Hero as Instrument

• July 2014

The problem of how to register and transmit the insurgency he locates in the creative activity of ordinary black people is one that C. L. R. James returns to throughout his work. It is the very problem that draws James, we might speculate, to the Haitian Revolution, the only “successful” slave revolt in history, where he considers not just the relay of this insurgency but the conditions of its allure. James explores this double problem in the play Toussaint Louverture through his complex exploration of the pivotal figure of the revolutionary leader, an exploration that continues in his later play, The Black Jacobins; in his historiographical account of the revolution, also called The Black Jacobins; and much later in hisLectures on The Black Jacobins,” in which he speculates on other angles of approach to this particular moment in the history of black radicalism. What is so tantalizing about Toussaint Louverture is that despite its emphatic focus on the singular figure of Toussaint and his attainment of the status of world historical subject, there lies at the edges of this drama, in the interstices and just beyond the scope of its unofficial, unfinished script, another story waiting to be realized in and through its performance: that of the slaves’ revolutionary self-organization. As a group, a complex mass unencompassed by Toussaint’s representation of them and James’s representation of Toussaint, the slaves rarely appear onstage, yet they are identified in the stage directions, almost in passing, as “the most important characters in the play,” raising the question of how those who would seem to fall short of the status of proper historical subjects might be understood as historical actors. James’s experiment in dramatic form stages the insurgency of black social life as that which exceeds normative frames of political theory and political historiography, but the medium through which that aesthetic sociality is transmitted, the heroic mediation that structures its allure, would also seem to obscure and marginalize precisely what is to be relayed and revered.1

In Toussaint Louverture, James formulates Toussaint’s leadership, his authority, as a matter of authorship. It is through his literacy—his reading and, even more significant, his writing—that Toussaint first asserts himself as leader. Formally introduced as a secretary serving those initially identified as the revolution’s leaders, he soon changed roles. At one moment, he is reading—after it is demonstrated that he is the only one who can read—the letter from the representative of revolutionary France; at the next moment, it is he who is writing the script for the action that will unfold: “Gentlemen, I have made a few notes here.”2 His leadership is more or less secured when he steps forward, out of the silence, to formally negotiate with France. He performs, then, as author and actor on the very stage that he has set, as from this point on “all hang on Toussaint’s words” (67; italics in original). But even before that, we witness his restructuring and redirection of the drumbeat we have been hearing since the beginning of the play, which becomes legible and purposeful now in Toussaint’s use of it in the political negotiations he begins:


(Suddenly there is a beating of a distant drum. All start. The rhythm is repeated.)

Macoya: What’s that?

Toussaint: It is the commissioner. I have had scouts on the lookout for him. No, Colonel Dessalines, you stay. I have arranged for Colonel Christophe to escort them here. (62)

This is one of a series of moves Toussaint will make to reorganize the insurgent rank and file, many of whom he insists are “barbarous savages” (94), as well as the revolution’s early leaders, men in whom he has no confidence, into a “civilized” people, fit for citizenship.

Toussaint’s authorship in and of the revolt remains a complicated question for James. In the later play Toussaint’s power to write, tied to his power to kill, is dispersed among several characters.3 In James’s historical account, it is in need of support: “To the end of his days he could hardly speak French, he literally could not write three words without the grossest errors in his spelling and grammar. . . . But he dictated in the local bastard French or [C]reole, and his secretaries wrote and re-wrote until he got the exact meaning he wanted.”4 And in his later lectures, citing a letter Toussaint writes to the French government warning it that the people would not accept the reinstitution of slavery, James argues that Toussaint’s genius lay in his claims merely to be “transmitting” the desires of the slaves: “This, Citizens Directors, is the morale of the people of San Domingo, these are the principles that they transmit to you by me. I am only telling you what they think.”5 But James’s double problem remains, even here, unresolved. How can we begin to tell the transmission from the transmitter? How can the act of transmission and the ones who initiate it be brought into relief? What is transmitted through Toussaint if, as James suggests in the stage directions for this play, he did not make the revolt but the revolt made him, as its revolutionary instrument? What is expressed or transmitted by way of not just Toussaint L’Ouverture, the hero, but Toussaint Louverture, a drama that begins and ends without its hero and thereby suggests, without fully being able to take its own suggestion, that Toussaint is better understood as means, deployed not only against the forces that reduce men to means but also against the grain of the categorical imperative’s valorization of the individual as end?

James returns to the dramatic form, considering these issues beyond the frame of the Haitian Revolution, in his “Notes on American Civilization,” which he wrote in 1949 in anticipation of a worldwide revolution he believed was imminent. “Notes” is, as James writes in the preface to the unfinished manuscript, an extension of his search for a form through which to “transmit” the needs and desires of the revolutionary masses in the most direct possible manner, one that would eliminate the need for the vanguard intellectual as author, a new art that would be “for the mass openly and directly.”6 What he is seeking in “Notes” is a form that would be authored by its audience, a form in which the nominal author is merely a functionary, a conduit for what the audience—ultimately the mass itself—seeks to express. Such a form would be a forum in and through which the mass would assemble itself, in and beyond audition, to tackle the great problems of their day.

