SESSION 3 – politics and intellectual history

Jean Casimir, Sara Johnson, Délide Joseph, Matthew J. Smith

moderated by marlene L. daut

L’avenir des peuples dépend souvent de la manière dont on leur présente leur passé. S’ils portent un faux jugement sur les faits de leurs annales, sur les principes qui ont guidé leurs devanciers, leurs hommes politiques, ils subissent, malgré eux, l’influence de cette erreur, et ils sont exposés à dévier de la route qu’ils doivent suivre pour arriver à leur prospérité, à leur civilisation. C’est par ces considérations que l’histoire est si utile, si instructive; car elle est remplie d’enseignements précieux.
– Beaubrun Ardouin, Études sur l’histoire d’Haïti (tome 4)

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Jean Casimir is a leading scholar of Haitian history and culture. He is a Professor at the Faculty of Human Sciences of the University of Haiti, where he teaches courses on culture and society of Haiti and the Caribbean. He was the Visiting Mellon Fellow, at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Duke University, in Spring 2010. He has held research and teaching positions in Brazil, and Mexico. He has also held various posts with the United Nations, including among others United Nations Social Affairs Officer, and a position with the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, all the while continuing his academic studies on Haiti. More recently, he served as Haiti’s Ambassador to the United States (1991-1996). His publications include La Cultura Oprimida (1980), La Caraibe, une et divisible (English version The Caribbean: One and Divisible, 1992), Ayiti Toma, Haiti Chèrie (2000), Pa Bliye 1804, Souviens-toi de 1804 (2004), Libète, Egalite, … sou wout fratènite, Liberté, Egalitè, … en route vers la Fraternité (2005), Haïti et ses élites, l’interminable dialogue de sourds (2009), Une lecture décoloniale de l’histoire des Haïtiens du Traité de Ryswick a l’Occupation américaine, 1697-1915 (2018), and numerous other book chapters and articles on Haitian culture, history and development.

If the people happens to be sovereign, who is to speak “about deviating from the route that (it) must follow”? This route is also described in the absences registered in “its annals”. Concepts used in these corpuses emerged from daily experiences and they encapsulate the totality of local history. The future is built, a day at a time, thanks to the lenses they offer to decipher present circumstances.

In Haiti (and in several Caribbean countries), two languages and two sets of concepts, not immediately interchangeable, are currently in use. In the language Ardouin is not using, experience dictates that tout moun se moun. If he were using the vernacular language, he would have had severe difficulty to justify the killing of “predecessors” who were “the biggest obstacle in the Independence war” (Ardouin, Tome 2, 1853:361), as the (ex post facto) heroes saw it.

“Bilingualism” (whose?) opposes two versions (and two visions) of reality. The opening sentence of Toussaint’s famous letter to Napoleon: “Du premier des Noirs au premier des Blancs”, translated literally into local Creole, is absurd, while its literal meaning in French is misleading. In Haitian parlance, not all whites are “blan”. The governor general was saying: “From the first of us, to the first of the foreigners”. His “Noir” is the one defined in article 14 of Dessalines’ 1805 Constitution, the opposite to the one referred to by his order to kill all the “blan”.

As Haitian historiography is increasingly addressing the Haitian people, it is expected that several key concepts will be revisited: the pearl of the Antilles, slave vs. enslaved and captives; affranchis (emancipated slaves), and fugitives vs. maroons, rebels and insurgents; white, black, negro, mulatto, vs. persons; Bossales vs. Creoles; Africa vs. Guinea; indentured laborers or cultivators vs. peasants; vodou vs. religion; sovereign people vs. sovereign state; state vs. government (fonction  publique ou administration publique)... 

Sara Johnson is Associate Professor of Literature of the Americas at the University of California, San Diego. Her book The Fear of French Negroes: Transcolonial Collaboration in the Revolutionary Americas was published by the University of California Press in 2012 as part of the Modern Language initiative, a partnership between the Modern Language Association, the Mellon Foundation, and several university presses. Johnson is the co-editor of Kaiso! Writings By and About Katherine Dunham (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, Studies in Dance History Series, 2006) and Una ventana a Cuba y los Estudios cubanos (2010). Kaiso!  was named one of the top ten arts books of 2006. Recent fellowships include those from the Ford Foundation, the University of California President’s Postdoctoral Program, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and the Hellman Fund.

