In his 1995 book Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, the famed anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot described the Haitian Revolution as an “unthinkable” nonevent. By this he meant that European powers of the late 18th century had no ability to even conceive that Black people could, through their own power, overturn a slave society, much less establish a modern nation.
But the readers of Professor Scott’s work knew better. Preceding Trouillot’s argument by nearly a decade, Julius, as a history graduate student at Duke University, showed that the slaving world of the Euro-Atlantic didn’t just think that a place—an event—like Haiti was, well, thinkable. Slavers trembled, knowing that it was eventual, inevitable, and that it had to be battled back with constant, repressive vigilance. And yet the Haitian Revolution occurred nonetheless. The “Idea of Haiti” remains unconquered still.
The late Julius S. Scott, III, first documented that idea in his now award-winning book, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution. Professor Scott tracked the swirl of 18th-century rumors, news, and ideas about Black freedom in the Americas, and he cast the “masterless Caribbean” as fundamental to the making of antislavery politics and the wider Atlantic world.
Julius’s argument appeared as a published book only recently, in 2018. However, the 1986 dissertation from which it came, itself something of a common wind, had a legendary life well before that. I first met Professor Scott in 2008, when I was myself a doctoral student at the University of Michigan. Julius, the man, remained easily accessible and unfailingly approachable, particularly to those who frequented Michigan’s Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, as it was then known. But then there was “The Dissertation,” often brought up in the form of a question: “Have you read The Dissertation?” Folks were referring to a nondescript tome with a faded blue binding, deep in the stacks and bursting with generations of accumulated marginalia. Graduate students took to making their mark in it, like a version of academic graffiti, perhaps befitting the hip-hop generation. Julius would no doubt improve upon my making such an easy cultural simile, as he was both a brilliant writer and a legendary lover of jazz. Still, students and faculty alike had granted him “battle-rapper” levels of street cred. His has been called “the most read, sought after and discussed English-language dissertation in the humanities and social sciences during the 20th century.” Indeed, past students likened it to an underground mix tape. It had been swapped and trafficked to the point where mere citation counts could no longer do it justice.
But somebody somewhere was counting. In our final private conversation in March 2021, Julius let it slip that he’d actually been receiving royalty checks from the country’s principal distributor of doctoral theses. So often had his dissertation been requested. (And knowing Julius as a man without an ounce of humblebrag in him, I knew that story had to be true.)
When I last sat with Professor Julius Scott, it was to interview him for a book I’m writing on how Jim Crow politics shape the writing of history. What I got, no surprise, was a personal, striking, and deeply literate itinerary into a book once thought unthinkable, one that has become an intellectual revolution all its own.
Nathan Connolly (NC): The Common Wind. Can you discuss your own sense of the project and its genealogy? What did you hope it would accomplish?
Julius Scott (JS): I wanted to make sure people understood that particular areas of the world connected to each other.
The North American British colonies were part of a subregion that also included other places that people connected to. Ships from Philadelphia and Norfolk, for example, were all the time in different areas of the Caribbean. And those vessels, people, and the ideas they carried were connected to one another. That’s what I wanted to try to get people to understand.
NC: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, universities had been swept up by the intellectual and political challenges presented by the Black freedom struggle. This led to the creation of new Black Studies programs at some colleges, or, in the case of my own university, Johns Hopkins, to the creation of the Program in Atlantic History, Culture, and Society. By the time you entered grad school in the 1980s, Atlantic history had become a well-respected field. The Common Wind can certainly be said to belong to it. But you’ve suggested elsewhere that the racial politics of the 1960s remained perhaps most formative for what The Common Wind would become. How?
JS: I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, which was where this question first proposed itself to me on a less sophisticated basis. Basically what we learned—I’m thinking of seventh-grade social studies—was that Black people lived in two places, the US and Africa. But then we saw the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
JS: This is where it started, being out in my driveway with my next-door neighbor, who was the same age and in the same grade as I was then, whose name was Keith.
Keith and I would get outside, and the question we had was, “Well, look, we should root for African Americans and we should root for,” we thought, “the Africans.” We should support and root for Black people, and it almost didn’t matter where they were from in Africa. It was the fact that they were Black. That’s what was presented to us. But “Black” wasn’t what we learned in school.
What should we do about people from the UK or other places? Should we root for them? They kind of looked like us, too. They kind of seemed like they might have a history similar to ours, but we just didn’t know what the proper answer to that question was. And we wanted to be well-informed individuals.
We realized there are people who look like Black people, who are from places like Jamaica and other places like that, but those places weren’t being framed as part of the world we were supposed to be interested in.
Obviously “the Atlantic” connected to other places besides Britain and North America.
NC: So all of this was being prompted by the fact of Blackness you were seeing on TV, in the wider world?
JS: And the interesting thing about Keith was Keith’s mother and family were from the Bahamas. He had grown up in Miami, but his mother had relatives in Atlanta. So when I went over to Keith’s house, they were speaking pidgin. Each of these bright people was speaking a language that was really different.
NC: Oh, talk about a Black diaspora moment.
