Sunday, February 17, 2019

Black History Month (8): The Haitian Revolution—In History … and Art

Today’s post—our eighth—in recognition, honor, and celebration of Black History Month, provides a link to a reading guide on the Haitian Revolution as well as material from a prior post on that revolution in the art of Jacob Lawrence (September 7, 1917 – June 9, 2000), an African-American painter, storyteller, and professor of art at the University of Washington in Seattle.
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We seek only to bring men to the liberty that God has given them, and that other men have taken from them only by transgressing His immutable will. — François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture (20 May 1743 – 7 April 1803) 

From [Frederick] Douglass’s time to ours, events in Haiti have continued to inspire African American responses in various genres, including journalism, oratory, music, and poetry. Far from fading, the Haitian Revolution has remained significant and has taken on new meanings during the twentieth century, as contemporary events unfolded. From the response of the NAACP to the American occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934, through the poetry of Langston Hughes and the art of the painter Jacob Lawrence, to the personal connection felt with Touissant L’Ouverture by Ntozake Shanges protagonist in the 1975 play For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, many African Americans have been inspired by Haitis history to create responses that link past and present, providing inspiration as well as spurring continuing activism for contemporary Haitians and for people of color throughout the world. — Maurice Jackson and Jacqueline Bacon 

I like to think I’ve expanded my interest to include not just the Negro theme but man generally and maybe if this speaks through the Negro I think this is valid also ….  I would like to think of it as dealing with all people, the struggle of man to always better his condition and to move forward….  I think all people aspire, all people strive towards a better human condition, a better mental condition generally. — Jacob Lawrence
Lawrence Life of T 2
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The Haitian Revolution (French: Révolution haïtienne) was a successful anti-slavery and anti-colonial insurrection by self-liberated slaves against French colonial rule in Saint-Domingue, now the sovereign nation of Haiti. It began on 22 August 1791 [most historians use this date in August, although it may have actually begun a few hours before the 22nd, the preceding day] and ended in 1804 with the former colony’s independence. It involved blacks, mulattoes, French, Spanish, and British participants—with the ex-slave [François-Dominique] Toussaint Louverture [also known as Toussaint L’Ouverture or Toussaint Bréda] emerging as Haiti’s most charismatic hero. It was the only slave uprising that led to the founding of a state which was both free from slavery, and ruled by non-whites and former captives. It is now widely seen as a defining moment in the history of racism in the Atlantic World.

Its effects on the institution of slavery were felt throughout the Americas. The end of French rule and the abolition of slavery in the former colony was followed by a successful defense of the freedoms they won, and, with the collaboration of free persons of color, their independence from white Europeans. It represents the largest slave uprising since Spartacus’s unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Republic nearly 1,900 years earlier. It challenged long-held European beliefs about alleged black inferiority and about enslaved persons’ capacity to achieve and maintain their own freedom. The rebels’ organizational capacity and tenacity under pressure inspired stories that shocked and frightened slave owners in the hemisphere.”
Lawrence Haitian revo
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“The traditional account of the value of artworks is that they have their value through their beauty, and the experience of a work’s beauty is still a prime determinant of our valuing it.…  [T]he notion of beauty is not to be construed merely in terms of pleasure in sensory presentations, but has to allow for the possibility of the beauty of objects and traits, such as moral ones, which cannot be perceived directly. The existence of moral beauty means that a work’s moral character can be a beauty in the work. One of the most influential modern accounts of the value of art is the cognitive one, which holds that works of art have their artistic value in part through their cognitive merits. … [T]hrough linking cognition to imagination, art can teach about ethical values, as well as about other matters; and … this cognitive merit can be an aesthetic merit too. Finally, an important aspect of our valuing works of art is the way that they move us emotionally, and this aspect of our experience [in light of the question of value, occurs once more in assessing] … whether the responses prescribed are merited. And this notion of merit … is sensitive to moral considerations. Thus, if one examines some of the central grounds on which art is valued—its beauty, its cognitive role, its affective dimension—each of them involves an ethical aspect. It is in this sense that the ethical evaluation of art is inescapable, since it is inextricably intertwined with some of the central grounds on which we value art.” – Berys Gaut, Art, Emotion and Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Lawrence toussaint
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Jacob Lawrence & the Haitian Revolution: Exemplifying the Pedagogical, Ethical, and Spiritual Purposes of Art

“[Jacob] Lawrence [September 7, 1917 – June 9, 2000] is one of the first American artists trained in and by the black community in Harlem, and it is from the people of Harlem that he initially obtained professional recognition. He was also the first African American artist to receive sustained support from mainstream art museums and patronage outside of the black community during an era of legalized and institutionalized segregation. [….]

