No one has been as unapologetic as C. L. R. James in The Black Jacobins
Today would have been C. L. R. James’s 120th birthday. Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901–1989) was a Trinidadian writer, journalist and historian. In 1938, he published The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, a pioneering text on the Haitian Revolution and those who seized independence in 1804.
The Black Jacobins came into my life six years ago as part of The French Revolution(s) reading list. Unlike most first-year students, the idea of additional reading filled me with excitement. I won’t admit to running, but I definitely sped-walked to the library to get my hands on a copy of James’s book after class. Haiti had always bewildered me. I heard about its suffering too often and had seen images of hurricane-stricken life; the destruction and destitution that ensued. My mind paired Haiti with poverty but that didn’t sit right with me. “How did part of an island in the Caribbean sea end up in such a state?”, my thoughts wandered. The mere knowledge that it was but part of an island didn’t make much sense to me either. I sensed there was a root cause and believed the answers I was looking for would reveal themselves within the book.
It is probable that the CCTV cameras by the library entrance captured the determination on my face as I made my way to the fifth floor. I slipped between bookcases, searching for The Black Jacobins while my anticipation grew by the minute. I located the only copy and thought, “How lucky!”, before rushing back to my campus bedroom just five minutes away. In one hand, I held onto The Black Jacobins tightly, and with the other, I flung my backpack into a corner. I opened the first page and read everything, I wanted to read it cover to cover. This included the dedications and foreword, in which he reflects on his work decades later in January 1980.
It took less than an hour for James’s words to break me. The tears welling up in my eyes eventually began to fall onto the pages. “I must continue”, I thought, trying to read on, but the floodgates had opened. I felt ridiculous staring at the soaking pages and placed the book on the side, leaving it open to dry.
In James Walvin’s introduction, he describes James as a “pioneering” historian:
“The Black Jacobins asserted — and illustrated — the importance of the Caribbean to the unfolding of Atlantic history. James’s was an attempt not merely to shift the focus of imperial interests back to where it had once lain — in the Atlantic economy — but to explain slavery in the Americas as an integral theme in European development. The originality of James’s book lies in its core argument that the revolution in San Domingo (Haiti) in the 1790s was pivotal for the whole region.”
He also speaks forgivingly about the book’s inaccuracies, acknowledging its age and the restricted resources to undertake such research at the time. Still, there is so much beauty within The Black Jacobins; more than the simple fact that it is a foundational text on Haitian history. It’s James’s incredible storytelling that propelled me into emotional overload. With each sentence, he places the human condition of the enslaved peoples at the centre. He strings his words together in a way that digs beneath the skin of your fingertips to the point that it’s almost painful to turn the page.
The Black Jacobins had mastered the art of being “unapologetic” well before “woke” culture overhauled the phrase. As such, James didn’t spare people’s feelings when he wrote about the countless ways in which enslaved Africans were reduced to cattle, a purely subhuman existence. “The life in San Domingo killed them off fast. The planters deliberately worked them to death rather than wait for children to grow up. But the professional white-washers are assisted by the writings of a few contemporary observers who described scenes of idyllic beauty.” James dismisses European fantasies of men like Vaublanc, who desperately reached for a silver lining. Instead, he gives Haitians agency, documenting their strategic actions alongside the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture. For James, Haitians ought to be recognised as the driving force that put an end to the abhorrent practices on the island.
In 2020, I heard C. L. R. James’s name mentioned for the first time on the television in Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s film series. Not only was James a mentor to several of the Mangrove Nine, but the character of Dread also recommends The Black Jacobins to Alex Wheatle to help the young man find his way. As someone who wrote so profoundly about the human condition and one of the world’s most significant historical moments, it’s troubling that so few recognise his name. James’s work belongs in the national curriculum. We ought to pay attention to Haiti’s story, from its past as San Domingo to what is happening in the present day.
I can admit that after reading The Black Jacobins and moving on from the French revolutions, Haiti had slipped into the back of my mind. But whilst travelling in Chile, I was reminded of why I had raced to the library a couple of years prior. After arriving in Santiago’s city centre, I needed some help with directions, so I asked a friendly-looking Chilean man. It’s safe to say that I hadn’t yet perfected my Spanish and so, I wasn’t surprised when he asked where I was from. However, the formulation of his question perplexed me, “Where are you from, are you Haitian?”, he asked. I was confused by the specificity and assumption of Haitian origin, it just seemed so random. I quickly learned that Haitian migration in Chile had grown in recent years as temporary visas permitted status changes from tourists to regular migrants. Sadly, as Orlando Milesi reports, “Haitian immigrants face a special cocktail of xenophobia mixed with racism, sometimes disguised as criticism of the fact that their languages are Creole or French, not Spanish.” The Chilean man had simply looked at me as a Black woman and concluded I was Haitian.
James’s work reminds us of how intertwined our world is and the lingering effects of significant moments in history. In truth, that which may seem random or peculiar can often be traced back to a particular set of social and political relations.
I decided to re-read The Black Jacobins in honour of James’s legacy. I wanted to rediscover his words and garner more meaning from the only successful revolt of enslaved people. After the tumultuous year of 2020, I looked to another unique period of history for strength to take on the next. But once again, I choked partway through the first chapter. I couldn’t bring myself to start the year with The Black Jacobins, it’s just too heavy. Still, James continues to teach me. As a student, I was reading his work for context. Now, as a writer and journalist, I’m re-reading for style; how to tell important stories and evoke genuine emotion.