Diversity and Democracy

Humanities in the Lab: Rethinking Haitian Studies

The terms “Haiti” and “laboratory” have not always been happily mated. In Haiti, “laboratory” has been used to designate a nexus of US military intelligence and Haitian authoritarianism, and Haiti recoils at being seen as a laboratory for humanitarian or scientific experiments. But when the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke proposed devoting its first humanities laboratory to Haiti in the wake of the devastating January 12, 2010 earthquake, the impetus for proceeding was clear.

Academic resources focused specifically on Haiti are scarce. There are no departments, centers, or institutes devoted solely to Haiti, Haitian Creole is not commonly taught, and departments and even entire universities may at best have a single specialist focused on Haiti. Meanwhile, the humanities are able to grapple most usefully with human experience when they draw on the full array of academic expertise that responds to human dilemmas, across disciplines and languages, focused on the present and past, drawing on qualitative and quantitative research. Thus by concentrating resources, we hoped to meld a broad array of research questions, methodologies, and social purposes in one alchemical dream: Duke’s Haiti Lab.

Designing the Lab

Science laboratories typically advance knowledge through collaborative projects led by visionary directors and implemented by junior researchers whose contributions refine and surpass their directors’ vision. Much laboratory research aims for instrumental relevance—“heal this,” “create that”—whether at present or in the distant future. These principles guided the Haiti Lab’s architecture.

We began by composing a team of faculty collaborators, including Guy-Uriel Charles, a legal scholar interested in Haitian law; David and Kathy Walmer, colleagues at the Duke Global Health Institute who created a summer service-learning initiative in Haiti; Jacques Pierre, a linguist teaching a sequence of Creole courses; and Victoria Szabo, an expert in new media. We recruited a starting cohort of fifteen undergraduate collaborators through group independent studies centered on faculty-defined research projects. Funding from the Franklin Humanities Institute (supported by the Provost’s Office and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) allowed us to create a laboratory space outfitted with computers, bookcases, a seminar room, and a state-of-the-art projection system.

Preserving Memory

The first project for which we literally rolled up our sleeves (and donned our breathing masks) was a studio art venture with Haitian-born artist Edouard Duval-Carrié. Within days of opening its doors, the Haiti Lab morphed into a cooperative art studio, a true konbit aimed at finding healing and understanding through art. In Haitian Creole, a konbit is a community work detail—like a barn-raising in the United States—where neighbors volunteer to help in construction or reconstruction. Ultimately, two dozen faculty, student, and community participants gathered together to construct something at once material and ineffable. In the tradition of Duval-Carrié’s art, ours was a work of memory, connecting worlds visible and invisible through images, words, and symbols that condensed our visions and understandings of Haiti. Many of us couldn’t stop thinking about the project as we pondered how to communicate history though amber’s layers of light and shadow.

Why amber? On the island of Hispaniola, which houses Haiti in the west and the Dominican Republic in the east, amber has preserved vestiges of organic life for tens of millions of years. Resin, the lifeblood of trees, dripped and flowed in Haiti’s ancient tropical forests, trapping plants, invertebrates, and small vertebrates in sticky goo that would harden into golden (or clear, blue, or green) amber, sometimes preserving scenes of combat (such as a spider attacking a fly). Like a time machine, amber transports us to these transparently preserved scenes, some that occurred when Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico may have been one landmass. And yet amber is also subterranean, buried deep in geological layers like valuable jewels forged by earth’s alchemy.

Amber is, in short, the perfect metaphor for the imperative we felt after the 2010 earthquake. We were driven to mine, reveal, and collect vestiges of Haiti’s past—both the immediate past morphed by the earthquake and the longue durée history found in cultural forms like Amerindian zémès (fetishes), architecture, and song. We wanted to use resin—in this case, plastic rather than arborial—to catch and preserve losses and memories as innumerable as the world’s insects. Soon we realized we had stepped into a perfect web of meaning. Objects trapped in amber are frozen in motion, commemorated as they are destroyed. We wanted to take advantage of this phenomenon to attempt the reverse: to bring the dead alive, illuminated in amber. Now a permanent installation at the Franklin Humanities Institute (http://www.fhi.duke.edu/haitiamber/), Haiti: History Embedded in Amber is a conduit between these meanings.

Interrogating across Disciplines

Simultaneous to the art project, we began working with Guy Charles, along with his Law School colleague Larry Helfer and law students, on a study of gender and violence in Haitian legal codes. The Haiti Lab is providing historical and linguistic mediation to the Law School team and its Haitian partners as they consider how these codes might be updated. Undergraduate French students translate conversations with Haitian law experts and furnish original research, such as summaries of existing studies of violence against women in Haiti. Their work suggests the practical value of language and cultural studies in a changing world.

When cholera emerged in Haiti in October 2010, reports differed regarding how long it had been since Haiti’s last cholera outbreak. Jenson and Szabo, working with a small group of students from a range of disciplines, asked, had epidemic cholera ever existed in Haiti, and was this a researchable question? After digging through historical, journalistic, and medical resources from the nineteenth century onward, we concluded that there had never been epidemic cholera in Haiti, in part due to the abolition of slavery in 1793. We published our conclusions and a digital map of nineteenth-century Caribbean cholera epidemics in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases in 2011 (see http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/eid/article/17/11/11-0958_article.htm).

With colleagues at Duke’s Global Health Institute and School of Medicine, we are studying the diverse discourses that have helped make sense of trauma and post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of the earthquake. Supported by a research grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, Kathy Walmer, Pierre, and undergraduate students are comparing related genres: for example, the scales used to measure post-traumatic stress disorder and the Vodou songs expressive of local and historical “idioms of distress.” We are considering current mental health debates in light of observations about psychic life and pathology that predate the modern mental health apparatus, such as commentary by colonial physicians on how enslaved people manifest distress. We are also analyzing Haiti’s mental health innovations, particularly the important “ethnopsychology” movement that lasted from the 1930s to the 1960s and yielded groundbreaking work on trauma in both mental health and cultural contexts. (Editor’s note: See videos about the project at these links.)

Realizing the Rewards of Diversity

With so many projects percolating, the scope of our work as Haiti Lab codirectors can be confounding. On a given day, one of us (Laurent) might be playing mbira with students as he learns about the Central African roots of Afro-Atlantic musical cultures. The other (Deborah) might be hunched nervously at a workshop on trauma, an incognito humanist among psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists. We have learned, ruefully, that previous achievements, no matter how recent and innovative, cannot atone for a new day’s unmet commitments. But just as the laboratory format brings a new diversity of approaches to the study of Haiti, the study of Haiti is diversifying our university—building opportunities for the reciprocal interrogation and bonding that lies at the heart of what the humanities can contribute to democracy.

Laurent Dubois is a professor of Romance Studies and History and director of the Center for French and Francophone Studies.
Deborah Jenson is a professor of Romance Studies and incoming director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Both are codirectors of Duke University's Haiti Lab.


Previous Issues