Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Dubois on the historiography of Haiti's 19th century

Dubois, Laurent. “Thinking Haiti’s Nineteenth Century.” small axe. 2014. 18.2. 44: 72-79.            

Since it is still the first half of 2015, I’m not egregiously too late in reading Laurent Dubois’ “Thinking Haiti’s Nineteenth Century” from last year. Probably it’s best to consider this short essay an historiographic postscript to Dubois’ Aftershocks (2012).
Anglophone historians, academics, etc., are now paying attention to Haiti. This attention is mostly to the spectacular moment of revolution and independence—one thinks here of Buck-Morss’ influential Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History—or to the recent history of the country, including inglorious coups and a devastating earthquake. Perhaps we (duly noted) go back to the first US occupation in the earlier 20th century. But what about the 19th century? What about the century after revolution and independence? For Dubois, this period is defined by the remarkable success of the “counterplantation system” in bringing a higher quality of life in particular to the rural “masses.” This is why, as Dubois points out, more people moved to Haiti than left it in these years. Haiti in the 19th century was a successful society, but successful in a way that is largely absent from archival sources—which, Dubois emphasizes, in fact do exist in Haiti for these years, and remain to be worked. This is because, in an important sense, it was the goal of this rural society to escape the control of the state.
Reading Dubois, this historiographical field seems wide open and important. His own Aftershocks was a suggestive synthesis (and, from personal experience, very useful in the classroom). A few things to note about the shape of this historiographical field. First, for Dubois, a key part of new thinking about both the revolution and its legacy will be research on land ownership and production patterns. This is intuitive, on a certain level—after all, the revolution was in part against forced plantation labor—but is not the way the story has typically been told. There’s a nice echo of Marc Bloch and French peasant farming in Dubois’ account of the pioneering work by here be Georges Anglade. Other essential historiographic points of reference here, and throughout the essay, are Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Jean Casimir. The story of post-revolutionary society, also, will be one that foregrounds the activity of women in organizing and maintaining the lakou system. This rural society, after all, is organized to avoid a state that is militarized and male. So historians will need to attend more creatively, and make use of other archives. Dubois suggests, following Dayan and others, the large body of vodou song.

Which brings me to a larger point about language and historiographic community. The point of “Thinking Haiti’s Nineteenth Century,” is to highlight certain aspects of the historiography of Haiti in this period, and in particular what is missing or remains to be done. Many of the books that are most important to Dubois are decades old, but were written in French, and several of them in Haiti. One gets the sense of monumental thèses left to languish on the shelves of perhaps 12 libraries in the world...Fundamental primary research remains to be done, to be sure, but so too does the integration of existing historiography into the Anglophone field. Historians of France working in the United States are of course, to varying degrees, aware of the various ouvrages de base on their subject in French. But this is quite a different thing from a functional integration of the two historiographic systems. And I say system because historiography is not just a set of books, but also the scholars, patronage links, conferences, journals, etc, that produce them and keep them in motion. That there is a gap between the Anglophone world and the French one here is surely unavoidable and probably all to the best. In this case, though, the space between French, Anglophone, and Caribbean historiographies seems—at least to this relative outsider—less of a productive gap than a yawning abyss.  
In any case, perhaps the fundamental point made by Dubois here is very much a welcome one: the capacity of a given social arrangement to bring autonomy and satisfaction to those who inhabit it is often not something well-recorded in conventional archives, and often--not always!--because this capacity has existed outside and against the makers of archives. 

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