Review of Avengers of the New World by Laurent Dubois

LAURENT DUBOIS. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, York: The Dial Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 357. $17.95.

Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (... Cover Art

Avengers of the New World is the first book written by Laurent Dubois, the historian, anthropologist, and literary scholar of France, the French Atlantic, and the Caribbean. Dubois wrote Avengers as a new history of the Haitian revolution (1791-1804), updating the anticolonial work of the Caribbean scholar C.L.R. James with Atlantic and African scholarship and social and cultural methodologies. Whereas James tended to “essentialize the differences” between groups within San Domingo, and focus on defending the actions of black revolutionaries and condemning those of planters from within a racialized discourse, Dubois is interested in creating an understanding of the revolution’s wider context within the “Age of Revolutions.” Although his book lacks the passion, verve, and spontaneous philosophical insight that characterized The Black Jacobins, it succeeds at drawing a more holistic portrait of the transatlantic republican forces that contributed not only to the “crucial moment” of the Haitian revolution, but to “the overall destruction of slavery in the Americas,” and to our ongoing battle for global democracy and human rights.

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Review of The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker

MARCUS REDIKER. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking Press, 2007. Pp. 434. $27.95.

Introduction:

Slave Ship Book Cover

The Slave Ship is the fourth book written by Marcus Rediker, a prize-winning American historian of the early-modern era and the Atlantic world and a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Through evocative language, fluid narration, poignant imagery, dramatic vignettes, diverse sources, dynamic characters, and bold statistics, Rediker synthesizes the violent nature of the Anglo-American slave trade during its so-called Golden Age, from 1700-1808, for common readership. Like Walter Johnson’s multi-perspective approach to the American interstate trade in Soul by Soul, Rediker captures the phenomenon of the transatlantic trade from the perspectives of its many, diverse participants: merchants, underwriters, captains and officers, seaman, slaves, and agitators. At the core of this visceral, conceptual history is a special focus on the gruesome yet calculated “hardware of bondage,” most aptly characterized by that “vast and diabolical machine,” the Guineaman slaver. To borrow a metaphor used elsewhere by Walter Rodney, although The Slave Ship offers very little new information, the book presents one of the first nuanced and comprehensive portrayals of the Atlantic slave trade as “capitalism without a loincloth.” It not only reminds us that “violence and terror were central to the Atlantic economy.” It shows us, time and time again.

Sources:

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Review of Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams

ERIC WILLIAMS. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944. Pp. ix, 245. $29.95.

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Capitalism and Slavery is the first and most important work by the late Trinidadian scholar and statesman, Eric Eustace Williams. Based on a dissertation written at the University of Oxford in 1938, entitled “The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the British West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery,” the work is an “economic study of the role of Negro slavery and the slave trade in providing the capital which financed the industrial revolution in England and of mature industrial capitalism [eventually] destroying the slave system.” More generally, the book documents the historical shift of Britain’s political economy from monopolistic commercial mercantilism based on tropical, Caribbean islands with black-plantation slavery to laissez faire commercial capitalism based on white free-labor factories in temperate, Continental regions. In doing so, it challenges one-hundred years of British imperial historiography by making the controversial argument that the causes of abolition and emancipation were economic, not humanitarian. Although too cynical in its conclusions, and slightly contrived in its teleology, Capitalism and Slavery is one of the most effective, creative, powerful, and influential history books that has ever been written.

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Vengeance and History in Django Unchained

This is one of two reviews of “Django Unchained” by Lakefront Historian bloggers. See also ajdilorenzo’s post on the film.

 

Who would guess that in the past year two of the most talked about movies would be on the topic of American slavery? If you have not noticed yet Lincoln and Django Unchained deal with the history of slavery very differently. Some Americans, interestingly a select few African Americans, have decried the film as irreverent in its revisionism of slavery or paradoxically for its use of the “n-word”. I suggest that the film memorably revises the remembrance of slavery and, in particular, plays to the emotions of modern descendants of enslaved people.

American slavery remains as a stain on our history, one of its greatest philosophical hypocrisies. Slavery for many contemporary Americans is widely considered immoral and shameful yet socially irrelevant in our daily lives today. On the other hand, bring up slavery with an African American and you may get reaction ranging from ambivalence to anger to, more insidiously, shame. What Quentin Tarantino really does with his film is counteract the shame or guilt that occurs when someone asks: ‘why didn’t they fight?’ or ‘why didn’t we fight back?’ when referring to slaves. In fact, Tarantino includes that theme in his dialogue. The character Django is not the slave who is simply worked, branded, sold, and tortured (even though all of those things happen to him); he is the symbol of retribution and the Black hero who independently delivers his bloody judgment on the institution of slavery. Django is the answer to the question, at least in fantasy.

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Civility and Savagery in Django Unchained

This is one of two reviews of “Django Unchained” by Lakefront Historian bloggers. See also Courtney Baxter’s post on the film. 

