Bookforum talks to Laurent Dubois

What most people know about Haiti can be reduced to two statements: Haiti is the world's first independent black nation—the country declared its independence from France on January 1, 1804—and Haiti is presently the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Unfortunately, the country's political victories are often overshadowed by media images of malnourished children and bedraggled homes. In his most recent book, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, historian and Duke University professor Laurent Dubois considers this lapse in historical memory.

Aftershocks of History unpacks Haiti’s legacy of authoritarianism in light of the centuries-old tension between creating a sustainable economy and maintaining political autonomy in the global sphere. Because the country is rich in resources, its leaders have historically insisted on implementing labor-based economic systems, while Haitians typically resist these efforts in favor of education and community development programs. In this way, the government and the people have always been at odds against each other. Recently, Laurent Dubois agreed to talk about Haiti: The Aftershocks of History with Bookforum via email.

Bookforum: In 2004 you published Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. This book urged readers to reconsider Haiti’s importance—political and economic—within the Western Hemisphere during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Roughly six years later, what were your motivations for writing Haiti: The Aftershocks of History?

Laurent Dubois: There’s a paradox regarding Haiti in the US – our country is deeply involved in the country and has been for a long time. Fifty percent of US households gave to Haiti earthquake relief. But alongside that intense involvement there’s a striking absence of knowledge—even quite basic knowledge—about the country itself, its history, its language and its culture. On the most basic level, I wrote the book in the hopes of trying to change that.

Since publishing Avengers in 2004, I’ve often talked to readers who wanted to understand how and why the Haiti of 1804 became the Haiti of today. I’ve thought about this a lot as I read books by other scholars, taught about Haiti in various classes, and discussed and debated with colleagues in the US and Haiti. I was working on other projects, though—I wrote a book on soccer in France, and was researching another on the history of the banjo. But after the January 2010 earthquake I decided it was urgent to try and offer the public a vision of the country that was grounded in history rather than stereotypes. This book was very much inspired by the earthquake, because I felt that real and effective reconstruction would only take place on the basis of a good and lucid understanding of Haiti’s historical foundations.

BF: Working through such a complicated history with so many political influences—Haitian, European, and American—how did you approach gathering and sorting through information? Were there certain moments in history that you felt had too often been overlooked and deserved to be clarified?

LD: Writing a book about two hundred years of history obviously creates a major challenge: there is so much one could include, so there’s always a difficult process of selection. What events and people should be foregrounded? What are the key issues? Each author grappling with the question would certainly end up making somewhat different choices.

Drawing on a rich tradition of scholarship in Haiti and the US, I set out with a number of goals: I wanted people in the US to know about the twenty-year occupation of the country from 1915 to 1934, something which is barely known and acknowledged here, and I wanted to foreground some of the fascinating writers, thinkers, and political leaders in Haiti’s history who I think people should know more about. A major goal of the book was to really insist that people think about the nineteenth century, a period studied much less than either the revolutionary period or the twentieth century, and whose history is very instructive on many levels. I made the choice to focus most heavily on the nineteenth and early twentieth century because I really wanted to concentrate on long-term developments in the country. I think that unless you really grapple with the sedimentation of histories and struggles over two centuries, the present will remain largely illegible, and a better future much harder to construct.

BF: You say the history of the nineteenth century is instructive, how so?

LD: I argue that nineteenth-century Haiti actually succeeded in ways that are rarely acknowledged: in the wake of slavery, the population successfully built a new economic and social system built around taking control of the land once devoted to plantation production for export. They didn’t turn away from markets, but took control of them, focusing on the internal production of food, which they distributed through intricate local markets, and production of coffee for export. Despite all the problems and pressures Haiti faced, that system worked to guarantee autonomy and prosperity for many within the country. One major sign of the system’s success was that in the nineteenth century Haiti was a draw for migrants, not a producer of immigrants: people came from North America, other parts of the Caribbean, the Middle East and Europe to settle there. During a century when Europe was producing large numbers of desperate, hungry migrants, Haiti was attracting people. At the same time, of course, a series of political structures and dynamics—many of them quite negative—were put into place. But the conflicts within Haiti during the nineteenth century were in some ways mild compared to the bloody wars taking place elsewhere in the world during that period, particularly in the US and Europe. So studying the nineteenth century can actually force us to re-think various commonplaces about the history of Haiti, which is too often told as a kind of inexorable tale of decline and marginalization.

