The Black American Jacobins: Revolution, Radical Abolition, and the Transnational Turn
by Adam Dahl, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
While scholars of African American political thought have done a remarkable job centering focus on black thinkers, they still largely frame their endeavor in reference to the geo-political boundaries of the U.S. nation-state, thereby ignoring the transnational and diasporic dynamics of black politics. The consequence is that alternative traditions of thought in the Americas—e.g., Caribbean traditions—are cast as irrelevant to questions of racial exclusion in U.S. political thinking. I seek to correct nation-centric perspectives on U.S. political thought and development by demonstrating the utility of the “transnational turn.” Drawing on the framework developed in C.L.R. James’s The Black Jacobins, I trace how an influential cohort of abolitionists in the antebellum United States looked to the Haitian Revolution as a model for the overthrow of slavery. Engaging the writings and speeches of David Walker, James Theodore Holly, and Frederick Douglass, I then argue that radical abolitionists operated in the same ideological problem-space as Haitian revolutionaries and adopted a specific model of revolution as much indebted to Haitian political thought as Anglo-American models of anti-colonial revolt. By implication, racially egalitarian movements and moments in U.S. political development cannot be adequately understood with exclusive reference to national traditions of thought.