Before Silencing the Past: Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Stirring the Pot of Haitian History

By Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

Review of: Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Stirring the Pot of Haitian History [Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti, 1977]. Trans. and edited by Mariana Past and Benjamin Hebblethwaite. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2021. 229 pp.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s 1995 book, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, has been having a moment. Already one of the most important books of the last thirty years in the humanities and social sciences, Silencing has become more ever-present on syllabi and in bibliographies in the last half-decade. While the idea that history is written by the victors is a truism, Trouillot (1949 – 2012) deepened scholars’ understanding of how history-writing is connected to power and how archives can distort what we know about history. Trouillot pushed scholars to consider how archival absences, particularly of the voices of oppressed peoples, can lead historians toward disfigured views of the past, creating stark differences between what he called historicity #1 (what happened) and historicity #2 (what we say about what happened).[1]

Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Brooklyn, c. 1980 (family photo courtesy of Évelyne Trouillot).

Silencing the Past was not, however, Trouillot’s first book. Long before he wrote it and other classics of anthropology and history such as Haiti, State Against Nation and “The Odd and the Ordinary: Haiti, the Caribbean, and the World,”[2] Trouillot penned his first book in Haitian Creole (Kreyòl). Written and published in Brooklyn, New York (Kolèksion Lakansièl, 1977) while in exile from the Duvalier dictatorship, Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti grew out of an article Trouillot published pseudonymously in the journal Lakansièl (Rainbow). Edited by a circle of Haitian emigres including Trouillot and his writer siblings Évelyne (b. 1954) and Lyonel Antoine (b. 1956), Lakansièl served as an outlet for their anti-Duvalier activism.[3] Michel-Rolph, Évelyne and Lyonel came from an eminent family of Haitian intellectuals; their father Ernst (1922 – 1987) and uncle Hénock (1923 – 1988) were towering figures in Haitian historiography.[4] Generations of Haitian intellectuals (including the elder Trouillots) had written history and literature in French. That language (a vestige of Haiti’s former colonizer) is spoken fluently only by 10% of Haitians, compared to Kreyòl being spoken by all Haitians; however, Haitian intellectuals have historically viewed French both as more academic and more accessible to international audiences. In opting to write Ti difé boulé in Kreyòl, Michel-Rolph Trouillot broke with tradition to make his history accessible to a broader Haitian public, including students.[5]

After Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti appeared in 1977, it became an underground classic. The Trouillots self-published the book; as Lyonel recalls, “Rolph” wrote it while Lyonel and Évelyne typeset it. They printed 1000 copies, which Lyonel reports “quickly disappeared,” just through “word on the street” in Brooklyn and other Haitian diaspora centers like Montreal and Paris.[6] Some copies circulated surreptitiously in Haiti (even as the book’s anti-Duvalier message could have subjected readers to jail or worse). Lyonel recalls how the book “drew the attention of some high school teachers who used it [in Haiti], at their own risk, as a reference book or as a textbook.” After Baby Doc (Jean-Claude Duvalier)’s fall in 1986, Lyonel recalls, “Ti difé boulé finally became a reference that could be openly named. Handmade versions and photocopies abounded. And Rolph had become Monsieur Ti difé boulé.[7] The book became more readily available after Michel-Rolph’s untimely death in 2012, when his sister Jocelyne Trouillot-Lévy (b. 1948) published it with modernized Kreyòl spelling as Ti dife boule sou istwa Ayiti, at Edisyon Inivèsite Karayib/Éditions de l’Université Caraïbe, the press of the Port-au-Prince university she founded. And in 2021, after a decade of painstaking work, two Haitian Creolists, Mariana Past and Benjamin Hebblethwaite, published an English translation, under the name Stirring the Pot of Haitian History (a title, they explain, that Évelyne Trouillot suggested).

In addition to a translation of Ti difé boulé, Stirring the Pot of Haitian History includes auxiliary materials contextualizing this work. These include a French-language preface by Lyonel, an English translation of his preface, a lengthy Translators’ Note, an Afterword by the eminent Kreyòl literature scholar Jean Jonassaint and facsimiles of Ti difé boulé’s early version in Lakansièl. Given the volume’s richness, my goal is to introduce readers to it rather than summarize it exhaustively. Overall, the volume represents a landmark publication, the first time Trouillot’s first book is accessible to Anglophones.

