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French Historical Studies 23.2 (2000) 259-275

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White Jacobins/Black Jacobins:
Bringing the Haitian and French Revolutions Together in the Classroom

John D. Garrigus

Teaching National and Regional History in a Global Age

Historians of France are used to making difficult choices as they plan and revise their courses on the Revolution. The pre-Revolution, the post-Revolution, the economic, social, intellectual, cultural, and political perspectives, the new scholarship, the historiography, all compete for limited class time and student attention. Instructors struggle to deliver it all with their own personal mix of primary sources, survey texts, course packs, novels, film, CD-ROMs, and, now, the Internet. How could one possibly squeeze another revolution into the same semester?

Yet separating the struggles of French subjects from those of their Caribbean slaves increasingly appears artificial. Until very recently, Saint-Domingue/Haiti got little attention in the literature investigating or surveying the Revolution, including that focused on its impact in the Atlantic world. Haiti’s invisibility has been most obvious in the work of French scholars, as François Arzalier has recently pointed out. Nevertheless, as Lynn Hunt notes, “there is no more telling ground for a consideration of the impact of revolutionary ideas or practices than the Caribbean colonies.” This is especially true as historians begin to pay more attention to the rise of modern national identities, for the Revolution in Saint-Domingue/Haiti poses the question “Who is French?”1 [End Page 259]

At a moment when academic theorists view nations as political and cultural constructions and news from Europe reminds us of Ernst Renan’s 1882 observation that “the nations are not eternal,” there are more reasons than ever to expose French history students to the revolutions that created Haiti. Latin America has long faced the meaninglessness of national sovereignty before the dictates of the global economy. Moreover, the social and cultural divisions these societies inherited from colonialism make the idea of the nation as an “imagined” rather than “natural” community more obvious than it is in Europe.2

As the first successful attempt by a non-European population to reject colonial rule, Haiti pioneered what nationalism might mean for the rest of the world. As Jacky Dahomay writes, “There is no place that expresses better than the Antilles the contingency of what a nation can be. . . . The problems of aligning cultural identity, citizenship and nationality in the Antilles anticipate what will be more and more the new drama in world relations. . . . Since our societies did not exist before the colonial project, and were created by the very system of slave plantations, their most original cultural products are found in an anti-plantation culture, therefore their opposition to all that speaks of the domination of a system, including of a State and of a Nation.”3

The case of Saint-Domingue/Haiti also raises a related topic of great importance for U.S. students—the interaction of racial and national identities. If it was in the late–eighteenth century that “the nation” began to be the answer when people in the West asked “Who are we?” at the same time “race” became the answer to the question “Why are they different from us?”4 The story of the French Revolution, as told without Saint-Domingue, has been part of “the magic of forgetfulness [End Page 260] and selectivity, both deliberate and inadvertent” that underlies modern French identity.5

Historians are now recognizing that Haitian events illuminate French choices and are devising teaching strategies to include them. Pieter Judson at Swarthmore, for example, builds his “France since 1789: Revolution and Empire,” around the tensions between the center and the periphery, ensuring that Haiti, Algeria, and Martinique are integral to course structure and do not appear to have been tacked on.6 David Bell at Johns Hopkins, who is well known for his scholarship on French nationalism, adopts a different tactic; he offers two separate classes—“The French Revolution” and “France in America.” The syllabi can be found on his remarkable and visually impressive Web...


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pp. 259-275
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