“Haitian Thinkers in the Public Space: An Interview Series”
“Haiti Then and Now” Interviews Professor Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall
Conducted by Dr. Celucien L. Joseph
March 1, 2021
HTN: Tell us about yourself, your background, education, upbringing, connection to Haiti, etc. Who is Dr. Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall ?
AGS: Thank you so much for including me in your series, Dr. Joseph! I am a big fan of your Haiti: Then and Now interviews. I’m a historian (trained first at the University of Pennsylvania and then at Stanford) who began my career focusing on both France and on Haiti; over time the balance has shifted more toward Haiti. My first book (The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism [UC Press, 2005]) compared how French revolutionaries dealt with difference in their empire, whether of religion, race, gender or culture. It looked at Grégoire’s ideas for “regenerating” Jews, people of color, women and dialect speakers, as well as his relationships with Toussaint, Boyer and other Haitian leaders.
For someone like me, who is interested in Jewish history as well as in the history of other minoritized groups, it was natural to want to compare how the revolutionaries treated demands for equality by French Jews (who had long faced discrimination) with those of other groups in France. And obviously, during the Revolution, free Blacks and enslaved people were chief among those with grievances. I say “obviously” now – but when I was writing my dissertation in the mid-1990s, the “Haitian turn” had not yet happened; most work on French history was still metropolitan focused.
As far as my background, I am from northern New Jersey, with a mother from the Bronx and a Dad from Montreal, both from immigrant Jewish families. While I didn’t have any Haitian friends growing up (before the post-1986 wave of migrations) – I had friends from diverse backgrounds, and the issue of universalism v. particularism had long interested me. How did my own struggle to balance my family’s Ashkenazi Jewish culture with the dominant culture compare to those of friends whose families hailed from other places?
As I began to focus on Haiti more in the 1990s, and learned more about Haitian culture, there was so much I loved. Having spent lots of time as a young adult going into New York for work or concerts, I already loved Caribbean music– and then discovered Haitian writers and historians. I can tell you more as I answer the other questions!
HTN: I should also add that in addition to your research specialties in French and Haitian Revolutions, slavery and colonization, and the history of gender, you’re also interested in visual and pop cultures. Please allow me to congratulate you on your new book, Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film & Video Games, which is coming out in Summer 2021 from the University of Press of Mississippi. What a stunning and remarkable book cover? Who is the artist?
AGS: Thank you so much, Doctor Lou. The cover was created by University Press of Mississippi book designer Jennifer Mixon, with Production and Design Manager Todd Lape. Though I tackle big issues in my book about representations of slavery and Black history in popular culture, I worried that the title might sound too niche. But Jennifer and Todd understood (especially in the summer of 2020 when they designed it) what my book is doing; the cover is ingenious. Though fire-igniting matches didn’t exist in the eighteenth century, the Haitian Revolution was the metaphorical spark for resistance by enslaved people around the Atlantic then – and for that of many Black activists worldwide since. The cover also captures the fact that the book treats animated representations of the Revolution in both films and games. I’m so glad you like it!
HTN: I suppose the focus of this book on the cinematic representation or projection of the Haitian Revolution (HR) in film and video games is a “new genre” in the historical study and analysis of the Haitian Revolution. Isn’t it? Is there a tradition of such genre in the French and Anglophone world in regard to the Haitian Revolution?
AGS: Yes, it is new! So many of our brilliant colleagues have written about literary representations of the Haitian Revolution, in novels and in theater. But this is the first book on cinematic representations of the HR (though Charles Forsdick, Philip Kaisary and Mariana Past have written articles about individual films on the Revolution). In terms of video games, this is not only the first monograph on Haitian Revolution-related video games, but also one of the first books by a historian on video games at all. It is tempting to see video games as trivializing and then ignore them. But as I note in Slave Revolt on Screen, depictions of history in video games often reach millions more viewers than films. Indeed, the Haitian-slave-revolt-themed game Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry has been played by many more viewers than any Revolution-related film. So, I think it’s urgent to interrogate the representations in these games. As Soraya Murray has argued, “the faulty idea that video games are unimportant galvanizes their power. This allows them to proceed unchecked in the world…, without the same modicum of accountability and critical analysis that even films and theatre bear” (On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space [London, 2018], 15).
