“Haitian Thinkers in the Public Space: An Interview Series”
“Haiti Then and Now” Interviews Professor Marlene L. Daut
Conducted by Dr. Celucien L. Joseph
June 1, 2020
HTN: Tell us about yourself, your background, education, upbringing, connection to Haiti, etc. Who is Dr. Daut?
MD: What a broad question! Well, let’s see. I was born in Los Angles, California, where I lived until the age of nine. After that, my family moved to Orange County, which was, let’s just say, a completely different environment. I went from living in a middleclass black neighborhood in Inglewood to an all-white neighborhood in a small city called Placentia. My siblings and I were a part of a tiny handful of African American children in the school, and we definitely felt that. But to go back a little further, my mother is from Port-au-Prince, Haiti (my father is a “white” American of distant German and Irish descent), and so we were also definitely the only Haitians in the neighborhood. People don’t think of California as a place with a strong Haitian-American or Haitian diasporic community, but from my perspective as a child, when we lived in Los Angeles, we were surrounded by other Haitians. My mother was raised until the age of thirteen (when she came to the US) by her aunt in Haiti, who was my grandmother’s sister. My great aunt, whom we called Maman Tete, and who eventually also emigrated to the US, had seven children, and all of them had children, so I had all these cousins and their Haitian friends and their friends’ children around me all the time. Maman Tete was a great facilitator, and as a child, I truly believed that she knew most, if not all, of the Haitians living in the Los Angeles area. And she would throw these great parties. Haitian music would be constantly playing in the background while the aroma of diri djondjon and fritay filled the house—she was a great cook!—and there was the constant chatter of Creole humming about in my head.
As a result, even though I did not go to Haiti for the first time until I was 23 or 24, I grew up accustomed to thinking of myself as very Haitian. I had no idea that Haiti had this fraught reputation in the United States—though I remember very vividly how angry my mother was when the CDC erroneously labeled Haitians as being one of the four H risk factors for HIV. A little later, when I was in high school, I got so confused when Wyclef Jean came out with his popular song “Jaspora”—in one line he sings, “poukisa Jamayiken toujou di se Jamayiken, men Ayisyen pè di li se Ayisyen?” which means, “why do Jamaicans always say they are Jamaican, but Haitians are afraid to say they are Haitian?”—but then I learned about the disdain for Haitians that existed in New York where he lived. Before that, I had had no idea that being Haitian was something that I—let alone anyone else—was supposed to be ashamed of? It was only later, when I went off to college at Loyola Marymount, back in Los Angeles, where I majored in English and French, that I came to really understand that Haiti occupied this marginalized position, not only historically and politically speaking, but culturally speaking as well. The first books about Haiti I ever read were Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak!, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith’s The Breached Citadel, and Beverly Bell’s collection, Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance. Later, I read Paul Farmer’s The Uses of Haiti, and I came to understand that who I thought I was, and the person I saw in the mirror, so to speak, was very different from the person the outside world saw, if I said I was Haitian. I became determined, however, to learn all that I could about Haiti from that moment forward.
When I entered graduate school at the University of Notre Dame in 2003, I chose to work on nineteenth-century Haitian literature—which was very understudied at the time, and even maligned, dismissed, and disregarded in many scholarly circles— much to the dismay of some of the professors in the English Department, who thought I should work on so-called “canonical” authors who wrote only in English. I persisted on my own path anyway, with the help of my very supportive advisors, and so I went from living in South Bend, IN and graduating with my Ph.D. in English literature (having written a dissertation on representations of the Haitian Revolution in French, Haitian, British, and US literature), to a job at the University of Miami, and then on to the Claremont Graduate University before settling here in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia.
HTN: You are a prominent literary scholar and a historian of Haitian literature by training, a public intellectual, and a popular tweeter on almost anything pertaining to Haitian literature and history, how did you get interested in Haitian studies and in particular, Haitian literature?
