Ten Commandments of Democracy in Haiti, September 25, 1991

Reposted from The Black Agenda Review.

On Wednesday September 25, 1991, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically-elected president of the Republic of Haiti, addressed the forty-sixth session of the United Nations General Assembly. For Aristide, the address offered an opportunity to describe to the international community Haiti’s long historical contribution to the struggle for freedom and human rights, as well as to outline the very meaning of democracy for the Haitian people — especially as it was articulated through the strategy and praxis of the “lavalas ” movement. 

Titled the “Ten Commandments of Democracy in Haiti,”Aristide’s address is expansive, generous, humorous , and radical, centering the poor and dispossessed over the rich and powerful. While Aristide captures Haiti’s historic struggle for democracy, he also maps out Haiti’s position in the wider world of the early 1990s, a world riven by “profound upheavals,” as he called them, that were fundamentally reordering global politics. As such, he addresses questions of poverty and militarism, of the fall of the Soviet Union and the struggles of South Africa, and of the history of Haitian-Dominican relations and the status and rights of Haiti’s “tenth department,” the Haitian diaspora. 

Significantly, while the bulk of the address was made in Haitian Kreyol—perhaps the first time the UN General Assembly had been addressed in what, under Aristide, would become one of Haiti’s official languages—its extended preamble (not included here) also contains fraternal addresses to the nations and peoples of the world in Swahili, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Arabic, English, Italian, and German. While Aristide has been cast  by the Western media as a demonic and demagogic figure, the “Ten Commandments” remind us of his roots as a humble parish priest whose thought is grounded in a humanistic practice of liberation theology and radical democracy, conveyed in his promotion of liberty, the democratization of wealth, and the preservation of human dignity.

It is perhaps not surprising that on September 29, less than a week after his address to the United Nations, Aristide was deposed in a U.S.-sponsored  coup d’etat. Democracy in Haiti has been under attack ever since. 

TEN COMMANDMENTS OF DEMOCRACY IN HAITI

Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, President of the Republic of Haiti

Address to the Forty-Sixth Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, New York City, September 25, 1991

This decade has begun with events that can shape the future of mankind and of course give rise to hopes and questions. The forty-sixth session of the General Assembly crystallizes, in our view, a period of profound reflection for the international community. Unlike previous periods, this session is taking place at a time when profound upheavals are appreciably changing the geopolitical axes of our planet. The dialectic of a bipolar policy is prompting the international community to wonder who is to accede to the seat of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the General Assembly and the Security Council of the United Nations? What about democracy at the global level?

We are talking about the future of the geopolitical axes, which should never be allowed to develop into totalitarian and absolute power.

At a time when the international community is concerned with changes in the geopolitical axes of the planet, let us turn to our dear Haiti, the rebellious, faithful daughter, a rebel against all imperialist dictates but faithful to all democratic prescriptions.

I should like to speak of ten milestones that line our way; we could call them the ten democratic commandments that arise from our democratic praxis. Our message will be confined to the democratic arena, where the ten democratic commands stand up in a straight line.

The First Commandment of Democracy: Liberty or Death

The first milestone, or the first democratic commandment, is liberty or death. As you know, Haiti was one of the first beacons of liberty in the western hemisphere. In 1791 we gave the world its first slave revolution, which enabled hundreds of thousands of Blacks to throw off the yoke repression. The leaders of that victorious revolution helped to finance the liberation crusades of Simon Bolivar in South America. It was in Haiti that slavery was first abolished, taking a giant stride towards human freedom. From the Haitian Revolution grew the roots of the declaration of human rights. The Haiti of Boukman, Dessalines and Toussaint Louverture was and remains the first black republic in the world.

Like a star of liberty, Haiti shines in the eyes of all. Throughout our history, often glorious, sometimes troubled, we have always recalled with pride the unprecedented exploits of our ancestors. The cries of “Liberty or death, liberty or death,” far from being stifled in a sterile past, ring out continually in the heart of a people that has become, forever, a free nation.

All throughout our long march toward 1991, in spite of our contribution to the free world, Haiti has not been able to open all the doors of the international community. The colonists of those days and their allies were afraid of freedom, as were our leaders and the traditional oligarchy. White colonists, black colonists—we had to throw off the yoke of black dictators and their international allies.

Happily, in 1986, to the surprise of the entire world, the Haitian people overthrew a dictatorial regime of 30 years’ standing. This was the beginning of the end of a dictatorship which has left indelible scars. But the more we recall these scars, the louder we cry: “Liberty or death, liberty or death!”

The Second Commandment of Democracy: Democracy or Death

The second milestone, or democratic commandment, is democracy of death. After having thrown out the repressive, corrupt regime of the Duvaliers on 7 February 1986, the people of Charlemagne Péralte had only one choice: to establish, once and for all, a democratic regime in Haiti. Hence, “liberty or death” is equivalent to “democracy or death.” We therefore struggled relentlessly for the attainment of our rights against minority groups that held a monopoly on power after 1986. A relentless struggle and a legitimate one, since those in power did nothing to change the nature of the State, which for such a long time created conditions for maintaining the status quo and the functioning of the machinery of exploitation and repression. 

Finally, on 16 December 1990, thanks to the valor of the Haitian people and thanks to your contribution, for the first time we held free, fair and democratic elections. Honor to the Haitian masses. Glory to our ancestors, who thwarted colonialism at the beginning of the 19th century. Hail to the international community and hail to the United Nations!  

This is indeed an important first in history. For once, for the first time, a people with an ingenious tactical movement brought a revolution by the ballot box. The election of the President of the Republic by more than 70 percent on the first ballot symbolizes the victory of the people, the power of the people and the demands of the people.

These free, honest and democratic elections are ultimately the result of our own political strategy, that is to say, the historic upsurge of ‘”lavalas.” We fought in the manner of “lavalas,” we won in the manner of “lavalas” and we are advancing in the manner of “lavalas.”

In union there is strength, this is our motto. With the fork of division one cannot drink the soup of elections; with the fork of division, one cannot drink the soup of democracy. 

In a way, the “lavalas” strategy is akin to the thoughts of the Pope, who, in his “Centesimus Annus” encyclical, suggested that events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were paving the way for the reaffirmation of the “positive character of an authentic theology of the total liberation of man.” In Haiti, this theological approach cannot be confined to a simple analysis of reality; it is meant to be, rather, a method of thought and action in the school of the poor, a privileged site of the revelation of God, the historical subject of this struggle for the total liberation of man.

It is on the basis of the experience of the poor that we base the teachings of the democratic praxis, fueled and illuminated, of course, by the theology of freedom. The dialectic to be established between the theology of freedom and the politics of freedom necessarily passes through the life and experiences of the poor.

When Jean-Paul Sartre criticized Hegel he noted that the latter had overlooked the fact that a void is devoid of something, and we liberation theologians can state that the void of poverty is an avid void, and not devoid of what is essential. A void of liberation, its void entails a legitimate expectation whose essence dwells within the spirit of the poor. It lives by giving life to democracy. We, who are elected democratically, must be faithful to its rights.

The Third Commandment of Democracy: Fidelity to Human Rights

I turn now to the third milestone of democracy: fidelity to human rights. If a man has duties, he certainly also has rights, rights to be respected and to respect, rights to guarantee that ultimately a State ruled by law will emerge.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights  is and must remain sacred. It is our heavy responsibility to observe the Constitution faithfully to guarantee our inalienable

rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, in keeping with our Act of Independence  of 1804 and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

There must be respect for the Constitution in order to build a socially just, economically free and politically independent Haitian nation.

There must be respect for the Constitution, in order to establish ideological pluralism and political diversity, to strengthen national unity, to eliminate the differences between towns and rural areas, to ensure the separation and the harmonious allocation of executive, judiciary, and parliamentary powers; so as to establish a government based on fundamental freedoms and respect for human rights, a national dialogue, and the participation of the population as a whole in major decisions touching upon national life through an effective decentralization.

The Fourth Commandment of Democracy: The Right to Eat and to Work

The fourth milestone or fourth commandment of democracy is the right to eat and the right to work.

It goes without saying that the right to eat is an integral part of human rights. The existence of a person who is hungry because he is exploited indicts both the oppressor and the authorities who are responsible for enforcing respect for the inalienable and indefeasible right to life. In Haiti, victims of international exploitation have difficulty getting enough to eat because they themselves are being ground by the axes of international exploitation. In the arms race, the nations of the world are devoting to it more than $500 billion a year, or $1.4 billion every day. Only 15 days of such expenditure could eradicate hunger from the planet for many years.

The tragedy of hunger arises not out of lack of food but out of a lack of social justice. Work, more work, always work – this is what man needs if he is to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. It has been noted that if the amount being spent on building a B-1 bomber were to be spent on constructing dwellings, 70,000 jobs would be created.

How can we justify the fact that 71 percent of Haitian farmers cultivate only a small square of land, less than 1.2 hectares? How can we justify the fact that 30 percent of the wealthiest landowners in our country own more than two thirds of the arable land?

We must rise above the age-old indifference of the dominant political and economic sectors and demand respect for the right to food and the right to work. The hunger of one man is the hunger of all men. Everyone must work to achieve a laboring civilization in which the roots of hunger will be eradicated. The hunger of one man is the hunger of all men.

We must go beyond verbiage and explore some of the factual pathways that have been traversed since 7 February 1991. On 7 February 1991 the “lavalas” government began to bring order to the administration. State resources have increased appreciably. In the last four months of the prior government, fiscal and customs revenues stood at a monthly average of 86.8 million gourds, in contrast to an average of 122.9 million for the first four months of our “lavalas” government, with a clear upward trend — 137.6 million in the month of June. As for expenditures, in November 1990 the former government spent 164.7 million goures; in June 1991, the “lavalas” government spent only 86 million. Thus, for the first time in a long time, public funds showed a surplus of 41 million gourdes.

An increase in food production is a necessity. In order to achieve this, we are going to implement the agrarian reform set forth in article 248  of the Constitution and provide peasants with the wherewithal for production.

The participation of the private sector is essential for the creation of highly labor-intensive business. Whereas in the past illegal practices made it possible for some sectors to plunder the country to the detriment of the vast majority of the population, our “lavalas” government is ensuring respect for the rights of all: the right to invest in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution; the right to work for human and economic growth. To our dear friends and investors abroad, Haiti here and now extends a most cordial and heartfelt welcome.

The Fifth Commandment of Democracy: The Right to Demand What Rightfully Belongs to Us

The fifth milestone of the democratic commandment is the right to demand our due. In the past five years the Haitian people have made an outstanding and remarkable contribution to the democratic struggle that is being waged throughout the world. As the democratic tide surged in—in Eastern Europe, in Asia, in the Middle East, South Africa and Central and South America—we in Haiti witnessed an avalanche of democracy we have called “lavalas.” No democratic nation can exist in isolation without geopolitical, diplomatic, economic, and international ties.

Today, we see our right to demand our due as part of this network of relationships, in which we can on the one hand recognize the fruits of a rich but impoverished past and on the other discern the fruits of an exploited but hopeful present, thanks to the opportunity we now have to combine a colonized past with a democratic present.

Heraclitus of Ephesus rightly said: “Awakened men have but one world, but men asleep have each their own.” Awakened men and women of Haiti, our world is a world of justice, justice for all, justice for us Haitians, who have all too often been the victims of social injustice.

If we scan the horizon of this world of justice, we wonder how long the impoverished will be forced to cry out, with Democritus: “We seek the good and do not find it; we find evil without seeking it.”

In the belief that mens agitat molemmind can move matter—our policy will continue to be attentive to the masses, who are calling for the respect and dignity due them. The same applies for the treatment inflicted upon so many of our Haitian brothers and sisters who live in foreign lands. 

The Sixth Commandment of Democracy: Self-Defence of the Diaspora

The sixth democratic milestone or commandment is: self-defense in the diaspora—the so-called tenth department. Hunted and harassed until 1991 by the blind brutality of the repressive machine, or by the structures of exploitation fashioned into an anti-democratic system, our Haitian sisters and brothers have not always experienced the joy of finding a promised land.

They were considered to be illegal because the torturers would not give their victims properly signed certificates of torture; they were considered to be illegal because they had to travel as boat people or without legal identity papers. But they made a large contribution to the economic prosperity of bosses who preferred malleable and freely exploitable human labor.

What can we say about our sisters and brothers imprisoned in Krome , and elsewhere? Is it not time, in the name of democracy, to study their cases and turn their suffering into rejoicing? With a view to encouraging the authorities concerned to take the appropriate steps to bring about this long-awaited rejoicing, we in the Haitian Government are constantly fighting against fraudulent practices and the procurement of false visas on Haitian territory.

As we address the forty-sixth session of the General Assembly, we are expressing ourselves in these terms for the sake of the well-being of our community. We feel bound to denounce and condemn before the whole of mankind the flagrant violation of the rights of Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. While we recognize the sovereignty of the Dominican Republic, we must firmly denounce and condemn this violation of human rights.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic are the two wings of a single bird, two nations which share the beautiful island of Hispaniola. Echoing the cries of all the victims whose rights are denied them, and in keeping with our commitment to respect human rights, despite the social problems and financial difficulties caused by this forced repatriation, we intend to show respect for both wings of the bird. This is attested to by the welcome that Haiti gives all those men and women who cross our border, be they Haitians or Dominicans. In solidarity with disadvantaged minorities, we call for reparation, as much for Dominican citizens by birth but of Haitian origin as for Haitian citizens who have fallen victim to this repatriation.

(spoken in Spanish)

It is not a matter of weeping when one realizes what is happening in the Dominican Republic; it is a matter of defending human rights, in the name of the Haitian people, in the name of all men who are really men and all women who are really women throughout the world. Therefore, we Haitians are working together with our Dominican brothers and sisters to be able to live in communion, with a continuing dialogue.

That is why, together with Dominican men and women who do not agree with this flouting of human rights, we Haitian men and women, we the entire Haitian people, declare to the world that we demand reparation.

We shall always walk side by side with the Dominican people as brothers and sisters, in order to live in peace, but a man worthy of the name can never bow his head when human rights are trampled upon as they now are in the case of Haitians born in the Dominican Republic or in Haiti, Haitians of Dominican origins, or Dominicans of Haitian origin. It is regrettable that the question of color comes into play even when Dominicans are involved.