HTN: In your research for this new book, especially in the major films and video games you analyzed on the Haitian Revolution, can you share with us some of your observations and findings.
AGS: Thank you for asking, Doctor Lou. I started out drafting a journal article – and ended up writing a ten-chapter book. The book has several different arguments; one concerns how former colonizers still have greater power to define slavery and colonialism on screen, because of the economic legacies of these histories. Popular-culture portrayals of the past thus tilt in favor of the narratives of colonizers and enslavers, leaving audiences with distorted understandings of history.
I also make many arguments as a historian about how the Haitian Revolution is depicted by foreigners v. by Haitians, about how the French remember slavery, and about video games and history. I’m particularly interested in what kinds of stories about slavery that funders in Hollywood and elsewhere are willing to greenlight. Each chapter has its own argument, and the book will be full of surprises (I hope!) for the reader. But I can tell you that it has three parts. In the first (“Foreign Views of the Revolution”) I examine non-Haitian films on the Haitian Revolution, from Europe, the US and the Caribbean. I assess them in light of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s ideas about the Revolution’s unthinkability and its silencing. In what way, I ask, do these films banalize and/or distort the HR, even while putting its story on screen? The section also has a chapter called “No White Hero, No Funding? Unmade Revolution Epics”: it uncovers efforts to make Haitian Revolution epics which failed to garner funding. These projects were proposed by a range of cinema legends (white and Black).
Some scholarship on Haiti by non-Haitian scholars centers on foreign representations of the country, so that it explores European ideas more than Haitian realities. But it’s important to me to highlight Haitian agency. So even if they are less well-known than foreign films on the HR like the French Toussaint Louverture miniseries, I make sure to feature Haitian directors’ films related to the Revolution in Part Two, “Haitian Cinematic Perspectives.” I look both at films directly on the Revolution (for instance, documentaries about Toussaint Louverture) and at others that trace the Revolution’s legacy (such as films made in Haiti in 2003-2004, amidst the anti-Aristide protests of the Bicentennial). Though there have been a growing number of North American scholars researching the Haitian Revolution over the last twenty-five years, I am one of the few Anglophones who study modern Haitian history over the longue durée. It’s important to me to trace what happened in Haiti after 1804, where the Revolution and its legacy are not just symbolic but shape everyday lives. So many periods of twentieth- and twenty-first century Haitian history fascinate me. I loved finding films made during different eras of Haitian history (including the Golden Age, the Duvalier regime, interminable democratic transition, Aristide years, and post-earthquake era); it gave me an excuse to expand on the work I did in Haitian History: New Perspectives on these eras.
I also loved being able to feature the work of Haitian directors and to shed light on the conditions in which they labor to produce their art. Though my book focuses on Revolution-related films, it is one of the very first books on Haitian cinema more generally. I try to highlight not only films by well-established Haitian directors but also the younger generation of filmmakers. I have a few surprises for fans of Haitian literature: Jean Dominique, Frankétienne and Michel-Rolph Trouillot (as part of his music group Tanbou Libète) were among those who collaborated on Revolution-related films that have largely been forgotten.
The book’s final section (“Video Games on Slavery and the Haitian Revolution”) includes two chapters analyzing video games on slavery, slavery revolt and the Haitian Revolution. I look at games not just by North American developers but also those from the Caribbean. I hope readers will find this material as fascinating as I did!
HTN: Were there any particular films or video games that you examined captured your attention? If you were to make some recommendations on films and video games to watch about the Haitian Revolution, what would you advise the reader and audience of Haiti Then and Now?
AGS: Yes! I don’t want to give away too much now; I want the reader to have the thrill of surprise as they’re reading. But I do want to highlight now the works of Haitian directors, both in Haiti and in the diaspora. There are three wonderful documentaries on Toussaint Louverture (one feature, two shorts) by Haitian directors: Maksaens Denis, Kendy Vérilus and Pierre Lucson Bellegarde. Bellegarde also made another extremely moving Toussaint-related short in which he goes to Bénin to trace Toussaint’s roots. There are also terrific films being made by Haitians in the diaspora, who often have better access to funding than do those in Haiti. A Montreal-made film called Haïti, la Route (Le chemin parcouru) is one of my absolute favorites. This documentary traces efforts to teach young Haitian-Canadians about the history of the Haitian Revolution. The film is not publicly available now, but I’m grateful to the directors (Francine Saillant, Frantz Voltaire and Ralph Maingrette) for sharing a copy and answering questions about it.
