Zora Neale Hurston: “Tell My Horse” (1938)

Our history has been unfortunate. First we were brought here to Haiti and enslaved. We suffered great cruelties under the French and even when they had been driven out, they left here certain traits of government that have been unfortunate for us. Thus having a nation continually disturbed by revolution and other features not helpful to advancement we have not been able to develop economically and culturally as many of us wished. These things being true, we have not been able to control certain bad elements because of a lack of a sufficient police force. [. . .] It is like your American gangsters. (482–483)

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Zora Neale Hurston wrote Tell My Horse in 1938 after she completed field work in Haiti and Jamaica in 1936 and 1937. In some ways the book is a follow up to Mules and Men looking at the survival of African traditions in the New World. She explores voodoo (switching to this spelling, so I will too) in both works. As expected, the tradition is much more fully developed in this book surveying life in the Caribbean. Hurston is also interested in the overall question of black self-rule. While the stories in Mules and Men clearly emerged from a biracial society and reflect the emotional and creative needs of a people oppressed from within, Tell My Horse shows a people capable of self-rule but suffering the exploitation of an entire world system, policed by the United States (Haiti was occupied in much of the 1920s by the United States).

The book is broken up into three parts. The first too provide a general history, examination of social conditions, and political background of Jamaica and Haiti. The theme for both of these is the legacy of slavery and resistance to slavery. In Jamaica it is explored through a surviving maroon community. In Haiti is more overly politicized through the historical memory of Haitian revolution. (And by the way, I have noticed while working on this blog how often Haiti comes up in US writing.) The third part of the book is the longest and constitutes the bulk of the material is an anthropological accounting of voodoo in Haiti. The book ends with some Creole language songs, many of which are discussed in the texts in their full context.

As I hinted above the major tension in the first parts of this book is between self-rule and an empire posed from above. I opened this review with a quote by a Haitian physician, recorded by Hurston. He is basically showing how the burden of empire has caused a social breakdown in Haitian society. The options are authoritarian policing or a total violent breakdown of social order. In fact, these are the same things. Police emerge as a reflection of the annihilation of society. It also seems to speak to the problem of empire. The disorder on the ground in Haiti and other Caribbean nations was the constant justification for US imperialism. Yet, to look on the bright side, the signs of the capacity of self-rule and democratic order from below are there.

Hurston’s visit to the maroon community of Accompong is important in her general interpretation of the Caribbean. It is an example of black self-rule going back to the seventeenth century, an experiment centuries longer lasting than the United States.

Here was the oldest settlement of freedmen in the Western world, no doubt. Men who had thrown off the bands of slavery by their own courage and ingenuity. The courage and daring of the Maroons strike like a purple beam across the history of Jamaica. And yet as I stood there looking into the sea beyond Black river from the mountains of St. Catherine, and looking at the thatched huts close at hand, I could not help remembering that a whole civilization and the mightiest nation on earth had grown up on the mainland since the first runaway slave had taken refuge in these mountains. They were here before the Pilgrims landed on the bleak shores of Massachusetts. Now, Massachusetts had stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Accompong had remained itself. (294)

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As a self-contained, society with a tradition of self-rule they are a constant reminder of the alternatives that existed to empire and capitalism. In contrast, Haiti is for Hurston an example of the crushing burden of empire on societies.

When Hurston arrived in Haiti for her field work, the memory of the recent US intervention was strong among the people she talked to. What may have been—from the US perspective—a passive phase in foreign policy, was for Haitians a reminder of the betrayal of the revolution. Hurston and her sources are unequivocal in their blame on both external manipulation and the failure of the Haitian elite to do something with their “democracy.” She compares the opportunistic elite in Haiti, prone to ideological and rhetorical flourish, to the black “race leaders” in the United States, who Hurston sees as being displaced by the “doers,” a more silent class but more influential in improving conditions.

Much of this “doing” that Hurston likes so much is reflected in the religious traditions in the Caribbean. It developed very much into a counter-culture, complete with its own social hierarchy and traditions. For every opportunistic political leader, there were dozens of “clans” that run function quite well, empowered by the tradition of voodoo. Hurston points out that structurally, these communities have much in common with the male-dominated African clan. She even entered into a harsh verbal confrontation with a man who debated her about the merits of gender equality. Yet, within voodoo there was a place for women to be active. She talks about a Madame Etienne who had a strong foundation of power and influence in Archahaie.

