“Un Peuple Sans Passé est un Peuple Sans Futur”
Reviving Histories from Saint Domingue to Louisiane
Between the years 1791–1804, the French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue fought to transform itself into the emancipated and independent state that we know today as Haiti. If you attended high school in the United States, those dates will likely call to mind the American and French Revolutions for you. However, the odds that you learned anything worthwhile about the Haitian Revolution itself in high school are slim to none. Personally, the only thing I ever learned in my thirteen years of Texas public education about the Haitian Revolution, or the Haitian Slave Revolt as it was exclusively called in my history classes, was that it was the bloodiest revolution in recorded history. Additionally, the only other fact I learned about Haiti in school was that it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. It was as if the overall message was this: black slaves should not defy and kill their masters, for they will only end up worse off than before. In this way, the American school system has done what Laurent Dubois, a leading historian of Haiti, claims that most people in Europe and North America have been doing for years — turning the story of Haiti “into a cautionary or ironic tale,” or even “employing it as a justification for racism” (“Foreword,” Toussaint Louverture vii).
Haiti as a whole is often ignored by the Western world, or, if anything, it is merely pitied for its poverty. Few seem to be aware of the incredible and unparalleled nature of Haiti’s accomplishment in earning its independence from France more than 200 years ago. I certainly feel that the American school system needs to do a better job of incorporating the Haitian Revolution into the curriculum in order to change the longstanding and negative Western view of Haiti. One option I will propose is to assign this task to English teachers as opposed to history teachers, by way of reading and analyzing one of Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James’ plays: either the original Toussaint Louverture, or the revised The Black Jacobins. After, I wish to discuss how critical and relatable the Haitian Revolution is to our own American history, particularly by examining the story of the French Acadian people and the Louisiana Purchase. In the way that James’ plays can serve as instructional texts on Saint Domingue’s transformation into Haiti, Jean Arceneaux’s poem Je Suis Cadien can teach many about the transformation of Acadians into Cajuns. Ultimately, I wish to start a process of education on the Haitian Revolution, for it is truly one of the most important yet overlooked revolutions in history, at least by the dominant white majority of the Western world.
Lesson One: The Haitian Revolution Through James’ Drama
There is no truly valid reason for American schools to not teach the Haitian Revolution, especially since there has always been such a heavy focus in the curriculum on not only the American Revolution, but the French Revolution as well. The main thing that really sets the former apart from the latter two is that the Haitian Revolution was “the first revolution that instituted political equality” for everyone, whereas the United States “maintained enslavement and segregation of its populations” and France “maintained forms of domination and exclusion with [its] colonies” (Bhambra 268–9). In this sense, the Haitian Revolution actually somewhat undermines the value of the other two revolutions, which is certainly not something the American school system wants to have happen. Of course, there is also the element of race and class: the American Revolution was largely fought between two groups of wealthy, educated white men, and even the French Revolution consisted of whites fighting whites. The Haitian Revolution, on the other hand, involved oppressed Afro-descended slaves rising up against and defeating their white masters and their wealthy so-called mother country. Simply put, the Haitian Revolution just does not fit in with the white-centric narrative of the American history classroom.
That being said, I was completely shocked once I finally learned about the Haitian Revolution through reading C. L. R. James’ play Toussaint Louverture. Though the play is obviously dramatized and condensed, Laurent Dubois asserts that it still “seeks to tell the whole history of the Haitian Revolution, of international imperial rivalry, of the emergence of a revolutionary consciousness, and of the creation of both a nation and a people” (“Foreword,” Toussaint Louverture viii). I enjoyed the dramatic elements of the play, and delighted in its language, but mostly appreciated it for all its historical content: facts and names and places that I had never once heard of or could have even guessed at the significance of. Though James later wrote a more straightforward and magisterial history of the Haitian Revolution entitled The Black Jacobins, there is still significant pedagogical value to Toussaint Louverture that should not be ignored. While The Black Jacobins would fit in best within a history curriculum that does not currently have room for it or any desire to include it, Toussaint Louverture could be taught in a high school English class, where the curriculum changes more frequently and there is a little more choice on the teacher’s part. Additionally, as mentioned before, there is also a revised version of the play Toussaint Louverture called The Black Jacobins that is even more dramatically inclined. Personally, I think Toussaint Louverture would be more beneficial to the classroom, what with its plethora of historical and cultural details, but The Black Jacobins play might be easier for students in an English class to stomach. For the sake of this paper, though, I will focus chiefly on the former.