MD: So, this is a kind of funny story to me now, and one that I have only told a handful of times. But as a teenager I used to read Seventeen magazine, and Edwidge Danticat, famously, published what I think is her first essay in the magazine in the early 1990s. In the piece—I’m writing from memory, since I don’t have access to the article at the moment due to our library being closed as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic—Danticat discusses living in Port-au-Prince until she was twelve with her aunt and uncle while her parents worked in New York City. I have to tell you, that when I read this, I was floored. The story was so similar to my mother’s own, with a few slight variations, that I ran to my mom to show her and directly ask her if she had written this article. I thought maybe she had disguised her story a bit—the location and dates, for example— and written under a pseudonym. My mother, of course, thought this was crazy and wondered if I had lost my mind, but now we laugh about it. Even though I usually have not made the connection between this brief moment and my later interest in Haitian literature, I do wonder sometimes if that was when the seeds were planted….I was just so amazed, honored, proud that here was this Haitian girl—in my mind, Danticat was still the twelve-year old in the story—who could get into Seventeen, which did seem like some kind of feat!
HTN: In your monumental and impressive work, Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789-1865, published in 2015 by Liverpool University Press (pp.692), you offered a comprehensive analysis on the representation of the Haitian Revolutionary and the race concept in various literary works, engaging writers such as Baron de Vastey, Victor Hugo, Moreau de Saint-Mery, Emeric Bergeaud, Pierre Faubert, etc., why did you choose to focus this study on the second half of the eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century’s intellectual productions on the intersection of the Haitian Revolution and the idea of race? Why is race such a dominant feature in those literary expressions? Also, please tell us what was the process like to write such a big academic book?
MD: In English-language literary circles people often quote Herman Melville’s famous statement, “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” One of the reasons Tropics of Haiti is such a long book is that the Haitian Revolution was an event of monumental world-historical significance. Now, what does that mean? We say it a lot. Well, as I show in the book, the Haitian Revolution not only impacted the world as it unfolded from 1791-1804, but continued to have global resonance and international repercussions for decades after it was over. And my argument in this book is about how pseudo-scientific debates about race, which were in their heyday at the time, wholly shaped the way that people thought about the Haitian Revolution in its era and for half a century afterward. The racialized ideas that people had about the Revolution were not insignificant because racist beliefs about Haiti shaped foreign policy (we can look to the works of Alfred Hunt, Tim Matthewson, Julia Gaffield, J. Michael Dash, Ron Johnson, etc. to learn more about this), and they also influenced the most intimate interactions between people—even members of the same family—which is what I try to show in the book. But I knew that if I wanted to convince social historians that what people believed about the connection between race and the Haitian Revolution, whether in fictional or putatively non-fictional writings—namely, that it was free people of color and/or people of so-called “mixed-race” who were responsible for the Revolution’s onset— was just as important as what actually happened—enslaved people, along with some former free people of color, overthrew white French enslavers and eventually the entire French plantocracy— that I would need a mountain of evidence. It was not enough to simply show that in a few high profile instances “mulattoes” were demonized in literary or historical works, as having been the cause and motor of the Revolution, as for instance, in John Relly Beard’s Toussaint L’Ouverture, Victor Hugo’s Bug-Jargal, Lamartine’s Toussaint Louverture, or Heinrich von Kleist’s “Betrothal in Saint-Domingue.”
I needed to show that claiming the Revolution was an iteration of “mulatto vengeance,” and thus biological, rather than ideological, in nature, was a deliberate pattern that was as repetitive, extensive, and persistent as it was influential. So, I looked at biographies, histories, fictional writings of all kinds, personal letters, newspapers articles, codes of law, and even book reviews published up until the end of the US Civil War. I also read a lot of early modern pseudo-scientific theories about race, most of which derived from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French Atlantic World. In so doing, I recognized that an entire vocabulary, if you will, had become attached to and was even developed around tying the Haitian Revolution and then Haitian independence to concepts like “monstrous hybridity,” stereotypes about both the “tropical temptress” and “tragic mulatto/a,” and then, just to finish off this form of “silencing,” ideas about blackness and mulattoness were also used to discredit Haitian historians themselves, which is what I referred to in the book as the phenomenon of the “colored historian.”
