Envision your cities shrouded in mourning… envision the care you took upon yourself, night and day, to revive your companions, envision your children, your soldiers, the peaceful inhabitants of the countryside crippled by the French,” wrote Louis- Felix Boisrond-Tonnerre, an early 19th-century Haitian thinker and former secretary to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, as he urged Haitians’ to remember their shared experience of the 1791–1804 Haitian Revolution.

The gravity of the Haitian Revolution is incessantly muffled by constant news coverage spotlighting an impoverished Haiti while also criticizing its functionality as a free state. As a consequence, our shared memory of Haiti has forgotten the radical changes the Haitian Revolution and a sovereign Haiti brought to our modern world. Late 18th and early 19th-century Haitian thinkers, like Boisrond-Tonnerre, subjected to and shaped by the institution of enslavement, most certainly did not forget. Marlene L. Daut examines this collective remembrance in her book Awakening the Ashes: An Intellectual History of the Haitian RevolutionA book overflowing with the words of Haitian thinkers like Baron De Vastey, who knew not only the power of remembering their ancestral past but the significance of committing it to paper.

Our shared memory of Haiti has forgotten the radical changes the Haitian Revolution and a sovereign Haiti brought to our modern world.

Today, as Haiti’s civil unrest dominates public media, it is hard to fathom that “Haiti” and “radical change” once existed in the same sentence. A Haiti free of disaster and political instability appears far from public imagination as conversations surrounding another military occupation emerge. For many years, the Western World has been fixated on how it can “fix” Haiti, ignoring its own responsibility for the country’s problems. As a Haitian-American and scholar of Haitian history, I find myself presented with the question “What is wrong with Haiti?” in conversations regarding Haiti’s history or its present situation.  These conversations usually end with me, a spirited junior scholar, sharing a bullet point list with extensive verbal footnotes, of all the reasons why this line of questioning is problematic. “Fixing” Haiti has led to U.S. military occupations, economic stagnation, extraction, a large Haitian departure from the island, and a dismissal of Haitians’ intellectual contributions to our current world. It was the work of pioneering Haitian sociologist Jean Casimir, followed by scholars including Brandon Byrd, Chelsea Steiber, and Mame-Fatou Niang, who engaged with his texts that taught me how global hegemonic structures oppressed Haitians and subverted Haiti’s sovereignty. Marlene Daut is one of these crucial scholars whose contagious passion for Haitian history fuels this groundbreaking account of Haitian intellectual history.

Awakening the Ashes tells the story of the Haitian Revolution through the commitments, arguments, and ideals of the Haitian revolutionaries themselves. According to Daut, Haitian revolutionaries, pamphleteers, historians, and politicians utilized the long history of Saint Domingue as they advocated for freedom. A conscious consideration of colonization and Indigenous and African enslavement shaped their vision of a liberated Haiti. When Haiti achieved independence in 1804, Haitian thinkers not only exhibited a commitment to freedom for all in Haiti but also pledged themselves to the formation of a historical narrative composed by Haitians concentrated on Black freedom and sovereignty. This Haitian-made intellectual milieu is evident in the extensive spread of newspapers, books, and pamphlets circulated throughout Haiti and examined by Daut. Daut argues that it was this devotion to Haitian history that “justif[ied], defend[ed], [and made known] the existence of Haiti [to] a world of slavery and colonialism.”

The success of the Haitian Revolution influenced freedom movements in other regions, including Guadeloupe and Jamaica. Haiti’s newfound independence also impacted the debates over slavery in the United States, France, and Britain during the 19th century. Daut reminds readers of this fact and stresses how Haitian writers were dedicated to true definitions of liberty and basic human rights. They aimed to create a country and history devoted in both action and word to freedom for all.

Awakening the Ashes tells the story of the Haitian Revolution through the commitments, arguments, and ideals of the Haitian revolutionaries themselves.

Furthermore, Awakening the Ashes addresses a gap in current North Atlantic scholarship that continues “to silence the influence of Haitian thinkers, writers, and politicians on [developing] Western intellectual practices.” Daut makes this claim clear in her introduction by examining Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s recently translated and republished Ti dife boule, the first account of Haitian revolutionary history written entirely in Haitian Creole. She suggests that English-language Haitian historiography has privileged Trouillot’s Silencing the Past over Ti dife boule. North Atlantic scholars have disregarded Haitian writers due to minimal engagement with Haiti’s languages. This lack of engagement has resulted in current practices of “historical reading” that regard Haitians “as objects of study rather than producers of studies.”

