Category Archives: History

Youssou N’Dour’s musical travels: West Africa and Senegal as Black Atlantic crucibles

By Andy Cabot

Youssou N'Dour

Listening to the song “4-4-44” by Senegalese artist Youssou N’Dour is a mysteriously peculiar experience. The sound and rhythm enters swiftly into your ear, and, at the end, as the distant drums and piano fade out, you realize that your body has quietly turned into a state of near total appeasement. Honestly, only one thought circles into your mind as the song comes to a closing stage: I need to play it again.

What’s so mysterious about that Youssou N’Dour piece? At first, I felt it could perfectly fit in as a fade out song for a Mad Men episode as the credit rolls in and Don Draper meditates on an empty Hawaiian beach about why he has cheated on his wife for the gazillion time this year. After further listening, another picture popped in my head. It felt like this could have been a reinterpretation of a famous popular folk song, or also an adaptation of a child’s song melody. All in all, there was one dominant feeling: this song was a masterpiece of quietness, the quintessence of what peaceful joy and harmony could sound like.


“4-4-44”: N’Dour’s tribute to Senegal’s fortieth year of independence

During the long career of Youssou N’Dour, “4-4-44” is probably an epiphenomenon. His duet “Seven Minutes” with Neneh Cherry and other songs he recorded with his band in the 1990s were more significant in bringing the Senegalese artist to international stardom. At that moment, western media music industries considered N’Dour as the synonym for benevolent feelings of fraternity, loose passion for human rights and more vague sentimental attributes like advocates of world peace trough music. For a long time, it seems like he had his image and personality completely appropriated by the dominant expectations of Western audiences.

Arguably, Youssou N’Dour was not in the best position to develop a radical critique of the West or become an apologist of Afrocentrism when he rose to fame in the late 1980s. Indeed, he never felt any hatred or extreme passion neither towards Africa nor towards either of the two dominant ideological camps of the Cold war era during his early musical career.  N’Dour was a quite discreet character, far from the strong political opinions and eccentricities of other Afro-artists of the same era like Fela Kuti. His politics were almost void, still, his musical interests were immense.

Interestingly, retracing N’Dour’s crooked musical path leads us almost inevitably to interrogate his country’s history. For centuries, the present-day territory of Senegal had been nurtured and shaped by the movements and intersections of different civilizations. Even before the Ghana and Mali empires rose to continental preeminence around the fifteenth century, the major linguistic groups who now constitutes the Senegalese community –Wolof, Serer, Lebu, Tukolor, Mandinka, Diola- had already established strong commercial relations with the Abbasid Caliphates. By the 11th century, these groups were thus already fully integrated to the circuits of trade, knowledge and diplomacy of the Transaharian world economy. Contacts with European kingdoms erupted later on and were mainly directed at improving the plantation economies of Euro-American colonies. Indeed, despite intense resistance on the part of different linguistic groups, the great majority of Senegambia kingdoms were turned into large-scale suppliers of African slaves in the 18th century. The demographic and cultural legacies of the slaves-trade are still largely observable nowadays. All in all, at the beginning of the 20th century, one can see the modern Senegalese state as shaped over centuries of intercontinental and inter-religious relations. The salience of these multifarious cultural influences was decisive in creating one among the most vibrant musical traditions of West Africa.

“Senegal’s geography has brought its people into close contact with North Africa and the West and made Senegal a crossroads where Black African, Islamic, and European civilizations have met, clashed, and [1] blended”. Though this statement might appear un-original to many regards, its importance does not singly lie in the significance of the historical identity the author seeks to demonstrate but also in its relevancy if considered under a musical perspective. Indeed, Youssou N’Dour came to music as History came to Senegal: by the passage of caravans. In the late 1980s, while his family held doubts about his musical potential, N’Dour relied on the financial aid of the French-Senegalese community to launch his career. In 1983, Senegalese cab drivers working in Paris helped him raising funds so he could produce his first title. The latter was released shortly after the fund raising campaign and became an instant hit in France. Its title was “Immigrants” and certainly left no doubt about the intentions of N’Dour who sought to express his gratitude and support to migrants all over the world and especially to Senegalese ones.

At the turn of the decade, N’Dour had achieved a near status of world-music icon. Similarly to Alpha Blondy or Fela Kuti, his Afro-rhythm pop was now commercially successful not only in Senegal and Europe but also in North America. He had recorded songs and toured with Peter Gabriel, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman while being held as a proud symbol of success in his native land. Still, by the mid-1990s, his commercial success declined along with financial funds from North American record companies. The artist was not too surprised by that situation. Surely, he felt disheartened by the neo-imperial logics that controlled and influenced the relation between world markets and access to music. To illustrate that idea, N’Dour did declare after the release of his LP Wommat (The Guide) in 1994 “It’s a matter of pride for me to have produced this album from A to Z in my own studio”[2] .

Shaped by various cultures ethnically divided by colonialism, Senegal and N’Dour entered the post-1991 world in a state of indecision about their destinies. In 1980, its leader Léopold Senghar Senghor- educated in the French métropole in the 1930s and strong advocate of pro-French views in foreign and domestic policies during his twenty years long presidency between 1960 and 1980- left the country in a state of strong democratic stability while domestic oppositions vilified its “reign” as favorable to neo-colonial nepotism and discriminatory against Muslim and traditional communities. During the subsequent decades, this divide between pro-French elites centered on Dakar and other demographically dominant communities in Senegal would not cease. By the end of the Cold War, Senegalese people recognized that distance from the Atlantic powers –especially France- would revitalize the country’s culture and economic dynamism.

The song “Immigrés” was a turning in point in that larger process. For N’Dour, it represented an early effort at creating music blending eclectic influences for Western audiences. The piece associated different styles of drumming and rhythms forged into Western African culture mixed with various musical tempos from Latin America (Tango), North America (Jazz) and the Caribbean (Reggae).  Known as mbalax, this genre would later being largely identified with Youssou N’Dour, whom while not inventing it transformed it into an extremely popular music in West Africa.

For a long time, this almost unavoidable association of Mbalax with N’Dour went unnoticed even by the artist. By the 1990s however, as the country’s faced economic difficulties and many of its African neighbors descended into full fledged civil wars, discontents towards this association emerged. As explained earlier, though N’Dour expressed few political stances while he experienced international fame, the backslash of the Western industry against its more traditional orientation in the late 1990s had left him disheartened. Within the space of a decade, N’Dour and Senegal once again followed an intimately related path. Faced with economic pressures from the West and internal pressures from inside, a certain return to tradition accompanied by a slight De-Westernization of the elites occurred.

Concerning N’Dour, this process achieved its maturity in 2004 when he released his album Rokku Mi Rokka. It came into the form of “4-4-44”. During the first part of the song, N’Dour proposes a blending of the joyful and celebration-like Mbalax sound that made him famous. Still, midway through the song, this rather fragile pop aesthetic turns into a denser atmosphere. As a son of a griot– central figure of Western African traditional societies transmitting communities history and legacy through songs and stories- N’Dour always remained close to the ancestral music of Muslim and animist communities of Senegambia. In “4-4-44”, this feeling of tradition is present in the most manifest way. Indeed, as the initial upbeat structure progressively fades when the song enters its second part, the Western ego of N’Dour relinquishes and its African self reappears as xalam strings make their way into the harmony.

Short video documentary on the tradition and influence of Xalam in West Africa

Music scholar Ronald Radano once argued that Black music in the US shared a strong sense of remembrance borne “directly out of the depths of social tragedy only to rise up miraculously in the voice of racial uplift”. In a recent article, Laurent Dubois attempted to go beyond this type of analysis centered on the Anglophone Atlantic by arguing that, by expanding the chronological and geographical frames of the Black Atlantic, one could easily seize the broader historical implications of Black music “Some songs also offer broader historical narratives, tracing the History of Haiti’s population from Africa through struggles in the new world”. Largely, Dubois’s analysis tends not to decenter the traditional questions of Black music scholars but rather to connect the often forgotten parts of the Black Atlantic to the dominant black Anglophone world. Indeed, while he focuses on traditional Vodou songs in 18th century Haiti, Dubois emphasizes on the contained metaphors and images evoking the slave-trade in the creole culture : “But that layers onto another set of symbols: the Atlantic ocean as giant graveyard for those lost on the Middle passage, as a site of ancestral death and memory. In this song, though, an origin in the depths of the water doesn’t preclude a soaring present, [3] uncaptured”.

