On the Haitian Revolution

This is from Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History:

The Haitian revolution therefore entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened. Official debates and publications of the times, including the long list of pamphlets on Saint-Domingue published in France from 1790 to 1804, reveal the incapacity of most contemporaries to understand the ongoing revolution on its own terms. They could read the news only with their ready-made categories, and these categories were incompatible with the idea of a slave revolution [p. 73]

The discursive context within which news from San-Domingue was discussed as it happened has important consequences for the historiography of Saint-Domingue/Haiti. If some events cannot be accepted even as they occur, how can they be assessed later? In other words, can historical narratives convey plots that are unthinkable in the world within which these narratives take place? How does one write a history of the impossible?

As the power of Louverture grew, every other party struggled to convince itself and its counterparts that the achievements of black leadership would ultimately benefit someone else. The new black elite had to be, willingly or not, the pawn of a “major” international power. Or else, the colony would fall apart and a legitimate international state would pick up the pieces. Theories assuming chaos under black leadership continued even after Louverture and his closest lieutenants fully secured the military, political, and civil apparatus of the colony….. [p. 94]

I read Silencing the Past right after reading C. L. R. James’ The Black Jacobins, and strongly recommend reading both together.

As I read both books I couldn’t help but wonder why my high school history had nothing on the Haitian revolution (which proves Trouillot’s point). It seems like the Haitian revolution, even if in sanitized form, would have been a good fit with the sanitized versions of the Mau Mau insurgency and the Algerian and Malaya wars that I was exposed to as a teenager.

More broadly, it seems like the teaching of decolonization in Kenya could benefit from more Haiti and Fanon, side by side with Mandela, Gandhi, and MLK. It is not a stretch to imagine that the threat of violence made the successes of the Mandelas of history more likely. To talk about the ANC without mentioning Umhonto we Sizwe is to stick one’s head in the sand.

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frantz fanon in the white house?

Interesting stuff from American Politics….

Former speaker of the US House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, echoed an article in Forbes magazine by the nutjob D’Souza  which claimed that Obama’s philosophy and worldview is viewed by an anti-colonial mentality inherited from his father – along with his father’s other non-stellar traits.

Which sort of makes you wonder about Newt’s opinion on colonialism. People like Newt should be made to understand that the anti-colonial movement was not inherently anti-European. It was anti-repression and against blatant abuse of basic human rights. It just so happened that the abusers were people from Europe. It would have been just as justified if it were Swiss people rebelling against colonizers from Vanuatu.

getting out of my league…

The other day a friend ambushed me with a somewhat interesting question. Presenting me with two options – Negritude or Fanonian “New Africanism” – he asked me to pick one that best describes my view of how the process of societal change should pan out on the Continent. I usually don’t like caging myself with labels but on this occasion I decided to put myself in the Fanon camp. My objections to Negritude, at least as formulated by Senghor and Cesaire, are best captured by the following quote from Bodunrin:

A way of life which made it possible for our ancestors to be subjugated by a handful of Europeans cannot be described as totally glorious.”

My sympathies towards Fanonian arguments derive from Fanon’s idea of the creation of a new society in the post-colonial period. Realizing the traumatic impact that colonization had on the African psyche, Fanon advocated for a renewal that did not hearken to the African past – unlike Senghor and Cesaire – for two reasons:

Firstly, in the post-contact period there was virtually no way of defining this pure and glorious African past that proponents of Negritude were beholden to. The African and his past had come to be defined in relation to and in juxtaposition to the European colonizer. Africa was essentialized as anti-Europe. Indeed even people like Senghor and Cesaire had come to learn of this past through the European lens – in the racialist works in anthropology and German-inspired pseudo-sciences of the time.

Secondly, the post-colonial state faced a new challenge of creating a nation-state composed of different ethnic groups with different histories and world-views (which particular African cultural identity did Negritude have in mind? Hausa, Zulu, Bemba, Kamba, Dinka….???). Fanon understood that the creation of strong and functional nation-states was critical to the realization of the fruits of independence. This he contrasted with the risk of decline into tribal quasi-states if sub-national forces gained prominence – as sadly came to pass. Notice that Fanon did not advocate for the eradication of tribal or ethnic identities. All he advocated for was the internalization of the fact that allegiance to the state should dominate any allegiance to sub-national identities. The Fanonian view allowed particular African cultural practices to flourish, but only to the extent that they did not threaten the state. In other words, the object of the state was not to advance any particular worldview, African or not.

Additionally, implicit in Negritude was the rather hollow notion of African epistemological exceptionalism (that whole thing about passion and reason. See Cesaire’s work on this) – a factor that, according to Fanon, would have only served to alleniate the African from the global community. Also, Negritude taken to its logical conclusion was racist in the sense that it sought to prove that the African (from pre-contact era) was more virtuous than the brutal European colonizer. Fanon did not want to continue living in the native-colonizer dialectic paradigm.

That is how I read Fanon on the subject of post-colonial nation-building. His provocative views on the virtues of violence and the psychology of being Black in the post-contact paradigm are not relevant to the arguments advanced here. Just to be clear, below is a sketch of why I think Fanon and not Senghor or Cesaire had the right idea.

I am passionate about economic development. I believe that all humans, regardless of culture, should be provided with opportunities and allowed to make autonomous choices about their individual destinies (roughly in the sense postulated by Amartya Sen). Contextualizing this on the Continent, I am of the view that the provision of public goods like education, healthcare and proper housing etc etc should never be subordinated to backward cultural mores inherited from centuries ago.  I understand that the designation of cultural mores as backward is problematic. However, we can sidestep arguments about this by simply stating that the objective of the state should be to create conditions in which individuals live as long as they can and have the most opportunities as they can in order to realize their potential. Any practices or worldview that go against this simple requirement, in my opinion, can be termed backward.

In other words, our objective should not be to abolish the way of life of the Luo, Kikuyu, Zulu, Hausa, Ashanti etc or espouse any of them as superior. Instead, our objective should be to educate sons and daughters of the Continent and afterward avail these options to them. Only then can we truly be promoting the best of cultures by allowing all of them to compete in the market place of ideas.

That is my peni nane answer to my friend. And I must admit that I am out of my league here. My dabbling should however remind us that there is a need to provide a logic for the existence of the African state. It just might be the case that the reason we are yet to reach the political kingdom called for by Nkrumah more than fifty years ago is because we never quite described what this kingdom was.