Haiti’s Historical Erasure: A Reflection

(I wanted to contribute my thoughts on Wednesday’s class since I missed the discussion.)

“Haiti at the Digital Crossroads” is a richly layered examination of the modern challenges of archival work in the digital humanities. The author, Marlene Daut places 19th century Haitian historical narratives at the center of her argument and uses the summoning of Papa Legba, the gatekeeper of the archives, as an overture to one of the most the traditional epistemological frameworks for Haitian scholars, Vodou.

The text does not go deeply into the revolutionary history or the emblematic ‘image problem’ Haiti faces but is resonant in significant ways. For many people outside of Haiti, this piece is their introduction to figures such as Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe recurring as more than honorable mentions in a discussion about archives and history. For the better part of two centuries, the Haitian Revolution has been a footnote in 19th century discourse. It is only ever brought up to reassign the modern political instability in Haiti into a direct and continuous line of violence to the revolution of 1804; or to pontificate about the ‘lack of progress’ that has been achieved since. Daut’s text is conscious of those facts and still carefully avoids over explaining the importance of the revolution and its cascading effects for black self-determination. However, the context is clear. The Haitian Revolution has never ceased to be a question mark to the powers that be, never mind the short-lived men who accomplished it. So why would these men or the revolution they waged be highlighted in any history books?

Vodou As an Epistemological Framework

The use of Vodou as an epistemological framework which creates alternative paths between the world of the living and that of the dead is a useful approach for archival work which seeks to understand a history that was often not preserved in text but by the memory of the dead we now wish to study. Vodou as a religious philosophy is irreconcilable with western religious traditions that inform western epistemologies. Unlike Christians who devote their earthly existence to the eventuality of eternal life, vodouissants have a sacred relationship with death and spend their entire life preparing for this important transition by honoring a relationship with their departed ancestors through ritual practice. Accessing an archive through vodou means understanding that the dead is itself a source of knowledge. One must acquire a profound understanding of how the dead communicates with the living and how the living can call out to the dead, not just by looking at archives but through other phenomenological pathways such as summoning of a Lwa Papa Legba.

Erasure and Inaccessibility in The Archives

In the context of a republic born out of a colonial history of slavery and to a large degree controlled by the interests of American imperialism since the 19th century, there are significant challenges with the archives, the foremost being, erasure and inaccessibility.

Haitians, much like American descendants of slaves live with the trauma of ritual erasure, not just in the archives of text and artifacts by in commerative and historical spaces. The positive promotion of slaveholders in our public commemorative spaces intentionally divorced from the memory of slavery is an act of historical erasure and a moment of ritual erasure for the descendants of slaves every time they are forced to endure the denial of their history in their own public spaces. I once had such a moment myself when I visited historical places in France for the first time. I remember walking through the hall of mirrors at Versailles and experiencing a moment of ritual erasure. Seeing the gluttonous display of wealth made me sick to my stomach, understanding that at the time that Louis XIV – Louis XVI built this palace and its grounds, It was on the backs of slaves in St. Domingue working on the sugar cane plantations and dying by the hundreds doing so. The erasure of my ancestors was in plain sight yet no other tourist around me seemed to have a clue about the ugly history that yielded these gaudy jewel-encrusted halls. Much like Daut reveals about France’s intentional erasure of Haiti from its history in the rejection of Nemours Histoire Militaire de la Guerre d’Indépendance de Saint-Domingue when “…the French government did not think these materials actually pertained to France”

For digital humanists to address erasure in historical narratives, they must rethink how they approach the archives and be willing to find pathways outside of the archives. Daut points out that one of the prongs in the erasure problem is the fact that; the Haitian people have not been in charge of their narrative; and the sources that have traditionally spoken for them have often come from non-Haitian spaces. Digital humanists must look at the archives differently to center Haitian narratives from Haitian spaces and invest in the work of Haitian scholars.  For example, the Revue de la Société Haïtienne d’Histoire, de Géographie et de Géologie is a Haitian journal that has been regularly published since 1925 yet is rarely used as an authoritative source outside of Haiti. The designation of what is and what isn’t an authoritative source is an important aspect of how Haiti’s erasure persists in western epistemologies. Many times in the text, scholars point out that Haiti doesn’t have a complete history written by Haitian historians, implicating that a written history is more authoritative than the one uniquely preserved through vodou and other traditional epistemologies – falsely leading to the conclusion that Haiti has a poor record of its history.

Although it is understandable that for the purpose of archival work, accessibility to material history such as text and artifacts is important for the construction of the historical narrative of any country. And the lack of accessibility to Haiti’s material history is an archival problem that Haitian humanists must work together to solve in the spirit of Jacques Roumain’s work. In Haiti, there is an idea of collaborative togetherness called konbit that we love to preach but rarely practice. And it is the responsibility of Haitians scholars to actualize this idea in the work of rehabilitating Haiti’s historical narrative.

Toussaint Louverture, Haiti’s founding father, who died in captivity in Fort-de-Joux, France said this as he was captured, and I think it is apt to repeat here in the context of Haiti’s “bad press” as Daut puts it.

 « En me renversant, ils n’ont abattu que le tronc de l’arbre de la liberté des noirs. It repoussera par ces racines parce qu’elles sont profondes et nombreuses. » Toussaint Louverture


“In overthrowing me, you have done no more than cut down the trunk of the tree of the black liberty. It will spring back from the roots, for they are numerous and deep.” Toussaint Louverture.