As I would argue here, N’Dour cannot be easily connects to “traditional” themes of the Black Atlantic: loss, displacement and painful remembrance. Indeed, as Saidiya Hartman beautifully explained in her book Lose Your Mother, though it is possible to draw an emotional connection between the African diaspora and African people, recent years have shown the historical gap increasing between the two continents in their relations to the slave-trade and its legacy. When the author retraces her journey through different iconic locations of slave-trade history in Ghana, she insists on the impossibility for native Africans to feel to what extent the wound of displacement is deep for those who were captured and deported “Love longed for an object, but the slaves were gone. In the dungeon, missing the dead was as close to them as I would come. And all that stood between artifice and oblivion was the muck on the [4] floor”. N’Dour explicitly tackles that issue in “4-4-44”. As first and foremost a tribute to Senegal’s fortieth year of independence achieved on April 4th, 2004, one can perceive N’Dour words as expressing a distinct –perhaps even new- feature of the modern Black Atlantic: namely the notion of a purely prideful remembrance of the Black past not rooted in the history of a “social drama” but rather in the mental overcoming of that trauma.

During his early musical career, N’Dour often took his distance with politics. In January 2012, while still recording albums and touring West Africa, he decided to present a bid for the coming Senegal’s presidential election. One of his first statement as a candidate epitomized N’Dour and Senegal’s intertwined historical fate “C’est vrai, je n’ai pas fait d’études supérieures, mais la présidence est une fonction et non un métier. J’ai fait preuve de compétence, d’engagement, de rigueur et d’efficience à maintes reprises. A l’école du monde, j’ai appris, j’ai beaucoup appris. Le voyage instruit autant que les livres »[5]  (I admit it, I have not attended higher education, but the presidency is a duty and not a job. I have proved that I’m skilled, that I’m hardworking and rigorous on many occasions. The world has been my classroom, and he taught me a lot, so many things. Traveling teaches you as much as books). The artist did not won the election and that was no surprise, it was a detail. As he contemplated his past experiences in relation to those of his country, N’Dour once again proved how personal histories can change you and thus History can be change if you stay faithful to your past. In Senegal as in other West African countries, N’Dour knew perfectly how to achieve just that: by not missing the next caravan.

 [1]Gellar Sheldom, Senegal: An African Nation between Islam and the West, Westview Press, 1982.

 [2]Frank Tenaille, Music is the Weapon of the Future: Fifty Years of African popular music, Lawrence Hill books, 2002, 232.

 [3]Dubois Laurent, Afro-Atlantic Music as Archive, 2013, [Online],Available <> [Accessed: 19 April 2014 , 15.]

[4]Hartman Saidiya, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, Farra Strauss, 2007, 135.

 [5]Aude Lasjaunias, Youssou N’Dour croit en son étoile présidentielle, January 2012, [Online], Available <>, [Accessed: 19 April 2014].


The New Face of the Black Atlantic

This blog is primarily dedicated to slavery as it existed from the 17th through 19th centuries⎯ and the idea that slavery was eradicated with the last country to abolish it during this phase, Brazil in 1888, is commonplace. But while this was one of the apexes of allowing human beings to be bought and sold like chattel, it was by no mean the end of it. Modern slavery is just as—or more⎯ pervasive, violent, and as deeply wrong on a fundamental level as it once was; but the pernicious part is that while Atlantic slavery dominated conversations religious, political, and ethical until it was abolished, modern slavery is barely part of the discussion.

Photographer Lisa Kristine had been photographing the whole gamut of subjects, all over the word, and for 28 years, when she met a supporter of the organization Free the Slaves. Over the course of their discussion, the supporter informed Kristine that there were (in 2009) 27 million slaves worldwide living in conditions just as execrable as any 19th century account (this is the same estimate as the one released by the US State Department in 2013 This discovery bowled her over, and made her determined to help these people in the best way she knew how; by giving them a face, and a voice. (

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 4.24.42 PM

The facts that led to Kristine’s professional change of course are truly staggering, both in comparison to slavery in the past, and intrinsically. In the 19th century, an agricultural slave cost about the average American farmer’s yearly wage, about $50,000. And yet today, an entire family can be enslaved to pay off a debt as low as $18. The scale of the problem is immense, both in numbers and ubiquity. NY Times Nick Kristoff estimates that at least tenfold as many girls are trafficked through brothels as Africans were brought into the New World during the peak of the slave trade. And the problem truly is ubiquitous– while the worst countries in the world for modern slavery are Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Sudan and Zimbawe, ( the Walk Free Foundation estimates that there are at least 60,000 modern slaves being forced into labor in the United States. Moral imperatives are moral imperatives, and the need to stop injustice shouldn’t be limited by something as trivial and arbitrary as national borders. But at the very least, we should be able to save the 60,000 poor souls living within our own.

The problem is immense, and on a global scale; it also encapsulates a wide stretch of definitions, everything from involuntary child prostitution to forced labor. The rush to finish infrastructure for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi led to widespread human rights abuses of migrant laborers, with a similar pattern occurring in Brazil with their preparations for the World Cup. In countries such as Mauritania, children can be born into slavery

This isn’t a problem easily fixed; it’s enormous and entrenched. When existing infrastructure that could be solving the problem has yet to, the solution is far more complicated than cut-and-dry 1), awareness, 2), widespread horror, 3), call-to-action, 4), problem solved. This illuminating op-ed was published in the New York Times— 14 years ago. The State department released this report a year ago It’s been half a century since Abraham Lincoln legally freed American slaves; and yet the 27 million slaves struggling to survive today are still waiting.

What’s past is prologue

by David Romine

Now here’s a little truth, open up your eyes
While you’re checking out the boom-bap, check the exercise
Take the word “overseer,” like a sample
Repeat it very quickly in a crude voice sample
Overseer, overseer, overseer, overseer
Officer, officer, officer, officer
Yeah, officer from overseer
You need a little clarity, check the similarity
The overseer rode around the plantation
The officer is off, patrolling all the nation
The overseer could stop you what you’re doing
The officer will pull you over just when he’s pursuing
The overseer had the right to get ill
And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill
The officer has the right to arrest
And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest (Woop)
They both ride horses
After 400 years, I’ve got no choices
The police them have a little gun
So when I’m on the streets, I walk around with a bigger one

–KRS-One “Sound of da Police”



As Alisha and Andy have pointed out previously, a discussion the traumas of the Middle Passage and legacy of slavery resides in many genres of music on both sides of the Atlantic. “Sound of da Police,” one of Bronx-born rapper KRS-One’s (b. Lawrence Krisna Parker)  most famous tracks, articulates the shared plight of African slaves and modern black youth by drawing a continuous line to the past, connecting the violent methods of control utilized on the plantation to that of the police in modern urban spaces. The past here is not a foreign country, but a place where people of color exist every day in a world in which police brutality is an everyday experience. Drawing comparisons between nineteenth century slavery and modern police brutality illustrate the history of African American poverty and oppression. While the forms are different, the results are the same.

Lyrics, however, are not the only connection that music draws with the past. Hip-hop as a musical form provides a unique sonic archive because it is constructed from pre-existing musical samples. The preference for soul, funk, and R&B records in the construction of hip-hop tracks, mostly from the 1950s through the 1970s, is due in part because of trend in those genres to feature songs which contain musical breaks. In mid-century music, the “break” was when a bass or drum-driven rhythm was repeated for several bars without overlaid vocals. This allowed that segment to be isolated and, with the right equipment, to be repeated. That repetition of the break through a mixing unit, functioned to create a new rhythm from the old. When paired with new lyrics or other samples, the finished result emerges as a unique, and new, work of music. This process forms the basis for the earliest examples of modern hip-hop, originating in the Bronx.


