All posts by Davide Carozza

As of spring 2014, I'm finishing my second year as PhD student in English at Duke University. My academic interests include 18th century British literature, the rise of the novel, studying genre, and thinking about narrative voice. I am the co-author of the Deep on "Depictions of the Middle Passage and the Slave Trade in Visual," found here:

Revolutionary Ideology: The Threat and Promise of Haiti

By Davide Carozza

Note: This blog post dovetails with Hannah Rogers’ piece here.

The photograph above shows a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Marquis de Lafayette, dated June 16, 1791. Both the photograph and a full transcript of the letter are courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Jefferson addresses Lafayette as an old friend: the latter was a major-general under George Washington during the American Revolution and also a key figure in the French Revolution, which he saw as an ideological continuation of the struggle for American independence. In the letter, Jefferson asks Lafayette about the Haitian Revolution:

What are you doing for your colonies? They will be lost if not more effectually succoured. Indeed no future efforts you can make will ever be able to reduce the blacks. All that can be done in my opinion will be to compound with them as has been done formerly in Jamaica. We have been less zealous in aiding them, lest your government should feel any jealousy on our account. But in truth, we as sincerely wish their restoration, and their connection with you, as you do yourselves. We are satisfied that neither your justice nor their distresses will ever again permit their being forced to seek at dear & distant markets those first necessaries of life which they may have at cheaper markets placed by nature at their door.

The letter links three revolutions that occurred at essentially the same historical moment and that arguably shared the same revolutionary spirit. Yet Thomas Jefferson, who in 1791, and as late as 1799, was calling for the gradual emancipation of US slaves in his private correspondence[i],  expresses almost no sympathy for the Haitian struggle.  Instead, he justifies in pragmatic and economic terms the continued rule of the French government over the colony. Upon the outbreak of violence in Haiti in 1791 President Washington immediately sent aid to the white government, and Jefferson wrote this letter while Secretary of State. So, in one sense, he was bound by his official position when composing this letter. But even when he became President, Jefferson had a back and forth policy regarding Haiti that always put US security issues and economic interests ahead of the right to liberty. At various time he played both sides of the struggle, marking the revolution as a practical issue more than a moral one. It’s jarring considering Jefferson once penned these lines, part of his accusations against King George III, in a draft of the Declaration of Independence:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.

The two sentiments are not as inconsistent as they initially seem, at least within the racist environment of Jefferson’s time. According to the official organization of Monticello, Jefferson believed “that blacks were racially inferior and ‘as incapable as children’,” and part of his emancipation scheme called for the deportation of freed American slaves. He added “that slavery was like holding ‘a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.’” Jefferson felt that so long as slaves or former slaves remained in America, war was the inevitable outcome: either “a large-scale race war” if slaves were emancipated, or “a civil war that would destroy the union” if they remained enslaved. He was, ultimately, right in his second prediction. But the incredible thing is that the same man who gave the world the phrase “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal…” couldn’t imagine a third possibility. That is, he couldn’t fully embrace the very words he wrote. In his accusations against King George III he stresses that it is “MEN” who are being “bought & sold,” and it is “Men” who are created equal. But whatever form this equality takes, it nevertheless includes for Jefferson the inferiority of Africans.

Dipesh Chakrabarty draws a distinction between two ways of understanding history, which he calls History 1 and History 2. History 1 is a narrative of the Enlightenment, founded on reason and an assumption of human progress. And while this assumption of progress ostensibly includes a rejection of intolerance, Enlightenment thinking is also fundamentally hierarchical. David Hardiman, summarizing the argument in his review of Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe, says that societies that don’t share in Enlightenment beliefs “are considered ‘backward’ and ‘undeveloped’—an inferior ‘Other’.” The tension between the Enlightenment’s supposedly progressive views and its hierarchical impulse mirrors that in Jefferson’s writing. In other words, the ideology of History 1 allowed Jefferson to make the claim “all Men are created equal,” but it also allowed him to view Africans as “incapable as children.” History 2, on the other hand, is the history of the subaltern, which challenges the reductive narrative of progress that History 1 assumes. This distinction helps us understand the nature of the Haitian Revolution. The slave revolt in Haiti refused to wait for the Enlightenment model of history, which had gestured toward the possibility of equality, to refine its ideology to the point of truly embracing that equality. History 1 put the terms of equality on the table; History 2 refused to wait for that vision to be fulfilled.

In many ways, Chakrabarty’s insight helps make sense of the extraordinarily complex nature of the Haitian Revolution. Dessalines sent a letter to Jefferson just before Haiti declared its independence hoping to strengthen ties with the US. Jefferson ignored the letter because of Dessalines’ policy of exterminating the French and US fears of the slave revolt expanding.[ii] Making moral claims about violence is always difficult, but it seems especially so given the Haitian context. When the revolutionaries of the country couldn’t even depend, at least consistently, on the support of nations and governments trumpeting principles of freedom and equality, they were left with few options. In a clash between History 1 and History 2, and here I speak for myself, not Chakrabarty, it is difficult to sort out precisely where ethical responsibilities lie. Thus, for example, the markedly different positions of L’Ouverture and Dessalines, including Dessalines’ brief defection from L’Ouverture and then his quick return. These complications arose precisely because those who should have been staunch allies of the Haitian struggle were only intermittent ones, or, even worse, only posed as such. Time and again, it wasn’t possible to know what others would do or whether they could be trusted. It wasn’t possible to know if they would live up to the ideals they nominally espoused, or if they would ultimately sacrifice them to economic or practical concerns. The Haitian Revolution was always simultaneously a threat and a promise: the threat of violence begetting always more violence, the promise of Enlightenment ideals truly realized, even if through bloodshed. In the end, it represents the explosion of energy generated the moment an untenable ideology fractures.

