Haiti, Afghanistan, and the Public Archive

The Public Archive’s fortieth post is as good a time as any to reflect on its aims and its future.

The Public Archive was a response to the coverage of Haiti after the January 12th earthquake. We felt a sense of despair at the depiction of Haiti in the North American and European press with its relentless imagery of tragedy, of incessant failure, of historical inevitability – usually tied to some cultural or racial essence of the Haitian people. To those who seemed to despise the notion of a free black republic, Haiti was a victim of history. But even for those who lauded the “first successful slave revolt”, the next two hundred years of post-Independence life were too often reprised only as disaster: history reduced to occupation, corruption, and debt peonage.

Could we find alternative narratives and images of Haiti? Finding other accounts was often difficult. There is an incredible bibliography of sources on Haiti’s history written by both Haitian and non-Haitian writers. Yet much of the French-language material has not been translated and remains inaccessible to an English-speaking audience. And much of the English language material is locked away from the general public within the academic strong boxes of JSTOR, Project Muse, ProQuest, and other private databases only available to subscribers and only affordable to institutions.

History has been privatized. Hence the Public Archive.

Neither of us are “experts” on Haiti. Nor did we wish to editorialize. We are, however, professional historians, and we wanted to use our research skills to direct readers to publicly available, if often inaccessible, source material on Haiti’s history: to archival documents produced at the moment of history’s making and to historical essays written by Haiti’s specialists.

Moving forward, we are going to expand the geographic coverage of the Public Archive, adding Afghanistan alongside our posts on Haiti. At opposite ends of the globe, Haiti and Afghanistan are closer than they might appear. Both countries have been mis-, under-, and poorly- represented in the mainstream press. The terms in which Afghanistan is evoked often parallel those of Haiti, though with an Orientalist twist. In both cases, history is viewed as a tragic inevitability and politics emerges as an incomprehensible quagmire. In Afghanistan, tribalism and Islam stand in for blackness and Vodou. Both are seen as anti-modern places with anti-modern people needing the interventionist redemption of the West. Yet both have been seen as necessary to the West for reasons of security and political economy.

We see this move as one of affiliation and connection. And we hope we can facilitate a conversation across regions.

We invite your comments, criticisms, and participation. Please send links, citations, and counter-arguments to Twitter, Facebook, or the website itself.

We need your help and your community. For history, and the archive, should be a collaborative space.

Peter James Hudson | Samira Sheikh | Nashville, Tennessee | March 22, 2010

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