Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Mary Grace Albanese reviews The Haitian Revolution and the Early United States

Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Michael Drexler, eds. The Haitian Revolution and the Early United States: Histories, Textualities, Geographies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. 448 pp.

Review by Mary Grace Albanese

Frankétienne, perhaps Haiti’s most celebrated intellectual, once claimed: “Cette victoire de 1804, c'est un bel accident de l'histoire, quelque chose qui à l'époque était inconcevable, inimaginable, à contre-courant de l'histoire” (This victory of 1804, it is a beautiful accident of history, something that was at the time inconceivable, unimaginable, running against the current of history).[1] Frankétienne is, himself, a bit of a contre-courant: a name we—by which I mean researchers from wealthy, developed nations—could have known, read, cited, and translated, but do not. As such, Frankétienne’s claim about the impossibility of Haiti’s history—clearly in dialogue with his more familiar compatriot Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s paradigm of silencing—is instantiated in his very person. The factors contributing to the marginalization of one of Haiti’s greatest luminaries are not to be discussed here, but they are, indirectly, explained in Elizabeth Maddock Dillon and Michael Drexler’s magisterial The Haitian Revolution and the Early United States: Histories, Textualities, Geographies. This deeply impressive interdisciplinary collection reckons with the “accidents” occasioned by the Haitian Revolution, positioning them in relation to the developing United States. In doing so, the volume contributes to a number of critical lineages that increasingly identify the importance of the Haitian Revolution on an international stage. (The literary scholar might be familiar with this turn through the work of Susan Buck-Morss and Nick Nesbitt, but historians—among them David Patrick Geggus and Carolyn Fick, have been engaging in this reevaluation for quite a long time). As such, the volume both adds to a long neglected historiographical narrative and gestures toward an alternative American canon shadowed by the missed potentialities of the Haitian Revolution.

Most historians dismiss counter-history as no more than an elaborate parlor game. It is to Dillon and Drexler’s credit that their introduction’s conjectural framework, loaded with perfect conditionals and subjunctive turns, is one of the most historically rigorous, concise, and intelligent précis of the Haitian Revolution I have read. At a time when many scholars feel obliged to harness “the Haitian turn,” often with varying degrees of cultural and linguistic preparation, this essay ought to be required reading. Their masterful introduction excavates the “mutually entwined” relationship between Haiti and the United States: a relationship that devolved from a possible republican alliance to the antithetical strangeness that arguably still characterizes Haiti-US relations. Through this narrative of failed partnership, the collection promises to “speculatively redraw the map on which Haiti and the United States do not appear to share any spatial or historical relation.” In doing so, they allow new Haitis to emerge—Haitis which, as these essays show, offered the US models of both terror and inspiration. In a contemporary political moment when Haiti and the United States seem to perversely reflect each other—the racist ignominies of Donald Trump’s presidential bid charting a parallel course to Haiti’s delayed elections (a product, moreover, of a political system broken by decades of US intervention)—such considerations are extremely apposite. Moreover, unlike some comparative approaches, which only examine Haiti in order to subsume it into a US/European history, each essay in this collection engages with the nation on its own terms and, in doing so, truly reformulates critical categories: for example, Marlene Daut reconfigures Northern US print culture through her readings of the Baron de Vastey; Drexler and Ed White establish an alternative African American canon, situating its origins in Toussaint Louverture’s 1801 Constitution; David Patrick Geggus highlights Frederick Douglass’s engagements with Haiti through an analysis of the Môle St. Nicolas debacle.

Dillon has argued elsewhere that we should “mind the gap” between historical and literary approaches. This volume marvellously heeds her call by placing work by historians alongside those of literary scholars in ways that respect, rather than efface, disciplinary difference.[2] For example, Duncan Faherty’s fascinating essay engages with US print culture to show how North America both metaphorically and literally quarantined the threat of Haiti; Gretchen J. Woertendyke’s generic approach to the “New-World Novel” makes a compelling case for the importance of literary methods in Haitian studies. Other essays, too, engage in specifically formalist approaches, revealing aesthetics to be, not the atemporal luxury of ersatz historians, but constitutive elements of Atlantic world historiography (see, in particular, Ivy Wilson’s masterful treatment of Toussaint’s iconography). However, the volume’s most novel contribution to Haitian studies is perhaps its attention to scientific paradigms. This perspective shifts considerations of early American science away from Jeffersonian polygenesis to allow for other scientific discourses, including mesmerism (Kieran M. Murphy’s “The Occult Atlantic”) and immunology (as Cristobal Silva demonstrates in his wonderful “Republic of Medicine”).

By showing how Haiti was “written off the map” as Drexler and Dillon claim in their introduction, the essays in this collection offer diverse narratives that not only skew our optic in favour of an internationalized early United States, but question the very categories of “Haitian” and the “United States” within the volume’s title. Could, I wonder, these categories have been further questioned by including Kreyòl cultural production? For the “illegibility” of Haiti is as much ideological as it is literal; that is to say, very few scholars can fully engage with the Kreyòl language. We would do well to recall that when we reclaim the works of francophone Haitian elites, many of whom are featured in this collection, we also reinforce linguistic hierarchies still operative within Haiti. (To underscore my point, it is significant that I opened with Frankétienne’s francophone rather than Kreyòl writings.) Our access to Kreyòl in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century archive is extremely limited, however a number of scholars—some of whom are included in this collection—have elsewhere pushed against these limitations, drawing on performance theory, oral history, cognitive linguistics, and ethnomusicology to stake a stronger place for Kreyòl in the predominantly francophone Haitian archive. Colin Dayan’s Haiti, History, and the Gods (1995) is perhaps still one of the best approaches to this kind of enterprise (the reader may also want to consult Carolyn Fick, Laurent Dubois, Benjamin Hebblethwaite, Erin Zavitz, and Kate Hodgson). This does not detract from the collection—which already covers a vast geographic, temporal, and methodological terrain—but serves as a reminder that even the alternative archive of Haiti has, itself, an alternative archive.

 



[1] Frankétienne and Dénètem Touam Bona, “‘Ecrire’ Haiti . . . Gary Victor, Frankétienne, Lyonel Trouillot, Gary Victor ‘ . . . Perdu dans l'utopie,’”25 May 2004, Africultures, http://www.africultures.com/php/?nav=article&no=3419

[2] Elizabeth Maddock Dillon, "Atlantic Practices : Minding the Gap between Literature and History," Early American Literature 43, no. 1 (2008): 205–09.