Jacob Lawrence: The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture
DC MOORE︱JANUARY 31- MARCH 2, 2019
What does history look like? Jacob Lawrence's series of fifteen prints on Toussaint L'Ouverture, displayed at DC Moore gallery, invites us to contemplate the complexities of a historiographic intervention within the context of aesthetics. Made between 1986 and 1997, this series tells an abridged narrative of the Haitian Revolution, and is based upon a more expanded collection of paintings of L'Ouverture Lawrence made between 1936 and 1938. These paintings constituted the artist's first major historical series—completed several years before The Migration Series (1940–41)—when he was 21 years old. Both the painted and print forms contain an important theorization of black identity.
Lawrence's first image depicts L'Ouverture as an infant in the arms of his enslaved mother. He is a small brown bundle swathed in white; her brown eyes look down at him. The accompanying gallery text (culled from Lawrence's original catalogue) notes that his father, who had been educated in Africa by Jesuit priests, taught him to read. Next, Lawrence depicts L'Ouverture wearing a burgundy coat and top hat working as a coachman in the Breda Plantation, observing the workings of slavery and educating himself. In the third image, he joins the slave rebellion organized by three chiefs, all of whom are depicted in shades of brown. The remainder of the prints highlight L'Ouverture's tactical and diplomatic skills as a general. He wins battles, negotiates with Napoleon Bonaparte, and places the needs of those for whom he is fighting first. The description reads: "Here was a man who had taken black workers from the plantations and formed them into a mighty army of liberation." Even the print depicting L'Ouverture being arrested in 1802, and then dying in captivity in 1803, can be seen as triumphant. It leads into another print, showing a group of men in shades of brown moving toward battle on a beach, emphasizing that the fight for liberation persists within the Haitian people. "It became clear that Napoleon intended to restore slavery in Saint Domingue," the description states. "For Black soldiers, it was a clear choice—fight as free people or live as slaves. Black men, women, and children took up arms in a desperate struggle to preserve their freedom. Haiti became the first Black Western republic in 1804."
The original paintings were conceived at a moment when black people and their histories were deeply marginalized and when dominant culture largely refused to attribute intelligence and tactical skill to them. Lawrence's narrative inverts those tropes, and in this respect, the prints are in conversation with the Trinidadian-British historian C. R. L. James's The Black Jacobins, a field-changing account of the Haitian Revolution first published in 1938. James's gripping narrative describes a multiply fractured and multiply-classed society in San Domingo that was remarkably able to successfully seize upon the throes of revolutionary fever. "The revolt is the only successful slave revolt in history," James explains in his preface, "and the odds it had to overcome is evidence of the magnitude of the interests that were involved. The transformation of slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organize themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day, is one of the great epics of revolutionary struggle and achievement."1
While James centers L'Ouverture, his emphasis is on the extraordinariness of the revolution: "Yet Toussaint did not make the revolution. It was the revolution that made Toussaint. And even that is not the whole truth."2 Though Lawrence's series also resurrects a great man, his argument, made first through tempera, and then silkscreen, is similarly about the collective powers of the people. Aesthetically, we see this emphasis on sameness through the series' repetition of blacks, browns, greens, and oranges. These are the colors that comprise Toussaint's military uniform (that which defines his extraordinariness) and they are also used to render the figures of the Black men and women who fight on for freedom in the last print. This shared color field speaks to collectivity and the persistence of insurgency. While aiming to represent Black history and highlight moments of resistance, strength, and liberation, Lawrence also uses his palette to articulate a philosophy of Black greatness. This is an extraordinary man, but he suggests there is the possibility for extraordinariness within all Black folk.
By bringing the Haitian Revolution into broader American consciousness, Lawrence is marking blackness as diasporic and arguing for a history that links fights against oppression into the promise and possibility of a black collectivity. In 1938, we can register this mobilization to fight as one against the brutality of Jim Crow. In 1986, when Lawrence began this print series, Haiti was in the midst of a successful popular uprising against its brutal dictator, Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier; the impetus for reclaiming black history as a triumph against oppression remaining particularly resonant. Revisiting this historical moment in 1938, 1986, and now is especially important for us to remember Haiti's important history of triumph, especially in a moment when the country is wracked with protests and still grappling with the aftermath of this fight against slavery and colonization. In their production of a black collective, however, Lawrence's prints also enable black Americans to think more broadly about diasporic formations, possibilities, and struggles against oppression.
- C. R. L. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolutio, 2nd ed (New York, Vintage Books, 1989 (1938)), ix.
- Ibid. x.
ContributorAmber Jamilla Musser
Amber Jamilla Musser is Associate Professor of American Studies at George Washington University and the author of Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism (NYU, 2014) and Sensual Excess: Queer Femininity and Brown Jouissance, which was published by NYU Press in November.