Pan-Africanism was not even a word. But to this day, the Haitian Revolution is hailed as a pivotal moment in the struggle for Black liberation. This article by Annette Joseph-Gabriel examines the legacy and the uses of this rebellion against slavery and settler colonialism in the Pan-Africanist literary imaginary.
The Haitian Revolution is one of the most significant acts of Black liberation in the Pan African imaginary. Haitian historian Michel Rolph Trouillot described it as an “unspeakable” event. When enslaved people in France’s most prosperous colony declared their humanity, freedom, and right to self-government, thereby creating the first free Black republic in the New World, it struck a fatal blow to the institution of slavery that was felt throughout the Atlantic world. The Haitian Revolution was indeed unspeakable, because it represented colonists’ deepest fears made manifest.
It is therefore no surprise that Haiti’s revolutionary history has been simultaneously disavowed by imperialists, venerated by descendants of the enslaved, fiercely debated in scholarship, and abundantly represented in fiction. Reflecting on the Haitian Revolution today requires looking simultaneously back at a long intellectual tradition of Black thought, and forward to the world that enslaved people imagined in the moment when Saint Domingue became Haiti, a world that for many is yet to come. This simultaneous reflection on the future and the past encapsulates the ethos of sankofa, the Akan vision of new knowledge as composed of a series of returns. For this reason, Pan African thinkers have taken up the Haitian Revolution in three primary ways: as an expression of the ideals of freedom and equality, as a reflection on the promises and pitfalls of Black leadership, and as an avenue to explore the vital, everyday contributions of Black people to global history.
In 1925, in the midst of the United States’ occupation of Haiti, African American author Anna Julia Cooper defended her dissertation “L’attitude de la France à l’égard de l’esclavage pendant la révolution” (“Slavery and the French Revolutionists”) at the Sorbonne, in which she examined the intertwined nature of the French and Haitian Revolutions and highlighted the historical significance of the actions of the enslaved. A little over a decade later, against the backdrop of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, the Trinidadian historian and playwright C.L.R. James published The Black Jacobins (1938), a text that remains today a landmark historical account of the Haitian Revolution. The Black Jacobins is one of James’s many writings and rewritings of Toussaint Louverture’s revolutionary leadership, reflections that were as much about 20th century anticolonial struggles throughout the Black world as they were about Haiti’s overthrow of slavery.
With his essay “Africa and the French Revolution” (1961), W.E.B. Du Bois took his place in an intellectual tradition that emphasized the deep imbrication of the French and Haitian revolutions. Du Bois explained that more than the United States and French revolutions, it was Haiti’s freedom struggle that most incarnated the ideal of liberty and equality for all, and not simply for a small caste of land and slave-owning bourgeoisie. For Du Bois writing in the early 1960s, the stakes of recognizing what was radical about Haiti’s demands for freedom were incredibly high. This recognition remedied crucial gaps and erasures in historical narratives that saw Black people as an afterthought. To this end, he began his account of the Revolution with the following provocation: “If you should penetrate the campus of an American Ivy League college and challenge a Senior, ask what, in his opinion, was the influence of Africa on the French Revolution, he would answer in surprise if not pity, ‘None’.” With this opening, Du Bois establishes his account of Haiti’s contribution to the Enlightenment as a pedagogical project of writing back to a whitewashed historical record. His essay illuminates a crucial fact: to write the Haitian Revolution is to rewrite history.
The geography that Du Bois’ essay traced in its publication and circulation, attests to the Pan Africanist nature of its pedagogical project. “Africa and the French Revolution” first appeared in the African American journal Freedomways in summer 1961. The daily newspaper Ghana Evening News republished it later that year. In 1962 it took on a new form as a pamphlet printed by a Nigeria-based publisher. Du Bois may have been writing to a hypothetical elite U.S. student audience about Haiti, but he was very much writing for a global Black audience.
Du Bois’ project of placing Haiti at the center of a transatlantic story of freedom, finds its poetic parallel in Aimé Césaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, in which the Martinican poet invokes “Haiti is where negritude rose for the first time and stated that it believed in its humanity.” Césaire’s allusion to the Haitian Revolution does something very interesting to Western ideas about linear time. Negritude, an artistic and intellectual movement that sought to valorize Blackness and articulate a shared Black diasporic history and identity, began among a community of African and Caribbean students in Paris in the 1930s. It has sometimes been described as a francophone Pan Africanism. Although this description is not entirely accurate, Negritude does have fundamental tenets in common with Pan Africanism’s vision that Black people around the world have a shared history and culture.
Césaire himself has been credited as one of the founders of Negritude. However, when the Martinican poet evokes the Haitian Revolution in Notebook, he presents a different genealogy. The formal Negritude movement may have begun in Paris between the two World Wars, but its spirit and ethos go back to the moment when enslaved Africans liberated themselves and declared the free and independent Republic of Haiti. If the claim that Negritude existed before the Negritude movement seems circular, it is because it presents an alternate space-time that refuses the linearity of Western time. In Césaire’s sankofa-like vision, the Haitian Revolution is one of multiple sites of return. Time bends back on itself and the revolutionary past is the future. With a deceptively simple allusion, Césaire shows how the Pan Africanist ideals of Black liberation that undergirded the Haitian Revolution were also timely centuries later when he wrote Notebook in 1939. They remain critical in our current moment.
