In Youma, Lafcadio Hearn is exploring the affect of the color-line on the sustaining and collapse of West Indian slavery. The legacy of slavery, particularly the complex racial history of the island and the struggle over what to do with whites who remained, was a focus of much of Hearn’s writings on the Caribbean. He was concerned that the hostility over slavery would lead to an end to the vibrant mult-racial culture in the islands. Through this short novel, Hearn shows us how deeply intimate the black and white world were intertwined under slavery. Through this, he is able to pose a question that remains relevant to us today. How is it possible to resist a system the system which is responsible for our entire identity and life, even if that system is objectively odious. As we search for (and often fail to find) alternatives to the banality of late capitalism, it is useful to remember how hard the search for alternatives has been for people in the past.
Youma begins with a short essay on the figure of the da, in the colonial French West Indies. “For the Creole child had two mothers: the aristocratic white mother who have him birth’ the dark bond-mother who gave him all care,– who nursed him, bathed him, taught him to speak the soft and musical speech of slaves, took him out of her arms to show him the beautiful tropic world, told him wonderful folk-stories of evenings, lulled him to sleep, attended to his every possible want by day or by night.” (545) These nurses would often raise children for more than one generation, and while “childish,” the das were one of the most important members of the white, slave-owning family in the Caribbean colonies.
One historical note on Martinique. While Saint-Domingue saw the end of slavery through a violent revolution, for a time, abolition was imposed on the entire French empire. This did not affect Martinique because of the arrival of the British. In addition, while Saint-Domingue got its independence and could enforce abolition, Martinique remained (after some back and forth with Britain) in the French empire, which turned back some of the most radical experiments of the Revolution, including the extension of the “rights of man” to slaves. Like in Haiti, however, slavery would end as the result of a slave uprising, it just took half a century longer. The context of Youma is this slave revolt.
Youma “was a pet slave” and was raised with the white children. The death of her childhood playmate Aimee, proves to the reader that Youma was emotionally affiliated with the white ruling class. Alongside Hearn’s description of Youman’s experience of slavery, you are introduced to the rest of the plantation. Hearn describes a culture of work and play. It is a nostalgic account but not without its own brutal realities. For example, Hearn shows how at the end of everyday the slaves had to kneel before the overseers and recite a prayer.
The plot centers on Youma’s courtship marriage to Gabriel, a field slave from another plantation. The tension between her loyalties is immediately put on display. “The commandeur [Gabriel] was certainly one of the finest physical men of his race, — young, industrious, intelligent; but he would make a rough mate indeed for a girl brought up as Youma had been. She was also a slave, without education; but she had received a domestic training that gave her a marked superiority above her class, and she had moral qualities more delicate by far then those of Gabriel . . . Above all, she has been the companion of Aimee’s childhood, and afterwards her friend rather than her servant.” (572) Despite these reservations, Youma and Gabriel marry.
It is not long before Gabriel hatches a plan to escape the island with his wife. Despite his solid plans and clear vision for the future (“He spoke of his love for her, — of the life they might live together, — of liberty and he imagined it, — of their children who would be free”), Youma is unable to abandon the “child of Madame Desrivieres.” Youma turns her back on her husband’s plan.
What makes the third act of this novel interesting is that is forces a resolution to this dilemma. Clearly Youma cannot instigate it (being trapped by her loyalty to her owners). Instead, the leadership that forces the resolution comes from the people who had spend the entire novel in the background, the rank and file plantation slaves. The final pages of the novel are a brilliant description of the disorder, the violence, the fires, and vengeance of the revolt. What the mob forces, of course, is the acceptance of Enlightenment principles of equality and justice. “Yet the Governor knew the city was at the mercy of a negro mob,–knew the white population in peril of massacre. The order seemed incredible to those who read it with their eyes; — it remains one of the stupefying facts of French colonial history, — one of the many, not of the few, which appear to justify the white Creole’s undying hate of Republicanism.” (607) At the very least, this is a possible response to those who think the revolt, or the mob action, is incapable of affecting change toward greater freedom.