(A photo of an early sound system party DJed by one of the founders of hip-hop, Kool Herc)

The appropriation of earlier musical forms through the process of sampling also serves to create new sonic archive that resides on a register distinct from the lyrical. “Sound of da Police,” for instance, is constructed from a break in a song by legendary funk and soul group, Sly & the Family Stone. “Sing a Simple Song,” the B-side to the group’s famous track “Everyday People,” was released in 1968, arguably at the height of the band’s fame. As a song, it would have a great deal of resonance to those of KRS-One’s generation, something that they would have listened to during their childhood or that would have been playing at neighborhood sound system parties. While many casual listeners of the song might not pick up on the sample, other musicians and DJs would notice and mark it. The choice of a guitarist to utilize steel strings or electric pickups, as opposed to vinyl or acoustic, is an artistic decision which affects the construction of the song produced. The choice of sample serves the same purpose.


(Promo shot of Sly & the Family Stone c.1968)

As Russell A. Potter points out, “hip-hop’s continual citation of the sonic and verbal archives of rhythm and blues, jazz, and funk forms and re-forms the traditions it draws upon.” KRS-One’s choice of Sly & the Family Stone was both a recognition of the band’s influence and a testament to its familiarity, but arguably a reference to its politics and philosophy. In its heyday of the late 1960s, the band was politically and socially on the cutting edge. Their songs featured impassioned please for love, peace, acceptance of difference, and understanding among different peoples. Sly Stone consciously and publicly integrated his band at a time which integrated bands were still rare. Similarly, the female members not only sang backing vocals, but played instruments on stage, another rarity in a time in which most female band members were there for stage presence and backing vocals only. KRS-One’s choice of Sly & the Family Stone suggests both his political leanings and illustrates this continual revival and appropriation of past musical forms, based on their perceived value, familiarity, and utility. Early hip-hop was quite literally constructed from the soul, funk, and R&B from the 1950s and 1960s, by a generation who had listened to those records and those artists growing up. The crates of second-hand records became the DJ’s sonic archive, both a way to reference the old and create the new.

Historians generally bristle at the over-simplified idea that the past repeats itself. The distinct context of each moment means that nothing ever truly happens twice, but there can be no denying that similarities resonate from past to present. The past of African-American music is not simply the repetition of older forms, but their re-appropriation, revision, and reconstitution such that they are able to serve the needs of people in the time of their creation. In doing so, artists, producers, and DJs leave a sonic archival trail of the musical forms and ideas that they chose to utilize. Tracing this trail backwards not only leads historians on a chronological path, but it also leads those who look on a path that moves in and out of space. “Sound of da Police” as a musical archive originates in San Francisco with Sly & the Family Stone and ends up in the Bronx with KRS-One’s appropriation of the sample, but the trail does not stop there. According to the website WhoSampled?, “Sound of da Police” has been sampled over 88 times in the nearly three decades since it was released. Those samples are mostly from other American hip-hop artists, but the influence of hip-hop world-wide meant that the song moved far afield from its origins in the United States. Crossing the Atlantic, it became a part of the burgeoning French hip-hop scene through its appropriation by French DJ Cut Killer in his track for the 1995 movie “La Haine.”

Cut Killer (b. 1971 as Anouar Hajoui) builds his track from a variety of samples, beginning with KRS-One’s infamous opening “Woop!”. The track also includes a distorted rendition of Edith Piaf’s famous “Non, je ne regrette rien” which the singer famously dedicated to the French Foreign Legion fighting to maintain France’s crumbling colonial empire in North Africa. Piaf’s distant, thin vocals are overlaid by short bursts of angry lyrics from the French hip-hop group, Suprême NTM. NTM, as they are also known, was a product of the Paris banlieues that encircle the city, emerging from Seine-Saint-Denis département. Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the smallest départements at 236 sq. km, also has one of the highest populations (1.5 million), 21.7% are immigrants. [edited to correct earlier mistake citing Suprême NTM as originating from Marseilles]

In addition to the sample from KRS-One and NTM, Cut Killer also includes other samples from American gangsta rappers on the American West coast (N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police”) and East coast (Notorious B.I.G.’s “Machine Gun Funk.”) The resulting track lacks a lyrical, linear narrative, but instead of resulting in cacophony, it emerges as pastiche, explicitly referencing the experience of the black Atlantic in the “West” through the interpolation and appropriation of sonic forms and directly connecting them to the experience of blackness in France. The violence that characterizes that relationship and the frustration that generations of young people have articulated at the system in which they live is rendered in sonic form. While many of the tracks that make up “La Haine” have lyrics, they are deliberately distorted and layered atop one another, rendering them less important than the track as a whole.

That this track was made for the 1995 French film of the same title thus seems rather fitting. “La Haine” tells the story of three young men from the banlieue, an impoverished suburb of Paris where immigrants from former French African colonies now live, and their struggle with hate, violence, and the dehumanizing, destabilizing nature of poverty. Their encounters with the authorities result in dislocation, pain, suffering, and death and their recognition that their situation is related to the French colonial past is referenced continuously throughout the film. The film, a commercial and critical success, helped bring more attention to both French hip-hop and the suffering in the banlieues, though the uprisings in 2005 suggest that attention has not been enough to improve conditions in which so many people live.

(Promo shot from “La Haine”)

The legacy of Cut Killer’s track as a pastiche of European and American forms should rather be considered a collaboration across the African diaspora. Hip-hop’s sonic archive offers a way to literally listen to the movement of ideas and shared expeeriences back and forth across the Atlantic. It is both past and present, piled up atop the legacy of the Middle Passage and colonialism, and continuously recognizing the oppression of the marginalized. The present, like the past from which it is contracted, articulates forms of resistance and testimonies of violence, the sonic archive of the black Atlantic is as rich as that of the written.


(KRS-One in 2002)

What’s “Religion” Got to Do With It?: Religion and Revolution in Haiti

By Lenny Lowe

The now mythic ceremony of Bwa Kayiman that is supposed to have initiated the first stage of the Haitian Revolution in 1791 serves as a sort of gravitational center for thinking about both Haiti and religion in Haiti. And yet, the connection between religion and revolution is most often underdeveloped in at least two ways. First, rare is the text that can actually make much sense of what it means to demonstrate the centrality of “religion” to the Haitian Revolution. Is it supposed to change the way that we understand the mode of revolution, the inspiration for revolution, the agents of revolution, or the significance of the revolution? Most often, the coincidence is cited, but explanatory priority is granted to other kinds of forces. Secondly, the extent to which the events that took place at Bwa Kayiman should be characterized as “religion” or “religious” is, to my knowledge, nowhere critically interrogated. Why ought we call these events “religious” in the first place? What makes dance, music, utterances, and animal sacrifice “religion”? To understand the difference it might make, one has only to consider the way that Haiti’s history might have been different if the slave uprising has been planned on a Sunday afternoon at a meeting of a Catholic confraternity rather than at night around a mapou tree. What if the meeting were led by a young Toussaint Louverture rather than Boukman the “papaloi”, or if the insurrection had been voted upon by an assembly rather than made in a blood pact over the slain body of a black pig? What difference does it make that it was “religion” that was at work at the Bwa Kayiman ceremony and not some other European social category like “politics”, “culture” or “economy”? I suspect it makes a rather significant difference, and thus the combination of these two scholarly oversights concerning this politically potent bit of lore seems even more serious.

