Making The Black Jacobins

This piece is a part of our ongoing series, entitled “Rethinking the Revolutionary Canon.” 

By Rachel Douglas

The Black Jacobins (1938) by Caribbean Marxist intellectual C. L. R. James is one of the great works of the 20th century. This book remains to this day the classic history of the Haitian Revolution—quite a feat considering it is now over 80 years old. Yet the book has not been singular and unchanging since its 1938 initial publication. Instead, there are, in fact, multiple versions of The Black Jacobins, and James himself made many changes. My book Making The Black Jacobins: C. L. R. James and the Drama of History started life as a response to this multiplicity of James’s stories about the Haitian Revolution. It was also triggered by the evidence from his papers—at University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad, and Columbia University—that his key work was a palimpsestic, messy editorial object with a lengthy genesis: James and his collaborators rewrote and stitched The Black Jacobins back together over a period of nearly fifty years.

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Cover of Rachel Douglas' book "Making the Black Jacobins."

Until recently, James’s two plays, written thirty years apart, had been eclipsed by his better-known history book, which itself was rewritten between the lines for the 1963 revised history edition in new interstitial footnotes, new chapter beginnings and endings, and most visibly in the added appendix: “From Toussaint Louverture to Fidel Castro.” The first drama was Toussaint Louverture (1936), performed twice that year in London with Paul Robeson, the legendary African-American actor, civil rights activist, political figure, and anti-imperialist—in the title role. As for the later 1967 The Black Jacobins play, it was performed that year at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria at the height of the Nigerian Civil War. The Black Jacobins play was also performed in London from February to March 1986. This was almost 50 years to the day since Robeson had trodden the boards and also coincided with the February 1986 overthrow of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. James’s (re)writing of The Black Jacobins 1967 play, compared to the marginally revised 1963 history edition, is more radical in scope, as it travels further in the new directions outlined in the 1963 changes to the history.

James’s two dramas based on the Haitian Revolution from 1936 and 1967 especially bear witness to a lively interactive process of rewriting and collaboration between playwright, directors, and/or actors. It was when leafing through the many annotated drafts in various states of genesis of the second 1967 play that I had the physical sensation that James had thoroughly reworked the play from first page to last with annotations, multiple alternative scenes, reworked stage directions, modifications taped over previous suggestions, and insightful commentaries on the rewriting from the playwright himself. All of this compelled me to follow the revision trail of The Black Jacobins project. James’s own role in that 1967 play has sometimes been considered to be minimal to the point of non-existent.[1] My research has uncovered that James’s own contributions were plentiful, although collaboration was always a crucial part of his method, and we must give him his dues for this crucial (re)writing.

This was a book which helped to change the writing of colonial history from passive to active voice. James later recalled his initial motivation to write this book was that he “was 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. I made up my mind that I would write a book in which Africans or people of African descent instead of constantly being the object of other people’s exploitation and ferocity would themselves be taking action on a grand scale and shaping other people to their own needs” (James, “Foreword,” The Black Jacobins, 1980, v). My book shows how James wrote back to racist accounts of the Haitian Revolution by the likes of J. A. Froude (later Regius Professor of History at Oxford) and T. Lothrop Stoddard, literally changing from passive to active voice as he portrayed the Haitian Revolution as a success story not just based on a race war as per Froude and Stoddard’s skewed versions.

Making The Black Jacobins looks at how James kept writing and rewriting the story of the Haitian Revolution from the early-1930s right until he died in 1989—a period of nearly 50 years. I also look at the afterlives of the famous history by examining its continued international impact to the present. I look at how The Black Jacobins has lived on by being translated into other languages, inspiring visual art, and even an opera. The book also explores monuments dotted around the world inspired by James’s life and work.

How do James’s writings about the Haitian Revolution—articles, plays, versions of the history—continue to evolve in response to the changing circumstances? This is the driving question of my book. Theatre occupies a special place in this study, especially the connection between the activities of doing theatre and doing politics. The book examines James’s “showing” as drama versus “telling” as history. It reflects on James’s use of drama as a different type of representing machine for bringing the Haitian Revolution to life. James’s theatre is political, and its purpose is to enact/perform politics and revolution, and to provoke the audience to do politics and revolution in their turn. The book looks at how James uses the resources of history and playwriting to tell the story of the Haitian Revolution as his Marxist politics evolve, particularly throughout his formative years in the US as part of the Johnson-Forest Tendency (1940s to early-1950s). This rewriting path is one followed by many other playwrights in dramas about the Haitian Revolution, including Langston Hughes, Aimé Césaire, Derek Walcott, and Édouard Glissant, among others.

Black and white photograph of C.L.R. James sitting in front of bookshelves.

On June 18, 1971, James gave a lecture with a tantalizing title: “How I Would Rewrite The Black Jacobins” at the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta. But James himself did actually rewrite The Black Jacobins repeatedly, and we need to take this rewriting of both the history and the drama into account. James became increasingly interested in moving the spotlight downwards to focus on alternative heroes. He wanted to give Toussaint Louverture just a walk-on part, and to focus instead on sources closer to the slaves’ own perspective, and on more popular leaders instead of the “big revolutionaries.” The book shows how James uses drama to build up an alternative protagonist—Moïse, Toussaint’s adopted nephew of whom there is little trace in the archives.