(spoken in French)

Arrested and expelled into Haitian territory, they generally have no homes, families or employment. Conservative estimates place the number of repatriated persons at more than 50,000 already. In the hope that the international agencies concerned will assist us to ensure respect for fundamental human rights, we here and now solemnly proclaim with pride and dignity that never again shall our Haitian sisters and brothers be sold so that their blood may be converted into bitter sugar. Blood in bitter sugar is unacceptable—and the unacceptable shall not be accepted.

(Spoken in Spanish)

I hope that my Dominican brothers and sisters will always walk side by side with us in dialogue so that together we may protect the rights of all Dominicans and Haitians.

I say to my Dominican brothers, whom I love so much:  let us go forward to build a world of peace.

The Seventh Commandment of Democracy: No to Violence, Yes to “Lavalas”

The seventh democratic milestone or commandment is: No to violence, yes to “lavalas.” Is an unarmed political revolution possible in 1991? Yes. Incredible, but true.  This is “lavalas” teaching: the tactical and strategic convergence of democratic forces brandishes the weapon of unity to combat that of violence. A stunning victory, a historic surprise!

In the schools of the poor, the teaching of active non-violence and of unity is triumphing over institutionalized violence. 1804 was the date of our first independence, but 1991 marks the beginning of the era of our second independence.

Is there any democratic nation that is capable of remaining indifferent to this victory of non-violence precisely where structures of economic violence still exist? Is it legitimate to try the patience of the victims of economic violence? There is no policy apart from relations of strength, but there is also no economy apart from relationships of interest.

Because of the restoration of peace, the capital of non-violence that the Haitian masses have invested is yielding considerable economic interest. A simple psycho-social analysis is very eloquent. For the more social ego is attacked by oligarchical sclerosis, the healthier it becomes, psychologically, politically and economically. The teaching of non-violence should arouse a collective awareness of our land of non-violence. Ours is a land of non-violence, where 85 percent of the population is still crushed by economic violence, is still illiterate—but is not stupid. Making these victims literate requires help from the true friends of Haiti—not simply friends, but true friends. You who are our true friends, work with us not as observers but as performers, as citizens of the world. We hope we can count on your cooperation in our literacy campaign. Any cooperation at this level attests to a determination to combat economic violence by active non-violence. Where the guns of violence sound, let the sun of non-violence shine in the “lavalas” spirit. 

 The Eighth Commandment of Democracy: Faithfulness to the Human Being–the Ultimate Form of Wealth

The eight democratic milestone or commandment is: faithfulness to the human being —the ultimate wealth.

To speak of the human being as the ultimate wealth may perhaps suggest that one is disregarding gold, oil, and dollars. Far from it. There is wealth and wealth. According to certain experts, if the hydro-electric potential of the United States were to be fully exploited, it could provide more energy than all the oil consumed in the world.

All these riches should be placed at the service of mankind—the axis of the “lavalas” policy. We are ready to demonstrate our faithfulness to that approach by embracing anything that can promote the full development of the human being. Thus the harmonious links that we have already established with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are part of the framework of Caribbean solidarity, with a view to more effectively fostering human well-being.

We are also working to expand South-South relations, between us and our neighbors in Latin America. It goes without saying that South-South relationships are not the only important relationships for Haiti. For we share a political heritage with the United States, whose independence reminds us of the Haitian pioneers who fought and died precisely for the same independence. France, with which we also share a political heritage, the United States and other countries of North America, and the countries of Europe, of the Middle East, of Africa and of other parts of the world form a part, together with us, of the interdependent network of nations throughout the world.

We patriotically hail the Haitian men and women living in Cuba, and we also hail Cuba and the Cuban people, to whom we address our wishes for peace and democratic growth. We address the same good wishes for peace and democratic growth to the Middle East and South Africa.

In recent years the United Nations, under the guidance of Mr. Javier Perez de Cueller, has demonstrated that, given the means, it can be effective in settling conflicts. This is attest to by the cessation of hostilities  between Iran and Iraq, the independence of Namibia  and the dawning of a solution to the question of the Western Sahara. Further proof of this is the way in which the United Nations, in accordance with its Charter, reacted when one of the States Members of the Organization fell victim to such cruel aggression on 2 August 1990  at the hands of Iraq. The manner in which the conflict was handled raised some legitimate reservations, but the role of the United Nations was never challenged. Nevertheless, the Gulf crisis has given rise to a number of still unanswered questions.

We all know that, in spite of the efforts of the United Nations, there are still parts of the world where divergent interests and lack of understanding between peoples continue to cause conflicts between States and within them. Despite the victories of the people of Azania over the juridical apparatus of the apartheid system, we are far from reaching the peak—that is, democracy.

Out of our sense of unity with the black people of Africa, who should enjoy all the rights recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we take this opportunity to appeal to the international community and, above all, the industrialized countries not to lift the comprehensive sanctions decreed against the Pretoria regime at this early stage. In its diametrical opposition to apartheid, the Republic of Haiti is struggling to ensure that the black majority of South Africa enjoys its rights to the full in a multiracial and democratic society. Bravo Mandela! Honor to Mandela!

If the memory of Mandela evokes such applause as I am hearing now, applause is surely due the memory of another truly great man—Martin Luther King.

The Haitian Government has noted with satisfaction the cease-fire recently arrived at between the parties in conflict in Western Sahara. We reaffirm our support for the process now under way.

The suffering of a single individual is the suffering of mankind. Our policy aims at providing, day after day, eloquent testimony to our faithfulness to man. 

 The Ninth Commandment of Democracy: Faithfulness to Our Culture

The ninth democratic milestone or commandment is: faithfulness to our culture.

The “lavalas” praxis intertwines cultural links at the very heart of the political universe. Resistance to cultural alienation guarantees the psychological health of the democratic fabric. For any cultural suicide leads to the devitalization of the social body and cannot but threaten the democratic cells of the body.

To live, and live to the full, is also to draw nourishment from the source of one’s culture. To live to the full is to send one’s roots deep down to the source of one’s own culture.

This embraces the totality of the life of a people. What is involved here is a depth of being that must be delved and explored, and by this being we mean a fabric of relationships, pluri-dimensional relationships. Defining man not as an end but as a bridge, Friedrich Nietsche places him—whether we like it or not—at the crossing point of the process of acculturation and inculturation. What is involved is a transmission of cultural seed which may give life to the being or wound it [sic] in its very essence.

The germs of pathologic culpability transmitted by contact between so-called dominant and dominated cultures can only be damaging to any democratic growth.

The “lavalas” praxis seeks to give our cultural identity its true value. Any in-depth change can be achieved democratically only if indigenous values are [interwoven] in a particular social-cultural tissue.

This faithfulness to the culture of mankind prompts us to share the concerns of the Kurdish people, the Palestinian people, the Jewish people, the peoples of Iraq—all cherishing the roots of their beings.

In this context of respect and peace, the Republic of Haiti warmly welcomes the accession of the two Koreas to the family of the United Nations.

Fidelity to our culture prompts us to sharpen our critical senses in order to protect our culture’s health against certain evils such as illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs. The Haitian Government wishes to recall that effective work to combat the production of drugs also involves greater assistance to Latin American countries.

As far as drug trafficking itself is concerned, it is important to recall that it is generated and fueled by the demand that comes from the North. Thus, at all cost, stimuli to production from the consumers of the industrialized countries must be eliminated. Concerted action between the States of the North and those of the South, with the assistance of the United Nations, would make it possible more effectively to combat this evil of drugs in its devastating effects on men and women. 

The Tenth Commandment of Democracy: All Around the Table

The tenth—and last—landmark, or tenth democratic commandment: all around the table:

Yes, all around the democratic table.

Not a minority on the table.

Nor a majority under the table.

But all around the democratic table.

We are faced with an historic encounter as we approach 1992. It is an historic encounter on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the evangelization and of the struggle of the Haitian people to survive and retain its dignity and identity. As we approach this 500thanniversary of resistance, both qualitative and quantitative, we can speak of a meeting around the table. This is in truth a real challenge facing us at the threshold of the third millennium.

Brothers and sisters of Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, Cuba, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique and so on, our past in the struggle against colonialism leads us inevitably to establish stronger and deeper links throughout our progress toward the Democratic Table.

A new social contract at the Caribbean, Latin American and international levels is necessary so that we may all one day meet around the Democratic Table.

Since 16 December 1990, the date of elections held under the lofty sponsorship of the United Nations, we in Haiti have been moving towards that meeting-place.

If we are all to get there, it is time that indebtedness cease to effect a net transfer of resources from our impoverished countries to the rich countries. In fact, between 1983 and 1988, the net transfer of resources to the so-called developed countries amounted to $115 billion. For one year alone, 1989, that transfer amounted to approximately $60 billion—financial resources the countries of the South desperately need for growth.

I hope that the Fourth Decade will yield positive results in the context of the new international order that is to be established.

At this close of the twentieth century, the Republic of Haiti renounces absolute power, embraces participative democracy and sings the hymn of liberty, pride and dignity – liberty won; pride regained; dignity reborn.

At this close of the twentieth century, the Republic of Haiti has the honor to hail the unity of nations: the United Nations for a united world; the United Nations through united peoples.

As for the Haitian people, we once again hail its heroic courage, crying out tirelessly and in the spirit of “lavalas”:

It is better to perish with the people than to succeed without the people. But with the people there can be no defeat. So, victory is ours.

In the same vein: we believe in Man; where a Man is exploited, call on us. To your call we will respond “yes,” 77 times  “yes.” To exploitation we will answer “no,” 77 times “no.” To defend human rights, such is the mission of the United Nations. We believe in peace; where war rages, call on us. To your call, we will answer “yes,” 77 times “yes.” To war we will answer “no,” 77 times “no.” Guaranteeing peace, such is the mission of the United Nations.

We believe in the brotherhood of peoples. Wherever people turn away from each other, call on us. To your call we shall answer “yes,” 77 times “yes.” To rejection we shall answer “no,” 77 times “no.” To be a place for dialogue: that is the mission of the United Nations.

We believe in the Haitian people. Wherever they are struggling tirelessly in the “lavalas” spirit, we shall be; we shall always be there. It is better to perish with the people than to succeed without the people.

With the echo of this creed resounding in our ears, by way of conclusion let the echo of the democratic creed also resound. We believe in these ten democratic commandments. We believe in this democratic policy. We believe in that meeting where there will be no minority on the table and no majority under the table, but where everyone will be seated around the democratic table. So be it in the name of the people, of its sons and of its Holy Spirit. Amen.

United we are strong. United in the Caribbean we are a Power. United in the world we are a power for peace, justice, love and freedom.

Have we the right to speak here? If we have, let us say it together so that the echo can be heard in Haiti.

This column was created by The Black Agenda Review team.

Reprinted from the Provisional Verbatim Record of the 9th Meeting of the Forty-Sixth Session of the United Nations General Assembly, Held at United Nations Headquarters, New York, on Wednesday, 25 September 1991, at 3 p.m .

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For Biden Administration, Black Lives Don’t Matter in Haiti!—A Black Alliance for Peace Statement on Haiti, 12 February, 2021

The people of Haiti have been demanding freedom from the succession of U.S.-imposed dictators for decades. One such dictator, Jovenel Moïse, refused to leave office February 7, which marked the end of his term four years after an illegal election. This move catapulted yet another intense episode in the historic struggle of the Haitian masses against colonial intervention. Tens of thousands of Haitians went to the streets demanding democracy and an end to dictatorship. And what was the response from the U.S. puppet regime? Bullets, paramilitary terror, curfews, house raids, beatings and the imprisonment of opposition leaders.

With the election of U.S. President Joe Biden, folks believed this so-called “champion” of fair elections and the rule of law—who had expressed a commitment that “Black Lives Matter”—would rally to the side of Haitians and end U.S. support for the dictatorship.

But that did not happen.

When Moïse announced he would stay in office past February 7, and continue to rule by decree, the Biden administration signaled it supported that decision. Moïse’s rule by decree was made possible because elections were postponed in 2019, which allowed the mandates of most of the representatives to the National Assembly—Haiti’s parliament—to expire.

It did not matter that Moïse ruled by decree, that he violated the rights of his people and that the majority of the people wanted him gone. What mattered to the Biden administration was the purpose Moïse served in U.S. plans for the Caribbean and Latin American region.

In other words, the people must be sacrificed for the larger interests of the U.S. imperial project. These interests that could not be bothered with the trifle concerns about democracy, legitimacy or the rights of the people. Those rhetorical terms are only evoked as expressions of the United States’ so-called “values” when directed at an adversary like Russia, Venezuela, China or any other country the United States is actively attempting to destabilize. But those values cannot be allowed to complicate U.S. interests in Haiti or even in the occupied Black and Brown communities within the United States.

We ask Joe Biden and his supporters, who claim Biden cares about African/Black people: Why does it seem like the lives of African/Black people in Haiti do not matter? Is it that Black lives only matter when they are supporting U.S. and European colonial white power?

In the Black Alliance for Peace (BAP), we know the answer to that rhetorical question. Both parties and the U.S. state have demonstrated the lives of non-Europeans mean extraordinarily little. And the values that the United States and Western Europeans pretend to uphold—like democracy and human rights—are dead letters when it comes to the fundamental human rights of the peoples of the global South.

The United States and the United Nations armed and trained Haitian police. Moïse has the full support of these armed paramilitary forces, who are committed to upholding the rule of the Haitian ruling class that serves international capital. That is why the Biden administration supports Moïse. Therefore, Moïse has no legitimacy.

Haiti emerged as a free society in the greatest revolution in human history in 1804, when the people of Haiti established the first Black Republic after fighting and defeating first the Spanish and then the French, at the time the greatest military power on the planet. Since then, the West has tried to destroy Haiti.

Invasions, occupations, death squads, economic plunder, attacks on their culture, political isolation and U.S.-backed dictatorships have exacted a severe price on the people of Haiti. Yet, they have never surrendered. That spirit of resistance is on display today in the streets of Haiti.

We, in the Black Alliance for Peace, will continue to support those efforts by organizing actions throughout the United States in solidarity with the Haitian people.

We are not confused. There is nothing exceptional about the United States, except perhaps its hypocrisy. Declarations made by white-supremacist politicians and heads of imperialist corporations that “Black Lives Matter” have rung hollow, opportunistic and completely in contradiction to the lived experiences of African/Black people in the United States from 1619 to the present.

Stripped of the veneer of liberal-rights discourse, the true core values of the U.S. settler-colonial project are obvious: Glorification of violence, white supremacy, patriarchy, social Darwinism, materialism and extreme individualism. These core values facilitated the land theft that allowed for the creation of the United States, enslavement and the most rapacious forms of capitalist accumulation on the planet.

