The Lives and Afterlives of The Black Jacobins

Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg, eds., The Black Jacobins Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017); 464 pages; ISBN 978-0822362012 (paperback)

• February 2019

In a fascinating interview between C. L. R. James and Studs Terkel from 1970, printed in the first appendix of The Black Jacobins Reader, Turkel remarks to James that his 1938 magnum opus The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution “deals with the reality of today, too” (339). In reply, James returns to the scene of 1930s London, adding that the book was “a forecast of what would take place in Africa.” To this, Turkel asserts that James “wrote about the past writing about present and future” (340). This exchange beckons to the timeliness of Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg’s collection. Many of the chapters unfold and examine the conditions and implications of James’s layered space-times. They impress upon us why his story matters more than ever now, on a planet of violent migrations and rising oceans.

For sure, this exhaustive collection of essays, reflections, and introductions to James’s epic treatment of the Haitian Revolution will be the authoritative companion to his history for decades to come. Published with a beautiful cover in the C. L. R. James Archives series by Duke University Press, the book’s fifty-two-page introduction, nineteen chapters, and three appendices remind us that James’s definitive contribution to the history, historiography, and interpretation of the Haitian Revolution has yet to be superseded as an engine of literary and scholastic imagination. Indeed, in his foreword, Robert A. Hill contends it is “foundational for all subsequent investigation of the revolution” (xiii).

In their introduction, Forsdick and Høgsbjerg describe the emergence and context of The Black Jacobins as well as the book’s contemporary historiography and responses, academic and underground. Their summary of the rewriting and rethinking of the text touches on the book’s many important readers, including Stokely Carmichael, Stuart Hall, and Walter Rodney, among others. Crucially, they pinpoint James’s lectures delivered in Atlanta in 1971 at the Institute of the Black World, published for the first time by Small Axe in 2000, which propelled revisions about the “relevant emphases on the role of the leaders of the revolution and that of the formerly enslaves masses” (35). Over the book’s life, in fact, many readers, including James himself, critiqued the emphasis James placed on Toussaint’s heroic role in the struggle. The Reader makes an important contribution to postcolonial and Caribbean studies by interrogating the complexities of Toussaint and the mass revolt by the enslaved, as well as the problems of the emergent Haitian state in the postrevolutionary aftermath.

The rest of the collection is divided into four parts. Part 1 offers personal reflections, including those by Dan Georgakas on reading the 1963 Vintage Books paperback edition of The Black Jacobins in Detroit, by Mumia Abu-Jamal on his discovery of the book, by Carolyn E. Fick on James’s personal influence on her much-cited 1990 book The Making of Haiti, which consciously rewrote the history of the Saint-Domingue revolution from below, and by Russell Maroon Shoatz on the book’s importance for incarcerated readers. The section ends with a detailed catalogue of the virtues of The Black Jacobins by Selma James, who notes James’s unprecedented decision to stand “uncompromisingly with the slaves,” his depiction of Toussaint, and his conception of enslaved workers as proletarians (74). She also addresses James’s “restrained critique” of Toussaint (79).

Part 2 collects histories and philosophies of the Haitian Revolution. Laurent Dubois provides excellent framing for The Black Jacobins as Atlantic history, probing many of James’s key claims for their continuing resonance. Bill Schwarz cuts to the heart of questions about how The Black Jacobins “broke with inherited Marxist conceptions of history that were sequential . . . in favor of an approach that recognized the simultaneous coexistence of a plurality of historical times” (102). He coaxes his claims through what he calls James’s “conception of the primitive,” funneling his attention on two major influences on The Black Jacobins, Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West and Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution (96). David Scott’s chapter poses the “contemporary ‘theory-problem’” of Haiti and asks how James achieves “the effect of universal history” through narrative aesthetic, specifically through the “device of heroic figuration of his main protagonist, Toussaint Louverture” (115, 125 [italics in original], 130).

Nick Nesbitt approaches the question of Toussaint by arguing that James’s concept of universality lies in the idea of “the contingent, open-ended assemblage of revolutionary moments” (140), thus allowing us to see Toussaint in “materialist fashion,” in a “transient configuration of powers and affects in a singular body” (145). Claudius Fergus is excellent in interrogating the intersection of race and class in The Black Jacobins, and his critique about the need to see the revolution in larger contexts becomes the subject of Matthew J. Smith’s chapter arguing the “the Haitian Revolution was a Caribbean revolution that shook the world” (180). This thread continues in the next section, with David Austin’s contention that “the Caribbean was central to James’s early conception of the book” (258).

Part 3 looks at texts and contexts. Anthony Bogues inquires into how James’s historical conditions and reading made his book an engagement with the logics of “revolution itself,” as history and event (197; italics in original). Forsdick studies the cultural and popular representations of the revolution’s “narrative afterlives,” particularly of Toussaint, in part for how personifications of struggle with Toussaint obscure or contain its collective aspects—similar to the iconicity of Che Guevara (218). Matthew Quest comprehensively elaborates on the crux of James’s decision to write on “both sides” of the enslaved struggle for liberation, in part inspired by James’s own suggestion in his 1971 lectures that The Black Jacobins “was not sufficiently animated by a direct democratic perspective,” notably positioning the issue within wider discourses on Marxism and state power (236).

Rachel Douglas provides an excellent comparison between The Black Jacobins and James’s eponymous drama, in particular his representations of “tensions between leaders and masses” (280). Aldon Lynn Nielsen offers a necessary dilation of James’s 1971 lectures, setting his remarks on The Black Jacobins in the context of his other lectures, textual touchstones, and audiences. Part 4 includes closing essays by Madison Smartt Bell and John H. Bracey that consolidate much of the important thinking in the collection.

The Black Jacobins Reader is a bracing and consequential collection. Some readers might notice that only three chapters are by women, or that the chapters might have explicitly addressed the intersections of race, masculinity, and sexuality; this is partly a result of the collection’s understandable focus on James’s signal text. Scholars working within interdisciplinary frameworks of black diasporic feminism and queer of color critique, however, might nonetheless be able to reimagine how the politics of black masculinity also faces forward to the postcolonial and nationalist situations that contextualize James’s writing and revision of The Black Jacobins. Other scholars might consider coupling the Reader with the edited collection The Haitian Revolution and the Early United States, which contains additional essays by a range of innovative scholars, including Fick, Dubois, and Scott, to further advance James’s achievement within emergent threads in American studies.1

Near the beginning of The Black Jacobins Reader is David M. Rudder’s poem “Haiti,” performed at James’s funeral in Tunapuna in 1989. The third verse says, “They say the middle passage is gone / So how come / Overcrowded boats still haunt our lives.” Poignantly, Rudder’s poem reminds us that the first successful emancipation of the enslaved was also an act of forcibly transplanted migrants, survivors, Maroons, and fugitives. Their legacy in part, then, rests on the continuing example they have set for today’s planetary migrants, who are too often represented as the subjects, and not the agents, of the worlds they now live within.


Justin Rogers-Cooper is a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College and a faculty member in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at the CUNY Graduate Center. His publications address the intersection of labor history, literary studies, and racial capitalism in the long nineteenth century.


1 Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Michael Drexler, eds., The Haitian Revolution and the Early United States: Histories, Textualities, Geographies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).