Monday, 28 July 2014

The Haitian Revolution & Contemporary Theory

by Julie Nxadi

Contemporary theory, in principle, should be informed by nuanced accounts of historical events that form the current political and philosophical climate. It has, however, been informed by persistent trends that have been formed and have gone unchallenged in history, these trends are of course informed by the zeitgeist in which they are formulated. One such trend is that of the particularization and negative connotations correlated to the black body. An action that has coddled and indeed protected this trend is the single narrative in the telling of history which safeguards carefully formulated ideologies and informs contemporary theories. In the following essay I seek to illustrate how the omission of the Haitian Revolution from common political discourse has retarded global tolerance, perpetuated racial dichotomies and provided a historical narrative devoid of nuance and an understanding of subjects surrounding race that is sorely lacking. I will also undertake to illustrate how this has influenced the trajectory of contemporary discourse and the implications that have persisted in contemporary theory as a direct result of this omission.

That which cannot be measured

The Haitian Revolution took place in a time when people of colour where in fact not considered people. Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes that "The lexical opposition Man-versus-Native (or Man-versus-Negro) tinted the European literature on the Americas from 1492 to the Haitian Revolution and beyond" (1995: 82). This is to say; there existed a barrier between what was considered to be a human being and what was considered to be a native, the latter being the lesser of the two beings. The "Declaration of the rights of man" signed on August 26th 1789 following the French Revolution, unearthed the notion of equal human rights amongst human beings. This gave the intensely oppressed slaves of Haiti hope that they might have access to and might finally be allowed to exercise these rights. With time, however, it became clear that the term 'man' was by no means an inclusive one “For indeed, in the horizon of the West at the end of the century, Man (with a capital M) was primarily European and male” writes Trouillot. It is thus that the French Revolution became the myth that informed the Haitian revolutions actions, and though the French Revolution had theorized and conceptualized the idea of human rights and equality, it was the Haitian Revolution that put these theories and concepts into practice and pursued them relentlessly. Let it then be considered that the revolution staged by these Haitian slaves was not in pursuit of liberty, but rather it was an announcement and reclaiming of humanity which would inevitably result in equal treatment, therefore liberty. Considering the discourse that existed (Man-versus-Native), against which the Haitian slaves had to rage , one has to attempt to understand two things: firstly, what might be the basis of this type of discourse (I.E how is it beneficial) and secondly, what might be the implication of the maintenance of said discourse.

Let us begin with the basis of the discourse. Atrocities such as slavery and colonialism cannot be justified if those being enslaved and colonized are recognized as being equal to those enslaving or colonizing them, the consideration for basic human rights would not allow for such. In order to justify the actions taken against an entire race of people for capital gain, the discourse had to be arranged to suit the agenda. Trouillot writes that "colonization provided the most potent impetus for the transformation of European ethnocentrism into scientific racism" where the "ideological rationalization of Afro-America slavery relied increasingly on explicit formulations of the ontological order inherited from the renaissance" (1995: 77). What Trouillot is telling us here is that the agenda informed the zeitgeist and the zeitgeist informed the discourse. The agenda, capitalist at its very core, sought maximum returns, slavery and colonialism could aptly provide this. In order for slavery and colonialism to thrive, racism had to be entrenched in common discourse and consiousness. Capitalist endeavours, or the agenda, inform research and investigations veered towards the confirmation of ideologies that feed into it. Thus the movement from racist ideologies to scientific racism served to reaffirm and legitimate the treatment dealt out to the people of colour in the name of capital. Those ideologies are of course those of the native being a tame type of beast.  Only against the backdrop of the tame beast can the concept of ownership, punishment, discipline and ill treatment of people of colour be tolerated by the global community, or in this case, the West.

