Enough Already! Or, Do We Really Need More Haitian Scholarship?

My apologies for my first Junto post being a bit of shameless self-promotion.  But here it is: a piece I just wrote for The New York Times on Haiti’s role in the Civil War.  In short, it’s about how a small but significant portion of black Americans saw Haiti as a better option than the United States during the conflict.  As Matt Karp wrote on his Junto post today, the most groundbreaking Haiti-related scholarship today deals with what happened after the Haitian Revolution, that is, post-1804.

Ada Ferrer, for instance, recently wrote an excellent essay in the AHR on the decade after Haitian independence, which shows the black republic’s contribution to the intellectual debates in the 19th century Atlantic world.  For the piece I wrote, a major help was Matthew Clavin’s recent book Toussaint L’Ouverture and the American Civil War: The Promise and Peril of a Second Haitian Revolution  (Penn, 2009), which demonstrates just how strong the image of Haiti was for blacks in America.  Even if they didn’t choose to emigrate, they nonetheless continued to invoke the island as an exemplar of black dignity.  Another noteworthy book now more than a decade old that also deals with Haiti’s impact on antebellum America is Chris Dixon’s African America and Haiti: Emigration and Black Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century (Praeger, 2000).

I admit that, from an academic point of view, all the focus around Haiti can seem like a little much. But as much of the latest scholarship makes clear, there’s still much new ground to cover, especially in the post-independence years.  What’s more, the faddishness of Haitian scholarship shouldn’t blind us to the fact that non-scholars still have a dim if not vacant understanding of Haiti’s role in America’s Revolutionary period.  Though it may not seem so, Haiti’s place in history is far from settled.

7 responses

  1. Thanks, Eric, for this post and for the New York Times piece, which I very much enjoyed. As a Haitianist (17th & 18th centuries), I find this new wave of scholarship on the impact of Haiti on the 19th century U.S. fascinating. The connections between the two countries are certainly there. Also, the Haitian Revolution and the U.S. Civil War share general contours: elites and poorer free people mobilize in a civil war over rights, freed people of color and slaves use this as an opening to secure their rights, beginning with first a partial and then a general emancipation. This new freedom then has to be defended and defined over a number of years. This gives an interesting added perspective to Hahn’s thesis that we can/should see the U.S. Civil War as a major slave rebellion.

    I have one question: near the end of this post you mention that non-scholars still have a dim view of “Haiti’s role in America’s Revolutionary period.” How are you defining Revolutionary period here? Are you extending it to the 1840s-60s? I certainly agree that non-scholars tend to not know much about the historical connections between Haiti and the U.S. during any time period, but work on Haiti before 1789 (particularly connections between Saint-Domingue and British North America during the American Revolution) is much less developed than what we have on the broad contours of the Haitian Revolution or on the relationship between Haiti and the U.S. between 1804 and 1865 (which is starting to rival the Haitian Revolution scholarship in richness and depth).

    • Dear Robert: You bring up an excellent point — we know perhaps just as little about pre-revolutionary Haiti as we do about post-. That’s an noteworthy thought. As for how I’m defining America’s ‘Revolutionary period,’ I mean the general era of circa 1775 to 1804. I realize that that’s unclear in my post, given that I focus on the Civil War era. My apologies for that. ~Eric

  2. From a distance, I’d say there is still plenty of scope for further work on the relationship between African Americans and Haiti. Eric’s final point is particularly apposite: the popular misunderstandings about, and misrepresentations of Haiti are particularly frustrating, even down here in Australia, where Haiti looms rather less obviously on our historical or political radar.
    Chris Dixon

  3. “Faddishness of the Haitian scholarship” with reference to back this up (described as “all the focus around Haiti” that might seem “too much”)? How much do we actually know about 19th-century Haiti, for instance? It seems to me that the author here is only interested in the connections between African Americans and Haiti, yet his main citation to back up his “faddishness” argument is a WMQ special issue that hardly addresses this topic. Would this blog use the same language to describe scholarship on early American history, which to a Caribbeanist might seem like an overly studied topic? If the blog would not use the same language, the author’s statement sounds intellectually provincial, to put it mildly. Also, as it stands, it might need a second round of proofreading (I think that the author means “Haitianist” rather than Haitian; to me, he certainly does not mean Haitian, since there are no Haitian historians included in his brief list of citations, and, anyways, it seems that his interest in Haiti is motivated primarily by a desire to advance US historiography). Sorry to be snappy, but the piece is confused and a tad bit irritating politically and ethically.

  4. Would this blog use the same language to describe scholarship on early American history, which to a Caribbeanist might seem like an overly studied topic?

    Given the Readex announcement, perhaps pointing out that Haiti is not always the Caribbean writ large may be apposite?

  5. Pingback: A Very Old Book: The Case for Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution « The Junto


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