The Haitian Revolution and Black Radical Political Desire

Jeremy Matthew Glick, The Black Radical Tragic: Performance, Aesthetics, and the Unfinished Haitian Revolution (New York: New York University Press, 2016); 267 pages; ISBN 978-1479813193 (paperback)

• October 2017

The cultural archive generated by the Haitian Revolution has long been an ideological battleground in which contenders have grappled with the inheritance of Atlantic slavery. At the same time, or in the same way, Haitian Revolutionary studies continues to flourish as, in Jeremy Matthew Glick’s words, “one of the most fecund, conceptually rich subfields in African diasporic studies.” Within this rapidly developing and discipline-crossing subfield, Glick’s examination of “staged representations of the Haitian Revolution” as “sites of and sites for critical thought” is a most welcome addition (1). Primarily concerned with the insights that may be generated by juxtaposing questions of aesthetic and revolutionary organization raised by and revolving around the Haitian Revolution, Glick’s bold project is “an expansive formal configuration [and] philosophical orientation” that seeks to connect Toussaint Louverture to Patrice Lumumba in the context of a world-system while nevertheless remaining attentive to the particularities of black experience and historical circumstance (221). This project, an effort to think through the staging and realization of the dialectic of freedom, Glick names the “Black Radical Tragic.”

Glick’s political-theoretical premise is thus a welcome rejection of our contemporary moment’s antipathy toward revolution as a motor for progressive sociopolitical transformation. Notably, in “Overture,” which serves as “a political primer” for the monograph as a whole (22), Glick dubs our contemporary impasse “Thermidorian” while enacting a method “within which to think about dramatic usages of the Haitian revolutionary long nineteenth century” (23). Moreover, Glick issues a rebuke to those who have underestimated the “theoretical richness” of revolutionary thought and action (1). This position is no mere unsubstantiated polemic, and Glick marshals a pantheon of revolutionary theorists, practitioners, scholars, and artists as he stakes out his political-theoretical foundations and trajectory; among these are C. L. R. James (around whom, to a great extent, the study pivots), Bertolt Brecht, Raymond Williams, Alain Badiou, Malcolm X, and Frantz Fanon, among others, not least Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and the mass of slaves of Saint-Domnigue turned rebels and citizens of Haiti.

Glick’s monograph offers theoretically sophisticated and nuanced readings of “dramatic performances by C. L. R. James, Edouard Glissant, Lorraine Hansberry, Paul Robeson, Eugene O’Neil, Sergei Eisenstein, and Orson Welles as sites of political knowledge” before concluding with a brief discussion of Malcolm X’s 1964 Oxford Union debate as well as his claiming of Spinoza as a political comrade and a “Black Spanish Jew” in his autobiography (2, 206). Glick’s project demands that we “take questions of revolutionary leadership seriously” while engaging critically with drama “as a theater of ideas” (2, 3). As such, Glick’s method reveals a commitment to modernist and avant-garde aesthetics as explanatory modes: “The aesthetic properties bound to this cluster of dramatic works offers up political insight and constitutes a field ripe for speculative thinking on the interrelationship between Black radical pasts, presents, and futures” (3).

Chapter 1 begins with an examination of Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play The Emperor Jones. Interpreting O’Neill’s play as a radical foregrounding of “the legacy of enslaved African labor as fundamental primitive accumulation” (70), Glick offers a materialist reading that successfully exposes the text’s “latent liberatory kernel” (58). This is achieved without effacing O’Neill’s racialist paternalism (a compelling critical move explicitly inspired by Edward Said’s response to Chinua Achebe’s critique of Joseph Conrad). Then, the chapter considers a fascinating account of a semester-long seminar given by Sergei Eisenstein at the State Cinema Institute in Moscow on the question of how to represent Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the most maligned and misunderstood of Haiti’s revolutionary heroes. Deborah Jenson is widely credited for pioneering in 2007 what has been dubbed the “pro-Dessalinean turn” in Haitian Revolutionary studies, but Glick’s research reveals that in the early 1930s Eisenstein had considered Dessalines a sympathetic figure, “a positive hero” (quoted on 71), and a technical and political challenge to his theory of revolutionary filmmaking.1 While it has long been known that Eisenstein was fascinated by the Haitian Revolution and harbored a desire to make a film on the subject, this passage is especially rich and constitutes a valuable addition to the critical literature on the Haitian Revolution’s influence on the international currents of modernism.2 The first chapter concludes with analysis of a twenty-eight-minute radio broadcast produced and narrated by Orson Wells that chronicles the roles of Toussaint Louverture and Henry Christophe in the Haitian Revolution. Here Glick homes in on Wells’s stealthy relating of the Haitian Revolution to the fight against Nazism. This sensitivity to transhistorical, systemic connections reveals the impulse to universalism at the heart of the Black Radical Tragic, and thereby the concept’s indebtedness to Césairean négritude. By this means, Glick’s project charts “a line of continuity linking Napoleon’s imprisonment of Toussaint to Bush’s abduction of President Aristide” (84).

