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  • The Tragicomedy of Anticolonial OvercomingToussaint Louverture and The Black Jacobins on Stage
  • Raj G. Chetty (bio)

Rare is the work on the Haitian Revolution that fails to invoke C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Published in 1938, The Black Jacobins not only deepens understanding of the intricacies of Atlantic slavery, plantation economies, and the Revolution, but also emphasizes the way the Revolution led first to self-emancipation and then to Haitian independence in 1804. Furthermore, as Stuart Hall puts it, “It is James, in modern historiography, who elevates slavery to the world historical stage” (22). David Scott has analyzed James’s revisions to the 1963 re-issue of The Black Jacobins to track a move from romance to tragedy as the “mode of emplotment” for the Haitian Revolution. Scott proposes that these revisions demonstrate James’s understanding that the history of the Haitian Revolution cannot be told the same way—cannot do the same work—as it did in 1938, because the questions posed by James’s 1938 “problem-space” were not the ones he confronted in 1963, and these are not the questions facing us today.

Kara Rabbitt also focuses on The Black Jacobins’s tragic and dramatic elements, for the way the book is “a site for the intersection of many of James’s diverse literary capacities and interests—narrative, political, philosophical” (118). Both Scott and Rabbitt stress James’s generic blurring in The Black Jacobins: it is as much an historical work as it is a literary one, specifically focused on Toussaint L’Ouverture as a dramatic hero. Their analyses resonate with James’s 1971 lectures on The Black Jacobins, in which he asserts that “for no other reason than a literary reason” he decided he would write a literary biography about Toussaint (“Lectures” 67). He then traces his project’s development: after arriving in England in 1932, he gradually began “to see the San Domingo Revolution in a Marxist way” ((“Lectures” 68). James’s literary intentions persisted, as Scott and Rabbitt suggest, but were inflected by a Marxism that moved him from simply telling Toussaint’s story, to telling his story in a dialectical way, in relation to the movements around him. Rabbitt sees The Black Jacobins as important to James’s oeuvre because it incorporates narrative, political, and philosophical elements, in particular dramatic quality. It is strange, however, that Rabbitt and Scott use the language of drama to describe James’s historiographical narrative style, but fail to analyze James’s plays. In fact, it is strange that little sustained analysis of the play versions exists in James criticism at large. Whereas the history has received quite a bit of attention, including its minor—but still meaningful, per Scott—revisions, the versions of the play have been all but ignored, despite much more substantial revisions.

In 1931 James invoked Toussaint as a counterargument to Sidney Harland’s racist argument on the inferiority of blacks in the pages of the short-lived Trinidadian journal The Beacon (Scott 79–81; Rosengarten 21). His 1936 play and 1938 history on Toussaint and [End Page 69] the Haitian Revolution, however, emerged in the context of his anticolonial and Marxist work in England. Arriving in London from Trinidad in 1932, James developed a Marxist orientation with which he explored how the Haitian Revolution can address the relationship between revolutionary masses and revolutionary leadership. Furthermore, in 1935, James and other anticolonial thinkers in England founded the International African Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA, later the International African Friends of Ethiopia, IAFE) to protest Italy’s imperial incursion into Ethiopia. As part of the IAFE, James was interested in depicting an instance of powerful black revolution against European empire, as he makes explicit in the 1971 lectures: “I had in mind writing about the San Domingo Revolution as the preparation for the revolution that George Padmore and all of us were interested in, that is, the revolution in Africa” (“Lectures” 72).1 The IAFE was followed in 1937 by the International African Services Bureau (IASB), an organization dedicated to broader anticolonial struggle in and for Africa. This is the 1930s problem-space informing...


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pp. 69-88
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