“Haiti Then and Now” Interviews Professor Jean Eddy Saint Paul (Part I)

“Haitian Thinkers in the Public Space: An Interview Series”

“Haiti Then and Now” Interviews Professor Jean Eddy Saint Paul (Part I)

Conducted by Dr. Celucien L. Joseph

November 2, 2020

HTN: Tell us about yourself, your background, education, upbringing, connection to Haiti, etc. Who is Dr. Jean Eddy Saint Paul?

Dr. Jean Eddy Saint Paul

JESP: Greetings Dr. C. L. Joseph!

First and foremost, I wanted to acknowledge your academic leadership, intellectual and civic commitment towards the advancement of the interdisciplinary field of Haitian Studies. Your work is priceless! Thank you so very much for what you have been doing.

My postcolonial and formal name is Jean Eddy Saint Paul, but in my countryside, I am also known as “Kami,” which is a topic for anthropological and sociological inquiry. I was born in Monvil, a rural section of Torbeck, which is also known as La Cité de Boisrond-Tonnerre. Louis Boisrond-Tonnerre is the giant who played a central role in the drafting of the 1804 Haitian Act of Independence. My birth certificate reads “Paysan” (“Peasant”) in opposition to the city-dweller; thus, I was born as a second-class citizen in my own country. Because of this “identity’s violence,” since at the early age, I have learned from my parents that qualitative education is my only pathway to become someone, a “citizen;” therefore, I took it seriously.

I spent my childhood in Labathe, Gauvin, Bérault & Torbeck, and my adolescence in Port-au-Prince. From Kindergarten to College, I was educated in Haiti, and I attended the College St. François d’Assise, the College Justin Lhérisson, the Lycée Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and the Faculté des Sciences Humaines associated with the Université d’État d’Haïti (UEH) (State University of Haiti). I earned a Certificate in Library Science that allowed me to work as a professional librarian. Between 1995 and 2006, I served as the Director of the library at the Faculty of Human Sciences at the State University of Haiti.

Because of the lack of strong and diverse graduate programs in Haiti, I explored educational opportunities elsewhere and hence, I was able to pursue abroad graduate studies in Social Sciences. I applied for and won an outstanding scholarship from the Organization of American States (OAS), based in Washington D.C., and completed a Master’s in Latin American Studies at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, a prestigious Jesuit and private University, founded in 1623 and located in Bogota, Colombia. Also, I won an outstanding Daniel Cosío Villegas scholarship from the Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs that enabled me to study a Ph.D. in Sociology from El Colegio de México. It is worth to mention that I am the first Haitian to have graduated successfully from those graduate programs, respectively in Colombia and Mexico.

In terms of my professional career, I have been a professor and scholar since 1992. In Port-au-Prince, I taught Haitian history and Haitian literature in Middle and High schools; then, between 1994 and 2006, I worked primarily as a librarian. Because of political instability and lack of professional opportunities for the masses and the middle class in Haiti, after the completion of my Ph.D., I accepted a research position at the Center of International Studies at El Colegio de México. That adventure opened other academic doors for me in México, where I lived and worked for thirteen years, between 2003 and 2016.

As a versatile and interdisciplinary scholar, I was able to teach a variety of graduate courses, such as Research Methods, Comparative Politics, and Political Theory. I worked for the Universidad La Salle, Universidad Iberoamericana, and Universidad del Estado de México before starting a tenure-track position of Associate Professor of Politics and Sociology at the Universidad de Guanajuato, in Guanajuato, Mexico. There, between Fall 2010 and Spring 2016, I co-founded an undergraduate program in Political Science, a Master’s program in Political Analysis, and a Ph.D. program in Law, Politics, and Government.