Indeed, doing interviews with Haitian directors was one of the great pleasures of the book; because many of these films are not held in archives, and they have received less media coverage, I had to amass my own film archive and conduct my own interviews. And of course, I love the Revolution-related projects by the legendary Haitian filmmakers Arnold Antonin and Raoul Peck! I talk about Antonin’s GNB kont Attila (2004) and Peck’s Moloch Tropical (2009), as well as other projects by these two brilliant directors that examine the Revolution’s legacy in modern Haiti.
As for games, the most famous are Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry (set in Haiti) and Assassin’s Creed Liberation (set in New Orleans but featuring several characters who had emigrated there from Haiti). I prefer Freedom Cry to Liberation, as I explain in my book (the same writer, Jill Murray, worked on both, but she had more creative control in developing Freedom Cry). I also discuss more obscure games, including from the Caribbean. The developer Muriel Tramis is at the center of my final chapter. I look forward to readers getting to learn more about this important Caribbean intellectual who has used computer code more often than prose to talk about slavery and memory.
HTN: As a prominent historian who has written prolifically about the Haitian Revolution and modern Haitian history, did you discover any common parallels, characterizations, or stereotypes in the way the Haitian Revolution has been depicted historically through literary texts and historical works to what has been (recently) portrayed through films and video games?
I am quite aware that we are dealing with different narratives in these various and mixed representations of revolutionary Haiti; yet I would like you to highlight some shared ideas, common qualities, or differences about these narratives and historiographies.
AGS: I absolutely did – thank you for this question! I love identifying patterns in historiography and in memory more general. Which writers overemphasize the role of French revolutionary ideas in starting the Revolution (the all-too-prevalent narrative that enslaved people were content with their lot, until the French Revolution spread liberating ideals and they overheard their masters talking and decided they wanted freedom too)? Who emphasizes Haitian agency instead? How do foreign narratives on the Haitian Revolution compare to those by Haitians? These are issues I began to explore in Haitian History: New Perspectives.
I carried my taxonomy of revolutionary interpretations from that project into my film and game analysis: which films or games overemphasize the ideas of 1789 in sparking 1791? Which directors or developers look back to the longer roots of slave resistance, referring for instance to Makandal? Having that historiographer’s lens was really useful once I recognized this void in the scholarship.
I was also very inspired by the works of scholars in Haitian literary studies. I was extremely lucky as I worked on my project to read new works by four colleagues who had identified patterns in Haitian Revolution novels and drama: Marlene Daut, Philip Kaisary, Claudy Delné, and Mariana Past. And I benefited from film and game suggestions from so many people – my acknowledgments are long!
HTN: Next, how would evaluate the historical credibility of the video games and films—i.e. the popular culture—studied in your book about slavery in general and the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue-Haiti in particular?
AGS: They vary widely in quality, from films and games that distort slavery atrociously to others that inspired me and taught me something new. In general, I prefer the Haitian films to the foreign ones – and Caribbean games to North American ones. But I adopt an approach inspired by the film historian Robert Rosenstone, which does not evaluate films based only on whether they get every detail right, but on whether they make historical processes vivid in ways that written works cannot. Building on Rosenstone, Lawrence Baron (a leading scholar of Holocaust film), wrote that historical feature films can be “an alternative version of history capable of imparting a more tangible sense of how past events were experienced than most academic histories can achieve…. Movies should not be judged by whether they are historically, politically, or theoretically ‘correct’ but by whether they… evoke a sense of the collective and individual choices and historical circumstances” of past events [Robert Rosenstone, Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History (1995) and other works; Lawrence Baron, Projecting the Holocaust into the Present: The Changing Focus of Contemporary Holocaust Cinema (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), viii–ix]. I apply that lens to films and to games.