In my ninth grade English class, one of the core novels we read and analyzed was Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Naturally, my teacher gave us a good deal of information about the French Revolution to accompany our reading of the text, and I feel that I gained a very rich understanding of that historical moment. Therefore, it seems perfectly logical that a similar lesson or unit could be taught with Toussaint Louverture as the featured text. In fact, since the French and Haitian Revolutions are so wholly intertwined, Toussaint Louverture could even be read immediately after A Tale of Two Cities, perhaps. After all, as postcolonial scholar Gurminder K. Bhambra says in “On the Haitian Revolution and the Society of Equals,” the “most radical political statement of the French Revolution — that is, the one with the greatest universal potential — came from Haiti” (270). The play is certainly not beyond the reading level of a high school, or even middle school student; if ninth graders are expected to be able to read Dickens and other Victorian works, then surely they can handle the 20th Century language of James. In fact, James himself did something similar to what I am suggesting; at a rather young age, “he landed a job at a private school in Port of Spain as an English teacher, and he took his passion for drama into the classroom,” according to historian Christian Høgsbjerg (“Introduction,” Toussaint Louverture 4). He saw the unique way that theater can capture the minds and imaginations of students, which undoubtedly contributed to his desire to later write the play Toussaint Louverture.
Like Fionnghuala Sweeney says, “That James first imagined history as drama is telling” (146). There is something special about drama, or more specifically historical drama, that cannot exactly be captured in a nonfiction work. There are so many layers to a play, even if you are only reading the script: the dialogue, the stage directions, the music, the props, and more are all either described, or seen and heard. For example, in his review of the 2013 publication of Toussaint Louverture, Raj Chetty describes how right from the beginning of the play James beautifully makes use of several of these elements:
[T]he opening act features French representatives and white planters discussing their violently racist opposition to slave revolt. However, “a faint but insistent beating of drums” is heard distantly throughout the scene, James’s magnificent use of theater to indicate the revolution occurring “off stage,” masked in the music of ritual and as such unrecognizable to the racist white planter class. (176; James 49)
In other words, a major problem at the time of the revolution and even still today is that privileged whites were and are unable to realize exactly what the black revolutionaries were doing. They did not just attack spontaneously out of rage; rather, they carefully planned their course of action and had to change it many times over. Thus, it is textual analysis like this that enriches one’s understanding of the history depicted in the play. A great place for learning how to analyze drama and other forms of literature is in the English classroom, so again, the play seems like a viable text for a middle or high school English curriculum. In the Caribbean, there is much more fluidity and overlap across disciplines than in the typical Western tradition; as Cuban writer Antonio Benítez-Rojo claims, the Caribbean possesses “a sinuous culture where time unfolds irregularly and resists being captured by the cycles of clock and calendar” and can be characterized as a sort of intellectual “feed-back machine with asymmetrical workings” (11). In other words, while Western arts and philosophy remain rigid and fixated on the classical world, the Caribbean embraces a variety of ideas and allows these ideas to flow freely together across disciplines. Therefore, it only makes sense that Caribbean history should be taught via literature and drama, instead of just by a standard textbook.
What the play Toussaint Louverture does best is to show the truly intellectual and tactical nature of the revolution; it was far from a rowdy bloodbath. Høgsbjerg comments on how the play illustrates the way in which “the ideals of the Enlightenment, of liberty, equality, and fraternity,” which are certainly heard from characters like Boukman in the drama, “became embodied in the rebel slave army” (“Introduction,” Toussaint Louverture 13). It certainly is true that during the Haitian and French Revolutions, “liberty, equality and citizenship as both philosophy and reality, were constantly in flux and participants in the revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic were continually re-defining and re-shaping Enlightenment discourse,” which James makes sure to emphasize throughout the play (Joseph-Gabriel 114). Other than the color of their skin and their legal status, or lack thereof, the Haitian revolutionaries were really not any different than the French revolutionaries. Actually, they seem to have understood Enlightenment ideals even better than those who first created and claimed them, for they truly wanted freedom for everyone, at least eventually. Additionally, Toussaint’s own intelligence and literacy are highlighted in the script; in Act I, Scene III, Boukman states that Toussaint “can read and write like a priest,” a claim which emphasizes the elite status of Western thought and religion in France and its colonies (James 57). Later in the play, Toussaint has his sons educated in France, and they even have an audience with Napoleon in Act II, Scene II, further illustrating the intellectual capabilities of the Afro-descended residents of Saint Domingue (James 103–4).