BF: The book documents several revolts, the overthrowing of various political leaders and grassroots initiatives like the counter-plantation and the lakou systems that put the people first. What's clear is that the Haitian people have consistently been put in positions where acting in their best interest is against the wishes of their leaders. Why do you think Haiti’s leaders have been so resistant to democracy? Do you think this has had any long-term effects in terms of the way Haiti is perceived globally?

LD: A central argument of the book is that, relatively early on, a kind of stalemate developed between the majority of Haiti’s people and their leadership. The population was able to create a new agricultural and economic system in the countryside—what Jean Casimir calls a “counter-plantation” system—through which they resisted repeated attempts to get them to go back to plantation labor. At the same time, however, those who held political power and controlled the port towns created a system that largely excluded the majority population. One key point of the book is to understand all of this as the product of a set of historical processes and choices—not something inevitable, and not something irreversible. It was a concatenation of external pressure and internal conflicts, and it developed and shifted over time. There were repeated attempts to change that order that sometimes made partial gains. I want to make clear that there’s a long history of democratic mobilization in Haiti, and that though these movements have foundered they can provide inspiration for future models.

BF: Probably the most significant external pressure that contributed to what you call a stalemate between the majority of Haiti's people and their leadership was the burden of the $150 million indemnity to France. What were some of the internal conflicts that resulted from this?

LD: The most important internal conflict began during the Haitian Revolution and never really ended: the fight between those who saw Haiti’s future in terms of perpetuating large-scale plantation agriculture, and those committed to building the “counter-plantation” system described by Jean Casimir and other Haitian scholars. This wasn’t a conflict between insularity vs. being open to world trade: both systems relied on some form of trade with the outside world. At the heart of the conflict was the question of how society should be organized, to whose benefit, and which forms of dependency would be acceptable. It was a conflict between one vision predicated on the need for large-scale agriculture managed by a small elite, who would also be the main recipients of its profits, against a vision predicated on profound self-reliance and economic autonomy. Obviously there were always various hybrid forms and projects within Haiti’s diverse political and regional landscape. But that central conflict was often at the basis of the political struggles and conflicts of the country. Of course there has been dramatic change in Haiti during the past decades, but I’d argue that there is a still a continuity, and that the long-running internal conflict over what freedom and autonomy concretely mean for Haitians is still going on. I begin and end the book with the idea that the Haitian Revolution remains unfinished.

BF: What do you think the country’s next step should be?

LD: Haiti was created out of a successful revolution against slavery, and against the plantation system. But for the past two hundred years, a succession of leaders within the country and powerful individuals outside of it have told Haitians that if they want to be modern they need to go back to the plantation—or to it’s more recent iterations. What leaders and outsiders have rarely done is to actually engage with and respect the aspirations and the system developed by Haitians through historical experience.

In the book I try to foreground the ways in which Haiti’s past might provide inspiration for the future. I also hope the book can contribute to a frank and lucid discussion about the long-term impacts of foreign intervention and involvement in Haiti, which I think is absolutely crucial. Most Haitians are all-too familiar with this history, while foreigners working in the country are often surprisingly unfamiliar with even the details of the 1825 indemnity levied by France or the two-decade US occupation, for instance. That disconnect—the imbalance and fragmentation of historical memory—makes it harder for people to collaborate productively, I think.

It’s perhaps a bit too hopeful to suggest that knowing history will steer us away from repeating the mistakes of the past. But at the very least it should force us to dispense with easy certainties and comfortable stereotypes and instead think with humility and openness about Haiti’s achievements and impasses. Of course the past can’t—and shouldn’t—limit or determine the future, and I try throughout the book to always remind readers that the future thankfully remains unwritten, and therefore a realm of new possibilities.