Annotation: Jeremy D. Popkin’s “Facing Racial Revolution” (2003)

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This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Looking Behind the Bedroom Door: Productive Sensationalism and Domestic Violence in Leonora Sansay’s Secret History.” See my prospectus here.

Popkin, Jeremy D. “Facing Racial Revolution: Captivity Narratives and Identity in the Saint-Domingue Insurrection.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 36:4 (2003): 511-33. Print.

In his article Popkin discusses how the success of the Haitian Revolution deeply challenged Euro-American conceptions of race and the racial hierarchy itself. Whereas blacks were previously considered inferior, irrational beings, the insurrection showed that they could successfully organize to overthrow a white colonizing power and in effect seize one of Europe’s most lucrative colonial possessions at the time. Popkin specifically analyzes how first-person testimonies about the revolution reveal a crisis in identity as these authors struggle to reconcile their understanding of the Western “self” against the new black “other.” Because it was before inconceivable that blacks could even stage a revolution there was no formula for how to discuss or even think about it when it actually happened so writers needed to create conditions where it “became thinkable” (515). In his first-hand captivity narrative, Historick Recital, M. Gros suggested that “the real instigators of the insurrection were either the educated mulattoes or counter-revolutionary whites” (521). He asserted that the officials sent to St. Domingue deliberately acted passive because they wanted to spark chaos in the colony to demonstrate the inefficiency of the revolutionary party in France and precipitate the restoration of the monarchy. Popkin emphasizes, however, that Gros’ account also revealed that blacks could be just as skillful political and military leaders as whites, particularly with respect to Toussaint L’Overture. Popkin further notes that in Gros’ attempt to reach the highest ranks of administration and influence policy, he achieved “a position that required him to identify, at least to some extent, with the goals of a black-led movement,” as well as the black leaders themselves, who he recognized as generous, intelligent, and rational (518). Popkin also discusses how Michel Etienee Descourtilz’ first-person captivity narrative demonstrates a similar crisis in identity, where he encountered blacks who deeply challenged his preconceived racial stereotypes. While Descourtilz took comfort in his medical knowledge as evidence of the superiority of European science, like Gros, he was also deeply implicated in the black revolutionary movement as he helped the army resist French forces. Popkin ultimately contends that the most unsettling aspect of Gros’ and Descourtilz’s accounts is that they not only revealed how people of color could successfully repel a white colonizing power but also how they could manipulate whites into employing their knowledge about law and medicine to further their own revolutionary movement.

While Popkin focuses on how first person narratives “represent not only the construction but also the deconstruction of the autonomous white male personality” with particular regards to race, I am interested in examining how Sansay’s Secret History differs as a female account of the revolution, one written from the perspective of an American woman who writes about captivity from a detached position (527). I believe her novel offers a means of analyzing the fraught gender relations between men and women in St. Domingue as well as white women and women of color, which Popkin largely overlooks in his own article.

Annotation: Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “An Unthinkable History” (1995)

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This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Looking Behind the Bedroom Door: Productive Sensationalism and Domestic Violence in Leonora Sansay’s Secret History.” See my prospectus here.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. “An Unthinkable History: The Haitian Revolution as a Non-event.” Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 70-107. Print.

In his article, Trouillot offers important historical background on the Haitian Revolution. He exposes the paradox of Enlightenment thought, which celebrated universal human rights and equality while oppressive institutions of slavery and racial oppression still persisted. Trouillot asserts that “Colonization provided the most potent impetus for the transformation of European ethnocentrism into scientific racism,” where the enslavement of blacks were rationalized as a result of their inherent biological inferiority (77). He demonstrates that for the first time, humanity was considered in terms of varying degrees, where some groups were more human than others. It was widely believed that at the very bottom of this scale, “enslaved Africans and their descendents could not envision freedom—let alone formulate strategies for gaining and securing such freedom” (73). Trouillot therefore argues that even as it happened, the Haitian Revolution was “unthinkable” for the people of the time and even afterwards as world nations refused to officially acknowledge the new republic. Trouillot borrows Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the “unthinkable” as referring to “that which one cannot conceive within the range of possible alternatives which perverts all answers because it defies the terms under which the questions are phrased” (82). He describes how French delegates, such as Jean-Pierre Brissot, could not immediately accept the news that a revolution had occurred in Sain Domingue, outlining reasons for its sheer impossibility. Trouillot further asserts that when such facts became undeniable, much effort was expended to specifically narrate the revolution in a way that would fit into a white European worldview and uphold its racial and cultural hierarchies.

