How C. L. R. James Wrote the Definitive History of the Haitian Revolution
The socialist historian C. L. R. James was born 120 years ago today. His landmark text, The Black Jacobins, is a majestic account of the Haitian Revolution and is still the authoritative history of a heroic struggle for freedom and dignity.
- Interview by
- Viviane Magno
In a 1980 interview, C. L. R. James stated that he wanted to be remembered above all for his serious contributions to Marxism. In Making the Black Jacobins: C. L. R. James and the Drama of History, Rachel Douglas explores the many facets of the Trinidadian author and offers a fresh interpretation of his unique brand of Marxism.
Douglas’s book traces the development of James’s thought over more than thirty years, from his intellectual activities as a Pan-Africanist in London and Paris in the 1930s to his political militancy as one of the founders in the 1940s of the Johnson–Forest Tendency (born from a split with the American Trotskyist organization, the Workers Party). Douglas also revisits James’s engagement with the Black Power and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and gives special consideration to his work as a playwright. James’s constantly transforming thought is fruitfully explored through Douglas’s masterly use of archival sources — his main works, manuscripts, notes, as well as interviews and secondary sources are all woven into the author’s rich intellectual portrait.
At the center of Douglas’s book is James’s most renowned work, The Black Jacobins. As the author shows, the evolution of James’s political thought and militancy is deeply bound up with a six-decade-long process of writing and rewriting that classic work of Marxist historical analysis. In tracing the book’s evolution, Douglas also highlights the connections between James’s texts and the emancipatory history of the West Indies and Africa.
To reveal the making of The Black Jacobins, Douglas offers a unique reading that connects James’s Haitian Revolution–inspired plays (1934 and 1967) and successive editions of The Black Jacobins (1938 and 1963). At every point, Douglas carefully reconstructs the dialogue taking place between James’s texts and their surrounding political and social context.
The central argument advanced by Douglas is that Black Jacobins should be understood as a palimpsest — a text that, in the words of the author, consists of “layered repositories of embedded vestiges, meaning that earlier inscriptions remain and are never erased, because ‘these narrative inscriptions become part of the whole.’” In the case of James, this meant that the story of the Haitian Revolution was rewritten through multiple mediums: as articles, histories, and, perhaps most strikingly, through plays. As Douglas argues, by retelling the history of the Haitian Revolution through theatrical representation, James was able to dramatize political conflicts and bring them into sharper focus.
In a masterful stroke, Douglas applies the very historical method pioneered by James to the study of the Trinidadian himself. As the author explains, that approach offered a unique criticism of imperialist historiography, reinvigorated Marxist categories of analysis, and provided a compelling interpretation of twentieth-century anti-colonial struggles.
To commemorate the 120th anniversary of James’s birth, Viviane Magno spoke with the author of Making the Black Jacobins to recall the legacy of C. L. R. James — not just the author of The Black Jacobins, but a giant of twentieth-century Marxism.
Let me begin by saying how much I loved Making the Black Jacobins. In some way, your book helps James’s readers to better understand certain questions that he left open-ended or that seemed a bit enigmatic.
For example, in the preface to the 1938 edition, when James writes, “Yet Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint. And even that is not the whole truth.” Not the whole truth?
This sentence you quote is a typical James sentence. His sentences often double back on themselves like this. Another example is “Great men make history, but only such history as it is possible for them to make.” Here James echoes the introduction to Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte about individuals making history, but only in certain circumstances. What James does is take the correlation of the individual and the circumstances to his biographical model. Yet James shows that we cannot understand history through the personality of one great man, despite the vivid pen portraits he draws of Toussaint Louverture. The twists in James’s preface signal that The Black Jacobins will mainly be a portrait of the revolution through Louverture’s personality, but that the evolving circumstances are also crucial to historical developments outlined by James.
I think you are right to point out that open-endedness is important. He keeps the book of his Haitian Revolution writings open, like the always-open book that is his tombstone in Tunapuna. In Notes on Dialectics, James commented that “a closed book” is “a vile phrase.” James’s rewriting repeatedly acts against fixed, static, and finite forms — qualities he associated with negative Stalinist categories and falsification. Instead, James’s rewriting turns back upon itself like a circle, which has neither beginning nor end. A pattern emerges: James’s writing on the Haitian Revolution can be thought of — following his commentary in Notes on Dialectics — as continually enlarging circles.