Zombies come across almost as an extension of the greater political narrative of Haiti as Hurston sees it. By turning free people into thralls, the houngan (those voodoo spiritual leaders) betray the victory of the revolution, turning self-rule into dependency. It is a revival of the master-slave relationship. The fact that such practices are signs of evil and resisted by most (there are elaborate burial rights used to prevent being turned into zombies), is a parallel to the hostility that most Haitians felt toward the opportunities government.

Although it is not a pretty picture at all time at the grassroots of Jamaican and Haitian society, Zora Neale Hurston in Tell My Horse is detailing the unending tension between empire and self-rule. The signs seem to point to the endurance of self-rule, cultivated through counter-cultures, secret societies, deviant religious practices, and various other transgressions. I was reminded often of Bryan Palmer’s book Cultures of Darkness which looks at these secret societies as a necessary component of capitalism.

Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson” (Part Two)

We consider ourselves so strongly founded in this conclusion, that we are of opinion the United States should act on it in all the measures relative to Louisiana in the same manner as if West Florida was comprised within the Island of New Orleans, or lay to the west of the River Iberville. . . The moment is so favorable for taking possession of that country that I hope it has not been neglected, even though a little force should be necessary to effect it. Your minister must find the means to justify it.” (Robert Livingston, pp. 350–351)

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In the second half of Thomas Jefferson’s first term, the specter hanging over the country was whether the United States would come out as an empire. This the feeling I got from reading the second volume of Henry Adam’s massive history of the Jeffersonian “revolution.” The United States was an empire by birth, but like any child that just emancipated itself from a cruel parent, it did not want to confess that it was of the same ilk. Out of the victory in the revolution, the United States inherited all the lands to the Mississippi. Simultaneously, the young nation claimed all the people in those places defeated and conquered, including the more or less undefeated Iroquois. In the first years of the independent republic, the government oversaw a brutal dispossession of these Indians, although it would take a half a century to be completed.

What forced the issue of empire out into the open was the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which almost doubled the size of the nation. As we know, the direct cause of this was the Haitian Revolution and the loss of the French position in the Caribbean, combined (we guess) with a desire to keep the territory out of the hands of the British. Although Adams is careful to note that due to commercial ties between the United States and Britain this would have just given Britain indirect access to Louisiana. I doubt it has any impact on the outcome of the Napoleonic wars. The sale was a straight forward diplomatic affair that emerged out of the Monroe mission to ensure open access to New Orleans for American shipping. Adams dwells on the hand-wringing among Americans that followed the sale. While on the surface it was a debate about Constitutional powers, if Americans had been more honest they would have known they were debating openly for the first time if the nation would be an empire or not.

Here is Adams on Jefferson’s clever dance around the issue:

Jefferson took a different view. He regarded, or wished to regard, the Louisiana treaty and legislation, as exceptional and as forming no precedent. While he signed the laws for governing the territory, he warmly objected to the establishment of a branch bank of the United States at New Orleans. (389)

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He even earlier tried a focused Constitutional Amendment that would have made it clear that such a purchase was a one-time deal. At the same time, we see that annexation through purchase (or conquest, as the nation would learn 45 years later) is perilous because it places on the central government a duty to administer the territory. Simply stating that the Bank of the United States cannot operate there is a ridiculously narrow excuse. There was nothing that could be done but behave imperially in Louisiana, although time would ensure that the heavy lifting of this would be done by other presidents less anxiety-ridden over America’s identity as an empire.

The fact that Louisiana opened up an epic question of the national identity is seen in the almost immediate discussions about Florida and its place in an expanding United States. The first step toward the conquest of Florida may have been the Mobile act, which declared the “shores, waters, inlets, creeks, and rivers, lying within the boundaries of the United States” to be within the taxation zone of the United States. While the territory was still fairly well-defined, commerce would necessarily cross over into Spanish Florida, leading to future decisions to annex the territory by treaty.

Sometimes Adams does not talk much about is the violence that all of this entailed. He can avoid it for two reasons. First, he is interested in the diplomacy above everything else. Second, the territories were largely left alone. From the perspective of an Indian living in Dakota or the Rocky Mountain areas, the second boot would not drop for years or decades. The wars Jefferson’s decision to purchase Louisiana would come and they would be his doing, after a fashion. Now perhaps is not the place to discuss this, as they are outside of Adam’s story, but I would like to challenge Adams on his blinders. Writing at the turn of the century he must have known the result of these decisions and the imperial nature of the Louisiana Purchase. Had he written this tale a bit differently perhaps more Americans would be learning about the purchase as a prelude to genocide rather than as the great achievement of the Jefferson administration.