He discusses two different “formulas of silence” employed, one that involves complete erasure of the Haitian Revolution all together through archival omission and the another that attempts to trivialize the event by ignoring its radical, singular components (96). As examples of the first Trouillot cites Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age o Revolutions 1793-1843, which makes almost no reference to the Haitian Revolution and the way in which French historians have long downplayed the significance of losing Haiti, its most valuable colonial possession at the time. (99, 101). The second, which Trouillot seems to identify as even more troubling, is how specialists on Haiti persist to search for external factors that influenced the revolution rather than accepting and recognizing the internal work of the slaves themselves.

Trouillot’s emphasis on the importance of analyzing how the Haitian Revolution is narrated and for what ends will be particularly helpful in formulating my own thesis. In Secret History, Sansay herself seems to directly comment on how the Haitian Revolution was “unthinkable” for the French who believed that it would be easy for them to quickly re-colonize the island. I will examine further whether this is due to her status as an American in Saint Domingue. I am also interested in exploring how the narrative addresses other realms of the “unthinkable” in regards to gender relations—the murderous jealousy of Creole ladies and women of color as well as Clara’s own horrifying experience of domestic abuse which was “unthinkable” for her sister.

Annotation: Sibylle Fischer’s Modernity Disavowed (2004)

This annotation was written in reference to my paper on Sansay’s Secret History, as yet, still untitled. See my prospectus here.

Fischer, Sibylle. “Introduction.” Modernity Disavowed: Haiti and the Cultures of Slavery in the Age of Revolution. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. 1-38. Print.

In the “Introduction” to her book, Fischer interrogates the “silence” surrounding the Haitian Revolution as it was widely censored from official discourses, even from the presses of Cuba just a short distance away from Saint Domingue. She emphasizes the need to analyze these gaps within the historical archive, which requires an interdisciplinary approach and a transatlantic framework that “mirror[s] the hemispheric scope of the slave trade” because crucial information is lost through the fragmentation of academic specialization and attempts to force that information into nationalistic paradigms (2). Fischer accentuates that such an approach reveals that these silences were not absolute and news of Haiti did travel through merchants and traders in informal port systems (4). She also critiques how “Caribbean plantation and the political upheavals in the colonies rarely make it into the canonical histories of modernity and revolution” (7). Fisher emphasizes that above all sugar production in the Caribbean functioned as an emblematic machine of modern capitalist economy, where industrial agriculture was predicated on the exploitation of human labor through the transatlantic slave trade (12). She ultimately characterizes the Caribbean slave economy as a “modernity disavowed.” Fischer takes care to distinguish the concept of “disavowal” from popular discourses about trauma, which merely locates events in the realm of the unthinkable and unspeakable because “disavowal” “forces us to identify what is being disavowed, by whom, and for what reason” (38).

Fischer’s framework of “disavowal” will greatly inform my own reading of Secret History as I examine how Sansay offers a revision of the history of the Haitian Revolution, calling attention to the “disavowal” of female oppression. Fischer also notes the important role women played in abolitionism and how “the language of antislavery was taken up literally by the suffrage movement” (17). This historical connection between the fight for black and female rights is especially helpful in understanding Sansay’s text and how the juxtaposition of the domestic narrative with the political race narrative is not entirely jarring or unfounded. As Fischer suggests, racial and sexual oppression was deeply, almost inextricably intertwined within the institution of slavery, as masters maintained complete “personal domination” over their slaves (17).

Annotation: Susan Buck-Morss’ “Hegel and Haiti” (2009)

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This annotation was written in reference to my paper on Leonora Sansay’s Secret History. See my prospectus here.

Buck-Morss, Susan. “Part One: Hegel and Haiti.” Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. 3-75. Print.

In this excerpt of her book, Buck-Morss emphasizes the need to further examine how Haiti and the Haitian Revolution influenced Hegel’s philosophy. She discusses that as the first philosopher to describe “the deterritorialized, world of the European colonial system,” Hegel argued that rather than freely entering a contractual agreement, human beings were always already caught in a complex network of “commodity exchange” (8, 10). Buck-Morss asserts that antislavery revolution “provides the theoretical hinge that takes Hegel’s analysis out of the limitlessly expanding colonial economy and onto the plane of world history which he defines as the realization of freedom” (12). Therefore, rather than the traditionally Marxist-centric analyses of Hegel’s work, Buck-Morss accentuates the importance of considering how the slaves’ struggle for freedom in Saint Domingue, which directly occurred during Hegel’s lifetime, influenced and shaped his philosophical thought.