On the importance of openness, I was influenced by Umberto Eco’s notion of “the Open Work.” Of particular relevance to James was Brazilian dramatist and political activist Augusto Boal’s ideas about reading unfinished open drafts of a play as the radical opposite of bourgeois finished theater. We can apply this perspective about unfinished openness to James’s writings about the Haitian Revolution as a whole. James’s work on this subject — like the Haitian Revolution itself — can never end neatly and complacently like an image of the complete, finished bourgeois world. Instead, it is always turning back on itself and always in a state of becoming.
Staying on the topic of James’s writing process: apart from being a scholar, James was a lifelong Marxist militant. How do you think this influenced his approach to writing history?
Only a tiny fraction of what C. L. R. James actually wrote has been published, and James’s working methods were often collaborative. James would have documents typed, annotate them, and then dispatch them to comrades around the world for political discussion and feedback. Notes on Dialectics — which James would later (in 1980) declare his most important work — was originally worked out in 1948 in letter form between James and his Johnson–Forest Tendency comrades Raya Dunayevskaya and Grace Lee [Boggs]. This type of work also led The Black Jacobins to become an “underground textbook” [Marty Glaberman] in the context of apartheid South Africa. There, the book was clandestinely copied and distributed in installments to the next readers. Grant Farred has told of how he first came across the history in just this manner when Richard Owen Dudley — one of the leaders of the Non-European Unity Movement (NEUM) for which James was an important figure — gave him one of those mimeographed chapters for comment.
Can you talk a little bit about your own making-of process for Making the Black Jacobins? What drew you to the particular method you chose? What theoretical influences were you drawing on?
It all started in Trinidad in 2007 when I was at a seminar, “Haiti Now! Art, Film, Literature,” organized by Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw and Martin Munro. While I was at the University of the West Indies – St. Augustine campus, I made a couple of visits to the West Indiana and Special Collections archives at the Alma Jordan library there. I came across a typescript of James’s first Toussaint Louverture 1936 play, which had been annotated. What caught my attention was that a new character had been added in James’s shaky handwriting. This character was Moïse, Toussaint Louverture’s adopted nephew.
From the program of the 1936 London production and other scripts of that play, we know that Moïse did not feature as a character in James’s first play. In the handwritten changes, Moïse went from being completely absent to being Louverture’s main interlocutor. This major change caught my attention, and I wanted to find out why James had changed some of the main characters. I also wanted to find out more about the history of The Black Jacobins. It’s a very famous book and is still considered the classic history of the Haitian Revolution to this day, which is quite a feat considering that it is over eighty years old! I wanted to get to know it better and in particular to find out more about the two plays which bookend the better-known history. It was fascinating to find out more about Paul Robeson’s role and contributions to the first play, which was only performed twice in London in 1936.
What I found was that James’s writings on the Haitian Revolution are in a state of constant motion and change, and this influenced my own process in making the book. Rewriting for James is a dialectical method. James’s own comments about Marx’s writing of Capital can be adapted to James’s Haitian Revolution–related writing. We see how James wrote a draft, then reorganized it completely, and then reorganized that. I tried to follow the process of The Black Jacobins’ own development and its essential dialectical movement as reflected in the form. Rewriting links James’s theory and practice.
In order to approach the history of The Black Jacobins, I drew on the method of genetic criticism, which is a youngish, mainly French methodology for reading and ordering all drafts of a literary work intelligibly. This was a useful model for approaching the dynamics of the long genesis and evolution of James’s plays and history based on the Haitian Revolution. Genetic criticism gave me a how-to guide with which to document the handling of archive boxes, folders, and their dusty contents, fragile manuscript and onionskin typescript pages, the examination of blots and marks.
Some aspects of genetic criticism seemed rather alien to James’s Black Jacobins project, including the method’s usually narrow French-Francophone application — a way of approaching textual genetics that has not traveled so well to other countries outside France. The French-Francophone genetic criticism model needs to be decolonized and politicized in order to confront works like The Black Jacobins. My approach had to take into account that James’s Haitian Revolution–related writings are written from a strongly Marxist viewpoint and guided by clear political ideas and James’s own political struggles and responses to the twentieth century’s most significant events.