HTN: I would like us to talk about your second and important book on Haitian thought, Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism, which you published in 2017 with Palgrave Macmillan. In this book, you wrote the first intellectual biography in the English language on King Henri Christophe’s most prolific secretary and revolutionary social critic Jean Louis Vastey (“Baron de Vastey”), who is regarded perhaps as Haiti’s first public intellectual in the first half of the nineteenth-century. Who was de Vastey? Why is he an important figure in Haitian and Black Studies?
MD: Baron de Vastey, whose given name was Jean-Louis Vastey (1781-1820), was the son of a white planter from Normandy and a free woman of color named Marie-Élisabeth Dumas. Contrary to popular belief, this family was most likely not related to the famous novelist Alexandre Dumas. Nonetheless, the Dumas family of Saint-Domingue was extremely wealthy, owning at least three plantations, one in Ennery, one in Gonaïves, and another in Marmelade. Although Vastey’s mother was a “fille illégitime,” or the not legally recognized daughter of her father, Pierre Dumas, she was raised on his plantation with the “legitimate” children he had with the wife he had legally married. This was not an uncommon situation at the time. In contrast with her own mother, Marie-Élisabeth, called Mimi, would go on to have a legal marriage to Jean Vastey, who was from Normandy and had emigrated to the colony in the 1760s to make his fortune from enslaving other people. Vastey was their second child and he grew up on one of these Dumas plantations that had been given to his father for his mother’s hand in marriage. As a child who grew up on a plantation, he saw the brutality of slavery every day. I think this is why Vastey’s most famous and most important work, The Colonial System Unveiled, first published in 1814 (recently translated into English by Chris Bongie), provides such a detailed account of the horrors of slavery. Vastey recounts in excruciating detail the tortures meted out to enslaved people by individual planters, whom he actually names. The thing is, if you check these names against colonial records, these are all real people, some of whom we know were connected to Vastey’s grandfather, Pierre Dumas, and his father, Jean Vastey. So, Vastey was really exposing the crimes against humanity (and he may have even been the first to use this exact phrase in relationship to chattel slavery)—crime de lèse-humanité—of people who were from his own community, including his own grandfather. I write about this in the book: Pierre Dumas tried to kill the newborn baby of one of the women he had enslaved because the infant was sickly, and it was only through the interventions of Vastey’s mother that the baby was saved. Although, Vastey wrote and published The Colonial System Unveiled many years after the fact, I talk in my book about how the charges he made against these individual planters continued to follow some of the families who had emigrated abroad, for example, to the United States. We have accounts of families from Saint-Domingue later living in Maryland and Louisiana being tied directly to colonial crimes through the writings of Vastey. Vastey knew that the only court that could provide redress, at the time, was the court of public opinion, and so he used that, and very effectively.
HTN: Wonderful! In your book, you connected de Vastey with various philosophical ideas and intellectual traditions such as the Black Atlantic Radical Tradition, Postcolonial and Decolonial studies, and what you’ve phrased “Black Atlantic Humanism,” can you describe this theoretical concept. What is Black humanism? How did de Vastey contribute to its development in Black Atlantic Intellectual Tradition?
MD: In many of his writings, Baron de Vastey talks about how Enlightenment-era thinkers attempted to categorize all manner of objects (plants, birds, rocks, flowers), which in turn led them to create hierarchies of humanity. The hierarchies that natural historians like Comte de Buffon, Edward Long, and M.L.E. Moreau de Saint-Méry contributed to with their naturalist writings ended up being used to support slavery and justify racial prejudices. Instead of promoting universal liberty and equality among humankind, which many so-called philosophes had gestured towards as the goal of enlightenment, the Enlightenment writ large was responsible for the development of entire racial taxonomies that placed white Europeans at the top of humanity and Black Africans at the bottom. The Black Atlantic humanists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of which Baron de Vastey was a distinct and important part, contested this so-called Enlightenment by revealing it to be utterly devoid of the humanity in whose name it was developed and proclaimed. In Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism, I return to some of the first writers of African descent who criticized the Enlightenment in this way. Those authors were people like Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797), Ottobah Cugoano (1757-1791), and Baron de Vastey. This movement of counter-Enlightenment is what I call Black Atlantic humanism precisely because of the tension involved in that formulation.
