The Haitian Revolution
The Haitian Revolution was a series of conflicts that began with a slave revolt in August of 1791 and ended with Haiti being the first country in the world to be founded by freed slaves. The island of Hispaniola, like so many islands in the Caribbean, had a history scared by European conquest and colonization and brutal conditions on plantations that were nothing but money makers for wealthy Europeans, most of whom were not present on the islands at all. In 1791, the island of Hispaniola was run by Spanish in Santo Domingo (present-day Dominion Republic) and French in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). When sugar plantations began feeding the world’s sweet tooth, competition for these profitable plantations drove the European powers to vie for power and dominance throughout the Caribbean.
The human cost of this surge for power and wealth was immense. The plantations could not be run without laborers and it soon became apparent that the increased need for labor would be filled through the slave trade. Laurence Dubois writes in Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, “By 1790, after several years of record-breaking African imports, there were at least a half-million slaves in Saint-Dominque; they outnumbered white colonists by more than ten to one.”4 Conditions on the plantations were horrendous as the enslaved endured ill treatment and harsh living and working conditions. Saint-Domingue was ripe for revolution.
In August of 1791 a slave revolt in northern Saint Dominique started the revolution which would eventually lead to freedom for slaves in Hispaniola. Ten thousand slaves rose up, killing colonists and burning plantations. Three months later the number of insurrectionists rose to 80,000.5
Toussaint Louverture, the son of slaves, freed ten years before the revolution, joined the insurrection and was soon leading his own army against Spanish forces. Louverture quickly became a pivotal player in the revolution, combining his charisma and intelligence to gain support and play the European conquerors against each other.
Louverture utilized unconventional fighting techniques such as ambush, intimidation and harassment to defeat others. His knowledge of the terrain combined with guerilla warfare propelled him to be known as the leader of the revolution. Sudhir Hazareesingh writes in Black Spartacus, The Epic Life of Toussaint Louverture, “Toussaint not only anticipated the nature of the war of liberation: he also devised the strategy successfully pursued by the insurgents. The meticulous concealment of weapons, the scorched-earth policy, the systematic destruction of the economic apparatus of the colony (sugar production ground to a complete halt by the end of 1802), the retrenchment of rebel forces on higher ground and the appeal of the leveen masse- all there were his ideas;” 6
Louverture's martial skills combined with his political savvy led him to become a top-ranking military leader of French forces and who eventually declared himself “governor for life” of Saint Dominique. He led a complicated campaign, at first supporting Spain, then France and secretly communicated with his rivals, even England, while positioning himself as a leader. Although Louverture’s strategic positioning made him a controversial figure in some ways, his dedication to freeing slaves or improving conditions on plantations remained at the heart of his epic struggle in Saint-Domingue.
When Napoleon’s French forces again invaded Saint-Domingue in 1802, Louverture again went on the offensive and attacked the French forces he once supported, but in June he and his family were captured and deported to France.
By the time Toussaint Louverture died imprisoned in Fort de Joux, an isolated medieval French prison, in April of 1803 his legendary reputation as a leader of the Haitian revolution was secured. Hazareesingh writes in Black Spartacus, “By the end of the nineteenth century, Toussaint and the Haitian Revolution had become powerful symbols of collective emancipation, inspiring men and women far and wide, from the Atlantic right across to Maori communities in New Zealand;”7
After his death, Louverture’s heroic reputation continued to grow in tales and songs, on stamps and coins, in movies and literature on statues and memorials and in portraits and paintings, almost always in a heroic posturing. In the final of a series of four prints commissioned by Haitian president Jean-Pierre Boyer, Louverture is portrayed, Christ-like passing away in the arms of his servant in Fort de Joux. His prone body, cradled by the servant in the misty dark cell, is only highlighted by the sunlight coming in through the bared window, shining on him with angelic hope and peace. A century later at the height of another movement aimed at gaining rights and freedoms denied descendants of American slaves, another depiction of the heroism of Toussaint Louverture would be born at the hands of one of the Harlem Renaissance’s great artist; Jacob Lawrence.
Louverture’s role in the Haitian revolution is a complex story that will be new to many of my middle school students. In order to get a more concrete overview of this history I will turn to one of several sources that will give students a brief introduction to the era in a readable format that will not only keep them interested in the topic, but will also help them visualize and understand the story without becoming too overwhelming. A brief visual summary of the revolution along with illustrations and narration is provided online on a comic website called The Nib (https://thenib.com/haitian-revolution/). The retelling of the story entitled The Slave Revolution that Gave Birth to Haiti, was created by Rocky Cotard and Laurent Dubois, a leading expert on Haiti and Louverture.
