You Can’t Teach the Age of Revolutions without the Black Intellectual Tradition

By Robert D. Taber

17 January 2016, 6 PM: I’m standing in front a class of 23 students, a mix of first-years and graduating seniors, some older than me, some much older than me. The course is one I hadn’t taken as an undergraduate. Some of the textbook chapters contained material that I knew well. Others consisted of material with which I had at best a passing familiarity, but with many fascinating discoveries to be made. I count myself lucky that I decided to follow scholars of these periods, these movements, these individuals on Twitter, and that I had the guidance and support of mentors from my graduate institution and my current job.

Worries were substantial. New-assistant-professor worries about learning the campus, helping students, shepherding publications, and my first tastes of university service. But also about the transition of power in the United States from the first Black president to the Birther-in-Chief, a man who used fables and conspiracy theories to build a political movement that promised to undo much of the progress of the past eight, fifty-two, one hundred and thirteen years.

“Good evening, class. I’m Dr. Taber and this is Introduction to African-American History.”

Fayetteville State University was founded in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. Fayetteville had a significant free Black community before the war and its leaders pooled funds in 1867 to create a Normal school—a school focused on training teachers, but in this case the teachers who would teach the newly emancipated. It’s the oldest public HBCU in North Carolina, and the second oldest university in the University North Carolina system, after UNC-Chapel Hill. Many students today are active-duty soldiers, veterans, or military dependents, as Fort Bragg, the most populated military installation in the world, is ten miles away. In my class that evening were students whose families had been attending FSU or its antecedents for generations, students who deployed with the 82nd Airborne to New Orleans to assist with Hurricane Katrina, students who are the first in their family to attend college, and one student who had spent his time in the mountains of Afghanistan studying to be a seminarian, and though a STEM major, knew more about the mechanics of literary analysis than I do.

The sense on campus of legacy and of mission is palpable.

I had applied for the job for two reasons beyond the usual end-of-PhD search. One, my partner and I had spent a few days in Fayetteville at the end of our first year at Florida, knocking doors for a political campaign. Two, the ad had been searching for someone specializing in the history of Latin America OR Africa. As a Haitianist and Caribbeanist, I had already spent lots of time trying to convince departments that they should consider me rather than scholars of 20th-century Mexico, and I thought maybe I would have better luck here.

Long fascinated by politics and history, my grad school career had felt like I veered between the two, diving into the archival records of French Saint-Domingue to explore the minutiae of family life, then leading a team of Obama-supporting Latter-day Saints. Job searching was checking H-Net and Democratic GAIN; writing consisted of dissertation and Twitter threads; honor and race and Medicaid expansion.

During my on-campus visit at Fayetteville State University, there was a break in the schedule at the tail end of a town hall led by Congressman David Price. The search chair and I stopped by for the question and answer session. There, a conversation about social mobility prompted a staffer to detail a Harvard study on possibilities for advancement in the country’s hundred largest metropolitan areas. Fayetteville ranked 100th. I was intrigued. There’s work to do here.

The election of Donald Trump led to a lot of reading to help my students and myself make sense of history and of the moment. Politically, I’m still a fan of Jamelle Bouie’s write-up of the Rainbow Coalition. I also found deep insight in the Combahee River Collective Statement and the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, but they still felt “here” and “now,” which was distinct from my own research.

As a young historian, I didn’t “get” the obsession with the Civil War on the History Channel (in its pre-alien days). An older brother had read books on the military campaigns. At Florida, I had colleagues in my cohort studying with William Link and Matt Gallman, and being a proud SEC PhD student, the Southern Historical Association became my go-to conference. But it didn’t click. I wanted to know about life in Saint-Domingue before the Haitian Revolution, and anything after 1804 was just not interesting.