After reading James’ remarkable drama, one cannot deny the words of 19th Century Haitian theorist Anténor Firmin, that “the Black race, which has been labeled inferior to the rest of humanity, is to the contrary as capable of intellectual and moral progress as any other race” (2). Though the Haitian Revolution indeed can be counted among the many “bloody examples” of black defiance in history, the point of James’ writing is to demonstrate that it was a tactical assault as well, and one that was certainly justifiable (Firmin 3). After all, the black race has been “martyred, scorned, discriminated against, brutalized, and systematically exterminated” for centuries (Firmin 3). It seems that both James and Firmin argue for a diplomatic approach to combatting racism and the oppression of blacks, although James perhaps feels that a combination of diplomacy and violence is necessary. Upon the spread of Italian fascism to Africa, James was quoted as saying, “‘Ethiopia’s cause is our cause and we will defend it by every means in our power,’” which certainly sounds different than Firmin’s assertion that the courage of blacks “must never turn into violence nor must it degenerate into brutality” (“Introduction,” Toussaint Louverture 23; Firmin 3). The problem with Firmin’s anti-violence approach is that he himself is a Haitian intellectual. Had it not been for the Haitian Revolution, which of course involved a good deal of bloodshed, he would likely not be publishing his theories and engaging in the sphere of race politics. In the end, it seems that the best route, and the route that both the Haitian Revolutionaries took and that James himself endorsed, is to find a balance between negotiation and physical battle. It is an important lesson for any student to learn, but especially for those who find themselves systematically oppressed. I feel that Toussaint Louverture is the perfect vehicle for teaching that lesson.
James’ Toussaint Louverture is an excellent and educational work of art. It accurately portrays the Haitian Revolution, doing justice to those who led in the fight against French colonial oppression, acknowledging that even though many of them were slaves with meager beginnings, they found success in conquering their oppressor. In the play, James employs various dramatic elements in order to add meaning and depth to the action and dialogue, making it a very complex and intriguing text to read. He challenges the idea that the Haitian Revolution was somehow intellectually inferior to the French Revolution, and does the same with blacks and whites. I hope to one day become a high school English teacher, and I will do whatever it takes to be able to teach Toussaint Louverture to my students. The last thing I want is for future generations of Americans to graduate high school barely knowing a thing about the Haitian Revolution.
Lesson Two: Je Suis Cadien and The Cajun-Haitian Connection
Unlike the Haitian Revolution, one historical occurrence that American students actually do learn about year after year is the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. However, I do not think many teachers make it clear that these two events are intimately connected. The truth is that Napoleon Bonaparte sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States because he needed more funds to fight to keep Saint Domingue. I had to wait until I was in a graduate-level Caribbean Literature course to learn this important detail.
There are actually many aspects to the Louisiana Purchase that are overlooked and ignored by the American history curriculum. For instance, little is taught about the people living in that territory who were suddenly forced to become subjects of the United States. One group in particular that I wish to focus on are the French Acadians, or Cajuns: those who were living in the most southerly region of the Louisiana Territory at the time of the purchase, and who continue to do so even today. I actually am Cajun myself, so it always bothered me that I hardly ever even saw mention of my ancestors in any history textbook — a feeling shared by many other non-WASP students, I am sure. From what my grandmother had told me as a child, I was under the impression that the Grand Dérangement of the Acadians made up a rather significant part of American history. I had a similar feeling when I finally learned about the Haitian Revolution in a class for the first time. Both the Cajuns and the Haitians most certainly hold an important place in history, and one that is particularly noteworthy for Americans at that. The stories of the two groups are not entirely dissimilar, although one would certainly be wrong to say that they are the same.
