SESSION 2 – building programs for haitian studies in the united states

CÉcile Accilien, Laurent Dubois, Claudine Michel,
Jean Eddy Saint Paul

moderated by Robert fatton, jr.

Les « haïtianistes contemporains »...sont dispersés plus particulièrement en dehors du quadrilatère national, dans les centres de recherche ou les cercles universitaires étrangers. La « matière haïtienne » comme tout autre objet de connaissance continue encore et toujours de soulever des intérêts pour faire avancer les études postcoloniales, subalternistes, postmodernes, enfin toute la panoplie des sèmes héritée de la grande fracture coloniale ; celle qui crée le centre et les périphéries. Sauf que, dans le cas (historique) d’Haïti, la périphérie, au-delà de sa temporalité propre, a pu redéfinir le centre. Le cas d’Haïti permet de questionner les notions de totalité et de globalité dans le répertoire des universalistes convaincus d’une vérité et d’une seule. L’avènement au monde de cette terre Arawak (Ayiti) peuplée de Noirs opère une cassure ontologique aux dimensions politiques et philosophiques fondamentales pour les questions liées à l’origine, entrainant de ce fait, des difficultés à « théoriser » les identités partagées, l’hybridité culturelle, le multiculturalisme, le mutisme ethnique, le marronnage, etc.
 Lucie Carmel Paul-Austin for Le Nouvelliste

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Cécile Accilien is Associate Professor of Haitian Studies and Director of the Institute of Haitian Studies in the Department of African and African-American Studies at the University of Kansas. She is also the Associate director for the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Her primary areas of interest include Haitian Studies, Gender Studies and Film Studies. She is the author of Rethinking Marriage In Francophone African and Caribbean Literatures (2008). She has also co-edited and contributed to two collections of essays, Revolutionary Freedoms: A History of Survival, Strength and Imagination in Haiti (2006) and Just Below South: Intercultural Performance in the Caribbean and the U.S. South (2007). She has published book chapters and articles including “Congratulations! You Don’t Look Haitian: How and When Does One Look Haitian?” in Haiti and the Haitian Diaspora in the Wider Caribbean (Jowel Laguerre), and “Soleil, sexe et sable Vers le sud” in Ecrits d’Haïti: Perspectives sur la littérature haïtienne contemporaine (1986-2006). She is the co-author (with Jowel Laguerre) of English-Haitian Creole Phrasebook (McGraw Hill, 2010) and Francophone Cultures Through Film (with Nabil Boudraa, 2013).

As I reflect upon program building in the context of Haitian Studies, what comes to mind is what is being built, where, for whom and who are the builders. To build properly there must be a strong foundation and concrete discussion about what is already built. In that creation, it is crucial to allow spaces for new ideas and voices to strengthen what is being built. Some questions that are worth thinking about are: what is the responsibility of the program builders in terms of integrating colleagues who are working in the heart of the field in Haiti? Is Haiti the center of Haitian Studies or the US? What does that mean? Can there be several centers since Haitians are dispersed all around the world? If so, are these centers collaborating with one another and how? If not, what are some concrete ways in which they can harmonize to strengthen Haitian studies? Many program builders are not aware of their positionality and privilege because they build from a unilateral and individual framework instead of a collaborative one.

I believe that programs should be built in an organic manner and from a creolicized mindset. This Creolization is referring to the Glissantian sense of the word, that is as a process, an ongoing series of actions and events merging ideas and epistemologies from different areas (geographical and disciplinary) which result in the formation of new knowledge. A sustainable program implies constant exchanges between the various spaces as well as ongoing collaboration between scholars in the U.S and Haiti; these exchanges and collaborations must take place in a coherent manner beyond merely meeting at conferences and exchanging contact information.  In our building we should also be very mindful of the legacy of colonialism. Our aim should be to build programs that do not merely become new sites of neo-colonialist discourses and establishments. 

Laurent Dubois is Professor of Romance Studies and History and Director of the Forum for Scholars & Publics at Duke University. He is a specialist on the history and culture of the Atlantic world, with a focus on the Caribbean and particularly Haiti. Select publications include Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution (2004), A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804 (2004), which won four book prizes including the Frederick Douglass Prize, and Les esclaves de la République: l’histoire oubliée de la première emancipation (1998). More recently, he has published The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer (2018), The Banjo: America’s African Instrument (2016), Haiti: The Aftershocks of History (2012), and Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France (2010). He is the recipient of a Mellon New Directions Fellowship, a National Humanities Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, among others.

The prompt for this session speaks beautifully to the ways in which Haitian Studies represents a pivotal area of re-thinking much broader topics: the history slavery and emancipation, colonialism and decolonization, and the broader political and cultural history of the world. As Lucie Carmel Paul-Austin notes, in the case of Haiti the “periphery has redefined the center.” This happened during the period of the Haitian Revolution (and before, through the transformative economic impact Saint-Domingue had on France), and has continued throughout Haitian history in intellectual and literary realms of course, in zones of culture through dance and music and art, and in political forms too. The challenge of creating institutions around Haitian Studies is to be responsive and responsible to the need for a deeply grounded approach, rooted in Haitian language and history and epistemologies and life-ways, while also creating the space through which our work can energize, challenge, and re-situate the work done in other spaces in the university. Our field has always moved across disciplines, and it issues a necessary challenge to traditional disciplinary approach. At the same time, it generates new approaches through methodological experimentation that in turn can transform disciplines from within. Our field has always pushed at the borders between academic spaces and other realms of thinking, through its connections with activism and artistic production and public engagement of all kinds. The institutional sites we create must be places of possibility and openness, reflecting the generousness of our field, at the same time that they become spaces of empowerment for current and future generations of thinkers. That can be a challenge, for it goes against the grain of well-established university practices in many cases. But like Haiti itself, Haitian Studies has a powerful tradition of resistant imagination to draw on in these struggles. 