Speaking of James’s process of rewriting, you draw on the concept of the palimpsest throughout your book. What is the relevance of that method in terms of writing about revolutionary processes? As James says about the new Appendix to The Black Jacobins in a letter quoted in your book: “I intend to show what all previous commentators have ignored, that the past and future of the islands can only be seriously studied in the light of the Haitian development during the revolution and after. . . . the West Indies are a territory that cannot be considered merely as to what extent they approximate or depart from Western patterns. They are territories with a unique history of their own, a West Indian history.”
Yes, I think the idea of palimpsests and layers of writing is key because the book tries to look at how James weaves together the multiple relations between past, present, and future. The Black Jacobins can be seen as a palimpsestic, messy editorial object, which is how Marx’s Capital has been described. We can use the model of the palimpsest to connect the multiple versions of The Black Jacobins in play and history form with the memorial sites associated with James. Postcolonial sites of memory can be thought of as palimpsests embedded in physical sites.
James’s writing about the Haitian Revolution can be seen as a palimpsest, with new layers added on top of the vestiges of the previous written traces. James said that its 1938 “foundation would remain imperishable” with the history remaining substantially the same for subsequent editions and the embedded vestiges becoming parts of the new whole. New writing is placed over previous writing, leaving visible traces of the rewriting and transforming the work as a whole. These successive layers of rewriting and the original vestiges can be seen as a palimpsest or layered repository of the Caribbean pasts, presents, and futures that James built up over a period of almost sixty years, as he was writing about the Haitian Revolution. What he produced was a multilayered text network that can be reactivated to change according to the new “future in the present.”
I think this method was a useful tool for James to write about revolutionary processes and independence histories, in relation to the national history of postcolonial countries. This quotation is always what James would say about the West Indians: that they were uniquely “sui generis” and “with no parallel anywhere else.” In fact, when James was chasing this “peculiar” quality of Caribbean identity, he even coined his own doubled expression “of the West Indies West Indian.” James’s The Black Jacobins, particularly in the 1963 version, rewrites the history through a Caribbean lens where the emphasis is on transforming the passive objects of other people’s history and travel writing into the subject and active agent of the Caribbean’s own history and culture by focusing on the Caribbean’s own heroes, history, and culture. That is why the focus on self-fashioning and becoming visible in the Caribbean’s own image is so crucial for the reassembling of The Black Jacobins.
Historians have a notoriously difficult time dealing with sources in postcolonial countries. Do you think C. L. R. James developed a method for writing history more adequate to the realities of these countries?
Yes, I think James developed a method for writing history more adequate to the realities of postcolonial countries. He reads many sources against the colonial grain and writes back to denigratory accounts of the Haitian Revolution. He also had a Haitian living source who was very important for his interwar research in black Paris in the 1930s: Alfred Auguste Nemours (1883–1955) who was a Haitian general, diplomat, and military historian. James recalled in the 1980 foreword of the Allison and Busby edition of The Black Jacobins that Nemours used coffee cups and books in Paris cafés to bring to life the military skills of revolutionary Haitians. As Stuart Hall reminds us, James’s French linguistic skills were unusual at this time for someone educated in the Anglophone Caribbean. James’s history refers to the French-language pillars of Haitian Revolution historiography. Léon-Gontran Damas, one of the trio of Negritude writers, showed James around the sites of black Paris.
Between the 1930s and 1960s to 1970s, James had a major rethink about the type of sources he wanted to use. In a 1971 lecture with a tantalizing title, “How I Would Rewrite The Black Jacobins,” delivered at the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, James indicated that if he were to rewrite his history again from scratch, he would focus on different types of archival sources closer to the majority of the ex-slaves, instead of outsider sources. James said about these alternative sources: “I know they are there if you look hard enough.”
I think one of the elements you explore so well in your book is the imperialist method of historiography that James also struggled against. Hegel after all once said that Africa is not a historical continent. . .
Could you talk a little bit more about this anti-imperialist historiographic method and the use of sources that James, in a certain way, inaugurates?
