Saturday, December 31, 2011

Media Coverage of Your Favorite Emma Goldman Impersonator

That is, I assume I am your favorite Emma Goldman impersonator. Your favorite steampunk one anyway.


My performance at Occupy Wall Street was mentioned in The Nation: Emma Goldman Occupies Wall Street.

I was also featured in a wee documentary here:

Emma Goldman and The East Village's Radical Past Final Cut from Chris Matthews on Vimeo.

Read the full article here: A Radical's Legacy

That's all for now! Watch this space for a new post soon, and news about another upcoming appearance at Occupy Wall Street.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Lucy Parsons: So Badass it Took 89 Years and a Fire to Stop Her

Lucy Parsons, 1886, age 33.

Lucy Eldine Gonzalez Parsons was born a slave, in Texas, in 1853. So she's automatically tougher than you, right off the bat. Let there be no mistake about that. Strap in, though, because her life didn't get a whole lot easier from there.

She married a white former Confederate soldier, named Albert Parsons in 1871. The marriage wasn't legal, since he was white, and they were in Texas, in, as I may have mentioned, 1871, but Lucy Parsons wasn't going to let a little thing like that stop her, and she married the hell out of him anyway, because he was almost as awesome as she was, and after being a slave, Lucy had probably had entirely enough of people telling her what to do to last her the rest of her goddamn life, thank you very much. The two soon found that Reconstruction-era Texans did not take kindly to marriages between white men and women of mixed black, Native American, and Mexican ancestry, who were, by the way, campaigning together for an end to racial segregation and restrictions on interracial marriage. At all. Lucy's husband was working to register black voters when he was shot in the leg and threatened with lynching, whereupon the couple decided, quite understandably, that they had had about enough of Texas. In 1873, they moved to Chicago.

You'd think Chicago would've been better for our brave young couple, and for a while, you'd be right. Albert found work as a printer, and everything was great, until a massive railroad strike in 1877. Albert and Lucy both supported the strike, and Albert ended up giving a speech to 25,000 workers advocating peaceful means of protest. Obviously, we can't be having THAT, so he was fired from his job at the Chicago Times and blacklisted for helping to organize workers.

With Albert unable to find work, Lucy stepped up to the proverbial plate, opening a dress shop to support her and her husband. And hey, as long as she had a shop, she figured, she might as well start hosting meetings of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Because involvement with organized labor had worked out so well for her husband. Whatever; she was passionate about it, so she went for it, making it clear, not for the first, or the last time, that she basically did not understand the concept of fear. I should probably mention that she was pregnant with her first child at the time, and working full time as the only wage earner in the household. But she still felt she had time for some political activism. Pregnancy slows most people down. Most people are not Lucy Parsons.

It was around this time that Lucy started to get truly radical. I am using "radical" here both in the sense of "advocating for fundamental change in society by targeting the root of problems like poverty and injustice," and also in the early 1990's sense of "completely amazing." How radical did Lucy Parsons become in the 1880s? Well, she and her husband ended up helping to found an anarchist publication, and she began writing for The Socialist and The Alarm. She argued, in word and in print, that violent and direct action, or the threat of it, was the only way to win the demands of the workers. Oh, and she started openly calling herself an anarchist. Remember, she was doing all this while being black and female in the 1880s. By this time, she was considered more dangerous than her husband. You know, the guy advocating peaceful measures. She wasn't doing that; she was doing the other thing. As far as she was concerned, wage slavery was just like slavery-slavery, and it took a war to end that, so it seemed logical that armed conflict would be necessary to end this. That was what she preached. By the 1920s, she was considered "more dangerous than a thousand rioters" by the Chicago police, but we're getting to that.

If Albert Parsons' name sounds familiar to you, it's because of a riot in a place called Haymarket Square, which I really hope does sound familiar to you. As you probably know, many civilians, and eight policemen were killed there, seven of the policemen by friendly fire, one of them by a possible anarchist bomb. Now, Albert wasn't there at the time. As in, he was not physically present at the time the bomb was thrown into the crowd of policemen, and therefore extremely unlikely to have been the one who did the throwing, unless he had a hell of a good arm. Since Albert Parson's years as a pitcher for the Paris Commune Reds, a team in his local anarchist baseball league, were long behind him, I don't think he was up to it. Especially since I just made that baseball thing up. And there is absolutely no reason to think he was in any way involved with plans to throw said bomb. But he was one of the men accused in the murder of the one cop not killed by other cops.

Albert went into hiding as soon as he was falsely accused, but he only stayed in hiding until the trial date, whereupon he walked right into the courthouse, turned himself in, and sat with his fellow defendants. Because you don't get to marry Lucy Parsons unless you are a stone cold badass. Lucy, by the way, had been arrested multiple times while Albert was in hiding on the suspicion that she knew where he was. They even kicked around the idea of arresting her as a conspirator in the death of the police officer, but decided not to, because they figured that a woman wouldn't do something like that, because, you know, bombs are unfeminine or something, and they were afraid that a jury would be too likely to sympathize with a bunch of dudes accused of a crime along with a lady, and that the dudes might therefore not get the death penalty.

This will hopefully go down in history as the stupidest reason ever given for not arresting someone for something they didn't do.

Albert was convicted on roughly zero evidence, and, along with four other men, sentenced to hang, more because the judge and jury wanted to make an example for all the other anarchists and labor activists out there than because anyone thought they were actually involved with murder. Lucy was about as happy with that as you would expect. She began touring the country, speaking about the injustice of what was going to happen to her husband for his political beliefs, and appealing for clemency. The police basically went on tour with her, arresting her, barring her from buildings where she was supposed to speak, sometimes by physically boarding up the doors, and being an overall obnoxious, harrass-y nuisance. Meanwhile, the labor movement itself took a sharp turn away from supporting the Haymarket defendants, since, you know, they were making them look bad, being all falsely accused and stuff, what were they thinking? Lucy stuck with her husband and the rest of the accused, arguing that not only were they innocent of any wrongdoing, but that the policemen were responsible for getting their own fool selves killed. It didn't really matter what she said, though; anarchy was being put on trial, almost literally. The prosecution hung red and black flags up around the courtroom, just to remind the jury what they should be afraid of.

Lucy kept campaigning, stirred up a lot of sympathy, and got famous in the process, but it unfortunately didn't do all that much good from the perspective of a bunch of guys in jail about to be hanged. The governor of Illinois was having none of Lucy, or anyone else in the world's objections; he was under too much political pressure to hang the anarchists, evidence be damned. On the day of the execution, Lucy brought her two children to see their father one last time. Instead of being allowed to see him, all three were arrested. Lucy was forced to strip naked, and left in a cold cell (November 11th in fucking Chicago cold) with her children, until after her husband had been executed. Once he was safely dead, she was left for a few more hours, then finally allowed to get dressed, and released, humiliated and grief-stricken.

At this point, Lucy was angry. Not regular person angry, either. She was a grieving, anarchist, former slave, single mother with two kids and an unjustly executed husband angry. I'm not sure how much rage the human body can actually contain, but I'm pretty sure Lucy had enough in her by this time that small objects left in her presence would burst into flames. I mean, it seems only reasonable. Enough rage that, if she were living in a fictional universe created by Joss Whedon or someone like that, she would probably develop telekinesis. (The tendency of real people to fail to develop super powers when their life gets sad is one of the main issues I have with reality.)

Left with a weekly pension of eight bucks a week by an organization founded to help the widows of the Haymarket martyrs, and not much else, Lucy went right back to her revolutionary activities, terrifying the fuck out of the police, who sometimes arrested her pre-emptively before she could even begin her speeches. Over the course of her long life, Lucy Parsons was a fierce advocate for women's rights, the rights of workers, and free speech. She was the second woman to join the Industrial Workers of the World, eventually taking over the job of editing the Liberator, a newspaper put out by the IWW. She used her position to write about women's issues, including the right to access to birth control, and the right to divorce, and remarry. She gradually shifted to the Communist party, beginning in 1925, officially joining them in 1939. She prefigured the idea of sit-down strikes and factory takeovers with the idea that a strike should consist of the workers seizing the means of production. She verbally ripped the shit out of anyone who recommended patience and compliance over revolution and reform.

She came into conflict with other anarchists, notably this blog's namesake, Emma Goldman, over her opposition to the idea of free love. Maybe it was because of how much shit she took for her own marriage, maybe not, but Lucy believed that marriage and the family were natural for human beings, and opposed anarchists who advocated for free love, which was a substantial number of anarchists. This really just goes to show that she was enough of a badass to stand up, not only against the establishment, but against the rest of the opposition to the establishment, something she and Emma actually had in common. One does not throw down against Emma Goldman lightly, but Lucy Parsons was more than tough enough to handle it. I'm not going to speak to which of them was right about that issue; I think it's enough to say that they both had strong views and they both refused to back down. Though they started out as friends, at least according to Lucy, by the end of their lives the two of them couldn't stand each other. Honestly, I think they were both really wrong about each other, and that's sad. Emma thought Lucy was an opportunist who used her husband's death to gain personal fame, and who jumped on any cause's bandwagon she could, and Lucy thought Emma betrayed the cause and sold out to the capitalist establishment when she denounced the Soviet Union. Hilariously, Lucy was pissed enough about Emma turning on the Soviet Union to refer to her, in her retaliatory denunciation of Emma, as her great friend for the past thirty years, presumably just to make the rejection sting more. Both of them were wrong about the other, and it's a shame, because it would've been way cooler if they had been friends. We can add "and is best friends with Lucy Parsons" to my alternate universe, Emma Goldman as anarchist steamship pirate idea.

In her later years, Lucy worked with the International Labor Defense, a Communist group, to defend the Scottsboro Eight and Angelo Herndon. She worked hard to expose the way the justice system was used as a tool of oppression, just like she had when she was trying to defend her husband. It was the first time she had been back to the South since leaving Texas. Recall that the last time she had been to the South, people had been shooting at her husband. I may have mentioned this before, but Lucy Parsons was a tough lady.

Lucy's work with racial issues was very much influenced by the fact that she, like a lot of anarchists and communists at the time, (and to this day) thought of race as less relevant than class. Once class was eliminated, she believed, there would be no racial issues. A misguided idea she shared with a hell of a lot of people. It didn't stop her from working against lynchings and other forms of racial violence and oppression, though. Remember, she was into both reform and revolution.

Here she is in 1920, still going strong.

So that's Lucy Parsons. She died at the age of 89, in a house fire, and was still actively speaking and inspiring people to the end. If being 89 didn't stop her from doing that, I see no reason why being dead should. A truly brave woman, and a tireless opponent of oppression, Lucy Parsons deserves to be remembered and respected for her work and her activism.

Causes: Anarchist, communist, anarcha-feminist, regular feminist, anti-racist
Specific lessons for modern activists: People in Texas might not approve of your marriage. Fuck those people.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Healthy Alternative to Fascism (or: Putting Your Dieselpunk Look on the Right Side of Alternate History)

Unlike most of what I've written, and will write in this blog, this post pertains directly to the steampunk subculture, and its cousin, dieselpunk. Those of you who are here for posts about amazing people from history will still find some of those in this post, but there will also be some discussion of stuff you may or may not be interested in, or have any experience with.I will not be offended if you don't read this, but you will miss out on people like La Pasionara, and that, my friends, is your loss entirely. The next post will be about an amazing historical activist, and everything will be back to normal.

If you've been in the steampunk or dieselpunk subculture for any length of time, chances are you've encountered what I think of as steamnazis. You know what I'm talking about. Their costumes range from full-on SS uniforms with goggles thrown on, to fascist-inspired, somewhat fetishistic uniforms with vaguely ominous made-up insignia.  I don't like them. The ones that are directly Nazi in their insignia make me very uncomfortable, while the more vaguely fascist-inspired ones just strike me as a little gross. Their reactions to being confronted with my, or others' discomfort, has ranged from vehement, vocal defense of their costumes to frank, apologetic, and respectful apologies and the removal of offending Nazi insignia, which is nice but makes me wonder why they put the stuff on in the first place.

I'm not going to get into why Nazi uniforms and insignia make me uncomfortable. Frankly, I don't believe I should have to.  What I'm going to do today is offer an alternative, and suggest some costume ideas. I'm not telling anyone not to wear anything. If I meet you, and you're wearing something I find offensive or distasteful, I'll probably let you know, but that's not the point of this post. The fact is, I do not like fascism. I am not saying that everyone who fought against it in World War II was a saint, or that none of the people I'm going to show you images of below committed war crimes. What I am saying is that I dislike seeing fascism romanticized in any way, and that I'm tired of that aspect of dieselpunk. I'm also saying that the type of people you'll see below are under-represented in a lot of what I've seen of dieselpunk, despite their being on the right side of history, not to mention badass as all Hell. I'm saying I'd like people to look at the rest of this post, and draw some inspiration from it for future dieselpunk costumes. (Remember, by the way: as always, when dressing in military uniform, that some people consider it bad form/offensive to wear real decorations you have not earned.  As always, it's your choice whether you want to do something that might be seen as such.)

Mostly, I think I'm saying I'd like to see more anarchism at steampunk conventions, but it's possible I've already made that clear just by being Steampunk Emma Goldman.

So. We all know a lot of people fought against various fascist armies in World War II. I'm not about to tell you to put on a British, American, or Soviet uniform instead of a German one, though. There are more interesting alternatives. Interesting, not just in terms of costume, but in terms of the potential backstory you can have for your persona, if backstory and persona is a thing you do. The people below come from many different countries, and many different ideologies. Some believe in anarchism, some communism. Some are Democrats or Republicans. Some are Christians, some are Muslims, some are Jews, some are atheists. What they all have in common is that they risked their lives to take a stand against the rise of fascism.

Let's go straight to examples. See what inspiration you can find among them. (Click pictures to make them get bigger.)

I hear from a lot of people who wear fascist-inspired gear that its not the ideology they're after, but the look. Well, if it's look you're after, look no further:

That right there is a female chauffeur in the Valencias Communist regiment, during the Spanish Civil War. Her hat is jaunty, her spats are amazing, and she's got a pistol at the ready, tucked haphazardly into her belt, just in case she has to shoot some fascists later on. Pure dieselpunk.

The anti-fascist forces in general offer more costume ideas for women than do the fascist ones, because women often had an active role in fighting. (A topic I discuss specifically in this article about Spanish anti-fascist militiawomen) Here's an anarchist militia in Spain:

Again, there are some great looks for dieselpunks. And yes, I personally think it's cooler to dress up as an anarchist than to dress up as a fascist. Not that I think people must always present themselves as heroes rather than villains, but I think the role of anarchists in history is frequently misrepresented and ignored. Plus, this is a chance to create an alternate history. One where the anarchists and the communists won in Spain. OF COURSE I want to see people do that!

Let's look at some more anti-fascist women. Here's one holding up the flag of a major anarcho-syndicalist group:

If it's a fetishy look you're after, be aware: no fascist ever fought in high heels like this Spanish militiawoman did:
More Spanish women, ready to kill fascists. They're smiling because their hats and coats are awesome.

Has anyone ever looked cooler than these Italian members of the anti-fascist Partito d'Azione, seen here during the liberation of Milan?

Yes. It's the Italian partisan in the polka dot skirt, ammo draped around her neck like a scarf, ready to help South African troops liberate Pistoia.

Of course, you can keep your German military gear. Here, a member of the French resistance models a piece of German uniform. It pairs well with a nice pleated skirt and a desire for liberty. Nothing puts the punk back in dieselpunk like repurposing military gear.

And of course, it adds inherent richness to your backstory; your character may not be fighting for a country currently able to hand out medals, but her clothing tells you of a victory she's won. She's actually won two victories here: one, she very likely took an enemy's uniform from his corpse. Two, she looks way better in it than he ever did.

A recruitment poster for a Spanish anarchist militia. She's got the Uncle Sam "I Want You" poster beat on several levels.
I'm sure I've seen that belt on a couple of steampunks.

Ok, one more dieselpunk anti-fascist woman and then we'll move onto the menfolk. This is Dolores Ibárruri, known as "La Pasionara," or "passionflower." She was a major figure in the Spanish Civil War, and it was her famous speech at the Battle of Madrid, in which she declared of the fascist forces "¡NO PASARÁN!" (translation: they shall not pass!) that made that phrase the battle cry of anti-fascist forces for years to come. We'll come back to that. (But yes. It was her. Not Gandalf.) Here she is:

Alright, some male costumes. These folks are Spanish anarchist grenade-throwers. Hence all the grenades.
Does your heart beat a little faster when you read the phrase "anarchist grenade throwers?" Mine sure does.

If your alternate history has moved past grenades, what else could you fill those ammo belts with? The possibilities are fairly limitless.

Members of the French resistance, ready to punk the hell out of your diesel.
Any clothes and weapons you can piece together are appropriate here, which means let your creativity go nuts. Uniforms, civilian clothes, as long as it fits the backstory you come up with.

Just remember to identify yourself to your friends. Armbands, like this one worn by a member of the French resistance, or other markers can be helpful there, and also historically served as an attempt to make the resistance's enemies treat them as an opposing military:
Here's a great example of how such an armband might look on, while you stand on the front of a truck with your gun at the ready:

Diesel. Punk. No fascist has ever looked that cool.

I know dieselpunks don't have the same love for facial hair held by steampunks, but surely even dieselpunks will appreciate this Soviet partisan's beard:

Sorry, did I say "beard?" I meant bayonet. And grenades. And knife.

If it's a less rough-and-ready look you're after, check out these members of the Danish resistance:
Or these Yugoslavian partisans:
Anti-fascist dieselpunk is a great way to turn your regular vintage clothes into military ones. These members of the Dutch resistance could be posing for the faculty photo in the yearbook until you notice they're sporting armbands, and weaponry.

Here's a brigade of anti-fascist Bosnian Muslims:
A Czech resistance fighter during the Prague Uprising:
I know all you dieslpunks want those goggles. I mean, I do.

Members of the Polish Resistance during the Warsaw Uprising with (yes!) goggles on top of a helmet.
Some Finnish-Canadians who volunteered to go and fight for the partisans in the Spanish Civil War:

Americans came as well: the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Three thousand of them volunteered for service in Spain. About one thousand died there. They were America's first fully integrated army. Here is Salaria Kea, a nurse from Ohio, who went to Spain to help fight against the fascist forces:
Her outfit has a cape. Because, goddamnit, superheroes get capes!

Oh, and it's worth noting something. If you dress your child in fascist dieselpunk, I will look at you in horror. But if you dress your child like either of these awesome young Spanish anarchists, or some alternate-history version thereof, I will buy you a beer, and your kid a cookie.

Feel like keeping it British? How about dressing as a participant in some alternate-timeline's version of the Battle of Cable Street, a 1936 clash between London's police force, who were overseeing a demonstration by the British Union of Fascists, and over three hundred thousand working class Londoners; communists, anti-fascists, and Jews? Seven thousand uniformed British fascists had decided it was a great idea to march towards the East End, a poor neighborhood with a high Jewish population. Rather than let that happen, those who opposed them built barricades and faced down the police. A captured London bobby's helmet would make a great starting point for that costume, I feel. Just remember to raise your fist in the air and shout, as the Cable Street anti-fascists did, "no pasarán!" (It sounds great in a Cockney accent.)

Here's two videos made up of footage from that battle. They are both set to music, but one of them is to punk rock (because, come on. What could be more appropriate?) And the other is...well, also punk, but with a folkier sound. Your call. They're both good.

Ok, and if you're feeling less musical and more historical, here's the straight-up newscast.

So who's feeling fired up for some anti-fascist dieselpunk?

Look, I'm not telling anyone not to wear fascist-inspired dieselpunk. I am telling you that I personally don't care for it one bit, and I feel that dieselpunk anti-fascist looks are being undeservedly ignored. I was sitting around thinking about how cool anti-fascist anarchists are when I decided to make this post. That was about three hours ago. That's how long it took me to do all the research, all the writing, and all the photo-inserting, and also do my laundry and chat with a friend of mine about Boardwalk Empire. What I'm getting at here is that there are a lot of easy to find resources out there, if you're interested in deriving a look from this aspect of history. And I urge you to go for it.

No pasarán!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Toussaint Louverture Was Being Really Nice to Napoleon When He Compared Himself to Him

Quick, how many 18th century rebellions in the New World led to permanent independence for a colony from their European founders?

If you're like the majority of the readers of this blog (and one hundred percent of the writers), you probably live in the result of one of them; it's called the United States of America. Breaking away from Britain certainly didn't end imperialism in America, or, and this will be important, slavery, but still, being a colony that breaks away from your parent country is not an easy thing. There was only one other in the Americas: it was in Haiti, and it wins the revolution contest because, unlike the American Revolution, it not only achieved independence, it eliminated slavery. Boom. American Revolution: 0, Haitian Revolution: 1. Score one for the Francophones.

Now that that's cleared up, let's talk about the guy who, if you did a side-by-side comparison of the two revolutions, you'd probably have to call the Haitian George Washington, but I won't, because frankly this guy deserves better than to be compared to a wooden-toothed slave owner. This man is Toussaint Louverture, and he kicked ALL the asses. Not some of the asses, not most of the asses, all of the asses. In fact, in regards to the whole "what other leaders could you compare him to" thing, he personally claimed to be, basically, the black Napoleon (well, or he called Napoleon the white Toussaint Louverture. It's a little ambiguous, we'll get to that), but, as you can see from the title of this piece, that clearly does Toussaint a disservice. He was way too politically and militarily savvy to be compared to anyone who would try something as droolingly stupid as attempting to invade Russia.

No, Toussaint was not Washington, and he was not Napoleon. He was what would happen if the French Revolution had sex with Machiavelli's The Prince, and then raised their baby in slavery with the allegorical figures of Justice and Liberty as its lesbian foster mothers, and finally pitted it against the governments of all available major nations.

I'm not sure any of the above is biologically plausible, but if it is, that's where Toussaint Louverture came from.

On a non-allegorical level, Toussaint's birth was a little less promising than that. He was born a slave, in what we now call Haiti, in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. This was sometime around 1743 (yeah, I know, that's not the 19th century. But-spoiler-he died in 1803, which clearly IS the 19th century, and also, it's my blog and I do what I want.). It was probably the first of November, as astute speakers of French may have gathered from his name, which means "All Saints" which is a holiday, which is on the first of November. I like how I make it sound like that's something you should've been able to figure it out...unless there are some really perceptive French-speaking Catholics reading this, I doubt anyone did. If you did, though, give yourself three Historical Revolutionary Points. Earn 100 and get a free prison sentence! Haha, you thought you could win something good by racking up Historical Revolutionary Points? Have you been reading this blog at all? Good things consistently fail to happen to historical revolutionaries.

Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, Toussaint was getting himself born. Some people say that Toussaint's father was a man named Gaou-Ginou, an African chieftain or king of the Arada tribe in what is now Benin. Thing is, there's really not very much reason to think that, and Toussaint actually identified another man as his father, a slave named Pierre Baptiste Simon. Of course, believing him to be the son of a king would feed into a lot of people's ideas about fate, and royal blood, and a lot of other stuff I find to be bullshit, which is why I prefer the "his father was just some guy" theory, especially as it has the added benefit of being probably true.

Royal blood or no, Toussaint had a fairly uneventful youth. Basically, in summary, he was a slave, but seems to have been relatively well treated. He even got an education, though it's hard to be exactly sure where and how. Part of what historians who are interested in him do is speculate as to where he picked up his learning, and just what he was reading; he said, wrote, and did things that made it clear he'd read a range of thinkers from the Classical period to the 18th century, and he spoke French, in addition to the Creole language spoken by Haitian slaves. He also had some medical knowledge. It's possible he was trained by some Jesuits who were hanging out at the time; he was definitely pretty into Catholicism. It doesn't really matter where he got his knowledge, what matters is that by the time he reached adulthood he knew more than enough to be dangerous. It's possible no one taught him anything at all; it's possible he simply walked up to the allegorical figure of Knowledge and talked her into telling him everything she knew. I'm not sure what it is about Toussaint Louverture that makes me think of him in such allegorical terms; I think it has to do with the fact that he was basically too awesome to be discussed in mere human terms. Or it's possible that I just got tired of elaborate similes after that last Emma Goldman essay so I've decided to switch to a weirder literary technique. Next up, pathetic fallacy!

Toussaint was set free at the age of 33. He married, and got a plantation of his own. He owned one slave in the course of his life, whom he did eventually set free. So, one day, Toussaint is hanging out, he has a wife and kids, stuff is going well-ish, when a revolution starts. I know, I know, that really sounds like the beginning of a movie starring someone like Mel Gibson. Actually, the thought of Toussaint Louverture being in the same room as Mel Gibson is so delightful I'm just going to sit here and think about it for a second. Hee, it's funny because Mel Gibson ends up violently dead. Anyway.

Toussaint may have been involved in the planning stages of this revolution, he may not. Ah, the trickiness of history. Anyway, it started with an incident known as the Boukman Rebellion, which began with a secret voodou ceremony in the woods, where slaves were called upon to rise up against their masters. It didn't come out of nowhere, this rebellion; it had been brewing in Haiti for a long-ass time, which is what happens when you have a system of slavery in a relatively isolated location where slaves outnumber owners ten to one. More than that, though, the French Revolution had just gone down, and slaves, not to mention the vast population of free people of color in French-controlled Haiti had damn good reason to start wondering when all that liberte, fraternite, egalite stuff they were hearing about was going to make it across the ocean. When it failed to do so (trans-Atlantic navigation was tricky in the 18th century! It probably got lost, got stuck in the Gulf Stream, and wound up in Canada), a rebellion was really the only logical step.

Here's the really funny thing. It wasn't just the black Haitians who were talking about revolution. The white slaveowners were talking about having an entirely different revolution, specifically because they were afraid that all that liberte, fraternite, egalite stuff was going to start messing up their lives in Haiti! So, with the slaveowners thinking of breaking away from France, and the slaves and free blacks thinking about becoming equal, it was pretty much time for violence. And hey, the slaves had been victims of violence for a while, so it was their turn. The rebellion started with an uprising of slaves, who killed their masters and burned the plantations (the backbone of the world's sugar industry). Off to a good start! But oh man, they hadn't even gotten started yet.

Toussaint, when the rebellion started, actually went back to the plantation of his former owner. Not to take revenge, but to protect the family who used to own him and give them a chance to flee the attacks. You could say he had Stockholm Syndrome, or you could just say he was an amazingly good person, and objectively a better person and a better Christian (if that's something you want to get into) than any of the slave owners on the island. After demonstrating that he was an excellent candidate for sainthood (which was good, since he was already All Saints), Toussaint joined the rebel slaves in the mountains.

When Toussaint first joined the rebellion, it was as a doctor. How cool is that? He started out as a freaking combat medic. And then became a military commander. How often does that happen? Rarely . That's how often. (Thanks to an astute reader for pointing out my error here: I had written "never" but Che Guevara is another very good example. Thanks, astute reader Michael Meissner!)

France sent re-enforcements, and victory was at first looking really unlikely for the rebels. At this point, they were asking for better conditions for slaves, not the actual elimination of slavery. That seemed like too crazy a goal, at that point.

Ok, this is the part where I fess up to the fact that I am not a military historian. Or an historian at all, but that's beside the point, which is that I am not at my best when talking about military strategy and the like. I am going to attempt to do justice to Toussaint's actions, but remember, this ain't my area. If you are a military historian, try to gently correct me in the comments if I say something dumb.

So, in 1791 Toussaint was involved in a hostage standoff. There seems to be a tendency among white military leaders to be especially willing to tell non-white military opponents who are holding hostages to go fuck themselves. I base this analysis on what happened in the case of Toussaint, and also Cochise. See, that's a trend right there. In all seriousness, I'm sure there's a big fat racist reason behind that; a refusal on the part of the white people to deal with their opponents on the rational level they would deal with someone they consider their equal. In this case, though, the white guys told Toussaint that he and his demands, which were for better working conditions for slaves, and a bit of a prisoner exchange, not the abolition of slavery or anything crazy like that, could go fuck themselves. In doing so, they seem only to have been setting up an opportunity for Toussaint to show off how great a guy he was.

When someone doesn't give in to your demands, and you're holding hostages, you kill the hostages. That's how hostages WORK. Toussaint, though, decided that he was too good a guy for that, and saved the white hostages, even going against some other military leaders who were like "dude, this is what hostages are for." Toussaint returned them, and tried to use that as an opportunity to meet with the white leaders and talk to them like grownups. That didn't work, because they were still being assholes, but at least the hostages ended up alive, so win there, I guess, for humanity in general, and Toussaint's tendency not to kill people it wouldn't actually help him in any way to kill in particular. This might have made Toussaint appear weak, had he not gone on to pretty much kick the faces off anyone who tried to oppose him (military term) until the black Haitians ultimately controlled the whole colony.

To get there, Toussaint did a bunch of military things, in a military fashion. He was allied with the Spanish early on, because France was being dickish about slavery, and the French were beginning to recognize him as a legit leader. He was known for keeping a disciplined, European-style military camp, with soldiers trained in both the Old World style of war as well as guerrilla tactics. It was around this time that he started calling himself L'ouverture, which is the French word for an opening. He probably got the nickname due to his gap-toothed smile, but it says something about his awesomeness that a lot of the historians (and contemporaries) who talked about it figured it must have something to do with his tendency to create openings in his enemies' lines. Man couldn't even give himself a slightly self-deprecating nickname without everyone rushing to assume it was something about how awesome he was.

Oh, by the way, that gap-toothed smile was courtesy, not of genetics or a lack of orthodontia, but of a bullet hitting Toussaint in the fucking face. Toussaint Louverture, catching bullets with his teeth. What've YOU done lately? Yeah, that's what I fucking thought. Stand up and salute when you think about Toussaint Louverture!

A couple things also happened around this time. The first big one is that Toussaint apparently decided that, fuck it, the abolition of slavery was now something he wanted to be fighting for. Aiding him in his fight against the French (and also the British) was the Yellow Fever, which killed the hell out of white people in the more tropical regions of the New World. Toussaint earned a reputation for being an utterly kickass military leader.

Eventually, France changed its mind about slavery. This was, as you are probably aware, a rather tumultuous period in French history, and it would've been weird if it hadn't changed its mind about slavery at some point, considering it was changing its mind about issues as fundamental as who should and who shouldn't retain ownership of their heads. The thing is, that as much as maintaining their neckal integrity was a pressing issue for French leaders, hanging onto Haiti was also a concern, and the best way to do that was to get in good with Toussaint, and the best way to do that was to change their minds about slavery. So France became pro-abolition, and, abruptly, Toussaint became pro-French.

There were a bunch of pesky Spanish and British still running around Haiti at this point, and now that Toussaint was on the French side (or, more accurately, now that France was on Toussaint's side), he got down to work getting rid of them. At one point he won seven battles in as many days. Again, I am forced to ask you what you've done lately. Personally, in the last seven days, I've managed to do, but not put away, my laundry. Some people are so accomplished and competent I feel inadequate to the task of even reading about their lives. Toussaint became governor of the colony, too, just because hey, who else were they going to put in charge? Someone who wasn't Toussaint Louverture?

Actually, there was someone else, and this is where Toussaint's really Machiavellian nature starts to make itself clear. There was this dude, right, a white guy named Leger-Felicite Sonthonax, who had come from France to ensure equality for free people of color, and slavery for slaves. He'd succeeded at the first, but as it became increasingly clear that he wasn't going to succeed at the second, he backed down and decided he too was ok with abolition, as it looked like the only way of maintaining a hold on Haiti. It was he who, in 1793, declared the emancipation of all slaves in Haiti (the impetus for Toussaint joining the French, remember?). The problem was, that when Toussaint became governor, Sonthonax still had a lot of power, as did a French general named Laveuax. So, what's a brilliant military commander to do when faced with a couple white guys who seem to think they're in charge? Organize a military campaign and kill the everloving shit out of them, right?

Toussaint opted for something way more subtle, nonviolent, insulting, and awesome. Which, now that I think about it, was actually super French of him. He embarked on a complex political campaign against the two men, ultimately basically getting them elected to positions that would entail them going the hell back to France. Yes, he got them voted off the island. (Wow, I just dated myself with that reference, didn't I? I don't care, it was too appropriate.) When it comes to devious, Machiavellian methods of getting people off your back, arranging for them to be elected to a post that will force them halfway across the world wins you an billion points. After all, no one could say he didn't do right by the guys; he just got rid of them.

It worked on Laveuax, but Sonthonax tried to hold onto his power in Haiti, ultimately shooting himself in the proverbial foot by letting French privateers operate against American ships. Doesn't sound like something Toussaint would've cared about, except for the fact that black Haitians were trying to trade with the United States, and privateers were making that hard. In addition to making trade hard, it gave Toussaint the excuse to finally make a military move against Sonthonax, who ended up getting the hell out of Haiti, and following Laveuax to France.

Occasionally, some asshole would decide that they were up to the task of Machievelliing Toussaint (yes, it's a verb. Because I said so, that's why.) They were so, so wrong. Two such assholes were a Brit named Maitland, and a French guy named Hedouville, both of whom attempted clever manipulations of the political situation in revolutionary Haiti. Toussaint schooled the crap out of both of them, working with one until it no longer became convenient, then spreading nasty rumors about the other to spark a popular uprising against him. You really shouldn't fuck with Toussaint Louverture.

Stuff was changing again in Europe, and now Napoleon was the boss of France. He started making new laws. Meanwhile, by total non-coincidence, Toussaint was drafting a constitution for Haiti. It had some great provisions in it like banning slavery, and making Toussaint in charge for life. It was also extremely likely to piss of France, since the whole point of it was to get in front of Napoleon's plans to make some new laws for the colonies in the New World. Not being an idiot, when it came time to present this constitution to France, Toussaint handed that job off to an underling, just to see what would happen.

Sending an underling to accomplish a task likely to piss of Napoleon is not a nice thing to do, in any sense. But it sure is smart, because that underling ended up in exile for a while, on the island of Elba (it was a popular exile spot). Basically, Napoleon was pretty sure that this was all just a sneaky attempt on the part of Toussaint and the other black Haitians to get their island to become independent of France. Toussaint tried his best to convince Napoleon that this wasn't the case, most awesomely by subtly trying to draw a comparison between himself and Napoleon. When I say "subtly" I mean that he wrote Napoleon a letter with the heading "from the First of the Blacks to the First of the Whites." Like I said, it's hard to say whether he was saying that Napoleon was like a white Toussaint Louverture, or that he was himself a black Napoleon. Either way, it's a ballsy comparison to make when you're talking to a guy who was, at the time, considered the greatest living military genius. I'm also not sure who died and made Toussaint King of All the Black People, but I'm sure if someone had had a problem with it they would have said.

Ballsy though the letter might have been, Napoleon did not deign to answer it. This is because he was kind of a dick. It is also because he was under intense pressure to get Haiti back under French control; it was still a huge part of the global sugar industry, after all, and even if Toussaint kept insisting that he was going to keep the place nominally French, getting rid of slavery was going to have a big impact on profits, and Napoleon couldn't have that, now could he? Not when he had extremely well-thought-out military campaigns in Russia to plan.

Napoleon ended up sending some men to Haiti to restore French control, through diplomatic means. Well, I say diplomatic means. That is, he said diplomatic means, but for some reason he felt the need to back up that diplomacy with twenty-thousand troops. You know, for extra diplomacy. Nothing says "diplomacy" like an invading army. It is possible, I think, that the United States may be taking a few too many foreign policy tips from Napoleon. Speaking of which, the concept of a black republic was scaring America just as much as it was scaring France. There was a sense, in both countries, that the mere existence of an independent Haiti would mean violent slave uprisings, and the end of the institution of slavery itself. Napoleon named stopping "the march of the blacks" as his primary goal, while slave-owners in the United States tried desperately to keep word of what had happened in Haiti from their slaves.

Toussaint, not being an idiot, was pretty cognizant of the fact that when the French said "diplomacy" and then showed up with an army, they probably weren't being entirely sincere. He was fully prepared for this to become a war. It was the French who made the first aggressive move, attacking a fort along the coast. Unfortunately for Toussaint, he was right in the middle of a little bit of infighting with a rebellious general, ad besides, this was the Napoleonic army we were talking about. His plan to basically let them have the coast, retreat into the highly defensible mountains, and wait for the yellow fever to kill them might have actually worked, but there were some breakdowns of communication (and loyalty) that lead to some of the generals not making the retreat. In the end, Toussaint, and his family, were captured by the French forces.

Toussaint was sent to France as a prisoner. On his way, he made his most famous, and most bad-ass comment ever, informing his captors that by removing him from power they had cut down "only the trunk of the tree of liberty; it will spring up again from the roots, for they are many and they are deep."

He turned out to be completely right about that. Although he died in prison less than a year later, (pneumonia...kind of the yellow fever of Europe, when it came to killing people from different climates, though the conditions he was held in certainly didn't help. Rather than being afforded the treatment he should have had, given his rank, he was treated like a common criminal.), Haiti would go on to achieve complete independence and lasting freedom that same year. It was the world's first independent black republic.

Napoleon's dickish comment on the shitty way he had treated Toussaint (years after he had been forced to give up all of his holdings in the New World, as a direct result of the success of the Haitian Revolution) was "what could the death of one wretched Negro mean to me?"

You know, Napoleon was kind of an asshole. And as disingenuous as he was racist, because for a guy he didn't care about, he sure spent a lot of time trying to kill him.

So that, in brief, is the life of Toussaint Louverture, the man who brought freedom to Haiti. His legacy has been celebrated in countless ways, and that's all well and good, but here's a thought to take away with you when you consider what gets a historical hero recognition in the modern day; Danny Glover has been trying to get a movie made about Toussaint for years now. Hollywood just isn't interested. Because, you see, there are no white heroes to bring in the crowds. Deal with that for a second. We don't get a movie about one of the greatest military minds, and greatest fighters for freedom, because all the white guys in his story act like asshats. Toussaint Louverture is being punished, post-mortem, for the fact that virtually every white guy he ever met either owned him or wanted him dead.

Man, I was going to make a point. I forget what it was. Fuck the movie industry for believing white audiences wouldn't want to see a movie without a white hero, fuck white audiences for repeatedly proving them right, and fuck the movie industry again for thinking white audiences are the only ones that matter.

Causes: Haitian independence, abolition of slavery
Specific lessons for modern activists: Fuck Napoleon. Seriously. I'm sorry, I know there are other lessons, but that's the most pressing one right this second.