Rachel Douglas. Making The Black Jacobins: C. L. R. James and the Drama of History. Durham: Duke University Press, 2019. 320 pp. $104.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4780-0427-1; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4780-0487-5.
Reviewed by John K. Thornton (Boston University)
Published on H-Africa (February, 2021)
Commissioned by David D. Hurlbut (Independent Scholar)
I recall clearly seeing the cover of C. L. R. James’s Black Jacobins in the window of Follett’s bookstore in Ann Arbor just before Christmas break in 1968. A similar picture, drawn from the same source, adorns the cover of Rachel Douglas’s finely researched history of that book and the larger project it was embedded in. I bought it instantly and read it on my flight back home, and I can safely say that it helped shape me as a historian. I was delighted to read Douglas’s book.
Douglas reveals what the vast majority of readers do not know, that the book was a long-term project of James’s spanning over thirty years and producing plays as well as books and articles. She does a great service to all who admire, even with some skepticism, a book that has been so influential and can remain in print and be relevant nearly a century later.
The subtitle of the book makes it clear that Black Jacobins was as much, or perhaps more, a drama as it was a historical text, even though the plays that drove it were not widely performed, and only long after the first appearance of the text. It is in the careful analysis of the plays, in fact, that Douglas does a great part of the work.
James was not a professional historian; he was much more a literary figure and activist, and one inclined to dramatic presentations, even in his history. But he felt, Douglas argues, that drama would serve his activist needs better than a purely academic book, while at the same time, he also realized that he had to do historical work to make the drama.
Making the Black Jacobins is both an intellectual biography of James himself as well as a biography of the book and associated dramatic works and as such follows a roughly chronological outline, while separating chapters on the historical work from those on the dramatic ones. It is an organization that works well, and the book is easy to follow. The project began, Douglas demonstrates, as a play and one inspired by a short response to a racist diatribe by an English scientist, fitting well into a long Caribbean tradition of such responses.
At the same time that James was moving to London and writing his first play, he also embraced Marxism and soon became an important figure in Western Marxism. The Marxist drive quickly engulfed simple antiracism, and both Black Jacobins and James’s wider-reaching but less famous A History of Negro Revolt (1938) push racial redemption aside for socialist internationalism.
In the intervening sections, Douglas traces how James constantly revises his vision of how to combine the redemptive narrative with the socialist one. On one side, James began his vision of the Haitian Revolution as the master work of one man—Toussaint L’Ouverture—while recognizing that the socialist had to give credit to the rank-and-file slaves who carried the revolution out.
Revisions, traced in detail in both the plays and the 1963 second edition of Black Jacobins, reveal that balance, refined through Douglas’s deploying of a vast array of drafts, revisions, commentaries, and self-criticisms by James. These written texts have then been reinforced by interviews with those who remembered the period and knew James himself, at least in the later stages of the long project.
Douglas takes on a number of other writers about James, such as David Scott or the various contributors to the Black Jacobin Reader, and uses her deep knowledge of James’s development to make good points and commentary about their work. As a literary scholar, Douglas does her job thoroughly and critically.
A historian, however, misses some things in this fine book. For example, we learn relatively little about how James did his historical research, aside from that he spent a good deal of time in France, though his French trips were both research- and activist-oriented. Black Jacobins is actually only lightly equipped with footnotes, sometimes many pages pass between them, and the footnotes are themselves vague—a reference to a whole archive, or a major subset of archives without sufficient information to locate them, as I discovered when I checked the footnotes in Black Jacobin. Douglas rightly notes that he was more content to rework a secondary source to suit his argument than to engage in original critical reading.
James’s reliance on repurposing the factual elements of secondary literature is particularly revealed in his dialogue with Lothrop Stoddard’s The French Revolution in San Domingo (1914). Stoddard was a convinced racist and saw the revolution as simply a race war, and not surprisingly, James does indeed drub Stoddard in the text and at times in the footnotes. But Stoddard also did very extensive research, by far the most of any historian up to his day, including extensive research in the ninety-three cartons of the D-XXV section of the French national archives, the core of any research agenda on the revolution. James cites D-XXV occasionally, but then often uses Stoddard for facts as well, where Stoddard has cited D-XXV extensively.
While Douglas does mention other works on the revolution, especially Carolyn Fick’s excellent and very well-researched book, she does not fully present it in terms of the larger historiography on the revolution. Instead, she only partially covers the historiography extant relevant to Black Jacobins and more recently, since James was still working on the revolution into the 1970s. She admirably traces its impact on the arts and of course in theater as well as among activists, but spends less time on its (considerable) impact on historiography.
Likewise, in recognizing James’s battle between his heroic Toussaint and his Toussaint as leader-follower of the masses, James himself sometimes lost track of the masses as having much to say, outside of revolutionary fervor. To some degree he made up for this in the plays following the original edition of the book, perhaps influenced, as Douglas suggests, by the emergence of studies of the revolution from below, but did not do much to revise the history in 1963 to reflect his newer thinking. The African origin of the Haitian masses on the eve of the revolution is scarcely touched in James’s work, and more to the point, the masses’ actual lives and their agency outside of making revolution are only poorly explored.
Douglas also leaves another paradox in Black Jacobins unexplained, which is the outcome of the revolution. James stopped his book with the French leaving following Charles LeClerc’s disastrous attempt to retake the island. But aside from gaining independence, James never discussed the later aftermath of the revolution, where one might expect to see the building of some sort of proto-socialist state or at least something along lines acceptable in Marxism. In some ways that did happen in fact, as Laurent DuBois’s book on the aftermath of the revolution shows. One suspects that dwelling on Haiti’s plight in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries may have seemed embarrassing to James, as reflected in his not always cordial relationships with Haitian intellectuals in Paris.
However, Douglas’s work is not a work of historiography and never claims to be one. It is the study of a long project and its maker, and one that is admirably researched and carefully argued. It is a work that stands a chance of being a definitive one for its chosen subject, in a field that is already well worked.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-africa.
John K. Thornton. Review of Douglas, Rachel, Making The Black Jacobins: C. L. R. James and the Drama of History.
H-Africa, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|