Yes, writing back to imperialist historians is a major prong of The Black Jacobins. James writes in his bibliography about “suppressio veri” and “suggestio falsi,” and James’s history is written to counter deliberate acts of manipulation, suppression, and falsification in some historical narratives of the Haitian Revolution. Countering historical misrepresentations is a major aim of James’s history writing in The Black Jacobins, where James directly counters the “professional white-washers” of history and “Tory historians, regius professors and sentimentalists.”
One target is T. Lothrop Stoddard’s racialist history The French Revolution in San Domingo (1914). Another is James Anthony Froude’s notorious travelogue The English in the West Indies: Or, the Bow of Ulysses (1888). One crucial source was clearly the famous book-length rebuttal by black Trinidadian schoolmaster John Jacob Thomas, aptly titled Froudacity: West Indian Fables Explained (1889) of English historian Froude’s notorious 1888 travelogue. Indeed, James himself would later in 1969 pen an introduction to Thomas’s Froudacity, correcting at length “Froudacious” Froude. There James would literally rewrite every single racist sentence about Haiti from a single page of Froude, transforming each one from passive to active voice.
Already in 1938, James’s history is writing back to the likes of Froude and Stoddard. Not only this, James’s first publication deploying Haitian Revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture was his early 1931 article “The Intelligence of the Negro: A Few Words with Dr Harland.” This article was a response to Dr Sidney C. Harland, an English scientist based at the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture in Trinidad, and his article “Race Admixture.” Here James already sketches out a biographical portrait of Toussaint to show that there is nothing innately inferior about West Indians.
One issue present throughout your book is that of the “subject of the history.” At one point in Chapter 1, you state: “Action is therefore not only the subject of the biographical passage, it is also a key constitutive feature of the means of representation.”
Following this argument, you seem to be suggesting that James developed an innovative theory of agency. . .
Yes, I argue that the protagonist of The Black Jacobins in its different guises is not a subject, so much as action. James’s early 1931 biographical sketch presents Louverture as the active subject of nearly every single active verb. Toussaint Louverture is here action personified: the ultimate action man.
James lists his hero’s many achievements in the 1931 article, piling actions breathlessly through quick-fire parataxis in short sentences. Strings of active verbs represent the revolutionary springing from one action to the next at a breakneck speed. Action is the subject of the biographical passage, but it is also a key constitutive feature of the means of representation when sketching out the bare bones of Toussaint’s biography. From James’s earliest texts, we see this clear focus on action and agency, as in the capacity to exercise power and struggle.
Agency seems like a suitable transition point to discuss James’s Marxism. Obviously, speaking of James’s method is already to talk about his historical-materialist method. More specifically, The Black Jacobins is credited with pioneering the history-from-below approach. You claim: “Already in the 1930s, James envisioned black ex-slaves functioning as a Greek chorus in his 1936 Toussaint Louverture play, and his 1938 history already constitutes a pioneering Marxist history from below avant la lettre of 1960s work by Albert Soboul, George Rudé, E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and others.”
Accepting that James’s history-from-below approach was pioneering, do you not think that it also has its own unique peculiarities?
Yes, I would agree with that: his history-from-below approach was not only pioneering but also had its own peculiarities. He focuses on crowds in the Haitian Revolution, although he represents only several faces in the crowd. He also draws attention to alternative protagonists including Moïse (Louverture’s nephew). His protégée Carolyn Fick, whose dissertation James supervised alongside the expert on French revolutionary crowds George Rudé, would drill down even further into alternative popular leaders. James’s history-from-below approach is stamped with his key Johnson–Forest Tendency ideas which include: the rejection of the orthodox Marxist-Leninist concept of the vanguard party, and a focus on the self-activity, self-organization, and mobilization from below of the masses. What James’s second play in particular shows us is that there were Haitian revolutions inside the revolution.
Speaking of internal divisions within the colony, there are two questions that seem interrelated: James’s denunciation of authoritarian “black revolutionaries” behaving like white rulers, and the question of Haiti’s real independence.
In other words, do you feel that by thinking in the colonial context, James arrives at a more complex theory of a class division of society?
Yes, I think James arrives at a more complex theory of a Marxist dialectical social division. In the colonial context, James shows us that class relations are important, but so are power relations between the colonizer/colonized to do with race. James is also doing this long before Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Eric Williams is famously credited with drawing the connection between capitalism and slavery in his Capitalism and Slavery (1944). Your book shows that James — Williams’s unofficial mentor — was already drawing out that idea in The Black Jacobins.
