Laurent Dubois is a Professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke University who is a specialist in the history and culture of France and the Caribbean. His publications include Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804, Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France, and, most recently, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History. He is a co-director of the “Haiti Lab,” the first humanities laboratory at Duke’s Franklin Humanities Institute, he blogs on soccer and tweets as @soccerpolitics, and he is currently writing a cultural history of the banjo.
What led you to Haiti, and the French Caribbean more generally, as a site of research?
My interest in Haiti actually began when I was an undergraduate in the late 1980s, at the moment when Haitians were accused of having brought AIDS to the U.S. As a child of scientists who were partially involved in AIDS research, I knew the theories about the virus’ origins were tenuous and in many cases spurious. But I was struck by how easily the accusations against Haitians were accepted in this country. What was it about our culture that made the idea of Haiti as a source of disease seem so natural, I wondered. I was a student at Princeton, and in class with Barbara Browning, who was thinking about these issues as well – and also was lucky enough to get to know Colin Dayan (who was on a fellowship there) who helped me with my early explorations on Haiti. I delved into research on U.S. visions of Haiti, which brought me to the history of the occupation, and then to the history of the Haitian Revolution. I started delving into the history of Haiti, and of the Caribbean more broadly – and I’ve never stopped.
Your first two books, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution and A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804, build upon two Caribbean texts: CLR James’ The Black Jacobins and Alejo Carpentier’s Explosion in the Cathedral, respectively. How would you define your intellectual debt to both writers and how does your own writing reconsider and revise the assumptions and premises of both texts?
What’s sustained my fascination with Caribbean history over the years is precisely the incredible array of texts that have grappled with the same questions that have pre-occupied me. The literary and intellectual production about the history of the region is absolutely remarkable – James and Carpentier are just two examples, and one could obviously go on listing many others. In writing my dissertation, which became A Colony of Citizens, I found that it was the novelist Carpentier who had most intently tried to make sense of the figure of Victor Hugues – who is central to the book – during his time as a French commissioner in Guadeloupe in the 1790s. I loved the way that he tried to make sense of the contradictions and ironies of the period of emancipation, and the questions his novels raise helped shape the historical questions I posed in the book.
My debt to James is as significant, of course: reading The Black Jacobins was, early on – for me as I think for many others – a kind of religious experience. I read it pretty much straight through, glued to my chair. I learned, of course, a lot about the Haitian Revolution, but as importantly draw from James the idea that writing history as narrative – even as epic – is an inherently political act, as much about the future as about the past. There’s a number of differences between my interpretation of the Haitian Revolution (in Avengers and also in the first chapter of Aftershocks) and that of James, but his text remains a touchstone and a model.
Can you say something about the archival sources that you discovered in writing both books?
In doing my dissertation research for A Colony of Citizens I spent two years working in archival materials about the revolutionary period. The main ones I worked in were the Archives Nationales in Paris, the Archives Nationales Section Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence (where most archives relating to the colonies are housed), the Archives Historiques de l’Armee de Terre in Vincennes (Military Archives), and the Archives Departementales de la Guadeloupe in Bisdary, Guadeloupe. Though that book focuses on Guadeloupe, I also read a lot of materials about Haiti, and returned to some of those as I wrote Avengers. In Haiti I also did research at the Bibliotheque Haitienne des Peres du Saint-Esprit in their collection of rare printed materials. Those materials are really incredible: as a successful slave revolt, the Haitian Revolution generated an archive that is not quite like any other I know of. I’m a big fan of notarial records, which are an amazing way into this period – the intersection between the every day and the anecdotal in them is tremendous – as well as the various kinds of correspondence that provides a way into the drama and unpredictability of a world in revolution. In writing Aftershocks I depended largely on secondary materials and published contemporary accounts of various kinds, though earlier research I had done in the U.S. National Archives on the occupation period definitely shaped my perspective on that period.
The epigraph for Avengers of the New World – “I have avenged America” – comes from Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s 1804 proclamation. What is the significance of this cryptic phrase? Additionally, Dessalines stands in Toussaint L’Ouverture’s historical shadow. What would you argue is the significance of Dessalines for Haiti today?