The book consists of nine chapters split thematically into three parts to contribute to a Haitian-rooted storytelling of Haiti’s enslavement, colonialism, revolution, and state-making. Part I: Colonialism shows how Haitian intellectuals criticized Indigenous decimation, enslavement, and the development of color prejudice in Haiti. In this section, Daut exhibits how “Haitian authors developed a series of historical and political inquiries designed to disrupt the idea that colonialism was a harmless method of ‘settling’ the so-called new world.” This section relies heavily on the work of Haitian writers like Emile Nau, Baron de Vastey, and Julien Raymond to unsettle this ‘harmless’ notion of colonialism. Part II: Independence explores the Haitian Revolution’s process of decolonization and its impact on the transnational abolition of slavery and, most importantly, the potential global influence of the Haitian notion of liberty. Part III: Sovereignty explores Haiti’s journey towards state recognition by focusing on Haitian print culture like books, pamphlets, and newspapers. Post-revolutionary writing, according to Daut “provides distinct keys for understanding how sovereignty in Haiti unfolded (and eventually fell apart) in the nineteenth century after the Haitian Revolution.” It is in this section that we are able to view the Haitian response to Haiti’s “figurative and literal foreign occupation” as writers like Janvier and Delorme grappled with the threat of U.S. imperialism.

As a result, the book’s goal is to “go beyond simply mentioning Haiti ” in a larger historical narrative related to the Atlantic World in the post-revolutionary period. Instead, Daut aims to take Haiti’s liberation and intellectual history seriously. Haitian “anti-racist, antislavery, and anti-colonial revolutionary thought” is proven to not only exist but to have had a broader impact on the development of 19th-century global ideals of freedom. Specifically, the global centrality of Haitian thought is demonstrated through Daut’s examination of Haitian print material from writers like Toussaint Louverture, Louis Joseph Janvier, Julien Raimond, Herard Dumesle, Juste Chanlatte, Demesvar Delorme, and more. These writers, poets, and politicians provide additional Haitian literary accounts of the island’s colonization, enslavement, revolution, and statehood. These accounts do not just recount violent events but theorize the need to upend existing structures of colonial power to communicate ideas of racism, class, and decolonization. Daut brilliantly locates how Haitian writers described white supremacy in terms of racial class distinction and opposition to imperialism in the Haitian revolutionary period, developing what she terms “the 1804 Principle.”

Awakening the Ashes is a significant advancement in Haitian scholarship that emphasizes the importance of Haitian history curated by Haitian minds.

The 1804 Principle embodies the rejection of colonialism and enslavement. Daut argues that the “modern understanding of freedom and equality in operation today… stems more acutely from Haitian revolutionary thought” than from the American or French revolution, despite popular perceptions to the contrary. Haiti’s 1804 Declaration of Independence created a “commonsense understanding” that slavery and imperialism were “incompatible with liberty.” Furthermore, the Haitian writers’ rhetoric during and after the Haitian Revolution created the foundation for “antislavery, and anti-racist ideas in the modern political grammar of Western philosophy.” Daut redefines intellectual history by focusing on a “history of ideas that regards both act and actes [deed and discourse] as intellectual.” The book considers both Haitian action and postulation as intellectual history because, according to Daut, revolutionary action is evidence of anti-colonial and anti-racist thought.

In Awakening the Ashes, Daut has produced an intellectual history of the Haitian Revolution that will inform the research of future scholars and graduate students. It is worth noting, however, that the writings of elite individuals—with access to publishing and printing networks— have often shaped the field of intellectual history. Consequently, by centering her analysis on the work of early Haitian writers who served as government officials or in other positions of political influence, Daut tends to favor the writing of Haiti’s formative, predominantly male, elite class. In doing so, Daut has laid the groundwork for future scholars to examine the intellectual work of Haiti’s broader population who do not fully identify socially with prominent Haitian political figures.

Awakening the Ashes is a significant advancement in Haitian scholarship that emphasizes the importance of Haitian history curated by Haitian minds. It is a call for scholars of the field to take Haitians seriously as thinkers, theorists, and historians by learning their language, culture, and dedicating the time to allow their words to inform new scholarships. Most of all, Daut invites readers to “awaken the ashes of the ‘numerous [Haitian] victims’ whom enslavers, colonists, and neo-colonists have sought to conceal, to ensure that we never forget.”

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