- Haitian History: New Perspectives by Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall
When historians teach historiography, they sometimes present it as a relatively tidy process, shaped by institutional and personal lineages, theoretical movements, and the rise and fall of certain methodologies. In fact, of course, the writing of history is a fragmented and messy process. This is perhaps nowhere more true than in the writing of Haitian history, transected as it is not only by ideological divisions but also by barriers between publication languages and venues, institutional locations, and even discursive universes. Any good account of historiographical change [End Page 301] is also a historical account, for identifying the web of forces that lead to the emergence, stabilization, and reproduction of particular approaches and paradigms is itself a complex task of intellectual, social, and cultural history.
Where is the history of Haiti being written today? The French scholarly establishment lags notoriously behind in this regard, despite the fact that the French Archives are literally bursting with material about the colonial and revolutionary history of Haiti. The writing of history within Haiti continues, of course, in relation to an extremely rich and complex tradition going back to the early nineteenth century, though the absence of a doctoral program in History has limited the expansion of the field. In terms of the sheer volume of pages, however, it is scholars based in the United States, and US presses, that have—especially since 2004—been the most productive in this area.
Why is it that, for the past decades, there has been an explosion of scholarship on Haiti within North America? The presence of a large Haitian diaspora is of course one key reason, and out of this diaspora have emerged many of this generation’s most important voices in the field. Within the discipline of history itself, the crossroads of Atlantic, African-American, and Caribbean history has been a particularly exciting area for recent research and debate. For those interested in the history of the institution of slavery and especially in the culture and resistance of the enslaved, Haiti is of course incontournable. Or, at least, it should be. And we are finally getting to the point where its importance is broadly acknowledged within the scholarly community, though there are still plenty of battles to be fought in this regard.
But the interests of US scholars, and the chronological divisions in the field, have also meant that the longue durée national history of Haiti has in a way been neglected. The scholarly landscape around Haitian history is one in which the revolutionary period has received tremendous attention, the colonial period a bit less, and other periods—most notably Haiti’s nineteenth century but also much of its twentieth—startlingly little, at least on the part of historians. In this sense it is notable that two of the critical exceptions to this trend, Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Haiti: State Against Nation and Patrick Bellegarde-Smith’s Haiti: The Breached Citadel, were written by anthropologists rather than historians.
All of this makes the new collection by Alyssa Sepinwall, Haitian History: New Perspectives, a particularly useful and valuable contribution. It is part of a Routledge series called Rewriting Histories, whose goal is to present both classic and recent texts of historical writing relating to a particular [End Page 302] topic. One other book in the series, Origins of the Black Atlantic (which I co-edited with Julius Scott) includes some material on Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean. Here, however, Sepinwall provides an excellent selection of works that take us from the colonial period to contemporary Haiti.
The contributors, and many of the pieces, will be familiar to Haitianist scholars as critical contributions to the field. The book opens with a classic piece by Michel-Rolph Trouillot in which he first articulated his thesis about the “unthinkable” nature of the Haitian Revolution, and is followed by contributions by Carolyn Fick, David Geggus, and John Thornton. This is an excellent selection of texts that would be ideal for providing students with a nice introduction to the debates...