Man, Myth, Legend

Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture BY Sudhir Hazareesingh. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 464 pages. $22.
The cover of Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture

In 1975, the Black writer Ntozake Shange completed her verse play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. In this work, which has become one of the classics of the modern feminist dramatic repertoire, seven African American women discussed their experiences of racism and sexism in society, and the creative strategies they devised to counter them. One of the characters, the “Lady in Brown,” spoke of her mind-blowing discovery of Toussaint Louverture as an eight-year-old child from St Louis. After entering a reading contest in her local library, she was swept away by how Toussaint had freed Haiti from slavery “wid the spirits of ol dead africans from outta the ground.” Because she had found the book about Toussaint in the “adult reading room,” however, she was disqualified from the competition. The disappointment only compounded her fixation with her hero: “he waz dead & livin to me.” He became her “secret lover” and confidant, advising her on “how to remove white girls’ from her “hop-scotch games.” Frustrated with her situation, she decided to run away to Haiti, but then met a young boy who proved to be a more than adequate substitution—all the more so that his name was “Toussaint Jones.”

Shange’s sparkling evocation highlighted not just the enduring quality of Toussaint’s legend, but also its delightful capacity for reinvention. Once symbolizing Black masculinity, the Saint-Domingue revolutionary was now inspiring a second-wave feminist to unsettle traditional notions of political and cultural authority. While restricted library access to Toussaint reflected efforts by Establishment forces to preserve their power, the narrator’s exuberant appropriation of her hero celebrated the transgressive joys of rebellion. Indeed, this identification produced a Toussaint who was himself liberated from the somewhat leaden image constructed by previous generations of men—here was a Toussaint who was young, playful, maliciously subversive and fully immersed in Saint-Domingue’s African and vodou traditions. Shange’s Toussaint was a call to challenge stereotypical representations of Blackness, expressed in the “monolithic idea that everybody is the same.” He was also a prompt to reject intellectual conformism and take charge of one’s destiny, not “sit around waiting for the powers that be”—whether they were white or Black.

From the final decades of the twentieth century, Toussaint’s myth soared to new heights. As with Shange’s play, novelists, poets, playwrights, painters and musicians drew on his life to explore a wide range of personal and even intimate issues. At the same time, he was formally canonized as a global icon by public institutions. He remained, of course, a potent emblem of Haitian nationalism and the promise of a better future: when the Catholic priest and liberation theologian Jean-Bertrand Aristide won the 1990 Haitian presidential election, mural portraits of Toussaint (whose achievements Aristide celebrated) appeared across the country. He was also depicted full of youthful vigor in a statue erected in Haut-du-Cap, near his birthplace on the Bréda plantation, and the bicentenary of his 1801 constitution was widely commemorated, with his face portrayed on a new twenty-gourde bank-note. In a similar spirit, busts honoring his memory appeared in Miami and Montreal, two cities with large and long-established Haitian communities. Just as he was being feted by the American diasporas, a towering statue of Toussaint sought to reclaim the revolutionary leader’s pan-African heritage in the town of Allada in Benin, where there is also a project to build a museum in his honor. His progressive ideals were not forgotten: a bust hails his role as an emancipator and liberator in Santiago de Cuba. A shining effigy sprung up in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, where a full-length Toussaint, armed with a copy of his constitution, looms near Jefferson and a pile of bricks representing his slaves; likewise, in South Africa Toussaint has been chosen for inclusion in the Gallery of Leaders in Freedom Park, the official memorial to the struggle against apartheid.

Perhaps the most spectacular sign of Toussaint’s Olympian status was his symbolic entry in April 1998 into the Panthéon, the sacred Parisian abode of France’s eminent leaders. The former pariah of Saint-Domingue was now officially anointed as one of the republic’s grands hommes. The commemorative inscription lauded him as a “freedom fighter, architect of the abolition of slavery, and Haitian hero”—a gracious homage, but one which might have been enlivened with the zest of Shange: “TOUSSAINT led they army of zombies / walking cannon ball shootin spirits to free Haiti.”