The phrase is rich with references and symbolic power. It’s in part a reference to a pre-revolutionary Enlightenment tradition – present in Louis-Sebastien Mercier and the Abbé Raynal – of prophesying the arrival of an “Avengers” who would lead slaves in a revolution. It’s also a kind of messianic claim that the Haitian Revolution represented a kind of revenge or redemption for all victims of European colonialism, including the indigenous people who once inhabited Haiti. It’s part of a much larger set of remarkable symbolic gestures made by Dessalines – explored wonderfully in my colleague Deborah Jenson’s recent book Beyond the Slave Narrative – that need a lot more attention. Louverture has always gotten more attention than Dessalines, at least outside Haiti. He’s a slightly more comfortable figure, I think in part simply because he died a martyr in prison and so could be depicted as a tragic figure, whereas Dessalines’ triumph was and in many ways remains deeply troubling for many observers. But I think we’re at the beginning of a great flowering of work on Dessalines: it’s time to move beyond the more familiar portraits of him and really engage seriously with him as a major Atlantic political figure and thinker.
Two criticisms have emerged concerning your recent work on Haiti. First, that in Haiti: The Aftershocks of History you gloss over the history of the rise of Jean Bertrand Aristide and the US role in his ouster. Second, that in your jointly-authored New York Times editorial on the anniversary of the earthquake, your call for building up a system of small-scale rural agricultural producers could marginalize Haitians in a way similar to which Booker T. Washington’s vision for industrial education marginalized African Americans. How would your respond to both criticisms?
I made a conscious choice in Aftershocks to focus largely on periods in Haitian history that I think are not well-known and need to be, particularly the nineteenth century and the U.S. occupation. There are a series of really excellent books that grapple with the more recent history of Aristide from 1990 to 2004, including works by Alex Dupuy, Robert Fatton Jr., and others, and I didn’t feel I had much to add to them. The point of Aftershocks is really to provide a narrative of two hundred years of history, to highlight long-term structural processes and the sedimentation of histories, and I felt like doing so would offer a different and needed perspective on the more recent history.
As for the criticism of the Op-Ed, that’s an interesting concern – but misses the point we were trying to make. The idea isn’t to somehow educate Haitians in agricultural techniques, but rather to reverse the strangulation and destruction of a system that they successfully built over the course of several generations in the country. The point was that for a long time the country had a viable and sustainable style of small-scale agricultural production that combined production for internal markets with export crops like coffee. That system was built independently by Haitians – not because anyone else told them to do it but because they saw it as the best way to secure their economic independence, and dignity in the face of both internal and external pressures. It wasn’t a system that was closed in or limiting, I’d argue. Rather, it was a form of self-reliance predicated on engaging with various national and international markets from a position of autonomy.
The reason we emphasized that in the Op-Ed is not because we think that should be the only activity in Haiti, of course. What I do believe strongly is that if you don’t reconstruct the agricultural sector, it will be very difficult for other economic developments to take root: assuring food production in the country is a necessary foundation for other projects. The historical arguments condensed into the Op-Ed are of course fleshed out in more detail in the book. Interestingly, one of the major points I make in my exploration of the U.S. occupation is about how the projects for “technical” and “agricultural” education along the Booker T. Washington model completely foundered in Haiti precisely because they didn’t actually respect or engage with the existing agricultural models that had been built in the country in the century since independence.
Tell us about the Duke Haiti Lab. What are its origins and what projects do you have lined up for the future?
The Duke Haiti Lab has been quite an adventure: we’ve been active for a year and half. The basic idea of the lab – which was the first of a series of “Humanities Labs” at Franklin Humanities Institute – is to bring together undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty to work on various collaborative projects. Our goal is to insist on the centrality of humanistic work – in history, language, and culture – to discussions about Haiti’s past, present and future.
The projects have included a collaborative art project with Edouard Duval-Carrié, called Haiti: History Embedded in Amber to a project with the Duke Law School about laws regarding violence against women in Haiti, research on the history of cholera in the country, and an ongoing project on discourses of trauma and resiliency in post-earthquake Haiti. We’ve been working on a site called the “Haiti Digital Library” that’s meant to help people looking for online resources about the history and literature of Haiti. We also had a seminar with colleagues in the Société d’Histoire et de Géographie d’Haïti on the political thought of Louverture and Dessalines. We’ve got lots of new projects in the works, including various workshops and discussions about NGOs in Haiti and work on the history of African “nations” in Saint-Domingue during the eighteenth century. I’ve started a project (one I hope to pursue with colleagues at various universities who are doing parallel work) to create an online audio-visual archive of Vodou song, and you can see an example of what we hope to do here. And we’re always interested in new ideas and projects as well.
Image: Laurent Dubois and Edward Duval Carre, Péralte (2011): Source: Haiti: History Embedded in Amber.