JS: Yeah, Atlanta, as a city, thought of herself as being very much a part of the Black world. On the way to go to the store or something, we went right by Dr. King’s house. You could point it out. “That was where Dr. King lived.”
JS: People like [Atlanta Mayor and UN Ambassador] Andy Young and [activist] Hosea Williams. These were big, important people. [Reverend] Joseph Lowery, who lived in Atlanta. They were all part of what connected Atlanta to this larger world.
But sometimes we ended up finding out that things were a little bit more complex. None of those individuals—Dr. King, Joseph Lowery, Hosea Williams—could I have brought into Keith’s house to understand people speaking pidgin.
NC: Your block was too global, even for them!
JS: In a way, watching those 1968 Olympics and hanging with Keith brought me increasingly toward this question: How were we related to people who looked like us, who lived in other places that were closer to us than Africa? What could we say about that particular relationship to make Black people better understood?
There was a way we could understand connections between different, apparently disconnected places that helped us to bring together and understand something about each of these places on their own terms. That was something that was important to me. It would help all of us understand the Black world much better than we were being trained to understand it, as simply the US and Africa.
NC: But you were still a long way from thinking about anything called the “Atlantic” or the “Black Atlantic.” What happened when you got into grad school at Duke University in the 1980s?
JS: I wanted to know what one could say about the connections among Black people, about that particular relationship, to make Black people understood. There were some particularly important things to understand about the connection between people in South Carolina and people in Barbados, for example, something that we learned about reading [my advisor] Peter Woods’s Black Majority. You couldn’t really understand the history of South Carolina without understanding how it was connected to Barbados. And even though Peter didn’t know much about Barbados, he did know about South Carolina, so it kind of helped us to understand something about each of these places and the ways they tied in to other places connected to them.
NC: The ties connecting the Black world had a long history, in other words.
JS: That was something that was important to me. And I’m not sure why I went to graduate school when I felt ready to understand that question, but it was just by accident. The first semester in graduate school, I had to take two seminars, and the person who taught African American history was on leave. So Peter [Wood] said, “Look, you better find two other places besides Afro America to focus on.” So I said, well, I hadn’t really done much work on, or enough work on, America in the 18th century. Therefore I needed to really understand colonial and revolutionary North American, or what I thought was American, history.
NC: So through the intersection of these circumstances, you pushed into the early modern Atlantic world?
JS: I remember Professor Chuck Bergquist. He taught Modern Latin America, which I also took. And what ended up happening was, during the morning hours, when I had Peter’s course, he talked about certain things in North America. And then in the afternoon, when we were in Professor Bergquist’s course, we got a whole different view about areas of the world, really a different way of thinking about things. And honestly, my thing was, “Wow, we should do more thinking about the ways these places really connect to each other, as opposed to still thinking about them as separate and discrete areas.”
NC: Hence, the Caribbean.
JS: Right. The revolution in Haiti became an interesting way to do that. I was interested in the particulars of the revolution in Haiti, but the ways that connected to other things was what made it really interesting. I remember I went to Peter’s class one day and he said, “You know what? Why don’t you come give a guest lecture in my seminar? You can do it in a way that connects Haiti and the Haitian Revolution to the American Revolution. That would be really great.”
So that was how these things accidentally connected for me. And I began thinking about, again, the questions that had been presented to me during the 1968 Olympics, seeing a wider Black world than just Africa versus the US.
NC: And where was the idea of an “Atlantic world” in all this?
JS: At first, what people thought about and presented as the Atlantic world was really another understanding of the connection between Britain and its colonies, especially its North American colonies. To [maritime historian] J. H. Parry and others, who were mostly teaching at Harvard at the time, as I recall, the “Atlantic” was just another version of talking about America and its colonial background and where it came from. Britain and Boston: that’s really what we were encouraged to think about, how New England was connected to old England.
NC: But not for you?
JS: You couldn’t really read Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean and keep that same framework in mind.
NC: Braudel? Really? Say more.
JS: I was so convinced by the ways Braudel, with his vast knowledge, was able to really connect up the different areas that connected to the Mediterranean as a region. I said, well, the Caribbean is kind of like another Mediterranean, but even more so because there were so many different areas of the world or the history of the world that were connected to different places in the Caribbean.
NC: Indigenous, African, and European empires.
JS: Exactly. And we had to understand those other places, as well as understand the ways particular places are related to each other, like Cuba is related to Jamaica and to Saint-Domingue.
NC: So if the old Atlantic thinking felt too British …
JC: To understand the way even those British places connected to each other, you had to do a lot more than we were being encouraged to do in terms of our understanding of what Atlantic history really was.
Obviously “the Atlantic” connected to other places besides those two, Britain and North America. And what were the connections between British America and places that spoke other languages? These places that were under other sets of laws? What, if anything, was the importance of those larger connections?
Many people today believe that you can’t understand the American Revolution without understanding anything about Haiti. You can’t understand the American Revolution without understanding anything about what was going on in the Spanish world.
NC: And that wasn’t always so.
