The Haitian Revolution in Caribbean Literature: A Synechdochal Study

June 2017

Víctor Figueroa, Prophetic Visions of the Past: Pan-Caribbean Representations of the Haitian Revolution (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015); 297 pages; ISBN 978-0814212776 (hardcover)

In 1804, neighboring Caribbean colonies, in large part because of economic and political pressures, refused to acknowledge Haiti as an independent republic. Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot confirms in Silencing the Past that the Haitian Revolution continued to occupy a blind spot in history centuries after it uprooted the slave regime in the French colony of Saint Domingue. While Western historical accounts masked and manipulated the making of the first black state in the Americas, scholars today read the rich history of Haiti—bolstered by the impact of the Haitian Revolution—as a signpost for imagining Caribbean decolonization and blackness. Scholars such as Anja Bandau and Celucien Joseph label the twenty-first-century rise of interest in the Haitian Revolution and its repercussions as the “Haitian turn.” This recent focus on the 1791 rebellion and 1804 Haitian independence is a possible reverberation of the bicentennial anniversary of the Revolution in 2004 and the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas in 2010. This scholarly “turn” is marked by historical accounts such as Laurent M. Dubois’ Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (2013) and David P. Geggus’s The Haitian Revolution: A Documentary History (2014). Interdisciplinary, literary studies focused on the impact of the Revolution are also noteworthy. Philip Kaisary’s The Haitian Revolution in the Literary Imagination (2014) and Víctor Figueroa’s Prophetic Visions of the Past: Pan-Caribbean Representations of the Haitian Revolution (2015) are two detailed works of literary criticism considering the depiction of the Haitian Revolution in literature. While Kaisary’s genre-spanning analysis extends to music and art, it also expands geographically to include British artist Kimathi Donkor and US writer Madison Smartt Bell, among others. Figueroa’s study is more specific, in both a temporal and geographic sense—Prophetic Visions explores twentieth-century Caribbean literary representations of the Haitian Revolution.

Figueroa’s book of literary criticism positions the Haitian Revolution clearly within a tradition of Caribbean letters. For Figueroa, the Revolution is a floating signifier for the Caribbean, and his study attempts to both fragment and piece together a Caribbean representation of the pivotal event that, like all historical moments, has an imperfect and tainted record in history. The events of the Revolution are further muddled and crossed by Caribbean writers who devoted themselves to piecing together their own version of history, in some instances offering alternatives to a Eurocentric historical account of the Americas that decentralizes the voices of the indigenous and enslaved. Figueroa’s goal in Prophetic Visions centers on an analysis of twentieth-century Caribbean literary texts for the ways the Revolution materializes within them, focusing specifically on each Caribbean writers’ unique social, political, and geographical context.

Prophetic Visions consists of an introduction, six body chapters, and a conclusion. The organization of the book relies on literary explorations of Haiti’s colonial status and its violent rupture. Figueroa skillfully intertwines readings of a diverse set of Caribbean texts to illustrate the incredibly diverse political, cultural, and social repercussions of the Haitian Revolution in the Caribbean, a region—at the time of the Revolution—defined by its coloniality. The seven writers explored by Figueroa in the six chapters are some of the most-well-known intellectuals of the twentieth century: Cuban Alejo Carpentier, Colombian Manuel Zapata Olivella, Trinidadian C. L. R. James, Martinicans Aimé Césaire and Édouard Glissant, Puerto Rican Luis Palés Matos, and Saint Lucian Derek Walcott. Figueroa, however, outwardly faces the fact that the writers he explores are “among the Caribbean’s most fundamental, sometimes foundational literary voices” (2). Admitting the “foundational” status of these writers helps him argue that the significance of the Haitian Revolution was paramount and that the most pronounced Caribbean writers of the twentieth-century were deeply impacted by the implications of the historical event. The “fundamental” Caribbean authors’ representations of the Revolution reveal diverse interpretations of colonial logic. Figueroa then frames his theoretical approach around Latin Americanists such as Walter Mignolo, Enrique Dussel, and Nelson Maldonado-Torres, and he relates their complex understandings of the colonial condition to the legacy of the Haitian Revolution.

