Lessons from Haiti on Living and Dying

If he had to write The Black Jacobins again, C. L. R. James “would only give Toussaint [Louverture] a walk-on part.”

When the topic of the Haitian Revolution comes up, most people probably think of Toussaint Louverture, the formerly enslaved man who led one of the largest slave rebellions in the world, one that forcefully abolished slavery in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Though he was already an international figure in his day, Louverture owes his enduring fame in the English-speaking world, at least in part, to the late West Indian writer C. L. R. James. In his famous 1938 book, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, James cemented the revolutionary hero’s place in the legend of Haiti’s uprising as “the first and greatest of West Indians.”

Yet James eventually came to regret stating that the Haitian Revolution was “almost entirely the work of a single man —Toussaint L’Ouverture.” In a 1971 speech called “How I would Rewrite The Black Jacobins,” James confessed that he “would only give Toussaint a walk-on part if he were to rewrite it from scratch.” In her new monograph, Making the Black Jacobins: C. L. R. James and the Drama of History, Rachel Douglas carefully compares the first edition of James’s text, published in 1938, and the second edition, from 1963. Douglas notes that while in the later edition James did not alter his previous assertion, he did try to decenter Louverture. This was not because James sought to disavow the importance of one of Haiti’s most storied revolutionary heroes. It was, rather, because James hoped instead to reveal the role played by the Revolution’s masses and less visible leaders, those whom he would come to call the “black sansculottes.” “If I were writing this book again,” James said in the speech, “I would have something to say about those two thousand leaders.”

In hindsight, James could see that it was 18th- and 19th-century European commentators who had catapulted Louverture to center stage in the story of the Haitian Revolution; he worried that his reliance on colonial narratives had made him a bad historian. This is why, in the 1971 speech, James said that, if he had it to do all over again, he “would now find alternative sources from the slaves’ own point of view.”

The question of how many points of view are needed to understand any event — or any life — also surfaces in Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat’s recently published collection of stories, Everything Inside. Danticat’s story “Sunrise, Sunset,” for example, revolves around Jeanne, who has recently had a baby, and her increasing awareness of the deepening dementia afflicting her mother, Carole. Jeanne is forced to accept that the loss of her mother’s memories means that there are now histories she will never know. “‘She’s not a good historian,’” Carole’s doctor says, which was “the doctor’s way of saying that she was incapable of telling her own life’s story.” Ironically, Jeanne also thinks that her mother “is not a good historian,” because “she never has been, even when she was well. Now she will never get the chance to be.” Then, in a fit of dementia, when Carole dangles her infant grandson over a balcony’s edge, the tragic loss of her mother’s point of view explodes in Jeanne’s own mind: “The single most memorable story that will exist about her and [her grandson] will be of her dangling him off a terrace, in what some might see as an attempt to kill him.”

It is both true and not true that Carole almost killed her grandson, depending on one’s point of view. Just like it is both true and not true that Louverture led the Haitian people to independence; and that the masses of enslaved and formerly enslaved people—most of whose names we will never know, simply because they never got the chance to be recorded—did so as well. Who is and who can ever be a good historian when so many storytellers have been lost?

What unites the multivalent works of James and Louverture with Douglas and Danticat is the sense that every death, like every life, contains a story worthy of any historian’s vision, any playwright’s stage, or any novelist’s pen. While Douglas tells us that “James was, above all, a profoundly political person,” a closer look at his many different kinds of writings, alongside those of Danticat, show us that we are all “profoundly political” characters mired in some kind of drama.

On the morning of April 7, 1803, Toussaint Louverture was found dead by a prison guard in his cell in the Jura Mountains of France. In June 1802, he had been arrested and deported from French-claimed Saint-Domingue by Napoléon Bonaparte’s troops. They were trying to prevent him from further contributing to the Revolution that would eventually lead to Haiti’s freedom. The autopsy reported that Louverture, previously a general in the very French army that had tricked him into captivity, died of starvation, dehydration, pneumonia, and complications from a stroke.

In the memoirs he penned during his imprisonment, Louverture explained the reasons for France’s betrayal: “Without a doubt I owe this treatment to my color,” he wrote, “but my color … my color, has it ever prevented me from serving my country with diligence and devotion?”

News of Louverture’s death shocked and astonished the world. A May 1803 article published in The Times of London reads, “The fate of this man has been singularly unfortunate, and his treatment most cruel. He died, we believe, without a friend to close his eyes.”