In that sense, some films and games bring alive aspects of the Revolution that might be hidden or hard to visualize from written texts. I describe one midcentury U.S. film that was flawed in many ways, but helped audiences understand that Haitian revolutionaries (who have been too often portrayed as savages) had a legitimate cause – no less important than the American Revolution – and that Haitians were forced into revolt by French brutality. It’s astonishing to see this film after several decades in which Haiti has been largely absent from U.S. movie theaters. And again, though I generally prefer the films and games produced in the Caribbean, there are many excellent aspects of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry, a blockbuster game developed in Canada that has sold millions of copies. Realizing how that game made the Haitian Revolution “thinkable,” in contrast to the mentality described by Michel-Rolph Trouillot, helped spark this project. After my former student Nicklaus Boyens told me in 2013 that it was being released, I was flabbergasted to see that its trailer humanized Haitian revolutionaries far more than most foreign representations of the country; it dovetailed with post-earthquake calls from Gina Ulysse and others for “new narratives” about Haiti. Later, Evan Narcisse’s description of his reactions to the game as a Haitian (and those of other Haitian and Black gamers) confirmed my sense that, even if some aspects of the game were inaccurate, it was an extraordinary representation of Haiti and Haitians by foreigners.
HTN: I would like us to move forward but to return to the past, that is, to exchange a few ideas about your first book (The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism, 2005), which is an original, significant, and well-researched study on the great French humanist, antiabolitionist, and anti-racist: Bishop Henri-Baptiste Grégoire (“Abbé Grégoire”) (4 December 1750-20 May 1831).
For our readers who are able to read French, this intellectual biography on Grégoire has been translated in the French language as L’abbé Grégoire et la Révolution française: les origines de l’universalisme moderne (2008). In particular, I am interested about the relationship between Abbé Grégoire, the French Revolution, and revolutionary Haiti, which you discussed with great historical strength and intellectual breath in the book and other published articles (“Exporting the Revolution: Grégoire, Haiti, and the Colonial Laboratory, 1815-1827” [1998/2000] and “Grégoire et Haïti: un héritage compliqué [Grégoire and Haiti: A Complicated Legacy]” ).
In passing, let me say a few words about this interesting individual. I find Abbé Grégoire quite a fascinating historical figure, robust public intellectual, and an unapologetic abolitionist and champion of Christian principles and morality; he supported both the French Revolution and eventually the abolition of slavery at Saint-Domingue and the independence of Haiti from France, respectively. Correspondingly, Gregoire was a fierce defender of the citizenship and human rights of Jews in France. He has marked Haitian history, and his enormous contributions to Haitian freedom have been acknowledged in the writings of Duraciné Vaval, Jean Price-Mars, Dantes Bellegarde, and other Haitian thinkers. Arguably, he is an admired figure and an herculean symbol in Haitian history; in her classic work, The Abbe Gregoire, 1787-1831: The Odyssey of an Egalitarian (1971), Ruth F. Necheles suggested that Abbé Grégoire functioned as the “patriarch of Haiti.” Abbé Grégoire and Toussaint Louverture have exchanged correspondence and in 1812 King Henry Christophe even invited him to visit Haiti. As a member of the Société des Amis des Noirs (“Society of Friends of Blacks”), he wrote against the crimes of slave masters and colonizers, defended the equality of the blacks, and fought energetically for the abolition of slavery and emancipation of blacks in the French colonies. Abbé Grégoire opposed Lecler’s shipment in 1801 and his definitive plan to reinstate slavery at Saint-Domingue in 1802.
In your excellent book, you offer a critical and brilliant examination of Grégoire’s religious (Christian) conviction, republican universalism, humanist ideas, and his advocacy for human rights and emancipation. In particular, you present him as a historical force in the achievement of the French Revolution and a champion of democratic ideas and ideals in the French-European Enlightenment modernity. Through your careful reading of Grégoire’s ideas, you argued that Grégoire saw Haiti as the most promising zone to realize the Republican ideals of the French Revolution and its legacy in the world. Second, you suggested that he also saw Haiti as a “laboratory” to propagate the Christian worldview and to erect a new civilization in the Americas yet one that is based on a European-Western perspective and framework. While I admire Abbé Grégoire for his moral standing against slavery and his campaign for human rights and freedom, I do find faults in some of his ideas. Perhaps, you could shed some light about what I am going so articulate below:
- First, Abbé Grégoire lamented over the idea that revolutionary France has failed to realize the social and moral progress, and the Republican ideals it claimed to champion.
