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Dubois Discusses History And Instability Of Haiti

Heights Staff

Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

This past Wednesday, Dec. 5, the Lowell Humanities Series featured Laurent Dubois, the Marcello Lotti Professor of romance studies and history at Duke University, in its last event of the semester.

Dubois discussed his recent book, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, relating the history of Haiti from its independence in 1804 to the present day. He recalled that “after the earthquake [in Haiti], I was frustrated by the lack of information people in America had about Haiti despite the tremendous number of connections in the history of the two nations.” He posited that Haiti’s future could be rebuilt only if its past is taken seriously.

The event was highlighted by a slideshow of art from Haiti, which Dubois used to complement and enhance his retelling of Haiti’s history. He began by discussing the slave revolution in 1802, which he called a “revolution for human rights … drawing on much of the language from the French Revolution, Haiti created a revolutionary egalitarian culture.” Dubois emphasized how much of this was a result of the incredibly diverse population that made up Haiti. The vast majority of Haitians in 1804 were slaves who had lived most of their lives in Africa. After the revolution, “there was a profound conflict over the meaning of freedom … in large part shaped by the idea that freedom was fragile.” As a result, Haiti went through a long stalemate, in which it was divided by two opposite strategies: whether to embrace plantations as an economic vehicle or do away completely with such a system. This stalemate contributed to the 19th century in which Dubois argued “the state exercised very tenuous power in much of the country … frequent conflict between governing elites had a limited effect on how most of the population led their lives.”
Dubois also stressed that the popular conception that Haiti has never had a democratic movement is untrue. Specifically, he pointed to the democratic movement in the 1840s, which he said represented demands for true participation in governance. However, Haiti has a history of retrenchment: “Each time one of these movements moved forward, the state moved back.”
Dubois spent much of the second half of his presentation discussing the shared history of Haiti and the U.S. Specifically, he proposed that the “driving force in shaping Haiti in the 20th century was the rise of U.S. power.” Dubois recounted the 20-year U.S. occupation of Haiti beginning in 1915, which he said “is something Haitians remember vividly, but most people in the U.S. are unaware of.” He then discussed the degree of interconnectedness between the two nations. Large amounts of immigration, business relations, and cultural influence were the norm in the 20th century and today. Dubois emphasized how he believed that Americans need to understand how intertwined their history is with that of Haiti, ending by remarking that, “reminding ourselves of our historic connections reminds us that a different future is always possible.”

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