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Posted on May 25, 2020by Age of Revolutions

This piece is a part of our ongoing series, entitled “Rethinking the Revolutionary Canon.” 

By Rachel Douglas

The Black Jacobins (1938) by Caribbean Marxist intellectual C. L. R. James is one of the great works of the 20th century. This book remains to this day the classic history of the Haitian Revolution—quite a feat considering it is now over 80 years old. Yet the book has not been singular and unchanging since its 1938 initial publication. Instead, there are, in fact, multiple versions of The Black Jacobins, and James himself made many changes. My book Making The Black Jacobins: C. L. R. James and the Drama of History started life as a response to this multiplicity of James’s stories about the Haitian Revolution. It was also triggered by the evidence from his papers—at University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad, and Columbia University—that his key work was a palimpsestic, messy editorial object with a lengthy genesis: James and his collaborators rewrote and stitched The Black Jacobins back together over a period of nearly fifty years.

Until recently, James’s two plays, written thirty years apart, had been eclipsed by his better-known history book, which itself was rewritten between the lines for the 1963 revised history edition in new interstitial footnotes, new chapter beginnings and endings, and most visibly in the added appendix: “From Toussaint Louverture to Fidel Castro.” The first drama was Toussaint Louverture (1936), performed twice that year in London with Paul Robeson, the legendary African-American actor, civil rights activist, political figure, and anti-imperialist—in the title role. As for the later 1967 The Black Jacobins play, it was performed that year at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria at the height of the Nigerian Civil War. The Black Jacobins play was also performed in London from February to March 1986. This was almost 50 years to the day since Robeson had trodden the boards and also coincided with the February 1986 overthrow of Haitian dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. James’s (re)writing of The Black Jacobins 1967 play, compared to the marginally revised 1963 history edition, is more radical in scope, as it travels further in the new directions outlined in the 1963 changes to the history.

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