Emancipation: Revolution or Reform

Postcolonial authors have to choose a side to take when they write. The side often chosen by postcolonial subjects is the side of the underdog--the side counter to the colonizer's dominant culture. They also have to choose, depending on their intentions and audience, how to represent the "characters" in their books. Here we will examine books by C.L.R. James, Howard Zinn, and Olaudah Equiano that deal with revolution or reform--or both. Also important in certain circumstances is how an author portrays himself, because they are writing to a specific audience, for a desired effect. For example, in Equiano's book, he must decide how to portray slaves, slave owners, free blacks, Quakers, and abolitionists, as well as himself.

An author working to achieve his goals is comparable to any reformative activist who decides he wants to change things. Authors with political intentions--which postcolonial authors often have--must decide how they want to change things. Even struggles going on today represent the various ways in which reform can be achieved; there are always "right wing" and "left wing" activists, and usually disputes between them over whose method is correct (note 1).

This is important when considering the methods postcolonial authors utilize in their writings to document a group's emancipation, or encourage coming emancipation. Revolution and reform are closely related, but tend to incorporate different reasonings. Usually revolution is employed when reform will obviously not work. Olaudah Equiano encouraged reform, and wanted to free the slaves to incorporate them into British society. Other times, reform was not enough though, and revolution was necessary.

Many slaves revolted as early as the boat ride over the Atlantic. Many slave revolts have been documented. The Black Jacobins is a documentation of a successful revolt; Howard Zinn discusses a number of examples of (failed) rebellions in his People's History of the United States. Also, reminiscent of Equiano's efforts to reform the existing system by imploring nobility, Zinn describes the emancipation of the slaves as a result not of slave revolts, but of the white power structure driven by their economic motivations. This elucidates the fultility of revolution at certain times, and clouds the reasoning that revolution is utilized when reform won't work. Perhaps the opposite is sometimes true as well.

The Haitian Revolution is the subject of C.L.R. James' book, The Black Jacobins. Because of this, it is interesting to look at how James and Zinn, as historians and authors, represent the different methods utilized to work towards emancipation: revolution and reform. Also interesting then, is to look at Equiano's activism working with reform, rather than revolution. This will further blur the subject at hand, but will show us that such complicated matters shouldn't be put simply.

C.L.R. James and The Haitian Revolution

In The Black Jacobins, James describes the Haitian (San Domingo) Revolution as relative to the French Revolution. This relation to France and the class stratification of San Domingo are his main focuses, and this is important. James looks at society in San Domingo as divided between "big whites," "small whites," "mulattoes," "free blacks," and "slaves."1 These different castes make up a sort of sub culture of France. This culture is nearly independent of France, but relies on France for things like trade, governors, provisions, and other colonial tradeoffs. Since France simply sends proprietors to the island, it becomes the duty of those of the upper-crust on the island to both maintain relations with France, and keep the control of the island.

This creates the often-shifting social structure of San Domingo, which structures itself, in James' view, according to the economic needs of different classes, more so than because of racial divisions. One example is the leaning of the mulattos towards whoever currently holds the power on the island. Most mulattos were free and land owners, and, therefore, they wanted to maintain their social standing and, thus, their power. They would support the French connections if it looked like the French would succeed in putting down the revolts because they already had a favorable standing amongst the white ruling class. If the slaves started doing well during the revolution though, they would shift their support to them so that they could also benefit through the post-revolution reorganized social structure.

As this implies, James believed economic forces to be more influential than racial boundaries. This is interesting. The Black Jacobins is a revolutionary book. It documents revolution, and intends to encourage revolution elsewhere. The economic aspect, however, is exactly what some reformers capitalized on to persuade their colonizers to reform the system.

Howard Zinn and American Emancipation

James' utilization of economics is similar to Zinn's portrayal of emancipation in the chapter "Slavery without Submission," in A People's History of the United States. Zinn, however, doesn't focus so much on the numerous social hierarchies that James does (note2). To reveal American intentions behind the abolition of slavery, Zinn focuses on the Civil War--usually thought of as the paramount event in U.S. emancipation. After reviewing a few slave revolts and their defeats, he turns to focus on Abraham Lincoln and his ability to "skillfully blend the interests of the very rich and the interests of the black at a moment in history when these interests met."2

Lincoln, Zinn infers, was against slavery, but still did not believe blacks were equals.3 The main reason Lincoln opposed slavery, like the reason for the civil war, was not so much moral, as economic. The whites in power in the north wanted economic expansion, and the southern powers knew that this would basically ruin their sustenance. Lincoln goes so far to state, "what I do about Slavery and the colored race, I do because it helps to save this Union."4 This elucidates his intentions: not of purely moral ground, but of his official duty as president (note3). Therefore, as Zinn observes, the war "was not a clash of peoples (most northern whites were not economically favored, not politically powerful; most southern whites were poor farmers, not decision makers) but of elites."5 Surely, the people of the U.S. dissagreed on issues of slavery, but this shows that the war was mainly a clash of elites. Since it was a clash of the elite, this illuminates the fact that it is the higher economic powers that can most readily make changes. The abolitionists had been lobbying for the ffreedom of the slaves, but it evntually took economics to get the elites to listen.

Olaudah Equiano and British Emancipation

Getting the elites to listen is something that Equiano struggles with as well. Equiano implores the existing white power structure of England to change the situation of the Anglo-Africans. Perhaps he does this because he recognizes that most slaves' attempts at violent dissent are quite futile since white imperial capitalists control slaves both physically, and to quite an extent, mentally. After all, it wasn't until fifteen years later that the first completely successful salve revolt happened resulting in the founding of Haiti.

Since Equiano doesn't revolt or attempt to organize slaves under him, his account appears to adhere to the same idea as Zinn's: that existing powers can most readily make change. This seems inherent to the fact that he addresses the nobility in the dedication of his book. The intended audience of Equiano's book is the first indication a reader has of his reformative intentions. His book is dedicated "to the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and the Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain."4 Thus, his intentions are to elicit the Queen's "compassion for millions of [his] African countrymen," and to show the "oppression and cruelty exercised to the unhappy negroes" to the Queen and the British legislature so that they might in turn play a part in the abolition of slavery.5

This is one strong distinction, then, between the different authors' approaches: reform or revolution. While James recounts a successful revolution and hopes to encourage the coming emancipation in South Africa, Zinn acknowledges the strife and futility of many insurrections, and then explains how changes can finally come about within existing power structures (note4). Equiano also applies to the existing power.

In America, The Civil War reminds the reader of a tactic to get the attention of a group that normally couldn't care less about existing situations: hit them in the pocket. Conversely, Equiano tries to hit the British nobility in the heart. Utilizing moral arguments rather than economic, Equiano neither promotes revolution, nor waits for economic forces to promote emancipation, he tries to hasten reform (note5).

In addition to the fact that Equiano's audience is the British nobility, he repeatedly begs the Queen to interpose on behalf of "the wretched Africans."6 As an intelligent and devoutly religious free man, he has more influence on powerful whites than a "savage" slave would have. Utilizing Christian rhetoric, as well as other moral maneuvers--like portraying individual slave owners as evil--Equiano invites the powers that exist to continue their reign. Non threateningly, he asks for the freedom of his brethren. So, focusing not on revolution, nor on economic reform, he implores the morals of the literate society, hoping they will recognize his humble requests.

Whether Equiano's goals are different than slaves' goals that violently rise up, or whether Equiano just uses different means to achieve the same results, he obviously promoted black freedom. His own assimilation and leanings toward Christianity, capitalism, and colonialism need to be examined too, for he married a British woman, became devoutly Christian, and in some ways encouraged colonialism to continue when he worked to bring literacy to Sierre Leone. But for now, it is with the British nobility and other religious countrymen as his audience that Equiano sets out to write his autobiography. His purpose, whether purporting assimilation or not--and whether pushing Christianity, capitalism, and even colonialism--is to urge the freedom of the slaves.

