Another Dimension of Black History: Black Revolution in the Caribbean By Demetrius Dillard

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As “Black History Month” progresses, it is imperative that the public be educated on a burgeoning topic known as the Black revolution, which cannot be merely reduced to lectures on the Black Panther Party, Nat Turner and Nation of Islam.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines the term “revolution” as a rotation or a sudden, radical, or complete change, especially the overthrow or renunciation of one rule or government and substitution of another by the governed. Further, “revolutionary” (adjective) is partly defined as constituting or bringing about a major change. In the context of Black revolution as it pertains to Black history, these above-mentioned definitions are beyond fair.

Comparatively, Malcolm X gave a speech sometime in the early 1960s on the subject of Black revolution, providing historical examples of revolutions to help his mainly Black-American audience better understand the true meaning of Black revolution in his terms.

“What is a revolution? Sometimes I am inclined to believe that many of our people are using this word ‘revolution’ loosely without taking careful consideration what this word actually means, and what its historic characteristics are. When you study the historic nature of revolutions, the motive of a revolution, the objective of a revolution, and the result of a revolution, and the message used in a revolution – you may change words. You may devise another program. You may change your goal and you may change your mind, because the American Revolution in 1776… was based on land, the basis of independence, and the only way they could get it was bloodshed.

The French Revolution – what was it based on? The landless against the landlord. What is it for? Land. How did they get it? Bloodshed. Was no love laws. Was no compromise. Was no negotiation… The Russian revolution – what was it based on? Land: the landless against the landlord. How did they bring it about? Bloodshed. You haven’t got a revolution that doesn’t involve bloodshed,” X exclaimed.

Essentially, the message that X attempted to convey was that the Black American – by any means necessary – must remained determined in his or her quest for freedom and equality.

Nonetheless, Black revolution as an academic field of study has been addressed and thoroughly researched by numerous scholars besides Malcolm X. And Black revolution as a method to obtain liberation stretches far outside the U.S., and goes far beyond the eras of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and Civil Rights.

The Caribbean, comprised of various unique people, heritages, history and cultures in roughly 25 islands, has been a hotbed of Black revolutionary struggle — but like many other aspects of Black History, goes unrecognized in Eurocentric and Westernized cultures.

An article entitled Without Country: Black Revolutionaries of the Caribbean Diaspora, 1932-1975” (2010) by William Christopher Johnson of Yale University discusses the generational and geographical renaissance of literary activity and labor activism in the 1930s to the collapse of black power politics in Trinidad in the mid-1970s.

In addition, the dissertation provided a detailed analysis of the intersections of histories of several Caribbean territories, as the author endeavored to bridge “intellectual history, literary studies, and biography through the close readings of texts—fiction, biography, editorial, political pamphlet, and broadside—that were parts of a global front against empire, patriarchy, racism, and cold war.”

Johnson continued that his piece was part of a broader historical turn to extend the chronology of “the long civil rights movement.” Of the frequent bouncing around Johnson did in covering a wide variety of topics in his article he interestingly placed an emphasis on the Black Power Revolution of 1970 in Trinidad and Tobago, and the subsequent NUFF (National United Freedom Fighters) guerilla movement, which he used as a prime example of Black revolution in the Caribbean diaspora.

“Taking their cues from Cuba, Watts, Malcolm X and Walter Rodney, the National United Freedom Fighters demanded the evacuation of foreign capitalists, and the absolute transfer of power to the excluded and exploited,” Johnson wrote of the role and significance of the NUFF organization. He added, “For a few months during in the spring of 1970, divided classes of Trinidadian society came together to stage the first black power revolution in the Caribbean.”

Behind comprehensive scholarly research, Johnson interestingly found that “a particular political culture developed among migrants during the cold war (from 1952 to 1965 in particular), as civil rights and decolonization movements raged within the Caribbean and the United States… ‘Radicalism’ and ‘militant consciousness’ have come to signify inherent characteristics of Caribbean peoples,” which, as mentioned earlier, proves that the Black revolutionary struggle  and fervent quest for liberation was evident in other nations besides the U.S.

Similarly, scholar Claudia E. Sutherland presented another component of Black revolution in the Caribbean in a telling article she wrote on the Haitian Revolution, which took place from 1791 to 1804, and “has often been described as the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the Western Hemisphere.”

According to Sutherland, slaves initiated the rebellion in 1791 and by 1803 they had succeeded in not only ending slavery, but also quelled French control over the colony.

This massive and forceful slave rebellion, known as the Haitian Revolution, consisted of several revolutions occurring simultaneously, all of which were said to be influenced by the French Revolution of 1789, “which would come to represent a new concept of human rights, universal citizenship, and participation in government.”

In the 18th century, Haiti was then known as Saint Dominigue. The territory became France’s wealthiest overseas colony, largely because of its production of valued commodities like sugar, coffee, indigo and cotton, fueled by an enslaved labor force.

Haiti reportedly has a history of slave rebellions, wrote Sutherland, because of Saint Dominigue’s slaves’ unwillingness to submit to their subhuman status despite the harshness and cruelty of slavery.

Sutherland couldn’t write about the Haitian Revolution without highlighting the accomplishments of an influential figure by the name of Toussaint L’Overture.

“Led by former slave Toussaint L’Overture, the enslaved would act first, rebelling against the planters on August 21, 1791. By 1792 they controlled a third of the island.  Despite reinforcements from France, the area of the colony held by the rebels grew as did the violence on both sides.  Before the fighting ended 100,000 of the 500,000 blacks and 24,000 of the 40,000 whites were killed.  Nonetheless the former slaves managed to stave off both the French forces and the British who arrived in 1793 to conquer the colony, and who withdrew in 1798 after a series of defeats by L’Overture’s forces,” she wrote.

“By 1801 L’Overture expanded the revolution beyond Haiti, conquering the neighboring Spanish colony of Santo Domingo (present-day Dominican Republic).  He abolished slavery in the Spanish-speaking colony and declared himself Governor-General for life over the entire island of Hispaniola,” Sutherland continued.

Following the defeat of French forces in the Battle of Vertieres in November 1803, military leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines, one of L’Overture’s generals and a former slave, declared the nation independent and renamed it Haiti.

Sutherland concluded, “Haiti thus emerged as the first Black republic in the world, and the second nation in the western hemisphere (after the United States) to win its independence from a European power.”