Parsing Aftershocks and History

Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012); 448 pages; ISBN 978-0805093353 (hardcover).

• May 2012

One of the many extraordinary mise-en-scènes framing Laurent Dubois’s Haiti: The Aftershocks of History initiates “Sacrifice,” a chapter in the book that begins with an examination of the failure of the United States and the Vatican to diplomatically recognize Haiti:

 

In December 1859, an elaborate official funeral was held in the cathedral of Port-au-Prince. The Haitian president, Fabre Geffrard, oversaw the proceedings, while the head Catholic priest of Port-au-Prince officiated a high mass. In the nave of the church was the coffin, draped in black, lit up by candles, and decorated with an inscription naming the deceased as a “martyr for the cause of the blacks.” After a rousing eulogy, it was carried to a cross at the edge of town by a large procession that brought together many of the town’s most prominent citizens. But the coffin was never placed in the ground, for it was empty. (135)

Dubois slowly discloses the identity of the figure marked by the empty coffin: North American abolitionist and militant John Brown, executed a few days earlier in Charles Town, Virginia. “Brown had never visited Haiti,” Dubois continues, “but the country’s history had long visited him” (ibid.). The tempo of Dubois’s narrative disclosure brilliantly doubles the coffin inscription’s hesitation to name. I want to linger on this small piece of Dubois’s most delightful intervention to what field scholar David Patrick Geggus aptly labels “Haitian revolutionary studies” because it distils a great deal of the intellectual labor that distinguishes this contribution.1

So much of how the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804 (which is more a point of departure in Dubois’s latest book, in contrast to being the focus of his earlier work on that initial revolutionary chronology)2 circulates in the imagination of the African diaspora is bound up in the proper names that enact that history—Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, and the like. Diasporic thinkers from C. L. R. James, James Weldon Johnson, and Edouard Glissant to Lorraine Hansberry revisit by proper names the protagonists of this initial phase of Haitian revolutionary insurgency as an analogical exercise to shed light on their current political conjunctures. I am using analogical in the conviction-laden sense, as defined by Kaja Silverman in her recent work on the painter Gerhard Richter—“Analogy is a relationship of greater or lesser similarity between two ontologically equal terms, not a relationship between one thing and something else that equals it.”3 Ontologically equal, because despite their differences in particularities, the freedom dreams and self-determination animus that propel black radical struggles from Toussaint Louverture to Patrice Lumumba (to name just two examples) constitute a philosophical identity. Dubois’s paced disclosure of John Brown’s absent body—the emphasis placed on the way that the deceased is solely named by his praxis of solidarity, as “martyr for the cause of the blacks”—illustrates a complementary temporal dynamic in the mining of Haitian revolutionary “poetry of the past.” Certainly, there is a common -ense explanation for John Brown’s empty coffin in Port-au-Prince, but as Dubois pens it, it is also political. The anonymity of the words on the wooden structure, the openness of such a declaration that refuses to specify a proper name, might signify a certain future orientation, an openness as it relates to calibrating Haitian revolutionary citizenship and friendships, a place-marker of potentiality for a martyred solidarity that can be repeated.

Dubois manages to unfold an engaging historical narrative while foregrounding conceptual frameworks like Haitian sociologist Jean Casimir’s concept theory of the “counter-plantation.” This sort of attention to counter-models of labor resistance informs much of the work and dictates which actors are privileged. Dubois also links métayage—a Haitian form of sharecropping in which “a landowner essentially handed over the cultivation of a property to those who worked on it, surrendering day-to-day control over their tasks” (59)—to the financial burdens of the indemnity placed on the Haitian people. Their resistance to the notion that slave owners should be compensated for their loss of people-property offers a new way to think differently of Haitian labor strategies of defiance. By a combinatory focus on Haitian self-organization, the marriage between external military and economic pressure in framing Haitian history, and the way Haiti has been framed in hegemonic discourse, Dubois provides a model for how to think and represent the actuality of revolutionary histories.

Like his assessment of Christophe’s Citadel and the quick succession of executives produced by Haiti’s permanent revolution, Dubois expertly balances  progressive and retrograde elements of different governments, always linking choices made by Haitian governments to the pressures exerted by outside forces. His scholarship on the various US occupations of Haiti is illuminating. He complicates and contextualizes common misconceptions about various iconic Haitian leaders—especially pertaining to the question of political violence. Initially, I found it frustrating that Dubois signals via citation the two main texts offering up wildly discrepant assessments of the in-office political career of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, yet does not offer his own synthesis. However, this is congruent with Dubois’s overall strategies to utilize proper names as points of departure to illustrate the structural constraints, strategic balancing acts of different regimes, and the way in which political economy impacts the island’s history. This allows for a properly political analysis that not only contextualizes the strengths and weaknesses of various heads of state but also provides a sober analysis of the centrality of force in the revolutionary process.

In his discussion of Haitian president Faustin Soulouque (1782–1867) and the allusion to him in Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Dubois deconstructs the farcical fashion in which Souluque is framed in many historical accounts of Haitian governance. This move adds attention to another type of genre for scholars of Haiti and the Haitian Revolution to ponder: farce.4 Dubois’s brief reassessment of Dessalines is superb. In his discussion of the squadron of French warships ready to enforce a blockade if the Haitian government refuses to pay 150-million-franc indemnity, he discloses horrifying details about the fleet commander:

 

Admiral Jurien de la Gravière: Gravière had first visited Saint-Domingue in 1789 as a sailor on a slave-trading vessel arriving from Africa with a cargo of captives. Later, in 1803, he had captained a ship with a grisly mission: to fetch from Cuba 150 dogs specially trained to attack blacks, so that they could be used against insurgents, in Saint Domingue. (100)

Dubois utilizes Jacques Roumain’s 1944 novel Masters of the Dew to talk about state-sanctioned and unsanctioned religion in Haiti. The above anecdote can also be read as an oppressive counter-point to the route linking Cuba and Haiti traveled by Manuel, the laboring, communitarian-oriented protagonist in Roumain’s work.

Historian Robert A. Hill theorizes C. L. R. James’s imperative “to take part.” He writes, “Embodied in James’s work was not only an extraordinary power of ordinary people as the shapers of history, but also a method of getting at it, of where to look for it, and how to go about documenting it.”5 Laurent Dubois “takes part” in an ever-growing collection of Haitian revolutionary studies and his contribution should be welcomed with gratitude.

 

Jeremy M. Glick is an assistant professor of Caribbean literature and modern drama in the Hunter College English Department. He is completing a book manuscript, titled “‘Imitations I Can Use’: Haitian Revolutionary Tragedy as Historiography and Genre,” about twentieth-century theatrical production and historiography pertaining to the Haitian Revolution of 1791–1804.

 


1 David Patrick Geggus, Haitian Revolutionary Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002)

Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

3 This formulation is from Silverman’s “Unfinished Business,” presented at the symposium Panorama: New Perspectives on Richter, Tate Modern, London, 21 October 2011.

4 I am thinking here of the opposition between Romance and Tragedy in David Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), Marx’s repetition of Hegel’s formulation of history as first tragedy then farce in The Eighteenth Brumaire, and Judith Gretchen Woertendyke’s “Specters of Haiti: Race, Fear, and the American Gothic, 1789–1855,” PhD diss., State University of New York at Stony Brook, 2007.

Robert A. Hill, preface to You Don’t Play With Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C. L. R. James, ed. David Austin (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2009), xv.

 

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