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Neither Magical nor Exceptional: The Idea of the Ordinary in Caribbean Studies

From: Journal of Haitian Studies
Volume 19, Number 2, Fall 2013
pp. 24-32 | 10.1353/jhs.2013.0035

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

But what I am inclined to retain from this visit to the ruins of a theatre is what this woman told me, the kind of legend or myth that spontaneously she had invented.

Michel Leiris, “Antilles et poésie des carrefours”

I had lost my companions on purpose. I wanted to tiptoe alone through the remains of history.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past

I have always wondered why Michel-Rolph Trouillot never went into the family business, the business of writing fiction. Both his sister Évelyne and his brother Lyonel are successful and accomplished novelists. My argument here is that he did join the family business in his own peculiar way. It was perhaps from this vantage point that he kept questioning his day job, the discipline of anthropology. If anthropology was ‘the science of the odd or the exceptional,’ as he might have put it, literature then bore the burden of the ordinary and the everyday. We tend to overlook this aspect of literary skepticism in Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s work even though it is often in plain view.

Certainly one Haitian writer spotted it. Edwidge Danticat, in her anthology of writing from the Haitian Diaspora, The Butterfly’s Way, was wise enough to include a short narrative by Trouillot that is arguably one of the best in the book. The piece had been published previously and had gone largely unnoticed. It was the epilogue to Silencing the Past, a work that is mined by eager academics who almost invariably concentrate on one essay, “An Unthinkable History,” and pay scant attention to the epilogue (or to the introduction, for that matter). The epilogue is likely disregarded because it is palpably personal and disturbingly open-ended. Trouillot’s authorial presence, or rather stance, is left out of many accounts although, in my view, it is central to his critique of the idea of historical intelligibility, of what constitutes the anthropological field, and of the certitudes of theoretical reflection.

This epilogue, which is given the title “Looking for Columbus” in the Danticat anthology, seems slyly aimed at Haitianists, whether local intellectuals or professional foreign scholars. The “Looking” in the title is a dead giveaway as the piece is about what escapes notice, what lies outside the field, and, most of all, knowing how to look. From the outset it is about searching for what you know is no longer there: “I was looking for Columbus, but I knew he would not be there.”1 There is no “Eureka!” moment in this text, nor is there a reliable native informant whose words can be respectfully recorded. It is about dispossession, forgetfulness, and engagement with global history by means of an anticlimactic shrug.

The narrative begins with a literary flourish: “Down by the shore, Port-au-Prince exposed its wounds to the sun; Harry Truman Boulevard, once the most beautiful street in Haiti, was now a patchwork of potholes” (SP 154). Indeed, this place is a symbolic site. Harry Truman Boulevard epitomized a shrunken, devastated Haiti—“a war zone with no memory,” “fountains dried up,” and “shrunk[en] palm trees” (SP 154). In this ‘field’ there is no sense of who Truman was, or of his connections to NATO or to the Korean War. The narrator spots a stone statue on the grass and asks his ‘native informant,’ a peddler of street art who happens to be there, whether this is what is left of the Columbus statue. The peddler-cum-painter boldly declares, “No . . . this is a statue of Charlemagne Péralte” (SP 155). Trouillot is taken aback. As he puts it, Péralte was “a thin dark man. The bust on the grass was visibly that of a white male, rather stocky” (SP 155). He confirms his suspicions when he reads the inscription, which identifies it as a bust of Harry Truman. He asks again about the Columbus statue and the peddler confesses, “I don’t know. I am not from Port-au-Prince. . . . Maybe it is the one that used to be near the water” (SP 155).

Trouillot wryly observes that this is “how history takes shape in a country with the lowest literacy rate on this side of...

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