Tree of Liberty: Cultural Legacies of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World

By Palmer, Natalie Léger | Journal of Haitian Studies, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Tree of Liberty: Cultural Legacies of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World


Palmer, Natalie Léger, Journal of Haitian Studies


Tree of Liberty: Cultural Legacies of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Edited by Doris L. Garraway. Charlottesville, Virginia and London: University of Virginia Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8139-2685-8. 280 pp. $65.00 cloth.

The collection of essays provided in Tree of Liberty addresses the Haitian Revolution's lasting cultural legacy, namely, its formative significance to political as well as racial discourse and its sustained reappraisal in literary depictions occurring across time and space. Through an interdisciplinary approach, with works from "French and francophone studies, English, comparative literature, history, [and lastly] Latin American[J ... Caribbean . . . and African American studies" (4), the volume examines the relative silence about the uprising in contemporary debates concerning "Black Atlantic modernity, transnational and diasporic movements and postcolonialism," despite the seminal interventions by Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencing the Past, Susan Buck-Morss in "Hegel and Haiti," Joan Dayan in Haiti, History and the Gods, and finally Sibylle Fischer in Modernity Disavowed '(6). The introduction by the editor, Doris L. Garraway, ultimately reveals that the revolution is a key occurrence implicitly grounding the discursive practices of the New and Old Worlds, whether critically attended to or not.

The collection is divided into three sections - "Reading the Revolution: Contemporary Discourse and Ideology," "After the Revolution: Rethinking Emancipation, Postcolonialism, and Transnationalism," and "Literary Representations of the Haitian Revolution" - and is framed by an introduction that is romantic at best. The piece's mawkish depiction of the revolution and its later effects begins with reference to eighteenthcentury slaves as twentieth-century "freedom fighters" (3), and culminates with the normative deference to Toussaint Louverture, a gesture famously initiated by C.L.R James in The Black Jacobins and thereafter parodied with continued persistence (15).1 The introduction ends by aligning the critical possibilities to be had in studying the upheaval with the "deep and numerous" roots of Toussaint's "tree of liberty," hence the collection's title. Quoting the latter's much cited statement upon facing deportation to France, Garraway ends her piece in a terribly contrived manner that belies the impressive scholarship to be found in the collection.2

The section "Reading the Revolution" opens with the first of several rigorously thought and articulated essays, Ada Ferrer's "Talk about Haiti: The Archive and the Atlantic's Haitian Revolution." Ferrer aims to "get inside and move beyond" the idea of the uprising as beset by Trouillot's critically noted "silence" by assessing how the nation was discussed as it came into being (22). Through archival work on colonial Cuba, she astutely argues that we should treat archives as imbued with "traces of . . . competing histories and their would-be tellers" (36), thus illuminating how a particular kind of narrative becomes dominant while perceptively reminding all that silences (and hence "suppressions") "are far from total" (37). Following Ferrer's piece is Deborah Jensen's "Toussaint Louverture, Spin Doctor? Launching the Haitian Revolution in the French Media." While interesting in its novel figuration of Toussaint as political "spin doctor," and hence in its assertion that mediatic expression in France was key to revolutionary success in Saint Domingue (41), it is problematic in its association of that phenomenon with one man, as though Toussaint singlehandedly ensured revolutionary triumph. The piece is most effective in its deliberate preservation of Toussaint's unconventional writing style as a means in which to disclose how his "discursive 'opening' [effectively] paralleled] ... the historical 'opening' of... Haitian Independence" (60). The final essay in the section is Garraway's "Légitime Défense: Universalism and Nationalism in the Discourse of the Haitian Revolution. …

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