Functioning off of the premise that slaves were not human beings meant that traits of humanity could not be acknowledged by planters and managers; there is no such thing as a disgruntled dog. Slaves, according to the popular discourse at the time, did not possess the cognitive capacity to strategize, or in fact recognise the need for a strategy that veered towards liberty. Incidents of revolt were considered isolated and not acknowledged to be anything but insolence. When considering the agenda, one might be inclined to understand the dismissal of the humanity of slaves in pursuit of capital gain. It is in fact not uncommon, even in the contemporary political landscape, for whole groups of people in communities to be relegated to the status of sub-human in pursuit of what are considered to be societal ideologies. The confusion lies in the persistence of this flawed notion of dehumanization even after the very group that was said to have little to no cognitive ability, stages a successful revolution. How, one might ask, was this not a turning point in the discourse surrounding race?

Imagine, for a moment, that one evening all the dogs in Grahamstown gathered and staged a revolt. After having liberated themselves from their owners, the dogs occupy a piece of land and call it Dogtown where they endeavour to live dignified lives without being anyone’s property. If “that was strange” is the only response that the community can provide without once considering a rethinking of the discourse that surrounds dogs, it is not the revolt that is bizarre but the response to it. By not acknowledging that the dogs are more than we thought they were, we cast the dog-owner discourse in amber, one must then wonder if that is not the point. 

Trouillot states that “The Haitian Revolution did challenge the ontological and political assumptions of the most radical writers of the Enlightenment…They were “unthinkable” facts in the framework of Western thought” (1995: 82). Essentially, what is being said is that the Western framework of thought lacked the apparatus to understand the revolution. I have problems with elements of this assertion.  I am inclined to concede on the idea that the West had invested so much time and energy into the dehumanization of the slaves and black body that they had reached a point of not having the apparatus to predict the revolution and were thus baffled by it, it may thus have been “unthinkable” prior to its occurrence.  However, if we consider Pierre Bourdieu’s definition of the unthinkable where he states that “In the unthinkable of an epoch, there is all that one cannot think for want of ethical or political inclinations that predispose to take it into account or in consideration, but also that which one cannot think for want of instruments of thought such as problematics, concepts, methods, techniques”, we begin to see that the concepts, methods and techniques were provided. The revolution was the point of departure that could inform a rethinking and reimagining of racial dichotomies. The fixation with theory preceding practise is one element that retarded this progression, however, I think it naive to underestimate the power of the commitment the West had to domination. It is thus that we must consider the implied agenda of not acknowledging the Haitian Revolution as a significant historical and political event, I put forward that it is to cast the ‘pet-owner’ dichotomy in amber.

Implications and effects of the erasure

Trouillot emphasises two points of reference towards understanding the Haitian Revolution and its erasure from world history, the first being the unthinkable nature of the event considering the context in which it took place and secondly, the segregation of Haiti from the rest of the world not only inflicted by the ‘west’ but also self-inflicted in pursuit of a different type of state. Trouillot writes “As Haiti declined, the reality of the revolution seemed increasingly distant…the revolution that was unthinkable became a non-event” (1995: 98). Indeed, the conundrum for Haiti became that of being self-sustaining but at the same time not turning around and being dependent on the very people that they sought to liberate themselves from, however that saw the state becoming ostracized from the rest of the global economy and spiralling into a state of political and economic decline.

More unsettling, however, is the implication of this erasure from world history and the affect it has in the black person’s self-concept. Trouillot speaks of the erasure of the Haitian Revolution as fitting “the relegation to a historical backburner of the three themes to which it was linked: racism, slavery and colonialism” (98). The suggestion here is that the silencing of the Revolution served in the interest of downplaying the atrocious essence of these three themes that so strongly informed the zeitgeist. If we are to acknowledge the implications put forward by Trouillot, which I am suggesting we do, it becomes clear that the tether between theoretical freedom and a practical liberation that exists and can be measured is frayed and on the verge of breaking. Theoretically, post Revolution, the Haitian slaves were free. Having liberated themselves from their oppressors they could enjoy the liberties of free human beings as a result of fighting for their human rights. However, since there was such an active effort to ignore their struggle for equality and thus freedom, and effectively, an erasure of that struggle from the history books; one cannot help but wonder why the success of the Haitian Revolution could be seen as problematic.