Painting of Bwa Kayiman by Ulrick Jean-Pierre

I would like to start with the second issue of naming this “religion,” which, while little more than a series of  reifications, has had a profound impact on our understanding of Haiti and its history. Most people today (excepting, perhaps, Pat Robertson and apparently even the occasional Guardian journalist) would use Antoine Dalmas’ original 1814 account of the Bwa Kayiman to demonstrate the sensationalism of Eurocentric accounts. Still, none have questioned his basic claim that these events are best characterized as “cérémonies religieuses” of “les nègres.” (1:117) For example, in his 1938 The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James confidently asserts that “Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy.” (86) More recently, in his Avengers of the New World (2004), Laurent Dubois tells us that “[t]he story of the Bois-Caïman ceremony symbolizes the place religious practice had in the slave insurrection,” and that it “serves as shorthand for the complex and varied presence of religion in the planning and execution of the insurrection.” (101) Yet, the way that certain practices and utterances came to be named as “religion” in the first place has a very particular history within Enlightenment-Christian Europe and its encounters with its colonial others. For Talal Asad, this history begins most clearly in the seventeenth century, “following the fragmentation of the unity and authority of the Roman Chuch and the consequent wars of religion.” (40) He suggests it was here that the first attempts were made to produce a universal definition of religion, starting with Lord Herbert of Cherbury in De veritae (1624) who formulated a notion of “Natural Religion” in terms of beliefs, practices, and ethics. Extended by Locke and Kant, the idea of “natural religion” was born in an effort to account for difference and to universalize human experience. However, not unlike the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen that emerged in the same era, this “universal” definition had at its core an exclusionary process and was inherently unrealizable as “universal.”

Lord Herbert of Cherbury

The first reification was to name the events at Bwa Kayiman as “religion” and thereby to subject it to criteria of evaluation according to its “truthfulness.” What holds these events back from being “true religion” or “right religion” is, of course, not dependent upon prime European notion of belief. For, one does not have to dig too deeply into the African-inspired practices of Haitians to discover what they themselves discovered — a profound affinity between the Catholic cosmos and their own. Rather, the problem of these events as religion (and the problem of what is named Vodou today) has much more to do with the practices — the aesthetics, the material objects deployed, the music played, the dances danced, etc. The second reification, the naming of the practices and utterances as “Voodoo”, is perhaps an even more pernicious one. If the notion of “religion” still allowed the utterances, material objects, dances, and songs of Bwa Kayiman to be particular to this night in 1791, C.L.R. James’ naming of them as “Voodoo” enacts a stabilization and an a-historicity that has rarely worked in favor of Haiti or Haitians. The fact that even today few Haitians would identify their practices as “Vodou” should make this point even clearer. So, perhaps the first step might be to seek a new language by which to describe the events of that night, words that are less burdened with European power and more descriptive of Kongo-inspired power, words like dance, song, rhythm, ancestors, the dead, or the mysteries.

The first issue, however, is perhaps the most vexing. It is easy to identify the co-incidence of these “religious” practices and the meeting of insurrectionist slaves of Limbé. It is, however, far more difficult to determine what this co-incidence might mean. When Laurent Dubois speaks of the centrality of “religious practice” in the insurrection, he seems to mean that religious practices provided both the occasion and the social structures of organization that allowed for the planning and implementation of that first slave uprising. Dubois also shows us that somehow this “religion” provided something of the content of the insurrection; the slaves carried ouanga (fetishes or charms) and danced and sang as they fought. But, here, the problem of “religion” as sui generis presents itself again. For, Dubois must qualify this by noting that “[t]hough religious practices facilitated and spurred on insurrection, it was only their combination with careful political organization that made the 1791 uprising successful.” (101) Because the practices and utterances of Bwa Kayiman are “religious,” they are therefore not political and must be paired with political organization to be effective. While these are undoubtedly strategic and descriptive distinctions for the historian, their separation obscures the reasons that readers should care that Bwa Kayiman was “religious” in the first place. Might we not simply consider Bwa Kayiman to have been primarily a political event in which politics implies power and/or powers or primarily a religious event that implies the same?

Perhaps the most compelling response to my honest questions about what difference it makes that “religion” was present at the inception of the Revolution comes in Kate Ramsey’s The Spirits and the Law: Vodou and Power in Haiti (2012).  Ramsey’s work seeks to understand why the popular “religious” practices of Haiti have so often and for so much of Haitian history been prohibited by law. She is partly interested in how these laws were used to defend the black republic against Euro-American anti-Haitianism, but also what the “internal politics stakes” have been at different moments. She writes: “This is an especially important problem in light of the role attributed to African-based magico-religious practices, organization, and leadership in unifying enslaved, maroon, and free rebels in northern Saint-Domingue in 1791.” (2-3) She effectively argues that, indeed, the laws against practices such as “sortièges” and “pratique superstitieuses” were designed and maintained throughout much of Haitian history at least in part to “contain and control a potential parallel political power in Haiti” — the rural population. (3)

Ramsey recognizes that, no doubt, Vodou is the now the “religion” of Haitians. But, that designation tells us very little if it is allowed to remain a first-order category. Vodou as religion is also constituted by the historical events that she aims to narrate. By searching out language that more closely describes the particular practices that have come to be named Vodou, she does what Asad asks all scholars to do — namely, to “[unpack] the comprehensive concept which he or she translates as ‘religion’ into heterogeneous elements according to its historical character.” (54) Vodou has come to reside within the Western category of religion, but it still does so uneasily. It is made to oscillate between being a mark of alterity (for Euro-Americans) and the threat of rural, popular political power (for Haitian political elite). In 2003, it was made to occupy the space of “cultural heritage,” but since the 2010 earthquake, it has been pushed once again into the place of primitivism and anti-progressivism.

So, what difference does it make that Bwa Kayiman was “religious”? It seems to make a crucial difference throughout the history of Haiti, both in terms of its internal and external politics. But, if scholars are to make this difference work for Haiti and for Haitians, then we must do better than simply state the coincidence, and we must find better language than simply “religion” for the power therein.


Works Cited

1. Antoine Dalmas, Histoire de la révolution de Saint-Domingue (Paris, 1814).

2. CLR James, The Black Jacobins : Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2d ed., rev. (New York: Vintage Books, 1989).

3. Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World : The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004).

4. Talal Asad, Genealogies of Religion : Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

5. Kate Ramsey, The Spirits and the Law : Vodou and Power in Haiti (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).




Empire State of Mind: Kery James and the Colonial Complex


Cabot Andy

Nos rapports avec Haïti sont plus délicats, émotifs et rétractiles parce qu’en clair-obscur, ils mettent en jeu les rapports de la France avec elle-même. (Régis Debray and Comité Indépendant de réflexion et de propositions sur les relations Franco-Haitiennes, 2004)

(Our relations with Haiti are delicate, emotional and subjected to mutual discontents because of their shadowy nature, they say something about the relation of France with itself)

 In 2004, the publication of an official diplomatic report on French Haitian relations marked a turning point for the two countries. After almost two centuries of near abandon, the French government decided to survey diplomatic relations between the two countries as the Caribbean state celebrated the bicentennial of its independence.

 Diplomatic relations between France and Haiti represents a critical aspect in what we could refer to as the “post-colonial world”. In January 1804, after thirteen years of tumultuous conflicts opposing it to France, the colony called Saint-Domingue became the Republic of Haiti. What started as an isolated slave revolt in 1791 against planters in the Northern Province of Haiti became a national war of liberation. Though this rather quick summary might provide a good overview of the situation, the historical fate of the newly founded Haitian Republic was everything but simple.

 Indeed, Haiti’s independence was won primarily by the blood and sacrifice of former ”Bossales”—slaves recently deported from their home societies who had no blood relations in the colonies—a mass of gang labor slaves that defeated Napoleon’s brother in law Charles-Victor Leclerc and his troops, which was then the strongest military force in the world.

