What Do We Talk about when We Talk about the Black Jacobins and the Haitian Revolution? A Critical Assessment of C. L. R. James’s Classic Text

Alida Goffinski, University of Virginia

Since its initial publication in 1938, C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution has attained the status of a “classic.” It is not uncommon for James’s account of the world’s most successful slave revolt, culminating in the free black republic of Hayti, to serve as the first—perhaps the only—narrative history of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) one might encounter. Specialists, intellectuals, and the public alike have engaged James’s text for decades, and have benefitted from his captivating storytelling, spirited critique of primitive accumulation, and his enthusiastic portrayal of revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. Yet, subsequent scholarship has mobilized new historical evidence and alternate theoretical commitments to identify and challenge the normative underpinnings of James’s interpretation of the events, and its central actors. One need not read past the second page of the 1938 edition to recognize the paradox that runs throughout the work—on the one hand, “The individual leadership responsible for this unique achievement was almost entirely the work of a single man—Toussaint L’Ouverture.” On the other, James submits “Yet Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made the man,” then continues enigmatically “And even that is not the whole truth.” Along these lines, this paper surveys debates surrounding James’s seminal text to uncover precisely what we talk about when we talk about The Black Jacobins. The historiography of the Haitian Revolution is animated by scholars’ radically divergent ideological commitments regarding the implications of the overthrow of colonial slavery. A closer look at the way such commitments have sustained debates about The Black Jacobins thus situates James’s perspective, but leaves room for other “openings” that do not start, nor end, with L’Ouverture.

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 Presented in Session 121. Power and Normativity, Part 1: Meaning, Modernity, Revolution