Would you agree that James’s hypothesis was pioneering not only in showing that the slave trade was the economic basis for the rise of capitalism, but that the plantation mode of production was a quintessentially modern institution of capitalist exploitation? I’m reminded here of W. E. B. Du Bois, in Black Reconstruction in America (1935): “Black slaves in America experienced the worst and lowest conditions among all modern workers. . .”
Yes, those words of Du Bois are very apt. In June 1971, James gave another lecture at the Institute of the Black World which was a comparative analysis of The Black Jacobins and Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction. Both works were born out of almost the same moment.
I agree that James’s hypothesis was pioneering because he made it clear that the Caribbean plantation slavery mode of production was a quintessentially modern institution of capitalist exploitation. James drew the connection between capitalism and slavery earlier than his protégé Eric Williams, who would publish Capitalism and Slavery in 1944. According to James, his research for The Black Jacobins directly spawned the central thesis of Williams’s PhD dissertation and subsequent history book. In his unpublished autobiography, James presents himself “[writing] with [his] hands,” and “[writing] down in 2/3 pages” the subject of Williams’s doctoral thesis.
James’s recollections are clearly colored by his subsequent sharp split with Williams who is presented as a faithful scribe who copies out word for word his mentor’s thesis plan. Williams accompanied James on some of the 1930s’ research trips to Paris, and James discusses how Williams wrote certain footnotes that appeared in The Black Jacobins, whereas James wrote certain lines in Capitalism and Slavery. Both published works fit together. Yet we could also talk about a case of The Black Jacobins versus Capitalism and Slavery. Chapter 12 “The Slaves and Slavery” of Williams’s book is where the two works clearly overlap. But questions have been raised about whether that Chapter 12 even fits into the rest of Capitalism and Slavery, especially by Michael Craton. On the genesis of Williams’s Chapter 12, Selwyn Ryan notes that after being sent the proofs, James told Williams that he had left out the slaves completely. What is clear is that Williams owes a particular debt to James for the formulation of his central thesis. Two Trinidadian calypso masters — Black Sage (Phillip Murray) and Short Pants (Llewellyn McIntosh) — are known for their extempo riffing on the subject of C. L. R. James versus Eric Williams.
You point out that one important model for James’s Marxist historical narrative is The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. You also signal that James derives much of his method and style from Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and his two main theories — uneven and combined development and permanent revolution. Nevertheless, you show how in the 1960s James began working with new sources that led him to refashion his own Marxism, emphasizing the masses over leadership.
Can you talk about these changes, particularly in reference to Henri Lefebvre’s influential book on the French Revolution? You claim that with that shift in emphasis — from leadership to masses — James’s book would be better titled “Black Sansculottes.”
Yes, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte are both key models for James. As for the linked ideas — permanent revolution and uneven and combined development — they are also pivotal to James’s 1938 history where they travel to the colonial contexts of San Domingo plantation slave society and anti-colonial revolution in Africa and the Caribbean, beyond the Russia and China of Trotsky’s examples. Permanent revolution is used in The Black Jacobins as a model for explaining the development of the Haitian Revolution as the only successful slave revolt in history. In the more distant past of the Haitian Revolution, these slaves suffered, according to James, from the “concentrated oppressions of slavery” and responded as “[r]evolutionaries through and through [. . .] brothers of the Cordeliers in Paris and the Vyborg workers in Petrograd.”
Later, after his split with Trotsky, James would fiercely attack the notion of permanent revolution, making it one of his targets in Notes on Dialectics (1948), where he described it as “precisely lacking in life, spirit, colour, content,” and as the idea that always propelled Trotsky toward the Mensheviks and against Leninism (this is quoted in Paul Le Blanc’s introduction to his 1994 book with Scott McLemee titled: CLR James and Revolutionary Marxism). James’s criticism of permanent revolution is less harsh in some later works. However, James would even go so far as to criticize Trotsky’s theory of the revolutionary party as “permanent blunder” or “a fiction,” as noted by Martin Glaberman’s collection of C. L. R. James speeches, Marxism for Our Time (1999).
