The Black Jacobins, Haiti, and African as a Keyword

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Haitian Revolution (1791-1804)

African as a Keyword

What about it?

The term African has been around since the time when Africans were first introduced into the slave trade. It encompasses the struggles that the descendants from Africa have had to go through to acquire their own identity. From the time Africans were introduced to the slave trade, to the abolition of slavery, to the day they received their own rights in the United States, the word African has evolved with each event these people have experienced. Is African ok, or is it African-American? When African-American was accepted as a term to refer to black people in the United States, debates began to arise stating that "Africans and American Negroes were fundamentally estranged from one another" (African 15). Around the time, and afterwards, when African-Americans received their civil rights, their attitude and feelings toward Africa as a country and culture became ambivalent. They denied any relation to Africa immediately after they were given their own rights and when Africa began to fight for their independence they immediately associated themselves with them. This is just a small example of how African is a term that seeks out identity. After the abolition of slavery, African-descendants everywhere tried to regain their own identity, whether it be assimilating into a pre-existing identity, as shown through African-Americans, or creating a new identity, as shown by Haiti.

The Black Jacobins

Toussaint l'Ouverture

"The Black Jacobins" by C.L.R. James is a revolutionary play about the Haitian people trying to establish an identity of their own after the French rule of the colony and the abolition of slavery. James expresses the challenges encountered by the Haitian people as they sought to gain respect when they established an independent country, and the profound limitations of Race in America. Toussaint faces all of the obstacles that are associated with establishing an independent nation, as well as a complete lack of respect from European countries despite his attempts to have France be Haiti's "Big brother." Throughout the play Lewis dissects the role of Africans, trying to explain what causes the clear division in status based on race that seems to be present only in the Americas. Toussaint and the Haitian revolution is spurred by the revolutions echoing throughout the world, but the Haitian revolution is different than the others for one reason. It is Africans attempting to gain their independence. The French revolution showed the lower class overturning the upper class, and the American revolution demonstrated the American citizens freeing themselves from the British. Both revolutions were primarily by whites. The Haitian revolution differed primarily in this respect, and this is the reason that the Haitians struggled to gain a sense of Identity.

Main Claim: Identity

In C.L.R. James's play, "The Black Jacobins", during the transition of being a slave and achieving liberation, the ex-slaves seek to discover their identities.

  • After the abolition of slavery, there was a need for identity felt in all of the ex-slaves. For a long time they were recognized as slaves but now that slavery was abolished what were they now? Yes, they were Africans but to be associated with Africa was still considered being a slave. Toussaint does not wish to return to Africa, but instead take men with him and go to Africa to free the slaves there and bring them back to Haiti, which at the time was still a French colony and therefore not really Haiti yet (The Black Jacobins 90). The difference between the ex-slaves and Africans is then shown by Toussaint's reply to the Spanish General's remark that they are "Africans and Africans believe in a King" (TBJ 77). Toussaint replies by saying that they are "slaves and slaves believe in freedom" (TBJ 77). With this, Toussaint is already knows that they are not truly Africans anymore and are looking for a new identity. Later on, he goes to say that although the ex-slaves follow him now, as soon as he does not tell them everything and lead them to freedom they will stop following him. This is in an exact opposition to what the Spanish General said about Africans and them being Africans. This search for freedom is what drives them to the underlying desire for their own identity.

Subclaim: Culture


After the abolishment of slavery, in "The Black Jacobins" by C.L.R. James, the ex-slaves not only lose their personal identities, but are in search of a new cultural background.

  • The main goal of Haitian population shortly after the revolution was to secure their independence, and establish a culture for themselves. The confusion between where they belonged, and what made them unique is evident throughout the play. Haiti was the first African country to gain independence in the Americas, and it provided a sense of confusion for both the Haitian people, and the European countries that were involved in Haiti's development. Touissant knows that Haitian independence is not going to be an easy transition, so he attempts to take after the customs of the French who ruled there before. Other members of the revolution feel that they should stick to the "voodoo" ways of their ancestors. When these two theories combine, there is a rough sketch of what Haitian culture could look like, but no one is sure what defines it. The Haitians plan to remove slavery from existence and ban it forever, but they also enjoy the prospect of French citizenship. At the end of the play, the people of Haiti chose to have an Emperor rather than a king. They deny the African culture of having a king and choose to have a head recognized as European; an emperor. Although they are independent, their culture is still influenced by other cultures.


Written by Kevin Gaines, African, explores the question of identity in modern African Americans based on their history.


Though European travelers did not initially perceive African as slaves but rather as people with different religious beliefs, behavior and appearance, the word African quickly became associated with slavery during to birth of America. The system of indentured servants was first introduced to fueled America labor force but this system could not support to rapid growing economy of America. Consequently, the system of permanent enslavement was created to solve this problem. This system objectifies the Africans and started the racial degradation of African people. Due to this degrading nature of the word, free blacks rejected an identification with the word Africa as a form of self-defense.

During the 1800s free blacks were ambivalent toward being associated with the word “African.” They tried to be included in the society by calling themselves “African-American.” Though this “ambivalent” attitude changed slowly overtime due to the declined of African colonies and an increasing recognition of African-American intellectuals, African-Americans find very little success in finding their place in society as they were still “excluded from U.S. society and deprived of an affirming connection to ancestral homeland” (13). By the 1900s, the struggle to find their place in society and ultimately their identity have become an important quest for African-Americans. Many African-American spokespersons began to speak out about the problems regarding their identity. One such speaker is Malcolm X who suggested that “African-Americans [should seek] no less than full U.S. citizenship without sacrificing their ‘Negro’ identity” (15). By doing so he encourages African-Americans to embrace rather than shun their heritage.