The Black Atlantic humanists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought that the universalisms of the Enlightenment were good—liberty and equality for all human beings—but that the practice of enslaving other human beings, along with colonialism and prejudice were undermining them. That is to say, the metaphysics of Enlightenment universalisms, in theory, were absolutely central for “civilization” to someone like Baron de Vastey, but he recognized the Enlightenment as a failure thus far because European society, consumed with racism, pride, greed, and a corruption of the soul, had deemed a large part of humankind unequal and therefore not subject to universalisms.
HTN: What is the relationship between Black Atlantic Humanism and Western Humanism? Can you describe some similarities and differences between these two schools of thought and philosophical traditions?
MD: Western humanism is a false humanism. In the “West”—which is much less a place than a way of thinking and being in the world— you can do all kinds of things in the name of “humanity:” start wars, drop nuclear bombs, uphold policies that result in mass incarceration, endorse state-sanctioned executions. You can hide a lot with “universal ideals,” too, which is how slavery persisted for so long in the “West.” All you have to do is say that it’s for religion, democracy, “civilization,” or justice. In contrast, perhaps, some will not like for me to say this, but Black Atlantic Humanism, as far as I can tell, is the only real humanism around right now. Take the distinction between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter—which I view as an extension of Black Atlantic Humanism— reasserts black people’s right to live their lives in freedom and safety in a world that has attempted over and over to dehumanize and even kill them, and this is why it makes people who want to say “All lives matter” so uncomfortable. ALM adherents are shouting about universalisms again, but western universalisms have never protected black people. And those proclaiming ALM, including police officers, will be the first ones to act on the belief they have a right to “stand their ground” and shoot black people on sight, for the most minor of offenses, or even if they just feel afraid. BLM activists, in contrast, contest the idea that white feelings matter more than black lives. They insist that white people cannot assert their right to feel comfortable over a black person’s right to live.
White comfort is completely affective, based on superstition and racism—derived from the same pseudoscientific beliefs I explore in Tropics of Haiti—not material, that is to say, grounded in actual reality. Similarly, if you think about the Enlightenment again, many early modern naturalists wrote that black people were not fully human, and in so doing they provided the justification that would be used for planters and their governments to enslave those who had been designated as being on a lower rung of humanity. This gets to the heart of Vastey’s critique actually. In one memorable passage of his Réflexions politiques (Political Reflections)(1817), which may be the first work of critical race theory ever published, Vastey rhetorically asks why, if Africans were inferior to Europeans in some essential way that could actually be proven, this would be a valid reason to subjugate, dominate, and indeed terminate them. Vastey had clearly read Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, and he recognized that there were plenty of “inequalities” in the world—some people are faster, some are slower, some are healthier, some are sicker. It all depends on the value that you assign to these differences, and it doesn’t stand to reason that because a person is “different,” even if the language in operation defines that difference as an “inferiority,” that they would naturally deserve enslavement, or worse, death. Vastey saw the contradictions so plainly involved in “western humanism” and exposed them one after the other in his eleven published writings. “Posterity will never believe that in an age of Enlightenment, like ours,” he wrote, “men who call themselves savants, philosophers, would have wanted to turn other men into brutes, solely in order to conserve their atrocious privilege of being able to oppress a part of humankind.” Vastey’s writings are also filled with incredible pathos: “Did God create men so that they could hate and destroy one another like ferocious beasts…?” he asks.