In the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, James started working with new sources, especially where French Revolution historiography was concerned. James purchased Lefebvre’s mimeographed lectures in 1956 from one of the bouquinistes along the banks of the Seine. The Black Jacobins is not only a text of the 1930s, it becomes an active text again in the 1960s. James builds on work by Lefebvre who was one of the forefathers and pioneers of the approach to the French Revolution from below. The revised edition of The Black Jacobins was published in 1963 when the defining histories from below were starting to be published by E. P. Thompson, Albert Soboul, and George Rudé, among others.
In the new footnotes, James roughly sketches out what a history of the Haitian Revolution from below might look like. The two mammoth footnotes of the revised The Black Jacobins history concern Lefebvre’s analysis of the sansculottes. In my book, I suggest that James updates his 1938/1963 statement about Haiti and The Black Jacobins with his 1964 essay, “Black Sansculottes”: “This is now,” James writes in 1964. In his 1971 lectures on The Black Jacobins delivered in Atlanta at the Institute of the Black World, James gives a commentary on the Lefebvre footnotes, indicating: “If I were writing this book again, I would have something to say about those two thousand leaders. I have mentioned a few here and there, but I didn’t do it with that in mind.” In those lectures, James verbally adds Albert Soboul — leading historian of the sansculottes — further indicating the downward shift of James’s own attention toward the black sansculottes.
One of the central issues in your book is representation and drama. As you quote James: “There is no drama like the drama of history,” and as you add: “If there is no drama like the drama of history, according to C. L. R. James himself, what was the role of actual drama in shaping his own accounts of the Haitian Revolution across versions of The Black Jacobins?”
One response you offer is: “Drama is used as a means of giving voice to those who have none, or next to none, in the imperial archive, and of making crowds of slaves more audible and visible.” As your book shows, the ex-slaves and their voices of opposition and discontent are represented as “fundamental principles of the chorus in radical theater: conflict, contradiction, clash and combat.”
Thinking about the relationship between politics, history, and drama, how do you understand the vocation of theater in dramatizing politics?
James is a fundamentally political person who even introduces himself as “no playwright” in the program notes to his second The Black Jacobins play first performed in 1967. The reason he turns to theater is to bring politics to life on the stage. Relatively few people realize that The Black Jacobins both started and ended life as two very different plays. Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History was only ever performed twice at the Westminster Theatre in March 1936, with Paul Robeson in the leading role.
These two performances were notable for the sizable presence of black cast members. In both of his plays, James exploits the resources of drama to show the past of the Haitian Revolution. He was clearly influenced by theaters of the Left and theater movements across Britain and America. As for The Black Jacobins history in both its 1938 and 1963 incarnations, there is page after page of dramatic dialogue, which gives the impression of reading a play. It was interesting to think about the special qualities of theater. David Scott has brilliantly invoked some of James’s history revisions to contrast two modes of historical emplotment: the romance of the 1938 first edition versus the tragedy of the 1963 second edition. Tragedy is, however, also there in the first edition, and the second edition is not devoid of hope. Several commentators refer to the literary feel of The Black Jacobins. What I try to do is analyze the work’s trajectory as actual drama and work of literature.
So close is the relationship between theater and politics that they are often presented as going together hand in hand as second cousins. Theater has been described as the “most public of the arts” and as one of the arts of presentation/representation that, like photography, has a privileged access to truth. This intrinsically political role of theater as a representing machine also strongly connects it with action, as long-dead characters and historical events from long ago can be brought to life by flesh-and-blood actors who perform these deeds in the present tense of theater’s liveness, as if they were happening now.
With pieces of political theater like Toussaint Louverture (1936) and The Black Jacobins (1967), the purpose is both to enact politics and revolution (with the play depicting as it does the plight of the slaves/oppressed who fuel the capitalist economy and their revolution for changing the world) and to provoke the audience to do politics and revolution in their turn by resisting a state of affairs similar to the one resisted in the play. In the history versus the play, it is a case of telling versus showing. Turning the past back into drama allows James to show peoples of African descent “taking action on a grand scale” — a key motivation for James, as he discussed in his 1980 foreword to the history.