The abandonment of the people of Haiti affirms once again the United States is committed to white power. Subversion, war and brutal sanctions are just some of the instruments employed to maintain the structures of white colonial-capitalist power.

So, our appeal is not to the conscience of Biden and the neoliberal imperialist Democrats—they only have objective interests. Instead, we call on the people of the United States to demand an alteration both in U.S. policies regarding Haiti and in its relationship with Haiti as well as with all nations that currently find themselves in the crosshairs of U.S. imperialist reaction.

However, we understand our commitment to peace and People(s)-Centered Human Rights, social justice, democracy and self-determination cannot be realized without an organized people who are struggling for power.

The people of Haiti are fighting for power, for the ability to determine their own destiny. Stand with them. Stand with us. Fight for freedom and for a new reality in Haiti and the world.

No Compromise, No Retreat!

Reposted from The Black Alliance for Peace.

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Anarchy / Autonomy / Utopia

Shadowdancer. © Kevin Adonis Browne.

There is a present-day tendency to retreat into the realms of dystopia, of catastrophe and disaster, of failed states and fascism, of environmental collapse and economic apocalypse. This tendency is neither wrong nor mistaken. Yet it is often suffocating, only adding to the pressurized dread of the era, offering no antidote to the plague of cynicism, the chokehold of hopelessness, the drift, or, perhaps, the plunge, into a miasma of pessimism and hopelessness. Of course, there are other tendencies, other possibilities, other ways forward. Here, we briefly mention five recent books, loosely grouped under the banners of anarchism, autonomy, and utopia, that propose better worlds to come – as better must come.

It is often said that the hopes and dreams of the Anglo-Caribbean left were dashed by the failure of the Grenada Revolution. Against this tendency, Laurie Lambert, in Comrade Sister: Caribbean Feminist Revisions of the Grenada Revolution (University of Virginia), returns to the history of the Revolution to explore its visions of a future, more egalitarian world. Recovering the literary output of the Caribbean women writers of the 1980s, Lambert demonstrates how they both critiqued the masculinist limits of revolutionary politics, while foregrounding the possibilities of revolutionary Black feminist imaginations.  

If the question of land and Black sovereignty should be at the center of any debate on reparations and Black freedom, then we are lucky to have historian Edward Onanci’s Free the Land: The Republic of New Afrika and the Pursuit of a Black Nation-State (University of North Carolina). The first historical study of an organization that has been both misunderstood and neglected, Free the Land offers an important assessment of the Republic of New Afrika’s efforts to create an autonomous Black nation within the boundaries of the United States. Onanci makes a compelling case for the RNA’s contribution to the revolutionary ideologies and political struggles of the sixties and seventies. 

In The Point is to Change the World Selected Writings of Andaiye (Pluto), Alissa Trotz has gathered together some fifty years of essays, letters, and journal entries of the late Andaiye, the radical Guyanese activist and educator who was among one of the Caribbean’s most important political voices. The range of Andaiye’s ethical and political commitments dazzles. Andaiye’s writing examines her work with Guyana’s Working People Alliance as well as with the women’s development organization Red Thread. She considers questions of Black-Indian relations in Guyana, the political economy of waged and unwaged labor, and of the ethics and politics of care work. She also reflects on the life and work of her old comrade, Walter Rodney. The Point is to Change the World is an intervention that is both critical and timely – not just for Guyana and the Caribbean, but for anyone committed to radical praxis. 

First published in 1979 and revised and reissued in the early nineties, Chattanooga-based writer and activist Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin’s Anarchism and the Black Revolution is as legendary as it is prescient. While it quickly became something of an underground classic within the historiography of Black libertarian thought, it also posed a number of serious critiques of – and challenges to – the ideological positions of the Left. Ervin’s insights into racism and capitalism, fascism and police violence, the politics of mutual aid and community, and, above all, the liberal fetishism of the state as an ultimate political authority, make for necessary reading. Have the courage to read this book.

While there may be many books that are about performance and culture, there are few books that actually perform culture. Kevin Adonis Browne’s High Mas: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture is one of those rare monographs that fall into the latter category. High Mas is a stunning compilation of photography and prose that documents Trinidad carnival while shattering any perceived notion we might have of the book as an object itself. But High Mas does even more. With its breathtaking documentation of the kinetic and quivering movement and motion of Caribbean revelers – combined with Browne’s dynamic amalgamations of poetry, criticism, and autobiography — High Mas provides us with an archive of Caribbean autonomy and freedom. We need Browne’s work now, more than ever. 

Additional Reading: Modibo Kadalie, Pan-African Social Ecology: Speeches, Conversations, and Essays. Jessica Marie Johnson, Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World. Quito J. Swan, Pauulu’s Diaspora: Black Internationalism and Environmental Justice. Kaiama L. Glover, A Regarded Self: Caribbean Womanhood and the Ethics of Disorderly Being. Jovan Scott Lewis, Scammer’s Yard: The Crime of Black Repair in Jamaica. Mariame Kaba, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice.

The Public Archive’s prior readings lists: Radical Black Reading: 2011201220132014. 2018. Reading Haiti: 20112012.2013. Radical Black Cities: 20122015Reading Against FascismA decade of radical Black reading.

Image: Shadowdancer © Kevin Adonis Brown. Kevin Adonis Browne from Seeing Blue: “The first of four series in my book, HIGH MAS: Carnival and the Poetics of Caribbean Culture, “Seeing Blue” is a premonitory chronicle of my own return to Trinidad and Tobago—and the emergence of an idea of Caribbeanist Photography as I would come to understand it.” For more information visit kevinadonisbrowne

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The Black Agenda Review: A Manifesto of First Principles

The 2020 U.S. elections seem to be over and much of the world is preparing for a new Biden-Harris administration. So, what now? What changes should global Black communities expect? Our sense is that expectations need to be tempered by the lessons of past experience. Long ago we learned that representation is not a sign of radicalism, that the slick and polished surfaces of neoliberal multiculturalism do not mitigate the cynical viciousness of anti-Blackness, capitalism, and imperialism. And yet, as many people are looking towards 2021 as a new era that breaks decisively with the last four years, it becomes more urgent than ever to expand the terrain of critical analysis and historical inquiry, to move away from the easy sophistry of punditry, and to develop a clear-sighted and autonomous forum for the discussion of ideas, histories, and texts about and by the Black radical left. That is the purpose of The Black Agenda Review

Read about this new project from The Black Agenda Report here.

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Black Struggle and the New Society: An interview with C.L.R. James

Federal City College — Faculty — C.L.R. James, 1975.

Across three Saturdays in June, 1977, the New York Amsterdam News ran an extended interview with CLR James. At the time, James was seventy-six years old and teaching at the University of the District of Columbia. The interview, conducted by Amsterdam News feature writer Dawad Wayne Phillip, covered the question of Caribbean Federation, the importance of literature to politics, anti-colonialism in Africa, and the dilemmas of Black struggle in the United States in the wake of Black Power and the Civil Rights movement. James’s responses provide not only an incredible anatomy of Black politics in the 1970s, but a remarkably prescient reading of our contemporary present.

While we have retitled the interview “Black Struggle and the New Society,” we reprint all three parts of the original unchanged but for a few minor copy edits.

Part I: Saturday, June 4, 1977

AMSTERDAM NEWS:Dr. James, presently what projects are you involved with?

C.L. R. JAMES:I am involved, number one, in teaching at the University of the District of Columbia and in various other places in the United States. At the same time, I am preparing, practically and ideologically, my autobiography which a lot of people are looking forward to.

One of the many projects you are involved with is a paper.

I am doing a paper that the University of the West Indies asked me to do, more or less on the West Indies from say 1945 to the present day. I am working on that with great care, and with an immense amount of satisfaction. I have made it clear that I am going to say exactly what I think. This, the political necessity demands.

What would be the primary focus of the paper?

I will tell you what my thoughts are. I have long believed, that the future of the Caribbean is, as a Federation of all the islands beginning with Cuba. There must be a total federation. That is the basis of my thoughts at present. I don’t believe that any of those islands, large or small, can do it by itself.

You mentioned “beginning with Cuba.” Would such a Federation use Cuba as the model?

I would not say that the model would be Cuba. Except, in this respect: I do not expect that such a Federation would take place unless there were complete changes in the government of the Caribbean. The kind of government I am thinking of, is the kind that (Jamaican Prime Minister) Manley has proposed; where, the economic resources of the Caribbean; are in the hands of the Caribbean people.

To more understand the idea of a unified bloc could we say that CARIFTA and CARICOM, are roads in that direction? Or is this contradictory to what you are saying?

There is no contradiction. They are roads in that direction: going at the rate of one mile an hour. They are not headed for any Federation with control of their resources. I am not speaking of joining together. I mean a total change in the relations of control and ownership of the resources. I don’t see that in CARIFTA, or CARICOM or any of the Caris.

What then would be the radical step in the formation of such a Federation?

The radical step would be, in my opinion, what Manley has said in his speech to his own conference—“That Jamaica,” he said, “is not for sale.” That, to me, is as good a basis for the whole of the Caribbean as any there could be. If the whole of the Caribbean today were saying what Manley has said and were seeking ways and means to create a Federation that I believe would be the basis for what I have in mind.

But this is not taking place throughout the remainder of the Caribbean?

No. It is not taking place in the Caribbean at all. Mr. Manley, with a real tremendous amount of courage, and with great political clarity, has stated that – for the Jamaica people—this is the way we have to go. And the Jamaican people have responded splendidly. I believe that that kind of request, and that kind of response throughout the Caribbean, could—within a few years—be the basis of this Caribbean Federation. Cuba has already gone the road. And Manley is showing that he is ready to go. He isn’t going to go the same way as Cuba. I don’t expect that. These islands have different pasts; and they have different national structures. But the idea of total control of resources, and the Federation of all your resources with the view toward a Caribbean whole; that, I believe, is what is to be the future.

What about Burnham’s role in Guyana?

I would like to say this: Mr. Burnham in Guyana is doing a great number of things which the other Caribbean countries are not doing. It would appear—from here—that he is really taking the steps that are necessary. Personally, however, I am very skeptical when it comes to any real transformation in Guyana, at the hands of Mr. Burnham. But that is a personal view. From my personal experience of him, I haven’t the confidence in what he is doing; as I have of what Mr. Manley has said.

It seems then, that what you are in the process of expressing would have to come through the formation of a new left-throughout the Caribbean, working in a co-operative sense toward that unit?

Now wait a minute. I am anxious that I get myself away from what you call a left. Mr. Manley is not a leftist. Mr. Manley has a program and a policy. (Cheddi) Jagan has been a leftist in Guyana all the time but he has never said, or put forward ideas, and appealed to the people, with the clarity, force and simplicity that Manley has done.

So I am cautious about this left. Manley has said what is necessary to do; and he has put it to the people, and the people have responded. That is not a left. That is a new policy. That is a policy for Jamaica, and, I hope, for the whole Federation… which means a transfer of the actual relations into relations that are new. These ideas are entirely new.

This idea then—the Manley proposal in the context of present multinational interests in the Caribbean—would appear headed for the strongest types of opposition…

The movement is up against a strong opposition. Any country, which seeks to change the relationships and transfer wealth, and the control of wealth, is always up against a strong opposition. That is nothing new. Once you begin to do that sort of thing you are aware that is what you are going to face.

There is only one possible means of resisting it—and that is—the gaining of the support of the mass of the population. If a political leader has the mass of the population behind him, and behind a real political objective, which is made clear to the masses and to the people abroad—nobody is going to intervene.

Part II: Saturday, June 11, 1977 

“It is clear that the idea of an egalitarian society, in which, the aim of the government is not merely welfare—in the superficial sense—but the total reorganisation of the economy, in the interest of the mass of the population, is today a universal concept. I will venture a prophecy, which, is always a stupid thing to do. But the man who is not ready to be stupid at times, is a stupid man. Now if Manley of Jamaica succeeds—and he will succeed if the others come to his assistance—the whole of the Caribbean will go his way in time. If he fails; then we could look forward autocratic, dictatorial and oppressive governments throughout the Caribbean.”—C.L.R. James

AMSTERDAM NEWS: Do you see the direction of Jamaica being taken elsewhere in the Caribbean?

JAMES:Yes. And of this, I have been assured by people in the Caribbean that it is widespread throughout. I am told—and you will tell me—that in Trinidad the workers who work in the sugar estates, plant the crops and draw the money; when the time comes to reap, they go out and burn down the fields. They do the same in Barbados. They do the same in Jamaica. 

The trouble is they have reached the stage where they do not wish the sugar economies to dominate the islands. It means a total rejection of the sugar economy. Many advanced economists have told me—as you will find in the appendix to my book Black Jacobins—that, the future of the Caribbean depends on getting rid of the sugar economy.

In Trinidad, where the main source of revenue is not on sugar, but oil, what is the hindrance toward a worker’s cooperative?

There is no hindrance in Trinidad. I can only tell you that the need for a reorganisation of the Trinidad economy was written in letters of blood across the sky in 1970. Either the people were playing the fool or they were showing that they wanted to wreck the old economy and have something new.

What are your thoughts on the Trinidad elections of 1976?

The elections of 1976 must be seen in relation to the elections of 1970. In 1970, the population showed that it rejected the parliamentary system completely. But no one came with a replacement. They haven’t put before the people a concrete proposal for a new type of political economy and organization.

I have only to confess to you—that those of us watching from the outside, believed that the outbreak would come first in Jamaica. But you can never tell these things—they do not work mathematically but psychologically. As it did, it came first in Trinidad.

The Trinidad uprising skyrocketed the movement for change in the Caribbean…

Yes. And that could only come about because it was deeply seated. Otherwise, people don’t move to the extent that they did in Trinidad. It meant that the need for change had penetrated very deeply. Even the army was ready to go. That means an advanced stage of degeneration in the existing regime.

There are claims of internal bickerings in the ULF [United Labor Front], in Trinidad; that efforts by party-leader, Basdeo Panday, to create a multiracial party, seem only to be a gesture by a political leader…

Panday has only been in the legislature five or six months. Give him five or six years. You can’t judge him by what he does in five months; that is not a serious method of approach to a political situation. If Panday began badly—with this tremendous vote of the East Indian population—remember those politicians have been playing Africans versus Indians, for 20 years. It is a difficult thing to manage. But it has to be tackled. Panday shows he is serious by the persons he appointed to the senate. That was the first gesture to let the Black people know—we want to be multi-racial. You are not going to get rid of 20 years of manipulation, by those parties, through six months of activity.

