The Haitian Revolution in Pan-Africanist Thought

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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. 

Article published in The Funambulist 32 (November-December 2020) Pan-Africanism. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

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. 

Baontini Funambulist (1)
“Bug-Jargal,” artwork by Raphaël Barontini (2017). / Screen printing and digital print on fabric, volcanic sand.

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.