The Black Jacobins, Haiti, and Diaspora as a Keyword

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Brent Hayes notes that diaspora is more than what many believe the concept to be as just "limited to the translation of terms describing literal or figurative process of scattering, separation, branching off, departure, banishment, winnowing" (Diaspora, 82) but instead gives the idea that the definition of diaspora changes with the way the term is being structured. In this way diaspora comes to have a very broad definition which allows room for many different interpretations.


"Especially in historical and sociological work on diaspora, much scholarship continues to take what Kim Butler (2001,193) has termed the "checklist" approach, testing a given history of dispersal against a set of typological characteristics: to be "authentic," a diaspora must involve, for instance the forced migrations of a people to two or more locations; a collective memory narrative of the homeland; the maintenance of autonomous group identity against the backdrop of the host environment; and in some versions, a persistent network of ties to the homeland, or ongoing agitation for its redemption." (Edwards 84)

The Slave Trade

The African slave trade triangle.

Basic ideas of diaspora are shown in the way that the Africans forced into Haiti through the slave trade and revolted to turn Haiti into an "alternative" place of assimilation, dissension, and exchange. In slavery, the Africans refused to adapt to the new laws of the land and tried to escape and revolt whenever possible. In a twelve-year struggle, that ultimately led to the creation of Haiti, it was possible through the ideas of diaspora to show in the movement of a group identity in order to fight and become the first independent republic outside of Africa.

Not only was being forced out of their homeland to work on plantations demeaning and demoralizing, but it separated them from who they were, who their ancestors were. In The Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James, L'Ouverture states, "We are Africans, and Africans believe in a King. We were slaves and we believe in liberty and equality" (75). Even though Toussaint L'Ouverture lives in the Caribbean he does not refer to himself as one. Instead he refers to himself as an African; which he truly was even though he had been forced out of his homeland to live and work as a slave on an island far from his home. As a product of diaspora the Africans brought to Haiti eventually felt the strain of being slaves, being far from home, and being under the rule of cruel masters. However, the option of escape to a different country, such as America, did not insure that they would not become enslaved there too. Their only option for freedom was to fight their oppressors in order to earn their freedom along the unbeaten path.

The Black Jacobins

One basic problem with connecting diaspora to "The Black Jacobins" is the inconsistency of the definition of diaspora. In Diaspora by Brent Hayes Edwards, Kim Butler believes that for diaspora "[t]o be "authentic," a diaspora must involve, for instance, the forced migration of a people to two or more locations" (84). However, diaspora is more often referred to "indicate a state of dispersal resulting from voluntary migration" (82). The easiest place to see the relevance of diaspora in The Black Jacobins is through the idea of forced migration; the Africans were brought, by force, to Haiti to be slaves. L'Ouverture explains to Marquis in The Black Jacobins, that his "[f]ather was a chief in Africa . Before he was captured and brought here he owned slaves. He told me that some Africans--not all, but some and know and accepted slavery for hundreds of years"(C. L. R. James, 77). The word 'forced' satisfies the definitions brought about by Kim Butler, allowing diaspora as a definition to explain concepts in The Black Jacobins.

Migration vs. Immigration

Slaves being transported across the ocean.

One main topic discussed in defining diaspora is the difference in migration vs immigration. To look at the simple definition of the words migration is generally defined as a of body of persons or animals moving from one place to another. Migration, in a sense, lacks direction and focus. Migrating people can be seen as nomads, people who move from place to place without a classified "home" or area of occupation. Immigration however, is when people settle into a country or region they are not native to. This would then satisfy the claim, to a certain extent, that in The Black Jacobins the slaves were a product of immigration. Brent Hays Edwards writes that, "[o]ften "diaspora" is used to indicate a state of dispersal resulting from voluntary migration, as with the far-flung Jewish communities of the Hellenic period" (Diaspora, 82). However, diaspora is also seen as, "[a] lose equivalent for a range of other words, conflating with exile, migration, immigration, expatriation, transnationalism, minority or refugee status, and racial or ethnic differences" (Diaspora, 82).

Both migration and immigration can be decisions of person will, immigration can also be out of necessity to preserve ones life. Both immigration and migration have valid arguments for if the slaves who were forced to Haiti were immigrants or if they migrated. Kim Butler, who Brent Hayes Edwards quotes, says, "To be "authentic" a diaspora must involve, for instance, the forced migration of a people...: a collective memory or narrative of the homeland; the maintenance of autonomous group identity against the backdrop of the host environment" (Diaspora, 84). Brent Hayes Edwards, in conclusion, believes that, "[c]learly diaspora had been theorized in relation to the scattering of populations from sub-Saharan African in particular, as a result of the slave trade and European colonialism" (Diaspora, 83). Today diaspora tends to be used in American studies as the fixed notion of not belonging. Immigration entails people "resetting" into a new place where they can never truly belong and thus ever call home. Clearly then the assessment can be made that slavery is the process of forced immigration as slaves cannot identify with their new surrounding culture.


