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The International Turn in American Studies


Edited By Marietta Messmer and Armin Paul Frank

The volume is a contribution to the ongoing debate on the internationalization of American Studies. The essays by European, American and Latin American scholars provide critical evaluations of a wide range of concepts, including trans-national and post-national, international, trans-atlantic, trans-pacific, as well as hemispheric, inter-American and comparative American studies. Combining theoretical reflections and actual case studies, the collection proposes a reassessment of current developments at a time when American nations experience the paradoxical simultaneity of both weakened and strengthened national borders alongside multiple challenges to national sovereignty.
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Transnationality and Temporality in Early African American Texts

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Gabriele Pisarz-Ramirez

University of Leipzig, Germany

Transnationality and Temporality in Early African American Texts

Recent work in American Studies has sought to move beyond the paradigm of nationhood by investigating “transnational” or “postnational” spaces such as the Borderlands of the Southwest, the “Black Atlantic,” and the Pacific Rim. As scholars such as Donald Pease, Paula Moya, and Ramón Saldivar have called for the invention of a radical political “trans-American imaginary” (Saldívar/Moya) that would account for the experiences of “deterritorialized and extraterritorial peoples” (Pease) they have suggested that a movement beyond the nation is also a movement away from a particular territory, implying that American nationalism is inherently territorial. This fixation in Transnational Studies on the (problem of the) territorial often goes along with what critic Anna Brickhouse has called the “presentism” of transnational analyses (Brickhouse 407) – i.e. the neglect of historical dimensions in the study of transnational phenomena. In fact most transnational critics have focused their investigations on rather recent developments, implying that, as Brickhouse observes, “literary transnationalism in the Americas and the critical perspectives it invites are natural outgrowths of the massive human migrations, urban pluralism, and cultural globalization the hemisphere has witnessed over the course of the twentieth century” (408). However, as she argues, many of the literary configurations that are linked by critics to the 20th century, “were in fact addressed by writers in the Americas as explicit questions and problems well before the modern and contemporary periods to which they have largely been consigned” (408).

The fixation on space and the neglect of history in the study of transnationalism have also been a source of concern for scholars in the field of ethnic studies. In a debate about “Ethnic Studies in the Age of Transnationalism,” led in a 2007 issue of the Modern Language Association’s journal PMLA and based on a roundtable discussion during the 2006 MLA convention in Philadelphia, various scholars voiced their anxieties about what they perceived as an ongoing dehistoricization of ethnic experiences as a result of the “transnational turn.”1 As traditional ethnic studies gradually become displaced by transnational studies, these scholars feared, the ← 209 | 210 → focus on the deterritorializing momentum of globalization and diasporic movements will obscure more traditional ethnic studies approaches that are invested in the task of returning to subjugated knowledges and experiences. As a result, these forgotten and dominated histories and local knowledges will remain unstudied. In this spirit, R. Radhakrishnan pointed out that it is “unconscionable to jump on the bandwagon of transnationalism when there is so much work to be done in local regions and forgotten and dominated histories” (809). Juana María Rodriguez observed that the institutional shift towards transnationalism has often been used “to erase or dismiss the continued intellectual and political necessity of ethnic studies as a discipline and area of specialization” (811). While it is not a question of positing ethnic studies against transnationalism, as Rodriguez advocated, it remains crucial to consider “multiple frames of inquiry” (ibid.) to understand the complexity of ethnic experiences. For scholars in African American Studies, as Mark Sanders suggested, the discourse of transnationalism fails to “account fully for the historical practice of transcontinental, transcultural, or comparative scholarship in African American studies and its links to activism” (912).

The tendency of transnational studies to privilege space over time complicates the investigation of early ethnic texts from a transnational perspective. Given that the critical vocabulary and the major strategic approaches of transnational studies have developed over the past few decades, the question arises what it means to look at transnationalism historically. Can we just replace national perspectives on earlier periods in American history and culture with transnational ones, and what do we gain by doing so? Taking up this question, Frank Kelleter has poined to the fact that a mere application of contemporary critical methods to the study of the early national period is not very productive. As he states, “transnational approaches […] in their current form and institutionalization […] trigger critical practices unable to answer – and sometimes even to ask – the relevant questions” (Kelleter 29). One reason for this, Kelleter observes, is that transnational scholarship usually proceeds from the assumption of a constructed coherent national identity (which it then sets out to deconstruct), without asking how and under which circumstances this construction has emerged (30). A historical transnational research, argues Kelleter, needs to study the conditions and specific situations guiding the emergence of the nation and of national identity constructions. The increased interest in the deconstruction of the ideological foundations of American exceptionalism has, however, according to Kelleter, privileged approaches that view the nation as an ideological fiction and whose main interest lies in exposing the nation to be not an inherent, but an “imagined community.” Following this logic, the transnational study of ethnic experiences within the nation has largely focused on this deconstructive moment, privileging the “fuzzy edges” of the nation, e.g. the American ← 210 | 211 → Borderlands, as well as experiences of diaspora, migration and forced dislocation of ethnic peoples, as subjects of research.

In my essay I take up the question Kelleter puts forward – how to study transnational phenomena in a historical context – as well as the concerns voiced by scholars of ethnicity about the dehistoricization of ethnic experiences. I argue that it is necessary to complicate spatial approaches to nationality by an acknowledgment of the equally important function of temporality in the imaginative constructions of the nation. Moreover, I contend that the movement “beyond the nation” is not necessarily only a movement away from a particular territory but that it can also be a movement away from a particular temporal narrative. While territory and space have been immensely important in the construction of American nationality, the category of temporality has been almost completely displaced by spatiality in recent decades. I suggest that more attention needs to be paid to the diversity of temporal discourses in the construction of community and nationhood.This becomes particularly relevant in the early national period, an era when many narratives privilege time, not space, in the definition of collective identity. It is relevant, moreover, for the experience of “minority” groups, who only partially identified with the nation’s tenets, often saw themselves excluded from citizens’ rights and who developed their own “timelines” from which they made sense of their past experiences and visions of the future.2

Saskia Sassen has noted that “much of social science has operated with the assumption of the nation-state as a container, representing a unified spatiotemporality” (Sassen 215). To give a prominent example, one of the central premises in Benedict Anderson’s concept of the nation as an imagined community is the idea that modern national groups move forward together through a shared historical simultaneity, based on the uniformity of time dictated by the clockwork rationality of the capitalist market. However, as scholars from Johannes Fabian to Thomas Allen have pointed out, time, no less that space, is culturally constructed.3 Unsurprisingly, then, the discourses of the early American nation fail to confirm the assumption of the nation-state as following a unified temporality. Rather they give evidence, as Thomas Allen observes, of a multiplicity of temporal narratives, which include both millennial and secular visions of time, and which display in many cases an intersection of different temporal modes (Allen 4). In the decades after the American Revolution, national identity was in the process of being negotiated among the ← 211 | 212 → various sections and groups of the population who translated their experiences of the new nation into their respective horizons of understanding and value systems.4 In this process, the different groups also brought different temporalities – ways of being in time and imagining one’s position in time – into the debate. Research into these temporal discourses has barely started.

In order to explore how ethnic discourses of transnationalism are shaped and modified by temporal narratives in the early national period, I will focus on a body of texts written by African Americans in the period between the 1780s and the 1850s. These texts are specific in that they were written by free black subjects, that they were abolitionist in focus, and that many of them were speeches, lectures, and newspaper articles addressed to both black and white audiences, facts that need to be pointed out in view of the extraordinary diversity of black experiences and discourses in the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Harvard historian Walter Johnson refers to the complexity of visions emanating from the different circumstances African Americans found themselves in – depending on their free or enslaved status, their place of birth in Africa or the Americas, their religious convictions and a multitude of other factors – a complexity that also resulted in different ways of making sense of what was happening to them and how they tried to imagine themselves into time (Johnson 152). While slaves were often displaced into a temporal limbo where they remained intentionally deprived of a sense of their place in time,5 free African Americans (especially as they lived in the North) identified with the promise of liberation made by the Revolution, relating it to their own situation. ← 212 | 213 →

The texts I would like to investigate in the following display a marked divergence, in their temporal construction of history and in their spatial points of reference, from the white master narrative of providence and progress that privileged the American Revolution as a turning point taking Americans into modernity and which identified the United States as the epitome of progressive movement. African American writers such as John Marrant, Prince Hall, John Russwurm, William Wells Brown, James Holly, and Martin Delany produced spatiotemporal narratives that pointed to the failure of the U.S. American nation to include African Americans into its vision of progress, and that located a meaningful past and future – and in some cases a vision of the “promised land” – not in the United States, but in other parts of the hemisphere or the world. While many of these texts appropriated the dominant idioms of nationalism and millennialism, they developed a different spatiotemporal axis from that propagated by white nationalist writings, creating collective narratives that circled around the presence and absence of slavery.

In the years before and after the American Revolution, Anglo-American authors such as Joel Barlow, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and Philip Freneau envisioned the Revolution as an event of epic proportions. In epic poems such as The Rising Glory of America, The Columbiad, or “The Vision of Columbus” they linked Christian and Enlightenment temporalities, combining the idea of progress in the context of America’s quest for liberty and future happiness with earlier Puritan visions of America as a ‘city upon a hill.’ In American civil religion, the Revolution was commonly seen as the “final act of the Exodus from the old lands across the waters” (Bellah 176). Freneau’s and Brackenridge’s 1786 version of The Rising Glory of America6 creates a line from America’s pre-Columbian past to its glorious millennial future. It positions Columbus at the beginning of a narrative of progressive history of the continent that culminates in a vision of the United States as a land predestined to be the site of a new paradise due to its ‘innocent’ character. In a similar vein, Joel Barlow’s epic “The Vision of Columbus” (1787) has Columbus look both backward to the Incan civilizations and forward to the emergence of a magnificent American empire that eclipses the achievements of European civilization. These texts were based on the assumption of a progressive universal history the apex of which were the United States, a country designed to bring progress and civilization to the rest of the continent and the world. ← 213 | 214 →

Free African Americans had also regarded the Revolution as a moment of promise (Sale 11) as it proclaimed, in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” In the beginning, this promise seemed to come true at least for some black men. The spirit of the Revolution, coupled with black military service during the War of Independence, inspired a wave of manumission laws that freed several thousands of blacks. However, the position of the free black population within the new nation was a contested issue. While slavery, as David Brion Davis has shown, could be integrated into the national vision of innocence and progress – the proponents of slavery argued that slavery was economically productive and morally beneficial for African Americans, helping them to improve themselves –, free African Americans were an uncomfortable presence because they jeopardized the racial hierarchies based on the “natural” superiority of whites. In many Republican texts about liberty, justice, and equality, blacks therefore simply remained invisible. When they did become part of public discourse, they were usually framed as essentially different “others” who were not part of the national collective, and were thus excluded from the national temporal narrative of progress. At best, as the discourses of the colonization movement show, they could be exported back to Africa where they would not interrupt the vision of the progressive movement in the U.S. When the free black abolitionist authors under study here started writing themselves into space and time, their search for a relationship with their spatial surroundings as well as with their past and their search for a meaningful vision of the future became important factors in the way they positioned themselves in the new nation. While their narratives, in their rhetoric, intersected with those propagated by Anglo-American nationalist writers, they also differed in important aspects as they saw themselves unable to wholly share the dominant notion of the United States as an exceptional site or as a biblical city upon a hill. In their vision of America, the completion of God’s will in the United States was still outstanding. Although the Revolution had brought that vision closer to fulfilment, it had left crucial work undone, since slavery still existed and African Americans were denied the basic rights of humanity. Black writers linked the idea of human progress to the necessity of an end to slavery; the enslavement of black Africans was incompatible with their idea of a civilized society. As a result, the United States emerge as a site of unfulfilled prophesy and of limitations in relation to more progressive regions in the hemisphere. As black abolitionists transgressed the spatial borders of the nation for the construction of a meaningful past and future, they perceived such civilized societies in the Caribbean and in South America. In their narratives, historical developments such as the Haitian slave rebellion and the foundation of the new Latin American republics became crucial temporal signifiers and symbols of a future free from slavery. ← 214 | 215 →

One of the major early tools in crafting a consciously African-American genealogy based on biblical and historical evidence that allowed Blacks to articulate racial pride and to develop their own vision of progress was Black freemasonry. Prince Hall and John Marrant, a free black artisan and a preacher, were the founders of the first African Lodge of freemasons, one of the first institutions in Massachusetts to call for the abolition of slavery. After Hall had unsuccessfully petitioned to become a member of Boston’s Masonic Lodge in 1775, he and fourteen other free black men succeeded in being initiated into a British Lodge and subsequently were allowed to form a Lodge of their own in 1784. Seven years later, Lodge no. 459 became a Grand Lodge in its own right, with Prince Hall as its first Grand Master and John Marrant as its chaplain. Achieving the status of a Grand Lodge gave Hall and his brethren the authority to create subordinate Lodges (Summers 553). Black freemasonry offered African-American males a way to social self-creation, allowing them to develop a self-image very different from the contemporary stereotype of blackness where, as Maurice O. Wallace points out, the most common image of a black man was that of a fugitive slave (Wallace 61). In their speeches to the African Lodge that were delivered at public celebrations of Masonic holidays, Hall and Marrant countered the white supremacist narratives of the history of civilization and claimed for black peoples a central role in that history. They derived this role from the biblical prophesy in Psalms 68:31, which said that “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God,” and envisioned a glorious future for people of African descent.

In John Marrant’s Sermon7 to the African Lodge preached on the occasion of the Festival of St. John the Baptist in June of 1789, he situates the ancient site of Paradise between four African rivers,8 as “the principal part of African Ethiopia.” This gesture allowed Marrant to fashion African-Americans and the African Lodge of Freemasons as the rightful heirs of Paradise and the chosen people of God:

Concerning this garden, there have been different opinions about it by the learned, where it was, but the [sic] most of them agree that it was about the center of the earth, and that ← 215 | 216 → the four rivers parted or divided the four quarters of the world […] These are the four grand land marks which the all-wise and gracious God was pleased to draw as the bounds and habitation of all nations which he was about to settle in this world; if so, what nation or people dare, without highly displeasing and provoking that God to pour down his judgments upon them. – I say, dare to despise or tyrannize over their lives or liberties, or incroach on their lands, or to inslave their bodies.

To colonize, invade, enslave, or abuse the “nations” of this “African Ethiopia,” even those scattered across the African diaspora, in Marrant’s argument is to act against the order of Creation. Defying the notion of blacks as excluded from God’s grace, this early instance of Ethiopianism, a concept that was later developed further by David Walker and other black abolitionists, provided the basis for a common sense of destiny and identification between African peoples in North America, the Caribbean, Europe, and on the African continent.9

It was Prince Hall, however, who, in his best-known speech, A Charge, Delivered at the African Lodge, at Metonomy, of 1797, not only situated the oppression of free blacks and slaves in the United States in a wider, circum-Atlantic context but who also included the ongoing slave rebellion in the West Indian Saint Domingue into his argument about the coming redemption of African peoples. In view of the liberationist struggle of Blacks on Haiti, he proposes that the situation for Africans in the U.S. might change soon:

[…] it now begins to dawn in some of the West-India islands; which puts me in mind of a nation (that I have somewhere read of) called Ethiopians, that cannot change their skin: but God can and will change their conditions, and their hearts, too; and let Boston and the world know, that He hath no respect of persons; and that the bulwark of envy, pride, scorn, and contempt, which is so visible to be seen in some and felt, shall fall, to rise no more. (Hall 1110)

As he integrates the revolt in the Caribbean into his vision of black destiny and future, Hall presents the revolt as an illustration of black agency endorsed by God. This interpretation of the rebellion in Saint Domingue as “dawn” and as a sign for hope sharply contradicts the presentations of the revolt in most contemporary public discourses, which linked the bloodshed of the Haitian Revolution to the pre-modern, backward, “primitive” nature of the Africans on the island. Bryan Edwards’ report of the revolt, which was published in London in 1797 (the same year that Hall gave his speech) and found wide distribution, compared the black ← 216 | 217 → rebels to “famished tygers thirsting for human blood” (Edwards 63) and extensively dwelled on the atrocities committed by them which in his opinion, as in that of many of his contemporaries, were a result of the “primitive” nature of blacks. Like Africa, the Caribbean represented all those features that were incompatible with the concept of modernity and civilized republicanism: the primitive and the irrational, the tropical and the impulsive, the absence of manly virtues such as fortitude and self-control. The Caribbean, in other words, was frozen in its own backwardness and could never aspire to gain independence and self-government such as the United States had achieved.

Hall’s text suggests just the opposite. His vision, in A Charge, of a divine history that endows black people with a special role recalls the millennialism that characterized much of the rhetoric surrounding the American Revolution in texts by white Americans of the era. But Hall appropriated this millennialist rhetoric for his own liberationist purposes, claiming that black people played an important part in a god-given history of struggle between tyranny and liberty, slavery and freedom.While white revolutionary writers saw the new American nation as the symbol of progress, liberty, and fulfillment, to Hall the slave rebellion in Saint Domingue, an event that sent shock waves of terror all over the slave-holding Americas, was a sign of God’s Providence. Using the Ethiopianist vision of a future glory of black people, Hall linked the biblical vision of the Ethiopian princes to the rebellion in Haiti, proposing an empowering view of black future. The indication of a possible change of conditions – by the will of God – situates African Americans on a timeline that is meaningful in two ways: on the one hand it gave Hall’s fellow Masons a vision of a better future, encouraging them to remain patient and hopeful at a time when they had scarce possibilities to effect a change of their conditions. On the other hand, it reminded a white audience of the limitations of their progressive narrative that sanctioned slavery and excluded blacks from citizenship. Describing the change of conditions in Saint Domingue as an act as natural as the change from night to day, Hall employs the same Enlightenment rhetoric as the proponents of the American Revolution before him:

My brethren, let us not be cast down under these and many other abuses we at present labour under: for the darkest is before the break of day. My brethren, let us remember what a dark day it was with our African brethren six years ago, in the French West Indies. Nothing but the snap of the whip was heard, from morning to evening. Hanging, breaking on the wheel, burning, and all manner of tortures were inflicted upon those unhappy people […] But, blessed be God, the scene is changed. (Hall 1112–1113, italics mine)

Drawing attention to the fact that the Haitian Revolution and the final liberation of blacks in the United States follow natural laws while the present conditions ← 217 | 218 → under which blacks live are connoted as “unnatural,” Hall links his biblical discourse with the natural law rhetoric of revolutionary public narratives, claiming the ideals of the American Revolution for the Revolution in Haiti and assuring his readers of the inevitability of a change not only for Haitian slaves but also for U.S. American blacks.

Whereas in the oppressive social climate of the 1790s, Hall was one of the very few African Americans who wrote about the Saint Domingue rebellion, by the 1820s the successful revolution in Haiti and the black republic rising from it had grown to be a discursive presence in many black writings. Freedom’s Journal, the first newspaper compiled and published by African Americans, stands out as a forum for the distribution of black thought in this early period. Co-edited by John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish between 1827 and 1829, it provided international, national, and regional information on current events and contained editorials denouncing slavery, lynching, and other injustices. Many articles in Freedom’s Journal continue to revise the U.S. American narrative of progress in the early 19th century by locating hopes for the future not in the United States but in the Caribbean as well as in Latin America. While both regions in this period, as the expansionist venture takes shape, emerge as signifiers of savagery and premodernity in Anglo-American nationalist discourses, in African American texts they become sites where the promise of a liberated future has already been fulfilled.

In the inaugural editorial of Freedom’s Journal, Cornish and Russwurm claim that their cause was inspired by “the establishment of the Republic of Hayti” as well as by “the advancement of liberal ideas in South America, where despotism has given place to free governments, and where many of our brethren now fill important civil and military stations” (Russwurm and Cornish 1). Both Haiti and the new Latin American republics that had gained independence from Spain in the 1820s (Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil) emerge as sites promising a future for people of African descent. All three states had abolished or at least announced the intention to abolish slavery. References to the West Indies and to Latin America continue to emerge in subsequent issues. On April 20, 1827, an undisclosed New York contributor to Freedom’s Journal reminds readers of the promise of liberty contained in the Declaration of Independence and the clash between this promise and the reality in the U.S.:

The truth is, the new Republics of North and South America have set us an example on the subject of slavery, which we should do well to imitate, under such modifications as our peculiar circumstances render necessary. If we remember right, the last slave in Colombia is to be emancipated within the present year. Peru has essentially lightened the burdens that for centuries have oppressed the poor Indians; and Mexico evinces, by her decision in enforcing the law in [sic] behalf of enslaved Africans, that she is determined not to be ← 218 | 219 → behind her sister Republics in this cause of justice, humanity and religion. Meanwhile the United States, where the torch of liberty was first kindled – the United States, who claim to be the freest and happiest people on the face of the earth, are cherishing in their bosom nearly 3,000,000 of wretched slaves, and as a nation, are doing nothing to mitigate the evil! (Freedom’s Journal, April 20, 1827, n.p.)

Presenting the Latin American republics as exemplary in their implementation of human equality, the author lets the United States appear as lagging far behind her neighbors on the continent in terms of basic democracy. Contrary to the image of Latin America as a backward place in Anglo-American writings, the region here emerges as a point of comparison that embodies a future still denied to African Americans in the United States.

In an editorial published in December, 1828, John Russwurm declared: “The Haytians […] have fought the good fight of Liberty and conquered; and all that is now required of them is to enjoy this invaluable blessing, as accountable beings,” and calls the Haitians a people that can “look forward to what man, even the descendant of Africa, may be, when blessed with Liberty and Equality and their concomitants” (Russwurm 1828, n.p.). Black authors writing in Freedom’s Journal also focused on the leader of the Haitian rebellion, Toussaint L’Ouverture, as a hero of the black community who was seen as proof of the dignity and heroism and of the intellectual capabilities of black people as well as of the progressive development on Saint Domingue. By lionizing Toussaint L’Ouverture as an example of black virtue, black writers were able to counter the assumption of black inferiority and backwardness. The May 4, 1827 issue of Freedom’s Journal contains an article on Toussaint L’Ouverture by the pseudonymous writer “Africanus.” In this text, the black revolutionary leader is presented as an example for the “splendor of native and original greatnesse” (Africanus, “Hayti, No. III”) of the black people of Saint Domingue. L’Ouverture is called “one of the most extraordinary men of his age” and a “Spartacus.” The writer takes pains to construct him as a character “marked by sedateness and patience of temper” (ibid.) and as an emblem of discipline, thus rejecting the image of Toussaint L’Ouverture as a bloodthirsty and violent black rebel that dominated white press reports on the rebellion. Using the black leader as an epitome of virtue, “Africanus” counters the racist notion that blacks are creatures lacking humanity and intellect. “The transactions in that Island,” he states, “have presented the most incontestible [sic] proofs, that the negro is not, in general, wanting in the higher qualifications of the mind” (ibid.).

The potential for their own future that U.S. blacks saw in Haiti also becomes visible in the writings of David Walker, arguably the most radical of the 1820s black abolitionists and the Boston agent for the distribution of Freedom’s Journal. In one of his addresses to the black community in Boston which was printed in ← 219 | 220 → the journal, Walker referred to Haitians as “our brethren” and announced that blacks will soon “take a stand among the nations of the earth,” and that “God has something in reserve for us which […] will repay us for all our suffering and miseries” (Walker 1828, 205/206). In his much more radical Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829), which was a call for slaves to revolt against their masters, he referred to Haiti as “the glory of the blacks and terror of tyrants” (Walker 1829), advising African Americans who wanted to leave the country to “go to our brethren, the Haytians, who, according to their word, are bound to protect and comfort us” (ibid.). Walker believed that in the case of a black rebellion in the U.S., the Haitians would support the struggles of U.S. blacks. This was not an uncommon conviction among black insurgents, as is pointed out by Walter Johnson when he observes that the black slave rebel Denmark Vesey imagined his own history as a continuation of the revolution begun in Haiti (Johnson 158). Quoting from the official report about the slave conspiracy organized by Vesey in South Carolina, Johnson stresses that Vesey recruited slaves for his rebellion by reading to them newspaper reports about the Haitian Revolution and by advertizing that he had written to Haiti for military support. Vesey also referred to Haiti as a model for the way in which he envisioned the revolt to be carried out. Asked by his fellow-conspirators if they should also kill ministers, women, and children, he responded in the affirmative because “this was the plan they pursued in St. Domingo”10 (Johnson 159). This radical rebel thus saw himself as executor of a revolutionary idea that had its origin in the Caribbean but that would spread in the United States, bringing liberty to black people there as it had on Saint Domingue. Moreover, Vesey also framed the experience of African American slaves in the biblical context of the exodus narrative, advising the exodus of black slaves to Haiti once the rebellion had succeeded. He even tried to make contact with the Haitian president Jean Pierre Boyer, sending a letter to him via a middleman and requiring his assistance (Kennedy and Parker 70–71). Apparently, as witnesses in court testified, Vesey expected armed Haitian vessels to escort and protect African Americans when they sailed from the United States (Pearson 187). ← 220 | 221 →

In texts by black abolitionists, the historical significance of the Haitian Revolution was often held against that of the American Revolution, frequently in favor of the former. Already in 1826, in the midst of the celebrations around the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, John Russwurm, the editor of Freedom’s Journal who was also the second black college graduate in the United States,11 had delivered a commencement address about the importance of the Revolution – significantly, not the American Revolution but the Revolution in Haiti. In this speech, entitled “The Conditions and Prospects of Haiti,” he presented Haiti as a model republic, foregrounding the fact that blacks in Haiti enjoyed the privileges of citizenship that were denied them in the United States. While Russwurm thus pointed out Haiti’s relative modernity in comparison to the United States, he also emphasized the inevitability of liberty for black people, framing his argument in metaphors of uncontainability:

A principle of liberty is implanted in [Man’s] breast, and all efforts to stifle it are as fruitless as would be the attempt to extinguish the fires of Etna. It is in the irresistible course of events that all men who have been deprived of their liberty shall recover this precious portion of their indefeasible inheritance. It is in vain to stem the current; degraded man will rise in his native majesty and claim his rights. (Russwurm 102)

Declaring that men deprived of their liberty and striving to regain it can no more be controlled than a volcano or a current of water could, Russwurm raises the specter of an eruption – i.e. a major slave revolt – within the United States themselves.

Even more rigorously than in Russwurm’s address, the widespread temporal vision of the United States as the most modern state in the hemisphere and of Haiti as a backward and “primitive” place was challenged in a number of texts written during the decade before the Civil War. In this decade, black orators such as Theodore Holly and William Wells Brown delivered speeches about the significance of the Haitian Revolution in public places, fostering the memory of the Caribbean slave revolt as a signifier of black pride and urging on the radicalization of the abolitionist movement. These public lectures not only celebrated the violent tactics that Toussaint L’Ouverture and his followers had used against whites but they also predicted and called for their repetition in the United States (Clavin 131).

William Wells Brown, author of the first African American novel,12 in a lecture on St. Domingo: Its Revolutions and Its Patriots that he delivered in London and in ← 221 | 222 → Philadelphia in 1854, describes the Haitian Revolution as clearly superior to the American Revolution, drawing a direct comparison between the leaders of the two revolutions. While he admits that both the black leader Toussaint L’Ouverture and the white leader George Washington led an “oppressed and outraged people” (25) to war against a strong enemy, Brown is clear about what each of them achieved for black people: Toussaint abolished slavery while Washington kept black people in bondage.

Toussaint’s career as a Christian, a statesman, and a general, will lose nothing by a comparison with that of Washington. Each was the leader of an oppressed and outraged people, each had a powerful enemy to contend with, and each succeeded in founding a government in the New World. Toussaint’s government made liberty its watchword, incorporated it in its constitution, abolished the slave-trade, and made freedom universal amongst the people. Washington’s government incorporated slavery and the slave-trade, and enacted laws by which chains were fastened upon the limbs of millions of people. Toussaint liberated his countrymen; Washington enslaved a portion of his, and aided in giving strength and vitality to an institution that will one day rend asunder the UNION that he helped to form. Already the slave in his chains, in the rice swamps of Carolina and the cotton fields of Mississippi, burns for revenge. (Brown 25)

Dwelling on the model function of the Haitian Revolution for the slaves in the American South, Brown concludes that “[n]o revolution ever turned up greater heroes than that of St. Domingo” (33) and he sees similar heroes – “a Toussaint, a Christophe, a Rigaud, a Clervaux, and a Dessaline” – (all leaders of the Haitian rebellion) – waiting to grow up and ripe into action in the South. “If we are not mistaken,” he declares, “the day is not far distant when the revolution of St. Domingo will be reenacted in South Carolina and Louisiana” (33). Again, freedom for black people is used as the crucial indicator on a timeline that leads from bondage to liberation, and in which Haiti functions as a signifier of progress. At the same time, in Brown’s vision slave revolts such as those that had happened in the South before and were to be expected in the future are reframed from instances of black brutality into expressions of a black revolutionary spirit. Brown links the rebels’ yearning for liberty to that of the revolutionaries in the fight for American independence when he claims about the prospective slave rebels of the South: “That their souls are thirsting for liberty, all will admit. The spirit that caused the blacks to take up arms, and to shed their blood in the American revolutionary war, is still amongst the slaves of the South” (32). In a brilliant strategic move, Brown employs the concerns of white political leaders such as Thomas Jefferson about the explosive potential of slavery to emphasize the justness of black rebellion. He quotes Jefferson’s well-known exclamation “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever” (37/38), which reflects Jefferson’s anxiety about possible slave ← 222 | 223 → revolts13; and he concludes that if such a revolt takes place, “the God of Justice will be on the side of the oppressed blacks” (38). Finally, he compares the slave rebels of St. Domingo and those of the American South to the Helots of Sparta who also liberated themselves in a bloody war against their masters. “What the Helots were to Sparta at the time of the earthquake,14 the blacks were to St. Domingo at the time of the French Revolution. And the American slaves are only waiting [sic] the opportunity of wiping out their wrongs in the blood of their oppressors” (33). Only then, Brown proposes, will the American Revolution have found its conclusion, only then would its claims be realized, and only then would “our government […] no longer be the scorn and contempt of the friends of freedom in other lands, but would really be the LAND OF THE FREE AND HOME OF THE BRAVE” (38, emphasis in original). Pointing to the uneasy position of the United States between its ambitions of being the most liberal and most democratic country on earth and its reality of perpetuated chattel slavery, Brown makes clear that the American Revolution had neither met its claims nor could it match the promise of freedom for black people that the Haitian revolution sent to slaves throughout the hemisphere.

Theodore Holly, a former shoemaker who became an Episcopal minister and a prominent participant in the colonization movement, was another contributor to this revisionist discourse about progress and the significance of the American and the Haitian Revolutions. In his speech A Vindication of the Capacity of the Negro Race for Self-Government, and Civilized Progress (1857) that he gave in Connecticut and Ohio, the author referred to the Haitian Revolution as

the grandest political event of this or any other age. In weighty causes, and wondrous and momentous features, it surpasses the American revolution, in an incomparable degree. The revolution of this country was only the revolt of a people already comparably free, independent, and highly enlightened. (290)

The reasons for the American Revolution, so Holly, were comparatively insignificant, its catalyst being “the imposition of three pence per pound tax on tea,” while the Revolution in Haiti was “a revolt of an uneducated and menial class of slaves, against their tyrannical oppressors, who not only imposed an absolute tax ← 223 | 224 → on their unrequited labor, but also usurped their very bodies” (291). Therefore, as Holly declared,

[T]he obstacles to surmount, and the difficulties to contend against, in the American revolution, when compared to those of the Haytian, were, (to use a homely but classic phrase,) but a “tempest in a teapot,” compared to the dark and lurid thunder storm of the dissolving heavens. (Holly 291)

While many supporters of the Colonization Movement favored repatriation to Africa, Holly encouraged emigration to Haiti. Visiting the country several times and finally settling there for good with his family and a group of African Americans in 1861, he called Haiti “the Eden of America” (Holly 303) and appealed to African Americans to follow him and invest their energies into building the Haitian Republic rather than to “indolently remain” (303) in the United States where the quest for black political rights was futile because even if these rights were granted, social prejudice would prevent African Americans from using them. The future for African Americans, so Holly, did not lie in the United States but in Haiti, where they could contribute “to the continued advancement of this Negro nationality of the New World until its glory and renown shall overspread and cover the whole earth and redeem and regenerate by its influence in the future the benighted fatherland of the race in Africa” (Holly 303). Haiti was the place of the future from which liberty and “glory” could spread, not the United States. Only Haiti, according to Holly, had the power to “lift the black race throughout the world” (ibid.). Therefore he appealed to African Americans to leave the United States and move to the “Eden of America.” Taking up the biblical images of paradise and missionarism, Holly, who died in Haiti in 1911, decentered and rewrote them, characterizing black people as one of God’s people deserving of freedom and equality.

While early writers such as Prince Hall made their point very cautiously, orators such as Holly and Brown boldly set Haiti as an example for a revolt abolishing slavery in the U.S. and presented Haiti as the most progressive and advanced place in the hemisphere. By encouraging a second Haitian Revolution in the U.S., and by glorifying Toussaint L’Ouverture as superior to George Washington, these orators continued and radicalized the rhetorical strategies of their predecessors, celebrating the Haitian Revolution as a more significant event than the revolution that established the thirteen colonies’ independence from England.

Black writers also returned to Latin America as a discursive site of comparison during the 1850s. Martin Robison Delany, before he became a supporter of emigration to Africa, spoke in favor of black emigration to Central and South America. He considered these regions as welcoming to North American blacks ← 224 | 225 → and assumed (admittedly, somewhat naively) that they would be ready to accept the black population of the United States. He even envisioned – 40 years prior to José Martí’s vision of “Nuestra America” – a pan-American confederation of Latin American States, significantly a confederation that included black emigrants from the United States:

[L]et us go to whatever parts of Central and South America we may, we shall make common cause with the people, and shall hope, by one judicious and signal effort, to assemble one day – and a glorious day it will be – in a great representative convention, and form a glorious union of South American States, “inseparately connected one and forever.” (Delany 196)

Delany dedicated a special chapter of his book to Nicaragua and New Granada,15 because he thought that African Americans would be particularly welcome there and would be regarded as equals: “In these countries,” he observes, “colored men now fill the highest places in the country: and colored people have the same chances there, that white people have in the United States” (202). For African Americans, then, this would be the place to go if they wanted a future for themselves: “All that is necessary to do, is to go, and the moment your foot touches the soil you have all the opportunities for elevating yourselves as the highest, according to your industry and merits” (Delany 202/203). It is interesting to note that only three years after Delany envisioned black emigration to Nicaragua, in 1856, the American adventurer and expansionist William Walker, in a filibustering venture supported by U.S. southern politicians, invaded that country, declared himself president and tried to reintroduce slavery there. Walker wanted Nicaragua to form the basis of a U.S. colony in Central America. His call for Nicaragua’s annexation by the United States as a slave state was supported by United States proslavery forces and only failed because the U.S. Government feared that an annexation of Nicaragua as a new slave state would fuel the sectional conflicts between slave states and free states within the United States. Historian Robert May points out that the filibustering expeditions of Walker met with wide public acclaim in the U.S., observing that “[m]any Americans simply assumed that the superiority of their race and governmental institutions gave them the moral right to filibuster abroad” (May 862). Walker was discussed in newspapers as “the hero of the times,” and his exploits even became the topic of a stage production in New York entitled ← 225 | 226 → Nicaragua, or Gen. Walker’s Victories (May 860). May quotes from a poem published in a newspaper that describes the attitude of Americans toward Nicaragua:

Just South of Texas is a Land,

We call it Nicaragua, and

Men live there who but little know

How they should rule. (qtd. in May 862)

While Delany saw Nicaragua as a land of opportunity for blacks where the hopes of African Americans for a free future could fulfill themselves, U.S. American public opinion regarded Central America as a place in need of American rule, once again framing it in images of backwardness and inferiority.

In the decades between the American Revolution and the Civil War, for the African American abolitionist writers discussed in this essay progress lay not in the United States but was imagined in Colombia, Mexico, and Nicaragua, and, most prominently, in Haiti. The texts by these writers reinterpret the story of progress underlying the American national narrative by shifting the focus to black freedom. Their revisionist discourses construct Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean not as sites of barbarity, but of hope and pride. These texts provide evidence for the conclusion that the post-revolutionary and antebellum periods can be described in terms of various competing “imagined communities” with quite different imagined origins and envisioned temporal developments. Research into the various temporal narratives in the early national period can thus provide evidence for the contradictions of national identity formation. Temporality emerges as a category that allows us to imagine nationality, as Thomas Allen puts it, “as an ongoing negotiation of heterogeneous temporal modes” (Allen 4). Relevant historical transnational research needs to study the conditions and specific situations that guided the emergence of the nation, including the complex cultural history of temporal experience and the narratives this process has engendered, narratives of past and future and of cause and consequence within and without the nation’s borders.

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1 On the “transnational turn” see e.g. Fisher-Fishkin, 2005, and Elliott, 2007.

2 My interest in this issue was inspired by a workshop organized by Michelle Burnham at the 2009 Biennial Conference of the Early American Studies Association in Hamilton, Bermuda, which focused on the issue of “temporality and the revolution.”

3 See especially Fabian, 1983, and Allen, 2008.

4 On the diversity of collective identity constructions in the post-revolutionary period, see e.g. Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth Century America, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1990; Bruce Burgett, Sex, Gender, and Citizenship in the Early Republic, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1998; Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1997; Joyce Appleby, Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1992; Gary B. Nash, Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720–1840, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1988.

5 It is no coincidence that the beginning of Frederick Douglass’ narrative emphasizes his own disorientation as a result of his ignorance about his date of birth and his ancestry. Significantly, many slave texts, e.g. spirituals, invested slaves’ everyday lives with temporal purpose by reinterpreting the Christian narrative of exodus and salvation. They read the United States as Egypt Land where Africans suffered in bondage under a new Pharao before they would be saved.

6 The 1771 version of the poem differs slightly from the second version. For a closer inspection of the differences, see Wertheimer, 17–52.

7 A Sermon, preached on the 24th Day of June 1789. Being the Festival of St. John the Baptist, at the Request of the Right Worshipful the Grand Master Prince Hall and the Rest of the Brethren of the African Lodge of the Honorable Society of Free and Accepted Masons in Boston by the Reverend Brother Marrant, Chaplain, Boston, 1789.

8 As Joanna Brooks (128) observes, the rivers Marrant refers to are Ganges, Nile, Euphrates, and Tigris. Marrant here signifies on the parallel histories of the Masonic orders, the Old Testament Patriarchs, and Western civilization which he claims for the African Lodge and for African Americans in general.

9 Critics usually locate the beginnings of Ethiopianism in the nineteenth century, in texts by William Walker or Robert Alexander Young, but the roots of this transnational discursive tradition can be traced back to eighteenth-century texts such as Marrant’s and Hall’s.

10 In this period, both the French name of the island and the Spanish name – St. Domingo or Santo Domingo – were used. While the entire island of Hispaniola had been in Spanish possession until the 17th century, at the time when the slave rebellion broke out in 1791 only the eastern part of the island was Spanish. On 22 July 1795, Spain ceded to France the remaining Spanish part. Nevertheless the name “Santo Domingo” was often used to refer to Hispaniola, as is also the case in the lecture given by William Wells Brown discussed later in this essay.

11 The first black college graduate was Edward Jones, who received his degree from Amherst College in 1826. Russwurm graduated from Bowdoin College in the same year.

12 Clotel, or The President’s Daughter (1853).

13 Jefferson, who, like many other American revolutionaries, had hoped for a spread of the British colonies’ rebellion against oppression, and who had wished that the example of the colonies in the New World would prove contagious, in view of the Haitian Revolution, warned against “the revolutionary storm […] sweeping the globe,” and prophesied that “[i]f something is not done, and soon done, we shall be the murderers of our own children” (qtd. in Zuckerman 184).

14 The Helots, an unfree population group in Sparta, used the confusion ensuing after a major earthquake to rise up against their owners, the citizens of Sparta.

15 The Republic of New Granada was a short-lived republic that comprised much of present-day Colombia and Panama and smaller parts of present-day Venezuela and Ecuador. It was created after the dissolution of Gran Colombia in 1830 and was replaced by the Granadine Confederation in 1858.