University of Miami
A group of graduate students discussed “Account of a remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro in the Island of St. Domingo” in a seminar that I structured around “Revolution and Recovery.” The course began with a discussion of Cathy Davidson’s Revolution and the Word and the expansion of the canon in the 1980s. In the weeks that followed Davidson, we read work by Charles Brockden Brown and Susanna Rowson. In addition to attending to print and literary history, we read a wide array of political documents such as The Declaration of Independence and The Articles of Confederation alongside theoretical work by Antonio Negri and Hannah Arendt. These readings set the stage for “Account,” a literary work exceptionally well-suited to a seminar invested in staging debates over the canon and over competing accounts of revolutionary politics. In addition to reading “Account,” students also looked at Leonora Sansay’s Secret History and a chapter from Michael Drexler and Ed White’s The Traumatic Colonel.
Examining the story of Makandal and the Haitian Revolution at this point in the semester led immediately to a reassessment of how we had been thinking about the state of the canon and of the field of early U.S. literary studies. Rather than approaching this debate as a largely resolved one, the stakes of what counts as U.S. literature or the literature of the Americas seemed just as pressing in 2016 as in the early 1980s. Our discussion began with a brilliant set of questions prepared by two graduate students, Samina Ali and Ray Leonard. Given our graduate program’s strength in Caribbean Studies, both of them incorporated their own intellectual commitments to that field into our conversation about the assigned reading. Many of their questions revolved around Drexler and White’s notion of “Founder’s chic.” We had already enumerated the pitfalls of mythbusting the hagiographic discourse surrounding the Founders, so they considered how both Secret History and the Makandal narrative might be studied from a mythic-literary rather than from an empirical perspective.
What kind of myth did the story of Makandal create? Our perception of its cultural power shifted remarkably, depending on whether we approached it within the context of recovery or revolution. In the case of the former, the narrative disrupted the transatlantic, Anglo-American framework that we had brought to bear on previous readings. In one clear sense, the story played upon the fears of slave insurrection that many white Americans harbored. Maniacally desiring to possess women without their consent and murder Europeans without mercy, Makandal also embodied a fusion of melodramatic archetypes already in transatlantic circulation. My graduate students recognized how he behaved in ways both reminiscent of Belcour in Charlotte Temple and Queen Mab in Edgar Huntly. But his occult proficiency at poisoning also called to mind the practice of voudou, implicitly caricatured here as superstitiously menacing “voodoo” (here my students appropriately drew upon the work of my colleague Kate Ramsay). By pulling us toward the Caribbean, however, “Account” further helped to disrupt the overemphasis earlier generations of literary critics and historians had placed on New England literary production during the post-Revolutionary and antebellum eras. Even as it participated in the creation of a mythology of its own, “Account” demanded further revision of U.S. cultural history.
Unlike the white revolutionaries of North America, Makandal remains in a state of perpetual revolution. The notion that a Haitian could found a state lay beyond the imagination of this narrative. “Account,” in my seminar, became another way of understanding the ascent of “Founder’s chic.” Whiteness figures as a fundamental quality of what it means to be a founder, and Makandal reinforced that perception. Blackness is the quality that renders Makandal unredeemable, because—as several students would later note—the insurrectionary activity of Makandal and his “zealous partizans” did not appear all that different in character from the actions of William Gilmore Simms’s white partisans (we read Simms later that semester).
My students concluded that while “Account of a remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro in the Island of St. Domingo” belongs to the white racist mythology of the Haitian Revolution, it is also reminder that we are only recently grappling with the formative role the Haitian Revolution played historically and presently in U.S. literature and culture (thanks especially to work by Ashli White, Marlene Daut, and Colin Dayan as well as the recently published collection of essays edited by Drexler and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon). Teaching the story of Makandal thus underscored that the process of literary recovery is a messy but necessary and unfinished business.