- Second, on one hand, Grégoire was a champion of the equality of the Africans and Blacks in the world and the French colonies; on the other hand, it seems to me that he did not believe that the Africans at Saint-Domingue could achieve political independence and freedom as well as civilization and moral progress on their own and apart from the tutelage of Europe (France) and the Christian faith—what we have called « civilizing mission. » Paradoxically, while he attempted to influence French politics and the French people with the moral values and principles of Christianity and the French refused Christianity for the cult of reason and human secular sovereignty, he sought to implement both French civilization and Christian civilization in the new Republic of Haiti, at least, he anticipated that postcolonial Haiti would be able to embody both worlds.
- Third, Grégoire was an ambiguous figure and his universalism was very Eurocentric, regional, and particularist. For example, his idea of the regeneration of the Black race in postcolonial Haiti was grounded on a false logical reasoning and the belief that the European civilization was of a higher order than that of African in the so-called New World; also, there’s a historical evidence to infer that he held that the Africans were not fully civilized; thus, they were still barbarians and degenerate in view of the « inherent values and natural attributes » of the Europeans and the white race.
AGS: Thank you so much for your beautiful reading of my book. I know you like to refer to your own books as your “babies” – and for me also, The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism was my first child (born before my son!). Though the topic of a Catholic priest who fought racism and anti-Jewish prejudice is so relevant to our contemporary world, it was priced stratospherically for the last ten years and was hard for people to access or assign to their students. I’m so gratified to see the book getting renewed attention this year – not only has UC Press dropped the hardcover price but they will release it in paperback for the first time this June.
Yes, to all you said: I highlight how the abbé Grégoire held Haitians and other oppressed peoples to European Christian standards, measuring their progress by the extent to which they abandoned their cultural or religious particularities and became like him. I do not want to underestimate the climate of hatred in which he lived; it was extraordinarily courageous for a Catholic priest, in a pre-Vatican II world when Jews were seen as deicides, to tell other Catholics that Jews deserved equal treatment. He faced a lot of hostility from conservative Catholics who charged that he wanted to make his diocese into a “little synagogue.” In addition, many in France argued that the economy would crash without the colonies – they saw Grégoire as a traitor for daring to suggest that slavery should end. We think about troll farms today, whipping up hatred online against those arguing for social justice – but in Grégoire’s time, the hatred was palpable on the street, as he was hung in effigy and called an “n**- lover,” a secret agent of Britain who wanted to harm his own country.
So, I never want to be anachronistic in criticizing Grégoire “by today’s standards.” But I was trained as a contextual intellectual historian by Keith Michael Baker and by Alan C. Kors, two esteemed scholars of eighteenth-century French thought. So, I try to show in my book that *even* during Grégoire’s time, some Jews and Haitians had qualms about his approaches; it is not merely our modern vantage point that makes his contradictions evident. I tried to move past the idea of Grégoire as “the friend of Blacks and Jews” to consider how his ideas were liberating on one hand and disparaging on the other. Here’s one paragraph from my book that captures this complexity with regard to Haiti:
“Grégoire courageously gave aid to Haitians when few others would. It is important to note, however, the complexities of his universalism and his relationship with non-Europeans. …While he fervently desired to help Haitians enjoy their sovereignty, his idea of regeneration put them in a state of long-term tutelage. The universal human family that Grégoire sought to build would ultimately place Europeans and other peoples in brotherhood. But these other peoples would have to abandon their cultures and adopt the republican Christian values of Europeans like Grégoire before they could belong. Meanwhile, they remained younger brothers in the family, subject to perpetual advice from their older siblings.” (Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution, p. 196).
HTN: Consequently, what would you say is Abbé Grégoire’s sustaining contributions to the Haitian Revolution and post-colonial Haiti?
