Making The Black Jacobins: C. L. R. James and the Drama of History

Making The Black Jacobins: C. L. R. James and the Drama of History

by Rachel Douglas

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C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins remains one of the great works of the twentieth century and the cornerstone of Haitian revolutionary studies. In Making The Black Jacobins, Rachel Douglas traces the genesis, transformation, and afterlives of James's landmark work across the decades from the 1930s on. Examining the 1938 and 1963 editions of The Black Jacobins, the 1967 play of the same name, and James's 1936 play, Toussaint Louverture—as well as manuscripts, notes, interviews, and other texts—Douglas shows how James continuously rewrote and revised his history of the Haitian Revolution as his politics and engagement with Marxism evolved. She also points to the vital significance theater played in James's work and how it influenced his views of history. Douglas shows The Black Jacobins to be a palimpsest, its successive layers of rewriting renewing its call to new generations.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478005308
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 09/27/2019
Series: The C. L. R. James Archives
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Rachel Douglas is Lecturer in French and Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow and author of Frankétienne and Rewriting: A Work in Progress.

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Toussaint Louverture Takes Center Stage: The 1930s

This chapter charts James's evolving interest in Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution from his earliest writings in a 1931 article on this subject up to the 1936 staging of his first play, Toussaint Louverture. It uncovers the dialogic quarrel of James's first Haitian Revolution–related intervention in 1931 — his article "The Intelligence of the Negro: A Few Words with Dr. Harland." When James turned to theater in his first full-length Haitian Revolution–based work, Toussaint Louverture, this dialogic quality increased. Exploring the dramatic origins of the Black Jacobins project, this chapter argues that the first play is almost a one-man show. Other characters do feature, but Louverture is the unifying character who features in almost every scene, bar the final one following the climactic death-in-prison scene. Even at the end of the play, Toussaint is invoked at length, and news of his death spurs the remaining revolutionaries on to unify and avenge him. This focus on Toussaint is, however, offset by the chorus of ex-slaves who undergo a radical transformation from being mostly "naked, wearing either a loin-cloth or a shirt ... dirty and unkempt" to the ending, where they form a "solid mass" who "In dress and bearing [...] are a civilised people."

Until recently, one little-known fact about James's Black Jacobins project was that it began and ended life as a play. This chapter connects James's vindicatory action-centered approach with his making of theater, history, and politics. This account of the genesis and evolution of James's first play charts its transformations from script to script. A relative chronology is proposed for all the Toussaint Louverture play scripts consulted. James increasingly politicizes his deployment of Toussaint using the Haitian Revolution for vindication purposes as a great success story and as a vehicle for propaganda. Collaboration with lead actor Paul Robeson is then explored as crucial for shaping the two March 1936 Toussaint Louverture performances.

Toussaint Louverture versus Harlandacity

"I would have preferred to write about Toussaint Louverture," wrote an exasperated C. L. R. James in a 1931 article refuting the pseudoscientific racism of a certain Dr. Sidney C. Harland, an English scientist based at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad, and his article "Race Admixture." It is in this riposte to Harland that James makes his first published use of Toussaint Louverture, and the biographical portrait of Toussaint he sketches in 1931 prefigures his later work on the Haitian Revolution.

James's dialogic history writing will be analyzed from the viewpoint of the Caribbean quarrel with history, as theorized by Edward Baugh. James writes back to misrepresentations of the Caribbean by the likes of Harland, Stoddard, Froude, and others. A key source of inspiration for James in the 1931 article, it can be assumed, would have been the famous book-length rebuttal by black Trinidadian schoolmaster John Jacob Thomas in Froudacity: West Indian Fables Explained (1889) of English historian James Anthony Froude's notorious travelogue The English in the West Indies; or, The Bow of Ulysses (1888). Indeed, from the later vantage point of 1969, James himself would pen an introduction to Thomas's Froudacity, correcting at length "Froudacious" Froude. In 1969, James would rewrite every single Froudian racist sentence about Haiti on a single page, transforming each one from passive to active voice where the actions of the Haitian people were concerned. This active and transitive process of unsilencing, this chapter argues, counters the general silencing of the Haitian Revolution by Western historiography, as theorized by Michel-Rolph Trouillot.

James's rewriting of imperialist Froude-type history turns the focus instead to achievement and vindication. Robert Hill has identified James's heavy investment in "men of action," including Toussaint Louverture, who are all linked by achievement. James's positive vindication of the symbolic currency of the Haitian Revolution and Toussaint Louverture is rooted in a Caribbean intellectual tradition, including Anténor Firmin (1885), Hannibal Price (1900), and Louis Joseph Janvier (1884), which counteracts racist tirades belittling and demonizing Haiti's revolution and independence.

Using history and the biography of Toussaint Louverture, James's 1931 quarrel with Dr. Harland provides a prototype for James's later writings on the Haitian Revolution, delivering hammer blows to Harland's attempts to "prove" the dangers of "race admixture" and black inferiority. Toussaint Louverture constitutes in James's early article the main prong of his point-by-point rebuttal, and is the main weapon in his arsenal against Harland. Invoking Gobineau, James underscores that Harland's ideas are built on arbitrary and "unscientific" opinions, which are so "antiquated" that it is as if Harland's mind were moving in a previous decade. James redeploys the same statistics as Harland to make a mockery of them.