Another tool that will be convenient at this point in the unit will be a wall map that I regularly utilize when talking about many aspects of both fiction and nonfiction. I find it useful to help students sort of situate themselves with a map before talking about stories, authors, histories and the like. In this case before even getting into the revolution and the role of Louverture, I will ask students to identify where they are on the map and where Haiti and various other points in the Caribbean are. Utilizing the map as I present the Nib comic to the students will provide students with a solid foundation from which to start their journey.
Jacob Lawrence and the Harlem Renaissance
Making the transition from the Haitian Revolution to Jacob Lawrence and the Harlem Renaissance is not as difficult as it may seem at first. The plantation system developed and exploited throughout the Caribbean was really a prototype what would become the norm in the southern United State during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Dubois writes, “The era of the slave revolution in the French Caribbean was a turning point in the history of the Atlantic slave system. It was an essential part of not only the history of the islands but also the history of New World slavery, of US history during the early republic, of Latin American independence and the emergence of the nation-state in the nineteenth century.8
After the U.S. Civil War, slaves were “freed” into the Jim Crow south where little opportunity or chance for advancement awaited them. The “Great Migration” that took place at the beginning of the 20th century was the result of a displaced people looking for a better life, looking for a missing common culture, in search of an identity that was taken from them. The Harlem Renaissance, like so much of the history of the United States really does have its roots in the atrocities first committed in the Caribbean.
The Harlem Renaissance is an amazing unit of study for middle school students. As an arts magnet school seems to have something for everyone, the Harlem Renaissance also has someone that will interest everyone. The stories that came out of the Great Migration, and led to the cultural explosion centered in Harlem, are too numerous to mention here, but the common thread that ran through all of the stories and through all of the effort was a desire for freedom: freedom to be who one wanted to be, freedom to express oneself, freedom to live and love like everyone else. Students marvel at the stories and love to explore the art.
Jacob Lawrence’s art is especially interesting for a language arts class because much of his work told a story. Lawrence’s work depicts scenes that he saw around him in Harlem. He used bright colors that imply action and movement in scenes that students can relate to. In his more epic panels, Lawrence retold stories that he had learned growing up in Harlem. His work really documents important events in the struggle for freedom that was at the very heart of the Harlem Renaissance. Lawrence’s depiction of The Great Migration is a series of sixty panels that touch on issues that the southern migrants faced as they relocated from the south. They are issues and challenges that we as a nation still struggle with today: unfair working conditions, discrimination, racism and violence are explored in the migration series.
Similarly, Lawrence told the stories of those who he saw as leaders in the ongoing struggle for equal rights and the fight to end racial discrimination. His thirty panels on Harriet Tubman depict the bravery and courage that it took to stand up to the wrongs that Lawrence saw in American society. Series of panels telling the stories of Frederick Douglass, John Brown, and Henry Clay depict heroes of the struggle through narrative depictions.
One of Lawrence’s earliest exhibitions included his series on Toussaint Louverture and the struggle for independence in Haiti. Lawrence created the series of forty-one panels based on research into the Haitian leader’s part in the revolution. In the Louverture panels, as in many of his other panels, Lawrence wrote brief narrations. Sudhir Hazareesingh writes in Black Spartacus, “The overall aim, as Lawrence later declared, was to use the examples of the Haitian Revolution to challenge the ‘economic and racial slavery’ of modern times.” 9 Much like Billie Holiday’s lyrics in Strange Fruit, or Langston Hughes’ message in I too, Jacob Lawrence was using his talent to make a statement to add to the cause and fight in his own way against discrimination.
Viewing Art as Narrative
At this point in the unit, I will focus more on Lawrence’s panel collections to give students a chance to review how the artist worked and how he used his panels to tell stories. This is a great opportunity for students to work in groups and explore the panel collections for a day or two. I will assign the larger panel collections to groups, but save the Louverture collection for us to examine as a class. In this way I believe students will be able to make their own discoveries about the stories Lawrence was telling us and will be well-equipped to dive into the Louverture collection as a class before we move on to our culminating project.
A great way to start students off examining artwork might be to utilize what was taught to me several years ago at a workshop with the Yale Museum of British Art as the MoMA Method of viewing art. In this method teachers are encouraged to help students make their own discoveries and interpretations as to what is being depicted or related in the art. We start with a moment of silent viewing before sharing ideas. The teacher then invites students to start their own interpretations of the art with a simple question: What do you see? The students share what they see and the teacher validates the answer by simply restating the observation exactly as it is said, with no judgment.