What he imagines would necessarily assume and reconfigure dramatic form: a cross between the drama of Ancient Greece (which was written for the whole population, except, he notes, the slaves) and the cinema (for “if Aristophanes came back today . . . he would write for the films to which 95 million people go every week”). Even Moby-Dick is understood by James in essentially dramatic terms as “a scenario for a type of film which modern filmmakers have not as yet even dreamt of.” As it turns out, however, this kind of active, form-giving participation is best exemplified in the practices of newly freed slaves: “Perhaps a mass-revival meeting of Negroes just relieved from slavery would give [an] avenue to understanding. A realistic sermon on the sufferings of Christ or the saints would elicit from the audience a tremendous response for they too had suffered and were suffering; but at least they were now free, and the bitterness of the exposition could serve only to call forth and strengthen their fundamental faith.”7 James marks this collective “tremendous response” as the very thing he is after, a collective renewal of faith in the possibility of constructing a new social life, but writes no more about it. We might read it, however, as an extension of a form through which slaves had formerly been able to express their collective desires, which James finds in the prehistory of that art for the mass “that must inevitably come” that he maps in “Notes,” the abolition movement.

Picking up where James suggests literary authors such as Walt Whitman and Herman Melville had left off, the abolitionist intellectuals go farthest in radicalizing authorship by socializing it. Together they operate as a compound means of expression and transmission: “[Their] whole intellectual, social and political creativity was the expression of precise social forces. They were the means by which a direct social movement expressed itself, the movement of the slaves and free Negroes for freedom.”8

“Any kind of analysis of the Abolitionist intellectuals,” James adds, “must begin with the slaves.”9 But how to do so? James insists that he would like one day to rewrite these notes, following “an immense research into the actual lives and opinions of the people” (not unlike the return to the archives he will later propose as the basis for a new history of the Haitian Revolution) so that “the ideas which are expressed here in quotations by authorities will emerge in an entirely different form, will emerge as expressions of the lives and activities of the people concerned.”10 But James offers us access to them in this manuscript only by way of the abolitionists’ writing, presented here, in dramatic form as oratorical performance within which the audience’s “tremendous response” is inscribed as stage directions. He does so in passages such as this one in which Wendell Phillips calls for insurrection: “The Lesson of the Hour! I think the lesson of the hour is insurrection (Sensation).” What is held in the “(Sensation)” that erupts into this oratorical performance? What this stage direction invokes is the creative activity of the slaves as an active force in this performance. And yet, while James seems to credit the abolitionist intellectuals’ performances with giving coherent and effective political expression to the creative activity of the slaves, he also makes it possible to recognize the ways these performances attempt to contain it. He quotes (without critiquing) Phillips as going on to say, for example, “I want the blacks as the very basis of the effort to regenerate the South,” but also, “Our duty is to save these four million of blacks from their own passions, from their own confusion, and eight millions of whites from the consequences of it.” While Phillips calls for insurrection, he follows this declaration of “duty” with a declaration of allegiance to government: “I maintain therefore the power of the government itself to inaugurate such a policy.” It will be through citizenship that the slave is brought into productive relations with whites, so that all will be “lifted in the scale of civilization and activity.”11 This is the tension that “(Sensation)” both holds and transmits. This is the tension, I would argue, that the dramatic form in Toussaint Louverture also holds and transmits, in representing the activities of the slaves, primarily in the form of their “responses” to Toussaint’s authorship. These responses constitute interpellative calls that bring leaders into existence as transmitters. In this respect, along lines theorized by Cedric Robinson and, more recently, Erica Edwards, Toussaint’s heroic charisma is an effect of charismata, of a gift of spirit that infuses and animates the leader as instrument.12 James’s sense of the regulative power of such transmission is accompanied by his sense of the initiatory power of mass “response.”

Importantly, the “tremendous responses” we get in Toussaint Louverture are—with the exception of the “great burst of cheering” heard through the window Toussaint briefly opens as he considers Britain’s offer to make him king—primarily not to the words of Toussaint himself. They instead anticipate Toussaint’s emergence as leader (Bookman must quiet the crowd in the woods before Toussaint can speak) and mark his passing (there is “open lamentation” as Toussaint’s death is announced and Dessalines calls for a new, independent Haiti). They constitute the substance or atmosphere of a general scenario of revolt within which Toussaint’s centrality is always troubled by what precedes and succeeds his oratorical presence. We might read in these responses, then, not just the call for but, ultimately, the relinquishment of Toussaint’s leadership. The play is infused with the traces of an unformed suggestion that Toussaint is best understood as a function or functionary of revolt, one that turns out to be as dangerous to the revolution as it was necessary.

But the play’s focus on Toussaint, paradoxically, allows something else to become apparent, however vaguely, at the edges of our vision and audition. Off stage, in the background, in the pauses marked by Toussaint’s hesitation to join the revolt in the first place or the transfer of the slaves’ allegiance from Toussaint to Dessalines, in the poetic suggestiveness of the stage directions and in the loose scripting of the outbursts of the crowds, there are openings through which the creative, insurgent sociality of the slaves might be seen and heard. It is in this respect, perhaps, that Toussaint operates as the ouverture in this play.