Délide Joseph graduated from the Superior Teachers training college (ENS - Port-au-Prince). He presented, in 2014, his thesis in History at the Higher School of Sociales Studies (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales / EHESS - Paris). Member of the International Center of Researches on the Slaveries (CIRESC), he is a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS - France) and professor at the Campus Henry Christophe of Limonade (State University of Haiti, Haiti). He is the winner of the thesis Price  Maryse Condé in 2014 selected by the National Committee for the Memory and the History of the Slavery (CNMHE/ Ministry of Overseas, France). Publication at 2017 : L’État haïtien et ses intellectuels : socio-histoire d’un engagement politique (1801-1860),Port-au-Prince, éd. Le Natal (January 2017) ; Etre intellectuel en Haïti. Socio-histoire d’une élite culturelle, 1801-1860, Paris, Karthala (May 2017).

« Je vous prie de vouloir bien ordonner qu’il me soit envoyé plusieurs exemplaires de la constitution, les rapports du secrétaire d’État à la chambre pour les années 1819, 20, 21, 22, et 23, les différents examens, l’état général de la population, le nombre des régiments et tous les autres renseignements qui peuvent faire concevoir de nous une idée avantageuse. » 

Jonathas Granville au président de la République d’Haïti, 12 juin 1824. 

Introduire mes propos en laissant la parole à l’un des acteurs principaux du champ intellectuel haïtien de la première moitié du XIXe siècle, permet d’entrer de plain-pied dans l’intensité de l’engagement politique, social et intellectuel, sans que la voix de l’historien, parfois froidement analytique, ne vienne entacher l’authenticité du discours de ceux qui s’impliquent dans la défense ou la promotion d’une cause. 

L’intellectuel haïtien de la première moitié du XIXe siècle se reconnaît par son engagement. Il se distingue aussi par sa participation au processus de construction de l’État haïtien, et occupe ainsi une position centrale dans le dispositif du pouvoir. Idéologue, homme de savoir et écrivain, homme politique et conseiller des gouvernants, l’intellectuel haïtien contribue à l’élaboration d’une vision dominante et dynamique de l’État haïtien et de son devenir. Il est l’artisan et le promoteur de la réalisation des projets qu’il échafaude pour construire et moderniser le pays.

Matthew J. Smith is Professor of History and Head of the Department of History and Archaeology at the University of the West Indies, Mona. His areas of research include Haitian politics, society, and migration. He is the author of Liberty, Fraternity, Exile: Haiti and Jamaica After Emancipation (2014), which was the winner of the 2015 Haiti Illumination Project Book Prize by the Haitian Studies Association. He has also authored Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957 (2009), which was a winner of the Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis prize for best book in Caribbean History from the Caribbean Studies Association. He has been the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship for graduate studies at the University of Florida; an Andrew Mellon Visiting Professorship at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Duke University; and a Dubois-Mandela-Rodney Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is currently Director of the Department’s Social History Project.

Un pays sans mémoire. A familiar utterance in Haiti issued mostly by those who see the History they knew scattered and lost in a universe of contemporary unknowing. It is unsettling to consider irrelevance. Even more to see the distant struggles for self-definition disempowered and abbreviated to suit convenient narratives. What History gives us is the responsibility of remembrance. It is those who tell the stories that determine how they will live. History also gives us the challenge to review the judgments left behind and constantly reevaluate them in our unceasing quest for understanding how we came to be. It is a burden Haiti's story-tellers share with others in the Caribbean. It is also a responsibility that assumes greatest significance in this age when the past is even more alien and misunderstood. 

For 21st century Caribbeans the past seems often to appear as a curio, noticed but only rarely observed closely. Ardouin, in this remarkable quote, foresaw the inherent problems that can arise if we are not careful custodians of the past. His admonition endures because in the Caribbean the past is always political. Consider this: only a half century ago a historian governed Trinidad and Tobago; Caribbean History-teaching fired radical nationalism on regional campuses; and the legacy of Revolution was manipulated by Haiti's most brutal dictator. Contemporary regard for the past and its role in the Caribbean's future cannot be disengaged from this process. 

The presentation of our past has its own history. And that history is made turbid by the incoherence of the politics of its creation. The realities of 21st century Caribbean people—with more access than Ardouin and generations of his successors and even more vulnerable to deviation--calls for different ways of telling our histories. A new way of knowledge transmission that treats honestly with the process by which Haiti and its neighbors made and remade themselves.