What I want to pinpoint is the intensely dialogic quality of James's first published article featuring Toussaint Louverture — a dialogism subsequently used as a primary tool in his plays and history versions on the Haitian Revolution, despite these texts being less explicitly framed as an address to an interlocutor. The dialogic driving James's retelling of the story of the Haitian Revolution is put in motion by James's quarrel with Harland. As James dismantles Harland's dubious racialism, the framework James uses to shape his "few words with Dr. Harland" is that of the quarrel, and the quarrel motif is here a vital means of contesting assumptions about racial inferiority.

This idea of the quarrel with history is a productive framework for analyzing the intensely dialogic qualities of James's 1931 riposte. Harland's case for "negro inferiority" rests squarely upon ahistoricity and presenting this phenomenon as incontrovertible fact. In order to counter Eurocentric colonial history and ahistoricity, James must therefore write of history. This is where we see the broad outlines of the future play Toussaint Louverture and The Black Jacobins history taking shape before our eyes: James's quarrel with history itself constitutes these works.

In "The West Indian Writer and His Quarrel with History," Baugh paints a picture of Caribbean quarreling where history is written about in negative, adversarial terms as nightmare, bogeyman, blight, nothingness, historylessness, absence, void, negation, pain, wound, catastrophe, powerlessness, denial, invisibility, shame, problem, gap, silence, alien. A line from Derek Walcott's "The Schooner Flight" —"I met History Once, but he ain't recognize me"— personifies the difficult relationship between the Caribbean and history as an opposition between antagonists: the unrecognized Caribbean versus supercilious History embodied as a white colonial "Sir," in planter-type attire "in cream linen and cream hat," and with plenty of superiority besides. When James has "A Few Words with Dr. Harland," we already see a version of The Black Jacobins in microcosm that is specifically framed as an answering back to racialist perspectives on black inferiority. Instead, Louverture is the prototype for actively making history.

When the bare bones of Toussaint's biography are sketched out in James's 1931 article, Toussaint is portrayed as a quintessential man of action when his achievements are listed. As straightforward as this listing of actions and achievements might seem, James's response piece itself constitutes that relationship between action and history as it goes along. In stylistic terms, this passage is almost breathless in its exposition of Toussaint's actions. In the simplest language and shortest sentences possible, actions are piled high, one on top of the other, through quick-fire parataxis. This accumulation of actions is further reinforced by strings of active verbs as Toussaint springs from one action to the next at a breakneck pace. Action is therefore not only the subject of the biographical passage, it is also a key constitutive feature of the means of representation. At this early stage of James's writing about the Haitian Revolution, we already see him making important decisions about how to represent the past and how to rethink the proper subject of history.

Action is central to how we perceive any history, but especially in Caribbean contexts: history can be seen either as events that befall us, always from elsewhere, or as things we actively do, use, make ourselves. Active versus passive thus signals a crucial dividing line at the heart of debates about Caribbean history. What is significant about James's early biographical sketch is that Toussaint is the active subject of nearly every single active verb. Action is the focal point of this biography, and action is personified in Toussaint Louverture; it makes him the emblematic hero of Caribbean past achievements.

In the foreword to the 1980 edition of The Black Jacobins history, James would reveal his motivations for engaging with the Haitian Revolution in the first place. Having been "tired of reading and hearing about Africans being persecuted and oppressed in Africa, in the Middle Passage, in the USA and all over the Caribbean," he made the conscious decision to represent the Caribbean past through the prism of "people of African descent [...] taking action on a grand scale and shaping other people to their own needs." What James outlines in this statement is a decision to shift the dominant voice of Caribbean history telling from passive to active. Already prefigured in the 1931 article, we see in microcosm James's action-centered approach to making Caribbean history and his contribution to rewriting previous colonial history of the region by shifting all verb forms from passive to active voice, and by transforming the inferior object of other people's history into the protagonist, hero, and active subject of the Caribbean's own history.

When James began to teach and write, there was little sense of West Indian history or literature to support him. As he put it, "I don't know much about West Indian literature in the 1930s — there wasn't much to know." History is the primary tool James employs to rebut the likes of Harland, Froude, and Crown Colony misgovernment in the British West Indies when strongly making the case for West Indian self-government in 1932–33 publications.

Shortly after arriving in Britain, James had his book The Life of Captain Cipriani privately printed by a small press in Nelson, Lancashire, in 1932. Captain Cipriani was a white Creole Trinidadian labor and political leader. The 1932 political biography of Cipriani and the invocation of Toussaint's biography in the 1931 Harland response piece provide the biographical model of historical and political analysis on which James subsequently builds his dramatization of Louverture's life story in the 1936 play, and the history of the Haitian Revolution as an account of Louverture's life in his 1938 history.