Because of my reputation as an outstanding instructor at the Universidad de Guanajuato, the Dean of the Law School invited me to teach at the Inter-Institutional PhD program in Law; this gesture had opened other opportunities for me to teach PhD students in Law in five different institutions: The Universidad de Nayarit, the Universidad of Aguascalientes, the Universidad of Colima, the Universidad San Nicolás de Hidalgo de Michoacán, and my home institution, the Universidad de Guanajuato. That experience had helped me to dive into the intellectual and theoretical debates on Philosophy of Law, Sociology of Law, and Constitutional Law.

While teaching at the Universidad de Guanajuato, I also worked for the Mexican government as a member of the National System of Researchers, better known as SNI in Spanish. During my thirteen years in Mexico, I have built the reputation of a very popular person. My instructors, peers, and students have considered me as person of a likeable personality. Yes, I am at some point an easygoing person. I enjoy life. I like to listen to music, and I dance and run a lot. Dancing and running are my best hobbies. If I feel like dancing while jogging, I just dance no matter the location. Also, I have a strong personality. I do not allow no one to undermine me. My human dignity is not negotiable. I am Haitian and I know what it means to be Haitian. I am also a family man. I have many brothers and sisters. My Haitian wife, of twenty years, and I are raising two black boys in a Caribbean American community in Brooklyn, NY.

In Summer 2016, I accepted an administrative and teaching position at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York (CUNY). On August 24, 2016, I officially started in the position of founding Director of the City University of New York’s Haitian Studies Institute. Simultaneously, I have been working as a Full-time (Full) Professor at Brooklyn College, where I have taught courses like Caribbean Political Systems, Haitian Heritage, Qualitative Research Methods, Sociology of Religion, and Classical Social Theory.

About my upbringing and connection to Haiti

I am a person who is spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually connected with Haiti, my motherland. I carry Haiti in my heart, my brain, blood, and veins. The physical distance has not been an impediment to live my haïtianité and to serve as a cultural and intellectual Ambassador for my country. Haïti est un pays qui m’habite et que j’habite/ “Haiti is a country that lives in me and it is where I live.”

I have a spiritual and emotional connection with the motherland, due to my umbilical cord is buried there and because many members of my extended family live in Haiti. I also have a strong intellectual connection with Haiti. I hold a PhD in sociology. How many Haitians have a PhD? How many PhD holders are living in Haiti? I do recognize that I am part of an intellectual elite, and as an elite who knows his “vocation,” I have constantly felt a “calling” to promote and defend Haiti intellectually. I wrote my most important academic research on Haiti. My emotions and sensibility for Haiti have shaped my academic research. In my undergraduate thesis, I addressed the problem of lack of strong social policy and ethics of care towards the elderly, and made bold recommendations to the state’s agents to better equipped our social institutions and to help our senior citizens to live and die with dignity. In my Master’s thesis, I pointed out the many problems of the “parochial political culture” as well as the habitus of the members of the “political class” in Haiti. I indicated how the May 2001 post-electoral crisis has affected the electoral process of November 2001. I do believe that Haiti’s current political turmoil is somehow connected to the political climate of 2001, when the journalist Jean-Léopold Dominique and the security Jean-Claude Louissaint were murdered at Radio Haiti Inter, in Delmas. In my PhD dissertation, “Patrimonialism, Depredation and Politics of the Belly in the Functioning of the Haitian State, between 1957 and 2004,” I denounced the political culture of corruption, which is a carcinogenic plague that has blocked Haiti’s improvement. I cited those major works of mine to indicate that Haiti was never been absent in my intellectual thought and sociological imagination.

However, alongside of those researches, beginning in 1992 until now, I have been engaged actively in public intellectualism. I have published many opinions pieces on many critical issues, such as social policy; civil society and democracy; secularization and laïcité; political culture of Haitian elites; politics of memory; epistemological and theoretical debates in Haitian Studies.

In sum, I am a Haitian scholar who really loves and cares about Haiti. I am so proud of my haïtianité and my blackness. I am conscious that I am a privileged man, and I have tried to use that privilege to defend Haiti wherever I am. I have used my intelligence to help in the intellectual work to restore Haiti’s dignity, which has made me an important voice in the field of Haitian Studies, at the national and global stages. Haiti has always been in the heart of my intellectual scholarship and civic engagement.

