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Black Lives in an Age of Revolutions

Black Lives Matter, and so history teachers must ensure that students understand the agency and the resilience of African descended people in the past

Black Lives Matter, and so history teachers must ensure that students understand the agency and the resilience of African descended people in the past. Black lives created their own narratives. Incorporating more of them into our courses will serve the needs of all students, but only if we dare to imagine how they challenge and complicate existing narratives.

Black and white illustration of Black man in 18th century military officer's uniform
Georges Biassou: Revolutionary, Royalist

We must act with determination, because the pull of the whiteness-centering legacy curriculum is strong. In World History state standards bend curriculum toward Europe, men, and heteronormativity. Moreover, like all learners, history teachers attach new knowledge to existing schema. In general, history teachers report much more familiarity with content and narratives from a “western civilization” approach to World History. So, new knowledge about Africa and the diaspora often attaches itself to Eurocentric narratives.

We, as teachers, need to be intentional in our understandings of how Black lives, for instance, followed their own paths. World History teachers also face the challenge of coverage, and we must eschew narrating history as facile sets of clear causal relationships, no matter how tempting. History is complicated, and students must see that.

Black Lives in the Revolutionary Caribbean

Caribbean History in the “Age of Revolutions,” c. 1750 CE – c. 1850 CE, shows the promises and pitfalls in this approach. Here, I’ll be reflecting on my attempts to decolonize my classroom coverage of the “Age of Revolutions” in light of my recent readings in Caribbean History. For an excellent overview to teaching World History in the time of #BlackLivesMatter I strongly recommend Bram Hubbell’s post on Liberating Narratives.

Freedom’s Deep Roots

In World History, the legacy narrative teaches that Enlightenment thinkers produced ideas that, among other causes, led to revolutions in parts of British North America and in France. These ideas then encouraged more revolutions in Haiti and throughout Spanish America, or so the story goes in many textbooks, state state standards and the newest AP World History Course and Exam Description.

While not entirely false, this is far from the whole truth. Consider: Queen Nanny never held a salon, but she did lead people in freedom as you can hear in this fabulous podcast for all ages.

To show students the deep roots of freedom seeking in the Americas I use a pair of maps shared by Bram Hubbell’s Liberating Narratives. Students can see that Black people sought freedom long before John Locke’s treatises on government. Discussing maroons and marronage is an important and fairly recent addition to my teaching (and I share with students that I needed to learn this after leaving school myself).

Maroon communities in the Americas

Long before the Enlightenment, marronage meant freedom for Black people in the Americas. Historian Crystal Eddins wrote an excellent short article for the valuable Age of Revolutions blog contextualizing the Haitian Revolution within Hispaniola’s history of marronage. These maroon communities are missing from the map above, which could spur a discussion as to why. Advanced or older high school students could read Eddins’s article. Students also see how Black lives were “fighting on arrival,” as Bob Marley sang, in the other map shared by Liberating Narratives.

Students should notice that the Haitian Revolution, 1791-1804, was one of many revolts staged by enslaved people over several centuries. After reading Eddins’s article, I will direct students to the “1522” that shares St. Domingue/St. Domingo with “1791.” Eddins highlights collaboration between indigenous Taíno people and Africans in this rebellion, and the article reminded me to emphasize the enduring influence of native peoples in the Caribbean.

Complicated Role of the French Revolution

Clearly the French Revolution and the Enlightenment did not cause enslaved people to seek freedom, although they were a part of the context for the Haitian Revolution. Some Revolutionaries read the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, although as Ada Ferrer points out in Freedom’s Mirror, for at least a few, this was after they began rebelling. Haitian Revolutionaries used language from the Enlightenment to assert their freedom. But, many also drew on African traditions. I like to pass along an account from Ferrer of an “unusual object” that arrived in eastern Cuba from Haiti during the Revolution there:

 …a rosette or cockade carried by the black insurgents…It consisted of three discrete images: a small heart made of seeds and bordered in gold, a fleur de lis, and the word Constitution. The artifact…combined multiple symbols. Of the three features described, each corresponded to a potential current of political inspiration: the fleur de lis, associated with the French monarchy; the word Constitution, reflecting a newer force on the horizon; and a heart made of small seeds, perhaps similar to the one that would later become a traditional representation of the vodou deity Erzulie…ideological syncretism … visible in the well-known example from 1791, when a slave rebel who was captured and executed was reported to have carried in his pocket three things of interest, each drawing on a distinct source power: gunpowder, an African talisman, and pamphlets on the Rights of Man [French Revolutionary document]

Ferrer 56-57

Students might consider the events and developments on which the Haitian Revolution was contingent, based on this evidence of overlapping contexts.

Choices in a Revolutionary Age

Centering the Haitian Revolution, or one of the rebellions of indigenous people, and complicating student understandings of the Enlightenment are key elements of my approach to decolonizing the Age of Revolutions. The discussion of context above is an important piece for demonstrating the agency of Haitian Revolutionaries.

Stories of Black lives in the revolutionary Caribbean keep challenging me to add layers to class discussions. I recently read and enjoyed Jane Landers Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions. Landers follows Atlantic Creoles–African descended people who worked across cultures as they traveled into and out of the Spanish America, especially Florida and Cuba. The book is filled with stories of amazing Black lives, and since finishing it I’ve been thinking about how I might use excerpts in class.

