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Michel-Rolph Trouillot—Rolph to relatives, friends, colleagues, and students—died unexpectedly in his sleep on the morning of July 5, 2012 at the Chicago, Illinois apartment that he and wife Anne-Carine Trouillot called home since 1998. One of four children born to Ernst Trouillot (1922–1987) and Anne-Marie Morisset (deceased 1999), Rolph entered this world on November 26, 1949, joining a Port-au-Prince family of accomplished and politically active Black intellectuals. The Black-Mulatto distinction remains salient in Haiti, although, as Rolph tirelessly repeated, myopic oversimplification makes color the stand-alone criterion for gauging Haitian socioeconomic and political issues, when class, region, and urban versus rural residence also count (Trouillot 1994).
Ernst Trouillot earned a living as an attorney but deftly practiced the historian’s craft and journalism as avocations. Rolph’s paternal uncle Hénock Trouillot (1923–1988), a professor, prolific writer, and director [End Page 153] of the Archives Nationales d’Haïti, was the most analytically astute and influential Noiriste historian of his generation. Rolph and his siblings grew up amidst discerning arguments about how the past shapes the present yet leaves openings for new ideas and constructive actions in the arts, the humanities, the social sciences, and politics (Woodson 2008). In 2011, he and Jocelyne Trouillot Lévy, Evelyne Trouillot Ménard, and Lyonel Trouillot—winners of numerous literary awards for novels, poetry, and children’s stories—co-founded Le Centre Culturel Anne-Marie Morisset to serve the disadvantaged Township of Delmas, Haiti.
Rolph was a precocious five-year old when his parents enrolled him in Port-au-Prince’s Petit Séminaire Collège Saint-Martial to learn from the Pères du Saint-Esprit, a pedagogically and politically progressive Roman Catholic order. There Rolph completed primary school and, in 1968, passed the rigorous Baccalaureate II (Philosophy) Examination. He had begun coursework at L’École Normale Supérieure in 1968, when the Duvalier dictatorship targeted high school and college students as enemies of the regime. Facing escalating harassment and threats of violence, hundreds of young Haitian students sought refuge in New York City, then host to the Haitian Diaspora’s largest population. Rolph was among them. Settling down (though temporarily) in a new country, Rolph pursued higher education, wrote poetry and journalistic pieces, composed music (including lyrics for the widely performed song “Aliyen Kat” [“Alien Card”]), and supported his family by driving cabs and doing odd jobs. In 1978, he graduated summa cum laude from Brooklyn College, City University of New York (CUNY), with a Bachelor of Arts in Caribbean history and culture. Reading, Haitian Diaspora politics, poetry, journalism, and music consumed Rolph’s spare time (not free time, we remember him pointedly saying). He completed his first book, Ti difè boulé sou istoua Ayiti, (1977). This incisive Marxist analysis of the Haitian Revolution and politico-ideological developments immediately after Haitian independence remains the only work of its kind written in Haiti’s national language and seamlessly reducing to text the contrapuntal oral style of face-to-face Haitian Creole conversations. During these years, Rolph also began research for two papers on coffee production in Saint-Domingue/Haiti that would, by the mid-1980s, alter Caribbean-ists’ thinking about the sociology, economics, and politics of slavery, the cultivation of “secondary crops,” and the ambient conditions of freedom from the 17th to the 19th century (Trouillot 1981 and 1982).
In 1978, soon after migrating to Baltimore from Yale University, anthropologists Sidney W. Mintz and Richard Price recruited Rolph for the fourth cohort of anthropology graduate students in the Johns Hopkins University Program in Atlantic History and Culture. After fieldwork and documentary research in and on Dominica, Rolph completed his [End Page 154] Ph.D. in 1985. By then he was an assistant professor of anthropology at Duke University (1983–1988), where he worked closely with colleagues in other departments to establish the University’s Caribbean Studies Program, while revising his dissertation. Peasants and Capital: Dominica in the World Economy (1988...