About the Appendix section “From Toussaint Louverture to Fidel Castro,” you write, “through the addition of the Appendix, The Black Jacobins text-network becomes more than the sum of all its parts (…) the creative dialectical development of the Black Jacobins as a whole — the total changing process of its rewriting — is enacted in the Appendix.”
Can you speak more broadly about this section? At one point you highlight that James felt that what links Louverture with Castro is not the most obvious — that both led revolutions in the West Indies — but, as you say, “he uses these bookends to chart the quest for a national identity…”
The appendix is only thirty pages long, but this telescopic essay manages to straddle the style of James’s political pamphlets, composite social commentary and journalism style, literary criticism of West Indian literature, and an account of West Indian political developments, including the breakup of the West Indies Federation and independence movements. Hybridity really marks the form and content of the composite finale to The Black Jacobins that is the Appendix.
This hybridity is appropriate for presenting James’s ideal amalgamated vision of Caribbean federation. This would be far more inclusive than the short-lived political union of the actual Federation of the British West Indies, which lasted from January 3, 1958 to May 31, 1962. James’s ideal Caribbean federation would encompass Martinique, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Cuba, and the former Dutch Caribbean territories, as well as the Anglophone islands of the region. It is really in the Appendix that James shifts the space-time coordinates of The Black Jacobins, as we move from the Africa of the 1930s towards the West Indies of the 1960s in search of an identity. Ultimately, James underlines the hybridity of West Indian identity, which has an unfinished and provisional quality, like The Black Jacobins history project itself.
One of the great passages from your book deals with James’s translation, in the Appendix, of Aimé Césaire’s famous poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939). In closing, can you say a few words about that translation?
Césaire’s Cahier and James’s The Black Jacobins were both published on the eve of World War II, and both were subsequently rewritten many times. Little attention has been given to the fundamental importance of James’s Cahier translation published in 1963. At the very centre of the appendix is James’s own translation and extended analysis of Césaire’s Cahier. James’s creative translation makes the poem his own. He rephrases the title as “Statement of a Return to the Country Where I Was Born.”
In large part, the Appendix provides us with James’s own statement on, and perspectives from, his own return to Trinidad to participate in politics there. ‘Statement’ brings to mind a political communication or pamphlet, such as James’s own political pamphlet Party Politics in the West Indies (1962) dealing with his sharp split from Williams and his People’s National Movement, as well as James’s acute sense of disappointment about the break-up of the West Indies Federation. These are, as well as Césaire’s Cahier, the signposts that mark the Appendix. The Appendix incorporates part of the poem, so that the Cahier literally becomes part of The Black Jacobins in the 1960s.
When we compare James’s version of the poem with Césaire’s own, it is then that the extent of James’s creative mis/reading and mis/translation emerges strongly as creative rewriting of the original. What James completely transforms is the sense of the original poem, creating new meaning. To make the poem his own, James starts and ends his translation in different places from Césaire. James initiates a dialogue with Césaire in the Appendix. Speaker pronouns often change as James presents everyone meeting at the ‘rendezvous of victory’, which James presents as the climax of Césaire’s poem. James’s rewriting involves breaking up Césaire’s long lines of prose into a more traditional poetic verse arrangement. In this way, the Cahier is reframed so that the shorter lines now look more verse-like, making the poem’s form stand out more against James’s prose in the rest of the Appendix. When James recenters the poem, what he identifies as being at its center and where he finishes his translation is, in fact, right in the middle of a line in the middle of a stanza.
James ends by translating ‘et il est place pour tous au rendez-vous de la conquête’ as ‘and there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory’. In French and English, the equivalent words are ‘conquête’ = conquest and ‘victoire’ = victory. If James had sought to translate this more closely, he could have proposed ‘at the rendezvous of conquest’. This change of just one word is very significant. While ‘conquest’ is linked with more negative connotations, ‘victory’ is more positive: it refers to the winners, while conquest refers to the losers. Thus, James changes his ending of Césaire’s poem, which is not the actual ending of the Cahier at all, by rewriting it. This — James’s own rewriting of Césaire — would later become an important landmark in James’s own work. Subsequently, At the Rendezvous of Victory would become the title of a whole 1984 volume of James’s own selected writings. James always quoted from his own Cahier translation, saying “I prefer that to any others, merely because I did it.”