Jenson, Deborah. Beyond the Slave Narrative: Sex, Politics, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution.
Colonial and postcolonial studies have gained significant new breadth and depth with the publication of Deborah Jenson's Beyond the Slave Narrative: Sex, Politics, and Manuscripts in the Haitian Revolution. This pathbreaking book brings to light the rich but largely neglected Francophone record of black literacy from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Rectifying the anglocentric view that slave narratives were the only or most authentic form of black voices from the past, Jenson provides probing analyses of Creole poetry, political discourse, and other materials. Jenson finds in the cultural heritage of the past the basis for a fuller understanding of Haiti's past.
Beyond the Slave Narrative is divided into two parts of unequal length. The first and longest, "Authorizing the Political Sphere," is devoted to an analysis of the discursive structures in texts by Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines, and Henry Christophe from 1791 through the early years of the creation of the Haitian nation in 1804. The second, shorter part, "Authorizing the Libertine Sphere," is devoted to poems and songs that give voice and agency to Afro-diasporic women in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The considerable differences between the two corpuses that Jenson has chosen to discuss requires justifcation, which she provides. As explained in the introduction, in both cases the focus is on subaltern voices seeking to forge a free consciousness, to "un-become" the legal property of others, and to challenge Euro-American hegemony. Through political discourse, the founders of the Haitian nation used language to construct themselves and the nation. Libertine verse provides access to women's power and intelligence in conducting sexual and social transactions. Both corpuses have been undervalued if not ignored altogether. Because the "authorship" of the texts is typically collaborative, a notion that Jenson explores with great sophistication, they have been attributed in some cases to whites who published them or even, as with Toussaint's documents, not even considered "writing" at ail. In eight striking illustrations, or "textaul artifacts," Jenson shows exactly what Toussaint, Dessalines, and others put on paper. She also explains in detail her work in the archives that enabled her to unearth obscure material. Graduate students and scholars who plan to continue her work will be inspired and instructed by such explanations.
The five chapters in Part I move from Toussaint Louverture, through Dessalines and Henry Christophe. It begins with an analysis of Toussaint's "will to literary power" and the decolonization strategy he used to challenge European universalism. Through correspondence and public statements, Toussaint sought to forge a dialogue and establish parity with metropolitan and colonial leadership. Three chapters are then devoted to Dessalines, whom Jenson identifies as "in many ways the star of this book" and whose legacy she links to that of Malcolm X. In Chapter 2 Jenson provides an analysis of the discursive strategies deployed in the service of Dessalines's radical anticolonial and postcolonial philosophy. She then goes on in Chapters 3 and 4 to examine what the historical record tells, directly or in some cases obliquely, of his significance in the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Chapter 5 shows that a logical extension of the forced migration that occurred during slavery was the practice of kidnapping which afflicted members of the families of black leaders: notably the sons of Christophe and Toussaint. For Jenson "the phenomenon of Napoleanic kidnapping" exemplifies the battle for cultural command of the transatlantic world that was taking place between Haiti and the metropole.
The three chapters in Part Il focus on the "thriving, intertextual, but generally verbal poetic culture" of women of color in pre- and post-independence Haiti. These chapters provide textual examples in Creole accompanied by English-language translation. Chapter 6 questions what constituted Haitian culture at the time and explores the theoretical implications of the notions of "authentic" and "indigenous." Jenson asserts that in a racially hybrid Haitian context, indigeneity "signaled an identity of dispossession and a subsequent reconstitution of identity." At the same time, Jenson does not waver from her central contention that oraliture ("oral literature in contact with print culture") is of popular origin and not, as was often thought the sole production of colonial transcribers. Paying close attention to how this literature came into print through the mediating activities of collectors or anthologists in chapters 7 and 8, Jenson focuses on two hybrid literary figures whose links with African and Caribbean social practice and language attest to the popular origin of the material. The first is the seductive "candio" who exercises linguistic mastery and poses a threat to slaves and masters alike. The second is the "cocotte," a female slave who entertained her mistress even as she often stood in sexual competition with the white woman. Both figures exemplify the complex workings of social mobility for blacks in colonial society.
Jenson's scholarship in Beyond the Slave Narrative is exceptionally thorough and far-reaching. (The detailed footnotes in each of the eight chapters of the book range from 40 to well over a hundred). The analyses are fascinating. For example, Jenson discovered an only partially erased calculation on a poem written in Creole, in which a courtesan warns a newcomer against exchanging her favors for love rather than money. Jenson's analysis of the poem in the introduction and in the last chapter shows the extent to which the economic and the sexual were closely linked and the degree of agency for black women, in contrast with traditional readings of such poetry in which women are viewed as merely objects of beauty or pleasure for men. It is true, as Jenson admits, that such analyses do not provide a comprehensive view of writings by non-whites from the colonial period. How could they? An incredible amount material remains to be examined or discovered, as Jenson details in the Epilogue. Fortunately, Beyond the Slave Narrative provides a model, information, conceptual and theoretical tools, and a wealth of primary and secondary sources for future researchers to use.
Doris Kadish, University of Georgia
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|Publication:||Nineteenth-Century French Studies|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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