The later twentieth century was also a milestone in Toussaint’s literary representations. For a long time, creative writing about the Haitian Revolution was dominated by theatrical and poetic productions: between the late 1790s and 1975, there were no fewer than sixty-three plays about Saint-Domingue by playwrights from Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, Scandinavia and the United States. At their best, these works were rich, complex and striking in dramatic terms, and offered contrasting ideological representations of Toussaint, typically dividing between revolutionary and conservative visions. But they tended to view the Saint-Domingue epic from an external standpoint. In particular, they made little effort sympathetically to imagine the events from the perspectives of the agents themselves—a literary echo of the “erasure” which Michel-Rolph Trouillot noted as the defining characteristic of the revolution’s historiography.

Two examples, a century apart, illustrate the point. Despite its title, Alphonse de Lamartine’s drama Toussaint Louverture (1850) had little to say about his military and political leadership, let alone the social transformations which took place in Saint-Domingue during the 1790s. Indeed, even though the play superficially defended the idea of racial equality, it stuck to the mid-nineteenth-century republican colonial mantra that the slaves of Saint-Domingue owed their liberty to the intervention of French authorities rather than their own actions—the play was written two years after the abolition of slavery by the Second Republic in 1848. Furthermore, the text was suffused with paternalistic undertones about European aesthetic and intellectual superiority. Lamartine’s Toussaint was physically ugly and loathed his own body; the qualities he admired—intelligence, courage, decisiveness and patriotism—were all defined by the French; and he appeared fixated with Napoleon, with whom he obsessively compared himself: “he the first of the whites, me, the first of the blacks.”

A different but equally depreciative perspective was at work in Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of this World (1949), one of the most famous modern novels about the Haitian Revolution. In contrast with Lamartine, Carpentier set out to narrate the events through the eyes of a Black slave, Ti Noël. With the exception of Christophe and (briefly) Dessalines, Saint-Domingue’s great leaders barely featured in the novel; Toussaint was completely absent. Yet Ti Noël’s relationship with the revolution was largely passive, and in the end his story served essentially to highlight its futility. Carpentier engaged explicitly with the spiritual dimension of the Haitian Revolution, with some eloquent passages about Makandal, the “Lord of Poison’ who was “invested with superhuman powers.” Ti Noël was one of his followers, and as an adept of vodou he later attended the Bois-Caïman ceremony. For all its emphasis on its marvelous aspects, Carpentier’s overall depiction of Saint-Domingue’s slave religion was nihilistic: it came across not as an empowering ideal, or even a soothing balm on the scars of slavery, but as a savage, destructive force. So, even though Dessalines’ victory over the French was credited to the “deities of powder and fire,” the vodou-inspired orgy of violence and racial hatred ended up consuming the revolution itself, with Ti Noël left to contemplate a devasted land “invaded by cactus and brush.”

The prospect of the bicentennial of the Haitian Revolution in 2004 acted as a catalyst for more complex literary works. The movement was largely driven by writers of Caribbean origin, and it was no coincidence that it coincided with a return to center stage of the revolution’s iconic figure. Among the most eminent contributors to this Toussaint renaissance was the St Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott. His drama on the revolution, The Haitian Earth, was first produced in 1984; it marked the culmination of a lifelong engagement with the Saint-Domingue epic, which began with his Henri Christophe (1950) and his historical pageant Drums and Colours (1961). Heroism and its popular archetypes were a central concern for Walcott, and in The Haitian Earth they were embodied by Yette, a young mixed-race woman, and Pompey, a Black slave-driver; their tragic and ultimately doomed love affair symbolized Toussaint’s republican dream of a multiracial society in Saint-Domingue. Walcott repeatedly contrasted the noble ambitions of the “good doctor Toussaint” with the narcissistic weaknesses of Dessalines and Christophe (who, in the play, ordered the execution of Yette for attempting to place a curse on him). Brave, compassionate and humane in his leadership, Toussaint was the true patriot of the Haitian Revolution, and his betrayal and exile appeared as its greatest tragedy.

Excerpted from Black Spartacus: The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture by Sudhir Hazareesingh. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2020 by Hazareesingh. All rights reserved.