When students begin to interpret or make meaning of the art as opposed to identifying simply what they see, the teacher responds with simple, open ended questions: What makes you say that? What else can you say about that? The interaction with the art becomes deeper as the teacher encourages students to make connections or incorporate simple activities (journal writing, posing like the picture, and drawing) that allow students to interact with each other and the art itself. Finally some reflection helps students synthesize what they have learned through their observations. This relatively simple exercise in art observation can lead to deeper insights and students’ growing comfort in interpreting all works of art. To learn more about viewing art and for additional resources on using art in the classroom go to https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning.
The Final Project: Narrative Panels of One of My Heroes
The final project of the unit will be a culmination of our study and a creative way for all of us to tell the story of one whom we individually look up to. This part of the unit can be a bit tricky depending on how much teachers want to expand on or tweak the assignment.
This is also a good point in the unit to stop and reflect on everything that we have talked about and explored during the unit with a little more emphasis on what Lawrence was attempting to do with his narrative panels. A class discussion of the panels which groups already looked at and a teacher led discussion of the Louverture panels at this point can lead students toward my goal which is to tell the story of one of their heroes or someone they look up to.
Another point regarding larger projects such as this one, teachers should do all of the activities they are asking students to do. For example we open with a journal entry on important people in our lives. Teachers should be prepared to share an example of their own entry before asking students to proceed. This goes for every aspect of the unit, including the narrative panels that will be produced at the end. Be prepared to show what you mean through your own work.
Students start work on the project through a simple journal entry on who in their own life they look up to. Encourage them to think of parents, grandparents, siblings, coaches, aunts, uncles, and teachers. Students are surrounded by inspirational individuals; choosing one and discovering more about him/her/they, and retelling their stories will be the challenging and most rewarding part of this unit.
Once students have discovered their topics, a session on formulating questions will help them to prepare for interviewing and gathering information on their topics. Formulating open ended questions that lead students to make exciting discoveries will take a day or two of discussion. Leading a whole class discussion will help students recognize the difference between a closed ended question and an open ended question. Help student change closed ended questions into open ended questions and vice-versa so they are comfortable formulating meaningful questions that will help them in this project as well as future research. Utilize journals to formulate some questions as a class and then ask students to add to their list on their own. Finally, to close this section ask students to share and borrow ideas from each other in a whole class exercise.
Students should utilize these questions to interview the person of their choice. If they cannot think of a person to interview, suggest students tell the story of one of the figures from the Harlem Renaissance. Instead of actually interviewing the figures, students can use the questions to guide their research.
Once the needed information has been compiled, show students how to transform this into a short narrative. Keep referring to the Lawrence panels and your own work to help students understand that these or brief biographies in which the main accomplishments or challenges of the topic will be highlighted. Have students divide their findings into short blurbs. Utilize journals to do a rough draft of their project, treating each separate page in their journal as a panel and a two to three sentence narrative of what is to be depicted on the particular panel. Encourage students to focus on getting the written narrative correct and just use simple illustrations (stick figures?) to illustrate the words.
Once students have a rough draft of their projects in their journals, have the discussion on creating the panels. If you are working with an art teacher on the unit, they will have a lot of ideas and should be a very helpful resource at this point. If you are not an art teacher, or don’t have access to one, have a discussion with the class on all the possibilities that creating their own individual panels can take. Everything from stick figures to crayon, to oil paintings, collages, pen and ink, and many others are possibilities for the art work itself. The art work can be as individualized and unique as each student. I will, however ask students to keep the panels to a certain size and also decide on what kind of backing or framing can be the cohesive thread that will run through the exhibition itself.
We take chances as teachers all the time. This section of the unit is probably the most dangerous to those of us who do not like to let go a bit in the classroom. Your classroom is about to become an art studio filled with more than a dozen artists doing their own thing in their own media at their own pace and at their own creative capacity. It could be a little chaotic, but should also be a lot of fun.
The final component of this unit is the art exhibit walk through itself. To what degree you want to take this exhibit is, of course up to you. Will students display their work in your classroom in a permanent exhibit for themselves and others? Is there a hallway or area in your school where you and your class can set up their work, or will the local library allow you to borrow some space in their facility for a temporary show? Who will be invited? Will students create invitations? Will there be an opening with a three string quartet and cheese and crackers? All of these are possibilities at the point in the unit. The important thing is that students are able to share their work in some way in a different sort of setting. It is a celebration of art, of creativity, and most importantly of your students ‘accomplishments.