Wednesday, December 27, 2006

All Souls' Rising, pt. 1

by Madison Smart Bell
pgs. xxi-55

I blame it on all that French Revolution history I’ve been reading about in The 48 Laws of Power. That’s the reason why I’m reading All Souls’ Rising right now instead of the many books that were in queue before it. All Souls’ Rising is the first of a trilogy that tells the story of the Haitian Revolution. I don’t really remember how I heard about this trilogy. If memory serves me correctly, I believe I read a selection by Madison Smart Bell in last year’s The Best American Travel Writing 2005, which, apparently, I enjoyed enormously. However it happened, Bell’s books ended up on my Wish List and, very recently, I finally bought the first book.

In the preface to his book, Bell writes, “Occupied with their quarrels among themselves, the whites of Saint Domingue [the colonial name for Haiti] gave little thought to the possible effects of the French Revolution on the mulattoes and almost none at all to its possible effects on the black slaves…Meanwhile, Revolutionary conceptions like 'the Rights of Man' circulated freely and noisily through the entire colony and were as audible to the black slaves as to anyone.” Thus, begins the story of the slave uprising in Haiti that will eventually lead to the creation of the first Black republic.

The story itself is beautifully told thus far. Bell’s writing is smooth and quiet. It makes you feel as if he’s taken you to a quiet corner of his fictional world and, if you’re silent and still, you will see wondrous and horrible things. And they are wondrous. See: the renegade slaves calling on the gods to bring them food and the slave Riau being possessed by the spirit Og√Ľn. And they are horrible. See: the slave woman being crucified for killing her illegitimate newborn child and the male slave wearing a head and mouth guard as punishment for being caught eating cane in the field.

Generally, I rarely read books about or set during the period of slavery, unless it’s assigned reading. I dislike reading them for the same reasons that I tend to avoid stories with unhappy endings: too sad. Just too damn sad. And at times, physically painful. How else can I explain the gut-wrenching agony that always comes when I read about the atrocities of slavery? I hate that feeling. Maybe the pain serves as a way to remind us of the horrors of slavery. But I don’t need to be reminded. I live with it every day; it runs in my blood, and, as far as I’m concerned, there are enough horrors today sufficient enough to keep me occupied.

But the Haitian Revolution is a story I’ve never heard before. I know the fact that it happened; I know the fact of it’s result, but I don’t know the story. It’s a different kind of slave story than the American one I learned about in school. So I’ll work my way through Bell's trilogy a teach myself a thing or two. Even if it’s not required.