1. Group Divisions:
One example of what I mean here is the civil rights movement. The civil rights movement was divided amongst itself in many ways--in one instance, by Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. This rift, caused by differing personal ideals is quite different from some other internal struggles the Black Panthers faced. How many were personal differences, and how many were differences imposed upon them remains a question of historical perspective. For example, it wasn't until years after the COINTELPRO's operations that the FBI's reports were discovered. These reports evinced the FBI's methods to collect information about, and also directions of intent to "disrupt" and "neutralize" five target groups that threatened domestic tranquility in the U.S. Namely, the Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party, the White Hate Group, the Black Nationalist Hate Group, the New Left, and later, the Black Panther Party.

I am not insinuating that reformative and revolutionary groups are destroyed strictly by differing ideals and methods, or strictly by subversive government tactics. However, both of these, at times, have influences over the path which groups will follow, and sometimes be dragged.

2. American, Haitian, and British Emancipation:
Obviously, a comparison to the emancipation of the American slaves has innate differences between their colonial and national issues from both British emancipation and Haitian independence. For example, during most of the Haitian Revolution, the French were across the Atlantic, and not only colonizing elsewhere around the world, but at war with Britain. The rulers in the United States were present in the same area as their slaves, and had no international conflicts during abolitionist times.

3. Lincoln:
In the same letter quoted here, Lincoln says, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the union without freeing any slave, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could do it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that." I have seen people quote only "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it," as a means to illustrate the same point. This is inaccurate; he is stating that his duty to the Union comes first. He ends the letter thus: "I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty, and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men, everywhere, could be free." As Zinn points out, this distinguishes his personal feelings from his public duties.7

4. Reform vs. Revolution:
Although James' and Zinn's books are historical accounts, they nevertheless intend to influence events to come. James intends for his book to "stimulate the coming emancipation of Africa," while Zinn hopes to find the future "in the past's fugitive moments of compassion." This idea is examined in more depth on the page comparing literary style and historical accuracy, as are Equiano's intentions to urge emancipation.

5. Equiano's reform:
This is not to say that American slaves "relied" on economic forces, but those forces are the impetus that eventually led to their emancipation. Equiano lobbied for the heart of the Queen.


***The Britannica Guide to Black History: Timeline, offers a very detailed look at Black History. It is a timeline that tries to touch on everything that was important in Black History, and does quite a commendable job. It includes many further links to areas of interest too.

***The Chronology on the History of Slavery and Racism is a detailed and in depth look at slavery and racism, as well as their evolution and relationship to each other. They have three sections of focus: 1619-1789, 1790-1829, and 1830-the end. The link provided here will take you to the 1830-the end page, but it is simple to then move between them.

***Africana.com offers a wealth of information about African-influenced cultures throughout the world. They have articles dedicated to many people, ideas, events, and more. Perhaps of particular interest would be the page on W.E.B. DuBois, the Press, Black, in the United States article, or the page about the Civil Rights Movement.

For historical background information to any sort of 19th century literature, the 19th Century American History page offers links galore to nearly any fathomable aspect of 19th century America. This page would be great for teachers to learn more about the relations of literature to its historical background, or just for them to offer that background to their students.

Also, another page that seems to be more directed at students is this page on United States Slavery.

Professor Gregory Jay teaches African American Literature at the University of Wisconsin, and he has excellent Notes on Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative that introduce teachers to the topic, and help them with ideas for class use. He discusses a little background information, the rhetorical situation of the work, and then touches on many major issues for discussion and interpretation.

Angelo Costanzo also has a good page about Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797). His page focuses on classroom issues and strategies; major themes, historical perspectives, and personal issues; significant form, style, or artistic conventions; the original audience; comparions, contrasts, and connections; and also includes reading questions and appraoches to writing about the work.

Teaching history through literature is further explored on Vicki's Teaching page, and also discussed somewhat on the literary style or historical fact page.


1. James, CLR. The BlackJacobins. New York: Vintage Books, 1989, 33-42.

2. Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial, 1995, 182.

3. Ibid., 183.

4. Equiano, Olaudah. The Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavas Vassa, the African. New York: Dover Publication, Inc., 1999, 2.

5. Ibid., 184.

6.Ibid., 184.

7. Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial, 1995, p186.

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