How do you view the ULF, which supports a socialistic ideology, while at the same time works through the Parliamentary process?

That depends now. Can anybody be asked to put forward a more socialistically inclined proposal than Manley? If the ULF, after a time, is able to verbalize itself and get the support of the Trinidad people that then is the way I hope it would go. But they would have to aim and work at that.

Taking a look now at the arts in the Caribbean: what do you feel is incumbent on the artists and creative people in the effort to crystalise this new vision of Caribbean society.

There are people like (George) Lamming, Vidia Naipaul, and Wilson Harris—three of the most remarkable writers of the day. The business of the politicians and the population in the Caribbean is to create a condition whereby these men could return home and write for them. Not abroad—writing for a foreign audience about the situation in the Caribbean. That is a bad situation.

In England you will find in the educational system, especially in London, that West Indians form a fundamental part of that constituency, in education and medicine. If they could go to an advanced country like Britain and take part from top to bottom, there is nothing that they cannot do in the Caribbean. The day of people coming from abroad, believing that they are bringing western civilization to the Caribbean, is over.

How do you view the press treatment on Africa and particularly Uganda’s Amin?

You have to expect that when you are going into a change in the social structure of your country, you must be ready for those inside and those outside of the country—especially those with great media opportunities on the outside—to attack you. Now, it happens that Amin is behaving in a way that every now and then, you find extraordinary freaks—inside of a revolutionary upheaval—behaving. That is very unsatisfactory. But I am glad to say, the Black African press and leaders themselves, are attacking Amin and making the people in Africa recognize that Amin has nothing for then. There is nothing but an obstacle in the way of the African development.

There is not going to be seen in the foreign press what is required for a proper understanding, not only of the Caribbean, but of the entire Third World.

Here in the U.S. we are fed these distortions, often without a base to refute.

Refutations are taking place. It isn’t what it ought to be; but that is our fault. If the press isn’t doing what it ought to do then we ought to take it on ourselves to go ahead and organise. In addition—I take my own case—I am all over the place. I can’t say no. The urge is so great.

Part III: Saturday, June 18, 1977

AMSTERDAM NEWS: What are your views on the Cuban presence in Africa?

C. L. R. JAMES:It is to be seen as the military period in the continuation of a tremendous West Indian presence in Africa, a presence which has included important figures like Franz Fanon, Aime Cesare and George Padmore. Nobody did more than George Padmore to initiate the struggle for African emancipation; together with Kwame Nkrumah. I did my share. The historical work which posed the African revolution was “Black Jacobins”. I function with them all the time. At the same time that Cuba was sending its soldiers to fight against what Britain and the United States were doing from the North, and what South Africa was doing from the South; while those soldiers were sent there from the Caribbean, at the same time, I was taken to Africa to open the Black Writers Conference.

Shifting our focus to America, how do you view the present Black struggle here in the United States? Where do you see it going?

It is the most difficult situation of Black people among all the Black struggles. Nevertheless, ever since Montgomery, Alabama, the Blacks have come forward and made tremendous impact on the consciousness of the American people. Martin Luther King was not merely advancing the Black cause but lifting the entire civilization of the United States to a higher pitch. That was recognized all over the world. King got shot—we believe—because he has started to raise the question of the Vietnam War.

Are we seeing those victories won through the struggles of the 60’s now being eradicated?

They are not. Two things are happening. Number one: after the tremendous outbursts of Black power and civil rights Blacks gained certain advances and certain qualifications. But they realize that it is not sufficient, so that, a great thinking is being worked out at the present time as to what is to be done now. That is the process of every revolution. 

In France, they said, “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” and two years after they cut off the king’s head. You know, there is the tremendous outburst and then there is the retirement. The outbursts merely made clear the situation. But it has gone further. American Blacks are now working out what is the next stage.

Now, two things have been shown and they are most important. Number one: They put Carter where he is. People must look at these things in the way that they should. The South always kept on the concept of the Civil War but Carter—a man from Georgia, a peanut farmer—has brought the South back into the American condominium.

The South is no longer outside of the American society. And the Blacks did that. That is an historical event of tremendous importance. It has brought the Blacks closer to the American community.

Number two: The “Roots” question. The films were not good, but 130 million people looked at them which meant that the whites today have realized, for the first time in their history, that they have to understand what these Black people are, where they came from, and what their concerns are.

No political figure in the United States is going to take part in politics without being aware that there is a Black community in the United States with whom he has to get himself right. At the same time, Black intellectuals are working out what is to take the place of racialism and nationalism. The big debate is taking place between racialism, nationalism and Marxism. Having found that the civil rights era was not sufficient, they are seeking a new way.

What do you see as the future? What in your view is the best road?

I wouldn’t say what is the best road. Because they have to find that themselves. But this I am certain of: America is in a state of crisis. Fundamental changes must be made. And I cannot imagine fundamental changes taking place in the American society without Black leaders right in the front taking part in the re-structure of an advanced American society. That has been demonstrated ever since Montgomery, Alabama. They are not going to be pushed aside. They are going to be in the front of whatever is taking place. And when the victory is won, they are not going to be pushed out again.

The Black Panther Party was a tremendous stage of the African struggle here. They were defeated. But that is an experience that is being considered now: why did we fail? And so on.

Another thing, they are putting Black mayors in city after city. In important cities in the United States a Black mayor is there. In Los Angeles, in Atlanta, (which is the real capital of the South), in Detroit (the manufacturing capital of the country), in Newark and now a man is applying to be major of New York.

This does not mean that they are doing very much, but whites are saying, let us give them a chance. They have ability. Maybe they will do something. If they do not do very much, the Black people will be able to see that it is not a Black man who will help them, but a man with a policy.

A great political experience is being undertaken and understood now. I can’t understand people who think that nothing is happening in the United States. The country is moving but not romantically. Ten years ago, it moved. But now it is absorbing what has happened and seeking ways and means to carry it further.

How do you see this new society being forged beginning with the urban conditions?

Whites have gone out to the suburbs and have left the inner cities which are being inhabited and often governed by Blacks. That is so in city after city. Three-fifths of the inner-cities, of a hundred cities in the United States, are governed by Blacks which means that is absolutely impossible for them to make any fundamental changes in the structure of the American city, without incorporating the Blacks into it. That is a geographical question.

But what of the fact that when capital leaves the urban setting, it takes industry with it. It takes the wares with it, and invariably, leaves the inner-city hollow of any life.

Not of any life. The taxation etc., goes out to the suburb. But the government has to do something. The centers of government are in the heart of the cities and they are surrounded by the Black population.

What I am saying is this: if they are going to make any attempt—as they have to—to reorganize, and to bring those cities back to some sort of consistency and possibility, they cannot leave out the Blacks.

Is the tendency of more state control and participation in the urban situation, replacing private capital, to be the trend of the future?

That is not in the urban cities alone. There is taking place in America, a transference of finance, and other abilities, from the North-East coast. Money has gone into the South. And they have built factories there for the manufacture of military materials.

The financial and structural strength which was in the North-East has shifted down to the South, to the West and South-West. The whole thing is changing. The economy has to be reorganized. If the whites have gone to the suburbs, they have to reorganize the central cities too. This must be taken on a scale, and as such, less and less will the Blacks be second class citizens.

Additional interviews with James can be found on: CLR James: Conversations and Interviews, 1938-1989. Additional interviews on The Public Archive can be found here.

Image: Federal City College — Faculty — C.L.R. James, 1975. Learning Resources Division. University Archives Collection, University of the District of Columbia. Washington, DC. Description: C.L.R. James (1901-1989) taught humanities at FCC between 1972 and 1980. James was a prominent Afro-Trinidian journalist, socialist theorist, and writer.

Transcription and copy-editing by Jessica Newby, Department of African American Studies, UCLA.

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Caribbean Workers and Capitalist Geography: An interview with Marion Werner

Geographer Marion Werner’s Global Displacements: The Making of Uneven Development in the Caribbean is among the most important, and easily the most innovative, work of political economy to emerge on the Caribbean region over the past decades. Issued by the excellent Antipode Book Series, the imprint of Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, Global Displacements is a rigorous and trenchantly argued examination of the impact of the global organization of capitalist accumulation and exploitation on the life and labor of Haitian and Dominican people. Focusing on the garment industry, Werner looks at the circulation of capital and labor under neoliberalism, paying close attention to questions of geography, race, and gender. A critical, Caribbeanist intervention into geographic and political-economic research, Global Displacements will stand as a classic work of Caribbean studies.

Werner is Associate Professor of Geography at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. Her research is located at the nexus of critical development studies, feminist theory, and political economy with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition to writing Global Displacements, Werner is a co-editor of The Doreen Massey Reader, and she has published articles in Geoforum, Geography Compass, New West Indian Guide, Economic Geography, Gender, Place, and Culture, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographers, Environment and Planning A, Social and Cultural Geography, and Antipode.

Werner is currently working on projects related to the international integration of national food systems via global trade and multinational regulation, including a study of rice farmers in the Dominican Republic and a project on the changing geographies of agricultural labor related to generic pesticide trade and production. 

THE PUBLIC ARCHIVE: With its granular focus on workers from Santiago de los Caballeros in the Cibao region of the Dominican Republic and the Haitian border town of Ouanaminthe, the lives and labor of Caribbean people are at the center of Global Displacements. Can you speak in general terms of who these people are and what issues they face in Caribbean labor markets structured and unstructured – and gendered – by global capitalism? Additionally, what are the kind of methodological issues you encountered in your research and writing?

First, thank you for these thoughtful questions, which have sat with me for many months. The current economic shutdown brought about by the COVID-19 crisis has led me to reflect on my work with unemployed garment workers, now well over a decade ago. Press coverage today casts the clash between use value, i.e., the needs, wants and desires for a meaningful, healthful existence, and capitalist value, i.e., surplus producing circulation, as a devil’s bargain between minimizing mass death (a.k.a. “flattening the curve”) and saving “the economy.” While ultimately reaffirming this profane tradeoff, government responses nonetheless reveal the various shades of capitalist regulation in practice: European countries and Canada to some extent have socialized payrolls; in the United States where I live, in contrast, people are thrown out of work, swelling the unemployment rolls to more than 33 million (as of May 14, 2020), and excluding tax-paying undocumented workers from even this benefit. Despite these distinctions, all of these high-income economies share the same position with respect to the millions of workers laboring in the transnational supply and services chains that provision their markets under the besieged, but very much entrenched, corporate globalization model.  From media outlets, readers get snapshots of contractors from Mexico to Bangladesh left unpaid and thousands of workers left jobless. But we should not be surprised by cash-rich corporations leaving suppliers and their workers stranded. As Genevieve LeBaron, a sociologist of labor in the UK, wrote: “it’s exactly what supply chains are set up to do” (on Twitter, April 15).

My book, Global Displacements, sought to illuminate tectonic shifts in the global economy brought about by neoliberal reforms through the lens of Caribbean garment workers’ experiences. The book was the culmination of more than a decade of work, initially outside academia, with garment workers in Central America and the Dominican Republic, spending many evenings and weekends in their homes listening to their stories, aspirations and disappointments. During that time, I observed a complex circulation of labor and capital that was equal parts common and devastating: workers cycled in and out of factories at a rhythm determined both by workers’ needs, desires and frustrations as well as permissive labor regulations and abusive management practices.  Punctuating this workplace turnover were the factories themselves, which also circulated in and out of different trade zones and neighborhoods to dodge taxes and obligations such as severance pay or a union organizing drive; factories also moved in and out of countries and sub-national regions to take advantage of new global trade rules put in place for their advantage. The ultimate commodity fetish under this model of global capitalism is that the garments (or iphones, strawberries, and any other global supply chain product) keep on coming despite these multi-scale displacements. The supply chain side of the current COVID-19 crisis reveals these displacements and their ethical dimensions most starkly, in food supply chains especially, which I’ll come back to in your last question.

Upon entering graduate school, I returned to the Dominican Republic to learn how workers navigate this instability.  During my research, around 80,000 garment jobs and dozens of factories shifted from the Dominican Republic to Asia or to lower-wage countries like Haiti as new trade rules favoring capital’s mobility took effect under the World Trade Organization. I spent a lot of time in the northern city of Santiago de los Caballeros, a center of garment production made up of mostly Dominican-owned factories. I was committed to a ‘multi-sited’ approach to my research. This meant not only following people and processes to other places, like the Haitian-Dominican border, but also considering the perspectives of people differently positioned in garment work. To that end, I interviewed managers, owners, engineers, development experts, food vendors and transport operators. But the bulk of my time was spent with retrenched garment workers as they figured out the next steps to support their livelihoods. At the heart of that process was their decision whether or not to migrate back to their campos, or rural hometowns, or to move abroad to New York, Spain, Panama, or elsewhere. Making these choices within structural constraints, women and men navigated urban and rural spaces in different ways to find not simply jobs or money, but positions of social worth. Their strategies were, of course, shaped by gender and the particular anti-Black racism that shapes working class people’s experiences in the Cibao. I really wanted to push the discussion beyond narrow economistic understandings towards a deeper appreciation of people’s expectations and desires in the context of capitalist displacements. For example, I dwell on the ways that workers themselves shape this geography of displacements through seemingly mundane occurrences, such as a worker ingratiating himself to his supervisor in order to get fired (and thus to qualify for severance pay) before the factory where he works closes up; or workers enduring serious cash and food shortages in the city in order to avoid the social stigma of returning to hometowns empty-handed. 

The very inequalities at the heart of my project – consumer/producer, North/South – also permeated my research. Both my social position (a white, ciswoman from Canada) and the multi-sited nature of the project posed ethical dilemmas.  These dilemmas have no easy solution and they remain salient in shaping and determining how, why and with whom I do research in the Caribbean, including PhD students, long-term collaborators in geography in Santo Domingo, and more recently, farmers and peasant movements. 

You’re a geographer. For those of us not in the field, can you explain what analytical tools the field brings to the study of Caribbean political-economic history? You write that you are attempting to produce “a relational geography of uneven development that foregrounds the ways in which places are iteratively forged in relation to one another” – but can you unpack this phrase for non-geographers, explaining how critical questions of space and place help us understand the different histories of Haiti and the Dominican Republic?