With the Constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase assured, the United States entered the world stage as a formal empire. Adams devotes the remainder of second volume of his history to three issues: warming relations with England, the Tripoli incursion as part of the ongoing war with the Barbary pirates, and the re-election of Jefferson. As to our theme, the second battle of Tripoli Harbor is the clearest evidence of the young republic acting with an imperial will. Ultimately, Adams is more interested in what this meant for international diplomacy and the relations between England, France, and the United States, but there it is. In the name of suppressing piracy, Jefferson was all too comfortable with empire. Around the time that Jefferson gave his second inaugural address, an American unit under the leadership of William Eaton, the consul of Tunis, was fighting America’s first overseas land battle against Tripoli.

Arna Bontemps, “Black Thunder” Slave Revolt in a Global Context

Arna Bontemps’s Black Thunder is a celebration of revolution presented through a historical novel of the 1800 Gabriel’s Revolt.  It failed as did not US slave revolts, but it can at a moment of revolutions exploding across the Atlantic.  Bontemps reminds us that slaves were not immune from the Atlantic Revolutions.  The context of the American Revolution, Thomas Jefferson’s struggle against the Federalists (culminating in the “Revolution of 1800”), and most importantly the revolution in Saint-Domingue, that would lead to independent Haiti.  More than anything else, Bontemps is celebrating revolutionary violence at a time when many black writers were attempting to construct a place for themselves within the cultural industry of America.  Was the Harlem Renaissance, despite its radical themes, essentially a cultural movement, without the political and revolutionary energies exhibited in the attempted revolution of Gabriel Prosser, a simple blacksmith and slave?  Arna Bontemps’ rejection of the cultural industry as he found a place for himself teaching and in persevering the black heritage through his library work may suggest his frustrations with the efficacy of writing alone.

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The novel is a fairly reliable account of Gabriel’s revolt told through the perspective of the rebels themselves, white observers (fearfully paranoid about any potential of slave resistance), and the legal structures charged with putting down the revolt and punishing the leaders.  Bontemps is quite equivocal about he justice of Gabriel’s cause and the necessity for violence.  Every mediation on that questions leads to the conclusion that the revolt must go on. Every opposition is eventually set aside.  This is brought home in the end in the closing pages of the novel, with the execution of Gabriel.  For a regime based on violence and enforced through violence could not be brought down without at least the threat.  Bontemps makes clear the proportionality of the violence as well (26 rebels were executed despite the failure of the revolt to get off the ground)

Toussaint

Toussaint

A fascinating part of the novel is the global perspective of the rebellion.  Gabriel and his followers moved to rebellion out of local conditions and offenses, but much of their inspiration came from across the sea.  They passed around a letter from Toussaint L’Ouverture.  “My name is perhaps known to you.  I have undertaken to avenge your wrongs.  It is my desire that liberty and equality shall reign.  I am striving to this end.  Come and unite with us, brothers, and combat with us for the same cause.” (655)  We are also faced with a comparison between Gabriel’s struggle for liberty and white America’s debate about the “Alien and Sedition Acts”, which helped bring Jefferson to power.  The Federalists used the revolt to attack the Jeffersonian, for bringing in “French” ideas and general talk of equality and liberty.  Their recklessness with ideas, in the Federalist view, gave slaves the wrong idea about their place in the young republic.  Both desires — to save America from becoming a new Saint-Domingue or to convince the people that they do not really mean to include blacks when they speak of “the Revolution of 1800” made suppression inevitable.

As a part of the Harlem Renissance, Black Thunder is a fairly lonely call for resistance and militancy.  While some sighed as they described inequities, prejudices, and inanity of working class or peasant class black life and others called for “art as propaganda,” cultivating and promoting the vision of the most education, sophisticated, and progressive elements in black America, Bontemps called for fire.  He clearly wanted his reader to be inspired by the history of resistance.  This debate would not be resolved even after the successes of the Civil Rights Movement.

For all of us, black or white, Black Thunder has us ask a question.  If violent resistance works to inspire us, or created fissures in oppressive institutions in the past, why are we so fearful of theses strategies?  Is non-violence, really the answer to being kicked in the face?  It seems that many of our radical ancestors did not think so.  And their efforts inspire us.  Is it that too few of us have the courage to face the gallows?  Half measures and half revolutions are safe.  But are they effective?