AGS: In the Epilogue to my Grégoire book, I examined the many ways he has been remembered in Haiti, from a school named for him under Boyer’s government to Haitian commemorations of the centennial of his death in 1931. The legendary Haitian intellectual Jean Price-Mars stated that Haitians “always devoted a fervent cult to Grégoire’s memory.” There is still a major street named for him in Pétionville; the famed Haitian art gallery Galerie Nader is on rue Grégoire.
Nevertheless, I learned a valuable lesson while I was a graduate student from the late André Elizée, a Haitian intellectual who was an archivist at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library. He explained to me (someone coming from a department without specialists in Haitian history, at a time when almost no US universities taught the subject) that despite any impression left by these symbols, Haitians emphasized their own agency in ending slavery, rather than the work of benevolent abolitionists, and that Grégoire was in fact quite obscure for most Haitian people. Over time, that became very clear in my research. Grégoire was certainly a tireless opponent of racism in France; one of my favorite quotes is his telling enslavers who complained that they would become poor if they no longer had slaves, that it would be better for them to “eat grass and be just” (meaning to have nothing) than to abuse and profess to own other human beings. Still, as courageous as that was in his time, Haitians’ freedom was not won for them by abolitionists like Grégoire, but by the men and women who risked their lives to rise up and fight for it. So, I try not to overemphasize Grégoire’s impact on Haitian history!
Nevertheless, I do think that his legacy in Haiti was complex. He gave aid and comfort to Haitian leaders during an era when many Europeans spurned Haiti. Grégoire was thus a kind of fighter avant la lettre against gaslighting; he tried to have Haitians’ backs in arguments in Europe, so they did not have to defend themselves alone. In that sense I am very inspired by his wanting to be an ally and to help combat Europeans or Americans when they were committing injustices against Haiti.
More generally, though, I think that the idea of regeneration that he popularized (a proto form of the civilizing mission) had some harmful effects. As I note in my Abbé Grégoire book:
“Regeneration” and the idea of philanthropic colonization helped supply later colonialists with some of the ideological tools necessary to justify their actions, allowing them to claim that they were not exploiting the colonies, but spreading the benefits of “Western civilization.” Grégoire’s vision of wiping out “dialects” and his elevation of French as the only language of unity and culture would provide a key element of French imperialist cultural policy, from Africa to Indochina. Regeneration also forced colonized peoples forever to play catch-up, to measure their own progress by their conformity to European standards (Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution, p. 196)
HTN: Why is it important to remember such a historical figure like Abbé Grégoire in the history of human rights and antislavery movement in the Western? In other words, what is his enduring legacy in European and World history?
AGS: Grégoire’s impact was paradoxical and multivalent – something I wrote about in French (if you have Francophone readers) in “Les paradoxes de la régénération révolutionnaire” in 2000 in the Annales Historiques de la Révolution française. I do think that we need to understand that the French Revolution’s ideals were not only “liberating”; at its core, revolutionary universalism expected that people seen as “different” from white Catholic Haitians would need to erase their cultural particularly in order to deserve full inclusion. Indeed, asserting their difference was a sign for Grégoire and others that they did not in fact want to be equal “French” citizens.
Especially now, as France still struggles with acknowledging its history of racism – and objects to the very notion of being culturally pluralist, something it sees as anti-republican and unsavorily ‘American’ – it is important not to let Grégoire off the hook. I think that, as much as we can admire his antiracist activism, if we don’t recognize this tension that he helped create at the heart of French republican universalism, it will be harder for France to move forward – in what is already a very multicultural society, formed as a result of France’s own colonial exploits.
HOWEVER, I must note again that when I watch the hatred directed by white supremacists against those who fight against racism today, I have extra appreciation for Grégoire’s courage and prescience. I cannot help admiring (if the Abbé will forgive me) that he just DNGAF and that he was willing to brook hatred to fight for social justice. So, I am inspired by that in the 2020s, despite my own complicated feelings about someone who thought that my religion was ridiculous and that women were not worthy of citizenship.