HTN: I appreciate your detailed response to the question. What a formidable experience you have had and enjoyed! You are a trained sociologist and librarian. You are a prominent scholar in Haitian Studies and have published prolifically in various languages (Creole, French, Spanish, English) on a wide range of topics, including Haitian politics, international relations, religion, history, the popular and intellectual culture of Haiti and its Diaspora. You are also an energetic public intellectual who continues to engage in critical discourses and controversial issues pertaining to Haitian politicians, religious leaders, and Haiti’s institutions and systems. (I appreciate your use of various social media networks and platforms such as twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to do the work of democracy and intellectual activism). You have also lived in various societies such as that of Haiti, Mexico, and now in the United States. From 2016 to 2020, you have served as Founding Director of the CUNY Haitian Studies Institute at Brooklyn College, and have invested substantially in the promotion of Haitian culture through the constructive work of the Institute.

Since you are no longer serving as Director of the Institute, briefly discuss the contributions the Institute has made in the advancement, understanding, and promotion of the Haitian culture and Haitian Studies abroad, such as in the United States, especially in the state of New York.

JESP:  I consider myself as a sociologist, but also, as an interdisciplinary scholar. It is true that I completed my PhD in sociology, but alongside library science, I studied social work and my Master’s was in Latin American Studies. I have been engaged in conflictive and controversial debates as you said, because science progresses only in an atmosphere of tense and conflictive epistemological, theoretical, and methodological debates. I recall that José Martí in Páginas escogidas (1973: 23) expressed the idea that any society cannot improve without bold criticism. The credit goes to my former Professor Francisco Zapata, who suggested us to read José Martí.

My public intellectualism has aimed in fostering critical thinking and posited against the normalization of the pathological because in Haiti politicians of different social classes and status have managed to build a “public opinion” against the interest of the bossales. I have always refused to swallow the pathological as normal in society.

The uses of social media to promote Haitian Studies

With regard to the use of social media to promote the interdisciplinary field of Haitian Studies, I do think that it is important, and I have relied on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn, for example). I have tried to reach the new generations of Haitianists who are not only consuming much of the social media, but also are sharing various contents in their networks. Moreover, my use of social media is also informed by my epistemological and theoretical understanding of Haitian studies in the age of globalization. To substantiate this point, it is worth to mention that the Haitian Studies Institute is founded at the City University of New York in the era of global sociology, transnationalism, and transmigration, in which one can observe new dynamics in the Haitian emigration patterns. With this theoretical framework in mind, the use of social media has allowed me to reach out to the Haitian emigrants and people of Haitian descent living in Chile, Canada, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Brazil, China, France, Japan, Germany, Spain, the United States, etc., and helped them to remain connected (“re-territoriality”) to Haiti, the country they (or their parents) left (“de-territoriality”) in search of a better life abroad. In sum, the CUNY-HSI has served Haitians living in Haiti, those living abroad, people of Haitian descent throughout the global village, among other ethnicities and nationalities. The events and activities the Institute organized served as a vehicle allowing them to maintain, reaffirm. and increase their cultural and social capital with respect to Haiti and the field aforementioned. I have lived in many places in America and Europe and met people from the five continents, and social media has helped to inform my contacts about me, my professional development, as well as to publicize my activities as HSI’s founding Director. Last but not least, social media is a good vehicle that we have to show solidarity to our students and colleagues (in Haitian Studies and other fields of knowledge), and to acknowledge them publicly for their works and achievements. I have made use of the social media substantially in this sense and capacity.