“There is no drama,” declares James in The Black Jacobins, “like the drama of history.” And so, as Douglas shows, James turned the sad circumstances of Louverture’s heroic life and lonely death into, by turns, an epic history and a tragic play.1 Yet as James himself discovered—and as Douglas reveals in her book, whose subtitle is drawn from this quote—it was the drama of everyday life in which James truly excelled.

James is at his best when making the seemingly mundane appear utterly spectacular. For example, in his memoir, Beyond a Boundary, James writes, “Cricket is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with theatre, ballet, opera and the dance.”

Who is and who can ever be a good historian when so many storytellers have been lost?

It is this gift for using the minutiae of ordinary living for extraordinary storytelling that links the Trinidadian-born James to the Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat and her recent collection of short stories, Everything Inside. Like James, Danticat is also a memoirist, essayist, and political writer. But in contrast to James, who is most famous as a historian, Danticat is best known as a novelist.

Perhaps James’s only novel, which is not on the topic of the Haitian Revolution, deserves another look, too. As dramatic as James’s two plays on Louverture may be, neither one of them matches the intensity, profundity, or elegance of his novel, Minty Alley, which was first published in 1936, the same year that Toussaint L’Ouverture the play premiered. Mr. Haynes, the novel’s main character, is given a front-row seat to the unfolding of an affair between Benoit — who is promised, but not married, to Mrs. Rouse, the owner of the house at №2 — and another of Minty Alley’s boarders, Wilhemina, also called the nurse. James writes that, after settling into his new room, Mr. Haynes “opened his door and sat waiting to see the household about its daily tasks. The stage, he felt, was set for a terrific human drama.”

Mrs. Rouse’s eventual discovery of their romance occasions a series of unfortunate conflicts, including the nurse’s arrest, and ends with Benoit dying of a stroke. The narrator explains: “As Benoit’s spirit had dominated the life at No. 2 even when he was not actually present, so with his death, the life at No. 2 came to an end.” However fictional Benoit’s death was, the significance assigned to it by James’s narrator is a reminder that the end of any life can be read as a tragedy.

Danticat similarly honors the profound sameness of every death. She does so with a figurative and literal sign in “Dosas,” the first of her book’s eight stories. After the protagonist Elsie is left by her husband, she rents a room on whose outer door there is a clichéd warning sticker that reads, “NOTHING INSIDE IS WORTH DYING FOR.” On the inside of the door is the same sticker, only “the NOTHING [was] scratched out by hand and replaced with EVERYTHING, so that the altered sticker read EVERYTHING INSIDE IS WORTH DYING FOR.”

The fundamental contradiction of this statement extends beyond the text. Indeed, it captures the ambivalence in James’s attempt to understand Toussaint Louverture’s life in relation to the Haitian Revolution that he , like so many others , died for.

In the appendix added to the 1963 edition of The Black Jacobins, James mourns the utterly anticlimactic way that the hero of his narrative meets his end: not as the victor of an epic battle, but as an old man in a cold cave. “Passion not spent but turned inward,” writes James, in what now seems like a captivating precursor to Danticat. “Toussaint tried and paid for it with his life.” This move away from apotheosizing Louverture, as well as this newfound desire to focus more on the ordinary enslaved population, defines the 1967 rewrite of James’s 1936 play. Three decades later, the play was no longer titled Toussaint L’Ouverture, but was simply called The Black Jacobins. In this later version, Douglas tells us, “Drama is used as a means of giving voice to those who have none, or next to none, in the imperial archive, and of making crowds of slaves more audible and visible.”

James had turned to fiction precisely because of the difficulty of accessing the point of view of the enslaved masses. But in both his dramatic and historical writings, he encounters the problems faced by all those seeking to attempt “history from below.” “James takes himself to task,” explains Douglas, “for going to the archives and history books of the colonizer and selecting their external descriptions of slave life.”

Yet James is never able to completely decenter the famous heroes of the Revolution — Louverture, Dessalines, and Christophe — because the crowd is ultimately used not as a mold from which to create other characters worthy of study but merely as a foil for the famous heroic figures themselves. Even in 1967, the crowd was there to punctuate James’s point that Haiti’s most well-known revolutionary leaders had dreams and desires that sometimes ran contrary to those of the wider populace. His use of mostly nameless, speechless characters in this way leads Douglas to assess that, in this later play, still, the “subalterns do not speak much.”

