- Still Unthinkable? The Haitian Revolution and the Reception of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past
Before his untimely death in July 2012, Michel-Rolph Trouillot was one of the most original and thoughtful voices in academia. His writings influenced scholars worldwide in many fields, from anthropology to history to Caribbean studies. He also wrote profoundly important works in three languages, from his 1977 Kreyòl work Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti and his 1986 French classic Les Racines historiques de l’État duvaliérien to more recent English-language studies like 2003’s Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World.
Though each of these works made its own seminal contribution to scholarship, Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) is his most famous work.1 Silencing examines the way history is produced, and how history-writing is connected to power. Trouillot also looked at the gaps between what actually happened in the past, and what is “said to have happened” (what is recorded in history books). Rather than simply repeat the cliché that history is written by the victors, Trouillot called for analyzing how the powerful write history in a given way in particular situations. One of Trouillot’s main interests in Silencing was to investigate how historical narratives inevitably omit certain portions of the past. He also exposed how the archives where historical truths are preserved frequently silence defeated voices. In addition, Trouillot described the historical practices that suppress subaltern perspectives. Finally, Trouillot looked at particular ways of thinking that have made it difficult for powerful groups to come to terms with history as it actually happened. The examples he covered range from narratives about Columbus to Disney’s failed efforts to build a Civil War–themed amusement park in Virginia.
In this essay, I trace the reception history of this remarkable book since its publication in 1995. I note that Silencing was not immediately a hit when it appeared. Over time, however, the book has had a remarkable influence on many fields. In the first half of this essay, I examine the book’s [End Page 75] influence, using multiple kinds of evidence. Even as I trace the influence of the book as a whole, I pay special attention to its third chapter: “An Unthinkable History: The Haitian Revolution as a Non-Event.” In the essay’s second half, I argue that, despite the influence of Silencing in general and of this chapter in particular, the reception of “Unthinkable History” has been uneven. While some of Trouillot’s arguments in the chapter are now widely accepted, others have been neglected, and debate remains on still others. I focus especially on the essay’s influence on scholarship of the Haitian Revolution. My main argument in this section is that although the essay has helped to make the Haitian Revolution more widely known, when non-Haitian scholars write about the Revolution, they often still do so in ways that Trouillot would denounce as “banalizing.” While some of the scholarship I discuss dismisses the Haitian Revolution consciously, I also describe the prevalence of what I call “Me Free Too” scholarship, which writes about the Revolution in unwittingly trivializing ways.
My reception history of Silencing the Past concentrates on Anglophone readers, who have been the main audience for the book.2 Nevertheless, my analysis of how the “Unthinkable History” chapter has affected Haitian Revolutionary studies examines French and Haitian scholarship as well as Anglophone writings. While Silencing itself has not been translated into French, a French version of the “Unthinkable History” chapter was published in Haiti in 1995, so it is more accessible to French and Haitian scholars than other parts of the book. Still, it remains little known and is much less frequently cited than the English version.3
When Trouillot passed away in 2012, scholars worldwide gathered in cyberspace to share their appreciation of his work. Many spoke specifically of Silencing and of its formative influence on the development of their own research. Évelyne Trouillot, Michel-Rolph’s sister as well as a novelist and French professor, described the unique place of this work in her brother’s oeuvre. In...