Though not a play like Toussaint Louverture, the long poem Je Suis Cadien by Jean Arceneaux provides a literary telling of Cajun history, from colonial Canada to 20th Century Louisiana. Sheryl St. Germain’s English translation of the poem allows the possibility for Je Suis Cadien to be taught in American schools. By taking a closer look at the historical background of Louisiana Cajuns and by exploring this poem, I wish to demonstrate the ways in which the Cajun and Haitian narratives are connected and why Je Suis Cadien, like Toussaint Louverture, could and should be taught in the English classroom of American schools.
The ethnic community today known as the Cajuns had very humble beginnings with roots in France:
The Cajuns are descendants of French colonists who immigrated beginning in the early-seventeenth century to the proprietary colony of Acadie in the Bay of Fundy region, what is today Nova Scotia and eastern New Brunswick. The majority were peasant farmers or laboureurs from west-central France who sought refuge from epidemics, famine, and recurring Catholic-Protestant violence. (Rees 340–1)
In simple terms, because of harmful physical and social-political conditions, they fled to the New World, where they then became known as Acadians. Arceneaux, using the first person singular pronoun throughout his poem to signify the unity of all Cajuns, captures this migration by saying, “I came to the frontier/to find peace,”1 as well as, “I learned well the lesson of the New World. I became an Acadian”2 (9). While the British and the French fought over land ownership in North America, the Acadians kept to their farming. Eventually, Acadie became a British territory, but the Acadians remained politically neutral: “But the English won my land/in a war over another land,/a war I barely understood”3 (Arceneaux 9). However, the British still sought to “either assimilate or eliminate the recalcitrant Acadian farmers,” which ultimately led to their mass deportation, known as the Grand Dérangement (Rees 341). While some of the deported fled to what is today the northeastern United States, the most famous “group of 193 Acadians arrived in New Orleans by way of…Saint Domingue” in 1765 (Rees 341). Here already is a pretty obvious connection between the Cajuns and the slaves of Saint Domingue; for a brief period of time, they both resided on the same island, in the territory that we today know as Haiti. Thus, their histories are physically intertwined.
After settling in south Louisiana, becoming comfortable in using their own dialect of the French language, and being culturally enriched through the influence of “African, Creole, Native American, and Anglo-American culture,” the Acadians underwent even more political struggle: their new homeland suddenly became a part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase (Sexton 272). Once again, the Acadians, who gradually became known as Cajuns, were put through “a process of assimilation, acculturation, cultural integration, and Americanization” that continued for at least a century and a half (Rees 345). When discussing this tragedy, Arceneaux repeats his earlier statement, exchanging “the English” for “the Americans”: “But the Americans bought my land/in a deal for another land,/one I hardly understood”4 (13). Though he does not say it explicitly, Arceneaux does connect Louisiana and Haiti with the phrase “in a deal for another land” — the other land being Saint Domingue, Napoleon’s more prized possession (13). Je Suis Cadien continues to relay the struggles faced by Louisiana Cajuns up until recent history: being forced not to “speak French on the schoolgrounds,” or “with strangers,”5 for “good Americans”6 speak English (Arceneaux 21, 23). The original French version of the poem strategically uses English phrases in this section, like “Why not just go ahead and learn English./Don’t fight it, it’s much easier anyway,” to show the growing loss of the French language in Louisiana (Arceneaux 22). In fact, reading an English translation of the poem is rather sad, as it illustrates the almost complete erasure of the original language among Louisiana Cajuns. As Sheryl St. Germain writes in her “Translator’s Note,”
To translate a poem from French into English that takes as its subject matter the near disappearance and oppression of the French language by the English language is a difficult and, perhaps, a foolish task. Nonetheless, I have attempted to do just that because I feel that among some of the people who most need to hear what Jean Arceneaux has to say are English-speaking people, including those of Cajun descent who have lost their mother language. (5)
If all American students were to actually learn about this instance of erasure and oppression enacted by their own country in school, it would be harder for them to ignore the fact that France and the United States have made unjust and widely-felt political choices over the years. While racist students and educators might not be willing to admit that slavery in the US and the Caribbean was horrific and morally wrong, for instance, they would likely find difficulty in saying the same in regard to the treatment of the white Acadians. Once they start reading between the lines of the WASP-centric American history curriculum, they might then start to see Haiti in a new light. This kind of roundabout method of convincing racially prejudiced students that the history of Haiti is not an example of black inferiority is not ideal, but it seems like a plausible option at least. In order to widen the scope of the traditionally white, Protestant, male version of history, we must start small; and the white, Catholic Acadians seem like a decent choice for the first step.
