The worldview animating Haitian masses today is leading to a social context ungovernable within the framework of prevailing economic neo-liberalism.
“Haitians denounced the very concepts used by the metropolitan countries to see and organize the world.“
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Jean Casimir. Casimir, who served as Haitian ambassador to the United States and as a United Nations official, is professor of humanities at the University of Haiti. His book is The Haitians: A Decolonial History.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Jean Casimir: The reader will witness the evolution of two contradictory processes:
- 1. An inward oriented process, whereby the nation has been trying to protect itself against external aggression in the framework of its communal and private lives grounded in its central cultural value “tout moun se moun” [meaning every person deserves the same respect and treatment]. This sentiment of communal sovereignty generated a counter-plantation system, through relations of solidarity and reciprocity. It evolved freely from 1791, date of the Bois Caïman general insurrection in the Northern Plain, and bloomed during the 19th century, resulting in fivefold increase of the population, aided by no immigration worth mentioning. Before or after independence, the state had no say in the invention of this revolutionary set of social relations.
- 2. An outward oriented process implemented by the 1915 US Occupation, whereby this metropolitan country has been adamant on the necessity to return to the defeated 18th century extraversion of Saint-Domingue. To implement its policy, the US invented a new army and imported a comprador bourgeoisie that ended up marginalizing local oligarchies, tainted by some of the 19th century nationalism and then integrating them.
The book does not cover the 20th century. It will help the reader to understand how the failure of this outdated colonial policy resulted in accelerated impoverishment and unmanageable outmigration. The reader will perceive how ensuing reinforcement of relations of solidarity and reciprocity based on the “tout moun se moun”, has evolved until achieving a hegemonic role in the media for the local language from the 1980s onwards. The worldview animating Haitian masses today is leading to a social context ungovernable within the framework of prevailing economic neo-liberalism.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
The book was written with the students at Haiti’s State University in mind. Some of them are using its ideas for their political activities and even in their musical compositions and their poetry.
Local history is key to understanding our societies. Therefore, with respect to activists and community organizers among the BAR readers, I only hope that they listen to the history of the Haitians and appreciate the struggle we have been through. Haitians have protected themselves to the best of their ability. Their goal has been to enjoy life, not to wait for some final victory. They have known how to manage the power and the might they marshaled.
These people never expected anything from the imperial power structure. They were fortunate to engineer their own language and never use the colonial discourse, with its treacherous concepts, to devise a way out of their quandaries. They discovered early in their history that the instruments of thinking and strategizing bequeathed by modernity was fraught with traps. They denounced the very concepts used by the metropolitan countries to see and organize the world.
“Haitians were fortunate to engineer their own language and never use the colonial discourse, with its treacherous concepts, to devise a way out of their quandaries.”
Our communities of survivors hold the last criteria of truth and valid knowledge. Let us listen and speak to them. What they do not understand or trust, is probably inadequate for their circumstances. Knowledge elaborated by our elders changed the world; our progress did not come from a supposedly universal science.
This book will not teach Haitian activists anything they do not already know. But it can help those in other places better understand the struggle of the Haitians. The road our elders followed to overcome our difficulties was unique and specific. Let us listen to neighboring communities and respect their choices, while building a common front of liberty and equality.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
We are mourning an untold number of elders, humiliated, tortured and killed while France was piling up profit from its star colony. This immense pain accompanies the celebration of the courage and gallantry of these elders defying this inexplicable and outrageous savagery. Their intractable decision to live free or to die pushed the metropolitan country to plan their total extermination.
Indeed, France’s savagery under the Ancien Régime, Napoleon Bonaparte and its subsequent governments during the 19th c. must be unmasked and the Westerners must be taught some modesty. But above all, we should pride ourselves to cultivate among our people reverence for the humblest of our elders and to codify the set of values that sustain their indefatigable struggle against injustice.
Let us cherish what they achieved without spilling the blood of their neighbors. The right of conquest as a source for the privileges of the strongest and their descendants have expelled ethics and morality from the organization of modern society. They will not be reinstated by hiding an initial pestilence under a deluge of self-praise.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
- Pompée Valentin de Vastey, the first Haitian historian, whose masterpiece “Le système colonial dévoilé” (The Colonial System Unmasked) I discovered rather recently, established that you cannot understand Haitians if you do not start with Africans.
- Angel Quintero Rivera of Porto Rico who taught me how to look at the margin of the empire to find the seed of change and the commonalities binding the oppressed of the Caribbean.
- Walter Mignolo and his publications on decoloniality who systematized and carried further my challenges to the dependency theory. Together with Mignolo, the team of the decolonial summer school, convened originally at the University College Roosevelt, University of Utrecht in Middleburg, the Netherlands.
- Michel Hector and his encyclopaedical knowledge of Haitian History, and Laurent Dubois. Works of Dubois and Hector are skillful exercises in local history, paralleling the path opened by Carolyn Fick. Moreover, Dubois and Hector supported me on the importance of our local language as archive of the historical path followed by Haitians.
- My sense of the role played by language to apprehend our past is indebted to Deborah Jenson and her colleagues in the field of literary critique. The discourse of the oppressed is crafted in a specific context where the basic notions of their mother tongue checkmated propositions made by the imperial discourse.
- These influences help me to profit more fully of the teachings of my key mentors: Pablo Gonzalez Casanova and Guillermo Bonfil Batalla of University of Mexico (UNAM).
- Finally, my Haitian mentors: among others, my father, my mother, my cousin Rodrigue, my godfather, my philosophy teacher and my whole lakou who infused in me what I would never find at the upside-down school system of Haiti: my indefatigable pride and nationalism.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
As we share the nonnegotiable value of Haitian culture, i.e. tout moun se moun, (human beings deserve the same respect and dignity) we task ourselves with finding the logic of the oppressed nations, no matter how fragile and vulnerable they may be presently. We become fascinated with the discovery of their sophisticated responses to the destruction unleashed by modern empires.
We invite ourselves then to survey the diversity of our different local histories, to appreciate the solutions carved by the victims of oppression and to listen to the voices Europe tried stubbornly to silence. European history loses its supposed universality and appears naked in its arrogance and barbarity unless it starts acknowledging the irreplaceable contributions of the wretched of the earth.
If we can discover and codify the universe of our elders that modern, capitalist, and racist Europe have been trying to erase at all cost; the universe they built while resisting enslavement and all forms of destitution; the universe of beauty and care that surrounds us and gives us life; if we can appreciate how they have been overcoming oppression; if we can share their joie de vivre and realize that we are the evidence of their victory; then we equip ourselves to listen to all the voices of humanity. With these communal forces, we will defeat the destructive influences of neoliberalism and we can rejoice while creating a world where other worlds are possible.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.
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