Surely, the conversion of theories and concepts of the French Revolution into practical actions in reality in the Haitian Revolution would serve to prove the power of theory and conceptualisation.  However, as aforementioned, it would also dismantle the preconceived ideas about the black body and its capabilities and would have destroyed the capitalistic endeavours of the West. Harrowing as that may be, there is a more profound impact of this erasure that needs to be acknowledged and that is the impact that the celebration of the Haitian Revolution would have had on contemporary discourse surrounding Africa and the black person not only external discourse about the black person but internal discourse.

Lest we forget, many of the slaves that staged the revolution were ‘fresh off the boat’. Due to the terrible manner in which slaves were treated in St Domingo especially, there was a constant influx of new slaves pouring into the colony. The slaves, having come straight from Africa, were considered to be wild animals with limited cognitive abilities which further fed into the inability to comprehend their behaviour. However, they did in fact strategize, plan and mobilise themselves with an overarching idea of what they sought to achieve. This denied the ahistorical view held of them and spoke to sophistication and a dignity that they had been denied. The slaves were rebutting the notion of them being animals and by ignoring that rebuttal, the west essentially ignored the idea in itself. This decision to ignore the possibility of there being more to the Negro than that which was assigned to him is a denial of humanity. Toni Morrison once wrote:

Whitepeople believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. In a way, he thought, they were right. The more coloredpeople spent their strength trying to convince them how gentle they were, how clever and loving, how human, the more they used themselves up to persuade whites of something Negroes believed could not be questioned, the deeper and more tangled the jungle grew inside.                                                                                                            Toni Morrison

The legacy of the animal is thus woven into both histories. The animal that is informed by fear; that acts out, that dismantles, that coerces violently, and the animal that is informed by that violence; that is consumed and enraged, that is assumed and thus flattened. These are, understandably, nuances to the legacy of slavery that both sides would sooner forget. Indeed, it would be more pleasant to remember slavery as the back bone of the American economy and the black backs that formed that back bone as strong, wise and pious. Intense dichotomies of the Negro’s obscenely hard physicality and sturdiness paired with the childlike naivety and loyalty that borders on other worldly in its persistence, speaks directly to the need to avoid the legacy of centuries of torture.

However, this is a denial to the African and indeed black narrative that is worrying. The narrative that holds true is that of the docile animal that, though acknowledged as human now, is still denied a certain degree of humanity and thus limited their concept of agency. The erasure of the Haitian Revolution helped to feed into that narrative. The revolution became an isolated incident that spoke nothing to the notions and ideas held regarding the black body. Having taken back the humanity that black people were denied in the form of a successful revolution, seeing that erased from history and dismissed as a fluke further stamps the notion of social paralysis and lack of agency. The black person has assimilated these traits into their consciousness as there has been a systematic editing of history to suit and soothe the consciences of the oppressor.

Lewis Gordon writes that “the people who can most afford giving up reality are those who are already supported by a system that would make such a turn an inconsequential one” (2006: 20). This is the power of universality. This universality is one that the particularised black cannot permeate and I believe that the denial of such histories as the Haitian Revolution have contributed directly to that social paralysis. I am by no means denying the agency held by the black person in the global sphere in contemporary discourse. However, it is counterproductive to deny the impact of history on contemporary understandings of the racial dichotomy. The mind has been the biggest tool in racist themes and I believe that acknowledgment of the Haitian Revolution would have dismantled the dismissive nature of the discourse surrounding the African continent and black people.

I believe that theory can only grow from nuance. To have a single narrative is a form of tyranny. It is thus that I assert that the denial of the Haitian Revolution for the many years it was ignored was detrimental not only to theoretical progression but also to the progression of a people who, in essence, had assimilated superimposed notions of them into their consciousness and continued to be particularised in a system that sought to hold power in a certain rung and deny it in another.


Trouillot, M-R., 1995, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History,Boston Massachusetts: Beacon Press Books.
Gordon, L. and Gordon, J., 2006, Not Only the Masters Tools: African-American Studies in  Theory and Practice, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers.
Morrison, T., 1987, Beloved, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.