That is, until I read these words by Laurent Dubois, working off research by Matthew Clavin:

In December 1859, an elaborate official funeral was held in the cathedral of Port-au-Prince, presided over by Haitian President Fabre Geffrard, along with his wife and daughters. As the US Anti-Slavery Reporter explained, the Catholic priest of Port-au-Prince, a Senegalese-born, French educated man named Abbé Moussa, officiated a High Mass. In the nave of the church was the coffin, draped in black, lit up by candles, decorated with a pen, a sword, and a Bible, and an inscription naming the deceased as a “martyr for the cause of the blacks.” After a rousing eulogy, the coffin was carried to a cross at the edge of town by a large procession that gathered many of the town’s prominent citizens. But it was never placed in the ground, for it was empty.

The funeral was for abolitionist John Brown, who had been hung days earlier in Virginia. It was probably fitting that Brown’s largest funeral service was held in Haiti, and that the president welcomed him posthumously as a kind of honorary citizen. John Brown had never visited Haiti, but the country’s history had long visited him. He knew the tale of its antislavery revolution “by heart,” and enjoyed recounting it. According to an English journalist, it was the example of the 1791 uprising that convinced him that with the right trigger, slaves “would immediately rise all over the Southern States.” According to a recent book by Matthew Clavin, when Brown chose the valley town of Harper’s Ferry, he sought to imitate his Haitian forbears’ military tactics, for he knew they had won against the French by attacking towns and then retreating into inaccessible mountains.[1]

The work of Steve Hahn and Stephanie McCurry on the disruptions and strikes enacted by the enslaved during the Civil War has made me think in new ways about resistance and the politics of the enslaved. The enlistment of 200,000 Black Americans in the US armed forces during the Civil War has made me consider Georges Biassou and Jean-François Papillon’s work with the Spanish in new light. The history of this struggle no longer feels remote; there’s no longer a dissonance between my scholarship and my activism.

Teaching the African-American history survey at Fayetteville State at this time has re-ordered my thinking. It has made me more aware of the long transnational struggle for civil rights, the work to build Black institutions and approaches to the law,  and the battle to build inter-generational wealth, disrupted by terror. The struggles of the people I research no longer feel quite so far away, for the questions raised about how to approach emancipation are present in my community.

The first time I taught Atlantic Revolutions, my students spent a class period filling in a table on the board comparing the post-1763 imperial/monarchical reforms implemented by Grenville, D’Estaing, Galvez, and Pombal in various American colonies. There’s still value in that, and in researching Enlightenment ideas, state formation, political structures, creole identities, religious transformations, and the other core topics of the “Age of Atlantic Revolutions.” But a core piece of these revolutions was the way enslaved people pushed for their manumission and emancipation, individually and collectively. The long nineteenth century of emancipation did not end in 1830 or 1848, or even 1865.

Finally, as the contested historiography of U.S. Reconstruction shows, how we should think about emancipation, the role of the state in post-slavery settings, and consciousness of, and commitment to, combatting institutional white supremacy, is a long, well-established conversation. It has direct bearing on me and on my students, yes, but also on how I think about the choices of Marie Rose, Balthazar Inginac, and many others.

Or, as Marlene Daut and Rinaldo Walcott asked of a panel on the Enlightenment and the Haitian Revolution at the 25th anniversary retrospective on Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past,  who are we reading from the Black intellectual tradition? Just like in U.S. politics or the contemporary Black experience, it can’t just be Ta-Nehisi Coates, so for Atlantic Revolutions, it can’t just be Trouillot or even Julius Scott.

Robert D. Taber  Ph.D. is assistant professor of government and history at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. A historian of Haiti, he is currently working on a book project examining the intersection of slavery and family life in Saint-Domingue and the early Haitian Revolution. Follow him on Twitter @RobTaber.

Title Image: Fayetteville State University Seal on Campus.


[1] Laurent Dubois, “Frederick Douglass, Anténor Firmin, and the Making of US-Haitian Relations,” Drexler and Dillon, eds., The Haitian Revolution and the Early United States: Histories, Textualities, Geographies (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2016), 95-96.

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