 In the aftermath of its defeat, France devoted sustained international efforts to silence and suppress the consequences of this colonial disaster. In 1825, French King Charles X and Haitian President Jean Pierre Boyer agreed that Haiti should pay reparation amounts to French planters who had fled during the Revolution. By 1914, as the Haitian state credit interests to French banks rose to extreme proportions, the country was concentrating almost 80 percent of its national wealth to repair its debt to France. Even today, there might still be interest payments due that had been frozen by the French government (Laurent Dubois, Aftershocks, 2012, 7-8)

 In the early 21th century, relations were still very precarious. As the 2004 report indicates, while two American presidents chose to visit Haiti during the 20th century, no French president or high official bothered to set foot on the island. Still, regardless of this ideological denial by France and other Western countries, the former colonial power managed to maintain strong connections with Haiti and its other colonies throughout the years. In the Haitian case, the fact that the French language was still being spoken by the great majority of the elites—as well as the growing presence of Haitian migrants in French-speaking areas—offered possibilities for a diplomatic rapprochement. In many ways, this twofold factor (language-migrations) also characterized the destiny of many African countries that achieved their independence from France in the 20th century. Still, this rather “bright” picture of a possible new future between an imperial power and its former colonies leaves us with an idyllic contemplation of the problems facing what has now come to be understood as the “Francophone” world.

 In 2013, the French rapper Kery James expressed these hardening concerns in most blatant terms. The new title track of his recently released compilation “Lettre à La République” provoked outstanding reactions from public figures in the French media. The song was violently dismissed and degraded for being a model of anti-Frenchness, an insult to the nation, and almost an act of betrayal. In effect, James’s song is not moderate in any sense towards the national sentiment in France. Castigated as a remnant of colonial domination and inherent national racism, the words “France” and “Republic” are successively portrayed as engines of destruction, cultural mechanisms of superiority primarily directed at submitting French migrant population to a colonial continuum. At the height of his suffocating prose, James declares “Mon respect s’fait violer au pays dit des Droits de l’Homme. Difficile de se sentir Français sans le syndrome de Stockholm” (My respect got raped in the country of the Rights of Man. Its hard to fee French without the Stockholm Syndrome).

 At first glance, one could be tempted to see these words as emanating from pure hatred and resentment. After all, a consequent segment of the French rap industry tends to produce short-minded lyrics about what is often perceived as the country’s colonial legacy. James is not this kind. Indeed, his letter opens us a diverse series of interrogations on the past, present and future of relations between France’s ex-colonial “subjects” and the former “métropole”. To some extent, his song epitomizes in a highly polemical but also poetical manner the unresolved issues of French imperial history brought back from the past by migrants from ex-colonies residing in France. In the same vein, this song is also primarily addressed to these populations. It conveys the sense that a different set of relations between these migrants and the Republic has recently emerged—one that contradicts the basic pattern of the French tradition of national assimilation.

 As a resurgence from military and administrative practices in the different French colonies, the idea of national assimilation took shape in the “métropole” by the late 19th century. In order to compel the first waves of non-French migrants to follow the rule of the Republic, the theory of assimilation dominated the country’s relation to migrants without any serious alternative until the late 1980s. To put it simply, it advanced that if one wished to become a citizen of the French Republic, he had to categorically abandon all traces of his home culture to prove his willingness to learn and assimilate the superior codes of French culture. As essentially a state-controlled ideological force, national assimilation turned out to become an extremely tense subject by the late 1980s when large group of migrants from North, sub-Saharan Africa and Southeastern Asia started to flood the métropole in the aftermath of decolonization. By the late 20th century, assimilation was presented by representatives from the entire political spectrum as in a state of crisis while migrant populations – through the use of popular genres of music like rap – started to voice their concerns about the place of their cultural identities in contemporary French society.

 It is only throughout these recent debates that James song puts on meaning. On many occasion, the rapper does not hesitate in drawing a parallel between migrants from North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. As he says as a run-through during the song:


 La République n’est innocente que dans vos songes. Et vous n’avez les mains blanches que de vos mensonges. Nous les Arabes et les Noirs on est pas là par hasard. Toute arrivée à son départ.


 (The Republic is only innocent in your dreams. Your hands are filled with white lies. Us, Arabs and Blacks are not there by accident. All arrivals have their origins)

Interestingly, the words used are contemplating different levels of the French colonial and post-colonial realities. When he refers to “us”, James immediately assembles “Arabs” and “Blacks” in a single community. To some regards, this kind of counter-assimilation is very surprising at an historical level while being more sensible in terms of the present-day social conditions of migrants in France.

 When the first wave of migrants from France ex-African colonies massively disembarked in the “métropole” by the late 1960s as cheap labor force for boosting the domestic economy, the rather separated entities of the French Empire in Africa (the North African regions were composed of the three Algerian departments, the protectorates of Morocco and Tunisia while the Sub-Saharan colonies stretching from Guinea to Cameroon were separated between the AEF and AOF) were forced together in the same urban and social environment. As poverty and weaker social aids started touching those areas in the outskirts of Paris by the late 1980s, the second and third generation of “Arabs” and “Blacks” tended to develop a shared sentiment of ostracism and abandonment.

 James’ childhood experience in France relates directly to this historical background. Born in 1977 in Guadeloupe, James’s parents chose to move to France in the mid-1980s. His parents were both Haitians and James apparently chose never to return to Haiti even during his adult life. As he experienced distance and displacement from his native land, he started recording at a very early age with different musical acts. In one of his iconic early track “28 décembre 1977”, the then coming-of-age James powerfully demonstrated the meaning of what he saw as another form of forced migration inflicted to peoples of African descent « D’une famille plus proche d’êtres pauvre que fortune 28 décembre 77, aux Abymes j’suis né Et a une date que j’ignore un jour je partirai… » (From a poor family rather than a rich, December 28 1977 in the Abyme I was born, and at an unknown date I will leave) before insisting on the dreadful social conditions his family had to put through in France. “J’ai grandi à Orly dans les favelas de France. J’ai “fleury” dnas les maquis j’suis en guerre depuis mon enfance” (I grew up in Orly in the French favelas. I came to age in the guerilla fields, I’ve been at war since my childhood). All in all, as he relates his own experience to those of African migrants, the artist here succeeds in bringing together a continent into a unique historical condition of imperial sufferings and domination.

 Twelve years after this song was recorded, James’ letter still resonates to this original separation from his home country while it meddles with his call against the ideological pressure of assimilation:

 Ici, on est mieux que là-bas on le sait. Parce que décoloniser pour vous c’est déstabiliser. Et plus j’observe l’histoire beh moins je me sens redevable. Je sais ce que c’est d’être Noir depuis l’époque du cartable

 (Here we are better than there. Because for you to decolonize is to destabilizeThe more I contemplate your history the less I feel proud of it. I know what it means to be black since playground times)

 In a broader sense, it is extremely striking to see the effectiveness of James words if one knows a bit about the common sentiments of African migrants in France. On the one hand, it is interesting, though not surprising, to hear such radical and deeply-researched prose from James. As mentioned above, the feeling of resentment against assimilation is a common theme that runs throughout many popular rap songs in France. Nevertheless, James’ song is one of the few that successfully manages to tackle the core problem that is still at stake in debates around the French colonial past: that of the relational condition of two different versions of France since the beginning of the colonial experiment in the early 17th century. Coming from a family born in Haiti, brought up in Guadeloupe in his early childhood before being thrown into the African suburbs of Paris, James had experienced the relationship between the colonial and colonized France in many different ways when he started his musical career.

 His “Letter to the Republic” acts as a highly symbolic gesture for the present day condition of migrants in France while being also closely related to a sound and significant lyrical inquiry of French imperialism. Though a bit flawed and tangling in some occasions –as when James gathers “Arabs” and “Blacks” within a supra-ethnic category of imperial sufferers- it is through the deeper roots of the artist one can find the most profound challenge contained in the letter.