The first chapter is the only one to focus on two authors, offering an analysis of both Carpentier’s El reino de este mundo (1949) and James’s The Black Jacobins (1938; 2nd ed., 1963). The two works are positioned against each other to consider inclusions and exclusions of key players in the Revolution, such as leader Toussaint Louverture and the role of Vodou. Each subsequent chapter addresses one Caribbean author and the ways he inscribes the Haitian Revolution into his literary production, oftentimes focusing on numerous works by the same writer. Chapter 3, for example, reads Césaire’s historical essay Toussaint Louverture: La revolution français et le problème colonial (1961) alongside his play La tragédie du roi Christophe (1963). Notably, two of the six chapters focus specifically on Afro-Hispanic writers and their understandings of blackness as related to the Haitian slave revolts and Haitian Revolution: chapter 2 centers on Palés Matos and chapter 6 on Zapata Olivella. Figueroa’s detailed readings of Palés Matos’ poetry collection Tuntún de pasa y grifería (1937; 2nd ed., 1950) and Zapata Olivella’s Changó, el gran putas (1983) valorizes afrocentric literary approaches and considers how hispanophone Afro-Caribbean authors position blackness within their own communities and the wider Caribbean community, as related to the Haitian Revolution. Chapter 4 analyzes Walcott’s play The Haitian Earth (1985), and chapter 5 turns to Glissant’s Monsieur Toussaint (1961); the fictional portrayals of revolutionary heroes—Henri Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Toussaint Louverture—guide the analyses of these two chapters.

The selected Pan-Caribbean accounts of the Haitian Revolution prove diverse in genre—including fiction, essay, historiography, poetry, and drama—but Figueroa neglects to include any Haitian or Dominican authors. Not only does his analysis exclude Hispaniola-born writers; it excludes female authors as well. While Figueroa explains that one significant issue with Prophetic Visions is the overarching masculinist rhetoric of the Haitian Revolution, he does not engage with female accounts of the momentous event. Marie Vieux Chauvet’s La danse sur le volcan (1957) is just one example of a Caribbean francophone text that would have added both a gendered and Haitian literary representation of the Revolution to Figueroa’s study. Aside from these gaps, Prophetic Visions is a thorough, comparativist examination of twentieth-century depictions of the Haitian Revolution in literature, especially as it includes anglophone, francophone, and hispanophone works.

In his introduction, Figueroa reiterates the synechdochal nature of the Caribbean region: every unique piece regarded as a part of a larger whole. While in relation to the Haitian Revolution the different “part(s)” can shift, depending on each author’s perspective, what links the primary texts is Figueroa’s constant, continued search for “inclusive ‘wholes’” (7) on which Caribbean history, specifically the Haitian Revolution, can be inscribed. In a similar way, this study is also synechdochal, well read as a part or a whole. The chapters are useful when read individually, which proves helpful for scholars interested in a certain linguistic area of the Caribbean or a specific author. Furthermore, the chapters on Zapata Olivella and Palés Matos are important inclusions for those interested in Afro-Hispanic studies. Prophetic Visions is an interdisciplinary work of scholarship with wide-reaching impact. Figueroa’s extensively researched and well-written book is a must-read not only for those interested in the Haitian Revolution as depicted in literature but also for those intrigued by the myriad implications of the event in relation to colonial logic and its twentieth-century literary, historical, and theoretical implications.


Megan Jeanette Myers is an assistant professor of Spanish and affiliate faculty in Latino/a studies at Iowa State University. Myers specializes in hispanophone Caribbean literature and is currently working on a book manuscript that considers how alternate representations of Haiti in Dominican and Dominican American literature relate to Hispaniola’s history of metaphorical and physical border politics. Myers has recently published in the Afro-Hispanic Review, Hispania, Caribe, and Confluencia.