The Incessant Common Wind
By Brandon R. Byrd (Vanderbilt University)
(This post is adapted from remarks made at a plenary session, held in honor of Julius S. Scott’s The Common Wind, at the African American Intellectual History Society’s 4th Annual Conference)
New Hayti annoyed James Gordon Bennett, Jr. In January 1863, the New York Herald’s editor, complained that the “question of the largely increasing numbers of contrabands now entirely dependent on the United States government for support is becoming a rather perplexing one.” He thought it unwise, perhaps unlawful, to aid such “fugitives,” including the “full colony of blacks, numbering some eight or ten thousand,” formed “at a place very appropriately called New Hayti, near Newbern, N.C.”
“New Hayti” had a different ring to George Nelson Williams. Soon after arriving in New Bern alongside hundreds of other Union troops, Williams wrote a letter to Elisha Weaver, the editor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Christian Recorder. “I am happy to inform you that I now enjoy the fragrant breezes of a Southern clime,” Williams wrote. Those breezes carried the “sacred melodies of the sweet songs of Zion.” They were reminiscent of another time and place. Although “dilapidated” by war, New Bern caused Williams to become lost “in remembrance of Port-au-Prince, Hayti, its aspect and its mixed population, and its luxuriant breezes.”
As Julius S. Scott tells us, there’s a lot to be said about common breezes. In his pioneering study of the Age of the Haitian Revolution, Scott traces “the regional network of communication—the “common wind” which bound together the societies of Afro-America.” This network connected various port cities that could “properly be termed capitals of Afro-America.” It was the work of free and enslaved people of African descent who evaded and undermined the systems of surveillance and control that structured the slave societies of the Americas. In docks and taverns, in bustling marketplaces and dark alleys, “masterless” men and women shared “scraps of news, conflicting interpretations, elusive facts, and shifting rumors” from abroad. These thinking people spread not just information but subversive ideas about freedom, encouraged by the Haitian Revolution.