JS: When I was in grad school, to understand the connectedness of the American Revolution, you maybe had to consider the Navigation Acts of the late 1600s [regulating British nautical commerce]. But even that regulation of Britain’s shipping routes became reason to understand the bigger world that constituted the American Revolution. The American Revolution we were being presented with at the time I went to graduate school seemed even more connected. And so there had to be another way to understand and connect into this history.
NC: So your generation had to develop a different Atlantic approach?
JS: It was up to us. It was challenging, to really understand what we had to do: that to do Atlantic history was going to be bigger than what we were being presented with.
NC: Was there anything that became pressing about focusing on Black resistance and revolution in this version of the Atlantic world that you were studying? What about that focus became especially important to you?
JS: It was another return to this 1968 question: Were there ways Black North Americans connected to places and things that were outside of the world we thought they were in? What would be an 18th-century North American Black person’s possibility to ever become aware that there was a Jamaica, or that there were British areas or Spanish areas? This became an important thing for me to understand. Could I find connected individuals who occupied different areas of the world at the same time, or who were moving from place to place, and were moving from parts of the Spanish world to parts of the English-speaking world, specifically?
NC: And you found evidence of that?
JS: I was able to finally piece together—and this was important to me—particular indications of that kind of relationship.
NC: That’s the thing, right? Sometimes it’s not even concrete evidence, but rather indications, and you have to build whole new approaches on that. What were some of these “indications”?
JS: There were ways you could look at the north coast of Jamaica and really understand how it was connected to places in Cuba. People got in boats and rode to the other places, as opposed to understanding that they were totally separate. There were a lot of important ways that these places connected to each other that we can actually reconstruct and understand from the point of view of looking at and finding individuals.
For example, there were slaves in Jamaica who ran away to Cuba. So it was for us to understand: How did they know about what Cuba was? What did they expect was going to happen in Cuba? What was different about that? Why did we not have a framework that helped us to understand better what it is that brings people from one place to the other?
And then of course, once we looked at the bigger Caribbean, there were all kinds of these cosmic connections.
NC: (Laughs) Right!
JS: St. Thomas was connected to a Danish island, was connected to places in the Spanish and French world. There were so many different connections. And a lot of it had to do with runaway slaves, with the difficulty they presented to enslavers in those places.
It’s one thing for a Jamaican slave to find their way to another British island. Just send them back to the original place. It’s another thing if a slave runs away from Jamaica to a Spanish island. Now it’s more complicated. What the people on that Spanish island have to do to return that individual to the British islands is more complicated. It also suggests that each runaway slave might have had an understanding, from their perspective, of the complex relationship between Britain and Spain. Understanding the world these individuals were pointing us toward was part of what became interesting to me in graduate school.
It wasn’t automatic for a Black person from the US to connect with a Black person from the Bahamas.
NC: I learned the importance of showing those connections from your Black Atlantic grad course at the University of Michigan, as well as from other faculty there back in the early 2000s. It felt like a moment in the field, generally. “Transnational” this and that, “US and the world.” Today I rarely even teach grad courses on a geographic topic or time period, like “The American South” or “The 20th Century,” preferring to teach through themes and genres.
JS: Do you think most people are still in that earlier, topical framework? Or have most people moved away from that into thinking about things on a broader stage? What’s your understanding about the students who come into your seminar? Are they already moving in that direction, or are they more old-fashioned?
NC: If students show the predisposition to think thematically or regionally, or in terms of connections, they pretty quickly run up against the limitations of their own skill set—of mine—or into the limits of time and geographic knowledge. So, coming out of seminars, students tend to start off broad, but when faced with the archive, wind up pretty tightly focused.
Still, I have a number of students now who are trying to think about the American South very much in the same way that you’re describing Ferdinand Braudel’s Mediterranean, or your own sense of the Caribbean. That is, they are asking, to what extent is the South a crossroads?
My move was always to say, “Okay, I don’t want you students in the 17th and 18th century to have all this good stuff on the Atlantic and the comparative framework. I want to bring that into the 20th century.” But that’s been a challenge, because American history in the 20th century is still largely about US politics or place-based urban history. For my own work on Miami—which began with your help—I tried to link the colonial Caribbean to the history of North American urbanism. But I totally had to go outside of my primary literature just to find frameworks that would allow me to write about colonial dynamics in Florida in the 1940s.
JS: Florida itself is a good indicator of that exact thing, just because of where it’s located and what it’s connected to. You can’t really understand or think about the history of Florida without understanding something about these other areas right now. Florida is a broader world.
NC: Just like Atlanta, Georgia, where you first connected with Keith.
JS: This question about how to connect up these different parts of the world: sometimes it’s a difficult thing to do, just because it wasn’t automatic for a Black person from the US to connect with a Black person from the Bahamas. We were apparently living in totally different worlds in terms of the way we expressed things and talked to each other and interacted. And somebody like Keith was really good because he could kind of translate between what Americans understood and what his people understood. I remember Keith was a little bit embarrassed by it.
JS: Yeah, because he really wanted to be an American. But being an American sometimes means connecting to all kinds of things that Americans aren’t familiar with.
This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadava.