Northeastern University (PhD), Wallace Community College (Faculty, English)
When I had the opportunity this spring to teach a work of literature about François Makandal—the African-born, eighteenth-century maroon healer and poisoner of Saint-Domingue—I had already been writing a dissertation on Makandal literature for three years. Though the dissertation is finished, the gathering of texts continues to grow, since stories about him span multiple genres, languages, nations, and centuries.
Given this special circumstance, my initial task as a teacher was in some sense to table a great deal of graduate research on this mytho-historical figure of the early Caribbean in order to foreground this particular work—Account of a remarkable Conspiracy—in terms of the broader purposes of the course. My first-year college students read Account in context of other material relevant to the Haitian Revolution as well as in context of other materials relevant to the course’s overall aims. My reflections on teaching Account speak to the way in which the text fits into the course’s themes and objectives.
My class, First-Year Writing, is a core requirement at Northeastern University and is designed to introduce students to reading and writing critically on the college level. Teachers of FYW are free to choose any wide variety of texts that engage students in an introduction to the writing process. The course’s subtitle, Change Agents: Race, Revolution, and Resources, puts Makandal’s rebellion against the plantocracy of early Haiti in context of other modes of effecting social change and foregrounded the way that human struggle and environmental practice are intertwined.
When they met Makandal and his story, students had already finished two prior units that both focused on combined issues of politics, race, ecology, and history. Each unit examined these ideas in terms of the way that colonial culture of the past can be read in legacies of poverty and environmental unsustainability today in the Americas, the Caribbean, and beyond. Our course schedule followed a timeline from the present toward the past; (we worked backwards from 2015 to his emergence in 1758). Makandal was the last figure of change and revolution the students studied for the semester. I did not expect first-year college students to consume the complexities of the Haitian Revolution, nor a literary tradition on Makandal that began in the French language, in a such a short period of time. My greater aim was to capitalize on how Makandal literature helps us conceptualize historical and literary study as a common project, and how human and environmental politics—another binary promoted in the idea of modern culture—seem to merge in the counter-modern revolution Makandal started against the plantation economy. In order to present Makandal in this light, I chose texts and media that would complement Account and help students draw correlations between this seemingly distant event of the eighteenth century and more contemporary resonances to his cause.
Drawing on Bruno Latour’s panel presentation, “Fifty Shades of Green,” our introduction to the course material asked students to consider the ways in which seemingly separate issues such as race and environmental justice have common historical paths as well as modes of intellectual and actual resistance; some of our essential focusing questions included: How can the study of literature propose ambiguity and or intimacy between our ideas of nature and society instead of the dualism and clear distinction that modernity ensures? How does what we know or believe about ourselves and our surroundings speak to our engagement with ourselves and our surroundings? Some topics for discussion and reading response included Latour’s idea that nature is not a “wilderness,” but rather, a form of “excess.” More basically, students journaled and talked in efforts to describe the way in which they conceptualize nature vs. society. Conversely, we considered what we commonly believe to not be nature and why. As a further extension of that thought, we discussed how and why a word or concept such as farming might seem more natural or positive in connotation than the word plantation and what they associated with these words. In addition, students discussed the ways in which Latour explains the term “modern” and how he challenges our understanding of what modern or modernity means; some of their associative words were: industry, civilization, new, and society. Why, I asked, does he suggest that humanity, as the only form of recognizable agency, is an anachronistic idea? If being modern is about enacting a radical departure from what is known or a part of a given order of things, we questioned, how can we reconceptualize the notion that we humans are acting—as Latour says—“alone on stage?” As a pre-reading and writing response prompt for the semester—one to which we would return several times—I asked students to consider how the agents of change we studied (including Makandal) create a “redistribution of agencies,” in non-human terms, or, in Latour’s terms, away from the idea of human agents and passive environments for human use. In early writing responses, students addressed the relationship between humanity and nature as a one-way (human) act upon a passive landscape and communicated that humanity has changed from its prior mysterious and perfected reality. With each writing assignment, these assumptions became less reliable.
Unit 1 began with a coupling of Audre Lorde’s “Of Generators and Survival-Hugo Letter,” and a viewing of excerpts from Spike Lee’s documentary about Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. The essay assignment asked students to respond to one of these two central texts, either by adapting Lorde’s use of the genre of the letter, or by responding to the way in which Lee’s story creates a collectively drawn view of history from personal perspectives. The assignment asked students to write about how one or multiple survivors’ stories create a view of history, of culture, of nature, or of human nature. Some students chose to respond to Lorde’s letter-diary about Hurricane Hugo, which is addressed to “a friend” and written from the morning after the Hurricane hit the island of St. Croix. Others responded to one or some of Lee’s interviewees—all survivors of the hurricane that struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. Essential concerns for discussion were the ways in which Lorde’s description of reality shifts when places and structures familiar to her are erased and replaced by a post-disaster landscape. A few essays reflected on the ironic idea of time after the storm as something that had produced a kind of ‘new’ place or paradise without a name in ways that evoked a consideration of the experience of reality in indigenous or even pre-colonial time. In contrast, those same student papers also remarked on her negative presentation of American military aid workers on the island, and these responses, which I presented in excerpts on screen, sparked conversation about the role of the United States in the world and in relation to natural resources, violence, assistance, and intervention. Still others responded on more intimate terms by meeting Lorde’s address to a “friend” as a challenge to act and empathize as a friend would. In one case, a student from New York whose family had survived serious damage to their home during Hurricane Sandy was able to speak for the first time in writing about the way in which the experience of environmental disaster both changed her ideas about community and environmental politics. Most strikingly, her essay argued for viewing nature as a continual disruption rather than a perfection to which we should return, and her paper’s conclusion added that comparing her story of survival to Lorde’s brought this idea forward in her thinking.
The second unit of study focused on themes of community, activism, and the ways in which humans interact with environment. We opened with an in-class viewing and critical discussion of still photos from the installations of contemporary Chicago artist and activist, Theaster Gates, who transforms condemned buildings into livable spaces by gathering repurposed materials. Second, we viewed a 2009 documentary entitled Collapse, which features one long interview with peak oil activist and post-petroleum prophet and whistle-blower, Michael Ruppert, who provokes his audience by claiming that capitalism, socialism, and communism are all anachronistic ideas since they all depend on unsustainable economic and ecological paradigms. Though the syllabus was heavy with visual arts, students also read supplementary critical articles including Diane Solway’s, feature article on Theaster Gates, which names him a “Change Agent.” In closing the unit, we viewed and read a transcript of Slavoj Zizek’s lecture on ecology in Examined Life, which is filmed in a dump. Zizek claims that we should get used to thinking about nature as a concept that includes garbage, and reconsider nature to be a phenomenon that moves continually toward a state of artificiality rather than purity (2008). The essay assignment for this second unit asked students to reflect on their own roles as agents of change in the world and within their environments of origin (whether characterized as rural, urban, academic, familial, or otherwise.) Because Ruppert encourages the idea that humans should consider strategies for survival through the application of knowledge in their local community and economy, we brought to the table what parts of our educations and experiences would contribute to a post-petroleum world, and asked how we might conceptualize a possible world-life after fossil fuels. Students made lists of items for essential bug-out bags—of only necessary materials they could carry or bring with them to a place without petroleum luxuries, and we theorized ways in which we could rethink “economy” without paper money: what would we value and why? What currencies might replace paper money, or even oil, if it became unavailable or useless? In groups, I asked students to combine their essential materials, strategies, and talents toward building a local community while each student was randomly assigned a set of fictional social characteristics (on paper literally pulled from a hat). For example, one student was a medical doctor, and another had never attended college, but knew how to farm. This in class exercise built on the idea that community is necessary in order to survive. Students led discussions based on what they learned from working together as a heterogeneous group of people. Our discussions moved toward considerations of factors such as environmental and social health, questions regarding individual vs. collective power, the role of hierarchy in forming social order, as well as other concerns about differently-abled persons and the role of or need for pleasure in a space in which there is no certain “future” as once expected.