The contributions of the Institute in the advancement, understanding, and promotion of Haitian culture and Haitian studies abroad

This is a vast topic that I can develop in a book; nonetheless, let me try to summarize some core ideas. I hold the title of Founding Director that means the Institute did not exist before me. The planning committee did a great job in the conceptualization of the Institute at CUNY, and I gave them a big shout out in an interview published in Le Nouvelliste, in August 2016; however, in terms of programming and activities, I started from ground zero. After four years of tireless work, the Haitian Studies Institute is now like a patrimony. It is well-known internationally. In my humble opinion, its contributions can be appreciated: 1) via the quality of its programming, 2) my intellectual commitment to raise awareness on the necessity to start uncomfortable intellectual debates on the current configuration of the field itself; its neo-colonization, its position with respect to Black Studies, Africana Studies, African American Studies (which is not the same as Africana Studies), Latin American Studies, Caribbean Studies, including Dominican Studies.

Under my intellectual leadership, the Institute has been a hub of intellectual, academic, and cultural debates, exchanges, and events on Haiti and the Haitian diaspora at CUNY Brooklyn College. Between Fall 2016 and Spring 2020, the crème of the crème of the Haitian intelligentsia showed up on-Campus and helped me in the work to restore the international image of Haiti. HSI has allowed us to be in touch with senior, midterm, and junior scholars, as well as writers, artists, and activists to expose their ideas and works, and to showcase Haiti’s intellectual, cultural, and artistic values to the world. This is a huge accomplishment because Haiti’s enemies usually degrade us and defame our image to perpetuate new forms of domination, colonialism, and neo-dependence. Until today, there are still many stereotypes or stigmas about Haiti in the US, and my work has been to constantly educate whites, people of color, and black people about Haiti.

The HSI, under my leadership, conceived and executed a slate of first-class events that have greatly contributed to a better understanding of Haitian Studies—from an intellectual and cultural perspective. In the first interview conducted right after my installation as HSI’s founding Director, I mentioned that under my leadership, the Institute will be used as an academic platform to promote counternarratives about Haiti, a country that possesses the most fascinating history in Western modernity; yet because of the power of racism and effects of white supremacy, Haiti’s history has been hidden and overlooked in the dominant paradigms and narratives. In that interview, I also said that the Institute will work in the sense of a politics of memory, so that the scientific community can be mindful that Haiti, Africa’s oldest daughter and champion of the universalization of human rights, is the site of the “déclosion” (“outbreak”) of the world, to paraphrase Achille Mbembe (2010).

With that philosophy in mind, beginning in Fall 2016 until Spring 2020, I organized a slate of first-class academic events and cultural events on important themes that have led to position the Institute on the global stage. Under my leadership, the transnational diasporic communities enjoyed cultural and community-focused conferences, art exhibits, film screenings, conversations around books on issues of importance for Haiti and the Haitian meta-diaspora. I invited distinguished guest speakers to share with the community the findings of their research as well as their creative works. Some of the major topics and issues discussed in the Institute include the following: the impacts of the U.S. Foreign Policy on Haiti; U.S. immigration and migration policies (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival and Temporary Protected Status); sustainable development; Global climate change and disaster preparedness; sustainable development; the impacts of the Haitian Revolution on world politics; the pluriversal dimension of Haitian culture; Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the world-economic system; the connections between Haitian migration and U.S. Jazz; music and the remaking of identity in the diaspora; the intersection of  Haitian literature, history, and music; Haitian migration in Mexico-U.S. Border; the impacts of COVID-19 on the health of the Haitian community in the diaspora and beyond are among the topics addressed academically at the Haitian Studies Institute. We welcomed international well-known scholars, artists, activists, and professionals, midterms and emerging junior scholars who participated in critical conversations for the advancement of the field of Haitian Studies. Since 2016, the Haitian Studies Institute has been an intellectual hub for academic debates and research. Scholars have used the artwork curated by the HSI to advance their own research on Haitian culture. I had the opportunity to promote the Institute not only in the Americas but also in Asia and Europe.