In a sense, Danticat’s fictional characters can be read as performing the subaltern speech that James was trying to voice with his historical ones. As with James, tragic history informs many of Danticat’s novels, too. There is, for example, The Farming of Bones, her book about Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo’s 1937 slaughter of more than 20 thousand Haitians along the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Now, with Everything Inside, Danticat returns to the seemingly unremarkable intricacies of everyday life and loss.

Here, a miscarriage happens in the wake of Haiti’s deadly 2010 earthquake and, as a result, goes unspoken of; a woman caring for a child that is not hers is devastated to learn she has HIV; another woman is abandoned by her adulterous lover, only to later be defrauded by him for thousands of dollars; there is also a Haitian refugee who, after being fished out of the sea, falls to a senseless and absurd death when he slips from a ledge on a construction site into a cement mixer.

Yet all that happens inside these different worlds constructed by Danticat serves as a reminder that the issue of point of view that so worried James reveals both everything and nothing at all.

In the first-person tale called “Seven Stories,” a brief one-month encounter between two seven-year-old girls , Kimberly and Callie , occasions a reunion between them that takes place decades later on an unnamed Caribbean island. In the course of this visit, Callie confesses to Kimberly that her mother had sexually prostituted herself to a man. She did so, explains Callie, in order to acquire the plane tickets that allowed them to escape to the United States after Callie’s father , the island’s prime minister , was brutally assassinated. Callie reveals to Kimberly that “the story people told is that it was me. They say the man sat me on his lap and touched me everywhere while my mother watched. They said that was the price for getting on the plane.”

Is this version the truth or a lie? A malicious rumor or a simple misunderstanding? A child’s repression for her own self-protection or a blatant attempt by adults to bring opprobrium on an already grieving family? Danticat’s first-person narrator, Kimberly, doesn’t tell us. Instead, she allows Callie’s revelation to hang in the air. Callie, in fact, gets to have the final word about her family’s own tragic history: “You see,” she tells Kimberly, “No story is ever complete.”


How Haiti Got Free

By Mary Caton Lingold

As compelling as Danticat’s and James’s storytelling may be, the death of a character who lives only on the page — or the stage — can never match the intensity of losing a living, breathing person. Danticat intimates as much in Create Dangerously, a memoir that, along with her After the Dance, rivals in significance that of James’s Beyond a Boundary and Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways . In her memoir, Danticat writes that her stories could not “hold a candle” to actually watching someone die. It may just be that we need masterful cross-genre writers like James and Danticat, so that we never forget the difference.

In the end, Douglas’s artful comparisons of James’s multiple writings and rewritings of the drama of the Haitian Revolution shows how his thinking evolved over the years; and how he eventually developed the strong conviction that it was the story of the “two thousand leaders” of the Revolution that demanded telling, not simply that of one great man. In so doing, Douglas reveals not just James’s intellectual journey, but also how he worked (but perhaps failed) to integrate this new perspective into both his fictional and nonfictional writing. Meanwhile, Danticat’s oeuvre confirms that, writing in the wake of the lessons we have all learned from James, she understands the everyday majesty contained in the most seemingly ordinary lives. And in the penetrating collection of new tales she has just published, Danticat once again illuminates the countless ways that the overlooked people of the world confront—and, if circumstances were different, might even tell—their own stories.


This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabriel. icon

  1. James was hardly the first to attempt to chronicle — whether through history or fiction — the story of General Louverture. The numerous 19th-century historians who were fascinated with Louverture’s life would be too long to list, but include Marcus Rainsford, James Stephen, John Relly Beard, James Redpath, Georges Le Gorgeu, William Wells Brown, Antoine Métral, and Louverture’s own son Isaac. The life and death of Louverture also inspired the French poet and playwright Alphonse de Lamartine, who published a verse play in rhyming couplets called Toussaint Louverture, in 1850, while the British author Harriet Martineau took up his life as well in her three-volume novel, The Hour and the Man (1841). Louverture’s deathbed itself sets the scene in Haitian author Vendenesse Ducasse’s 1896 play, Toussaint au Fort de Joux. Louverture’s story would continue to captivate playwrights throughout the 20th century, as in Édouard Glissant’s Monsieur Toussaint and C. L. R. James’s own Toussaint L’Ouverture (1936), which was followed by his subsequent play titled The Black Jacobins (1967), just like his 1938 history.
Featured image: Detail of Toussaint Louverture (1805), by John Kay. Wikimedia Commons