillot articulates how historians create history and construct the past through a process of selection and erasure of past events. Trouillot insightfully observes that there is a "silencing" in the making of historiographical archives, in the creation of sources, and in the narration of past events. Particularly, he famously argues that the Haitian Revolution appeared as an "unthinkable" event in human striving for universal emancipation, and yet was systematically suppressed in Western historiography during the "Age of Revolution" and subsequent years. (4)

In the past two decades, Trouillot's thesis has challenged Haitianist historians, consequently stimulated new interests in Haiti's revolutionary past. His work is a clarion call to professional historians and academics in the field to locate the Haitian Revolution in its proper place as a central world event, following the footsteps of C. L. R. James in The Black Jacobins (1938). Things have changed because historians have listened!

Ten years later, David P. Geggus edited the influential study stressing The Impact of the Haitian Revolutionary in the Atlantic World (2001), a book in which noted historians such as David Brion Davis, Seymour Drescher, Robin Blackburn, Laurent Dubois, and David P. Geggus analyzed the Revolution in its various perspectives, promises, and significance. The book has shed considerable light on the Revolution's multifarious repercussions on antislavery movements in the Americas and accentuates its unending legacy in the Atlantic world. This particular study has not only changed the course of contemporary Haitian revolutionary studies but also caused students of history to reevaluate Haiti's most important contribution to universal emancipation and the basic and equal rights of all men and women. Nonetheless, the full significance of the Revolution has yet to be realized both in Haiti and in the world.

Trouillot advances the idea that the Haitian revolution (5) interrupted the institution of slavery in the most "unthinkable" way and challenged its very logic (73). He remarks that most contemporaries in the time of the Revolution "could read the news only with their ready-made categories, and these categories were incompatible with the idea of a slave revolution" (73).

Sibylle Fischer in her well-researched book, Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (2009), argues that Western historiography disavowed the Haitian Revolution because this disavowal was necessary for the development of a hegemonic concept of Western modernity rooted in an ethics of differentiation and otherness. She contends that the Revolution challenged the notion of European particularism as universal and the idea of Black freedom and equality as unimportant. In this way, Western scholars have belittled the importance of the Revolution in Black struggle toward freedom and self-determination. They have also undermined the problem of race and racial inequality, and the unholy trinity of slavery, imperialism colonialism, and white supremacy the Revolution challenges. Fisher observes that "there was a consensus...that Haiti was not a commendable model of emancipation" (2). Yet, as she remarks, "the silence imposed did not prevent news from traveling. In the harbors and port cities of the Caribbean, sailors, merchants, and slaves passed on the story of the successful slave uprising" (4). As Trouillot concludes, "The Haitian Revolution thus entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened" (73).

While Trouillot's theory of "silencing" and Fisher's theory of "disavowal" are adequate, I articulating the idea of "structural dismissal" in regard to the international reception of the Haitian Revolution and the subsequent avoidance of it in Western historiography. The cultural and intellectual habit of deliberately dismiss significant events by Non-European people defines largely the project of a Eurocentric modernity and the untenable argument for a "single European Enlightenment" (Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment 140). Hence the Haitian revolution has suffered the peculiar condition of being "structurally dismissed" as an equally important event in world history, and it has wrongly been "structurally discharged" by western historians in the written word. Perhaps the Haitian experimentation should be called the "forgotten history" of the Revolutionary Atlantic in the age of democratic revolution.

While historians of both sides of the Atlantic have canonized the French Revolution and American Revolution respectively, the Haitian Revolution is still regarded in some circles as an unimportant event not of worthy of remembrance and celebration. This historical practice of "structural exclusion" of non-European whites as agents and active subjects of history has been the complex story of modernity. The practice of "ideological exclusion" is based on certain intellectual predispositions, and sometimes false ontological assumptions about the relationship between Anglo-Saxon people and the "Other." Its consequences are many. It impoverishes the global appeal for universal brotherhood and human solidarity. Ideological exclusion places some members of the human race in the margins of modernity, history, and human progress.

We should be mindful that the events leading to the Haitian Revolution were the most transformative events in the history of slavery and imperialism colonialism. African revolutionaries turned an enslaved colony into a free republic, enslaved people into a free people, and thus, the formerly enslaved into free citizens.

Laurent Dubois in his brilliant historical work on the Haitian Revolution, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2005)--a work that surpasses all previous studies and narratives on the story of revolutionary Haiti--observes...

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