There has long been an impasse in development studies that sees, on the one hand, the realization of place-based modernization (deeply tied to Cold War ideology and its legacies), and, on the other, the stance that the wealth of some people and places is premised upon transfers from other people and places (i.e., Marxist core/periphery models). Critical geography has been particularly good at thinking through uneven development in historical and spatial terms to bolster and refine this second “dependency” position. Scholars like Doreen Massey, for example, long-explored core/periphery dynamics at different scales and considered how they were historically reproduced and challenged, and how they created ethical and moral connections between places. I found arguments by Massey and others to be compelling as the changes in the geographies of capitalism over the last half-century are no longer adequately described by presuming a rigid, static global North/South divide. What about China? Brazil? And what about the Dominican Republic and Haiti? But Anglo-Geography’s enduring Anglo-North-centrism was a limitation here. My work brings perspectives from Caribbean Studies more centrally into Geography, which has tended to ignore the Caribbean as a location that produces theory, instead reducing it to a site for empirical research (most recently through debilitating lenses of climate hazard and risk).  Scholars in (a broadly construed) Caribbean studies, including classic work by Sidney Mintz, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Fernando Ortíz, and Sylvia Wynter, as well as work by Fernando Coronil, Michaeline Crichlow and Katherine McKittrick (a geographer and key thinker of Black geographies), have long grappled with the uneven legacies of colonialism and how these play out in and through spatial difference. 

What then is a “relational geography of uneven development”? In short, I see it as the fractalization of core-periphery relations. We see that place-based inequality has only intensified as the dominant, ideological indicators of progress like average GDP per capita growth propel a general myth of development and failure. Obviously, Haiti and the Dominican Republic are extreme examples, but throughout Latin America, the abandonment of the already-problematic notion of national development has led to more intensely uneven and unequal inter- and intra-country differences: between northern and southern Mexico, northern and southern Brazil, and within smaller polities as well. As I show with the Cibao and the Haitian-Dominican border, these inequalities are long-standing, rooted in racialized histories of colonial capitalism; and, of course, they are not static. The border, for example, as a site of profit-making based on the profound inequalities between the Dominican Republic and Haiti is a relatively recent construction even if its conditions of possibility are formed over at least two centuries, as demonstrated by the work of historians like Robin Derby, Richard Turits, and Suzy Castor. In part, I see my book updating and building on that of two critical Caribbean geographers in the 1980s – Georges Anglades (who tragically died in the 2010 Haitian earthquake) and Rafael Emilio Yunén – to show the historical and geographical dynamics that produced Hispaniola through uneven development.   

In Caribbean studies, the plantation, or – “The Plantation” – has loomed larger over the field, with authors describing it as a social and cultural institution and not merely a political-economic machine. However, you write of the “global factory.” What is the global factory, and does it share a historical or historiographical continuity with The Plantation?

Let me answer first directly and then pan out based on critical political economy generally. In the book, I argue that the “global factory” is both meaning and material: it is both a site of exploitation through outsourcing and investment, and a set of assumptions about the path of development from agrarian to industrial to service economies. By focusing on the very instability of these factories as the model and not the exception, the book wants to make plain the social institutions and cultural forms that underlie Caribbean development, not as a false promise or failure, but rather as a set of enduring relations that are navigated and transformed as much from above as from below. This approach is deeply indebted to Caribbean studies of the plantation/smallholder complex, as part of critical agrarian studies more broadly. In the classic literature (I am thinking especially of Fernando Ortiz’ Cuban Counterpointand Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Haiti: State against Nation), scholars have long demonstrated the salience of colonial social relations around land, race, and labor as what Stuart Hall called “active structuring principles of the present.” The “global factory” then is not the sign of modernity but the latest iteration of those relations. 

Let me expand on this point by touching briefly on current debates in critical political economy. Implicit in the book, but more salient to current debates, The Plantation (as a more rigid structure) together with The Mine are at the fore of contemporary debates on our rapacious, capitalist age and resulting climate crisis. The general idea, as discussed by scholars such as Jason Moore, Donna Haraway, Sylvia Wynter and others is that the enduring binary of modernity that assigns value in hierarchical fashion to European Man versus a nature/racialized/feminized Other is central to the ongoing reproduction of capitalism. This reproduction is achieved not principally through the exploitation of labor, but rather through the degradation of land and the dispossession of people’s livelihoods and knowledge. This general approach is further developed in Indigenous studies, where scholars like Glen Coulthard and others demonstrate clearly that “proletarianization” (disciplining people into waged labor) is a narrow modus operandiof colonial capitalism, primarily reserved for Euro-descent men. Dispossession, not the inculcation of the liberal market subject, is the principal relationship of White settler colonialism to racialized Others. The ‘global factory,’ then, is better understood through this lens of coloniality, of dispossession and precarious labor as the modal condition for the world’s majority under colonial capitalism, rather than as a(n) (always already failed) transition to liberal subjectivity. 

This shift in the parameters of understanding colonial capitalism has much to learn from the long-standing work in Caribbean studies on cultural forms, autonomy, thriving and livelihood well beyond liberal models of “agency.” I want to mention a relevant example from Geography that contributes to this literature: Clyde Woods now classic account of regional formation in the Mississippi Delta calledDevelopment Arrested. Woods draws together plantation criticism and geographical work on uneven development in order to examine how the regional elite of the Delta, or what he calls the plantation bloc, reproduces its power over more than two hundred years. The genius of Woods account is his formulation of what he calls the Blues epistemology, a reservoir of indigenous knowledge and a mode of making community and surviving the sheer violence of the plantation bloc. With all of their important differences, contributions from Caribbean studies, Indigenous studies, Black geographies, and Black feminist studies offer grounded, critical accounts to think about the politics of colonial capitalism in ways that upend liberal structure/agency debates and center subaltern knowledges and theory. 

How does the notion of “coloniality” allow us to understand the organization of race, difference, and the value of labor along the Haitian-Dominican border?

The border is, of course, shaped by the divergent colonial histories of what are now these two nation-states, but it is periodically upended and reformed by particular events, hatched and planned elsewhere. The event that immediately comes to most people’s minds, of course, is the 1937 massacre under Trujillo. I lived in Ouanaminthe for about three months and made multiple trips there over a year while doing my study. I spent considerable time in the trade zone factories, but I benefited most from the perspectives of local intellectuals who had experienced the town’s unstable fortunes under episodic political upheavals and economic changes. I was really struck by how Ouanaminthe residents positioned the emerging trade zones within a particular history of development punctuated most strongly by the US embargo of Haiti from 1991-1994 after the ouster of Aristide. The embargo effectively reoriented the country’s provision of fuel through the town and led to massive, poorly planned migration and growth that not only upended social hierarchies, but also frayed the social infrastructure.  While the trade zone appeared to crystallize a rigid gender and race-cum-national hierarchy between Dominicans and Haitians, my fieldwork highlighted the other hierarchies at work, including the dynamics between the migrant workers who had come to Ouanaminthe from elsewhere during the embargo period, and the local residents who were clinging on to their social status in the midst of all of this change. The politics of value at the border then are of course dependent on abstracting embodied, historical difference into rigid categories assigned capitalist value. For the garment supply chains, this means Haitian workers doing feminized assembly work (i.e., coded as “unskilled” and thus employing mostly women and young people), supervisors bused in from Santiago, Dominican and Korean factory owners reaping a portion of the surplus, and North American brands ultimately seizing the largest share while determining the conditions and terms of the work. Through the notion of coloniality, and by delving into the particular regional history of the border, however, we see that these hierarchies of value are historically contingent and must be reproduced in order to achieve their apparent stability. Why does that matter? Because we tend to take “cheap labor” for granted, rather than to really interrogate what makes labor cheap, and thus, what has to happen to change that relationship.

Your current research is on questions of food systems and sovereignty in the Caribbean, with a focus on the Dominican Republic’s rice economy. Can you say something about your approach to these questions and your initial findings? What are the political-economic stakes in this research for the DR and the wider Caribbean? 

Neoliberal reforms in the 1980s took aim at national food systems, dismantling traditional state supports and forcing open domestic markets. For the Caribbean, domestic food systems have been radically restructured as a result, but the outcomes have been remarkably uneven.  Sovereignty questions in the Caribbean are at the heart of political debates and the question of food sovereignty is circulating very differently across the region. The contemporary notion as advanced by international groups, especially La Via Campesina (LVC), reflects demands by peasants and small farmers for bottom-up control of food systems. Both the Dominican Republic and Haiti have active peasant groups, members of LVC and advocates for the movement. My work has focused on how the sovereignty question is transformed by the state in the Dominican Republic with a focus on rice. I came to the question through various channels. One was the global food price crisis of 2007-2008 that precipitated wrenching hunger in Haiti and ultimately the resignation of the Prime Minister due to popular indignation. Meanwhile, in the Dominican Republic, rice production expanded and has since met 100 percent of domestic demand. How come the Dominican Republic has a relatively robust rice economy while Haiti’s has been so drastically dismantled? In part, the answer lies in the enduring legacies of anti-Blackness and coloniality. These legacies were strongly shaped by late Cold War politics. In my work, I have focused in particular on the legacies of land reform and the uneven implementation of neoliberal policies plus the exploitation of Haitian labor in the Dominican Republic from the 1970s to the present. The Dominican Republic in fact has institutionalized a version of food sovereignty, but it is hardly a progressive one. In the first instance, it relies upon thousands of poorly paid, migrant Haitian farmworkers. Yet, thousands of smallholder rice producers and their families are sustained by the country’s state-supported rice economy. And, under neoliberal trade agreements, that support is supposed to be dismantled.

The COVID-19 crisis is the latest shock to an already precarious food system organized through corporate-controlled supply chains. Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, we are seeing some countries re-investing in domestic food production and questioning the reliance on global markets for basic needs. I am exploring what this means for small farmers, for farmworkers and for households. Ultimately, the possibility for a new food politics built around a progressive notion of food sovereignty is at stake. The current crisis offers some opportunities but also real dangers. Either way, now more than ever, the case for shortening food supply chains, investing in domestic production and curbing corporate control in Caribbean agriculture is stronger than ever.

***

Past interviews by The Public Archive can be found here.

Image: C. Hammond, “Inside Caracol, 2017,” via The Haiti Support Group.

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Revolutions and Revisions: An Interview with Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg

In Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions (Pluto) Charles Forsdick and Christian Høgsbjerg have produced what is arguably the most important biography of Louverture since CLR James’ magisterial Black Jacobins was first published in 1938. Kicking against the contemporary anti-Black and anti-radical revisionism that downplays the historical importance of the revolution while dismissing the significance of Louverture himself, Forsdick and Hogsbjerg’s short monograph is urgent, timely, and strikingly well-written. They have also created a sort of supplement to the book, editing The Black Jacobins Reader (Duke), an excellent collection of essays, commentaries, and primary source material that provides additional context and critique for the writing, production, and circulations of James’ classic history.  

Charles Forsdick is James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool and the author Victor Segalen and the Aesthetics of Diversity (Oxford University Press, 2000), Travel in Twentieth-Century French and Francophone Cultures (Oxford University Press, 2005), among other works, and he has published widely on colonial history and postcolonial literature, travel writing, and Haiti, the Haitian Revolution, and the representations of Toussaint Louverture. Christian Hogsbjerg is a Lecturer in Critical History and Politics at the University of Brighton. He is the author of C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (Duke, 2014) and Chris Braithwaite: Mariner, Renegade, and Castaway (On Our Own Authority!,  2017), as well as numerous essays and articles. Hogsbjerg’s research interests focus on Caribbean history, the black presence in imperial Britain, the black experience of the British Empire, and CLR James. 

The Public Archive: Why Toussaint Louverture – and why now? And what led you both to historical projects on Black radicalism?

CH: When we are thinking of the origins or roots of contemporary movements like #BlackLivesMatter, the Haitian Revolution represents a foundational, inspirational moment but one of also wider world-historical impact and importance – “the only successful slave revolt in history,” as George Padmore first put it – and so as the most outstanding leader to emerge during that revolutionary upheaval Toussaint Louverture will always retain relevance and iconic significance.   From 1793, when Toussaint dropped his name Breda and became “Louverture” and began calling for universal “general liberty” he began to define freedom in more radical terms than anyone else.  As he put it at one point when critiquing liberal French republicans of the time –“we will obtain another freedom, different from the one you tyrants want to impose on us.” Fundamentally, Toussaint stressed that freedom was not a gift or something that could be bestowed from above, by tyrants – but it was something that had to be fought for and taken from below by the masses themselves. 

There is a quote from James Baldwin in the superb 2016 film I Am Not Your Negro, directed by Haitian director Raoul Peck, “When any white man in the world says “Give me liberty or give me death,” the entire white world applauds. When a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.”  History is a little bit more complex than that, but Baldwin has a point.  For fighting for liberty in colonial Saint-Domingue, Toussaint Louverture was judged a criminal by Napoleon, captured, deported and left in an isolated prison in the Fort de Joux near the French Alps, where he died in 1803.  We were privileged to be able to reproduce David Rudder’s calypso “Haiti” (1988) in The Black Jacobins Reader, and the opening of that speaks eloquently to Baldwin’s point:

Toussaint was a mighty man
And to make matters worse he was black
Black and back in the days when black men knew
Their place was in the back

Yet the intriguing complexities of Louverture – the sense he was a tragic hero who lost his way and before his capture by the French became in a sense the representative of an emerging new black ruling class in Haiti, need teasing out and exploring as well – and this can also help us to better understand the wider revolutionary process underway historically – and also help illuminate some of the subsequent fates of anti-colonial leaders of nationalist revolutions in the twentieth century.

My interest in historical projects on Black radicalism in part came from the anti-racist and anti-fascist activism that I was involved with, campaigning against the fascist British National Party while an undergraduate and post-graduate student in Leeds in the late 1990s and 2000s, as well as anti-war and anti-imperialist activism around the Stop the War movement at the time of Bush and Blair’s neo-colonial “war on terror.” My reading of C.L.R. James and The Black Jacobinsopened up this rich hidden history of Caribbean revolt and black British resistance that seemed an immense and timely “resource of hope” amidst the horror of things like the Iraq war and occupation – and also James’s Marxist approach was a timely antidote to contemporary prevailing intellectual fashions then underway in cultural history. I then began my doctoral work on C.L.R. James’s time in 1930s Britain at the University of York in 2004, building on a MA dissertation on the same topic at the same institution back in 2002, and this only further reinforced my sense that there was still so much work to be done in the fields of resistance among the enslaved and colonized across the Caribbean as well with respect to the history of black British radicalism.