HTN: I want to shift our conversation a little bit and reorient it toward your work and exemplary contributions as a scholar-activist, public intellectual, and social critic. On social media, especially through your tweeter platform, you are very engaging on the pressing issues of race, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, mass incarceration, antisemitism, immigration, xenophobia, gender, oppression, and injustice in our society. I do have a personal confession to make to you. Because of your active presence on tweeter, when I go on tweeter, you are among the first individuals I read and engage. Your tweets are substantially instructive, informative, meaningfully, and cross-disciplinary.
- How do you negotiate your work as a scholar and a professional history, and your work as a public intellectual-activist? Is there any conflict between the two ?
- How does your scholarship inform your public activism, and how does your activism shape your scholarship as an academic? In other words, is there a relationship of mutual reciprocity between the two?
AGS: I’ll answer these two together. First, what a kind thing to say, Doctor Lou. I joined Twitter only in February 2020; being in a community of scholars and others who care about things I do has been sustaining in this turbulent and stressful last year. I also love your tweets! You have such genuine joy for studying Haiti – and are enthusiastic about the work of others – and it is contagious.
On the label of “public intellectual-activist,” I have two thoughts. On the one hand, early in my career, I became close with Marcel Dorigny and Yves Benot – two pioneering French scholars who spotlighted the history of French racism and colonial amnesia, in monographs and in media appearances. Though many people don’t realize this, Benot wrote, even before Trouillot did, about how Haiti was forgotten; in Silencing the Past, Trouillot cites Benot’s earlier work. Both Benot (who is deceased) and Dorigny (who is retired) were marginalized in some sense in French academia. Benot was a journalist and never held an academic position, yet it was he – from the margins – who wrote two pioneering books about French slavery and colonial amnesia (La révolution française et la fin des colonies 1789-1794  and La démence coloniale sous Napoléon ). Dorigny was powerful in French academia in several respects (serving on the executive committees of the Société des Études Robespierristes and other societies) – yet he taught at Paris 8 (Vincennes – St Denis), a peripheral campus with less prestige and resources than Paris 1 or Paris 4 (the Sorbonne). I saw them organize their own conferences on taboo topics, write op-eds, and speak on television. All of this was a different model of being a scholar than that of my mentors at Penn and Stanford, who operated more exclusively within academic settings.
Most importantly, Dorigny and Benot always wanted to highlight the work of Haitian and Antillean scholars. The conference they dared organize in 2002 on the bicentennial of Napoleon’s reimposition of slavery in 1802 – a date French government officials and other academics ignored, in contrast to the self-congratulatory events showcasing the anniversaries of the 1789 and 1848 abolitions – was not only open to the general public (which sparked lively Q&As) but also extraordinarily diverse in the range of scholars included. In that way, it was a striking contrast with the almost exclusively white French history conferences I attended in the U.S. It was a thrill to spend several days with leading Haitian scholars like Michel Hector, Gusti-Klara Gaillard-Pourchet, Sabine Manigat, and Vertus Saint-Louis, and legendary Antillean scholars like Léo Elisabeth and Jacky Dahomay.
So, I looked up to Dorigny and Benot as models of engaged scholarship: individuals who genuinely cared about the legacy of colonial oppression and worked as scholars and humans to reverse it. I loved watching them use the resources they could marshal to support and highlight the work of Antillean and Haitian scholars. I also continue to be inspired by my friend Dr. Dominique Rogers, who has become a professeur médiatisée in Martinique.
I continue to want to present my work in spaces where I am surrounded by knowledgeable Caribbean scholars, who can correct me if I’m wrong, rather than in largely white spaces where people talk about Haiti more distantly. That’s one reason I’ve been going to Haitian Studies Association meetings more often than to French history ones in the last decade; I miss my friends in the French history societies, but it’s important to me that my work is meaningful to Haitians, rather seen as inaccurate or banal. When I started working on Haiti in the 1990s, I had some impostor syndrome, because there were no courses to take on Haitian history, and I had to teach it to myself. I worried that maybe I was not getting it right, or that I might be writing things that people in Haiti already knew; it’s easy to do that when you present in spaces void of Haitians. So, to have had my work cited and appreciated by scholars in Haiti and the diaspora whom I admire has been gratifying. I’m happy to be able to use my training to fill in gaps I find, and to complement and amplify the work of Haitian scholars. I especially love encouraging Emerging Scholars in modern Haitian history; it’s exciting to see more people entering this field.
