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  • Romantic (Re)turns
  • Bakary Diaby (bio)

According to C. L. R. James, "it was Rousseau who began the Romantic movement."1 His outsider status helped enable this since "Rousseau handled the French language… but he was not a Frenchman…. [and] was a master of French culture and civilization… but he was not a Frenchman" (109). Romanticism, James suggests, was the product of the outsider, one who possesses a clarity of the center that those within it lack.

James, of course, has a vested interest in the privileged perspectives of the outsider. In fact, because of his own marginalized status, James is one architect of non-Eurocentric Romanticist scholarship. David Scott has persuasively argued that the young James, when he first wrote The Black Jacobins (1938), was influenced by Romantic thought. But aside from the preface, James uses the word "romantic" only once, when quoting Millet: "Soon they say this Society will demand that the slave-trade be suppressed… that the profits which can result from it for French commerce will be delivered to foreigners, for never will its romantic philosophy persuade all the powers of Europe that it is their duty to abandon the cultivation of the colonies and to leave the inhabitants of Africa a prey to the barbarity of their tyrants rather than to employ them elsewhere."2 This passage, spoken in defense of the San Domingo colonists, points to the pointlessness of "romantic philosophy" in abolishing slavery. James described the speech, however, as mendacious: "never, in any parliamentary assembly, was so much impudent lying and dishonesty packed into any single speech" (112).

James was already raising the question of the anti-racist potential of "romantic philosophy" in 1938. As such, I could suggest then that a call for a transatlantic turn in Romantic studies could be a call to return to the facts of the age and to early twentieth-century Romantic scholarship. There have been—and still remain—countless scholars who have done important work on Romanticism and race, though many of them do not [End Page 101] use the former term. Now is the time to learn from them and to determine what we can contribute in turn. As Manu Samriti Chander suggests, "perhaps paradoxically, we need to cede Romanticism to its unacknowledged participants, those whose challenges to the field will also define it."3

I will end by acknowledging that every "turn" towards a new research paradigm can also be construed as a turn away from something else. Take, for instance, a call for a global or circum-Atlantic turn in Romantic studies. Hortense Spillers suggests that terms like "Black Atlantic" and "diasporic" can be used as "covering terms" which "are all ways, perhaps, to escape the messiness of gender… [as the term meant] in the late 1980s/early 1990s."4 Institutional power, then, has ways of pitting work that should be collaborative inquiries into interlocking systems of oppression against one another. We must remain vigilant and intersectional as we expand Romanticism through decentering it.

Bakary Diaby

Bakary Diaby is Assistant Professor of English at Skidmore College.


1. C. L. R. James, You Don't Play With Revolution: The Montréal Lectures of C. L. R. James, (Oakland: AK Press, 2009), 109. Hereafter cited in-text.

2. C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1963), 113. Hereafter cited in-text.

3. Manu Samriti Chander, "Romantic Diversitarianism: Problems and Promises," European Romantic Review 31.3 (2020).

4. Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, and Jennifer L. Morgan, "'Whatcha Gonna Do?': Revisiting 'Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book': A Conversation With Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Shelly Eversley, & Jennifer L. Morgan," Women's Studies Quarterly 35.1/2 (2007), 299–309.



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