Though both the Cajuns and the Haitians have felt the negative effects of imperialism and colonialism from France and the United States, it would not be at all accurate to say that the two groups faced an equal struggle, or wound up with the same result. The Cajuns were certainly mistreated and made to feel like an inferior race, but they were not treated as property or forced to do any kind of harsh slave labor like the enslaved Africans of Saint Domingue were. On the contrary, “the first generations of Acadian settlers, especially the wealthier landowners, were slave owners” (Rees 352). This fact is often glossed over by today’s Cajuns, and it is not mentioned in Je Suis Cadien. Additionally, the Haitian slaves actually fought for and won their independence from France, whereas the Acadians, excluding a few resistance efforts over the years, were not ever able to obtain independence. Lastly, as previously said, the Haitian Revolution is often cited as being the bloodiest revolution in recorded history, whereas the Acadians have maintained a reputation of being a quaint, rural people. The truth, though, is that the small resistance that the Acadians actually did exert against their oppressors was marked by “graphic violence…including the massacre of women and children” (Rees 354). As per usual, the violence in a narrative of the white group of people gets to be somewhat glorified or at least cleaned up, while that of the black nation is rendered negative and exaggerated.
The only answer to this problem that I can provide I have already discussed: education. English Language Arts classrooms are an excellent place to learn about different takes on historical events. Incorporating Je Suis Cadien, a quick and relatively easy read, into the curriculum of an English class would bring to light the story of the Cajuns, easing students into the idea of the United States not always being the hero of history. Then, as I discussed previously, Toussaint Louverture (or The Black Jacobins play) could be taught, showing another undertaught historical account that undoes dominant American views on history. I know that these two texts cannot singlehandedly change this country for the better, but they could invite young minds to view the world differently, and to give alternative narratives a chance.
Something that Haitians, Cajuns, and even people of other francophone Caribbean nations have in common is that they make up part of the French diaspora. They have also all at one point or another been trapped in what Barbadian intellectual Edward Kamau Brathwaite calls the plantation, of which there is an inner and outer sector. The colonies, or those either currently or formerly controlled by France, are the inner plantation, where there is a cultivation of different cultures and ideas. France, the metropole, is the outer plantation, or the master: it imposes its “established” institutions on its colonies and manages to receive the “most attention from scholars” for its accomplishments (Brathwaite 179). In other words, students in both the inner and outer plantations learn about the history of France and the other powerful nations of the West, and read the works of European scholars, but hardly learn about the various histories of and scholarship produced in the countries of the inner plantation. As Brathwaite says, the “systematic social histories” of the inner plantation “are still painfully absent” in classrooms and other dominant academic discourses (180).
Francophone Caribbean peoples and the Cajuns of Louisiana (up until more recent years, at least) all speak their own variant of the French language, often called a creole, or patois, or dialect. As is usually the case with deviations from so-called “standard” languages, these languages of the French diaspora are often looked down upon or considered somehow flawed. My own great-grandparents, who were Louisiana Cajuns, learned Cajun French as their first language, but then were punished for using it in place of English in school. Consequently, as discussed before, the Cajun dialect has largely died out in Louisiana. In the Caribbean, though, the various French Creoles are certainly alive and well, although they still do not necessarily have the same status that “standard” European French does. According to Édouard Glissant, in Martinique, “the language of the people, Creole, is not the language of the nation”; rather, it has no official status, despite being the most widely-spoken language on the island (166). This oppression of the local language and history can be felt throughout the francophone Caribbean, both on an island like Martinique, which is currently an “overseas department” of France, and in Haiti, which earned its independence from France more than 200 years ago. These countries are in danger of following suit with the Cajuns and losing their languages and identities. Their cultures should be brought to the forefront and celebrated, not stamped out by French and broader Western oppression.