Lyonel Trouillot’s preface is extremely valuable for those new to this text, as well as for those wishing more context on its publication. Trouillot explains that his brother (who wrote Ti difé boulé before pursuing his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins) did not identify primarily as a scholar: “The worst thing one could say about Michel Rolph Trouillot, believing it was a compliment, is that he was a brilliant academic” (xvii). If Michel-Rolph had a passion for anthropology, Lyonel adds, his primary passion was for an activism based on understanding reality and then transforming it. In Lyonel’s view, Rolph developed a “critical view on History and discourses on History in order to oppose them with a counter-discourse, … a subversive knowledge” (xvii), or a kind of “Trickster” historiography (xxiii). Lyonel also states that his brother “had reached the conclusion that Jean-Claudism [referring to Baby Doc] harbored something specific… in Haiti’s history that was urgent to analyze so that people could more effectively take action” (xvii).

Following Lyonel’s preface, the translators explain Ti difé boulé’s significancein its time and ours. They chart their collaboration and how the book fits into their research interests.[8] They state that they sought to produce a “readable and clear English version” (xxvii), in service of Gina Ulysse’s call for “new narratives” about Haiti.[9] Overall, Past and Hebblethwaite argue, “Trouillot encourages Haitians to recognize and embrace the fundamental forces that surged to establish Haitian independence and identity: the farmers’ ownership of the land and its cultivation, the national unity guaranteed by the Haitian Creole language, and respect for Haiti’s liberating religion of Vodou” (xxxi). They maintain that Trouillot’s text remains even more relevant today, “in an earthquake- and hurricane-afflicted Haiti in which NGOs from abroad, periodic military interventions by the United States… and the United Nations’ blue helmets have exerted an insidious foreign influence” (xxxi).

These explanations by Lyonel Trouillot and the translators help us understand several things about Ti difé boulé (Stirring the Pot). First, its form (which resembles Caribbean literature more than academic historiography) grew from Michel-Rolph’s hopes of making the text engaging for a wide Haitian audience. Second, the book rejects an academic condescension that sees “presentism” as inferior to works that divorce past from present. Trouillot was keen to connect the two, to trace the genealogy of Duvalierism back to the Haitian Revolution (something he would develop later in Haiti: State Against Nation). Indeed, this results in one major difference between Stirring the Pot and recent North American historiography on the Revolution; where recent foreign scholarship on the Haitian Revolution has tended to celebrate the revolutionaries, Trouillot focused more on unravelling historic injustices, demythologizing Haiti’s founders so as to help Haitians better understand their country’s present.[10] Stirring the Pot thus moves between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries on the one hand, and the 1970s on the other, to encourage Haitians to rise up and reclaim their country from the Duvaliers. Finally, building on Carolle Charles, I would argue that the book shows traces of the multiple intellectual influences on Trouillot in the early 1970s; as Charles has written, she and “Rolph” (who knew each other as teens in Haiti and left for the US within a year of each other) formed a youth group together in New York that drew inspiration from both Haitian Marxists and the Black Panthers.[11]

Trouillot wrote Ti difé boulé in an earthy and lively Kreyòl, which the translators do a fine job of rendering. Chapter 1 begins with an epigraph “The habits of past generations are like iron weights on the minds of people today,” then a verse:

            I’m holding a gathering

a gathering

            to understand what’s happened

            to my brothers and sisters

            oh yes! (4)

Trouillot then shares a story, as a woman named Lamèsi brings a storyteller named Grinn Prominnin to her community, to recount Haitian history around the fire in the evening. Grinn Prominnin talks about having traveled back into “the realm of the past” (6), and recounts what he learned: “if we truly want to shed light on our condition, we must turn and look behind us … We must confront all the crises the family’s been through …. I’ve come from the realm of the past to tell you what went down” (7). With Grinn Prominnin as his mouthpiece, Trouillot tells his audience about the weight of history [bolding his]:

For us to finally understand the malady we suffer from, we must understand the malady we’ve inherited…. We alone are responsible for tomorrow, but yesterday’s chasing our tails….

