Vincent Brown ’90 is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. His newest book, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War, explores the largest slave revolt in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world. Here, he talks about Black History then and now, his book, attending UC San Diego and thoughts for the future.
What does Black History mean to you?
Well, you have to go back and look at what people counted as “history” for a very long time. Back in the early nineteenth century—and I’m sorry to start there but I’m a historian, after all—the philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, one of the founders of modern Western philosophy, proclaimed that Africa forms “no historical part of the world.” His idea was that you didn’t find the same kind of movement, energy or historical dynamism in Africa that were in other parts of the world. To him, nothing ever changed in Africa, and by extension, nothing ever changed among Black people. So through the nineteenth century, coinciding with the rise of scientific racism, there was this assumption that Black people, both in Africa and outside of Africa, were primitives who did not transform, who did not change and were not modern people.
When History and other academic disciplines were established in the nineteenth century, what counted as history was mostly the actions of people who did European statecraft or politicians in America. Africa was, for the most part, the province of anthropologists, so historians didn’t really consider it. It was not really until decolonization in the mid-20th century that the historical profession began to treat Africa and Black people seriously as historical subjects. People like Carter G. Woodson, a Black historian who started Negro History Week, which became Black History Month, were trying to assert the importance of Black History to a mainstream historical profession.
So when we examine Black History, we’re starting behind because generations of professionals that we inherited our historiography from just didn’t really think there was a subject there. For me, it’s still extremely important to show people—my readers, my students, the general public and whoever encounters my work—that Black History is just as rich, dynamic, important and consequential as anybody else’s history. I think we still need a Black History Month because we are still changing those basic assumptions about whose history matters.
What fascinates you about your book topic?
I’ve written a book, Tacky’s Revolt, about the largest slave revolt in the eighteenth-century British empire. It happened in Jamaica in 1760 and extended into 1761. Jamaica happened to be Great Britain’s most profitable, most militarily significant, best politically connected colony in America. Many Americans think solely about the 13 British colonies that became the United States. But Britain actually had 26 colonies in the Americas, and by far, the most important among them were those in the Caribbean, where about 90% of the population was enslaved. Tacky’s Revolt happened in Britain’s most important colony, yet historians of early America and the British colonies had never seen fit to write a proper book about this.
The events occurred in the midst of the Seven Years War between Britain, France, Spain and other imperial rivals, which historians have called the first European world war. Now, a lot of historians will know and recognize its importance as the war in which Britain kicked France off the North American continent, out of Canada, and out of India too. But this slave revolt in Jamaica was one of the largest battles in the Seven Years War, and most historians don’t include it as part of the War. Even despite the fact that many of the soldiers and sailors who fought in more famous battles of the Seven Years War—in Quebec, Senegal, Martinique and Guadalupe—then went to Jamaica to suppress the slave revolt—in 1760.
I think, for some of those reasons that I mentioned before, historians saw the slave revolt as something distinct, something that belonged to another history. So I’m reintegrating that slave revolt into the larger history of the Seven Years War.
Now, it gets a bit more complicated because of that enslaved population, anywhere from half to three-quarters of the people had been born in Africa, and many of them were war captives, former soldiers in West African wars. So they are drawing on their historical experiences in Africa when they stage this slave revolt—even former enemies came together because they spoke similar languages or worshipped similar gods. And they revolts they staged, not only in Jamaica, but in other American colonies too, had reverberations around the Atlantic world.
What I’m trying to do in this book is connect what’s happening with developments in West African history with both what’s happening in the slave revolt in Jamaica and the larger European world war. I’m trying to show how African history matters in the Americas and around the world and how the actions of those soldiers are consequential for the history we think we already know, but now have to think about differently.
What do you remember most about your experience at UC San Diego?
Two things stand out: I originally went to UC San Diego to study theater, which I did because it was such an amazing program. I had teachers like Luther James, who was just fantastic. I did a play with Floyd Gaffney, who was a dancer and theater director there in the 1980s. But at a certain point I also fell in love with history, and one of my most influential professors there, Steven Hahn, introduced me to a book by C.L.R. James called The Black Jacobins. It was the story of the Haitian Revolution; a slave revolt that happened during the French Revolution in what was France’s most profitable colony in the Americas, which then was the most profitable colony in the world. James situated that slave revolt on a geopolitical canvas, which is something that I think I’ve tried to emulate in this book on Tacky’s Revolt.
Stephen Hahn’s introduction to the subject also came through an opportunity to work as a research assistant, as he was working on his Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Nation Under Our Feet. That exposure to actual primary source research and, figuratively, getting my hands dirty with primary sources was really important for me catching the history bug.
UC San Diego celebrates 60 years this year–in your perspective, what can history teach us moving forward into the next 60?
One thing that I think is a particular issue for UCSD is that we are known primarily as a science school, but I don’t think UCSD should sleep on the humanities and liberal arts. Thinking about how people behave around the world, their histories, and how they interact is going to be fundamental to the application of the sciences to the goal of human flourishing. The sciences, humanities, and liberal arts all need to be joined together.
A subject that’s on everybody’s minds these days is epidemiology, for obvious reasons. Epidemiologists have to think about cultural meaning, behavior, and history. They are doing what historians do when they try to figure out who was patient zero in an epidemic and how that epidemic progressed over space and time. Historians’ specialty is the analysis of transformation over time. So I think that if we are really going to put the sciences to best use, we’re going to have to be thinking alongside humanities scholars, social scientists, and the practioners of the arts. To really think about how it is that things come to mean something to us and compel us to act—the sciences can’t do that alone. That is important for folks at a science-heavy school to remember.
And just released: Tacky’s Revolt on audiobook.