People of color have long appropriated the white man’s language and ideologies to wield against him. In The Black Jacobins, C. L. R. James performs the ultimate balancing act of narrative construction – seamlessly weaving together individual agency and environmental influence – “great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make” (x). Like a ripple effect, James, as a scholar, enacts the same historiographic reparations as his revolutionary predecessors. Figures such as Toussaint L'Ouverture adopted, elevated, and best embodied the French revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality better than his European counterparts (198). James, operating with a European historiographic model and utilizing the colonizer language-cum-lingua franca of English, subverts white epistemologies from within.
Written on the precipice of World War II, James not only concedes the implications of his own context as a historian in the preface, but draws explicit parallels between Black spectatorship on the margins, observing the white man’s conflicts and decline throughout history – “[Toussaint] and his brother slaves only watched their masters destroy one another, as Africans watched them in 1914-1918, and will watch them again before long” (82). The historiography itself is an act of gazing backwards, approximating events and experiences using language and ideas not of the same time or place. Euro/Americentrism and anachronism both obscure the connection between what Michel-Rolph Trouillot would refer to as historicity 1 and 2 (what happened and what is said to have happened). In this way, modern conceptions of Blackness cannot necessarily be compared to those of late eighteenth-century Haiti. How do historians capture and convey these unfamiliar contexts?
"Toussaint L'Ouverture (1802)." Wikimedia Commons.
Accessed February 6, 2018. https://commons.wikimedia.org /wiki/File:Toussaint_L%27Ouverture.jpg.
James describes Toussaint’s adoption (assimilation?) of European philosophy, the “crude words of [his] broken dialect” (197). I am interested in the significance of language in decolonization – in revolutions, politics, and epistemology alike. What constitutes a “broken” dialect, if not a language of hybridity – a creole communication that transcends the circumscriptions of what is considered “correct” by the white man and his “pure” tongue? It was proposed that slaves be taught to read but not write – such that they could consume white epistemologies but not produce their own (375). Language is the middle ground – forged out of context, connection and necessity. Does James’ glocalized history ascribe too readily to essentialized conceptions of place and position? Or can we (constructively) internalize the white man's dichotomous delineations of “us and them?” Parsing monolithic constructions like nation states or “the Third World” allows us to complicate our reception of the past.
In “An Age of Imperial Revolutions,” Jeremy Adelman problematizes the notion of the nation state as a fictive, teleological successor to empire. Citing Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, he demonstrates that historical narratives on the rise of communal consciousness and identity in the West play into a white supremacist ideology of exceptionalism (330-1). Indeed, by citing the notion of a “regime change” (319), Adelman makes room for more analyses that assess the interiority of both imperial and colonial forces. In other words, what does a “regime change” from imperial colony to nation state look like from within? Does the instantaneous claim, appearance, or external presentation of a new system of governance match the experiences undergone by people at both the centers and margins of such territories? Is nationalism as unified, cohesive, or automatic as the historiography has portrayed it? On Haiti, Adelman observes that France’s proclamation of independence and virtue made “good of the French Revolution that the old empire had betrayed. What was common was the prolonged effort to reassemble the practices of sovereignty to rely on empire to shore up understandings of sovereignty” (337).