RECAP: “Unsettling Genealogies of Haitian Revolutionary History,” Zoom Colloquium w/ UVA’s Marlene Daut

It was through the ascendance of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s 1995 Silencing the Past that a long line of Haitian historians came to have an immeasurable impact on scholarship in the present day. As UVA Professor of History and African Diaspora Studies Marlene Daut explained, though, this influence comes with a sizable asterisk. The vast majority of European and U.S. scholars who acknowledge the vital importance of Silencing the Past have never heard of the 19th-century thinkers who shaped Trouillot’s groundbreaking work. Instead, they read Trouillot associatively—as indebted, for example, to the Marxist tradition of Gramsci and Althusser—and the result is a history of Haiti, and specifically the Haitian Revolution, that is filtered through a Western lens which silences this history’s real source.

At the heart of Prof. Daut’s current work on Trouillot—and at the heart of her October 23 talk at the Kinder Institute, which was co-sponsored by MU’s Afro-Romance Institute—is an act of un-silencing that might decolonize Haiti’s history. This process of de-colonization starts not with Silencing the Past, however, but rather with Trouillot’s 1977 Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti, the first history of the Revolution written in Haitian creole. Unpacking the genealogies of 19th-century Haitian thought that Trouillot draws on in this work—as well as the way of thinking and the mode of historiographical inquiry that emerges from these genealogies—leads us to a historical point of view that doesn’t privilege Western perspectives. And this new understanding of the past likewise has present-tense and future-tending consequences for Haiti itself. “When you know where you came from,” Trouillot wrote in Ti difé boulé, “the path forward that you must take becomes more clear.”

Extracting Haitian revolutionary history from Western grips, Prof. Daut showed, first requires going “beyond Foucault.” Foucault is mentioned once in Ti difé boulé, but even this reference—“In history, power begins with the source”—proves Foucault derivative, as Prof. Daut traced it back instead to 19th-century Haitian historian Beaubrun Ardouin, who anticipated Foucault in arguing that the historian is the source of power. “The past is the regulator for the present,” Ardouin wrote, “as it is for the future.” In terms of the impact of Trouillot’s work, by concerning himself with the present of Ardouin and Thomas Madiou, he was directly addressing—or redressing—a Western incapacity and unwillingness to understand the Revolution on its own terms. Specifically, because the very idea of a slave revolution was ontologically incompatible with the world theories of European thinkers—because they were concerned only with a Haiti that involved them—the histories that came out of the West were riddled with prejudice and bias. By re-examining the Revolution from the vantage of Haitian historians, Trouillot was thus able to un-suffocate a Haitian perspective and craft a history from a point of view that was natural, rather than foreign, to the nation. On one hand, this corrected what colonists had missed when, for example, their histories placed too much emphasis on Toussaint Louverture and not enough on the public masses (the brave maroons who were, for Baron de Vastey, the true authors of Haitian independence). On the other hand, by focusing on the sources themselves—by attending to who is historiographically included and excluded—Trouillot was able to begin to draw to the surface the vast, if also ignored, influence of Haitian intellectual history on 19th- and 20th-century Atlantic thought.

Trouillot’s insistence on returning to these original sources of Haitian history highlights, Prof. Daut continued, a new epistemological technique: a reverse ventriloquism through which second-generation Haitian nationalists like Vastey spoke (and continue to speak) for the dead. Such a technique brings us to a point in time “before Michelet.” By attributing the substantiation of revolutionary discourse to European luminaries like Michelet—who wrote the first history of the Revolution from the French perspective—we erase what and who came prior to them and, in turn, mis-credit who is responsible for the big ideas that shape how we tell history and develop national traditions. Reviving the voices of those who are buried—as not only Trouillot did but also the thinkers whose genealogy he traces—we unveil the heinous crimes which precipitated the Haitian Revolution and rightfully celebrate both who fought against empire and why. As Prof. Daut explored by turning to Haitian poet Hérard Dumesle’s 1824 Voyage Dans Le Nord D’Hayti, this process does not simply involve underscoring atrocity, nor is it confined to the study of figures and facts. As the Great Wanderer in Dumesle’s poem revisits the natural and built landscapes of Haiti—its edifices, monuments, and palaces—we find new allegories and symbols to guide us not only in learning a true history of Haiti but also in bringing this history into the present. Works of poetry, in this sense, become their own spiritually evocative medium of retrieval. They show us, as Trouillot wrote, all that “is left when we close the history books with their verifiable facts.”

Which leads us, finally, “beyond Trouillot.” Haiti’s has always been an “inconvenient history”—inconvenient particularly to the legacies of colonialism and white supremacy—and assessing and moving past Trouillot’s impact is necessary for undoing the silencing “lessons of kings” by seeking out more of Haitian political thought and its influence on Western historiography.

A video recording of the talk can be found here.