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Alterity and History: The Cross-Current Contributions of the Work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot

From: Journal of Haitian Studies
Volume 19, Number 2, Fall 2013
pp. 33-46 | 10.1353/jhs.2013.0034

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This essay explores and celebrates Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s intellectual vision and analytical insights. Few cultural anthropologists, historians, or political theorists have produced a compendium of work that holds such pertinence for policymakers, scholars, and advanced students in the social sciences and humanities. His work provides knowledge about modern political and economic relations that never romanticizes Haitian alterity but instead, produces ethnographic and historically grounded evidence about the human realities of modern capital and oppressive political systems. Haitian alterity was not perceived as a given by Trouillot, but was rather the subject of many interlocking historical questions. Trouillot’s publications investigate European-derived political traditions in order to provide a broader, evidence-based understanding of the historical emergence of patterns of economic development, issues of governance within the Haitian nation-state and internationally, and state practices that advocated increased citizen political participation. These topics are found throughout Trouillot’s academic scholarship and were present in his public engagement and service. By placing such value on these issues, his work provides a theoretical and analytical lens through which to understand Haitian alterity not as deficit or deficient, but as unknown yet knowable.

It is in this way that Trouillot’s work provides a crosscurrent of knowledge regarding the historical and contemporary realities in Haiti and the Caribbean. However, the back-and-forth relationship between European and American politics, and the regionally specific historical relationships that he advanced, also address issues pertinent to the political traditions of people of African descent throughout the Americas. Alterity includes processes involved in the making and forging of historical distinctiveness. In Trouillot’s written and public works, Haiti’s distinctiveness requires an understanding of the intersections of modern historical transformations and a substantive examination of human agency. Moreover, it was his own crosscurrent of academic and personal knowledge, as well as his analytical vision and critical insights, that engaged scholarship about the construction and historical emergence of Western European politics. This scholarship neither silenced nor ignored the contributions made by people of African descent, or the political leadership within the Republic of Haiti and throughout the Americas. If the “New World” was an alternative to Europe, the Republic of Haiti, according to the scholarship of Trouillot, was an alternative to the historical transformations underway in the Americas. Most importantly, the content of Haitian history provided a necessary critique of the foundational premises held in political and economic theory that impacted a fuller ethnographic understanding of human history.

In this essay, I offer specific insights regarding Trouillot’s ethnohistorical scholarship and his contributions as an engaged public intellectual. I had the benefit of having him as a professor when I first began graduate study at Johns Hopkins University. I applied to the Hopkins anthropology program because in the 1993 American Association of Anthropology Guide to Anthropology Programs, Dr. Trouillot listed the “Afro-Americas” as his area of cultural expertise. I wanted to learn what he meant by the “Afro-Americas.” During the period I attended the university as a graduate student, I began to recognize that his historical research and his public comments and writings interlocked. The “Afro-Americas” were not a static, singular object but were created by human-driven processes with important contextual locations, fraught by historical invisibility in the scholarship. Trouillot’s academic instruction included coursework that specifically trained students to understand the creation of social scientific concepts and categories. His critical intervention as a professor provided me with my own intellectual tools. It is clear after an examination of both his academic and public engagement that for Trouillot, contemporary foreign relations and politics were interrelated with historical population transformations. Historical transformations are not linked in directly causal relationships with issues of state formation and governance, but are shifts that need to be critically examined. Culture, history, and power provide the basis for important analytical discussions regarding political processes.

As the Krieger Endowed Chair at Johns Hopkins, Trouillot openly discussed the tenuousness of his place and power at the table of tenured knowledge creators in US academic institutions. For more than ten years, Trouillot was one of two tenured faculty members of African descent in the School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins...


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