Beyond the Slave Narrative

BookBeyond the Slave Narrative

Beyond the Slave Narrative

Politics, Sex, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution

Liverpool Studies in International Slavery, 4

2012

March 2nd, 2012

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The Haitian Revolution has generated responses from commentators in fields ranging from philosophy to historiography to twentieth-century literary and artistic studies. But what about the written work produced at the time, by Haitians? This book is the first to present an account of a specifically Haitian literary tradition in the Revolutionary era. Beyond the Slave Narrative shows the emergence of two strands of textual innovation, both evolving from the new revolutionary consciousness: the remarkable political texts produced by Haitian revolutionary leaders Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and popular Creole poetry from anonymous courtesans in Saint-Domingue's libertine culture. These textual forms, though they differ from each other, both demonstrate the increasing cultural autonomy and literary voice of non-white populations in the colony at the time of revolution. Unschooled generals and courtesans, long presented as voiceless, are at last revealed to be legitimate speakers and authors. These Haitian French and Creole texts have been neglected as a foundation of Afro-diasporic literature by former slaves in the Atlantic world for two reasons: because they do not fit the generic criteria of the slave narrative (which is rooted in the autobiographical experience of enslavement); and because they are mediated texts, relayed to the print-cultural Atlantic domain not by the speakers themselves, but by secretaries or refugee colonists. These texts challenge how we think about authorial voice, writing, print culture, and cultural autonomy in the context of the formerly enslaved, and demand that we reassess our historical understanding of the Haitian Independence and its relationship to an international world of contemporary readers.

The Haitian Revolution has generated responses from commentators in fields ranging from philosophy to historiography to twentieth-century literary and artistic studies. But what about the written work produced at the time, by Haitians? This book is the first to present an account of a specifically Haitian literary tradition in the Revolutionary era. Beyond the Slave Narrative shows the emergence of two strands of textual innovation, both evolving from the new revolutionary consciousness: the remarkable political texts produced by Haitian revolutionary leaders Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and popular Creole poetry from anonymous courtesans in Saint-Domingue’s libertine culture. These textual forms, though they differ from each other, both demonstrate the increasing cultural autonomy and literary voice of non-white populations in the colony at the time of revolution. Unschooled generals and courtesans, long presented as voiceless, are at last revealed to be legitimate speakers and authors. These Haitian French and Creole texts have been neglected as a foundation of Afro-diasporic literature by former slaves in the Atlantic world for two reasons: because they do not fit the generic criteria of the slave narrative (which is rooted in the autobiographical experience of enslavement); and because they are mediated texts, relayed to the print-cultural Atlantic domain not by the speakers themselves, but by secretaries or refugee colonists. These texts challenge how we think about authorial voice, writing, print culture, and cultural autonomy in the context of the formerly enslaved, and demand that we reassess our historical understanding of the Haitian Independence and its relationship to an international world of contemporary readers.

Colonial and postcolonial studies will gain significant new breadth and depth with the publication of Deborah Jenson’s Beyond the Slave Narrative: Sex, Politics, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution. This pathbreaking book brings to light the rich but largely neglected Francophone record of black literacy from the late eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Rectifying the anglocentric view that slave narratives were the only or most authentic form of black voices from the past, Jenson provides probing analyses of Creole poetry, political discourse, and other materials. Deeply committed to improving present-day conditions in Haiti, Jenson finds in the cultural heritage of the past the basis for a fuller understanding of current problems and for hope in the future.
Doris Y. Kadish

This book is a major and very significant addition to our understanding of Haitian print culture. The implications of Deborah Jenson's work are far-reaching and exciting ... [and] the author’s complete command of the myriad details of the Haitian Revolution make this book a pleasure to read—with numerous revelations along the way.

Beyond the Slave Narrative provides a model, information, conceptual and theoretical tools, and a wealth of primary and secondary sources for future researchers to use.

Nineteenth-Century French Studies 40, nos. 1 & 2 fall–winter

Beyond the Slave Narrative is an important addition to the growing literature on the Haitian Revolution and a truly original take on texts that have not received the attention they deserve. It is also, and very importantly, an excellent example of how the methodologies of historical research, critical theory, and literary analysis can be brought together to produce remarkable results that will no doubt inspire students in both the literary and historical fields.

The Historians, Vol. 75 No. 4

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About The Author

Deborah Jenson is Professor of Romance Studies, a Global Health Institute faculty affiliate, and co-director of the Franklin Humanities Institute "Haiti" Humanities Laboratory at Duke University. Other work includes Trauma and Its Representations: The Social Life of Mimesis in Post-Revolutionary France (The Johns Hopkins UP, 2001), MLA editions of Sarah: A Colonial Novella by Marceline Desbordes-Valmore.