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"Its Revolutions and Its Patriots": William Wells Brown, Haiti, and the Dispersed Black Revolutionary

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In 1854 the fugitive slave and abolitionist orator William Wells Brown stood before a London audience and delivered a speech on the Haitian Revolution entitled "St Domingo: Its Revolutions and its Patriots." Though scholars have largely ignored this speech I contend that it represents Brown’s most ambitious antebellum work, a crystallization of the political and rhetorical strategies he would employ in Clotel and The Escape, and a preview of his later histories. With a dissenting voice filtered through his international perspective, Brown questioned the American Revolution’s primacy in anti-slavery discourse, offering in its stead the 1791 Haitian uprising. Yet my project focuses not only on how St. Domingo engages with antebellum historiography, but also on Brown’s attempt, through formal experimentation, to articulate a non-essentialized, dispersed black revolutionary identity. John Ernest has recently argued that the African American texts often present a "fractal" narrative form. Building upon this idea, my paper looks at how the trope of dispersal - thematically and geographically - operates as a political narrative strategy for black abolitionists arguing for a hemispheric black revolution. Departing from his contemporaries, Brown refused to condense the Haitian Revolution into the figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture. I contrast Brown’s speech with other antebellum histories of the Haitian Revolution, both British and American, that consistently focused solely on Toussaint. As a stand-in for blacks worldwide, Toussaint had become a manageable target for critics anxious to portray the ideal black leader as a man assimilated into white norms. In order to forestall such distortions, Brown dispersed his ideal black revolutionary identity across multiple Haitian revolutionary heroes. Michel Foucault argues that power, once dislocated from a central entity, becomes all the more insidious because it cannot be isolated, and thus evades any direct challenge. Yet, the dispersed identity present in St. Domingo possesses precisely this advantage. My project investigates how a strategy normally associated with dominant power structures can be seen operating in Brown’s dissenting argument. Furthermore, my paper examines how situating the black abolitionist struggle within a hemispheric revolutionary tradition, epitomized by Haiti, radically recasts the American Civil War as an international conflict.
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Fagan, Benjamin. ""Its Revolutions and Its Patriots": William Wells Brown, Haiti, and the Dispersed Black Revolutionary" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186127_index.html>

APA Citation:

Fagan, B. , 2007-10-11 ""Its Revolutions and Its Patriots": William Wells Brown, Haiti, and the Dispersed Black Revolutionary" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p186127_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: In 1854 the fugitive slave and abolitionist orator William Wells Brown stood before a London audience and delivered a speech on the Haitian Revolution entitled "St Domingo: Its Revolutions and its Patriots." Though scholars have largely ignored this speech I contend that it represents Brown’s most ambitious antebellum work, a crystallization of the political and rhetorical strategies he would employ in Clotel and The Escape, and a preview of his later histories. With a dissenting voice filtered through his international perspective, Brown questioned the American Revolution’s primacy in anti-slavery discourse, offering in its stead the 1791 Haitian uprising. Yet my project focuses not only on how St. Domingo engages with antebellum historiography, but also on Brown’s attempt, through formal experimentation, to articulate a non-essentialized, dispersed black revolutionary identity. John Ernest has recently argued that the African American texts often present a "fractal" narrative form. Building upon this idea, my paper looks at how the trope of dispersal - thematically and geographically - operates as a political narrative strategy for black abolitionists arguing for a hemispheric black revolution. Departing from his contemporaries, Brown refused to condense the Haitian Revolution into the figure of Toussaint L’Ouverture. I contrast Brown’s speech with other antebellum histories of the Haitian Revolution, both British and American, that consistently focused solely on Toussaint. As a stand-in for blacks worldwide, Toussaint had become a manageable target for critics anxious to portray the ideal black leader as a man assimilated into white norms. In order to forestall such distortions, Brown dispersed his ideal black revolutionary identity across multiple Haitian revolutionary heroes. Michel Foucault argues that power, once dislocated from a central entity, becomes all the more insidious because it cannot be isolated, and thus evades any direct challenge. Yet, the dispersed identity present in St. Domingo possesses precisely this advantage. My project investigates how a strategy normally associated with dominant power structures can be seen operating in Brown’s dissenting argument. Furthermore, my paper examines how situating the black abolitionist struggle within a hemispheric revolutionary tradition, epitomized by Haiti, radically recasts the American Civil War as an international conflict.

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Similar Titles:
Abolitionist Plays by William Wells Brown

Revolution for Consumption: A Critical Analysis of the Transition from Revolutionary Black Play to Film

"Unbecoming" to Become American: William Wells Brown, Paris, and Clotelle

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