 As a distant son of Haiti, James does remind us of the still pervading difficulties for solving the unresolved matters of the French colonial past. Almost two centuries after the death of Haitian independence hero Toussaint Louverture, the French remains of colonial prejudice tend to portray James in the same manner as Toussaint: a hybrid other, a talented man but also a sulfurous agitator. These realities still formed a highly complex set of ideological interests. When James calls France to its historical responsibility when he repeats, “Every arrival has an origin”, the 2004 report on responds « Would we be able to seize this occasion to remember our slaveholding past and get rid of the weight that servitude imposes to the masters? »Puissions-nous saisir l’occasion de nous rappeler que nous fûmes desesclavagistes, et nous débarrasser du poids que la servitude impose auxmaîtres. »

 All in all, despite all the difficulties facing France in its relations with its ex-colonies, the former “métropole” and “colonies” seem to have entered enter a new era of diplomatic relations by the early 21st century. Nevertheless, as James’ words seem to remind us, questions still remain unanswered as history’s shadows continue to weigh down on these two entities: the two versions of France.


Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, Metropolitan Books, 2012.

Régis Debray and Comité Indépendant de réflexion et de propositions sur les relations Franco-Haitiennes, Rapport au Ministrèe des Affaires Etrangères, M. Dominique de Villepin, January 2004. Available :  [Accessed 11 March 2014].


Jean R. Perrault’s “Exodus” and the Sounds of Suffering

Dedicated to all those forced out of their homelands.

Many scholars, writers, and artists reflecting upon the transatlantic slave trade often seek to empathize with the slave experience. They want to feel what they felt, see what the saw, for in doing so the memory of those lost is somehow kept alive. This emotional catharsis, however, at times seems ineffable, while the catalogs of records and newspaper clippings chronicling the lives of the enslaved leave the seeker numb to mountains of repetitive data. One of the most powerful ways to assimilate the experience is to forgo the constraints of words through music. Haitian composer Jean R. Perrault’s string quartet entitled “Exodus” facilitates a meditation on the experience of the enslaved, combining disorienting time signatures and complex tonal structures with heart-wrenchingly sonorous violin solos to offer an emotional reflection of the island’s history.

The quartet’s dedication reads as above: “to all those forced out of their homelands.” Before hearing one note of the music, the listener’s mind is propelled back to the diaspora. The piece focuses on the theme of exile and experiments in eliciting the broad range of emotions that accompany it. “Exodus” is structured in three movements[1][2]:

I. Tale

II. Exodus

III. Hope

The three-movement structure, unusual for a string quartet, suggests metaphorical significance; Perrault alludes to the past-present-and-future of Haiti while also elaborating on each movement’s designated theme. Each section is characterized musically by several elements: complex, syncopated, and often unpredictable rhythms; frequent key modulations; emotional and passionate musicality directions; and varying stylistic markings such as pizzicato, staccato, sosenato, and so forth. The effect of this stylistically diverse work is one of intense emotionalism: the listener is at times frantic, depressed, mournful, and at others hopeful and inspired. In a review of a performance of Perrault’s work by the Borromeo String Quartet, Ann Klefstad writes that:

Memory, distance, loss, fragmentariness characterize this music in its relation to the history of music, as well as the life experiences that the music is trying to transmit. The bricolage of the composer mimics and mirrors the bricolage imposed on refugees, who must cobble together from whatever offers a whole and meaningful life.

The first movement – “Tale” – tells a story of disorientation, disunity, and longing. The discord is mirrored through the disharmony of the 4 lines while the strong melody vivaciously carries the piece forward. After several minutes, the listener is bombarded with a succession of ascending and descending scales, contributing to the frantic tone. Yet, near the 3-minute mark the sustained, mournful tones of the cello emerge. The tale evolves into one of longing, perhaps for a lost homeland or those left behind. The following forceful pizzicato section (instructing the musicians to cause the string to slap against their fingerboards) suggests bitter anger, yet the emotional quickly diminishes as the final notes fade into pianissimo.

“Exodus,” the second movement, continues the wistful cello line, interspersing major chord moments of hope with its previous sorrow. This hope is later passed to the first violinist, who after desperately trying to sustain it around 03:28 eventually disintegrates back into a tale of woe. This minor to major key wobbling creates a feeling of uncertainty—with an exodus, there is hope for the future, but also fear of the unknown.

Jean "Rudy" Perrault
Jean “Rudy” Perrault

The third movement, “Hope,” takes up this theme but seems to offer more questions than answers for the future. The beautiful opening lines of the violin cadenza with their block chords and sustained double stops immediately defy the listeners expectations of hope and plunge them into a complex array of emotions. The music becomes both heart-breakingly sad, reflective, and inspiring. Perrault plays with his audience’s expectations of hope by interspersing moments of a major key, but the instances are brief. One is prompted to ask, What is hope in the context of Haiti’s future? and Is it even possible? Without words, Perrault appears to answer the latter with a resounding “yes,” as the sustaining tones of the violin line morph into “vivace – con fuoco” and the work culminates in a furious, passionate finish.

Perrault’s aim for “Exodus,” then, is a decidedly optimistic one. Although moments of suffering and sadness are inescapable, hope, while fleeting, refuses to die. The spirited finale could hearken to a connection with the intense spirituality of “those forced out of their homelands.” Moreover, Perrault finds ways to connect to the traditions of these peoples, weaving passionate tales and syncopated beats that are reminiscent of the island’s unique musical environment. The form and content of this string quartet both nod to and stray from the classic form, mirroring, perhaps, Haiti’s assimilation of European and African cultures to generate something uniquely their own.

Although little has been written on the work on Perrault, his repertoire will undoubtedly grow in the years to come. To learn more about him or to hear other examples of Caribbean classical music, check out the following sites:

[1] Links provided here to the recording of each movement; performed by the Borromeo String quartet on the Living Archive label.

[2] Scores for each movement can be found on Perrault’s website here:


The Omnipresence of the Past: Leyla McCalla, Langston Hughes, and Revolution

By Courtney Young

Leyla McCalla writes an album that’s a tribute to Langston Hughes, it’s true.  But what she also does is ties the listener through Hughes to the Harlem Renaissance, to his prolific writing about race relations in the US and, ultimately, to Haiti and its slave revolt, the only successful slave revolt in history.

Leyla McCalla
artist and musician Leyla McCalla

It’s a deft slight of hand, but McCalla passes the listener through time effortlessly, carried on her swinging, warm voice and the strings of her cello plucked more like those of a guitar or mandolin.  In this way she connects the dots between contemporary New Orleans (the place she calls home), Harlem in the 1920’s, and Haiti (or Saint Domingue) in the 1790’s and early 1800’s. It’s no small feat. But in this feat she distills to the surface not only the traumatic experiences of slavery and racism in the US and around the world, but connects the listener to its omnipresence – to the reality that while slavery in its colonial form in the US and the Caribbean colonies might be over, it is still very much present.  In other words, the Haitian revolution took place over 200 years ago, but it’s consequences and traces echoe through history in Langston Hughes, his poetry, and his writing, and reach us today through Leyla McCalla’s vibrant music.  With McCalla’s beautiful album, she connects the past to the present noting that even if something is technically past, it’s still very much present, and something that must be addressed.

The album, ‘Vari-Colored Songs’ takes the title itself from one of Hughes’ poems and most of the songs take their lyrics from his poetry with a handful of traditional Haitian folktunes interspersed.

Vari-Colored Songs Leyla McCalla

The songs deriving their lyrics from Hughes poems make the connection for the listener to the Harlem Renaissance and his entire body of work while the folktunes connect the listener more directly with Haiti, its culture, history, and story.  The opening song, ‘Heart of Gold’, with its lyrics pulled from the poem ‘Vari-Colored Songs’ itself, frame the whole album and tip the listener off to where it is that she’s going with the entire work.  McCalla says, “The words have always felt to me like a view into the mind of Langston Hughes — a glimpse of the life experiences, colors, and themes that run throughout his immense body of work.” (“American Songwriter”). The poem (and lyrics) follow (click image below to see video):

If I had a heart of gold,
As have some folks I know,
I’d up and sell my heart of gold
And head north with the  dough.

