- Before Harlem:The Franco-Haitian Grammar of Transnational African American Writing
In The Practice of Diaspora, Brent Hayes Edwards argues that 370,000 African Americans who “served in the segregated American Expeditionary Force in France” and the “nearly 620,000 soldiers” from French colonies in Senegal and the Sudan, “along with hundreds of African American visitors and expatriates,” helped post–World War I Paris to become “a vibrant cosmopolitan space for interaction that was available neither in the United States nor in the colonies.” “Paris is crucial,” Edwards writes, “because it allowed boundary crossing, conversations, and collaborations that were available nowhere else to the same degree.”1 Yet the connections, both formal and imagined, between anglophone and francophone “practices of diaspora” far predate the postwar period of the Harlem Renaissance and the international journals and movements with which it came to be associated. Not only was postrevolutionary Haiti a physical meeting place throughout the nineteenth century for various African American refugees and other politically minded people of color like Prince Saunders, William Wells Brown, and Frederick Douglass, but it was also an intellectual meeting place for myriad antislavery writers and artists of color from across the Atlantic world.2
A series of textual “firsts” by writers of African descent living in the Atlantic world intimately connected Haiti and the Haitian Revolution to abolitionism in France, England, and the broader circum-Caribbean. These firsts included the anonymously published “Theresa; a Haytien Tale,” a serialized short story which appeared in 1828 in the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal.3 Freedom’s Journal also published several excerpts of the British botanist William Hamilton’s English translation of Baron de Vastey’s Réflexions sur une lettre de Mazères (1816), which is probably the first example of what we now call critical race theory, and which formed a crucial part of a hemispheric American print culture.4 Across the Atlantic, another writer of hemispheric significance, the Louisiana-born Victor Séjour, published what is considered by many to be the first African American short story, [End Page 385] “Le Mulâtre” (1837), which describes a fictional slave revolt in colonial Saint-Domingue. Importantly, Séjour’s abolitionist tale was published in the Martinican abolitionist Cyrille Bissette’s Parisian journal Revue des Colonies, which was the “first French serial directed by and produced for people of color.”5 The Revue, whose aim was to “‘group together’ and give ‘the greatest publicity’ to the problems and injustices faced by persons of color,”6 also reprinted in 1837 a short biographical sketch and three poems written by Phillis Wheatley, the first African American poet to publish a book of poetry. If Anna Brickhouse has recovered the abbé Grégoire’s original 1808 publication of these poems and their reprinting by Bissette in 1837 as a part of an integral nineteenth-century “transamerican” literary public sphere,7 long before these reprints and translations, Wheatley had already been crowned the first poet laureate of an African Americas that included not only the United States, England, and France, but also the Caribbean. Thirty-eight of the original thirty-nine poems that made up Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) were appended to the 1801 US translation of the French abolitionist Joseph Lavallée’s 1789 adventure novel about a runaway slave from Saint-Domingue, which had originally been translated and published in London in 1790 as The Negro Equaled by Few Europeans (1790/1801).8
Haiti’s critical position in this transatlantic public sphere, one in which texts move via translation, reprint, representation, and adaptation among the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean, calls upon us to recognize as intimately transnational the geography of African American literary emergence. In one of the first African American novels, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (1853), originally published in London, for example, William Wells Brown copied a significant portion of his descriptions of life on antebellum US plantations from the British abolitionist John Relly Beard’s The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture (1853). Brown borrowed again from Beard in his 1854 abolitionist speech turned pamphlet, “St. Domingo, its Revolutions and its Patriots...