- Beyond the Slave Narrative: Politics, Sex, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution by Deborah Jenson
Readers of this journal are by now well aware of Deborah Jenson’s significant contributions to the field of Haitian studies. The breadth of her scholarship as well as her leadership, along with Laurent Dubois, of the “Haiti Lab” at Duke University’s Franklin Humanities Institute demonstrate a deep commitment to the study of the myriad voices of Haiti’s literature and history. In important ways, Beyond the Slave Narrative: Politics, Sex, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution is a combination of both these efforts: it is at once the culmination of years of patient work in the archives and, brimming with questions that go beyond its self-imposed frame, the signal for a new direction in future research and teaching.
Beyond the Slave Narrative belongs in a growing body of innovative projects that cross disciplinary boundaries in order to challenge received ideas about a host of literary, cultural, and political questions pertaining to Haiti’s place in the “Age of Revolution.” Jenson’s particular contribution, which is announced in the title, is of no small ambition. The setting-aside of the slave narrative is a methodological gesture that incurs significant limitations but also proposes the rethinking of a number of assumptions concerning the study of slavery and its immediate aftermath. Given the availability of primary sources in the Anglophone context, the “beyond” here is not a resignation to the supposed lack of Francophone sources. Jenson’s great insight is that the absence of the Francophone slave narrative is not the problem; on the contrary, she suggests, the desire to discover such a document has prevented scholars from asking new questions of existing yet neglected sources. To this end, Jenson enters the archive on pre- and postrevolutionary Haiti as a literary scholar trained to ‘read between the lines.’ The expertise and creativity she demonstrates at the crossroads of [End Page 211] literary and historical analysis bring her to affirm the “textual culture by French-owned slaves” (13) and thus to open up multiple fields of study (e.g., Francophone and Anglophone Atlantic and Caribbean, African diaspora, colonial, and postcolonial studies).
The aim of Beyond the Slave Narrative is clear at the outset: to “resituate late colonial and early postcolonial letters from Haiti as a bona fide area of literary study and teaching” (2). Divided into two parts, “Authorizing the Political Sphere” and “Authorizing the Libertine Sphere,” the book brings together two groups of Haitian revolutionaries—generals and courtesans—to argue that their testimonies are emblematic of early Haitian print culture and the problems of authorship and identity that have defined it. While Jenson playfully admits that these figures make for “strange bedfellows” (31), she contends that their attempts to “authorize” themselves by staking claims to different, though overlapping, spheres represent a “heteroclite corpus” (1) of texts that has been overlooked as a result of the historical attention to the slave narrative. Jenson seeks to recuperate Haitian letters from the dominance of the slave narrative, which, she points out, is often assumed to be the “gold standard of literary testimony from the socioracial substrata of Western colonialism” (3). Rather than speaking to the position of becoming legal property, the literary products of Haitian generals and courtesans represent the equally revealing vantage points of “un-becoming” (3) slaves and, most important to this study, becoming authorial voices. Jenson does not wish to dismiss the slave narrative so much as to “destabilize” (3) its place of privilege in studies of the African diaspora; in so doing, she argues for the inclusion of Francophone and creolophone texts in order to enable a longer, comparative view of the “African diaspora across language traditions” (3).
Part One consists of five chapters and is largely a story of the two most prominent generals, Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. By “story” I do not intend to downplay the analytical rigor of the book but rather to foreground...