For instance, students might connect with the story a young man named Titus who escaped his enslavement in Georgia on his second attempt, and then continued to elude capture and fight for freedom in Spanish Florida for several years (Landers 98-100). Landers relays Titus’s story in two pages which students could read with an eye to the sources Landers used. This could prompt useful discussion of reading sources, such as notices from Titus’s former enslaver, against the grain.

Atlatnic Creoles in the Age Revolutions devotes more space to Black lives that left more evidence in the historical record. Landers describes how these Atlantic Creoles sometimes embraced royalism as a better protector of their own freedom than republicanism, especially the white supremacist version practiced in the new USA, while pragmatically making choices to preserve their independence and dignity as much as possible

“[Atlantic creoles] based their alliances primarily on their desire for freedom and a measure of dignity. By comparing different imperial systems, analyzing new sources, and uncovering new narratives, we can better understand the agency and interconnectedness of Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions, and thus the Revolutions themselves”

Landers 235

Georges Biassou, pictured above, was one of the Atlantic creoles who fought for their freedom and crossed imperial boundaries in order to maintain it. A military leader in the first phase of the Haitian Revolution, Biassou declared his loyalty to the King of Spain, who initially supported Haitian rebels fighting France. The French National Assembly had issued its Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, but had not abolished slavery.

Book cover with a black man in a red and white military uniform in the foreground and a stone fort in the background.
This book cover highlights the significance of free Black and pardo militiamen in the defense of Havana from British invasion.

Military defeat and Spanish racism forced Biassou out of Hispaniola, but did not shake his decision to cast his lot with the King of Spain. The general first sought asylum in Cuba only to be repelled by the planter-based colonial authorities. He did find a home, like many others fleeing enslavement, in Spanish Florida. There he found a place in society as one of several free Black men serving in the militia. Elena Schneider’s brilliant book on the British occupation of Havana during the Seven Years War demonstrates the status that some free Black men gained through militia service in royalist Cuba. Although these opportunities were waning in the late 18th century they form part of the context for the decisions made by African-descended people, especially men.

Moreover, historian John Thornton argues that royalism, like Biassou’s, was sometimes more than opportunism. Many African-descended Haitians were from monarchies, and when enslaved they, like subaltern people in other kingdoms, felt that the King was potentially a powerful ally against their powerful enslavers. Thornton is also clear that revolutionary leaders disagreed about royalism, as some argued that they had been sold into slavery by kings in Africa and labored in a colony ruled by a king. Thornton and other scholars make clear that African culture, including political ideologies, influenced the lives of African-descended people in the Americas.

All of this leads back to the multivalent role played by the Enlightenment in the Age of Revolutions. When students and teachers facilely equate “the Enlightenment” with freedom, and freedom with republicanism, they elide a lot of history. Unfortunately, they also append the complex stories of revolutionary Black lives to a simplistic story of “western civilization.”

Moving students beyond these simple associations is difficult. American students, especially those who identify as white, are accustomed to seeing the American Revolution against the British monarchy as instantiating freedom. Their prior classes often stress the role of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke. Most are unaware of enslaved African Americans finding freedom on British warships during the War of 1812 or with Britain’s abolition of slavery three decades before the US’s. My fundamental classroom problem, however, is that uncovering the complexities of Enlightenment thought would entail devoting more time to the topic than seems merited in a broad survey. I remain committed to complicating my students understanding of the Enlightenment, but I am still working on the best way to do this even as I consider ways to expose students to more of the revolutionary world. I am open to suggestions!

Pan Out, Think Globally

As Thornton’s work suggest, if we truly want to see the Revolutionary Caribbean in global context we need to incorporate African History along with Europe and the Americas. Put the fullness of the Atlantic back into Atlantic History. Historian Vincent Brown’s recent book on Jamaica’s largest 18th Century slave rebellion, subtitled “The Story of an Atlantic Slave War,” does that with style. Brown’s argument that all enslaved people participated in a broad, Atlantic war is compelling.

“Jamaican slave society was therefore not only the commercial and military heart of the British Empire, but also a constant battleground at the intersection of the seascapes and landscapes that formed the martial geography of Atlantic slavery.”

Vincent Brown, Tacky’s Rebellion, 74

Brown reminds readers that its sugar-derived wealth and Caribbean location made Jamaica an important node in the British Empire. As such the wider Atlantic War moved into and out of the island.

The war’s course flowed through relations of dispersion and attraction that wound their way across a landscape of empires, confederations, and conditions, linking Africa and Europe to Jamaica’s rugged terrain.”

Vincent Brown, Tacky’s Rebellion, 207

Brown’s masterful narrative extricates the agency of Black lives from the colonial archive. Their actions fill the book. Fortunately, Brown wrote an article on one such life, Apongo aka Wager, for Time magazine that could be used in class. Pairing this with Crystal Eddins The First Ayitian Revolution could support an excellent class discussion.

Conclusion

Now more than ever I remain committed to centering Haiti, complicating the Enlightenment and considering other rebellions and revolutions when discussion an “Age of Revolutions.” But, the struggle to apportion class time among regions and events continues.

To make it clear that Black Lives Matter in their history classes teachers must do more than add topics from Africa and the African diaspora; we must present the stories of Black Lives on their own terms. This is a work in progress for my own classes. To do so requires consistent, explicit interruption of institutionalized racism in history education. We have an obligation to expose all of our students to the contigencies that produced historical events and the agency of Black historical actors.

Resources

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

2 replies on “Black Lives in an Age of Revolutions”

I love this! So eye-opening and something that I wish students and teachers alike would consider before indulging in a sometimes “white-washed” history.

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