Haiti on Its Own Terms

October 2016

Julia Gaffield, ed., The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context, and Legacy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016); 296 pages; ISBN 978-081393787 (paperback)

When in 1990 Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote of “the fiction of Haitian exceptionalism,” he described a Haiti that had been isolated, stigmatized, and situated outside of relation to other cultures, “erratic, and therefore unexplainable.”1 Now, in 2016—in scholarly circles, at least—Haiti has become not only explainable but the very instrument by which we explain any number of colossal phenomena: from the Atlantic World to the Age of Revolution to modernity itself. In what some scholars have labeled the “Haitian turn,” the first independent black state in the Western hemisphere seems to bloom from the prose of such unlikely suspects as G. W. F. Hegel, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emily Dickinson (to say nothing of a whole range of likelier suspects from Victor Hugo to Frederick Douglass). This surge of interest has been extremely valuable, energizing a number of fields both within and without Caribbean studies and questioning traditional disciplinary, period, and region-specific parameters. Recent critical interest in Haiti has dislocated traditional channels of influence, upended cultural hierarchies, and charted new literary genealogies.

And yet, as scholars fix their sights on the Caribbean, this celebratory turn recalls less commendable histories, some of which are disturbingly similar to the very narratives that have long worked to marginalize Haitian cultural production. We should be wary, for example, of simply using Haiti as a mirror to a US-specific political moment (Herman Melville memorably did so in “Benito Cereno,” of course, but that makes for better fiction than scholarship). Similarly, some critical interest in Haiti has risked reproducing Western-centric biases in which Caribbean literary production is only deemed interesting insofar as it can be absorbed into a canon of European intellectual thought. Worse yet, in a moment when every nonfrancophone, non-Kreyòl-reading scholar seems to have a “Caribbean chapter” in the works, one fears Haiti has become a conceptual site to be exploited, recolonized in the garb of a trend.

The Haitian Declaration of Independence: Creation, Context, and Legacy, edited by Julia Gaffield, not only is an extremely important contribution to Haitian studies but also serves as a corrective to some of these shallower critical currents. The contributions to this wonderful collection confirm the Revolution’s significance on a global stage and also reckon with Haiti on its own terms. Put another way, Creation, Context, and Legacy compellingly testifies to the vast amount of material work still to be done on Haiti’s early years. The essays in this volume not only make significant inroads into this work but also indicate useful directions and methods for further scholarly inquiry. As such, Gaffield’s collection both offers a fascinating aperture into reconfigurations of comparative studies and serves as an extremely helpful guidebook for scholars interested in the Haitian Revolution. 

Readers will likely recall Gaffield’s discovery of the original printed version of the document in February 2010 in the British National Archives in London. Only weeks after the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, Gaffield’s finding hit the media with particular force. Outlets from the New York Times to the Today Show trumpeted the discovery of Haiti’s “declaration of independence” (a term that, as Gaffield reminds us in her introduction, does not in fact appear in the document), offering to some a positive counterpoint to all too prevalent images of Haitian suffering, while to others a well-timed appeal to historical thinking, and to others, still, evidence of Haitian iniquity (for example, evangelical Christian Pat Robertson’s bizarre claim that Haiti had made a pact with the devil). In her preface and introduction, the latter coauthored with David Armitage, Gaffield deftly pivots from her personal narrative concerning the discovery to careful conceptual work that helps establish the volume’s critical underpinnings; particularly strong is her and Armitage’s discussion of the generic dimensions of independence acts.

Like the tripartite Haitian declaration, the collection is divided into three sections: the first treats the initial circulation of the document; the second, its international impact; and the third, its enduring legacies. David Geggus’s opening essay sets the volume’s conceptual and methodological tone, which aims not to synthesize comparative Atlantic revolutions into a seamless whole but rather to highlight the Haitian Revolution’s distinctiveness through engagements with material culture: specifically, the declaration itself. Geggus highlights crucial distinctions that rendered the document unique: some legal (it makes no mention of rights, nor does it immediately establish what is so often fêted as the “first black republic”), some identitarian (unlike the US revolutionaries, Haitians called for the elimination of their former colonizers), some temporal (the proclamation concluded rather than announced the revolutionary process). What follows are novel, sometimes even startling, perspectives. Malick W. Ghachem’s superb essay “Law, Atlantic Revolutionary Exceptionalism,” for example, reads the proclamation’s compromised language of liberty as an Agambian state of exception; in doing so, Ghachem critiques romantic models that integrate the Haitian Revolution into a US framework of abstracted liberty. Similarly, contributions by Gaffield and Philippe Gerard dilate the scale of the proclamation without effacing the very important differences engendered by the Revolution’s transnational movements.

Perhaps most exciting in the collection are the new research techniques it puts forth, many of which confront methodological challenges too often overlooked in Haitian studies—for example, the paucity of Kreyòl archival material, the emphasis on elite literary production, or the quandaries in working with collectively authored texts. Laurent Dubois brilliantly adumbrates a role for Kreyòl historical production through analysis of Vodou songs; Deborah Jenson employs cognitive theory to analyze the proclamation’s collective authorship; Erin Zavitz unearths oral histories to study commemorative revolutionary symbols; and Patrick Tardieu urges scholars to consult alternative sources, concluding his essay with a directive toward Spanish and Latin American archives.

A collaborative translation of the declaration is provided at the end of the collection, helpfully printed alongside the French original. Although to some extent each essay serves as a critical apparatus that appends this document, I found myself desiring something closer to what Kwame Anthony Appiah might call a “thick translation.” The different versions Gaffield so carefully describes in her introduction could be more strongly indicated in the reprinting of the proclamation. Similarly, although the translation is excellent, certain choices might merit glossing (for example, why the plural destins is rendered as the singular “destiny,” what the translators make of the shift from the plural vous to the singular tu form, and what the valences are of the document’s famous neologism lugubrer).

A final question implicitly raised by this volume is directed not at Haitian print culture but rather at our own, that is, How does one best diffuse and discuss archival findings? Six years passed between Gaffield’s discovery and Creation, Context, and Legacy, yet much of this scholarship was prefigured on various blogs, social media accounts, and even Twitter exchanges maintained by Gaffield and other scholars (Gaffield’s website is a useful supplement to the collection; see haitidoi.com). Though beyond the scope of the volume, Creation, Context, and Legacy should invite discussion about how scholars might organize collaborative platforms for research and what alternatives to traditional publishing might be established in a domain where so much work remains to be done.


Mary Grace Albanese is a PhD candidate in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in American Literature, ESQ, the Henry James ReviewCritical Inquiry, and the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin Biography.


1 Michel-Rolph Trouillot, “The Odd and the Ordinary: Haiti, the Caribbean, and the World,” Cimarrón 2, no. 3 (1990): 11, 3.