I received great and positive comments for the quality and impacts of HSI’s programming; however, there is not a quantitative strategy that can objectively inform about that work. I recall Eduardo Galeano who once expressed the idea that there is no statistics to interpret and understand emotions and subjectivities, i.e., what is happening at the soul’s level. This idea fits well to evaluate the impacts of HSI. How can we evaluate the impacts of HIS’s annual lecture that commemorated the historical Battle of Vertières, an activity that was attended by 150 persons of different generations, social status, and intellectual backgrounds; they showed up to express and affirm and/or reaffirm their haïtianité and blackness? What is the mechanism to evaluate the impacts of the Annual Haitian Arts Exhibits usually held at the Brooklyn College Library?

Those events were also attended and appreciated by other ethnicities and have helped foreigners and non-Haitians to see Haiti through different eyes and perspectives. Many colleagues have shared their feedbacks and expressed their satisfactions with the quality of my work and the HSI. Let me give you an example. After the lecture entitled “The National and International Dimensions of the Haitian Revolution,” presented by Professor Pierre Buteau, the President of the Haitian Society of History, Geography and Geology, and a former State Secretary of Education in Haiti, to celebrate the 214th anniversary of the historical Battle of Vertières, a Brooklyn College Faculty wrote me this email: “Dear Jean Eddy, Just a word to say how much I enjoyed Thursday’s lecture.  Professor Buteau’s eloquent talk gave me a useful lesson in “comment penser la révolution haïtienne” (“how to think about the Haitian revolution”) and in how to engage a community audience.  His treatment of Toussaint, Dessalines, Christophe, and Pétion, as well as of socio-economic and racial categories and political culture managed to connect both in a scholarly way and in an emotional way with an audience that clearly enjoyed listening and “talking back.”  Indeed, it was good to see Tanger Auditorium so full and an audience so keen on relating events of 214 years ago to the context of the revolutionary era and to that of the longer history of Haiti and the world. Thanks again for organizing it, and à bientôt.”

Moreover, HSI’s contributions go beyond its programming. I gave public lectures at other institutions and wrote articles on many issues in which I informed and invited other scholars to theorize about the field of Haitian studies, from a decolonial perspective. In my scholarly works, I conceived Haitian studies as an open field in which many contemporary scholars do not give to the predecessors (the giants) the proper recognition they deserve.

HTN: How instructive and informative! What is precisely Dr. Jean Eddy Saint Paul’s legacy at the CUNY Haitian Studies Institute?  In other words, what do you want the audience and readers of Haiti: Then and Now and the general publicto know about your particular contributions to the Institute?

JESP: According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, a “legacy” is “something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or from the past.” I would add the role of a “contemporary” and “associate” can also play in the construction of that legacy. As I have theorized in other spaces (Saint Paul, 2017, 2018), I conceive Haitian studies as an interdisciplinary field of research and practices in constant dialogue with the world of the ancestors, the world of the predecessors, the world of the contemporaries or associates-associates, and the world of the associates-successors. From that phenomenological approach, one of my biggest contributions, I think, is consisted of in raising awareness and facilitating new narratives on Haiti’s past-past, past-present and present-future. Let us make it explicit. In Silencing the Past. History and the Production of Power, Michel-Rolph Trouillot pointed out the many strategies and procedures have been used by the hegemonic scientific community to silence certain historical events that went against the rationale and axiology of the West. According to him, the general silencing of the Haitian revolution in Western historiography is due to uneven power in the production of sources, archives, and narratives (Trouillot, 1995: 27). He explained how they have silenced the Haitian revolution with the type/kind of discourses (narratives) produced on the most important actors of that historical process.