Movement was very limited outside of Haiti. To gain their freedom they needed to fight for it because Haiti was the only place they could make secure. If they tried to move anywhere else they ran the risk of being forced back into slavery. Haiti offered a sense of security but also was limiting to their movement and expansion. In The Black Jacobins the idea is presented that even after gaining their freedom they still were restricted and it felt like they had had more freedom while in slavery. This can be seen when L'Ouverture, in The Black Jacobins, describes how while in slavery he could still have certain freedoms like being able to be with his family while now he is restricted with what he must do for his country. This then ties together the ideas of movement and freedom; both were now limited as a result of gaining their independence.

Krik? Krak!

Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat

New York Day Women

Within New York Day Women, a daughter shadows her mother’s morning routine, and observes the previously unknown travels her mother has carried out since immigrating. The narrative catches like snapshots of a larger motion picture. These sentence long clips act like single photos, creating a story line not driven by plot, but rather one that allows the story to present itself as pieces of characterization and tone separately. The daughter even becomes a backboard to compare and contrast the mother’s replies upon. The result fashions a story full of fleeting instances. Not until finishing the story, when the reader is able to ‘thumb’ through the picture-movie, does the reader become aware of the large burden of the past the mother continues to carry with her.

The Missing Peace

In Edwidge Danticat’s “The Missing Peace” Diaspora is analyzed at a different angle by the dualism of two characters from different cultures. An American journalist comes to Haiti to feel closer to her mother who was killed there, while a young Haitian girl seeks to find ‘peace’ in a society that has taken away her identity. By the interaction of these two characters, the exchange of one’s nationalism and one’s exile shows the different parts to Diaspora. Although we assume Diaspora is simply exile, violence, dispersion of communities and war, Danticat shows us that it’s much more than that. Diaspora is also the intertwining of cultures because of exile. Learning about different cultures and ideals because of Diaspora leads to new insights and essentially, the restoration of peace, although 'peace' itself, is much harder to restore for a citizen of exile as opposed to a citizen of nationalism. Danticat brings out this message in the conclusion of her story.

Children of the Sea

Children of the Sea has an interesting context. It is written from the point of two different narrators who are writing to each other in letters that will never see their destination. As we progress through the entries we come to find that the narrators were once lovers, forced apart by the military where one narrator was forced to go across the sea. Each letter contains what happens to each narrator throughout the day and through the entries we learn that both narrators are each feeling a degree of separation. From Diaspora to one step further into exile, the story takes us into those feelings that the narrators are expressing and make us feel the loss that they are experiencing.

Junot Diaz

Aguantado, Fiesta,1980, Negocios

In Diaspora, by Brent Hayes Edwards, Kim Butler states “To be authentic, a diaspora must involve, for instance, the forced migration of a people to two or more locations; a collective memory or narrative of the homeland; the maintenance of autonomous group identity against the backdrop of the host environment…” Diaspora has often been discussed in terms of exile, however the two words are different in many ways. Exile comes from the forced migration of people where Diaspora involves more voluntary movement among people. Junot Diaz describes a life of immigration through the story of a family who finds themselves separated in two different places. The father of the family leaves for nearly ten years to live in the United States, promising to return for them. Years go by and the hope of joining him begins to go away. After nine years the father brings the family to the United States to live with them, after their dreams of this happening were almost gone. When they reach the United States to begin their new lives their beliefs of the perfect “American Family” were impossible to find because a life of separation had changed many aspects of the moral values of their father. “Fiesta, 1980,” “Aguantando,” and “Negocios,” by Junot Diaz, display the challenges of life, representing one family’s attempt to find a sense of belonging and the reflection of the broader effects of the struggle to find meaning in life where hope, along with people themselves, have been dispersed in a life of immigration.

In Kim Butler’s definition of diaspora, there must be some connection to the homeland or an attempt to connect to it. In the story “Negocios” we see how the father found himself in a life of diaspora, as a result of his time spent in near exile. He was lost and his motivations to find himself again led to reconnect to his homeland, by bringing his family to the United States like he promised. In the story, when Yunior gets sick, it demonstrates how he is not used to the luxury provided to him in this new culture. The family failed to find that perfect American life that they might have dreamed of before moving. In their homeland they lived a tougher life that didn’t have the luxury that life in the United States offered. In their homeland though, the absence of their father allowed them to live as a family without the controlling and manipulative pressures that came with him. Moving to a new land or place brings hope of a better life. Once in this new land, the dream of this perfect life is sometimes impossible to find. Through the stories the father is constantly trying to find his place. Unable to find it through immigration, he reconnects to his family. Every step of the story through the father’s life shows no matter what dreams are motivating the actions of the father, perfection and a sense of satisfaction is never found during his time away from his family. These imperfections bring with them a desire to reconnect to the culture that was left, and in so doing a life in immigration brings with it a life of diaspora.

Ultimately, in a collection of three short stories, “Aguantado”, “Negocios” and “Fiesta, 1980” author Junot Diaz unveils the compelling theme of diaspora and the course that it takes in the life of an impoverished family which unfolds from their origin of poverty-stricken rejection in their native barrio in Santo Domingo, to an unprecedented move overseas and finally, to the unstable process of the family’s enculturation and search for happiness in America. Through Diaz’s vivid language, liberal sentence structure and overall tone, he captures the truthful accounts of life in both Santo Domingo and New York and integrates the essence of the Dominican diasporic experience and the illusory nature of the American dream that is fostered in the lives of the immigrant characters throughout each narrative.