But I don’t have a heart of gold.
My heart’s not even lead.
It’s made of plain old Georgia clay.
That’s why my heart is red.

I wonder why red clay’s so red
And Georgia sky’s so blue.
I wonder why its’ yes to me,
But yes sir, sir, to you.

I wonder why the sky so blue
And why the clay’s so red.
Why down south is always down,
And never up instead.

Leyla McCalla video YouTube

Through Hughes’ poetry and her own music, McCalla speaks to themes (as she says herself) that run through not only America’s past but also it’s present. The lyrics (poem) themselves are mournful, yearning to “sail my heart of gold and head north” away from the virulent racism, trauma and violence plaguing the American South (though certainly not exclusive to it). There’s a significant sense of wonder (it’s repeated three times) and questioning about the world and why it is the way that it is.  Wondering why the clay is red and the sky is blue mirrors the senselessness (yet stark reality) of why for some (white) people a ‘sir’ is required in greeting but for others (black) it’s not.  Hughes toys with the meaning of ‘down’ and ‘up’ alluding to its obvious geographical context (the South being literally down) but also to its emotional state being ‘down’ or otherwise sad, depressed, or low, reflecting Hughes’ experience of the South. An experience undoubtedly resonant with others during his lifetime as well as before him and still after him. That’s a powerful entry into an album. Before we even make it to song two, the listener has been connected to the powerful themes of the Harlem Renaissance and the stark reality of racism in the United States. But in truth even more has happened if we care to dig a little deeper.

Langston Hughes is an interesting choice for McCalla not only because she provides a platform through her music for his poetry and the messages but also because of the strong connections he himself had to Haiti, the land of McCalla’s own ancestry.  He traveled to Haiti in 1931 along with friend and artist Zell Ingram (Black American Literature Forum, vol. 15 #3).  They drove through Florida and then made the remaining trip by boat via Cuba.  For two months they relaxed in anonymity and only on the last day did Hughes put on a coat and tie and visit Jacques Roumain, leading writer and thinker born to an affluent, mixed-race family and raised in Haiti (ibid).

Langston Hughes in Haiti

 It seems these two legendary individuals struck up an immediate friendship that would last until Roumain’s early death at 37 (ibid). This connection to Haiti would last through Hughes’ own lifetime and, over the course of it, would include a body of work that included not only poetry but also memoirs of his journey including I Wonder as I Wander in which he comes to understand, in his own words, that, “It was in Haiti that I first realized how class lines may cut across color lines within a race, and how dark people of the same nationality may scorn those below them.” (ibid) His interest in Haiti compelled him, additionally, to pen a play (that would become the opera, Troubled Island) about the Haitian Revolution (wikipedia).  Following this path through Hughes’ writing, life, and interests, it becomes clear that artist and musician Leyla McCalla has invited her listeners not only to hear an album of incredible music, but also to walk through (and think through) international issues of race and racism, classism, the African Diaspora, and how moments of the past (like the Haitian Revolution) resonate throughout history and are omnipresent.  We see the past as omnipresent clearly below as Langston Hughes grieves in the poem (an excerpt) written in response to his friend, Jacques Roumain’s, death.

You’ve gone
But you are still here.
From the point of my pen in New York
To the toes of the blackest peasant
In the morne [hill]

You will be
Finding out about
The ever bigger world
Before him.
Always you will be

Hand that links
Erzulie to the Pope
Damballa to Lenin,
Haiti to the universe
Bread and fish
To the fisherman
To man
To me….

(Black American Literature Forum)

Like Jacques, and now like Hughes himself, the Haitian Revolution is technically gone, but in fact it’s very much still here.  It lives in the lyricism and message of the poems of Langston Hughes, and vibrates today through the music of Leyla McCalla whose own history resides in Haiti even as she plucks the strings of her cello in the present. The past is, as Hughes repeats, not actually past.  It’s “still here”.  It’s always. As McCalla says herself, “The racism that we experience today is not as plain to see as it was before but it still exists. A lot of what I’m trying to figure out through my work is trying to understand why it still exists and how to deal with it” (rfi english).  That’s a lot to accomplish in a debut album, but McCall handles it effortlessly, and leaves the listener not only thinking, but humming along.

You can listen to McCalla’s compelling and vibrant album on her website (watch out, it may leave you wanting to kick up your heels in the streets of New Orleans) or click here to purchase it.


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.

Early American Ideology, Literature, and The Haitian Revolution

By Hannah Rogers

Republican and liberal values supplied a significant portion of the ideology that founded the United States. This democracy formed in the 18th-century was not the only government produced by a revolution or that looked to the ideals of equality and liberty for inspiration. Despite the power placed in the hands of citizens, however, segments of the population were barred from enjoying rights of political participation. And, in opposition to this model of individual rights, slavery continued to stand as a protected and justified practice.

The Declaration of Independence’s ideals have been noted, including in fiction, as conflicting with the institution of slavery.

This conflict asserts itself in early-American fiction. The novel Sheppard Lee by Robert Montgomery Bird, for instance, illustrates the hypocrisy between “all men are created free and equal” and the enslavement of a race. A segment of the book, taking place on a Virginia plantation, follows contented slaves until a political pamphlet illustrating the horrors of slavery falls into their hands. Reading the book, suddenly the slaves develop an understanding after reading about liberalism: “A new idea had entered their brains […] for the first time in their lives, [the slaves] began to think of their master as a foe and usurper” (353).[i] This leads to a revolt on several neighboring plantations — although it is eventually put down.

Sheppard Lee, published in 1836, contains echoes of the American colonies’ — not just those contained within the borders of the United States — past with slavery. Most obviously, in 1791 the Haitian Revolution began. This revolution began as a slave revolt inspired, to some degree, by the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Just as the slaves in Bird’s fiction were inspired by the founding principles of the United States to take their rights, the slaves in Saint Domingue sought to fight for virtues given to more dominant segments of society. This is not to say Sheppard Lee was directly inspired by the events that created Haiti; I simply assert that the tension between democracy’s promise and its restrictions manifested itself throughout early American history in various forms.


The Haitian Revolution itself produced mixed reactions in the United States. According to Tim Matthewson, southern slaver holders feared that Haiti’s success would lead to the spread of rebellion.[i]  Yet, citizens such as northerner Abraham Bishop, who penned “The Rights of Black Men,” supported the Haitian Revolution and believed it was “part of the great global revolution which began in 1776 and would soon sweep away the last vestiges of barbarism and slavery” (148).[ii]

As for President Thomas Jefferson, who owned slaves yet claimed to oppose slavery his policies and views toward Haiti and slavery were contradictory:

Like other Americans,  Jefferson expressed a strong aversion to slavery, but it had not been possible for him to maintain anything more than a theoretical commitment to emancipation during this period of racial warfare, outhern reaction, and expansion of slavery” (38).

The events in Haiti inspired more than political writing and discussion, however. For instance, Lenora Sansay — an American novelist who had a relationship with Vice President Aaron Burr — traveled to Saint Domingue with her husband during the revolution and ended up writing a somewhat fictionalized account of her experiences there. The novel’s full title is Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo, in a Series of Letters Written by a Lady at Cape Francois to Col. Burr, late Vice-President of the United States, Principally During the Command of General Rochambeau. Secret Histories acts as a semi-autobiographical narration of Sansay’s time in Haiti from 1802-03. The story focuses on two sisters Mary, the narrator and friend of Burr, and Clara whose husband St. Louis who lost his plantation during the earlier period of the revolution. Clara, having married St. Louis on advice despite her lack of love for him, finds herself trapped in an unhappy and eventually abusive marriage.

The title page of Lenora Sansay’s Secret Histories, which was published in the United States in 1808.

