“The Independence So Hardly Won Has Been Maintained”: C. L. R. James and the U.S. Occupation of Haiti
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“The Independence So Hardly Won Has Been Maintained”
C. L. R. James and the U.S. Occupation of Haiti

What makes The Black Jacobins the exemplary and lasting work of historical criticism that it is, is the self-consciousness with which James connects the story of Toussaint Louverture to the vital stories of his—that is James’s—time. Doing so, he urges us to connect Toussaint to the vital stories of our own time.

David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity

What I don’t know is precisely when James began to be interested in Haiti. It doesn’t Figure in his earlier writing. And yet very shortly after he comes to England, in 1932, he travels to Paris to immerse himself in the archives, almost as if it’s one of the reasons for his coming to Europe in the first place. He must have been thinking about it; he must have known about it.

Stuart Hall, “Breaking Bread with History”

I had decided—God only knows why, I don’t; and I rather doubt if even He would too—that I would write a history of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Why? I don’t know . . . I had made up my mind, for no other than a literary reason, that when I reached England I would settle down to write a history of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

C. L. R. James, “How I Wrote The Black Jacobins”

These epigraphs, from David Scott, Stuart Hall, and C. L. R. James, all address the act of contextualization, even as they call it into question. How can we know which are the “vital stories” that influence a text? What happens when we encounter a mystery to which we can find no answer? What do we do when a historical event seems so obviously to have influenced a writer—to have laid the foundations for that writer to arrive at his topic of investigation—but the writer himself avoids virtually any mention of this event, and in fact, almost obsessively offers other explanations? What should we think when subsequent [End Page 38] interpreters of that writer’s work have been equally silent on this context? How can we find evidence of causality when all we have is absence? Sometimes so much has been written about an event—or a text—that it seems like all questions about it have been answered; sometimes the most obvious and essential questions have not yet been asked. Finding answers may not always be possible, but looking for them can open up new ways of seeing.

C. L. R. James wrote the most important English-language history of the Haitian Revolution as a text very much in dialogue with its 1930s context. James describes conceiving the book in Trinidad before moving to London in 1932, and then undertaking research in the Paris archives in 1933. James’s findings would be dramatized in the play Toussaint L’Ouverture (written in 1934 and performed in 1936), and then published in the extraordinary history The Black Jacobins in 1938. The Black Jacobins is arguably the most important book of international anticolonialism written during the first half of the twentieth century. Yet the book’s origins are surprisingly cloudy. James frequently discussed his motivation for writing The Black Jacobins as a desire to prophesize what he calls in a preface to the 1963 edition the “coming emancipation of Africa” (1963, vii). The best-informed James scholars, like Robert Hill, Anthony Bogues, and David Scott, cite the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and this threat to the sovereignty of the only African nation not under European control as the crucial motivation for The Black Jacobins; in Grant Farred’s words, “The Black Jacobins was conceived as an extended critique of the imperialist Italian invasion of Abyssinia” (115).1 That invasion and the International African Friends of Ethiopia (later reconfigured as the International African Service Bureau) that James helped form in response were undoubtedly crucial to his political development. But the Abyssinia crisis began at the end of 1934; James says that he carried out his research on Haiti for six months, beginning in 1933.2 The final product that would become The Black Jacobins...