In honor of Haitian Heritage Month this May, sample several of our books and journal issues on Haiti including Modernity Disavowed by Sybille Fischer, C.L.R. James’s play Toussaint Louverture, Radical History Review’s “Haitian Lives/Global Perspectives” special issue, and Small Axe’s special issue on Black Radical Tradition.
Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (2004) by Sybille Fischer has become a classic text in the cultural studies of Haiti and of modernity. Fischer contends that Haiti’s revolutionary antislavery and its subsequent disavowal are central to the formation and understanding of Western modernity.
But while radical antislavery was a formation that did not consolidate itself territorially beyond the confines of Haiti, it certainly did leave a deep imprint in the psyche of most of those involved in the slave trade and the plantation economy. Fantasy, paranoia, identificatory desires, and disavowal were always part of this formation. There are layers of signification in the cultural records that cannot be grasped as long as we pay attention only to events and causality in the strict sense. Much of this book is thus devoted to drawing a landscape around the silences and gaps that punctuate the historical and cultural records. It works from significant examples and symptomatic fragments, keeping track of what is said, and especially what is not said. It is an attempt to think about literature, culture, and politics transnationally, as forms of expression that mirrored the hemispheric scope of the slave trade; to think what might have been lost when culture and emancipatory politics were finally forced into the mold of the nation-state; and to think what might have happened if the struggle against racial subordination had carried the same prestige and received the same attention from posterity as did the struggle against colonialism and other forms of political subordination.
To read more from Modernity Disavowed, click here.
History, in Haiti, is still a living, vibrating, organic entity. History, in Haiti, is charged, performative, poetic, and surreal. History, in Haiti, still feels revolutionary. School fees are excessive for the majority of the Haitian people, and education standards poor, but you will be hard pushed to find a Haitian who doesn’t know the vast and intimate details of his or her own history. Haitian culture is a potent vessel for this history, continually transmitting, telling, retelling, and reinterpreting Haitian history, from the ground up.
To read more from “Kanaval,” from Radical History Review #115, “Haitian Lives/Global Perspectives,” edited by Amy Chazkel, Melina Pappademos, and Karen Sotiropoulos (Winter 2013), click here.
In “‘Black’ Radicalism in Haiti and the Disorderly Feminine: The Case of Marie Vieux Chauvet,” Kaiama L. Glover offers reflections on Haitian radicalism via the life and works of Marie Chauvet (1916-73). Read an excerpt:
The Haitian Republic is, at its very origins, by its very definition, a radical nation, arguably the originary psychosocial space of the black radical tradition in the Caribbean and beyond. There can be no question but that Haiti's fundamental radicalism can be traced to the spectacular seizing of political sovereignty from France by the black (former) slaves of Saint-Domingue and their creation of an independent republic in 1804. And despite the unfortunate trajectory of Haiti's postrevolutionary history, the island nation has long been a productive site-source of memory from which a discourse of Afro-radicalism first emerged and continues to resound in the region. “Place where Negritude stood up for the first time,” as Aimé Césaire so eloquently described the republic, Haiti has engaged consistently with the politically radical over the course of the past two centuries as it has struggled to protect an often tenuous independence. Radicalism in Haiti did not merely spark the flame and then pass along the torch of revolution: since 1804, Haitians have offered multiple, if not always effective, manifestations of their refusal to tolerate exploitation at the hands of a predatory state and corrupt ruling social class, colonial or “post-.” Taking various political forms over the course of the twentieth century and met in every instance with repressive violence and brutality, the commitment to radical social revolution in Haiti is part of the very fabric of the nation.
To read more from “‘Black Radicalism in Haiti and the Disorderly Feminine,” from Small Axe volume 17 and issue 1 (March 2013), click here.
Many people are familiar with C.L.R. James’s book about the Haitian revolution, The Black Jacobins. But few realize that he first wrote a play about those events. Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts was thought lost until scholar Christian Høgsbjerg came across a manuscript in a UK archive. Here he describes coming across this astonishing find:
In 2005, early in my research for a doctoral thesis on C. L. R. James’s life and work in 1930s Britain, I went to inspect the Jock Haston Papers at the Brynmor Jones Library at the University of Hull, in the north of England. Like James, Haston had been a Trotskyist in Britain during the 1930s, and listed among the Haston Papers was a file entitled simply “Toussaint Louverture.” Daring to hope to discover perhaps a programme from the original 1936 production of James’s play about the Haitian Revolution, a rare enough and valuable find in itself, I decided to save examining this file until the end. After several hours spent wondering at some of the forgotten struggles and squabbles revealed among the minutiae of internal documents relating to the tiny early British Trotskyist movement, I finally rewarded myself by turning to the intriguing folder. Opening it up, I found to my amazement a yellowing mass of thin oilskin paper headed “Toussaint Louverture: The story of the only successful slave revolt in history.” All that was missing from what I recognised immediately as the long- lost original playscript was its author’s name on the front—C. L. R. James.
To read more from Høgsbjerg’s introduction to the play, click here.
For further reading, check out these books and journal issues:
Georges Woke Up Laughing: Long-Distance Nationalism and the Search for Home by Nina Glick Schiller and Georges Eugene Fouron. 2001, here.
“Without One Ritual Note: Folklore Performance and the Haitian State, 1935-1946,” by Kate Ramsey in Radical History Review #84, “The Uses of the Folk,” edited by Karl Hagstrom Miller and Ellen Noonan (Fall 2002), here.