The focus on Clara, who becomes caught in a failed marriage and a seduction plot, may not be the expected focus of a novel taking place during the end of the Haitian Revolution. As Elizabeth Maddock Dillon argues, however, “the focus of the novel on elite, white domestic relations against the backdrop of warfare over colonial race slavery does not bespeak sustained delusion (or colonial nostalgia) so much as an astute analysis of the relations of production and social reproduction that stand at the core of colonial politics” (78). She concludes by  stating domestic reproduction in colonies would need to “think against, through, or around the presumptive sterility of the creole” and the colonial ideology (99) [iv]. There is, of course, tension in the novel between unstable nature of the creole family, and Dillon’s assessment of the early American life and the colonial shows the politics of the white property owners in Haiti. I, however, believe the novel also, intentionally or not, shows the radical break of American democracy with its own principles.

Michael Drexler puts it this way, “Leonora Sansay’s Secret History illuminates the early republic’s “unknown known”—its political unconscious—with incredible precision. It makes manifest the young republic’s dominant but repressed problem: a republic founded on liberty that held a vast population in bondage.[v]” And yet, despite his astute observation, Drexler does not specifically spend time analyzing the passages in the novel of Haitians rebelling against the French, but on the creole reactions to the revolution.

How does Sansay portray the revolutionaries then? As disloyal, bloodthirsty, insurrectionists[vi] .

It was discovered that the negroes in the own intended to join those who attacked it from without and to kill the women and children, who were shut up in their houses, without anyone to defend them..”

Former slaves turn against “family:”

[One of my Creole friends] told me that her husband was stabbed in her arms by a slave whom he had always treated as his brother; that she had seen her children killed, and her house burned, but had been herself preserved by a faithful slave.”

When a family refuses to give its eldest daughter in marriage to a revolutionary, they are hung. And when the girl refuses, she finds herself in peril:

A fate more dreadful awaited her. The monster gave her to his guard, who hung her by the throat on an iron hook in the market place where the lovely, innocent, unfortunate victim slowly expired.”

And yet, Sansay recognizes, to an extent, the desire the blacks have for freedom:

The negroes have felt during ten years the blessing of liberty, for a blessing it certainly is, however acquired, and they will not easily be deprived of it.”

Perhaps, then, Sansay only can dehumanize the former slaves by making them “dangerous” and “savage” stereotypes to deal with the tension between freedom and enslavement. Drexler, Dillon, and others question and posit answers for why Sansay and the Haitian Revolution have been forgotten and ignored until fairly recently in scholarship and history. Each answer, in one way or another, ties into the fact that the United States, and other white nations, could not imagine a black nation — even if racial equality was the next step for “all men are created free and equal.” As more segments of the population fought for liberty, the arbitrariness of these classifications made itself evident.

How does this resonate with us? For mainstream purposes, the Haitian Revolution still remains marginalized. How many history courses in United States middle or high schools teach the Haitian Revolution? While Hollywood has begun to focus on American slavery, Toussiant Louverture’s story has been unable to find a backer. Although Sansay’s novel has gained more critical attention, it has been ignored by prominent scholars.

The Haitian Revolution, and the values that became tied to it and other revolutionary nations, show the need to push back against the “established order” and find a way to recognize minority voices to avoid an exclusionary model that provides rights to some but not to all. Sansay’s novel shows us that the power of representation exists and in working with historical events and, perhaps in producing contemporary fiction, we must seek to avoid reenforcing harmful fictions. More representation of Haiti can show the direct, important connections between the events of the Haitian Revolution and the United States. By learning about the global network that produced the Americas, we can move from a U.S.-centric view to a more expansive view. I hope that by bring exposure to Haiti’s history, we can recognize modes of thinking that may encourage productive research while preventing repetition of past mistakes.


 [i] Bird, Robert Montgomery. Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself. New York: NYRB Classics, 2008. Print.

[ii] Matthewson, Tim. “Jefferson and the Nonrecognition of Haiti.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 140.1 (1996): 22–48.

[iii] Matthewson, Tim. “Abraham Bishop, ‘The Rights of Black Men,’ and the American Reaction to the Haitian Revolution.” The Journal of Negro History 67.2 (1982): 148–154.

 [iv] Dillon, Elizabeth Maddock. “The Secret History of the Early American Novel: Leonora Sansay and Revolution in Saint Domingue.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 40.1/2 (2006): 77–103.

[v] Drexler, Michael. “The Displacement of the American Novel.” Common-Place 9.3 (2009).

[vi] Sansay, Lenora. Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo, in a Series of Letters Written by a Lady at Cape Francois to Col. Burr, late Vice-President of the United States, Principally During the Command of General Rochambeau. 1808.

Shackles for Sale

By Lynda Berg

An Ebay ad boasts “RARE Handmade Vintage 1800’s Slave Handcuffs Manacles Shackles” with a sub-description under the category “item condition: Used” that extols “Shackles are in excellent condition with a working lock and key.”[1] The crassness of this boast, in combination with the next line denoting the price of $550, should disturb anyone who reflects upon their use in the production of humans as commodities. Is there not a sinister irony extant in these items, which were once commodities for the production of human commodities, and now returned to the market as a commodity in their own right, not for their use, but because of their use.

RARE Handmade Vintage 1800’s Slave Shackles

In thinking through what this re-commodification means, I am drawn to reconsider first the production of “the slave” by which these tools first functioned. In doing so, I find the article by Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe” illuminating for this task. Spillers emphasizes the significance of the power to name in the process of controlling and commodifying a “body.” Spillers lays open the architecture behind names by relating them to the procedures of capture employed in the theft of African bodies beginning in the 15th century with the conquests of the Portuguese[2] and continuing in the Atlantic slave trade. “The captivating party does not only earn the right to dispose of the captive body as it sees fit, but gains, consequently, the right to name….”[3] This naming is part of the work of the “master” to deny past social and cultural meaning already present in the lives of these African peoples, including the denial of their identity and gender. It was a process of stripping bodies down for the purpose of creating new bodies, conformed to the body politic of colonial sovereignty, and thus malleable to the domination of the master to which they would eventually be delivered.

In this space, particularly on the slave ship, captives are first ungendered: made interchangeable with all other captive bodies on board. As Spillers notes when assessing the cargo stat sheets from slave ships, “under these conditions, one is neither female, nor male, as both subjects are taken into account as quantities.”[4] That is, as those uprooted from land and kin, “shackled” in the hull of a ship, crossing an unknown sea, persons are made into units of indistinct exchange, assuming no past, no identity, only mute exchange value.

What does it mean, that centuries later these vary shackles, these tools of stripping down, are themselves placed on another sort of sea (the internet) stripped of their narrative, and sold for an exchange value to the highest bidder? In what ways does this process actually re-inscribe the vary capture they once helped produce? The situation seems to demand a response to the (re)commodification of these shackles, and a response that escapes this capture, rather than living into it.

Again, Spillers may be helpful in imaging a possible horizon. For, when describing the stripping down of African bodies, she notes that in this moment flesh is laid bare. For Spillers this flesh is a double site: the site of negation and of potential. The flesh then is that which is anterior to the body, anterior to the subject position, it is the “zero degree of social conceptualization.”[5] While the process of commodification will always try to force upon this flesh a new state of capture (a new body known as “the slave”), the “negative,” the “criminal,” the very existence of flesh will reveal that these titles are never totalizing, and in fact there is always something that escapes capture (the flesh). Of course, Spillers is speaking of the flesh, not of inanimate objects such as shackles. But I wonder in what way the responses to these fetishized shackles can attempt to be a response of escape rather than capture? I have no complete answer, though others have suggested the idea of a collaborative purchase to place them in a space (perhaps a museum) that does not allow these objects to be disconnected from their narrative.[6] I don’t know if this is the right answer, but perhaps it is a way through, a way of resisting the break with narrative that the reduction to exchange value purports to do. Regardless, in moving forward, we must ask what pressures does the response of the flesh put upon the way these items are being stripped and sold that could reveal new potential?