Having said that, I feel somewhat uncomfortable with the label of “activist.” In a speech Raoul Peck gave in Frankfurt in 2014 (which I later translated into English), he said something that deeply impacted me. He recalled sitting at breakfast in his hotel during a conference and hearing one man introduce himself to another as an “activist.” Peck was shocked that activism could be rendered a “profession,” as capitalism’s division of labor assigned only certain people the “job” of civil engagement. Peck said instead: “I wish to be neither an ‘engaged’ filmmaker, nor an ‘activist.’ Above all, I do not want my class enemy to decide for me who I am…. I would like to be, simply, a citizen.”
I find this quote striking, because it reminds us that we each have a duty – as citizens and as humans – to be civically engaged, rather than assign this task to a professionalized slice of the population. And of course, as a scholar of French colonialism and of Haiti, there are many things I understand from my research (about US foreign policy, the role of NGOs, changes in how asylum law has been interpreted for Haitians and others at the San Diego-Tijuana border, etc.) that others may not be aware of – and I then feel morally obliged to speak up. Ideally, I would like people to read my scholarship, where I have more than a few lines in which to flesh out my ideas. But for those who don’t know my scholarly work, public-facing outlets or Twitter are places where I can exult at scholarly finds or what’s working in the classroom or try to spark more awareness and change. I also enjoy being able to amplify commentary from Haitians. And I love publicizing films by emerging Haitian filmmakers, to encourage more people to seek out Haitians’ narratives about themselves instead of waiting for Hollywood to make films about Haiti.
In calling attention to what’s happening with Haitians here in San Diego/Tijuana, one of my models is the amazing Guerline Jozef, who lives near me but who I first met in Haiti in 2018. Guerline was living a quiet life in Orange County, California, designing museum exhibits – when thousands of Haitians started to arrive in Tijuana seeking refuge. As US government policy toward these asylum seekers turned inhumane, Guerline began commuting every day from her home to the border, to work with Haitians and other African refugees who had endured unspeakable horrors on their way to find safety here. Even as we have turned away from our international commitments to asylum seekers and criminalized asylees, she has labored to help those in detention. My efforts to amplify the work of people like Guerline – and to support the Haitian Bridge Alliance and other organizations – are far smaller than what she does. But if I’m able to spread awareness among other #twitterstorians, teachers and journalists, then I at least am not remaining silent. (Added as this interview neared publication on Feb. 21: The same is true for my efforts to highlight what has been happening with Jovenel Moïse’s government this month. When I see Haitian filmmakers and journalists that I admire going into the streets to march or to document protests, even as the government has been shooting at media and protesters alike, I feel a duty to amplify their efforts and try to educate others about US foreign policy in Haiti. I have been particularly vexed to see the brother and sister-in-law of one of my favorite Haitian historians, Pierre Buteau, jailed on pretext of planning a coup, when they were civil servants standing up for democracy).
HTN: Before we end this interview, may I ask you a final question: given your active interest on the subject matter, are you are currently working on a book on the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck?
AGS: I love this question, Doctor Lou! You have probably figured out that Raoul Peck is my favorite director. I am not writing a whole book on him, though I wrote an article called “History is Too Important to Leave to Hollywood: Colonialism, Genocide, and Memory in the Films of Raoul Peck,” which appeared in Toni Pressley-Sanon and Sophie Saint-Just’s collection Raoul Peck: Power, Politics and the Cinematic Imagination (2015). I also translated his Frankfurt speech (“Beyond Help?”) for the same volume. His films have influenced me a great deal, and he is of course a giant in Haitian (and French) cinema, so you will see him pop up more than once in my book.
Celucien, I want to close in thanking you so much for your incredibly thoughtful questions. It is an honor to know you and have you as an interlocutor in the field, and I look forward to many more conversations – in person next, I hope!
HTN: Thank you so much Dr. Sepinwall for this wonderful and instructive conversation. We, the readers and audience of HTN, are appreciative of your scholarship and enormous contributions to Haitian Studies and other disciplines of study. Have an excellent and productive academic semester!