The Air of Liberty: A Transatlantic Perspective

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En somme le rôle du critique serait sans cesse de faire de l’air dans le plein du monde mais non pas forcement de faire du vide.  —Roland Barthes

Dèyè mòn, gen mòn” [“Behind mountains, there are mountains”] —Haitian proverb

The phrase “I can’t breathe” has become a worldwide rallying cry against injustice. Ben Okri deems “I can’t breathe” the “mantra of oppression” that should “spark the real change our world so desperately needs.” He attributes the phrase’s remarkable impact to how it taps into our primal fear of suffocation, encouraging empathy for “seemingly insignificant people.” He also brings attention to how, as a slogan, “I can’t breathe” subverts institutional racism through poetic means: “Not even William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, James Baldwin or Toni Morrison at their most eloquent came out with anything as simple in the genius of its truth as: ‘I can’t breathe.’” This truth is airborne: “‘I can’t breathe’ suddenly equates racism with the deprivation of air, which is what it always was.” The chokehold of racism emerged with the transatlantic slave trade and, Okri concludes, has been ever since the prohibition of breathing “freedom.”

Figure 1.

Detail of Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier, Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen, circa 1789 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


The powerful convergence of poetics and politics in the slogan “I can’t breathe” comes from its essential truth: the aerial nature of freedom. More than just a concept or metaphor, freedom is also something you breathe. Freedom is a kind of concept-image that depends on our intimate, life-sustaining relationship with the atmosphere. “I can’t breathe” brings attention to this relationship to help redress the failure of our institutions to bestow freedom equally.

The aerial nature of freedom is even more apparent in the related slogan “the air of liberty.” References to “the air of liberty” occurred frequently during the French Revolution to convey the origin of the “human rights” that have become the bedrock of our democratic institutions. Today, these human rights continue to exert their legal weight for the defense of equality. Yet, when confronted with the evasive mechanism of institutional racism, they keep falling short. This predicament is partly due to their supposed airtight foundation. “The air of liberty” offers a window to the turbulent time when human rights sprang conspicuously from the atmosphere, that we can reopen to shift the focus from the legal to the aerial origin of freedom. This strategy unleashes historical winds that swept across the Atlantic world, including a critical undercurrent from the Haitian Revolution that prefigured the “I can’t breathe” movement and its critique of the white chokehold on freedom.

The best-known depiction of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Fig. 1) portrays the origin of liberty in a scene unfolding in the sky. Spreading its light and dissipating the clouds of error, the Enlightenment’s eye of reason levitates like an aerostat. Its liberating power illuminates the law symbolized by a winged figure pointing to the tablets below containing the articles proclaiming that “men” are born free and equal. Despite the prominence given to the eye of reason, it is in the atmosphere in which it elevates that we must look for the elemental spring of liberty.

References to the aerial nature of liberty most intriguingly surfaced in contemporary debates concerning the universality of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The revolutionary and abolitionist Jacques Pierre Brissot characterized the 1791 slave rebellion that ravaged the colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) as a fight for a purer, healthier air. In a speech delivered the same year at the National Assembly, he argued that, following the storming of the Bastille and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the “atmosphere” of inequality hovering over the plantations of Saint-Domingue had become noxious not only for the enslaved but also for the troops that France might dispatch to restore order in the colony: “Heureux dans sa terre natale, heureux de respirer l’air de la liberté, [le soldat français] répugne à le changer pour un sol infecté par l’atmosphère de l’esclavage” (“Happy in his native land, happy to breath the air of liberty, the French soldier loathes the idea of going to a land infected by the atmosphere of slavery”; 74, all translations my own).

Saint-Domingue’s enslaved did not breathe France’s “air of liberty” until 1793, when the French were losing their hold on the colony. In addition to slave rebels and foreign invading forces, the local republican government had to ward off white planters who, perceiving the French ideal of equality as a threat to their possessions, sided with the royalists and plotted with the British to sever ties with France. In a desperate effort to rally Black rebels to the French cause, Saint-Domingue’s commissioner Léger-Félicité Sonthonax issued a proclamation abolishing slavery. Many Black leaders joined the French republicans, including Toussaint Louverture, who distinguished himself with his military genius and defeated the British and Spanish invading armies. In February 1794, the National Convention, learning about the exploits of Black soldiers to save the colony, voted in favor of the abolition of slavery in all the French territories (Dubois 144–70).

The transatlantic atmosphere of French liberty lasted only a few years. In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte dispatched a formidable army to reestablish slavery and arrest Louverture, who by then had taken over Saint Domingue’s governorship. Napoleon did not trust the former slave with France’s colonial possessions and deported him to a prison in the Jura mountains where he died of neglect in 1803. The plan to reestablish slavery sparked another rebellion that culminated on January 1, 1804 when, after defeating Napoleon’s army, the slave-turned-general Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haitian independence. The new sovereign state was the first in modern history to outlaw slavery in its constitution.

Dessalines marked the emancipation from France with an extraordinary document (written by his secretary, Louis Boisrond-Tonnerre) known now as the “Hatian Declaration of Independence.”1Fora detailed contextualization of this text, see Gaffield. In this founding text, he relates how “liberté” was drawing its “derniers soupirs” (“last breaths”) when his rebel army saved it from expiring. He further identifies the empty rhetoric of lofty French proclamations as the impetus for eliminating their chokehold on Haitian liberty once and for all: “Eh quoi! victimes pendant quatorze ans de notre crédulité et de notre indulgence; vaincus non par des armées françaises, mais par la pipeuse éloquence des proclamations de leurs agens; quand nous lasserons-nous de respirer le même air qu’eux?” (“What! victims for fourteen years of our credulity and indulgence; vanquished not by French armies, but by the deceitful eloquence of the proclamations of their agents; when will we get tired of breathing the same air as them?”). The 1794 abolition of slavery did not bring emancipation. Liberty is not granted by the master, it must be seized: “Nous avons osé être libres, osons l’être par nous-mêmes et pour nous-mêmes” (“We have dared to be free, let us dare to be free through and for ourselves”). Following the “Haitian Declaration of Independence,” Dessalines purged the island of the French and, in the famed proclamation (written by his secretary, Juste Chanlatte) where he claimed to have “avenged America,” designated Haiti as the land where you breathe “l’air pur de la liberté” (“the pure air of liberty”; qtd. in Ardouin 66).

Historians today agree with Dessalines. Haiti’s constitution went further than anyone else’s at the time to establish a freer society. But the key ingredient that helped refine the air of liberty has been subject to debate. While some have interpreted the Haitian Revolution as the product of European ideas about “human rights,” others have offered more nuanced narratives where the African diaspora also plays a prominent part. Tracing the legacy of the African diaspora presents a greater challenge due to the dearth of written sources documenting what the enslaved, who constituted the bulk of the rebel forces, thought and felt. Julius S. Scott encouraged a whole generation of historians to take up the task in his remarkable 1986 doctoral dissertation tellingly called The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution (published as a book of the same title in 2018).2Other early influential authors include Fouchard, Fick, and Dayan. The title refers to the 1802 sonnet, “To Toussaint L’Ouverture,” that William Wordsworth wrote following Louverture’s arrest, and where the poet praises the imprisoned Black revolutionary, reminding him that “Thou hast left behind / Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies; / There’s not a breathing of the common wind that will forget thee.” Louverture’s memory lives on beyond the written records from which history is usually made. His exaltation of liberty infuses something more elemental: the air that everyone breathes.

In the foreword to the published version of The Common Wind, Marcus Rediker explains that “Scott gives substance to Wordsworth’s beautiful abstraction by showing” how “a motley crew of sailors, runaway slaves, free people of color, deserted soldiers, market women, escaped convicts, and smugglers” were “the vectors through which news and experience circulated in, around, and through the Haitian Revolution” (ix-x). Further-more, Scott’s “breathtaking social and intellectual history of revolution from below” also helped pioneer the field of Atlantic studies by cogently arguing that “sweeping across linguistic, geographic, and imperial boundaries, the tempest created by mobile people in … slave societies would prove a major turning point in the history of the Americas” (xii, xvii). By asserting that Scott substantiates Wordsworth’s “beautiful abstraction,” Rediker implies that poetry conveys more idealized than factual truth. Yet the way he and Scott describe what the history “from below” accomplishes depends on aerial images that also informed the depiction and language of liberty during the age of revolution, and that Wordsworth finds so well suited to convey Louverture’s seemingly intangible yet powerful legacy. The air of liberty is not just a beautiful abstraction or metaphor. It expresses a crucial agent that nurtured freedom and circulated in, around, and through the tempestuous events of the Haitian Revolution.

That agent was imagination. Gaston Bachelard defines our faculty of imagination as the movement that, through distortion (“déformation”) and unexpected association, alters the images of sense-perception (7-26). This movement is not simply random. The altered images manifest certain patterns that reveal the structure of imagination. To identify these patterns, Bachelard turned to literary authors and how their wide-ranging poetic images tend to cohere around the four elements: water, fire, earth, and air. Each element comes with its characteristic movement that impels imagination. Aerial images move our thoughts upward, towards the weightless and ethereal. They set us free from the grips of gravity and the material world, revealing their affinity with the nature of imagination itself. Air and imagination partake in a disenthralling movement where Bachelard locates our original experience of liberty (15-6, 135-6, 281-303).3For more on the aerial imagination, see Irigaray, Connor, Adey, and Engelmann.

In the colonial plantation system, the enslaved took flight from a material world defined by white ideologies of race inequality and exploitation. Imagination provided the uplift to a more intangible and open-ended element where they could alter and redefine the matter of the world. Their aerial imagination and its antigravitational idiosyncrasies pervade the wuthering history of the African diaspora.4For recent studies on the aerial imagination of the African diaspora, see, for instance, Sharpe, Youngquist, and Yusoff. In the Caribbean, runaway slaves found refuge in the islands’ secluded highlands.5Runaway slaves were commonly called Maroons, which probably comes from the Spanish words “cimarón” and “cimas,” meaning mountaintops (Gonzalez 8). The escape from bondage required a leap from a horizontal to a vertical landscape. Slave societies settled along the coast and plains. Slave rebels thrived upcountry, among craggy peaks and tropical forests.

Mountains embody an ascensional movement that have inspired images marked by the disenthralling power of the aerial imagination (Bachelard 172-85). Such images appeared at pivotal events of the Haitian Revolution. In the “Haitian Declaration of Independence,” Saint-Domingue is renamed Haiti, an Indigenous term meaning land of the high mountains. There is no written record explaining what motivated the change. We only know that revolutionaries sympathized with the Amerindians who had perished defending their freedom against the conquistadores (Geggus). The aerial imagination helps clarify other related motivations. Since Amerindians were the first runaway slaves on the island, and mountains pointed in the direction of freedom, the name Haiti participated in the air of liberty motif found in Dessalines’s “Haitain Declaration of Independence” and “I have avenged America” proclamation.

This motif was critical because air and mountains had played a determining role in the victory against Napoleon’s expedition. Louverture and Dessalines planned their guerilla warfare around their keen knowledge of the island’s geo- and aero-graphy and how they contributed to the spread of tropical diseases among unacclimated Europeans. To avoid the surprise attacks that continually cropped up in the rugged highlands, French troops were mostly garrisoned in port cities notorious for their unsanitary conditions. The air of the capital city of Le Cap was stagnant and noxious. Lodged between the sea and a hill, the local atmosphere trapped the foul air of the town’s squalid streets and of a nearby swamp. When, in April 1802, a yellow fever epidemic broke out, killing an estimated 43 percent (15,000 men) of Napoleon’s expedition in just a few months, doctors suspected that Le Cap’s miasmic air was the culprit and recommended transferring troops to windswept hilltops (Girard ch. 5). The transfer would have saved lives and most likely made the task of the rebel army more difficult, but it never happened.6Humidity, summer heat, and lack of air flow had turned Le Cap into a hotbed of mosquitoes, which, as was discovered a century later, carry the illness.

In the “I have avenged America” proclamation, Dessalines warned the French that sending more troops to Haiti was futile because the island’s deadly elements and diseases remained at his disposal.7Qu’elle vienne, cette puissance assez folle pour oser m’attaquer ! Déjà, à son approche, le génie irrite d’Haiti, sorti du sein des triers, apparent; son front menaqant souleve lesflots, excite les tempetes ; sa main puissante brise ou disperse les vaisseaux; à sa voix redoutable, les lois de la nature obéissent; les maladies, la peste, la faim dévorante, l’incendie, le poison, volent à sa suite.” The warning was not an overstatement. He and Louverture took control of their freedom by waging bio- as well as guerilla warfare, which relied on the strategic advantage bestowed by the island’s climate and mountainous landscape. L’air pur de la liberté, breathed by Haitians at the dawn of independence, had circulated above the strongholds of colonial power, across the gusty mountaintops where runaway slaves had once conspired to be free.

Works Cited

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  • Ardouin, Beaubrun. Etudes sur lhistoire d’Haiti. Vol. 6, Paris, 1856.
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  • Barthes, Roland, “Le gout des livres.” Interview with Etienne Lalou, Radiodiffusion-Television Francaise, 27 May 1957, cited in Accessed 4 September 2021.Brissot de Warville, Jacques-Pierre. Discours de J. P. Brissot, depute, sur les causes des troubles de Saint-Domingue: prononce a la seance du premier decembre 1791. Paris, 1791.
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  • Irigaray, Luce. L’oubli de l’air chez Martin Heidegger. Editions de Minuit, 1983.
  • Okri, Ben. “‘I Can’t Breathe’: Why George Floyd’s Words Reverberate Around the World.” The Guardian, 8 June 2020, Accessed 10 July 2021.
  • Rediker, Marcus. Foreword. The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution, by Julius S. Scott, 2018, pp. ix-xiii.
  • Scott, Julius S. The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution. Verso, 2018.
  • Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.
  • Youngquist, Paul. A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism. University of Texas Press, 2016.
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