In the wake of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western inspired take on antebellum American slavery Django Unchained risked misinterpretation of its tone and message. Throughout the film, however, Tarantino deftly strikes the right balance between genre bending playfulness and respect for the weighty subject matter. Like his last film Inglorious Bastards, Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy, empowering an oppressed group against powerful enemies. Taking on two of the darkest chapters in human history, the holocaust and racial slavery, while maintaining his slick sense of humor and film geek B-movie references seems a recipe doomed to trivialize and offend. Yet somehow Tarantino pulls it off.ImageImage

For the record, I have never been as enamored with his work as others. Prior to Inglorious Bastards, I respected his craftsmanship and flare for dialogue, but his movies always seemed hyper referential and lacking in authenticity. It is often difficult to tell where the film geek allusions and homages end and Quentin the auteur begins. His breakthrough film Pulp Fiction, while bursting with style, offered few genuine insights or emotional depth. The promise of this recent turn toward historical (or counter-historical) subject matter is that he has found a way to employ his talent for subverting genre as a means to analyze the process of historical memory. For better or for worse, the movies have become probably the most powerful medium for the transmission of historical knowledge. There have been plenty of films that have focused on the Civil War, but few have  engaged with the savagery of slavery in an immediate way. In Django Unchained Tarantino seems to be saying, “why not remember it this way?” But the key to the success of this approach is that he delivers a serious counter-narrative within the guise of a celebrated and seemingly benign genre, the spaghetti western.

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Lincoln Review: Rachel Boyle

In this five-part series, Lakefront Historian contributors respond to the critically acclaimed blockbuster Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis.

Spielberg’s Lincoln

The opening shots were so promising.  A pan of Civil War carnage preceded any mention of Abraham Lincoln.  African American soldiers stood before The Great Emancipator and called him to task on the problem of wage inequality.  Then Lincoln subdued them with a charming anecdote, thus setting the tone of the rest of the film.  In the subsequent two and half hours, a thoroughly endearing Abe ambled through a world of rhetorical and ethical dilemmas, mesmerizing everyone with his storytelling and lawyering skills.  Indeed, Spielberg’s Lincoln succeeded as a comedic drama of white politicians debating slavery while effectively silencing other nineteenth century voices.

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Re-envisioning Historic Fort Snelling: Confessions of a Fort Employee

I wake up most mornings thrilled to go to work. I relish the rare opportunity to engage in positive dialogue with the public about critical themes in Minnesota and United States history. On a daily basis I participate in open conversations about class, slavery, and American Indian history. I feel continually supported by a remarkably amicable staff and refreshingly thoughtful and efficient supervisors. Considering the many museums and historic sites still reveling in nostalgia and Great Man history, I truly value the opportunity to practice public history at Historic Fort Snelling. Not to mention my sheer enjoyment of hearth cooking or playing nineteenth century games with children.

All the fantastic aspects of employment at Historic Fort Snelling tend to overshadow the occasional discomforts: the offhanded racist comment of a guest; the low traffic in Dred Scott Space or Indian Agency compared to the overwhelming popularity of the infantry and artillery drills; enthusiastic youth marching and shooting imaginary guns. Perhaps these are just the unfortunate realities of interacting with the public.

A recent experience, however, put my discomforts into sharp relief. While stationed in the Indian Agency I observed a visitor who appeared to me to be American Indian. As he exited the space he turned to his companion and stated matter-of-factly, “there is a lot of evil in this room.” Continue reading “Re-envisioning Historic Fort Snelling: Confessions of a Fort Employee”

“Slave for a Day” and the Tensions in Historiography (Part II: Peter Kotowski)

“[It] is often forgotten that the concept of social death is a distillation from Patterson’s breathtaking survey – a theoretical abstraction that is meant not to describe the lived experiences of the enslaved so much as to reduce them to a least common denominator that could reveal the essence of slavery in an ideal-type slave, short of meaningful heritage.  As a concept, it is what Frederick Cooper has called an ‘agentless abstraction’ that provides a neat cultural logic but ultimately does little to illuminate the social and political experiences of enslavement and the struggles that produce historic transformations.”

Vincent Brown, “Social Death and Political Life in the Study of Slavery”

I must preface this piece by admitting that I have no formal training in public history.  As such, I cannot offer the same type of illuminating critique that my colleague, Will Ippen, has provided in the companion piece to mine.  What I can do, however, is frame the debate over the Hampton National Historic Site’s “Slave for a Day” event within the context of the extant historiography on North American slavery.

In his excellent essay on the legacy of Orlando Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, historian Vincent Brown articulates a tension between scholarship emphasizing the dehumanizing aspects of antebellum slavery and the overwhelming power of the institution and those works that focus on the collective agency of the enslaved population and the ways in which they resisted enslavement.  In my opinion, the outcry over the “Slave for a Day” event reflects a tendency among many  to adopt the interpretation of slavery stressing the power of the institution to oppress enslaved people.

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