Claudine Michel is Professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and served as Director of the Center for Black Studies Research from 1996-2002 and again from 2005-2009. She formerly served as Chair of the Department of Black Studies, Acting Chair of the Department of Chicana/o Studies and Assistant Dean, Undergraduate Academic Affairs, College of Letters and Science. She is the author of Aspects Moraux et Educatifs du Vodou Haitien and a forthcoming book, Offerings: Continuity and Transformation in Haitian Vodou. She co-authored Etude Comparative des Théories du Développement de l'Enfant and co-edited a number of volumes, including Black Studies: Current Issues, Enduring Questions; The Black Studies Reader; Haitian Vodou: Spirit, Myth and Reality; Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers; and Brassage: An Anthology of Haitian Poetry.

George Lipsitz writes about three miracles that characterize the history of Black people in the United States. . . “the miracle of simple survival, the miracle of enduring Black humanity, and the miracle of generative Black Democracy.” This similarly applies to Haiti, the small Caribbean nation still viewed as poor, retrograde and corrupt, as a basket case dependent on foreign aid and development assistance. Meanwhile the Haitian populace continues to endure exclusion, exploitation, hierarchy, and oppression in the hands of both international powers and the Haitian elite. 

Haiti, beacon of hope and liberation, was global before globalization. In the words of Luce Carmel Paul-Austin, “la périphérie au-delà de sa temporalité propre, a pu redéfinir le centre.” New scholarship must restore Haiti’s significance in world history, global economy and politics, and movements of cultural independence beyond the mere narrative of revolution. In addition to contributing immense material goods and countless resources to world development, Haiti has offered notable advances in intellectualism, knowledge and culture, contributing high human ideals beyond its history of resistance. Even less frequently mentioned is Haiti’s role in African Diaspora history and the impact of the Haitian Diaspora in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and beyond. Broad claims can be made regarding the symbolic and substantial importance of Haiti in understanding national cultures and citizenship, race and ethnic relations, religion, ethics, moral philosophy, as well as notions of freedom and human rights. 

Gina Athena Ulysse’s cry for new narratives about Haiti and for rasanblaj as methodology, compilation, rassemblement, self-reflection, praxis, creative imaginary, and courageous collective action has been heard. As we celebrate the 30th year of Haitian Studies as an academic discipline, we stand ready to create different narratives and to examine new constructions of histories that inform how we approach research on the ground and the larger project of transformation of/with/and for Haiti. At this kalfou, which I view as both epistemology and roadmap, Haitianists of Haitian and non-Haitian background must collectively embrace responsible interdisciplinary scholarship as well as principled interventions that defend human rights and champion civil liberties in Haiti, the Diaspora, and worldwide. As researchers and as global citizens, we can expect no less of ourselves. Grenadiers à l’assault!

Jean Eddy Saint Paul is Professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College, City University of New York (CUNY), and the founding director of the CUNY Haitian Studies Institute (CUNY-HSI). He is the author of The Militias in Haiti: Sociology of Chimè and Tontons Macoutes, in addition to dozens of articles and book chapters. He has been a member of the National System of Scholars at the National Council of Science and Technology, Mexico. He was in residence in Paris as a Visiting Fellow at the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales (CERI-SciencesPo), and a Visiting Scholar at the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American & African Studies at the University of Virginia. Currently, he is working on three book projects: Duvalierism, Rhetoric and Political Practices, Civil Society and Politics of Memory in Haiti, and Between Two Worlds: Jean Price-Mars, Haiti and Africa.

Chez les ‘Haïtianistes contemporains,’ il semble avoir un consensus sur l’idée que les études haïtiennes peuvent être conçues comme un grand champ de production et de diffusion de savoirs sur Haïti et les Haïtiens. Actuellement, au XXI siècle, il y a un pressant besoin de débattre sereinement lesdites études du point de vue gnoséologique, ontologique, épistémologique et méthodologique. Quelle est la meilleure stratégie à mettre en exergue par ceux qui détiennent une certaine position d’influence dans l’orientation dudit champ pour parvenir à la maturité intellectuelle des études haïtiennes à l’échelle nationale et internationale?

Thomas Jefferson, ancien Président des États-Unis et fondateur de cette Université où nous sommes réunis, a fait tout ce qui était en son pouvoir pour minimiser la dimension pluriverselle de la Révolution Haïtienne. Le racisme, la suprématie blanche et surtout la rationalité sous-jacente au fonctionnement de l’économie-monde capitaliste étaient parmi les raisons explicatives de la reconnaissance tardive de l’indépendance haïtienne par les États-Unis. Aussi, les facteurs précités expliquent-ils pourquoi les discours culturels, politiques et socio-économiques sur Haïti sont trop souvent imprégnés de néo-colonialisme.

Dans ce spécifique moment sociopolitique où l’occupant de la Maison Blanche -Mr. Donald J. Trump – multiplie la promotion de discours et pratiques participant dans la promotion de la stigmatisation d’Haïti et des Haïtiens d’ici et d’ailleurs, nous qui sommes rassemblés ici à l’Université de Virginia avons une responsabilité éthico-morale pour travailler en coopération (kombitisme) en utilisant les Haitian Studies (Instituts, Associations et Programmes) dans le sens d’une ‘justice décoloniale.’