Finally, for Unit 3, I introduced Account of a remarkable Conspiracy in context of excerpts from two other narratives of Makandal. The first, “King Caesar, or The Negro Slaves,” is a pantomime first performed in 1801 that is based on another British newspaper version of the same Account. Projecting song lyrics from the pantomime, students remarked on how this historical figure becomes a romanticized noble savage. However, they also noticed that even the pantomime preserves the central idea of Makandal as a knowledgeable slave with understandings of medicine and the ability to bring relief or pleasure to his community. On the other hand, in chorus, his plantation patients (especially the female slaves) sing praises for his medicine in ways that become more sexually suggestive than other versions. In contrast and as the text’s introduction suggests, we read from an excerpt of C.L.R.’s presentation of Makandal in his well-known history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins. At this point, I asked students to reflect on how Makandal’s use of poison/medicine or knowledge of plants in the world of the plantation makes his rebellion an example of human-environmental relations that produces a redistribution of agency. In follow up, I asked: How did Makandal evoke change in comparison to Theaster Gates? How can we compare the way in which Makandal changed history through gathering materials for charms and poisons from the detritus of the plantation to Gates’ use of the material of urban environments characterized by poverty and neglect? In addition, how would we characterize his methodology, politics, and the role of environmental materials on the plantation in terms of the way that Zizek asks us to reconsider the definitions of nature?
In one important homework assignment, students kept a triple-entry journal in which they annotated their thoughts about how the three Makandal stories compared and how the three genres of newspaper, pantomime, and history reproduced this historical person/character differently. They returned to class to present one idea about what these versions, in turn, tell us about the production of history and the role of creative literature (what we might assume to be fiction or more subjective versions of experience) in that production. The triple-entry journal, which required that students keep a three-column running tab of their readings, revealed that the world of Makandal was in some ways romanticized in James’s history just as much as in the pantomime. Students agreed that Account seems to strike a balance between Jacobins, which in sharp contrast, graphically tells of physical and psychological suffering under slavery, and “King Caesar,” which amplifies some aspects of the account’s biographical details on Makandal for performance, such as his “strong natural turn for music,” the “amusement” he brought to captives of the plantation, and the love story between Makandal and Samba (renamed Ada in the pantomime).
Perhaps the most interesting part of the unit, after reading three texts on Makandal from three genres, was performing a simple gallery walk in which students responded and read each others’ responses to the stories of Makandal and his legacy. I put several comparative excerpts from each text on three walls of the classroom. On one side, from Account, students could read the description of Makandal’s intellectual talents as well as the passage in which the overseer gives Makandal fifty lashes. From The Black Jacobins, students read from James’s description of the middle passage and of the way in which slavers regarded Africans as “half-human” without intelligence. In an excerpt from “King Caesar,” I combined three lyrical passages: Merry Mackendal’s [sic] “Solo,” the Overseer’s “Air,” in which he commands the slaves to work or else get the “arcau” or whip, and finally, Mackendal’s transformation into King Caesar following a meeting with La Rapiniere, a poison-making chieftain in a secret maroon encampment. Using small post-it notes, students circulated silently and placed anonymous comments on the wall by each sample. Their responses ranged from commentary on Makandal as a leader to expressions of shock and disgust with the history of torture James relates in Jacobins. Some among many comments included were: “A leader is someone who chooses where his followers graves will be,” “It amazes me how much one person can affect so many people and cultures,” “I was not aware that poison was such a part of rebellion and that it was even used on other slaves,” “Makandal’s passion is commendable,” and “I am surprised that he was so highly regarded, since he poisoned his own people,” and “I am interested to learn much more about this man.” Surprisingly to me, several comments concerned the topic of terrorism, and students were most interested in extending this topic into the discussion that followed the