It’s 1936, C.L.R. James is in Paris: “I look up in the archives. I look up, I look up, I look up in the archives, I spend three or four months looking up in the archives.” James’ friend Harry Spencer had given him seventy-five pounds to go to France and work in the Archives Nationales. “Every morning, walk up the Seine, the bank of Seine, go to the archives... At twelve o’clock they shut down, everywhere is closed up till tow. Archives close up, ‘St. James” closes up, off to eat. Very fine. At two o’clock, I go back. I work. The archives close at five or six. I go home.” James was in the archives because he was writing the history of the Haitian Revolution. Published in London in 1938, the bibliography of The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution lists some eight archives consulted between France, Haiti, and Great Britain among many other printed primary and secondary sources. But even for the best historians and the most finely crafted (and critical) histories, the archive of the oppressed can be hard to find.
In the “The Black Proletariat in South Carolina,” chapter ten of Black Reconstruction in America (1935), W.E.B Du Bois wrote:
The opportunity to study a great human experiment was present in Reconstruction, and its careful scientific investigation would have thrown a world of light on human development and democratic government. The material today, however, is unfortunately difficult to find. Little effort has been made to preserve the records of Negro effort and speeches, actions, works and wages, homes and families. Nearly all this has gone down beneath a mass of ridicule and caricature, deliberate omission and misstatement. No institution of learning has made any effort to explore or probe Reconstruction from the point of view of the laborer and most men have written to explain and excuse the former slaveholder, the planter, the landholder, and the capitalist. The loss today is irreparable, and this present study limps and gropes in darkness, lacking most essentials to a complete picture; and yet the writer is convinced that this is the story of a normal working class movement, successful to an unusual degree, despite all disappointment and failure.
In his note on printed primary sources in the bibliography to A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905, Walter Rodney wrote:
Historical underdevelopment is also reflected in the material base for historical reconstruction. Printed series of official documents are not available, except for the Annual Blue Books, the Administration Reports, and the Official Gazette, copies of which were compiled into semiannual editions. From the metropolitan end, the well known Parliamentary Papers were accessible, the most relevant being the “Report of the West India Royal Commission,” 1898 (P.O. No. 50, 1898).
‘Unfortunately,” James wrote in the bibliography to The Black Jacobins, “suppressio veri and suggestio falsi are not the only devils to be contented with. Hard experience has taught the lesson that it is unwise to take anything on trust and an examination of even apparently bona fide quotations (with reference duly attached) has unearthed some painful instances of unscrupulousness.”