Thursday, October 26, 2023

Marlene L. Daut's "Awakening the Ashes"

Marlene L. Daut is professor of French and African American studies at Yale University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Awakening the Ashes: An Intellectual History of the Haitian Revolution, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Awakening the Ashes falls at the beginning of the fourth chapter of the book (there are nine total) called “Revolution.” This is a core chapter since I detail the world historical events of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803), which in inaugurating the Age of Abolition took the world from slavery to freedom.

This page contains grim reaction to the February 1791 executions of two early revolutionaries who argued for equal rights for free men of color, Vincent Ogé and Jean-Baptiste Chavannes. Their torture by the French colonists—who tied them to a wheel, broke every bone in their bodies, chopped off their heads, and then put them on pikes to serve as a “warning”— has long been considered one of the major catalysts for the ensuing slave rebellion that erupted in August 1791. Another free man of color, Pierre Labuissonnière, reacted to the deaths by averring that this “punishment” was “without example,” also insisting that “the most ferocious cannibals have never done anything of the sort.” The colonists’ torture of these men became emblematic in Haitian thought of the cruelty of the French toward not just the free men of color, but the entire African population of the island, the majority of whom the French were enslaving. Yet although some of the enslaved were deeply affected by the executions, in the end, it was their everyday suffering that compelled them to engage in revolution and in so doing risk their own lives for freedom.

But page 99 also takes seriously Labuissonnière’s claim that the manner of the executions was without precedent. I draw on an impactful line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Morts sans sépulture (The Unburied Dead), a mid-twentieth-century play that takes place in Nazi-occupied France: “Is there any reason to go on living when there exist men who will beat you until the bones in your body break?” I use this scene to talk about how human beings torturing other human beings is an “existential problem of the highest order” that unites these two different moments in time. On this same page we glimpse the early nineteenth-century Haitian thinker Charles Hérard-Dumesle referring to the genocidal tactics the French army used to try to end the revolution as a “holocaust of blood.” A reader who stopped at page 99 though would not experience how the Haitian revolutionaries eventually triumphed against the French to become the first nation to permanently abolish slavery. However, this page does force confrontation with one of the central paradoxes of every revolution: counter-violence as the path to liberation. Sitting prominently on the page is a quote from independent Haiti’s founder and first head of state, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who issued this firm warning to France: “Tremble, tyrants….our daggers are sharpened, your tortures are ready.”
Learn more about Awakening the Ashes at The University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue