". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Re-reading C.L.R. James

The lines that impress today come from C. L. R. James's The Black Jacobins:Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, second edition, revised, 1963 -- originally published 1938.

p. 78 --

"The rich are only defeated when running for their lives."

Something else I've encountered upon this re-reading of The Black Jacobins: this is the only work of history in which there is not a jot of sympathy for the fate of King Louis XVI.

James also observes, which no else has either, that the organization of the plantation sugar slaves for both field and factory work on San Domingo was closer to that of the Russian proletariat than any other group of laborers at that time.  This made for a mass uprising, as in Russia.  He says on p.85:

"The slaves worked on the land, and, like revolutionary peasants everywhere, they aimed at the extermination of their oppressors."

Historians don't write sentences like these any more.  But who knows, that they may again someday?

Toussaint L'Ouverture

Even more impressive to me, was how he opens this chapter quoting the war song of the San Domingo slaves throwing off, literally, their chains:

Eh!! Eh ! Bomba! Heu! Heu!
Canga, bafio té!
Canga, mouné de lé!
Canga, do ki la!
Canga, do ki la!
Canga, li!

What I did not know the last time I read The Black Jacobins is the legacy of this war song of the San Domingo slave revolution remains embedded in the culture of many places in the Caribbean to where a variety of San Domingueans and later, Haitian, immigrated.  We began to learn of this and understand it via our Puerto Rican amigo, Alex LaSalle (note, name is "french"), whose family's oral culture always said his ancestors were brought to Puerto Rico by a mulatto master fleeing the wars, who brought a female slave concubine and their children with him.  His grandmother was still singing this song to him and other children when they were babies.

From a demonstration / workshop / performance gig of Alma deMoyo in Connecticut.

As well, one of the national dances of Puerto Rico is the Bomba, along with the Plena, both of them contra danses, but at least one of them done to this war song, as the drums thunder out its rhythms.  There are traditional costumes that go with these dances at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, for Baryshnikov and an audience filled with African American and Caribbean heads, of all skin tones and diversity.  

El V and Alex have taught classes around this war song, bringing in the drums and dancers, including a performance plus presentation in New Orleans Congo Square.

These are the sorts of communications out of the past that make my breath come fast and my heartbeat speed up, because they are -- well so wonderful. The Black Jacobins is from the past before I was born.  It is also part of my own reading - research past, going back to the first time before I knew enough to get the benefit from it, to another time when I got a great deal, to now, when I am receiving even more.  The times are so different now from when I first read the book, it's as if that first reading may as well have taken place in another world.

These little bits that are transmitted still via family and culture, and which are personal to people I know, about something I'd seen myself, but upon first encountering, knew nothing.  And this way, I too, in a minute manner, am a part of the transmittal of historical memory.

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