The idea of the Haitian Revolution remains a powerful force that guides contemporary visions of Black freedom. But confining it to the abstract realm of symbolism alone, obscures the agency of the very real people who wrested their liberty from their enslavers, sometimes with their bare hands. In his work, historian Laurent Dubois includes crucial information about the guerilla tactics that enslaved people employed during the revolution: “A group of women attacked the French troops while wearing mattresses to protect themselves from musket fire. As one early account of the war put it, ‘everywhere the land harbored enemies, in the woods, behind a rock; liberty gave birth to them’.” (Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, 2012).
The ideal of liberty remains at the core of this account of the revolution. Yet in the intriguing image of grassroots fighting, it is not only the handful of prominent male leaders such as Toussaint Louverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines who define liberty, it is also the thousands of unnamed captives who incarnate the very idea of freedom. Like the guerilla tactics they employed, their presence in the archive is spectral, shadowy. However, constructing a history of what Carolyn Fick calls “the Haitian Revolution from below,” makes it possible to resist archival erasure and to foreground their contributions.
Who were the mattress-clutching women who defied death in the fight for their freedom? Where the archives remain tight-lipped, fiction creates possibilities for imagining otherwise. Caribbean novels such as Marie Vieux Chauvet’s Dance on the Volcano, Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of this World, Isabel Allende’s Island Beneath the Sea, and Évelyne Trouillot’s The Infamous Rosalie, do this work of imagining the varying freedom dreams of those who remained invisible or muted in official historical accounts of the Haitian Revolution. Their protagonists are enslaved Africans, free women of color, and children coming of age under the brutal conditions of plantation slavery, whose often-ignored perspectives become the focal lens for seeing the Haitian Revolution anew.
Unlike Cooper, James, Du Bois, and Césaire, whose writings about Haiti’s liberation explicitly engaged with Pan African concepts of recovering Black history and centering that history in a broader global narrative, these novelists are not Pan Africanists in a traditional sense. Their writings nevertheless also undertake the recovery of Black humanity, creativity, resistance, and liberation that is at the heart of Pan Africanism.
While these novels contribute to Pan Africanist thought, they also complicate it significantly. Évelyne Trouillot’s story, The Infamous Rosalie, in particular, disrupts the heroic framing of earlier narratives about the Haitian Revolution. The Infamous Rosalie is inspired by the historical account of an enslaved midwife in Saint Domingue who took the lives of the children in her care so that they would not have to endure slavery. Throughout the novel, the story of the midwife, fictionalized as the protagonist’s great aunt Brigitte, remains — to return to Rolph Trouillot’s formulation — unspeakable. The young protagonist, Lisette, comes of age in the shadow of this story that haunts the women in her family although they refuse to recount it. Lisette eventually learns the story as the rumblings of the revolution draw near, and it inspires her to undertake her ultimate act of resistance.
What is particularly poignant about the novel is that because it is not invested in writing back to a whitewashed historical canon, it departs from the Pan Africanist focus on Black resistance struggle as always heroic, to think about the tragedy and pain of what is lost through struggle. Through her act of mercy killing, the enslaved midwife uses the power that is available to her to resist the continued commodification of Black people over generations. But that power is limited, and her act does not easily fit into a victorious narrative of resistance.
These contemporary literary representations of the Haitian Revolution allow us to reflect on a critical question that Pan Africanism has sought to answer in various ways: what is the common thread that unifies Black people worldwide? Is it, as the Senegalese poet and politician Léopold Sedar Senghor claimed, a shared African essence? Is it the history of Black uprooting and displacement during the slave trade and slavery in Americas whose effects Caribbean writers such as Césaire, Maryse Condé, and others have explored in their works? Or is it the political unification of African states for which Kwame Nkrumah, Shirley Graham, Du Bois and Eslanda Robeson advocated? It is perhaps not a coincidence that the titles of the novels cited here invoke spaces that are central to Black diasporic constructions of identity. Taken together, the volcano, the kingdom, the island, and the slave ship (The Infamous Rosalie), constitute a map of Black historical, cultural, and political presence in the modern world.
The nuanced view that Trouillot’s novel offers, nudges us to think beyond the Haitian Revolution as success or failure. Neither romance nor tragedy, it underscores for us today the radical political vision that emerged when those that Europe had cast out of its conception of the human rose up to assert their humanity as Black people and their regard for Black lives. Pan Africanist thinkers have long understood Haiti’s struggle for independence as the opening salvo in an on-going battle for Black freedom from imperialism on a global scale. It is an example to be emulated and a cautionary tale. But above all, it is incomplete, because the ideals of liberty and sovereignty that crystallized in the revolutionary period, remain ever urgent today in the face of fascism’s unapologetic rise. ■