According to Glissant, Haiti so far has been the closest at producing a unique Caribbean identity and earning the group of islands respectability after its successful revolution: “Haiti free but cut off from the world, (international assistance did not exist, nor did the socialist countries, nor the countries of the Third World, nor the United Nations) the process of exchange that could have created the Caribbean dried up” (7). Because the major world powers at the time, namely Britain, the United States, Spain, the Netherlands, and of course France, did not wish to emancipate their slaves or grant independence to their colonies, they simply could not offer any kind of assistance or even recognition to the new nation of Haiti. We cannot continue to do this in our own day, though. We cannot just look at Haiti and feel pity and donate a few dollars to earthquake relief; we must learn its history and acknowledge that it deserves a place of honor within the history of the world.
At an Acadian memorial in Bayou Teche, Louisiana, there burns an eternal flame with the inscription, “‘Un peuple sans passé est un peuple sans futur’ (A people without a past are a people without a future)” (Rees 348). If we do not keep alive the histories of certain groups, how can we expect them to grow and thrive? If the white, Protestant, male version of history continues to dominate as the sole historical narrative, then many groups will be robbed of their pasts and futures, which has been and continues to be done to Haiti. The Haitian Revolution was a momentous historical occurrence, and one that can no longer be pushed aside by the North American and European white-centric view of the world. In 1804, liberty, equality, and fraternity were finally for everyone, but only in one country; why is that so hard to see?
1. “Je suis venu sur la frontière/Pour bien trouver la paix” (Arceneaux 8).
2. “J’ai bien appris la leçon du nouveau monde./Je suis devenu Acadien” (Arceneaux 8).
3. “Mais les Anglais ont gagné ma terre/Dans une guerre sur une autre terre,/Une affaire que je ne comprenais guère” (Arceneaux 8).
4. “Mais les Américains ont acheté ma terre/Dans une affaire pour une autre terre,/Une affaire que je ne comprenais guère” (Arceneaux 12).
5. “Jamais avec des étrangers” (Arceneaux 20).
6. “Comme de bons Américains” (Arceneaux 22).
Arceneaux, Jean. Je Suis Cadien. Translated by Sheryl St. Germain, Cross-Cultural Communications, 1994.
Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island. Duke University Press, 1996.
Bhambra, Gurminder K. “On the Haitian Revolution and the Society of Equals.” Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 32, no. 7/8, 2015, pp. 267–74.
Braithwaite, Edward Kamau. “Caribbean Man in Space and Time.” Caribbean Cultural Thought: From Plantation to Diaspora, edited by Yanique Hume and Aaron Kamugisha, Ian Randle Publishers, 2013, pp. 174–84.
Chetty, Raj. “Review of Toussaint Louverture.” The Black Scholar, vol. 44, no. 1, 2014, pp. 175–8.
Firmin, Anténor. “The Equality of the Human Races: Positivist Anthropology (excerpt).” Caribbean Cultural Thought: From Plantation to Diaspora, edited by Yanique Hume and Aaron Kamugisha, Ian Randle Publishers, 2013, pp. 1–6.
Glissant, Édouard. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Translated by J. Michael Dash, UP Virginia, 1989.
James, C. L. R. Toussaint Louverture. Duke University Press, 2013.
Joseph-Gabriel, Annette K. “Creolizing Freedom: French–Creole Translations of Liberty and Equality in the Haitian Revolution.” Slavery & Abolition, vol. 36, no. 1, 2015, pp. 111–23.
Rees, Mark. “From Grand Dérangement to Acadiana: History and Identity in the Landscape of South Louisiana.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology, vol. 12, no. 4, 2008, pp. 338–59.
Sexton, Rocky L. “Cajun or Coonass? Exploring Ethnic Labels in French Louisiana Regional Discourse.” Ethnology, vol. 48, no. 4, 2009, pp. 269–94.
Sweeney, Fionnghuala. “The Haitian Play: C. L. R. James’ Toussaint Louverture (1936).” International Journal of Francophone Studies, vol. 14, no. 1/2, 2011, pp. 143–63.
Originally written in March 2018