HTN: Thank you for this detailed response. How would you describe the current state of Haitian studies in North America and Anglophone world?
MD: I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and I think that even with the promotion of Creole literacy happening in Haiti and within the US academy, we still have a problem of language in Haitian Studies. I recently wrote in a forthcoming journal article that the lack of Creole literacy is evident in Haitian Studies when you look at footnotes and citations. Then there is the problem of French. Many north Atlantic scholars whose fields are adjacent to Haitian Studies cannot read French, and since most Haitian produced scholarship is written in French, the silencing of Haitian scholars within the world of Anglophone scholarship is compounded. By that I mean that most scholars in the North Atlantic are not familiar enough with scholarship produced in Haiti to cite it effectively, and they are not familiar enough with Haitian intellectual history either. What is the reason that Vastey should not be as famous, well-known, and well-read in slavery studies as Olaudah Equiano, for example? There is a language barrier, for sure—Equiano wrote in English and Vastey in French—but that does not explain it all. Vastey had three of his very long works translated into English and (one of them into Dutch) in the nineteenth-century, two of these during his lifetime. The Colonial System Unveiled, as I have mentioned, was not fully translated into English until 2014 though. Even now that it has been translated, Vastey is still not very well cited. I think this is because scholars from anglophone countries—namely, England and the United States— have, perhaps unintentionally, positioned slavery in the English-speaking world in such a way as to make it the dominant experience of enslavement against which all other slaveries in the Americas are to be compared. This does not leave much room to focus on the fact that in the nineteenth century Vastey, who may have written the first ethnographic account of slavery based on the testimony of formerly enslaved people themselves, was just as famous, globally speaking, as Equiano, and perhaps, even more so. But beyond that, the goal of Black Studies should not be to just replace a white canon with a black canon—for example, Frederick Douglass and Equiano and Harriet Jacobs and William Wells Brown now being excerpted in US American literary anthologies right alongside Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. No, we need to do away with canons. Canons are not useful things. Think about how much they obfuscate rather than illuminate: read these very few authors as “great” over the vast numbers of people who wrote books, poetry, memoirs. Vastey was read all over the world in his era and for several decades afterwards, but he has never made it into any canon. I don’t want Vastey to be in the canon, or a canon, let me repeat. I want to abolish the idea of the canon itself.
HTN: Finally, can you share with us your current research project (s)?
MD: I have some really exciting projects in the works. I just recently completed (with co-editors Grégory Pierrot and Marion Rohrleitner) the very first anthology of fictional writings about the Haitian Revolution. Titled An Anthology of Haitian Revolutionary Fictions (Age of Slavery), the collection spans a long nineteenth century—from 1787-1899—and includes more than 200 excerpts of novels, short stories, poetry, and plays that were written about slave revolts in Saint-Domingue, the Haitian Revolution, and/or its immediate aftermath. The volume, which will be published with the University of Virginia Press in spring 2021, contains about 30 color engravings, a map, timeline, historical essay, and a teaching essay. It’s really a kind of one-stop shop for teaching the Haitian Revolution, as not only are there excerpts (in translation, where relevant) of famous writings about the Revolution—Lamartine, Wordsworth, Hugo, etc.—but there are dozens and dozens of writings by less famous authors from around the world (Haiti, St. Vincent, Poland, Germany, France, Brazil, the US, Scotland, Ireland, and England) that really paint such a vivid portrait of how conversations about the Haitian Revolution continued to circulate throughout the nineteenth century. Another project that I am working on is a monograph that is tentatively titled Awakening the Ashes: An Intellectual History of Haiti, and this one is under contract with UNC Press. The idea with this book is really to describe the contributions of Haitian authors like Thomas Madiou, Beaubrun Ardouin, Joseph Sainy-Rémy, and Émile Nau, among others, not just to Haitian history, but to global historiography.
HTN: We wish you the best in your current and future endeavors. It was wonderful to learn about you and your work. Once again, we appreciate your time with Haiti Then and Now.