Having the honour of editing James’s play Toussaint Louverture: The story of the only successful slave revolt in historyfor its first ever publication in 2013 with Duke University Press as part of their C.L.R. James Archives series drew me into reading further about revolutionary history in Haiti. (The play is currently being adapted into a graphic novel by Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee with Verso). When Pluto got in touch about writing a popular biography of Toussaint for their “Revolutionary Lives” series it seemed an obvious project for Charles and myself to undertake alongside our editing of The Black Jacobins Reader, not least because Charles and myself had already collaborated to co-write an essay together recovering the story of Sergei Eisenstein’s doomed attempt to make a film about the Haitian Revolution starring Paul Robeson. I think we both had a sense that there had not been a decent easily accessible political biography of Toussaint Louverture for a while, at least not in English, one that took him seriously as a great anti-imperialist fighter who could still inspire radicals today, and which could register and take account of the new research and writing in Haitian revolutionary studies that has emerged since James’s great work.

CF: Christian and I came to these projects from different perspectives – but serendipitously our trajectories converged and we were able to collaborate on the article about Eisenstein for History Workshop Journal, the Black Jacobins Readerand finally the biography of Louverture in Pluto’s “Revolutionary Lives” series. I had read C.L.R. James’s history of the Haitian Revolution long before I would develop a research interest in French colonial history and the so-called “French Caribbean.” I came back to the topic in 1998, in the year of the 150thanniversary of the abolition of slavery in the French colonial empire. I grew increasingly frustrated that the state-endorsed commemorative practices followed a predictable pattern (we would see the same in Britain in 2007, the year of the so-called “Wilberfest”), foregrounding abolition as a legislative, philanthropic process (embodied in French in figures such as Victor Scholecher) and downplaying, even denying the agency of the enslaved. James outlines the process in The Black Jacobins: “Sad though it may be, that is the way that humanity progresses. The anniversary orators and the historians supply the prose-poetry and the flowers.” Edouard Glissant described the 1998 celebrations in France along similar lines as a “Franco-French affair” – and this extended to the treatment of Toussaint Louverture, presented in that year’s events (when a plaque to him was unveiled in the Paris Pantheon) as a French Republican general and not as the Haitian freedom fighter who led a struggle against France, Britain and Spain that would lead to emancipation not only from the shackles of enslavement but also from those of colonial oppression. That process of domestication and gallicization fits into a longstanding assimilation of Louverture into more self-congratulatory narratives of French republicanism (there were even plans to Pantheonize him in 1989) – narratives that tend to deny the shortcomings of the French Revolution when it comes to questions of ethnicity (colleagues with whom I have collaborated in the ACHAC public history group call this “fracture colonial”) and also fail to acknowledge the singularity of the Haitian Revolution in its quest for universal emancipation.

In the late 1990s, when I was working on Edouard Glissant’s work in the context of ongoing research on exoticism and diversity (I’m currently editing a collection of translations of his later writings for Liverpool University Press), I knew he had written a little-studied radio play on the Haitian Revolution in the late 1950s, subsequently published as Monsieur Toussaint. It is a remarkable piece of theatre, in which the dying Louverture, imprisoned by Bonaparte at the Fort de Jouxin the Jura, relives his past with his cell haunted by figures from Haitian history. For Glissant, this was a key work, the first clear articulation of what he would call a ‘prophetic vision of the past’, and an attempt to reflect in terms of spatial performance (the initial radio play became a stage version) on pan-Caribbean solidarity – it’s important to note that the first version of Monsieur Toussaintwas written in 1959, the year that Glissant established, with Paul Niger, the Front Antillo-Guyanais pour l’Autonomie, as a result of which Charles de Gaulle prevented him from leaving France to return to the Caribbean until 1965. The play is a radical work in that it demonstrates how Louverture – even if, as its title suggests, he had been stripped by Napoleon of the trappings of his rank and returned to anonymity – transcended the confines of his prison cell to ensure that the incendiary nature of the Revolution continued. In a conference paper in 1998, I read Glissant’s work in relation to James’s 1936 drama – for which I then had to rely not on Christian’s 2013 edition with Duke University Press but on what is actually a version of the 1967 rewriting included in Errol Hill’s 1976 edition of eight Caribbean plays, A Times and a Season.

Drafts of the forthcoming graphic novel version of C.L.R. James’s play Toussaint Louverture, adapted and illustrated by Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee (reproduced here courtesy of Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee).

This initial work led me to focus on cross-cultural representations of Louverture more generally, a project that took on encyclopedic proportions as I realized how the revolutionary has been instrumentalized in so many different contexts in the two centuries following his death. The corpus I assembled included novels, poetry and plays; it extended to the visual arts and cinema; it now encompasses comics and video games – there is even now a Toussaint Louverture liqueur, and his image is emblazoned on barbecue aprons and mugs.  This proliferation of representations suggested to me a translatability, even an acceptability to Louverture that we do not associated with Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the revolutionary leader and liberator whose standing has always been greater in Haiti itself than elsewhere – and it was that translatability that led me to ask a series of questions about Louverture’s revolutionary legacies. Does the reproducibility of his image suggest that, like that of Che, his incendiary impact will slowly be exhausted in a process of neo-liberal appropriation, or are there flashpoints – like James’s engagement with Haiti in the 1930s – when those revolutionary afterlives are aligned with contemporary struggles and reignited? The context of #BlackLivesMatter, Rhodes Must Fall and other international activist movements aimed at challenging Afriphobia whilst demanding reparations suggest that this might be a particular moment in which Louverture frees himself again from the chains of more limiting, conservative representations. Our collaboration needs, I think, to be read in that context.

Your biography of Louverture has two major points of historiographical engagement. The first is with James’ classic study; the second with what you call a “conservative revisionism” that has offered some serious critiques of not only James’ work, but also of certain interpretations of Toussaint Louverture and the project of the Haitian Revolution. Two questions emerge from these engagements. First, in what ways did The Black Jacobinsboth open up and delimit your own attempts to tackle Louverture’s life? Second, what is the nature and origins of this conservative revisionism and how have you responded to it?

CH: We felt it was important to defend and restate the main underlying thesis of The Black Jacobins, including the way in which the French and Haitian Revolutions were intrinsically intertwined throughout, and James’s analysis of Toussaint Louverture in particular as a “black Jacobin.”  We had a sense that there would be few other scholars attempting to do such a thing, for doing so meant swimming against the stream of two dominant strands of thought in academia which not only reject such an approach theoretically but also in many ways felt emboldened by some of the new research that has come to light about the Haitian Revolution since James wrote his pathbreaking work back in 1938. Firstly, rightly, there has a growing attention to the African roots and dynamics of the Haitian Revolution among historians – but accompanying this has been a sense among many that we should avoid too much of an allegedly “Eurocentric” focus on the impact of the Enlightenment and the ideas of the French Revolution, which James is said to have overstated at the expense of a recognition of the “African” ideologies of both kingship and also that of vodou  – the latter a strong theme in Madison Smartt Bell’s 2007 biography of Toussaint Louverture. Yet the very title of James’s work – BlackJacobins – shows James was arguably well aware of the importance of the “Africanness” of the revolution in terms of ideologies of kingship and so on, and also of vodou as a revolutionary ideology – “the medium of the conspiracy” he called it in his work.  One strength of James’s work was his clear grasp that one of the most important processes during the revolution was that over the course of the struggle old ideas of “kingship” began to give way to a new discourse of “liberty and equality,” and these ideals became embodied as a powerful material force in the black revolutionary slave army under Toussaint’s leadership. The ideals of The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1789 and the National Convention’s abolition decree of 1794 fired Louverture’s rhetoric when addressing his own fighters. On 18 May 1797, in an Address to soldiers for the universal destruction of slavery,” for example, Louverture declared: “Let the sacred flame of liberty that we have won lead all our acts … Let us go forth to plant the tree of liberty, breaking the chains of our brothers still held captive under the shameful yoke of slavery.  Let us bring them under the compass of our rights, the imprescriptible and inalienable rights of free men.  [Let us overcome] the barriers that separate nations, and unite the human species into a single brotherhood.”

Secondly, there have always been attempts to downplay Toussaint’s political radicalism – perhaps he was a ”black Girondin” rather than a “black Jacobin” for example – but there has been a more recent conservative revisionist turn in historiography, epitomized for us by the recent otherwise quite impressive biography of Toussaint Louverture by Philippe Girard.  For Girard, it is time to drop the idea that “Louverture was the idealistic herald of slave emancipation” and “the forefather of an independent Haiti.”  Rather, as Girard tells us, “above all, he was a pragmatist … [concerned above all with] personal ambition … his craving for social status was a constant. Educating himself, seeing to his children’s future, making money, gaining and retaining power, and achieving recognition as a great man: he never wavered from the pursuit of these ends. He was a social climber and a self-made man…”

Our work fundamentally challenges Girard’s argument here.  Though new sources have come to light since James wrote, for example revealing Toussaint’s status as a slave-owner in pre-revolutionary Saint Domingue, he was not – and never claimed to be – a revolutionary until the revolution erupted in the last dozen years of his life. As a black person living in a non-revolutionary situation in a barbaric slave society most of his life, where black people could be killed on a whim by white people as a matter of course, with little (if any) chance of any legal or other repercussions, sheer survival and existencerepresented in itself a form of resistance. Girard himself relates one incident relating to Toussaint that happened while walking back from the Mass one day with his prayer book:  “According to the story, which he shared ten years later, ‘a white man broke my head with a wooden stick while telling me ‘do you not know that a negro should not read?’”  Louverture prudently begged for forgiveness and slipped away, a decision that likely saved his life.  But he kept his blood-soaked vest as a reminder and neither forgot nor forgave. Running into the same man years later, after the outbreak of the slave revolt, he killed him on the spot.”

Drafts of the forthcoming graphic novel version of C.L.R. James’s play Toussaint Louverture, adapted and illustrated by Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee (reproduced here courtesy of Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee).

Moreover, once the Haitian Revolution began in 1791, as we argue it is surely a little odd to maintain that Louverture was “above all” a “pragmatist” concerned with “personal ambition,” “social status” and “making money.”  Such a person, it might be suggested, would be an unlikely person repeatedly to risk life and limb by putting themselves on the frontline of a black slave army fighting under the banner of “Liberty or death” – and indeed, would be the least likely person to be able to inspire others to follow him into battle under such a slogan. If Louverture had wanted money and status above all, there were surely safer ways to try and secure them, even once the revolt had begun.  Indeed, rather than seeing Louverture essentially as a “self-made man,” we would re-iterate the point made by James, who stressed that on a fundamental level “it was the revolution that made Toussaint.”

Incidentally, Philippe Girard in his review of our work in the New West Indian Guidefor some reason avoids engaging with the substantive critique of his work that we make, instead accusing us of “ideological bias,” arguing “historians normally comb archives and then follow the sources wherever they may take them. Forsdick and Høgsbjerg proceed the other way around, beginning with a wish ‘to reassert the incendiary political implication of [Louverture’s] life, actions, and revolutionary political thought’…” Quite how one is supposed to start historical work researching the leader of the greatest slave revolt in world history without having any pre-existing “ideological” preconceptions is unclear, and indeed James in The Black Jacobinsdismissed the kind of ultra-empiricist approach apparently favoured by Girard as a completely inappropriate method when writing revolutionary history. As James put it, historians who try to be “fair to both sides” in a revolution tend to miss not only “the creative actions and ideas of the revolutionary forces” but even “the clash of an irresistible conflict, of suddenly emergent forces pursuing unsuspected aims” which overtly reactionary historians can sometimes give a clearer sense of.

CF: Unlike Christian, who is a historian, I have always come to James as a student of France and as someone who has emerged from a British tradition of “French Studies.” According to a sort of methodological nationalism, my disciplinary background is one that has often had a mimetic relationship to intellectual traditions in France, often failing to question either the ethnolinguistic assumptions of much French thought or the ethnocentric emphases of revolutionary historiography. My more recent work – notably on Pierre Nora’s Lieux de mémoire– has attempted to reveal colonial blind spots and contribute to the decolonization of French intellectual histories. For me, the experience of reading James’s Black Jacobinswas inevitably central to this work – and I suspect his uneven reception in France, at least until recent years when scholars such as Matthieu Renaulthave made the importance of his work so much more accessible, reflects the highly disruptive nature of his thesis. It overturns so many assumptions in France, not least those that for many years reduced the Haitian Revolution to a poor tropical imitation of its more serious French counterpart, some exotic sideshow to the events in Paris. The visibility of Haiti and its Revolution still remains limited in France, and knowledge of the country – past and present – has until recent years been surprisingly partial. James reminds us that at certain points in the 1790s, the centre of gravity of revolutionary struggle was focused in Saint-Domingue; he demonstrates that the Haitian revolutionaries were able to imagine possible futures – not least relating to universal emancipation – that were, in the terms deployed by Michel-Rolph Trouillot – “unthinkable” for their French counterparts. Building on these reflections, we can suggest that the tensions between universalism and ethnic diversity with which France still grapples are rooted in the historic failure to acknowledge Haiti and its Revolution –  a failure cemented by the massive debt imposed on the country in 1825 in return for recognition of its independence, a debt that was only paid off in 1946 and that led in part to the chronic underdevelopment of independent Haiti.

In relation to your specific question about conservative revisionism in the area of revolutionary historiography, this needs to be read in a much wider frame of re-figurings of Louverture. Historical characters associated with legend inevitably lend themselves to a greater malleability. This was as true in the interwar period, when James was researching The Black Jacobins, as it has been more recently. Let’s not forget that James’s version of the Haitian revolutionary is just one of a number that emerged in the 1930s. We tend to retain the more progressive ones of these – Césaire’s anti-racist rendering of Louverture in his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal; Jacob Lawrence’s pictorial interpretation, in the context of the Harlem Renaissance, in the 42 panels of his remarkable Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, now at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans – and then conveniently forget others, most notably the reading of Louverture as a ruthlessly ambitious dictator in Die Revolution von Saint Domingue(1930), by the Nazi historian Erwin Rusch. More recent readings of Louverture that deny his revolutionary ambition and claim that he was committed to protecting a status quo (and his own interests within that status quo) may be associated with a long-standing French historiographic tradition in this area. Pierre Pluchon’s Toussaint Louverture: Un révolutionnaire noir de l’Ancien Régime (1989) argued, for instance, as its subtitle suggests, that Louverture was an Old Regime revolutionary, seeking to replace white with black rule in an attempt to maintain colonial order.

