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The Long Road to Truth: Haiti, Identity, and Knowledge in the Global Classroom
"C'est le lent chemin de Guinee / La mort t'y conduira" (Jacques Roumain)
"It's the long road to Guinea / death takes you down" (Translated by Langston Hughes)
Miami skyline (Photo courtesy of
The January 2010 earthquake in Haiti hit Barry University, where I teach, hard. Located in the heart of South Florida's Haitian community, Barry attracts Haitian and Haitian-American students, faculty, and staff. Those of us without blood ties still feel connected to the island, especially when we see those around us mourning. Many people on our campus experienced the tragedy personally.
I was not teaching when the quake occurred, having planned a research trip to the Haitian cultural capital of Jakmel during Carnival. Like the political capital, Port-au-Prince, Jakmel was devastated. There was no Carnival this year. My knowledge of Haitian poetry, music, and dance would be of little help in the immediate aftermath, so I postponed my trip. Feeling helpless and distant, I decided to redesign my upcoming course in Caribbean literature to reflect the reality of life on the island, drawing on Haiti's complexity as a place, as an idea, and as a source of personal identity.
Here and There
Haiti has always loomed large in the Caribbean imagination, and not just among Haitians. As the site of the world's first successful slave rebellion and the first black republic, Haiti boasts a heroic past that inspires oppressed people everywhere. Many Caribbean authors, including novelist Alejo Carpentier and playwright Derek Walcott, have dedicated works to the former French colony. Poet Langston Hughes translated Haitian poetry as part of the Harlem Renaissance movement's embrace of African diasporic culture. It would be possible to teach an entire course on the way Haiti has been represented by artists across the Caribbean and around the world.
Haiti has loomed large in the U.S. imagination as well, most notably in enduring myths surrounding the religious practice vodoun, popularly and distortedly known as "voodoo." But it also appears in the works of choreographer Katherine Dunham and writer Zora Neale Hurston, and more recently in the songs of rapper Wyclef Jean. In the earthquake's aftermath, media coverage is shaping new and often contradictory images of Haiti: Haiti is a tragic place, disorganized and dangerous; Haiti is a land where people endure, where people never stop singing.
Haiti is "over there," yet it has always also been over here. In calling for aid after the earthquake, the Haitian president reminded the U.S. government of the role the soldiers of Saint-Domingue played in the American Revolution. In between those two events, U.S. Marines have occupied the country, and several U.S. administrations have played a role in installing and removing Haitian leaders. Given this relationship, teaching about Haiti requires exploring global connections that collapse the notion of a distinct "here" and "there." This is especially true at Barry, where some students or their families hail from the country, others have more cursory connections, and many have no knowledge of Haiti beyond what they've seen on CNN.
Challenging Enlightenment Thought
It is not difficult to see how personal identity shapes our emotions. Yet it is often more difficult to see how personal identity shapes what we know and how we know it. It is one of the most enduring tenets of the Enlightenment that knowledge is universal and independent of the knower. Yet Haitian history stands as irrefutable evidence of the limits of Enlightenment thought.
Over the past five years, I have had the pleasure of teaching a graduate course on the Enlightenment. Almost serendipitously, I included The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution by Trinidadian historian C. L. R. James (1963) along with the usual writings by Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and Immanuel Kant. Writing in the 1930s, James was not, strictly speaking, an Enlightenment thinker, but L'Ouverture was. The Haitian Revolution would not have happened, at least not in the same way, without L'Ouverture's beliefs in liberté,egalité, and fraternité.
The first time I taught the course, we read The Black Jacobins last because the revolution culminated in 1803, at the end of the Enlightenment. But at the end of the semester, my students suggested that I move the book to the beginning next time, because the history of Saint-Domingue demands reassessment of nearly every Enlightenment tenet. Indeed, scholars have argued that as the greatest producer of wealth in the Caribbean at a time when the region fed the coffers of the great European powers, Haiti made the Enlightenment possible. Yet the slave system that created that wealth is often treated as ancillary, if at all, in discussions of the Enlightenment. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of James's history is the intensity of L'Ouverture's belief in Enlightenment values, even as he and his nation were violently excluded from them.
Identity's Role in Knowledge
As my graduate students discovered, the experiences of one man and one tiny nation raise questions about an entire epistemology. The same holds true, albeit in less dramatic form, for the experiences and identities of every one of our students, whatever the subject under study. This was clear the first time I taught Haitian poet and ethnologist Jacques Roumain's "Guinee" (2003), translated as "Guinea" by Langston Hughes (2003), to a split section of Caribbean literature. Half the class met at Barry's main campus in Miami Shores, while the other half met at a satellite campus in Orlando. Most, though not all, of the students recognized Guinea as a country in West Africa. The Orlando group, which included no Haitian students, thus read the poem as a meditation on African diasporic identity. In Miami Shores, where nearly half the class was Haitian, many students read the poem's description of Guinea as representing not a geographical place, but a sacred space in the vodoun belief system: Ginen, the ancestral homeland to which the vodoun faithful return after death.
Because I teach Caribbean, U.S. Latino, and global literatures and cultures, students who share the culture we are studying will often have privileged access to important information. "It's not fair," an Anglo-American student complained to me once after his Chicano classmates correctly defined the word "pocho" (pejorative slang for an assimilated Mexican American). "They know the answers just because of who they are." Lucky for him, I teased, the rest of his classes at the university would likely be based on who he is. Yet this young man did not need to be Chicano to understand the term "pocho"; he learned it in school. In the same way, every student, from any background, learns the basics of Enlightenment thought--in practice, if not in name--from the first day of their formal education.
The Power of Partial Truths
Identity is in part a shorthand for the informal education we all receive from the moment we are born: what our parents tell us, what we hear at family gatherings, what we sing or pray in church (if we attend church at all). It is this informal education, in fact, that gives us our sense of identity, as our families and communities teach us that we are Haitian, we are Chicano, and/or we are American. Whenever students assert their identities in the classroom, they are testing that informal education against the formal education, which for the most part remains steeped in the belief that knowledge is impersonal.
To embrace diversity in education means more than simply accepting students of diverse cultural backgrounds into the institution. The death of universal knowledge takes us down the long road, if not to Ginen, then to the realm of partial truths. Here, each of us supplies the rest with what we have been privileged to learn through accidents of birth and life experience. In a world where so much cannot be known or controlled, sharing our partial truths--and helping students learn to share theirs as well--turns out to be our best chance for survival.
Hughes, L. 2003. The translations: Federico Garcia Lorca, Nicolas Guillen, and Jacques Roumain. Vol. 16 of The collected works of Langston Hughes, ed. D. Martin-Ogunsola. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press.
James, C. L. R. 1963. The black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo revolution. New York: Random House.
Roumain, J. 2003. Oeuvres completes, ed. L. Hoffmann. Paris: Archivos Collection.