We Are Not All Haitians

Reading and re-reading The Public Archive’s 2012 interview with the late J. Michael Dash I was struck by Dash’s refusal to talk about himself. In the interview Dash described many of the moments and encounters that shaped him as an intellectual. But he offered little in the way of personal motivation. There is nothing of the emotive or psychological rendering that signifies autobiography of a certain cast. When I asked Dash to elaborate on his past, hoping he would offer some pathos-ridden clue that would explain a Trinidadian’s interest in the literature and culture of Haiti and Martinique, Dash politely brushed the question aside. “I would resist the autobiographical impulse,” he stated. “I was also taught very early to avoid the explicitly personal in critical essays,” Dash continued. “That reflex remains until this day.”

Dash’s avoidance of the autobiographical, of the personal – his refusal of an over-wrought “I” – had important methodological and theoretical implications to his approach to Caribbean literature and history. His privacy guarded against the over-representation of the self in critical narrative. It also defended the integrity and sovereignty of the other, especially from the kind of authorial spillover (or, more precisely, the kind of anthropophagic terrorism) that turns the other into the mere fantasy or projection of the self. While these ethics partly undergird the project of Dash’s neglected The Other America: Caribbean Literature in a New World Context(Virginia, 1998) they also apply in particular to his writing on Haiti, a place that has suffered from more representational cannibalism than almost anywhere else in the world. 

It is a testament to Dash’s ethics and intellect that his writing on the republic was sympathetic without being sentimental, neither paternalistic nor proprietary, and avoided the traps of romance and fetishization that have plagued representations of Haiti for two centuries. It goes without saying that for these reasons it is well worth returning to Dash’s incredible corpus of writing on Haiti: to his 900-plus page 1972 UWI dissertation Nationalism in Haitian Poetry, 1915-1946, toJacques Stephen Alexis(Black Images, 1975), to Literature and Ideology in Haiti: 1915-1961(MacMillan, 1981), to Haiti and the United States: National Stereotypes and the Literary Imagination(MacMillan, 1997), to Culture and Customs of Haiti(Greenwood Press, 2001), as well as to his numerous essays on literary figures from Jacques Roumain to Edwidge Danticat. 

If Dash’s approach to narrative was to resist autobiography, it was also to reject identity. This rejection of identity came about in part as a reaction to the brutal excesses of noirisme manifest in the Duvalier regime. Here, Dash found critical solace in the poetics of Alexis, Edouard Glissant, and others. But it also came about through the particularly Caribbean conjuncture of time and space in which Dash emerged, that moment of possibility of twentieth-century Caribbean intellectual production wherein imperial borders were erased, linguistic boundaries crossed, and the parochialism of inter-island rivalries was partially transcended. Instead of dwelling in the familiar and the proximate, Dash, borrowing from Michel-Ralph Trouillot, argued that one “needed detour and distance to fully grasp what you thought you had already understood at home.” He continued: “I lamented then, as I do now, the fragmented and insular state of Caribbean Studies as scholars invariably still tend to study the places they came from.”

Haiti was critical to Dash’s Caribbean sensibility. This is a point Jamaican historian Matthew J. Smith makes in his moving tribute to Dash published by our friends Africa is a Country. For Dash, the Haitian Revolution signaled the irruption, to use Glissant’s word, of a modernity whose impact resonated across the archipelago, in many ways creating the modern Caribbean. As Dash once asserted, “We are all Haitians.”

This phrase, “we are all Haitians,” offers a powerful and elegantly precise means of invoking the intertwined histories and fates of Caribbean people, while at the same time tethering that history and those fates to Haiti itself. Yet I would like to push back against the idea that we are all Haitians. Dash understood – and lived – with a rhetorical and practical allegiance to Haiti. But he also understood this simple truth: that we are all Haitians, except when we are not. Dash fought against the vulgar forms of Haitian exceptionalism but he also understood the particularities of Haiti’s experience.  In his writing, he grasped a fundamental paradox of identification and solidarity: the recognition that what is exceptional is not always unique, and that while experiences can be shared, they can also be experienced differently. Dash could enter the space inhabited by the other, but he never spoke for or claimed that space as his own. It is a practice, I would argue, that is as much political as it is literary.

Dash passed away in New York City the morning of Saturday, June 2nd, 2019. On Sunday, June 9th, thousands of protestors took to the streets of Haiti’s cities and towns, demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse and the prosecution of those responsible for looting some $2 billion from the government’s Petrocaribe Fund. On Monday, June 10thHaitian journalist Pétion Rospide was assassinated, shot to death in Port-au-Prince while driving a car belonging to Radio San Fin. Rospide anchored the general affairs program “Ti Bat Bouch” (“Small Chat”) and “Info Petro,” which focused on the PetroCaribe scandal. Described as “an ally to the destitute in Haiti,” Rospide’s reporting is said to have made him a target.  

I suspect that Dash would be a little embarrassed at the attention he has received in the wake of his passing given the fact of Rospide’s murder, and of the continuing struggles of Haitian journalists, writers, scholars, and students. He would probably be chagrinned by the energy of mourning directed towards him. Unfortunately, it is in death that we can clearly see the distinction between who is a Haitian and who is not; it is in the imbalance of grief separating the local journalist from the international scholar that the rhetoric of solidarity begins to dissolve. Dash, who saw himself as “an intermediary, a kind of broker, between writers and readers,” would probably seek to redress this imbalance. He would probably want us to re-direct the focus on his life and work to that of others – especially those Haitians who continue to fight against the counter-revolutionary forces unleashed after the Revolution, against the continuing project of neocolonialism begun in the nineteenth century. Selfless, generous, quietly radical, Dash would probably ask those of us who are Haitian but who are often not to throw our weight behind those who always are. 

Rest in peace, Brother Dash. Thank you for your work.

Jean Michael Dash (Port of Spain, Trinidad, 20 July 1948 – New York City, USA, 2 June 2019)

J. Michael Dash: In Memoriam.

Matthew J. Smith, “We Are all Haitian,” Africa Is a Country(June 2019)

Mort de Michael Dash, spécialiste d’Édouard Glissant : fonder sur l’absence, Mediapart(3 June 2019).

Detours and Distance: An interview with J. Michael Dash, The Public Archive (4 March 2012).

Image: View of Port-au-Prince from Saint-Jacques, circa 1970s, Bryant Slides Collection, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Central Florida Libraries, Orlando, Florida /Digital Library of the Caribbean.

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