In 1933, James was asked to shorten the book drastically for publication by Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press, London. The resulting abridged pamphlet was retitled The Case for West-Indian Self-Government. These early works are important milestones along the road toward James's Haitian Revolution–related writings. Properly speaking, these related early works in 1932–33 constitute James's first rewriting. In this case, changes were instigated by Leonard Woolf and Hogarth Press, who asked James to slash almost all of the biographical detail about Cipriani's life. These changes prefigure James's 1960s reworking of The Black Jacobins history, which would remove some of Toussaint's biography to focus on anticolonial struggle more generally. The 1933 title tells its contents: it makes the case that the West Indies are already fit for self- government or dominion status instead of alien Crown Colony misgovernment.

Going to history and biography to show that there is nothing innately inferior about West Indians, James answers the charge, made notably by Froude, that the West Indies have no history of their own. No history of one's own would mean no viable representation of history, hence the importance of historical representations to counterbalance flagrant misrepresentation. James, as sections of his unpublished autobiography and Beyond a Boundary reveal, would first explore the relationship with history in pedagogical settings. This experience of teaching history influenced his making representations of Caribbean history — an active, transitive process — whereby Harland and Froude's "inferior" West Indian object would instead become the protagonist and hero and subject of the Caribbean's own history. James started to make theatrical representations. Before coming to England in 1932, James had already been involved in theater, staging plays including Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme and Shakespeare's Othello in colonial Trinidad. It was also there that he had gone on to write "a now-vanished drama about local life," producing it with his students for the public. In terms of politics, he had supported Cipriani's Trinidad Workingmen's Association before leaving Trinidad. Once in England, from 1932 on, he would continue to make theater and do politics. It was in Nelson, Lancashire, that James discovered Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution and Marxism. London was also an important place for his political activities, as he became a Marxist, a Trotskyist, joining and later chairing the Marxist Group inside the Independent Labour Party.

Recovering the Play Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History

Not until 2013 and the publication of the Hull manuscript was there ready access to the long-lost 1936 play script itself. Before this twenty-first-century discovery, Toussaint Louverture was often briefly mentioned in passing as a stepping stone in James's 1930s career to the more famous 1938 history. A handful of commentators including Reinhard Sander, Nicole King, and Frank Rosengarten have cross-read the 1936 playbill and contemporary reviews of the two March 1936 performances against the published script of James's later 1967 play The Black Jacobins. One crucial piece of evidence from the two Toussaint Louverture performances is the original playbill. Even after discovery of the play scripts, this program continues to be an important piece of substantiating evidence for the running order of the actual performances on March 15 and 16, 1936.

The program gives the breakdown of the acts, scenes, characters, and actors in the play as performed. Such clues enable us to project what the actual performance script would have contained. The play as performed was clearly a streamlined version compared to longer play scripts including the Hull script, on which the 2013 critical edition of the play is based. As for the playwright's own author's note in the 1936 program, signed "C. L. R. J.," this offers useful information for dating the play's genesis: "The play was conceived four years ago [1932] and was completely finished by the autumn of 1934."

New pieces in the puzzle of the 1936 Toussaint Louverture play's genesis are being discovered all the time, and no doubt still more play script versions are out there. Scripts have been found in locations dotted around the world in various states of genesis. This is surely both testament to, and remnant of, James's collaborative working and political methods, through which James would send documents at different stages to political comrades and other correspondents, located both near and far. One reason why all new finds of long-lost Toussaint Louverture play scripts are exciting is that the playwright himself did not even possess a copy of the play for many years — until the 1950s — according to Selma James, C. L. R.'s widow, and his literary executor, Robert A. Hill.

James's own correspondence among his papers refers to copies of the play being sent out to, and acknowledged by, several correspondents, including the publisher Gallimard in France and the Haitian embassy in London in August–September 1953, after James's deportation from the United States and return to Britain. This was on the eve of the 150th anniversary of Haitian independence (1954), and James underlined the timeliness of the 1936 Toussaint Louverture play for marking the anniversary celebrations, as he sought to have the play translated into French and performed in the land of its inspiration.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
1. Toussaint Louverture Takes Center Stage: The 1930s  29
2. Making History: The Black Jacobins (1938)  69
3. Rewriting History: The Black Jacobins (1963)  102
4. Reshaping the Past as Drama (1967)  133
5. Afterlives of The Black Jacobins  178
Notes  215
Bibliography  265
Index  295

What People are Saying About This

The Black Jacobins Reader - Christian Høgsbjerg

“Rachel Douglas takes readers on a fascinating journey as she details how C. L. R. James rewrote and rethought The Black Jacobins over the course of his life. Scholars of James as well as specialists in Caribbean history and theater will be forever in debt to Douglas for her careful archival research, her interviews with key figures, and the nuggets of gold she uncovered in the process.”

Caribbean Critique: Antillean Critical Theory from Toussaint to Glissant - Nick Nesbitt

“Among Rachel Douglas's great accomplishments is her analysis of The Black Jacobins as the keystone in the larger arc of C. L. R. James's complex and ever-evolving Marxism, taking seriously his own estimation of his intellectual accomplishments. Her extraordinary book makes a pivotal contribution to our understanding of James's masterpiece and is essential reading for all those engaged with understanding the Haitian Revolution and the decisive place of The Black Jacobins in its interpretation.”

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