… Lawrence developed a philosophy regarding art and the role that it can play addressing social issues, particularly as they pertain to race. Though much of his career coincides with a period in which artists attempted to strip all narrative and literary references from their work, he has always maintained that art, as one of the highest forms of human endeavor, is too significant a communicative medium to be simply reduced to formal experimentation. For over sixty years and with intentionally limited means (water-based paints on boards or paper), he has harnessed the seductive power of semi-abstract forms to address many of the great social and philosophical themes of the twentieth century, especially at they pertain to the lives and histories of African Americans: migration, manual labor, war, family values, education, mental health, and creativity. He made visible a side of American history that includes the contributions of African Americans; has presented scenes of daily life that provide a compassionate counterpoint to stereotypical images of African Americans; and painted poignant social commentary on the effects of racism and bigotry in American culture. His ability to distill the essence of these subjects into elemental shapes is unparalleled and one of the defining aspects of his work.” — Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle DuBois, eds., Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence (University of Washington Press, in association with Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné Project, 2000): 11.
Lawrence Haitian revo 2
“Lawrence painted not just what he saw, but also what he heard from the oral historians of Harlem. Lectures on aspects of American and African-American history and culture given at the 135th Street library (history previously unknown to Lawrence since the topic was not part of the New York City public education curriculum) sparked his interest in these subjects. He, along with many other artists, heard lectures by Joel C. Rogers, Richard B. Moore, and the carpenter-cum-scholar ‘Professor’ Charles C. Seifert. These lectures were part of a community-wide effort in Harlem to learn and value the history of African Americans and their contribution to American history. Lawrence was so impressed after having heard one of Seifert’s lectures that he was inspired to research the history and political struggles of his people. Motivated by the courageous events he studied, he was compelled to create, in rapid succession, a series of paintings on the important African American heroic narratives: The Life of Toussaint L’Overture (1938), The Life of Frederick Douglass (1939), and The Life of Harriet Tubman (1940). The stories and struggles of these monumental freedom fighters became icons of survival and hope.”—Leslie King-Hammond, “Inside-Outside, Uptown-Downtown:  Jacob Lawrence and the Aesthetic Ethos of the Harlem Working-Class Community,” in Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle DuBois, eds. Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence (University of Washington Press, in association with Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné Project. 2000): 77-78.

“It was … [at the New York Public Library that Lawrence] might have read John W. Vandercook’s book Black Majesty: The Life of Christophe, King of Haiti, published in 1928. The book included drawings by Mahlon Blaine of scenes of the [Haitian] revolt and of Christophe and other leaders, which served as inspiration for Lawrence’s later work on Toussaint.

Lawrence was also influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois. Lawrence was an American, but he also was an African American and an African American artist. He knew that he had to define himself, and as a painter he came to be known as a social realist, abstractionist, and visual narrator of the American black experience and the struggle of blacks for freedom from oppression. Lawrence told of seeing a W.E.B. Du Bois play on the life of Toussaint Louverture in the mid-1930s and assumed it had been written by the man he admired, since Du Bois had written about Haiti in his doctoral thesis and other works. According to Du Bois’s biographer David Levering Lewis, however, the play was written not by the African American W.E.B. Du Bois, but by a white playwright named William DuBois. Inspired nonetheless, Lawrence decided to paint on the subject.

In 1938, at the age of twenty-one, Lawrence completed and exhibited a series of paintings on the life of Toussaint. He felt that one painting would not do the job, so he decided to do a series, and it became known as the Toussaint L’Ouverture series of 1937-1938. Lawrence’s works consisted of forty-one paintings, “gouache paintings on paper,” outlining the history of the Haitian Revolution, each telling a unique aspect of the story. It was funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Federal Arts Project (FAP). Lawrence wrote, ‘I’ve always been interested in history, but they never taught Negro history in the public schools…. It was never studied seriously like regular subjects. My first real introduction to Negro history was when I was very young—thirteen, I imagine—when a Mr. Allen spoke at Utopia House. He spoke about Toussaint L’Ouverture.’ At the same time, Lawrence noted, ‘most of my information came from Charles Beard’s book, Toussaint LOuverture. I read other books—there were more novels than anything else. One book—I don’t even remember its name—told me of conditions on the island, and its resources. It gave a short sketch of the Haitian Revolution.’ Lawrence concluded, ‘I’m not a politician; I’m an artist just trying to do my part to bring this thing about. I had several reasons for doing this work and these are some of them. Someone had to do it. Another reason is that I have great admiration for the life of such a man as Toussaint L’Ouverture.’ [….]

As the art history Ellen Wheat has written, ‘The Toussaint series focuses on the mistreatment of the Haitian natives by the colonial farmers and military leaders and on Touissant’s heroic struggle to educate himself, fight the military leader’s occupational forces and achieve the independence of Haiti.’” – Maurice Jackson, “No Man Could Hinder Him: Remembering Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution in the History and Culture of the African American People,” in Maurice Jackson and Jacqueline Bacon, eds., African Americans and the Haitian Revolution: Selected Essays and Historical Documents (Routledge, 2010): 141-164.
“Influenced by storytelling techniques derived from film, the Toussaint L’Ouverture series unfolds episodically and kaleidoscopically, presenting scenes at various locations, during various times, and from various points of view. Each scene was carefully orchestrated for content; before picking up his brushes, Lawrence spent several weeks poring over biographies of Toussaint’s life, as well as historical and socioeconomic accounts of Haiti. Like a screenwriter, the artist emphasized, condensed, or omitted narrative details in order to underscore his overriding message. For Lawrence, Toussaint’s prominent roles in commandeering the Haitian Revolution and drafting the country’s new constitution epitomized the ability of an authoritative individual to bring about major social change.