Moreover, I recall the time I was a PhD student in sociology at El Colegio de México, upon suggestion of a Mexican colleague, I read the book Vida de J. J. Dessalines, Gefe de los Negros de Santo Domingo (México: Miguel Ángel Porrúa, 1983), written by Juan López Cancelada. In that book, the racist Cancelada, presented the Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines as a criminal, an assassin, a ruthless barbarian, a traitor, among other contemptuous qualifications. However, long before Cancelada’s book, here in the United States of America, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the history of Haiti was caricaturized. Reflecting on how the Haitian Revolution and independence have bothered western capitalism, Jean Price-Mars wrote: “En 1804, Haïti fit sa tragique et solennelle apparition parmi les nations –honnie, redoutée, abhorrée par l’Europe et l’Amérique, au fait, par tous ceux qui bâtissaient leurs richesses, leur bien-être et leur prospérité sur l’exploitation de l’homme par l’homme  (Price-Mars, 1959 : 106) (“In 1804, Haiti made its tragic and solemn appearance among the nations—honored, feared, abhorred by Europe and America by the way and by all those who built their wealth, their well-being, and their prosperity on the exploitation from man to man.”) Effectively, in a context of a “global world economic system” (I. Wallerstein), slavery and racism have had some “elective affinity” with the rationale of that economic system; therefore, the Haitian Revolution, anchored in freedom for all, and the restoration of the dignity of human being beyond racialized categories, was seen by white supremacists and slave holders as a potential threat for their businesses.

Consequently, white supremacists have reiteratively employed rhetorical speeches and discourses aimed at silencing the axiological scope of the Haitian Revolution. As James Alexander Dun explained in Dangerous Neighbors. Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America, Haiti, since its very inception, was maliciously and unethically depicted as a Republic of Barbarians, and the Haitian people as Dangerous Neighbors. Many founding Fathers of the United States of America, including Thomas Jefferson, in their attempts to undermine and silence Haiti’s greatness, caricaturized the heroes of the Haitian Revolution. As someone who is mindful of the negative impacts of the historical distortions and negative accounts on the Haitian Revolution, its sheroes and heroes, since the very beginning, I took so seriously the task to restore the truth about Haiti’s history.  From this angle, the commemoration of the Battle of Vertières at Brooklyn College was always accompanied by a stunning Haitian arts exhibit that offered to the wide-public the opportunity to discover and learn about the ceremony of Bwa Kayiman, Catherine Flon, Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, as well as the role of women in the Haitian society—through the lens of Haitian artists and activists.

Consequently, one of my legacies—that cannot be appreciated by quantitative measurements—entailed the organization at Brooklyn College a variety of academic and cultural events whose central goal was to alter the narratives as well as people’s perceptions, more specifically white folks’ perceptions, about Haiti and its people. I do know that my work has reached an important part of the intellectual, cultural, and political elites in the state of New York and beyond; however, as I said earlier, it is hard to evaluate the impacts of my work since it’s something that has operated at the cognitive level.

Moreover, I have received encouraging words, congratulations, recognitions, and even awards from Haitian American professional associations, cultural organizations and corporations, and U.S. elected officials who greatly appreciated my intellectual commitment and work ethics. It should be noted that I am a sociologist who adheres to “axiological pluralism;” therefore, I deeply believe and recognize the plurality of rationality that guides our everyday life. I also believe that Haitian Studies is a conflictive field in which we have a plethora of actors with their own agendas and interests. Based upon that logic, for many persons, my work is significant and valuable to many people, but many others might dissent; and for having being active in the promotion of Haitian Studies, from a decolonial lens, some folks could technically hate me, all depend on the rationality and the project of the actors constantly in competition for the control of narratives and different forms of capitals in the field of Haitian Studies.

In sum, I really wanted the audience of Haiti Then and Now and the general public to know that I worked tirelessly to promote Haitian Studies, from a decolonial lens. Because I do believe that our Western modernity was founded upon the normalization of the pathological and that the Haitian Revolution was the single modern event that did not accept that philosophical and sociological assumption that revolution was the only historical event that attempted to de-quarantine the modern world, and to expunge the wounds of that pathological and sick modernity.

*** Click on the link below to read Part 2 of the interview:

“Haiti Then and Now” Interviews Professor Jean Eddy Saint Paul (Part II)

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