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Joel Whitney: Haitian History As Told by Madison Smartt Bell

February 25, 2010

By **Joel Whitney**

Since Pat Robertson called Haiti a land cursed by its pact with the devil, debates

abound over the island’s poverty. Madison Smartt Bell’s 2007 biography of Haiti’s founding father, Toussaint Louverture, offers a truthier take on Haitian history…

What has been called the only successful slave revolt in recorded history took place in Haiti during the French Revolution. The most decisive role was played by a former slave named Francois Dominique Toussaint Louverture, a little known figure here in the United States outside the black community.

In Toussaint Louverture, the first biography of Toussaint in more than 50 years, Madison Smartt Bell has set out to sketch this mythical figure whose life is cloaked in questions and contradictions. Bell is a novelist, among whose 14 books of fiction are his acclaimed Haitian trilogy—“All Souls’ Rising”(1995), “Master of the Crossroads” (2000) and ”The Stone That the Builder Refused” (2004) —where his Toussaint biography seems to have been born.

As Bell points out in his afterword, Toussaint left almost no trace of his life before age 50, and what is knownof his 10-year rise to prominence is typically overwritten, with an excess of either praise or demonization. This clouded record is all that Bell can draw from and, he confesses on the last page, it isn’t really enough for what he’d like to accomplish in a biography. In short, Toussaint’s life story might make more sense as historical fiction.

One question Bell may have wanted to tackle outside fiction is who started the revolt that finally led to Haiti’s independence. A theory, usually dismissed by contemporary scholars, is that Haiti’s slave revolt was actually a white aristocratic conspiracy. Amid the upheaval of the French Revolution, their hope was to whip up fears of social chaos and spur a conservative backlash. Historians dismiss the theory, according to Bell, not because of hard evidence but because the theory diminishes the role played by black leaders such as Toussaint.

In one of the biography’s finer moments, Bell goes back and forth on the theory (and writes that, if true, it is still to Toussaint’s credit that he wrested control from its better funded planners and conspirators). Regardless, Toussaint Louverture—outmaneuvering colleagues, opponents, superpowers of the day—took control of the island revolt himself. He was a master of treating no person or party wholly as an enemy but treating the condition of slavery as such.

By 1801, Bell writes, Toussaint “had emerged as the de facto ruler of the entire island.” France, worried he would declare independence, attacked the island, capturing Toussaint and imprisoning him with no trial. In prison his health slowly eroded. He died in relative obscurity and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Bell’s novelistic flair for character surfaces after long chapters of dry battle data. Bell’s Toussaint is a passionate figure who, according to friends and enemies alike, came to master his emotions. He is small in stature, a master horseman who glides swiftly to the scene of battles by covering huge swaths of the island in darkness, sleeping little more than two hours a night.

Publicly, Toussaint was Catholic; privately he practiced Vodou. His grandfather is said to have been an African tribal king; he himself was freed from slavery, and went on, before the revolt, to own land, join the Freemasons, and own at least one slave himself—whom he later freed.

Toussaint’s treatment after being captured by the French unsettled him and he rightly questioned the sincerity of France’s benevolent claims to universal rights (Napoleon even re-introduced slavery).

He predicted, before dying in prison in April 1803, that the revolts he had led were indeed the seeds of Haitian independence. That same year, in fact, Haiti won its decisive victory against France, and Toussaint’s right-hand man, a brutal general named Dessalines, eventually declared himself emperor.

It’s a lot to cover in some 300 pages, dense though they are, and yet the subject remains obscure. Of course, that is the nature of slavery, as it erases the histories of those it turned into property. One wonders, though, if Bell has done everything he could to get around that understandable hurdle.

His gifts as a narrative writer are clear here, as in his fiction, marked by a worthy challenge in choice of topic and an admirable ambition. However, he could have more fully used a writer’s license to speculate, to imagine and to better control the narrative through pacing. It might have come simply in the form of questions—essential tools for a biographer—that glue the dates together.

Only then does a biography become less of a timeline and more of a full life story.

Copyright 2007 Joel Whitney

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This article was originally published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January 2007.

Joel Whitney is a founding editor of Guernica. His writing and commentary have appeared in The New Republic, The Village Voice, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Paris Review, The Nation, The Huffington Post, Agni, New York magazine—and on NPR. He’s an “insider” on Tina Brown’s Daily Beast where he comments on art and politics. Internationally his work has appeared in several languages, including in France’s Courrier; his January interview with David Frum appeared in Esquire Russia. Joel has done more than 30 interview for the magazine, including Nobel Prize winners, members of Congress, heads of state, Oscar-nominated filmmakers, and Grammy-nominated singers, from a dozen countries. For his poetry, he was awarded a “Discovery”/The Nation Prize by the 92nd Street Y and The Nation. His “interview with Noam Chomsky”:http://www.guernicamag.com/interviews/1409/chomsky_half_full/, appeared in Guernica’s November 2009 issue. He lives in Brooklyn.

To read more blog entries from Joel Whitney and others at GUERNICA click HERE .

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