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Date: Thu, 14 Jan 1999 16:07:54 -0800 (PST)
From: Robert Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Subject: RE: Haitians and Haitian history. Blanc comments
To: Bob Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
Message-ID: <Pine.3.89.9901141644.A553-0100000@netcom4>

Haitians and Haitian history

A dialog from Bob Corbett's Haiti list, January 1999

From: Antoine Blanc <ablanc@acn2.net>

Back from holydays and reading my mail, I find this question from Vedrine:

In the question of writing history, we should also take a minute sometimes and ask ourselves these questions: who writes history for who? who write history for what purpose? how do we look for the truth?

While understanding Vedrine's indignation, I think this could be a good starting point for a discussion on why Haitians are so reluctant to write their own history ? Allow me an obvious exemple : thousands of informed witnesses of the Duvaliers'reign are still alive. How many:

1) did publish anything on this period to help their fellow Haitians and foreigners to understand from the inside what happened to this country, and

2) did put down the names of those responsible for this tragedy ?

How many Haitian historians did bother to record and analyse such testimonies. The same can be said for earlier dramatic periods of Haitian history.

At least it could help to prevent the repetition of such dramas. (Who said that forgetting history carry the risk to relive it ?) Amnesia is a poison pill for any society : among others results, it permits that in Haiti power immunes forever from responsibility.

Haitian memory looks in the same state as basic infrastructures in this country: nobody seems to take care of.

Antoine Blanc

Date: Thu, 14 Jan 1999 16:41:12 -0800 (PST)
From: P D Bellegarde-Smith <pbs@csd.uwm.edu>

If anything, Haitians write too much history. Haiti's small intellectual class, until the 1950s, had written more books per capita than much larger Mexico, Argentina or Brazil. In fact, Haiti came second to the U.S. in book production in the Western Hemisphere. Haitian historians, anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers, novelists, poets are legions. The literary output of that mostly illiterate land ranks Haiti first in the West Indies, together with Cuba. Much of this writing has real merit, and is studied at universities across the United States.

Date: Fri, 15 Jan 1999 12:11:33 -0800 (PST)
From: Sean Flanagan <sak_pase@hotmail.com>

I believe that the quote about repeating history you were asking about is from Winston Churchill.

There is another quote that I have heard that says history is always written by the winners. There are not too many Duvalierists around who are going to speak out about what went on. They are either gone or still have too much at risk. In this case, the winners, did not know exactly what was going on behind the scenes and don't have the story everybody wants.

In my opinion, not enough time has gone by for these stories to be placed in books. Even history books in the U.S. high schools only spend the last 10 pages to cover the 15 years between Ford and Bush. Maybe it is just because people don't want to read history books about things they experienced first hand.


Date: Fri, 15 Jan 1999 14:11:09 -0800 (PST)
From: Michel-Rolph Trouillot <rolph@uchicago.edu>

1) Vedrine:
>In the question of writing history, we should also take a minute
>sometimes and ask ourselves these questions: who writes history
>for who? who write history for what purpose? how do we look for
>the truth?

2) Blanc:
>While understanding Vedrine's indignation, I think this could be a
>good starting point for a discussion on why Haitians are so
>reluctant to write their own history ?

I try to answer both questions in SILENCING THE PAST: POWER AND THE PRODUCTION OF HISTORY (Beacon Press, 1997). I can't summarize the whole argument here. Let me just say that I agree with Vedrine's point that history is not merely an academic issue. Why do authors write the histories they write? Why do oral historians, journalists, novelists, play or script writers prefer certain stories over others? And why does the public end up accepting some versions more than others? The answers are not simple. The questions are worth keeping in mind, however, when we discuss Haitian history here. Historical writing is never innocent.

I disagree with Blanc that Haitians are reluctant to write their own history. In fact, Haitians -- especially but not only the urban literate classes -- sometimes get an historical overdose. Everything can become history, as a legacy of a past that we cannot change. (Depi nan Ginen, neg ap tronpe neg..... Depi lakoloni.... depi lokipasyon. Depi Duvalye peyi a kraze.... etc.) History, approached that way, can become easily a smokescreen to hide the responsibilities of the present. To say that Haitians have used that excuse ad nauseam is not to ignore that the world powers, past and present, have done their share to mess up the country and its historical record. Again, I develop this further in Silencing...

Blanc has a point, however. Haitians do write less history now than before. But, as I argue in SILENCING, there are power issues here. Groups do not write their histories just because they desire to do so. At any rate, that desire is not enough. I can think of a few issues:

1) The educational debacle of the Duvalier years means that there is a smaller proportion of Haitians in Haiti who can write history in any language.

2) Publishing in Haiti, always a problem, is now a nightmare. A few monopolies control the presses. Most authors self-publish. That is expenseive and the presses do a poor job.

3) Publishing abroad on Haiti is no easier. Haitian historians (academics or not) now abroad have to match US or French publishers' expectations. Will this ell well on Blak History Month? Will Parisian intellectuals be interested in the theory.... etc...

3) Meanwhile, an increasing output of Haitian historiography is in English, although French remains indispensable to anyone who writes on Haitian history recent or old. Linguistic competence in these two languages is not that easy and the reasearch effort may not be worth many peoples' time.

4) On the Duvalier years, it is quite possible that some victims were (are) not yet ready (psychologically) to voice their experience. They have a right to heal in silence if they prefer.

5) Who wants to do the legwork? The Fondation Memoire is trying to links professionals and non-professionals interested in Haitian history. (I am a member. Claude Moise, Michel Hector and other practicing historians in France, Canada, and Haiti are founding members also...) Just the logistics of keeping the Foundation could exhaust any single individual. The Fondation exsts primarily because of the free labor provided by founder Anne-Edline Francois. (See web page: Members\Tripod.com\Memoire --I think. You can link from the Haitian Embassy site in DC). So, there is a lot of leg work involved in doing history. It's not that easy... and who has the time?

In short, the reasons why some Haitians may not be writing enough about recent history as well as the reasons why others (Haitians or foreigners) ARE doing so and being published should be seriously investigated before we provide a simple answer. Until we provide that answer, let's be as suspicious of those who have the power to speak as we are of those who are silent, whatever the reason for that silence.

Best to all,

Corbett adds: I am a great fan of the book SILENCING THE PAST which Rolph published a few years ago. If any of you want a copy of my lengthy review of the book I'll happily e-mail it to you and it containts full information for ordering the book, which you can do via amazon.com or your local book store.

Bob Corbett

Date: Sat, 16 Jan 1999 06:43:55 -0800 (PST)
From: William McIntosh <florvillemcintosh@juno.com>

Mr. Blanc,

I do agree that Haitians do have a tendency to forget, since today in our beloved country, history is repeating itself. The macoute mentality was renamed, and on the other hand known macoute are still walking with no fear of prosecution, which leads to think that the one in power, want to assure their own security in the future.

However, as far as testimonies about the cruelties that happened under the Duvalier's regime there is a poignant and horrific book on the inhuman atrocities at Fort Dimanche,one of Duvalier's notorious prisons, wrtten by Patrick Lemoine. The title of the book is Fort-Dimanche, fort la mort published in french by les editions Reguin. I read the book and was astonished and horrified by such a story.We all heard of such atrocities but can only believe the extent of it after reading that book. It is inimaginable.

The only concern I have is that no legal action were taken against the torturers, even by the Haitian government, since the document details many enfringements against humanity.