Evident throughout the series is Lawrence’s strong acumen in manipulating shapes and colors to communicate with clarity and emotion. Demonstrating his penchant for dynamic yet cohesive patterning, the artist repeated colors and motifs in order to unify the sequence across its individual images. By employing flat shapes bereft of shading and cast shadows, he eliminated extraneous detail and strove for greater legibility. A pronounced sense of graphic design predominates throughout, so when viewed in their totality the 41 images generate a cumulative visual power, an upshot rendered even more forceful by the intimate spaces of our prints and drawings gallery.

Created in 1937–38, when Lawrence was just 20 years old, the Toussaint L’Ouverture series launched the artist’s career on a national stage, and its success provided momentum to further elaborate his aesthetic vision. For the next six decades, Lawrence continued to harness the power of abstracted forms to address significant social issues, and a host of gallery and museum exhibitions amplified his fame. At the time of his death at the age of 82, he was among the most distinguished artists in the nation.” — Mark Cole, curator of American painting and sculpture at the Cleveland Museum of Art since 2006.
References and Further Reading:
  • Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. New York: Verso, 1998.
  • Brown, Gordon S. Toussaint’s Clause: The Founding Fathers and the Haitian Revolution. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.
  • Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. London: Verso, 2010 (1997).
  • Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Dubois, Laurent and John D. Garrigus. Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1804: A Brief History with Documents. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin, 2nd ed., 2017.
  • Dun, James Alexander. Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
  • Eller, Anne. We Dream Together: Dominican Independence, Haiti, and the Fight for Caribbean Freedom. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.
  • Forsdick, Charles and Christian Høgsbjerg, eds. The Black Jacobins Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.
  • Forsdick, Charles and Christian Høgsbjerg. Toussaint Louverture: A Black Jacobin in the Age of Revolutions. London: Pluto Press, 2017.
  • Geggus, David Patrick, ed. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
  • Geggus, David Patrick and Norman Fiering, eds. The World of the Haitian Revolution. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009.
  • Girard, Philippe R. The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801–1804. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2011.
  • Girard, Philippe. Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life. New York: Basic Books, 2016.
  • Horne, Gerald. Confronting Black Jacobins: The United States, the Haitian Revolution, and the Origins of the Dominican Republic. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015.
  • Hunt, Alfred. Haiti’s Influence on Antebellum America: Slumbering Volcano in the Caribbean. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
  • Jackson, Maurice and Jacqueline Bacon, eds. African Americans and the Haitian Revolution: Selected Essays and Historical Documents. New York: Routledge, 2010.
  • James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 2nd ed., 1963/1989 (1938).
  • Kaisary, Philip. The Haitian Revolution in the Literary Imagination: Radical Horizons, Conservative Constraints. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2014.
  • Kennedy, Roger G. (an illustrated documentary by David Larkin) When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2009.
  • L’Ouverture, Toussaint (Nick Nesbitt, ed.) The Haitian Revolution. London: Verso, 2008. [A collection of Louverture’s writings and speeches]
  • Meltzer, Milton. Violins and Shovels: The WPA Arts Projects. New York: Delacorte Press, 1976.
  • Morgan, Stacy I. Rethinking Social Realism: African American Art and Literature, 1930-1953. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004.
  • Munro, Martin and Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw, eds. Reinterpreting the Haitian Revolution and Its Cultural Aftershocks. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2006.
  • Musher, Sharon Ann. Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  • Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois, eds. Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, in association with Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné Project, 2000.
  • Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois (with assistance from Stephanie Ellis-Smith) Jacob Lawrence: Paintings, Drawings, and Murals (1935-1999)—A Catalogue Raisonné. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, in association with Jacob Lawrence Catalogue Raisonné Project, 2000.
  • Nesbitt, Nick. Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
  • Oldfield, J.R. Transatlantic Abolitionism: The Age of Revolution, 1787-1820. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Popkin, Jeremy D. You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Ros, Martin. Night of Fire: The Black Napoleon and The Battle for Haiti. New York: Sarpedon Publishers, 1994.
  • Stewart, Whitney Nell and John Garrison Marks, eds. Race and Nation in the Age of Emancipations. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2018.
  • Stinchcombe, Arthur L. Sugar Island Slavery in the Age of Enlightenment: The Political Economy of the Caribbean World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
  • Taylor, Nick. American-MadeThe Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR put the Nation to Work. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008.
  • West, Michael O., William G. Martin, and Fanon Che Wilkins, eds. From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International since the Age of Revolution. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.


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