A dissertation about slave communication networks in the Caribbean is finally being formally published — 32 years after it was written.
Last month, Verso Books published The Common Wind : Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution. It’s a radical work by the historian Julius Scott that shows how Haiti became the first country founded by formerly enslaved people.
In academia, The Common Wind is the book of the moment. But Scott actually finished it, as his PhD dissertation, in 1986.
“I really didn't quite understand for a long time how much my dissertation was having an impact and an influence,” Scott said. “I saw people would cite it. Books came out where people acknowledged the impact my dissertation had had on the way they thought. It was all kind of a big shock to me.”
In 1986, Scott was a graduate student at Duke University. The Common Wind was his magnum opus, a "history from below” focusing on the disenfranchised rather than the powerful. Specifically, the book details how underground communication networks helped bring about the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s, a rebellion in which enslaved people successfully rose up against the French, who had colonized their island as a stop in the Atlantic sugar trade.
When PhD students earn their degree, the next step is often to find a publisher for their dissertation, the book-length culmination of doctoral research. Dr. Scott, however, took a different route. Despite some early publishing offers, he instead devoted his energies to teaching. (He now lectures at the University of Michigan.)
Meanwhile, the work’s legend grew as it was passed around academic circles and cited hundreds of times. Now, three decades after it was completed, The Common Wind no longer exists in the realm of email-circulated PDFs and dogeared photocopies. It’s bound in hardcover, available wherever books are sold.
VICE News spoke with Scott about the publication of this underground masterpiece.
Illustrations by Pamela Guest. Motion design by Kris Cave and Robyn Whaples.
This segment originally aired December 14, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.