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  • The Legacy of Assotto Saint:Tracing Transnational History from the Gay Haitian Diaspora

Introduction

This essay uses Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s notion of power and the production of history as a starting point to explore the ways that Assotto Saint (1957-1994), a gay Haitian American who was once a well-known player in the Black gay and AIDS activist cultural movements in the United States, is remembered and written about in contemporary venues.1 I argue that the politics of remembrance pertaining to Saint’s cultural work and activism has significant consequences for our understanding of late twentieth century social and cultural movements in the United States as well as gay Haitian history. I explore the fact that Saint’s work has fallen out of popularity since his death in 1994, except in limited identitarian, mostly literary venues. The silences surrounding his work that I describe in this essay are peculiar considering that Saint not only had important social connections with artists who are well-known today, but also, unlike artists with less access to financial resources, he left behind a huge archive of materials housed in the Black Gay and Lesbian Collections at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as well as a rich and prolific corpus of published work. By offering a re-reading of these archival materials and placing them in their socio-historical contexts, I also make a restorative gesture to commit Assotto Saint’s legacy to public memory. Through investigating the life, activism, and cultural work of this self-proclaimed diva of the Haitian diaspora, this essay ultimately attempts to offer a dynamic understanding of the movements Saint took part in as well as a re-reading of the dominant narratives about Haiti and gay sexuality.

I begin with a biographical sketch of Assotto Saint to highlight the connections between events in his life and major historical occurrences in Haiti and the United States. The subsequent section provides an overview of the range of his cultural work in terms of medium, genre, and theme. [End Page 235] I also emphasize Saint’s efforts as an institution builder for the Black gay cultural movement as well as the broader AIDS activist cultural movement. This overview builds a foundation that allows us to understand why Assotto Saint has not received the same kind of posthumous recognition as his contemporaries. His work has been recognized, primarily by circulating his essay “Haiti: A Memory Journey” in recent anthologies of Caribbean writing; this, however, has also in some ways reduced the complexity of the transnational critiques fiercely presented by this historical figure in his lifetime. In the final sections of the paper, I describe what is at stake in the “practice” of remembering Assotto Saint with all his complexities, thus rectifying the essentializing and silences that have surrounded his literary contributions and activism.

The Life and Death of Assotto Saint

i was born on all angels daybut throughout my lifei’ve been a bitch out of hell/don’t nobody show up at my funeralto call me nice or some shit like that/save it for turncoat cocksuckerswho on their deathbedsopen their mouths wide to claim god/

—Assotto Saint, “Devils in America”

Assotto Saint died of AIDS-related complications in New York City on June 29, 1994. The week of Saint’s death, the city swelled with queers: drag queens, gays, lesbians, transgender people, and AIDS activists among others. Drawn by an act of celebration—the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall Riot in Greenwich Village—and of mourning and frustration—a decade and a half of the ongoing AIDS crisis—the gathering of queers in New York City coincided with Saint’s death in the uncanny way that so many of his major life events paralleled the social and political changes of his time. The poet, playwright, performer, and activist was born in Les Cayes, Haiti as Yves François Lubin on October 2, 1957, the same week that the infamously repressive, US-backed dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected president. Saint’s first trip to the United States, visiting his mother, who left him in...

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