The book follows the trail of the genesis and evolution of James’s The Black Jacobins and Haitian Revolution-related writing as it travels from 1930s Africa and fast-forwards to the 1960s Caribbean and beyond, with James revealing a strong pattern of Caribbean development and identity. Building on Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s idea of the active and transitive process of “silencing the past” of the Haitian Revolution, this book reads James’s own process of making history and drama as an equally active and transitive reverse process of unsilencing the past. How does James unsilence the past and represent the unrepresentable—all of the silences and gaps in colonial archives, sources, and history narratives? James should, the book argues, be reconsidered as a crucial precursor to the “history from below” tendency. James’s correspondence and his 1971 Institute of the Black World lectures show us that he was pioneering Marxist history from below avant la lettre of 1960s work by Albert Soboul, George Rudé, E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and others. Close family ties also linked James’s Black Jacobins history to Carolyn Fick’s groundbreaking history of the Haitian Revolution from below.[2] James and Rudé supervised Fick between them. Another important mentee was Jean Fouchard who turned his focus to the Haitian maroons or runaway slaves.[3] James put Fick and Fouchard in touch with each other as they worked toward an alternative historiography of the Haitian Revolution inspired by James. Fouchard directed Fick to the richest source for her research. It was fitting that the English-language translation of Fouchard’s study on the maroons was prefaced by James whose Black Jacobins history had been a profound inspiration. Here, the seeds sown by The Black Jacobins helped to remake history anew.

James keeps telling the story of the Haitian Revolution in new ways. Where his rewriting of The Black Jacobins history for the revised 1963 edition is concerned, many of these changes are marginal—made to the history textual outsides—yet also highly visible. By far the most famous and prominent addition is the new 1963 appendix titled “From Toussaint Louverture to Fidel Castro.” This hybrid essay straddles the style of James’s political pamphlets, journalism style and literary criticism. My book explores the tug of war between the history versions’ insides and outsides by tracking James’s correspondence with his editor at Random House, Morris Philipson. What James’s appendix offers is the ultimate insider account of the birth-throes of a nation. Here “nation” goes beyond the individual Caribbean nations/islands of the short-lived Federation of the British West Indies to take in Haiti and the French Caribbean départements of Martinique and Guadeloupe, among other places. There is a strong sense of foreboding and disappointment concerning the break-up of the Federation, but there is also a celebratory tone as James upholds his history’s achievements in correctly forecasting and stimulating “the coming emancipation of Africa.”

Making The Black Jacobins also examines how James refigured Toussaint Louverture, writing out the vanguard of exceptional leaders, emphasizing his flaw, and turning toward more popular leaders and movements. This new emphasis treats Toussaint’s negative flaws like those of Kwame Nkrumah—first Prime Minister and President of independent Ghana¾ and Eric Williams, as James’s disillusionment grew out of the era of decolonization when he was rewriting both his history and play for the 1960s. The book explores how James de-Marxifies the language and terminology of the history to make it appeal to a wider audience, and to reflect on his own contributions to Marxist theory and practice in the intervening decades. Attention is paid to James’s rethinking of sources and bibliography, especially the addition of two mammoth footnotes referring to the work of Henri Lefebvre.

Telling the past as history enables James to recapitulate, to add commentary in the text and footnotes, to intervene more overtly, to foreground his shaping of the historical narrative line, and to engage in dialogue with other sources, such as Anatollii Vinogradov’s The Black Consul (1935) and T. Lothrop Stoddard’s The French Revolution in San Domingo (1914). James redeploys the apparatuses of footnotes and the completely revised bibliography. This whole retelling process contrasts with the plays, which do not come with sources and footnotes scrolling across or below the stage during performance. James never did completely redo his primary research based on the Paris archives. Instead, showing the past as drama enables the playwright to build up characters of whom there is hardly any archival trace, especially Moïse who clearly becomes James’s political spokesmen and embodies a more popular leadership style, closer to the ordinary masses.

Dr. Rachel Douglas is Lecturer in French and Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow. Her book The Making of The Black Jacobins: The Drama of C.L.R. James’s History came out with Duke University Press in September 2019. She is also the author of Frankétienne and Rewriting: A Work in Progress (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009). She works on Caribbean literature, history, and film with a focus on Haiti. She is a Co-Director of the Decolonise Glasgow Lab, which was launched in 2019 in response to the “Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow” September 2018 report.

Title Image: Édouard Duval-Carrié, Le Général Toussaint enfumé, courtesy of Rum Nazon, Cap Haïtien, Haiti, 2001.


[1] See for example Selwyn R. Cudjoe, “C. L. R. James Misbound,” Transition 58 (1992): 127; Scott McLemee, “Afterword¾American Civilization and World Revolution: C. L. R. James in the United States, 1938-1953 and Beyond,” in Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc, C. L. R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings of C. L. R. James, 19391949 (Amherst, NY: Humanity, 1994), 234n9, 239n9; Mary Lou Emery, Modernism, the Visual, and Caribbean Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 259-60n63; Frank Rosengarten, Urbane Revolutionary: C. L. R, James and the Struggle for a New Society (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008), 255n2.

[2] Carolyn Fick, Making Haiti: The Saint-Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990).

[3] Jean Fouchard, The Haitian Maroons (New York: EW Blyden Press, 1981).

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