In your introduction to The Black Jacobins Reader you argue that The Black Jacobinsis “much more than a book” and you describe it as part of a “text-network” made up of a series of “translations without an original.” What do you mean by this – and what are the texts (and contexts) that produced The Black Jacobins? How does this enhance our understandings or interpretation of The Black Jacobins?

CF: The idea of the “text-network” made up of a series of “translations without an original” is one we borrow from Susan Gillman’s highly suggestive study of The Black Jacobinsincluded in an excellent collection of essays edited by Peter Hulme and others, Surveying the American Tropics. Gilman in turn adopts the concept from the classicist Dan Selden. In a 2010 article in Ancient Narrative, Selden had challenged the ways in which studies of the “ancient novel” tend to privilege an understanding of single-authored texts to detriment of reading works as evidence of a “multiplicity of different versions, in a wide variety of different languages, retailored to fit a host of different cultural contexts.” A figure we might use to understand such forms of production and dissemination is that of the rhizome, central to Caribbean thought as a result of its adoption by Edouard Glissant in Poétique de la Relationand other writings. We suggest in the Readerthat to read The Black Jacobinsrhizomatically has major implications for the ways in which we understand the text and its impact. On the one hand, it allows us to undermine any cult of authorship: despite the distinctive nature of his writing, James’s writing of his work was openly dialogic, the result of conversations with a range of interlocutors including, for instance, Haitian diplomat Auguste Nemours and James’s compatriot Eric Williams; at the same time, the text includes fragments from a plethora of sources, published and manuscript – we still need a comprehensive critical edition of The Black Jacobins, identifying in detail the material on which James drew and the differences between editions.

The answer to your question is provided as a result in large part by Rachel Douglas’s The Making of the Black Jacobins(Duke University Press, 2019), a meticulous study of the ways in which James engaged with the history of the Haitian Revolution across six decades of his life. These rewritings stretch from the first mention of Toussaint Louverture in his 1931 article in The Beacon, written even before he had left Trinidad, critiquing the pseudoscientific racism of Sidney Harland, to a series of articles, lectures and other engagements in his later years. In a literal sense, The Black Jacobins– drama or history – is a profoundly unstable text, and this not only because of the multiple versions that exist, with, as David Scott has demonstrated, often very different emphases. Already, within James’s own writing practice, we see evidence of transgeneric translation, as a narrative that began life as a play is transformed into a history (in which traces of Shakespearean tragedy of course persist). But his engagement with Haiti spills beyond these works. Anyone who explores James’s wider oeuvreor who visits his archives at UWI St-Augustine, Columbia University or elsewhere will be struck by the recurrence of references to Haiti, in articles, lectures, book reviews, prefaces, correspondence. The Haitian Revolution was a result catalytic to James’s thought at the beginning of his career, during the initial six-year period in Europe that Christian studies so well in his C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain(2014), but continued to play an important role in his thinking for the rest of his life – a process within which there is a clear evolution in attitudes to the meanings of the Revolution and crucially to the agency of various actors within it.

Reading The Black Jacobinsas a “text-network” also means reflecting on the role of translation in its production and dissemination. There is the hidden work of translation by James himself as sources in languages other than English (primarily French) were processed and assimilated as a result of his original research; as we explain in the introduction to the Reader(and as Rachel Douglas explores in more detail in The Making of the Black Jacobins), the book itself has also been translated into multiple languages (we include translations back into English of the prefaces to the French, Italian and Cuban versions, written by Pierre Naville, John Bracey and Madison Smartt Bell respectively), all of which have contributed to the afterlives not only of The Black Jacobinsitself, but also of the Haitian Revolution more generally.

Also let’s not forget transmedial translations, a particularly good example of which is Lubaina Himid’s engagement with Haiti via her reading of C.L.R. James in 1980s Britain (this is studied in detail in the recent Liverpool University Press book, Inside the invisible: Memorialising Slavery and Freedom in the Life and Works of Lubaina Himid). In Himid’s work, I’m particularly interested in Toussaint L’Ouverture, a mixed media portrait of the revolutionary leader from 1987 recently acquired by the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. It uses a collage of words from contemporary newspaper headlines – “RACIST”, “TORTURE”, “ABUSE” – to underline the contrast between the promise of universal emancipation won by the Haitian Revolution and the persistence of inequalities relating to race and ethnicity in the modern world. “The news wouldn’t be news,” Himid wrote in the piece, “if you had heard of Toussaint L’Ouverture.”      In short, reading the book not as a static, single volume but as a “text-network” helps us understand how it functions and inspires as a classic of revolutionary historiography.

CH: Reflecting on the writing of The Black Jacobinsin 1980, C.L.R. James noted “my West Indian experiences and my study of Marxism had made me see what had eluded many previous writers, that it was the slaves who had made the revolution.”It is critically important to understand something of the interwar period – historically, politically, culturally – to make sense of the writing of The Black Jacobins, whether James’s experiences of the 1919 mass strike in colonial Trinidad and the subsequent growth of the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association as a mass nationalist organization, through to his campaigning for “West Indian Self-Government” and wider Pan-African liberation while in Britain in the 1930s, his reading of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolutionin Nelson, Lancashire, while supporting a mass strike of cotton workers in 1932, through to his witnessing mass demonstrations and strikes against fascism while researching the Haitian Revolution in Paris in 1934, his building of solidarity with the Ethiopian people at the time of Mussolini’s war in 1935, and with the Spanish Revolution in 1936 and the Caribbean Labour Rebellions of the late 1930s – with much of the researchundertaken while Haiti itself was under US military occupation. Stuart Hall– to whom The Black Jacobins Reader is dedicated – once well described how “what is riveting … is the way in which the historical work and the foregrounded political events are part of a kind of seamless web … they reinforce one another.” It is important to recall that James was writing in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution – and like many black colonial subjects he was greatly inspired by that process – and the wider revolutionary movements that shook Europe in this period – outlined in James’s own work World Revolution, 1917-1936– meant that ideas of “revolution” and the importance of revolutionary history, questions of revolutionary theory, organization, strategy and tactics and so on had an urgency and relevance then that that they have not had subsequently.  James as a “black Bolshevik” identified as strongly with the Russian Revolution as the “black Jacobin” Toussaint Louverture did with the French Revolution, and James’s sense of the degeneration that had accompanied the rise of Stalin by the 1930s gave him an insight into how the degeneration of the French Revolution with the rise of Napoleon in a fundamental sense had betrayed the hopes of Haitian revolutionaries.   As Charles has already mentioned, the way the work then gets revised by James over the course of his life amid the changing contexts and the breakthrough of decolonization is something explored well by Rachel Douglas in her new work, The Making of The Black Jacobins.

You also make the point that although it sometimes feels as if The Black Jacobins has dominated the historiography of the Haitian Revolution since it was first published in 1938, the reality was and is somewhat more complicated. How so?

CH:The Black Jacobinsin the first edition was an expensive hardback, and so was either passed hand to hand by activists (there is a fantastic story of James trying to ensure Louis Armstrong’s copy of the work was passed on to Martin Luther King in 1957 for example) or perhaps read in a university library.   In that sense, while figures such as the Jamaican Pan-Africanist Amy Ashwood Garvey could hail it in 1940 as “the most revolutionary book on Toussaint L’Ouverture,” it could be ignored by most of the wider Western historiography of the Haitian Revolution – just as the first edition of Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slaveryin 1944 was more or less ignored by British historians.  This said, it was read and did begin to make it into the footnotes of some of the more radical historians, including Eric Hobsbawm’s work The Age of Revolution, and including in Haiti itself thanks to the 1949 French translation by Pierre Naville.  It was not really however until the rising Civil Rights Movement in the US meant there was a market suddenly for a Vintage paperback edition in 1963 that helped the work shape the thinking of a new generation of both activists and scholars during the 1960s and 1970s, just as Capitalism and Slaverybegan to be taken more seriously by the wider historical establishment in Britain with the 1964 edition of that work – slowly both books became more and more impossible for even bourgeois scholars to ignore any longer.

CF: This is an important question. The Black Jacobins now has all the trapping of a classic: a popular Penguin edition (prefaced by James Walvin, and recently selected by The Left Book Club as its choice in January 2020); the multiple translations I’ve referred to already; now an academic “reader” devoted to it… But let’s not forget that the first edition of the book risked disappearing from view and had a relatively limited impact. 1938 was, in retrospect, not the best moment for The Black Jacobinsto appear, in part because imminent global conflict would deflect (temporarily at least) from the pressing debates about anti-colonialism to which James was responding and contributing, in part because its publication coincided with James’s departure for the USA. It might also be argued also that the first edition was premature in terms of its contribution to debates about postcolonialism and neo-colonialism, phenomena with which Haiti engaged – as Nick Nesbitt has so eloquently suggested – 150 years before they would become hallmarks of the ideology and praxis of the second half of the twentieth century.

Until the second edition of The Black Jacobinsappeared in 1963, the book was an underground, more confidential form of intervention. It was a new generation of readers from the Caribbean – George Lamming in particular, Walter Rodney as well – who encouraged James to revisit and republish his work, which appeared in the new Vintage edition to which Christian has alluded, with the postface “From Toussaint Louverture to Fidel Castro” situating it in a new context of contemporary political struggle. Despite James’s own focus on the Caribbean at that time, The Black Jacobinsthen spoke to a range of movements, local and global, that transcended the Caribbean: Black Power, anti-apartheid, tricontentinentalism; but it also served as a point of reference for an emerging group of historians – David Geggus, for instance, whose PhD produced in York in the 1970s remains the definitive account of the largely disavowed place of British troops in the Haitian Revolution – committed to granting Haiti the place it merits in accounts of what Hobsbawm called the “age of revolution.” In a bibliography that is still expanding of lives of Louverture or histories of the Revolution (I eagerly await Sudhir Hazareesingh’s Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, for instance, due to appear in the Autumn, as well as the graphic novel of James’s play currently being drawn by Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee), James’s account has retained its central role – it remains the initial text that I recommend to students wishing to understand the place of Haiti in world history. Additional archival sources have been uncovered, new theses explored, but no other account competes with James’s for its breadth and incisiveness of analysis and for the ways in which it captures the persistently incendiary meanings of the Revolution for those seeking to imagine what David Scott has called possible postcolonial futures.

Another question on circulation. How was The Black Jacobins taken up in the Caribbean and Africa?

CH: This is a fascinating question, and one that surely requires more research  – I once came across a reference to “Toussaint Louverture clubs” in existence in colonial Trinidad in 1938, but my sense is that these were short-lived middle class literary societies and it seems unconnected to James or his work.  George Padmore worked to ensure The Black Jacobins was known among anti-colonial activists in colonial Africa and the Caribbean, writing a widely republished review praising the work and aimed to send a few copies to Pan-Africanist contacts in West Africa – perhaps the most notable reader of the work to emerge out of this milieu would have been Kwame Nkrumah.  Intriguingly there was a copy of the French edition in the library of Frantz Fanon.  James himself testifies to the impact of the work in apartheid South Africa among students, while Thabo Mbeki once stated that after he read The Black Jacobins, he knew that apartheid would ultimately be defeated.  Many radical intellectuals and writers of the 1960s and 1970s aside from Mbeki engaged with it deeply – whether one is talking about Walter Rodney, George Lamming, Stokely Carmichael, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o or the circle of young black Caribbean radicals in the C.L.R. James Study Circle in Montreal, Canada that David Austinhas written about.  James’s 1967 revised playThe Black Jacobins was produced and staged in Nigeria of course, and the circumstances of this have been discussed extensively by Rachel Douglas.

CF: Yes, this is a question that interested us greatly while we were preparing The Black Jacobins Reader– and we both concluded that considerably more research is required. We were grateful to Matthew Smith for his chapter on Haiti in British West Indian thought before The Black Jacobinswas published. It is clear that afterits publication, James’s book has predominated. Christian mentions the presence of Les Jacobins noirsin Fanon’s library – and I’m particularly interested in this Francophone postcolonial engagement. Césaire clearly knew James’s work and cites it in passing in his Toussaint Louverture:La Révolution française et le problème colonial(just as James would cite the Cahier d’un retour au pays natalin the 1963 postface to The Black Jacobins). The two men met in Cuba at the Havana Cultural Congress of 1968 – Andrew Salkey memorably describes the encounter in his Havana Journaland James devotes a fragment to Césaire in his unpublished autobiography. Another dimension of this story is the reception of The Black Jacobinsin Haiti itself. We have tantalizing glimpses of James’s interactions with Haitian historians, notably Etienne Charlier, author of the classic Marxist history of the Revolution in Aperçu sur la formation historique de la nation haïtienne, and Jean Fouchard, for the English translation of whose Les Marrons de la Liberté (The Haitian Maroons: Liberty or Death) James wrote a preface in 1981, the year after Fouchard’s death. It is unclear whether James ever travelled to Haiti – it seems unlikely – but he definitely had plans for a visit in the 1950s when he also alluded to a possible Haitian translation of his work. I’m not one for counterfactual history, but it is striking to speculate on the impact that translation might have had had it appeared in Duvalier’s Haiti.

What is the theoretical, and perhaps methodological, importance of The Black Jacobinsto debates concerning the history of capitalism and slavery?

CH: Stuart Hall once wrote that James in The Black Jacobinswas the first to centre Atlantic slavery in world history – so in this sense the importance of James’s work to these debates is self-evident.  Certainly, James’s short discussion on the economic roots of British parliamentary abolitionism formed the essential outline of Eric Williams’s more famous and lengthy contribution in this field – as Williams himself acknowledged, though in my opinion James’s grasp of the modernity of colonial slavery and the slave ships and plantations thanks to his underlying theoretical grasp of the uneven and combined nature of capitalist development meant his analysis of the exact relationship between capitalism and slavery is more sophisticated than that of Williams in many respects.  Personally I have also been struck by James’s pioneering class analysis of the enslaved themselves – part proto-proletariat, part proto-peasantry while also recognizing that in many ways they were also part proto-consumers, long before slavery scholars coined these terms.  More broadly, James was the first to stress the importance of the Haitian Revolution to the wider transition from feudalism to capitalism in terms of Marxist historiography, and so the work formed the central part of his wider lifelong intellectual contribution which was, as he saw it, to explain the relationship of black people to “Western Civilisation.”

