Actual History: Refusal 9

 

I’m working to learn more from the stories of people who have refused and rejected attempts to exploit and tyrannize them, and I thought you might like to do that, too.

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I’m going to tell this story backward.

In 1804, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines named Haiti and declared it independent. In 1803, he had led the formerly enslaved people who defeated the army of French colonizers at the Battle of Vertieres. They’d been fighting since 1791, but they’d been preparing to fight for much longer than that.

The people who would become Haitians used previous slave rebellions and the French Revolution as spurs and models. They had forged a shared language out of a combination of French and their or their parents’ home languages. Many of them shared Vodun religious practices.

The mountains in the years before 1791 were full of people, people who had escaped slavery and lived there and people who came there to meet them. “The slaves were stirring and holding mass meetings in the forest at night,” one of my sources read.

Marronage is the name for what the people who ran to the forest and made their lives there did, and what enslaved Black people throughout the Americas and the Caribbean did, before they killed their oppressors and gained their freedom. They made places to live, speak, think, eat, and plan. Of people similarly positioned in Louisiana, Ashon Crawley wrote, “The ciprieré communities secreted from local plantations, maintaining a relationship to spaces from which they escaped, but established new patterns of behavior and aesthetic interventions for protection and peace. Setting traps, navigating the swamps, having sex, singing, raising children, eating – all these were aesthetic practices that always and likewise had to be forms of preparation. Maroons needed to be ready at a moment’s notice for encounter with the political world of the exterior that would bear down on them and produce violence against them. Each practice, therefore, was a likewise preparation for the possibility of the threat of violation; each practice, thus, highlights the ways in which interventions always likewise have an aesthetic quality and theoretical underpinning.”

In other words, the story of marronage is the story of learning to live instead: rejecting, refusing, the ways the people profiting from your suffering told you were the only ways. Living, instead, or otherwise, in ways that make you want to live, and make you and your people more likely to live, and prepare you all to evade or to fight back against your death.

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The Haitian Revolution is famous. My sources cite rough counts for how many former slaves and how many colonizers died, but I haven’t been able to find a source that will tell me how many people enslaved in what’s now Haiti died–through murder, through abuse, through neglect, at the hands of the white people who enslaved them–before the Revolution. I’m guessing that would change the count considerably. When you’re reading history, I urge you to consider and seek out the numbers around the numbers, and the information around the information, remembering that every historian chooses when and where to start and stop the story.

The first Ashon Crawley essay I cited above is an old one, and even the second one is two years old. I recommend attending to his recent work.

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