Hegel’s explication of the master-slave relationship begins with the slave in the position of total dependence on the master to provide him sustenance through colonial economic surplus, where the state of “slave consciousness” is that of “thinghood” (54). Yet the reversal comes when the slaves realize the master’s dependence on them, allowing them to view themselves as “not things, not object, but subjects who transform material nature” (54). While Buck-Morss asserts that Hegel becomes “silent” about what follows this moment of realization, she contends that the slaves ultimately achieve their humanity and agency in determining to fight a revolution to secure their freedom. Buck-Morss’ elaboration of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, how self-realization inspires a revolution for freedom will provide a helpful framework from which to analyze the events in Sansay’s <em>Secret History</em>. If she parallels the struggle for slave and female emancipation it would be interesting to consider Clara’s moment of self-realization and her own revolutionary path to freedom.

Annotation: Elizabeth Maddock Dillon’s “The Secret History of the Early American Novel”

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation was written in reference to may paper on Leonora Sansay’s <em>Secret History</em>, as yet, still untitled. See my prospectus here.

Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. “The Secret History of the Early American Novel: Leonora Sansay and Revolution in Saint Domingue.” <em>Novel</em> 40.1/2 (2006): 77-103. Print.

In her article Dillon asserts that while Sansay’s attention to balls and dress may appear frivolous and wholly disconnected from the revolution that rages throughout the island, both the domestic and colonial political narratives intersect and overlap in important ways. She reveals how Clara’s attempt to liberate herself from her abusive husband strongly parallels the revolutionaries’ efforts to establish a free, sovereign black nation-state. Dillon demonstrates that in the novel, colonization not only stands for the racist institution of slavery and economic exploitation but also the oppressive patriarchal order of colonial society. She emphasizes that female liberation is achieved as an unexpected consequence of the Haitian Revolution and “when Mary and Clara flee Saint Domingue for Cuba, they repeatedly find themselves in the company of unhusbanded women who appear to blossom in the absence of men who previously controlled them” (92). Dillon suggests that the novel presents America as the site where this female utopian community can be finally realized. I argue, however, that Sansay leaves us in a troubling de-localized space of transition, ending with a similar voyage on the high seas that opens the epistolary narrative. While the success of the revolution in St. Domingue will culminate in the establishment of a new contained black nation-state, Mary and Clara traverse borders and multiple terrains, forming transatlantic connections with other women that deeply challenge the notion of such a closed system, where America, as the final destination, becomes figured as more a point of continuous encounter and “exchange” in the words of Tennenhouse.

Dillon further argues that the elaborate descriptions of colonial palaces, finery and balls, in the novel, do “not bespeak sustained delusion (or colonial nostalgia) so much as an astute analysis of the relations of production and social reproduction that stand at the core of colonial politics” (78). She distinguishes “production” as economic, referring to, for example, the manufacturing of sugar, whereas “social production,” refers to the creation and perpetuation of the social relations, practices, ideologies, and environment necessary to sustain capitalism. Dillon explains that according to Marxism, the capitalistic enterprise of colonialism compels a geographic separation between the site of production and social production, where the colony serves as the economic factory or engine for wealth, while the colonizing country consumes and replicates the social conditions that enable capitalism to persist. She demonstrates that in Sansay’s novel, however, this geographic distinction is lost entirely as St. Domingue emerges as a place of both sugar production and Creole social production as exemplified by the madras headscarf, which becomes a popular consumer good.

Dillon defines Creole as a European born in the colony whose social production is considered “illegitimate precisely because reproduction has occurred at the site of capitalist production (the colony) rather than at the site of consumption (the metropole)” (86). She suggests further that the Creole occupies a liminal space as a “native who is non-native,” which is strongly reflected in their culture as the madras headscarf was used to restrain the sexuality of indigenous females and banned in Europe (95). Dillon ultimately offers the term Creole as a more productive means of conceptualizing American identity because it deftly captures the country’s vexed position as both a colonizing power and a postcolonial “nation.” Rather than “Americanization,” which suggests assimilation to some retrospective, conceived notion of a collective “national” identity, “Creolization” does not attempt to deny or erase America’s historical implication in complex systems of colonialism.

In her article, however, Dillon too readily dismisses the importance of fantasy in Secret History in favor of a more concrete analysis of production and social production. I argue that the novel is very much shaped and predicated on a fantasy structure, where the French, for example, imagine that they will be able to easily suppress the black revolutionaries, where Mary continuously fantasizes about a blissful colonial past, and where the “nation-state” itself is revealed to be merely a fantasy.