[i] I draw this fact from page 23 of the Tim Matthewson article I link to, which is unfortunately mangled in the free PDF above. It is also available through JSTOR for those who have access.

[ii] Again from Matthewson, page 24.

Acts of Remembrance

By Davide Carozza

How should traumatic acts be remembered? What modes of remembrance are simultaneously moving, penetrating in their insights, and respectful of the tragedy they evoke? There’s a lot to think about in considering the different forms acts of remembrance can take, as well as the potential difficulties they must navigate. So I decided to explore a bit and see what official acts of remembrance of slavery I might find. In doing so, I discovered that UNC Asheville’s Center for Diversity Education is currently hosting an exhibit called “Slave Deeds of Buncombe County.” As a UNCA press release explains:

The exhibit includes the original bound book of bills of sale for enslaved people and wills from the Clerk of Courts, along with a recorded reading station of the testimony of Sarah Gudger taken from the Federal Writer’s Project Slave Narratives through the Library of Congress.

If you follow the second link above, you can examine or download the records that have been collected. I’d like to think about what kind of remembrance these records enact, and I’ll return to that question in a bit. In the meantime, though, the people involved in the project have some thoughts of their own on the issue. Their ideas are captured by the following video, produced by the Buncombe County Government:

The video reflects on acts of remembrance in a number of ways. To begin, a large portion of the video focuses on highlighting the value of the kind of historical work the Center for Diversity Education has undertaken. It is clear, for example, that interested parties appreciate that the government of Buncombe County has officially acknowledged its historical role in the slave trade, as well as the role of slaves in building the infrastructure of the county and the state. In addition, the hope is that the work done will be useful for scholars as they continue to uncover the history, and explore the legacy, of slavery in the US. Meanwhile, historian Darin Waters notes the importance of a creating an object, something that provides a tangible experience of the material, rather than simply reading a printed or digital list of names. The act of holding the bound book of bills of sale produces a different effect, in terms of remembering the human agency that went into selling people, than would reading a list. And Waters hopes, finally, that information from the records, particularly the wills, will offer a look into the lives of the slaves.

These goals and claims point to different facets of acts of remembrance. For example, moments of catharsis seem to constitute one part of remembrance. There is value, because there is a sense of release, in drawing attention to things that have been lost, forgotten, or intentionally hidden. The acknowledgments of the County government’s historical participation in the slave trade and the role of slavery in industrialization seem to work in this way. Another facet of remembrance one might call perpetuation. The hope that this historical work will help produce more scholarship is a mechanism to ensure that the things that are being reclaimed won’t be lost again, indeed that more will be uncovered. Lastly, the creation, or re-creation, of a certain experience is a driving goal of this work. When Waters says there is something important about producing an object people can hold and examine, he’s stressing, I think, the value of making it more difficult to ignore things that make us uncomfortable. An object makes it harder to engage these historical realities superficially, to give a cursory acknowledgment of the tragedy before guarding ourselves against difficult thoughts.

The goal of re-creating a sense of the lives of slaves, on the other hand, falls simultaneously into several of the categories above. It falls naturally in the category of re-creating an experience, albeit one that is remarkably difficult to imagine and enter into as an outsider. It also serves to counteract the calculated and institutional effacement of the humanity of slaves, a history of action that goes beyond hiding something and points instead to the willful blindness of those who stood to benefit from the belief that humans could be property. It can’t help but make us uncomfortable. In truth, all the categories that I’m thinking of bleed into one another, and creating an image of the lives of slaves is likely only one of many ways to point to the intersections. It is a particularly poignant one, though.

In the end, it’s these intersections that I think are most helpful in understanding and characterizing acts of remembrance. I would argue that remembrance is always a fragmented and constantly shifting process. There is no complete act of remembrance, and the process requires various complementary approaches. In fact, the approaches are more than simply complementary: they are, in some ways, even at odds, though productively so. Consider the work presented by the exhibit. It seeks to give slaves a name and a place in history by cataloguing their lives—by cataloguing their lives. It’s simultaneously a way to restore some of sense of their individuality and a process that highlights how difficult it is to maintain that sense when doing this kind of work. The same process that names and provides some history for the slaves also groups them together in a de-individualizing way. But the realization that different acts of remembrance, or even single instances of it, produce this tension spurs on new, unique work in the quest to recapture things that cannot be fully retrieved.

I’ll point now to my favorite part of the exhibit, the “recorded reading station of the testimony of Sarah Gudger taken from the Federal Writer’s Project Slave Narratives through the Library of Congress.” You can watch the video here:

It’s my favorite part for several reasons, most of which are straightforward. Sarah Gudger was interviewed in 1937, at the age of 121, for the Library of Congress project. She passed away the same year. The first link goes to the general page of the collection, the second to her particular interview, the one re-created in the video. It’s just remarkable that she lived long enough to share her story. It’s also fascinating to think about the way that the video literally gives her a voice, both in the sense that it (re)verbalizes her testimony and that the producers chose to re-create what it might have sounded like coming from her.

The last thing I’ll mention is that I learned of this exhibit on “The official UN [Facebook] page for the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade commemorated each year on 25 March.” Check it out if you’re interested.