Arna Bontemps wrote two novels about slave revolts: Black Thunder (1936) and Drums at Dusk (1939). Virtually unknown in comparison with Bontemps's 1936 retelling of Gabriel Prosser's 1800 slave revolt in Virginia in Black Thunder, Drums at Dusk chronicles the violent opening salvos of the Haitian War of Independence from the perspective of the island's French colonists. Taking a decidedly melodramatic look at bourgeois colonial decadence, Bontemps relates the romantic and revolutionary intrigues of Diron, a young French idealist and member of the Les Amis des noirs, who believes in the universality of the principles of the French revolution. Bontemps conveys the intertwined fates of both brutal and ambivalent slave owners and government officials, as well as a young ingenue newly arrived in Haiti from France and consigned to a life of romantic ennui and eventual physical degradation at the hands of her fellow colonists. Near the end of the novel, as the colonists fall prey to the nameless slave's violent retribution, the aged Toussaint L'Ouverture joins the fray in order to play what amounts to a bit part in Bontemps's novel.
Perhaps the reduced role of the black revolutionary hero is one of the reasons that the better known of Bontemps's two novels of slave rebellion is Black Thunder. The Virginian black revolutionary hero Gabriel Prosser of Black Thunder finds no peer in Drums. Perhaps this is also why what little critical work has been done on Drums is driven by a negative comparison with the novel's predecessor. By foregrounding any critical investigation into Drums at Dusk with the question of whether or not the novel presents as positive an image of the black revolutionary hero as does Black Thunder, Bontemps's critics ignore what his foray into Haitian history attempts to do within the purview of its political and cultural milieus.
Avoiding the critical tendency to make a qualitative comparison between Drums at Dusk and Black Thunder, this essay demonstrates that Arna Bontemps's 1939 novel, by invoking Haiti's revolutionary past, links African America to Haiti's political present. In doing so, Drums at Dusk accommodates the authoritarian politics practiced in Haiti by its president, Stenio Vincent, to the African American political imagination. Furthermore, Bontemps's depiction of the bloody opening hours of the Haitian revolt does not merely function as a vehicle for commentary on black authoritarian politics, but connects them to the most common form of authoritarian politics practiced in the 1930s, fascism. (1)
My argument proceeds along several lines. First, I describe the critical reaction to Bontemps's 1939 novel in more detail. I then briefly examine Haiti's political climate of authoritarian rule during the latter half of the 1930s, and the immediate circumstances that led to this situation. After considering African American responses to Haiti during the Depression and Bontemps's attitude toward Haiti and fascism in general, I define how this essay understands fascism and show the ways in which Bontemps presents fascist ideology in Drums at Dusk.
The Thunder of Drums
In the work of the few critics who have addressed Drums at Dusk, a comparison inevitably presents itself between the novel and Bontemps's earlier work, Black Thunder. (2) In his seminal study The Negro Novel in America, Robert Bone provides and typifies the most effective comparative criticism of the two books. Bone pits Drums at Dusk against its predecessor in a fight the 1939 novel cannot win. For Bone, Drums "is in every respect a retreat from the standards of Black Thunder.... In writing a successful rebellion, Bontemps is deprived of the dramatic power of tragedy, and he discovers no appropriate attitude to take its place. Upon a highly romantic plot he gratis a class analysis of society which is post-Marxian and flagrantly unhistorical. Frequently lapsing into crude melodrama, he embroiders his narrative with all the sword play, sex, and sadism of a Hollywood extravaganza" (122-23). Bone's reading of Drums at Dusk depends upon the novel's historical subject matter, as if the presentation of a successful slave revolt has no serious import and so nothing to teach us. Bone condemns Drums at Dusk without asking the question of what the novel might be doing through its use of romanticized historical fiction. More importantly, he neglects to note how its choice of a successful slave revolt as its subject and its refusal to accommodate a Marxist historical-critical paradigm do not negate so much as displace the novel's political edge.
Having blunted that edge completely, Bone ignores the fact that while Bontemps wrote his novel of Haitian revolt, Haiti itself labored under the constitution of June 2, 1935, an authoritarian document that, as historians Robert Debs Heinl and Nancy Gordon Heinl state, "allowed the president [Stenio Vincent] to dissolve the legislature and govern by decree, abolished the separation of powers, proclaimed the executive 'sole authority of the State,' and ... gave Vincent outright power to name ten of twenty-one senators, the remainder to be chosen by him from slates presented by the legislature" (492). By placing Bontemps's romantic history of Haiti within the island's contemporary context, his "post-Marxian" novel becomes something much more troubling than a step outside doctrinaire Marxist discourse. In romanticizing the revolutionary promise of the strong, authoritarian leader, Bontemps tacitly links Vincent to a heroic history of Haitian dictators and military rulers, including Toussaint, Dessalines, and Christophe.
Bontemps's goal in so doing was to represent the originary moment of black revolutionary and political power based on the strong, charismatic male leader. But perhaps Haiti's greatest authoritarian ruler, aside from France, was the United States, which occupied the island from 1915-1934. As late as 1934 it was the threat of foreign intervention in the Caribbean and not of revolution at home that loomed so large on the horizon for the Roosevelt administration and necessitated the marine occupation of Haiti. (3) It was Haitian civil disorder and the inability to pay an enormous debt owed the United States, combined with a profitable agricultural industry, that account for the US occupation of Haiti, a protracted act of aggression with the Haitian people often its targets and the US marines its willing and brutal weapons. (4) What is certain is that, during the years of the occupation, all vestiges of an independent Haitian spirit came under relentless attack as a matter of US policy.
This violent response to Haitian cultural difference and economic independence inspired a great deal of Black Nationalist sentiment and resistance throughout much of the first half of the twentieth century. An early champion of the Haitian will to independence and visitor to the "troubled island" in 1920, James Weldon Johnson stimulated, by his own immodest admission, much of the US literary response to the occupation. In his autobiography Along This Way (1933), Johnson makes his claim for the seemingly sudden influx of literature on Haiti, asserting that "What I said and wrote was in some degree responsible for a new literary interest in Haiti" (352). (5) As J. Michael Dash observes, "After Johnson's visit black American contacts with Haiti, personal, literary and political, intensified" (51), and did so in tandem with a national trend in the arts. At this time, Haiti as a cultural product had value equal to that of Haiti as a producer of sugarcane. The image or idea of Haiti held as much allure as a malleable commodity advertising the exotic as it did the representation of United States imperial power. (6)
Inadvertently opened up for cultural consumption by visits such as Johnson's and consciously exploited by books like John W. Vandercook's Black Majesty (1928) and theatrical productions like Orson Welles's "Voodoo Macbeth" (1931), the Haiti of the occupation underwent a literary treatment that announced a shift in the rendering of Haitian character in African America that still allowed vehemently racist perceptions and representations to hold sway. The various genres of writing that came to bear on Haiti--anthropological, travel, fictional, poetic--constructed their object from a growing need in African America for an image of Black Nationalism far more versatile than previously attempted when it came to the island nation. (7)
This new role …