Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Antebellum African Americans, Public Commemoration, and the Haitian Revolution: A Problem of Historical Mythmaking

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Antebellum African Americans, Public Commemoration, and the Haitian Revolution: A Problem of Historical Mythmaking

Article excerpt

The year 2004 witnessed a great deal of scholarly, political, and media attention to the nation of Haiti. While much of the global press coverage revolved around the political and civil unrest resulting in the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the entry of U.S. troops, and subsequent efforts to stabilize the government, scholars and activists-especially those interested in the history of the African diaspora and the Atlantic world generally-also focused their attention on the bicentennial of Haitian independence. Numerous institutions across the Atlantic world held conferences or other events to commemorate and assess the slave uprising and revolution in the French colony of Saint Domingue that between 1791 and 1804 created the republic of Haiti. After generations of what historical anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot has described as the "silencing" of the event in western cultural, political, and historical discourse, the Haitian Revolution finally is receiving its historical due for sending shock waves through the Adantic world and deeply affecting the course of global history.1

Haiti's example of self-liberation and independent governance was well known among antebellum African Americans, and, notwithstanding the new nation's many difficulties, Haiti served as an inspiration for black Americans' own quest for freedom. Of the various emancipatory events that antebellum black Americans celebrated with public commemorative observances, however, the absence of any organized public demonstrations commemorating the Haitian Revolution is conspicuous, if not altogether surprising. Given the horror with which white Americans viewed the events on Saint Domingue during the 1790s, and the persistence of that horror in American memory, African Americans must have realized that publicly identifying with the bloody slave rebellion and revolution would only alienate and infuriate those whose support they needed in their own struggle for liberty and equality. Perhaps more pointedly, public identification with the Haitian Revolution could have triggered more white violence against black public celebrations and black communities generally. Such violence was common. Black Americans' public attempts to celebrate July Fourth, the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade, New York State emancipation, and West Indian emancipation provided excuses for white mobs to harass and attack blacks in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Such African American freedom celebrations rarely mentioned the revolution that created the Americas' first black republic on January 1, 1804. As historian Caleb McDaniel has observed, while for antebellum abolitionists, black or white, "it would have been unthinkable not to think about the Haitian Revolution . . . [i]t was hard to know whether to treat it as a landmark or a landmine." That the event was not prominent in blacks' public commemorative festivals-even in the slave trade celebrations that shared the January 1 anniversary-suggests that African Americans consciously avoided connecting their public demonstrations to the Haitian Revolution.2

Nonetheless, numerous scholars have referred to antebellum African Americans' public commemorations of the Haitian Revolution, but without ever providing convincing documentation. This essay reviews the secondary historical literature that has uncritically asserted the existence of Haitian Revolution commemorations, traces those sources' documentation, evaluates primary sources germane to the ostensible commemorations, and briefly suggests the issue's broader implications for historical research and interpretation. This is important most fundamentally to correct an erroneous assertion about African American commemorative practices that has become pervasive, though unexamined, in scholarly literature, but this issue also raises broader questions regarding historians' responsibilities to their sources and to the discipline. …

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