Chapter 2 considers C. L. R. James’s 1967 revision of his play Toussaint Louverture (1936), renamed The Black Jacobins, and Édouard Glissant’s 1961 play Monsieur Toussaint “to explore the use of the tragic to talk about the problem of revolutionary leadership” (85). Glick argues that James’s revision is figuratively haunted by “what can only be imagined as [Paul] Robeson’s awesome virtuosity” in his performance of the title role in the 1936 version (89). On the other hand, Glissant’s play, Glick alleges, “explodes,” dissolving the binary of leader and masses and expanding “the tragic gap” in James’s Haitian dramas (117). The third chapter once more focuses on James and commences by placing sculpture and revolutionary commitment in dialogue with one another. Glick speculatively proposes that viewing Rodin’s sculpture St. John the Baptist was a “thought catalyst” for a young James preoccupied with “the problem of arranging bodies and staging the interdependence between an individual and a mass of bodies imperative to the problem of leadership in the Haitian Revolution” (128). Later in the chapter, in reading James’s celebrated history The Black Jacobins as a tragedy, Glick elaborates on and modifies David Scott’s highly influential thesis in Conscripts of Modernity, proposing that the tragic had existed in James’s Haitian works all along as a form of dialectical mediation.3 The fourth and final chapter focuses on works by the Pan-Africanist Lorraine Hansberry—the posthumously published play Les blancs and an unfinished piece of musical theater titled Toussaint. These, Glick reads as building on earlier works on Haiti for the stage by O’Neill and James and as grappling with questions of radicalism and reformism. Reading Hansberry’s works, which “break from a U.S.-centric focus and reach toward Africa and Haiti to enact a global Black revolutionary politics on stage” (170), enables Glick to explore how Hansberry’s black radical internationalist aesthetic communicates the existence of an oppressive world-system that circumscribes radical possibilities for historic and would-be revolutionary leaders and masses alike.

Glick displays remarkable breadth and theoretical erudition throughout, though in his juxtaposing of dramatic and revolutionary organization we are sometimes left yearning for a clearer theorization of the transformative power of dramatic performance. A case in point is found in the overture when Glick proposes that the plays he examines might be considered as constituting a response to Che Guevara’s demand, issued at the 1967 Tricontinental conference, to “create two, three, many Vietnams” (43). Here, greater elaboration of theater as a mode of political didacticism, and of the tensions inherent in the endeavors of “playwright-activists” would have been welcome. However, this remains a fine and ambitious study and one that reveals the truth of Sartre’s consideration that Marxism remains “the one philosophy of our time which we cannot go beyond” (quoted on 224n7) and that “a Black revolutionary horizon is still an unsurpassable political project and imperative of radical political desire” (4).

 

Philip Kaisary is an assistant professor of critical legal, social, and political theory in the Department of Law and Legal Studies and is cross-appointed to the Department of English Language and Literature and the Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art, and Culture at Carleton University, Canada. He is author of The Haitian Revolution in the Literary Imagination: Radical Horizons, Conservative Constraints (2014) as well as articles in MELUS, Slavery and Abolition, Atlantic Studies, and Law and Humanities.

 


1 See Deborah Jenson, “Before Malcolm X, Dessalines: A ‘French’ Tradition of Black Atlantic Radicalism,” International Journal of Francophone Studies 10, no. 3 (2007): 329–44.

2 See, for example, Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg, “Sergei Eisenstein and the Haitian Revolution: ‘The Confrontation between Black and White Explodes into Red,’” History Workshop Journal 78 (2014): 157–85.

3 David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

 

 

Related Articles