We might catch glimpses of this self-organization in the composition of the loosely indicated “groups” that come together to plan the revolt, which were formed by the introduction of new, maroon modes of organization forged in the collision of multiple African spiritual traditions in the atelier or plantation work team structure. Such groups were the primary organizational unit of the revolution. We might overhear it, also, in the “cheering,” the “groans,” and other eruptions into the scenes in which people gather. What these performances would relay is not dangerously uncontained passion, awaiting guidance, nor the “confused precipitation” that was at times all the French could apprehend.13 They index and instantiate the ongoing creative composition and recomposition of an insurgent sociality that precedes and exceeds citizenship. What is at stake for the slaves in this revolt, then, is not admittance to the French Republic or the formation of a new, independent black state but, to borrow a term from Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, the “self-defense” of a sociality that is already in effect.14

To be sure, the play charts a trajectory of uplift in which the slaves attain a fitness for citizenship that Toussaint both exemplifies and bestows (by, for example, introducing the disciplining whistle or the Marseillaise, anthem of the French Republic, to replace shouting and the ubiquitous and disruptive sound of the drum). But in the end, while we are meant to witness the arrival of “a civilized people,” not a “mob” or a “throng” but finally “a solid mass,” I believe James’s use of the dramatic form allows us to perceive something more. When James makes note of the “frenzy” of the slaves cheering here,15 we hear the echo of Du Bois, whom James himself would invoke in his later lectures. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois describes the “frenzy” he encounters at a “Southern Negro revival”:


Most striking to me . . . was the air of intense excitement that possessed that mass of black folk. A sort of suppressed terror hung in the air and seemed to seize us,—a Pythian madness, a demoniac possession, that lent terrible reality to song and word. The black and massive form of the preacher swayed and quivered as the words crowded to his lips and flew at us in singular eloquence. The people moaned and fluttered, and then the gaunt-cheeked brown woman beside me suddenly leaped straight into the air and shrieked like a lost soul, while round about came wail and groan and outcry, and a scene of human passion such as I had never conceived before.16

The division between “author” and audience dissolves here in what can only be understood as a collective performance. All are equally possessed, the preacher as much as the other congregants, seized by the excitement that is generated in the creative act of gathering. The words uttered here, the songs sung, the responses given, are all of the same status as what is generated and what is generative in this scene. It is this generativity that is transmitted through and beyond Toussaint’s authorship, through and beyond James’s authorship, a generativity waiting to be carried forward in and by the “tremendous responses” of whatever audiences assemble around this play’s future performances.


Laura Harris is an assistant professor in the Department of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside.


1 James theorization and representation of the hero in the terms of classical drama have been productively explored by a number of other authors. See, for example, Kara M. Rabbitt, “C. L. R. James’s Figuring of Toussaint-Louverture: The Black Jacobins and the Literary Hero,” in Selwyn R. Cudjoe and William E. Cain, eds., C. L. R. James: His Intellectual Legacies (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995); David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004); and Michelle Ann Stephens, Black Empire: The Masculine Global Imaginary of Caribbean Intellectuals in the United States, 1914–1962 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005). My emphasis is on the relationship James tried to establish between author and audience by way of the performance anticipated by the dramatic form.

2 C. L. R. James, Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History; A Play in Three Acts (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 62; hereafter cited in the text.

3 The only moment we see Toussaint writing is when he signs the death warrant for Moïse, who has challenged his authority. See C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins, in The C. L. R. James Reader, ed. Anna Grimshaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), 95–99.

4 C. L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2nd ed. rev. (New York: Vintage, 1989), 104.

5 C. L. R. James, “Lectures on The Black Jacobins,” Small Axe, no. 8 (September 2000): 82.

6 C. L. R. James, American Civilization (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993), 157. James’s “Notes” manuscript was revised many times and then posthumously edited and published by Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart as American Civilization. All citations here are to the posthumously published version.

7 Ibid., 157, 156.

8 Ibid., 85.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid, 38–39. James proposes in several places in his “Lectures on The Black Jacobins” a return to the archives, anticipating the work produced by scholars such as Sybelle Fischer, Colin Dayan, James Scott, and Laurent Du Bois, who move against the grain of James’s heroism by way of his own suggestion.

11 James, American Civilization., 92, 93, 94.

12 See Cedric J. Robinson, The Terms of Order: Political Science and the Myth of Leadership (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980); and Erica R. Edwards, Charisma and the Fictions of Black Leadership (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

13 See Carolyn E. Fick, The Making of Haiti: The Saint Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990), 110. Fick also speculates that the slaves may have deliberately sought to produce this impression.

14 See Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (Wivenhoe, UK: Minor Compositions, 2013), 17.

15 James figures this even more forcefully in his historical account of the Haitian Revolution when he remarks on the frenzy of dancing and singing by women and children right in the middle of the battlefield James, The Black Jacobins:  Toussaint L’Ouverture, 117.

16 W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, chap. 10, 133, 134, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library, web.archive.org/web/20081004090243/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/DubSoul.html (accessed 19 March 2014).


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