Beyond The Black Jacobins: Haitian Revolutionary Historiography Comes Of Age
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Beyond The Black Jacobins
Haitian Revolutionary Historiography Comes Of Age

Published in 1938 on the brink of World War II, C. L. R. James's book The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution is the finest single accomplishment of the figure many consider to be the outstanding Anglophone Caribbean intellectual of the twentieth century. The Black Jacobins is not merely the most enduring and influential history of the Haitian Revolution in the English language. … It introduced the question of the momentous importance of the Haitian Revolution to audiences throughout the world.

—Aaron Kamugisha, "C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins and the Making of the Modern Atlantic World"

I would say that my favorite leadership book is a book called The Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James. … It's the story of a … very famousleader and general, by the name of Toussaint Louverture, and he led the only successful slave revolution in human history. … A lot of things that I learned as CEO came from that book.

—Ben Horowitz, "Ben Horowitz Talks about the Black Jacobins"

Since its publication in 1938, The Black Jacobins has become a veritable classic of historiography. It is one of the rare historical works to have drawn international attention at its publication and to be celebrated still eight decades later. It is also unusual for having built admiring audiences among both the general public and scholars. The work has gone through multiple editions, in numerous languages. The Black Jacobins long was (and may still be) the most cited book on the Haitian Revolution.1 It finds new readers each year, as it is assigned on many kinds of university syllabi, from world history surveys to courses on revolutions and on slavery.2

In the wake of the book's seventy-fifth anniversary in 2013, The Black Jacobins is enjoying a surge in popularity. Indeed, in spheres as diverse as [End Page 4] Caribbean postcolonial studies and the world of US entrepreneurship, C. L. R. James seems to be having a moment. In the last decade, several major conferences have been held on his work. These include a seventieth-anniversary conference for The Black Jacobins in London in 2008, a seventy-fifth-anniversary conference for the book in Liverpool in 2013, a 2013 conference in Glasgow commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of James's work Beyond a Boundary, and a 2016 conference at the CUNY Graduate Center called "CLR James Now!" New works on Caribbean literature and critical theory routinely discuss James's towering influence, and The Black Jacobins is still regarded as a brilliant piece of political analysis and a sensitive literary biography.3 Attesting to the heightened interest in James, Duke University Press recently launched a series offering new editions or analyses of several of his works, including The Black Jacobins. Outside academia, James's work is enjoying renewed popularity among general readers in Great Britain, especially on the left. The Black Jacobins has also received a boost in the business world in the United States after being singled out by Ben Horowitz, an extremely influential venture capitalist, as his favorite book on leadership. Without any self-consciousness about James's Marxism, Horowitz has insisted repeatedly that Toussaint Louverture is a model for CEOs, who should learn about the Haitian general's exemplary leadership skills by reading James's classic study.4

However, one field that is not experiencing a James resurgence is Haitian revolutionary history. On the surface, this may not appear surprising. The enterprise of academic history depends on finding new archives and correcting errors made by past scholars as well as asking new questions about these materials. Given the passage of several decades, one would expect scholars to have located more documents pointing toward newer, more complex pictures of the past. It is exceedingly rare for an eighty-year-old book to hold sway in any field of historical scholarship (except as a primary source showing how history was interpreted in the past); typically, recent works of historiography are cited more heavily than older ones. For instance, books that were important to historians of the French Revolution in the 1930s (such as the...


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