CF: Yes, the genesis of The Black Jacobinsand Capitalism and Slavery(or at least the thesis on which it was based) are so closely intertwined that James once claimed he and Williams co-authored parts of each text. James was, however, one of the first to see the plantation as an early expression of the logic of capitalism, a testing ground for the nineteenth-century developments of the industrial revolution. Thanks to the work of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, we now have a much clearer evidence base to track how slavery and capitalism would be subsequently linked. But at a more fundamental level, James shows how the dehumanization of enslavement transformed the enslaved into capital. The first chapter of The Black Jacobinsremains one of the most searing statements of this historical reality, but the text also shows an interest in the economic underpinnings of the Revolution – in Louverture’s pragmatism (his re-imposition of the plantation can be seen as a form of state capitalism) but also in the alternatives of agrarian self-sufficiency and devolved ownership proposed by Louverture’s nephew Moïse. James’s growing interest in Moïse (and in Louverture’s decision to execute him) predominates in his later engagements with Haitian revolutionary historiography, as Rachel Douglas demonstrates in her analyses of the 1967 dramatic rendering of The Black Jacobins – and reflects his growing commitment to a history from below that moves away from over-privileging of the heroes, from what Maryse Condé dismissed as “conventional reactionary bric à brac.” There, for James, economic history meets Shakespearean tragedy as it is clear that the failure to grasp the implications of ignoring Moïse’s alternative model reveals Louverture’s fatal flaw.

You suggest that James was aware of the methodological and archival limitations of The Black Jacobins, especially concerning the focus on Louverture. Can you say more about this – about James’ own critiques, and about how other writers have extended or revised James biographical-historical method?

CH: James as a good historian was of course always aware that new sources would emerge in archives which would necessitate the revision of this or that specific aspect of his argument, but he also felt – rightly in my opinion – that the foundations of his argument would be in a sense “imperishable.” I would therefore not want to draw the kind of strict demarcation between the 1938 version and the 1963 revised version of the text that for example David Scott has done in his fascinating work, Conscripts of Modernity.  My sense is that within The Black Jacobinsthere is of course the romantic focus on anticolonial revolt which gives it is epic quality as a work of historical literature – but Scott in Conscripts of Modernityis mistaken to place James’s focus on tragedy as only coming through in the later 1963 edition, with the additional paragraphs in the closing chapter.   When James wrote his play Toussaint Louverturein 1934, he portrayed Toussaint as a tragic hero of colonial enlightenment, and there is an important sense in which James discusses the Haitian Revolution as a bourgeois revolution, though this line of argument is muted somewhat – no doubt James wanted to inspire those fighting for colonial liberation, not depress them.  Some of James’s later critiques of The Black Jacobinsin some senses are about his own slight political move away from the classical Marxist framework which made it such an outstanding work of “total history,” towards the more popular “history from below” approaches which for example inspired James’s student Carolyn Fick in her own important work, The Making of Haiti: The Saint-Domingue Revolution from below.  Yet though James once suggested that he might rewrite The Black Jacobinsas The Black Sans culottesif he was going to start all over again, the fact he did not ever re-write or re-title later editions of the work suggests to me he always retained at least some of his old Leninist instincts about the importance of revolutionary leadership for successful revolutionary struggles into his old age.

CF: Your question is central to the progressive rewriting in which James engaged. I agree with Christian that that process was both organic and dialogic, and does not include any of the sudden volte-faces that some accounts of this engagement sometimes imply. The Black Jacobinsis rooted in the intensive archival work that James conducted in Paris, often between cricket seasons when his work as a journalist was in abeyance. But he continued to rethink these sources and to reassess his interpretation of them. Already in the 1950s, in his correspondence with Etienne Charlier, the possibility of a history of the Revolution “from below” was clear, and this became particularly apparent in the later 1960s when James revisited his dramatic version of The Black Jacobins. He articulated these shifts in the series of 1971 lectures at the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, in particular in the one entitled “How I would rewrite The Black Jacobins,” in which he states that Louverture might ultimately be granted little more than a walk-on part in a new version of the book. James was inspired here by the new historiography of the French Revolution – in particular the work of Lefevre and Soboul, the second of whom presented the sans-culottes as a social class, a proto-proletariat who played a key role– and stated that he would seek to focus more on the “2,000 leaders to be taken away” about whom Leclerc warned Napoleon following the arrest of Louverture. The IBW lectures were published for the first time in Small Axein 2000, and in an excellent afterword, Anthony Bogues suggests that they allow us to “think withand then beyondJames” – I take this as meaning that the lectures allow us not only to understand the organic development of James’s thought, but also to locate The Black Jacobinsin relation to a range of other interpreters of the Haitian Revolution – Carolyn Fick, John Thornton, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Laurent Dubois, Matthew Smith, Johnhenry Gonzalez– who are in dialogue with James, who complement and on occasion challenge his work.

Can you say something about the editorial process behind The Black Jacobins Reader? What are the origins of the project and what guided your decisions about how to frame it, what to include and not include?

CH: The Black Jacobins Readeremerged out of a one day London Socialist Historians Groupconference I co-organised back in 2008, to mark the 70thanniversary of the work – the fact the book only appeared in late 2017, just before the 80thanniversary, tells you something about the lengthy gestation period and editorial process involved in putting this together.  I think as editors we wanted a mix of classic original material relating to the book that had never been published in English before (the gem I think here being the transcript of James’s 1970 radio interview about the work with Studs Terkel, which we discovered relatively late on), a range of new scholarship relating to the book, some of which we had from the conference, some of which we solicitated afterwards, and then some more personal contributions by leading activists and scholars of the Haitian Revolution testifying to the works importance and impact.   Selma James played a very helpful role here, soliciting the contributions from the two imprisoned Black Panthers, Mumia Abu-Jamal and Russell Maroon Shoatz on our behalf.  We were constrained by length – it is some 400 pages – from including much more, though we remain thankful to the editors of Duke for giving us the space and length we needed to include everything we did.

CF: Christian knew of my work on the re-figurings of Toussaint Louverture and I was pleased when he invited me to collaborate on bringing together the Reader. The 2008 London conference was a lively, highly significant event, bringing together – as is customarily the case with workshops and conferences devoted to James – academics and activists. The reader captures some of its commitment to bridging the artificiality of that divide. We were keen to fill a gap in the existing literature by producing a volume entirely devoted to The Black Jacobins– previous volumes, such as C.L.R. James:  His Intellectual Legacies edited by Selwyn Cudjoe and William Cain,had dedicated sections to the book, but we felt that more sustained attention was required. Christian has described the balance we sought between first-hand accounts of the influence of James’s work and more conventional academic studies; to these we added our detailed introduction, on the genesis and afterlives of The Black Jacobins, and various appendices (a section we might have expanded had we had more flexibility). Our aim was to bring together contributions into a book that could be used equally by students, scholars and activists. We wanted to show that The Black Jacobinsis a living document, one whose meanings continue to evolve. And we were profoundly aware of the company we were keeping in the C.L.R. James Archives series published by Duke University Press, a collection dedicated to presenting to a contemporary audience, in its breadth and diversity, the work of one of the great intellectual figures of the twentieth-century.

You dedicate Toussaint Louverture to Robert A. Hill and Janet Alder and Hill provides an introduction to The Black Jacobins Reader.What role has Hill played in the development of both projects? And Alder?

CH: Robert A. Hill has been a very important mentor to me personally in terms of C.L.R. James scholarship, and this together with his editorial expertise and outstanding record of scholarship on the African diaspora and Pan-Africanism in particular were absolutely invaluable when it came to all the editorial work I have done with the Duke University Press C.L.R. James Archives series, from theToussaint Louvertureplay through to World Revolution. ForThe Black Jacobins Reader, for example, originally Charles and myself had envisaged including as many as possible original reviews the 1938 edition received in full – it was Robert A. Hill who understood this would make the book too big in size – I think the phrase he used was “over-egging the cake” or something – and so we then decided to cut this section out and just include extracts from some of the reviews in our introduction – a decision that we came to see made very good sense.    It was an honour for us to carry his foreword to The Black Jacobins Readergiven his profound understanding of the work – and the fact he gave us the honour of co-editing such a work as The Black Jacobins Readermade it only right that we acknowledged him when we came to write Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions. 

Janet Alder’s brother Christopher – a black former paratrooper – was killed while in police custody in Hull in 1998 – the same year I started University as an undergraduate and so I have seen Janettirelessly and courageously campaign for justice for her brother for over twenty yearsin the face of enormous pressures.  Her indefatigability here as a campaigner for “Black Lives Matter” long before the hashtag was born for me stands as reminiscent of that shown by the Haitian revolutionaries, and so in that sense I felt the dedication to her was most appropriate.  The fact that much of her campaigning has taken place in the city to which William Wilberforce was once the MP only further highlights some of the continuities between the racism born of colonial slavery and the racism which continues to kill in the present day.

CF: I echo Christian’s gratitude to Robert A. Hill, who provided patient, wise counsel throughout our preparation of the Readerand was a great supporter of our collaborative work. As literary executor of the C.L.R. James estate and eyewitness of much of the context to The Black Jacobinsthat interested us, he never let his personal investment in the project impede our own ambitions for the volume, and it seemed only natural that we would subsequently dedicate the Louverture biography to him. The parallel dedication to Janet Alder was a mark of our respect for her indefatigable commitment to uncovering the truth about her brother’s unlawful killing, despite the harassment to which she has been subject herself. Colonial slavery, for whose abolition Louverture fought, has clear contemporary afterlives, and we were keen to link historical and contemporary struggles in this way.

You invoke the Kreyòl saying tou moun se moun (“everyone is a human being”) in your discussion of the politics of race and citizenship in Haiti after 1804. What does this expression mean in the context of 1804 and what are the lessons that that phrase – and Haiti, in the immediate aftermath of independence – offer us now? Importantly, you also appear to suggest a sort of historical redemption of Jean-Jacques Dessalines.

CF:Tout moun se moun – “every person is a human being” – was a refrain common in Haiti from the moment of independence. A radically egalitarian principle suggesting that all lives matter and that everyone has the right to dignity, it was more recently adopted as the title of Aristide’s 1992 autobiography, written just before he was ousted from power for the first time the previous year. The idea of universal emancipation fed into the aspirations underpinning Haitian sovereignty and were enshrined in Dessalines’s 1804 constitution. In Haiti, Louverture is known as the “Precursor,” Dessalines as the “Liberator” – and it is Dessalines who was tasked with consolidating the gains of the Revolution and defending them against multiple threats. Post-independence, Haiti has struggled to defend this principle, often in the face of external interventions such as the US occupation of 1915-34 or the damaging impact of the UN stabilization mission (known as MINUSTAH) following Aristide’s second ousting, with the introduction of cholera and accusations of other human rights abuses. At the same time, the totalitarian, despotic excesses of the Duvalier regime reveal how the principle has been equally challenged by internal forces. The often-repeated observation that Haiti is the “poorest country in the Western hemisphere” perpetuates a sense of dependency. What we regularly ignore is what Haiti can teach the rest of the world, not least how we are dependent on it for the vision of a universal emancipation that the American and French Revolutions could not even imagine, of a radical equality that threatened the logic of slavery and colonialism as much as it now threatens that of neo-liberal capitalism.

One reservation I’ve always had in working on Toussaint Louverture is that focus on his life, achievements and afterlives is often to the detriment of the attention that Dessalines himself merits. Louverture is somehow acceptable and translatable in ways that his former lieutenant (and, as Gabriel Debien and subsequently Jacques de Cauna and Philippe Girard have suggested, someone who had been enslaved by Louverture’s son-in-law) still is not. In that sense, we may create analogies between the two Haitian Revolutionaries and other pairs of radicals, notably MLK and Malcolm X. I have often stated in my writing and teaching that there are over 200 biopics of Napoleon and none of Toussaint Louverture. We need to remember, however, that there are dozens of biographies of Louverture but as far as I’m aware none of Dessalines in English (and very few in French, with most of these published in Haiti, by authors including Timoléon C. Brutus and Gérard M. Laurent, meaning they have limited distribution). This despite the fact that in Haiti it is Dessalines who is a lwain the vodou pantheon, that the national anthem is known as the Dessalinienne… Dubroca produced a scurrilous biography of Dessalines in 1804, which was translated into English, German and Spanish (his equally defamatory life of Louverture was also popular at the time). Subsequent representations – even by African American authors – have tended to perpetuate the stereotype of Dessalines as a fierce and brutal figure. Julia Gaffield, who edited an excellent collection of essays on Dessalines’ 1804 constitution (a copy of which she uncovered while doing doctoral research in the National Archives in Kew) is currently working on a manuscript entitled Jean-Jacques Dessalines: Freedom or Death, due to appear with Yale University Press, and has also made available online as the “Dessalines Reader,”a valuable collection of archival materials relating to her subject. There is a pressing need also for a political biography of Dessalines, one that avoids the excesses of past hagiography or demonization, and can be seen as part of wider project of reparative history of race and resistance.

Header image: George Debaptiste, Toussaint L’Overture (c. 1870) Source: Library of Congress.

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Archive of Audio Recordings of Haitian Poets & Writers at the Library of Congress

Dating back to 1943, The Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape at the Library of Congress contains nearly seven-hundred recordings of poets and prose writers participating in sessions at the Library’s Recording Laboratory and at other locations around Spain and Latin America. It also contains seven recordings of Haitian writers. We provide links to those seven recordings below. 

René Bélance reads seventeen poems from his collected volumes: Luminaires, Epaule d’ombre, and Survivances. Recorded January 15, 1953, in Port-au-Prince.

Poet Raphaël Berrou reading from his work. Recorded January, 1980 at Port-au-Prince Radio.

Poet Marie-Thérèse Colimon Hall reading from her work. Recorded January 4, 1980, Port-au-Prince Radio.

Poet Dieudonné Fardin reads from Deblozailles, Collier la Rossée, Laetilis, Lyre Declassée, Imaginar l’imaginaire, Port-de-Paix multicolore, Les grandes orgues, Mon poème de chair, Fraternité, grande blessure, and Lettres du Fontamara. Recorded Jan. 24, 1980, Port-au-Prince Radio.

Dominique Hippolyte reading his verse. Recorded January 7, 1953, Port-au-Prince.

Poet Jean Libose reading from his work. Recorded June 30, 1982, in the Library of Congress Recording Laboratory, Studio B, Washington, D.C.

Poet and writer Philippe Thoby-Marcelin reads fifteen poems from his collected volumes: Lago-Lago; La négresse adolescente; Le jour, la nuit; Dialogue avec la femme endormie; and A fonds perdu. In addition, he reads two unpublished poems: “Pour bercir un delit d’intention” “La servant au grand coeur.” Recorded April 16, 1970, and April 22, 1971, in the Library of Congress Recording Laboratory, Studio B, Washington, D.C.

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