From Toussaint to Tupac: The Revolutionary and the Revivalist in Afro-Atlantic Religious History

I recently received an interesting and important anthology to review: Michael O. West, William G. Martin, and Fanon Che Wilkins, From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International Since the Age of Revolution. It represents something of a coming of age for studies of the black diaspora, or Africana studies, or whatever one wishes to call it, and reviving of a dream DuBois and others had taken up decades ago. The editors take on the Whig metanarrative of the march of freedom in modern Western history, which “pays scant attention to most of humanity outside the white Atlantic,” as well as national narratives which privilege the nation state, suggesting instead a model in which the struggles of black people worldwide from the Haitian Revolution to contemporary rap fundamentally inform and shape historical questions and understandings.

This project takes root in the early essays in the book, including Sylvia Frey’s outstanding exploration of the evangelical roots of Pan-Africanism in the eighteenth century, and William O. Martin and Michael O. West’s lively recounting of the Haitian Revolution, and their tracing of the “two black international traditions, the revolutionary and the revivalist” (more on that in just a bit). Subsequent sections (mostly concerned with political, not religious, historical narrative and analyses) deal with the black international in the World War I era, and in the era from the 1960s to the present. Each attempts to “show the emergence of black traditions of struggle and resistance in particular localities,” and demonstrate “how local struggles intersected with one another across diverse boundaries to form, loosely and informally, a black international that was greater than the sum total of its constituent parts.”

It’s interesting to ponder a rewriting of religious history using the model above. While religious history is not the primary concern of this essay collection, there’s plenty for religious historians to draw from here. In this case, rather than “Toussaint to Tupac,” a companion volume might be something like “Protten to West,” i.e. from Rebecca Protten, the black Moravian missionary whose fascinating transatlantic life has been discussed in Jon Sensbach’s Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World, to Cornel West, who presumably needs no introduction. These two figures, and so many in between from David Walker to Jarena Lee to Henry McNeal Turner to Howard Thurman and many others, make for a fascinating narrative and genealogy of the revolutionary and the revivalist, and a counternarrative to the Whig version of American religious history.

The first two essays in this work, by Frey and by Martin/West, introduced this thought to me as they trace the dual revolutions in black life and thought in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century: the revolutionary, and the revivalist. The two were intimately connected; indeed, Frey has argued that the revolutionary tradition came out of the revivalist movements. West and Martin’s essay, “Haiti, I’m Sorry: The Haitian Revolution and the Forging of the Black International,” a bracing examination of the wide-ranging consequences of the violent uprising in the jewel of the French crown, puts it this way: “the Haitan Revolution was a central moment in the evolution of the black international, forcefully demarcating the two major paradigms in black internationalism that emerged in the Age of Revolution: the revolutionary and revivalist traditions. The one tradition had its origins in the long series of slave revolts that reached its zenith in the Haitan Revolution, while the other derived from the evangelical revival movement of the latter part of the eighteenth century.”

Frey adds the following: “[P]an-Africanism has a complex genealogy. It emerged from an interweaving of revolutionary principles of liberty and religious notions of spiritual equality, on the one hand, and the wartime experiences of enslaved people, on the other. Black evangelicalism helped to transform the religious and political landscape of the Atlantic world. Transported abroad during the postrevolutionary exodus, black evangelicals left as their legacy black forms of Protestantism in Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Jamaica, and other Caribbean islands. Not coincidentally, their nonviolent struggles for the expansion of human rights coincided with the great Atlantic revolutions and the burgeoning antislavery movement of the late eighteen and early nineteenth centuries. The Exodus story that lay at the heart of evangelical expectations for the coming of the divinely appointed millennium melded easily with the impatient dreams of those who sought to hasten the day of deliverance. The impatient ones offered another historical model from which Afro-Atlantic peoples drew inspiration. Thus did the two traditions in early pan-Africanism emerge: the evangelical and the revolutionary.”

After the initial offerings by Frey and Martin/West, the remainder of this volume mostly follows other narratives; the revolutionary receives extended attention, the revivalist less so. This leaves openings for others, I hope, to pick up the useful thread of following the narrative of the revolutionary and the revivalist in Afro-Atlantic religious history.


Rebecca's Revival is one of my favorite books from the Atlantic World readings course I took a few years back.
rjc said…
The book sounds really interesting, and Paul, your comments are stimulating. Thanks for the heads up.
John G. Turner said…

Would you mind briefly explaining the "Whig version of American religious history?" I think I know what you mean...
Paul Harvey said…
John: That was just a shorthand comment referring to a simple view of ever-growing progress in history, religious and otherwise -- in American history, this comes from my students who assume we started with religious freedom and just got ever more free-er over time.

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