Martha Elena Rojas
University of Rhode Island
I assigned “The Account of a remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro of the Island of St. Domingo” in a graduate seminar in early American literature. The course focused on the emergence of the interlinked discourses of “Americanness” and of what today we have come to call “race.” From the vantage of our own position in the 21st century, existing in what one of my students referred to as “an already racialized world” in which “[i]t is hard for us to see racial identity as something entirely in flux or uncertain, even as we come up against examples of this in everyday life,” the seminar considered how “race” came to be defined and defining for what would become the United States. We began the course by reading Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, chosen as a relatively recent example of the impetus to craft and re-craft foundational narratives, and because Morrison’s historical fiction animates those usually left silent in the historical record.
During the week in we read “The Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy” or “Makandal,” as we came to refer to it, the seminar also read “Theresa, a Haytien Tale,” Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence and portions of Notes on the State of Virginia. For a week late in the semester, this turned out to be too much material. It was also not quite enough. I underestimated the knowledge my students would already possess (many were or had been educators) and in retrospect I recognize that more context was needed: about the West Indies, St. Domingue, and the Haitian Revolution and also about the revolution in the United States, as well as the cultural and political contours of the early republic. Though I directed students to the critical pieces in Ed White and Duncan Faherty’s “Suggestions for Further Reading,” helpfully included in the JTO edition of “Makandal,” next time I will explicitly assign them.
I underestimated, too, the magnetic pull of Thomas Jefferson. As a consequence, despite an excellent opening graduate presentation devoted to “Makandal” and “Theresa,” the seminar devoted most of its attention to Jefferson. In the future, I anticipate devoting more time to each of these texts, either spacing them over several seminar sessions/lectures or constructing a multi-week unit on the Caribbean colonies and the Haitian Revolution for the course.
Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of these texts generated productive conversation. By this point in the semester, the group was well attuned to the disparate and exclusionary way the designation of “citizen” could function among and within different populations. They engaged in a lively discussion of what “Haytien” could have and might mean. This, in turn, led to an interrogation of Jefferson’s uses of “population,” and his reservations about “migration.” The seminar returned to the varying constructions of “the people” in “Makandal,” the writings of Thomas Jefferson, and “Theresa,” and to the performative, improvised aspects of “country” and “nation” across all of these texts.
They had read Gordon Sayre’s chapter, “Logan” from his The Indian Chief as a Tragic Hero, and that essay directed their attention to representations of indigeneity in Notes, and to the construction (in this section) of “whiteness” against the category of the “Indian.” They were particularly taken with a line in Logan’s speech —“This called on me for revenge. I have sought it: I have killed many. I have fully glutted my vengeance,”— and the dissonance between the elegance of its language and the “savagery” it encoded. They observed a similar dynamic at work in “The Account of a remarkable Conspiracy” with its ambivalent presentation of Makandal as an “illustrious villain,” an “ambitious fanatic” and as “distinguished among the negroes.” Noting how this complicated binary notions of hero/villain, the seminar was also eager to discuss the forms “heroism” took in the context of resistance and revolution. Turning their attention to the titular character of “Theresa, a Haytien Tale,” they considered gendered expectations of the “heroic,” what constitutes agency, and speculated about why certain actions were presented as passive, or the result of irresistible forces of circumstance.
Reading “The Account of a remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro of the Island of St. Domingo” along with “Theresa, A Haytien Tale” had the effect of making the seminar tune into the contrasting tropes of masculinity at play in the narrative. They observed that Makandal is characterized by his qualities, not his physical attributes: learned, passionate, vengeful, both generous and treacherous. While the other noteworthy characters in “Makandal,” Zami and his lover Samba, display their nobility foremost through their exquisite bodies, incomparable physical beauty and their affection for each other. “Makandal,” variously presented as an enslaved African, as an escaped slave, a leader of and inhabitant among maroons, a murderer of “negros,” and a would-be assassin of the French Creole or European population of the island, is also Muslim, literate (a reader and writer of Arabic), and extraordinarily knowledgeable in botany and the medicinal properties of plants. Makandal’s fall from virtue is marked in “The Account of a remarkable Conspiracy formed by a Negro” by his ability to plot and conspire, to use his considerable knowledge to enact his own will rather than putting it at the service of someone else’s. His character should recall Melville’s Babo, that “hive of subtlety,” for students familiar with Benito Cereno — a pairing I will consider next time I teach the undergraduate survey course — and as such holds a place in a genealogy of fictional texts in which the intellect of black figures is underestimated and yet persistently feared for its capacity for vengeful insurrection.