No Telephone to Heaven

In Michelle Cliff’s No Telephone to Heaven, the concept of the ever-evolving identity is explored both on individual level and collective cultural level parallels several concepts in Halls’ essay as a Jamaican guerilla group fights for reformation and proper representation of their nation in literary and geographical terrain. Cliff creates a script-like tone that moves between Clare’s search for her cultural identity and the struggle to take back Jamaica’s history from the masked representations of American and European influences that strive to control and fabricate Jamaica’s identity. Through non-linear literary composition, No Telephone to Heaven becomes a foundation for understanding the larger picture of Jamaica’s diasporic past and for the challenge placed on Jamaican people to discover their cultural identity in a nation that has been deemed and characterized by Western media as nothing more than a tourist attraction, almost devoid of cultural history.

[[Image:Jamaica.jpeg Description]]

Cliff expresses this idea of diaspora when she illustrates Clare's voice, “ I returned to this land to mend… to bury… my mother… I returned to this island because there was nowhere else… I could live no longer in borrowed countries, on borrowed time.” (Cliff 193) As the protagonist, Clare Savage travels and moves to different countries in search of identity, she realizes that she mustn’t assimilate to other culture’s history and ways of living but unearth Jamaica’s repressed history that has been bottled and misrepresented while overcoming a sense of diaspora.

Using the titles of the chapters, Michelle Cliff shows a progression of ideas and problems, presented to not only the characters in the book, but for Jamaica as well. The chapter titled “White Chocolate,” shows issues of how race is defined. Boy Savage takes Clare to a high school. When meeting with the principle, questions of race begin to appear. When asked of his race, Boy responded, “white… of course.” (98) Defining race isn’t as simple as black and white. In identifying as white, “whiteness” represents a purity. A mixture of black and white raises the idea of “White Chocolate,” where any amount of black and white mixed removes that person from identifying as white. In the conversation the Principal has with Clare, she states; “He would call you white chocolate…I mean, have you ever seen a child’s expression when he finds a white chocolate bunny in his Easter basket? He simply doesn’t understand…he thinks it strange. I do not want to be cruel, Mr. Savage, but we have no room for lies in our system. No place for in-betweens” (99). The chocolate bunny analogy also reflects on the concept of ‘black skin with a white mask’, which essentially sums up masking ones identity. When Boy followed his identity of “white” with the words “of course,” it was clear that he wasn’t just white, despite any amount of “whiteness” in his skin color. ==Cultural Identity and Diaspora==

Two Ways to Identify Cultural Identity

Stuart Hall closely examines the linkage between identity and diaspora in the context of Caribbean culture, in his essay "Cultural Identity and Diaspora". The basis of Hall’s inquiry, is that cultural identity in the Caribbean is extremely hard to understand, and is not in the least bit transparent, because of African, European and American influence. To reach out to his readers in a rudimentary manner, Hall describes two simple ways of viewing ‘cultural identity’. The first, is understanding cultural identity in terms of yourself and those who share ancestry and history with you. This type of understanding is associated with ‘hidden histories’, surface writing, and oneness. This is a unified way of looking at cultural identity, and examining what social movements it has led to such as feminism and anti-colonialism. Hall’s second way of understanding cultural identity is geared more towards cultural identity of the future. Rather than an identity revolved around who you ‘are’ and who your ancestors are, it “positions” who you will become, as it is not a fixed essence. This type of understanding is fundamentally more important to Hall, because he agrees with the idea that cultural identity is something that continually undergoes transformation. By viewing cultural identity in this context, it is much easier to understand the ‘colonial experience’.

Three Presences that Influence Diaspora

In Hall’s essay he talks about the three presences that affect cultural identity in the Caribbean (the presences of the west), because he believes one culture can be shadowed by the diaspora of another. The three presences are American presence, European presence, and African presence. ). Hall describes the African presence as the “unspoken unspeakable presence in Caribbean culture…the groundbase of every rhythm and bodily movement…that is alive and well in the diaspora” (240). American presence in Halls opinion, is the focal point of exclusion and imposition, and is “an extrinsic force, whose influence can be thrown off like the serpent sheds its skin” (240). Lastly, European presence is described in Hall’s essay as the “imperializing eye” that is farthest from its pristine state .The European presence is synthesized and extremely intertwined with African presence (243). In relation to No Telephone to Heaven, and specifically “White Chocolate” American presence is the most prevalent because of the school principal’s animosity towards Clare and Boy for being biracial.

Works Cited

Edwards, Brent Hayes. Diaspora Keywords for American Cultural Studies. Ed. Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Cliff, Michelle. No Telephone to Heaven. New York: Plume, 1996.

James, C. L. R. The C.L.R. James Reader. Ed. Anna Grimshaw. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993.

Diaz, Junot. Drown. New York: Penguin, 1997.