Thirty years ago, Julius S.Scott, then a Duke University graduate student, wrote a sweeping, intercontinental dissertation on how slaves, free blacks, sailors, market women, and others, spread word about the 1790 Haitian Revolution and impending emancipation.
But the manuscript was never published. The unpublished work became an underground possession as well as an underground academic sensation—renowned for its creativity, imaginative research and graceful prose—for scholars and students for three decades. Scott, a professor of Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan, has now published it as The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution, and the long acclaimed work will be released by Verso this month.
What were the origins of this book?
I was watching the 1968 Olympics from Mexico City, where [black U.S. track & field stars] John Carlos and Tommie Smith made some important protests. As a young African-American, I noticed other black athletes from Africa, the Caribbean and South America, and I thought about their relationship to Afro-North Americans, and what were some of the important vehicles of communication between black people in different parts of the Americas. That became the basis of my dissertation.
Haiti—the world’s first black republic, which freed itself from French slavemasters—is the centerpiece of the book. Why did you focus on that country?
I chose the period of the Haitian Revolution in 1790 because that was such an important event that black people across the Americas were interested in. I really wanted to demonstrate some of the ways in which communication—ideas, information, news and rumors—traveled from place to place. The Haitian Revolution was a good place to make that case.
In the book you refer to the people who spread word of the Haitian Revolution as “The Masterless class.” What does that term mean?
There was a substantial, important minority of [individuals], defined as enslaved people that I call the Masterless People, Even in slave-based societies there were people who managed to have some mobility. The plantation could not survive if it was isolated. So the people the master sent into town were conveyors of information. They were Maroons [escaped Caribbean slaves], seamen … all kinds of people were in this class.
What scholarly books served as inspiration for your work?
I learned from a lot of books. When I was in grad school, all students were required to read Fernand Braudel’s massive first volume of his history of the Mediterranean. He took a body of water and looked at the ways in which different societies that had access to that body of water interacted over time. And I remember thinking at that [someone] could write a Caribbean history like this. That book taught me how settings and boundaries were important, in terms of the history I would write. There was also Georges Lefebvre’s book, The Great Fear of 1789, which was about how news of the French Revolution traveled from place to place. C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins [a history of the Haitian Revolution] was also important.
So you wrote a groundbreaking work of scholarship. What led to it not being published?
Someone I met at a conference just after grad school suggested that I send the dissertation to a small publisher. I did, and two weeks later, they sent me a letter that said that it was too narrow and specialized for them. That threw me. I later sent the dissertation to Oxford University Press. They offered me a contract, which I signed, but they sent me some reader’s comments that suggested different things for me to do with the dissertation.
Part of the problem was that I was not committed to one place: I wasn’t a U.S. historian, or a Jamaican historian. I included all of those places. I studied archives in Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, England and France. I could read and speak Spanish and French, but I also wanted to learn Dutch and Danish [to study the other islands in the Caribbean], but that would have taken more years to write. I set an agenda for myself that was far too ambitious. Eventually, I put the dissertation aside. I had a job, and I left it at that.
How did you find out that your work was an underground sensation? What led to the dissertation being published?
I started getting royalty checks every year from the people who make dissertations available in print. I realized it was being sold [laughs]! People were reading my dissertation and learning something from it. About a year ago, I got a call from my former graduate assistant, saying Verso Press was interested in publishing it. I couldn’t believe it! Initially, I didn’t want to dredge up those failures from over thirty years ago. My life had changed: I went on dialysis, I’m on disability. But I went ahead and published it, and I’m glad I did. I’m proud that my dissertation had such a profound effect on people.