gallery walk during the same class. “Does terrorism begin with revolution and revolutionaries?” one asked. On another note, a student had commented: “Was Makandal a revolutionary hero or a terrorist? After all, he and his followers killed 6,000 people.” Another response said, “It makes sense that we have never heard of him, since a slave would have been seen as a villain instead of a hero.” The same note commented that C.L.R. James had a duty to retell the story of the Revolution including Makandal’s early chapter, since “today, black men are still viewed as villains.” And yet another post-it note asked how we can determine what the difference is between a terrorist and a “righteous rebel,” and questioned what role that the writing of history played in this respect. These were difficult conversations to manage as a whole group following the gallery walk, and I refrained from doing much more than facilitating discussion by setting up a circle of chairs and directing students to call on one another after speaking. One intensive portion of the conversation drew correlations to contemporary associations with revolution and violent resource appropriation, e.g., issues of neo-colonial appropriation of oil in places like Iraq and legal fights over water rights in the United States. Overall, the exercise was a useful one for building openness in dialogue in a diverse and concerned class of students following the attacks in Paris that semester. Finally, the writing assignment for the Makandal unit asked students to define one of the major concepts we had encountered and questioned during the course of the semester through a close reading of one or more of the accounts of Makandal.
As a last note, the class also enjoyed playing Assassin’s Creed: The Americas, which is a hands-on experiential strategy and role-playing (RPG) video game that features former Makandal followers who re-emerge to plan resistance activities on a Louisiana plantation. I brought a PS Vita handheld device to class, and students took turns playing, but we also viewed a brief introduction to the game that makes a point of informing the audience about Makandal and his appearance in “pre-game” history. Students wrote a brief reflection on pre-game history as a concept that allows us as players (and authors of video games) to participate in history as an ongoing reality. Through inhabiting the role of a female maroon who plots against the plantation owners, we navigated multiple landscapes and eco-systems such as plantations and swamps as well as investigated strategic Makandal-inspired weapons kept in an encampment, including a collection of charms, poisons and medicines, in an effort to understand how and why his story continues to be retold.
Makandal’s injury on a sugar gin and subsequent revenge against the plantation elite through the use of indigenous knowledge of plant poisons makes him an early anchor at the birth of modernity (and the plantation). Because Makandal’s resistance to slavery also formed a resistance to monocultural production of sugar and cotton, we were able to produce discussion and writing that considered other ways of thinking about the relationship between environment and human relations beyond the common binary of human and non-human agency. As a teacher and researcher of Makandal literature, I was glad to see that students could use writing to correlate neo-colonial injustices by/against humans and the environment. Students made connections between Makandal’s history and contemporary modes of resistance that had not occurred to me, and so the reward of the experience is seeing how teaching can create new directions in my research.
- Kate Simpkins, “The Absent Agronomist and the Lord of Poison: Cultivating Modernity in Transatlantic Literature, 1758-1859” (PhD diss., Northeastern University, 2016).
- Bruno Latour, “Fifty Shades of Green,” 2015, http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol7/7.12.pdf. Accessed 21 January 2016.
- “Theaster Gates – Dorchester Projects,” accessed August 11, 2014, http://theastergates.com/section/117693_Dorchester_Projects.html.
- Diane Solway, “The Change Agent,” W Magazine, May 17, 2013, http://www.wmagazine.com/culture/art-and-design/2013/06/theaster-gates-chicago-artist.
- Astra Taylor et al., Examined Life (New York: Zeitgeist Films, 2008).
- John Cartwright Cross, King Caesar or The Negro Slaves. (London, 1801).
- L. R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, 2 edition (New York: Vintage, 1989).
- “Just Teach One: Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy (Makandal),” accessed February 13, 2016, http://jto.common-place.org/account-of-a-remarkable-conspiracy-makandal/.5-7.
- Account, 4-5.
- James 10, 17.
- Cross, 10, 12, 15.
- “Assassin’s Creed: The Real History – ‘François Mackandal’ – YouTube,” accessed November 4, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9ztpdSCyW4.