Between 1789 and 1820, Haiti was gripped by a crisis that cut to the marrow. And it was during that crisis, … that the framework was built for the society we inherited….

Between 1789 and 1820, the Haitian people carried out the one and only slave revolution in human memory. But during those same years, a native-born class pulled a fast one on the people, and it took over the revolution. And if we want to fully understand the malady that we suffer from today, we must retrace the path of that crisis (8)

In Chapter 2, Trouillot/Grinn Prominnin look back to the seventeenth century, to understand the realities of French colonial Haiti. Trouillot critiques the brutality of French colonists and introduces readers to the Kòd Noua (Code Noir); he highlights differences between “the costume of justice” (10) and stark reality. Trouillot notes that the Kòd Noua extended legal protections on paper to enslaved people – but really served “to preserve the slaves’ physical strength, so the society could continue in the same way” (14). He also explains that the Kòd Noua used religion to camouflage injustice: “The articles in the Kòd Noua about religion were sweet, flowery-smelling pieces of crap, policemen’s tricks…. They were there to help uphold slavery with the blessing of the church” (17).

In Chapter 3, Trouillot turns toward the legacy of the French’s dividing people based on skin color. His analysis combines sociology, anthropology, and Marxian historiography, as he considers the relative weight of color and class and offers a typology of the different classes in colonial Haiti. Trouillot traces how the growth of big sugar plantations (the “sugarcane revolution”) produced conflict between different groups of enslaved and free people of color. He analyzes how some were elevated above others, which would put them in position to both lead and control the Haitian Revolution:

[A] class with more political awareness stands a good chance of taking charge of a revolution. But… it’s also likely to take advantage of others. At the end of the game, it also stands a good chance of running away with the ball in order to form its own team… That’s what happened in Saint-Domingue. Under Toussaint’s government, a group of former domestic slaves and urban slaves, combined with some people from other classes (artisans, plantation owners), started seizing power. The seizure of power lasted throughout the war for independence. The jackpot was won on the people’s backs. (31)

Chapter 4 looks further at how French colonists created the racism that Haitians would internalize. “To further expand their power,” he explains, “the colonists coated Saint-Domingue with a final dose of arsenic, a dose so strong that it’s still in our blood today: the color problem. They made all whites believe they were better than everyone else, they made mulattos[12] believe they were better than black people, and they made black people believe they were the most ‘inferior.’” (43) Trouillot examines how free people of color allied with whites against enslaved people at the Revolution’s start, and he considers what freedom meant for most enslaved people, versus for the Revolution’s more privileged leaders.  

Chapters 5 and 6 look at the role of the French civil commissioners Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel in Haiti, and the eventual rise of Toussaint Louverture. Trouillot argues that Louverture was the only one who promised enslaved people that he was seeking “freedom and equality throughout Saint-Domingue” (79). Trouillot also examines Toussaint’s political maneuvering in ousting Sonthonax and assuming power, as well as Toussaint’s conflict with André Rigaud, the light-skinned leader of those from the South who had been free before the Revolution.[13] Toussaint’s battle with Rigaud (“Blacks” v. “mulattos”) left important scars on Haitian history, according to Trouillot; it cemented hatred for those with different skin shades, something that would endure under Duvalier’s noiriste policies:

Rigaud was a racist opportunist. But when Toussaint answered him tit for tat… the people saw the war through the lens of color…. Before the War of the South, mulattos and blacks could ally against the French on certain issues when their interests coincided…. [But] by answering Rigaud tit for tat, Toussaint Louverture let a poison take root in people’s minds…. (108)

And so his demagoguery allowed the poison that Vincent Ogé and André Rigaud got from their [white] fathers to course through our blood for six generations. We’ve been dragging around an unsolvable problem that’s left us badly unbalanced. (109)

The seventh chapter turns to the late 1790s and then the war of independence, 1802-1804. Trouillot seeks to understand how Louverture started to lose popularity among the Haitian masses even before the French captured him. Trouillot discusses contemporary debates about whether emancipated Haitians should grow food crops (for them to eat) or commodity crops (to be sold to support the state). “In reality, food plots were what interested the masses of Saint-Domingue. But Louverture’s government did not hold that position…: it favored commodity crops 100 percent” (132). As Louverture’s policies tied people to the land to grow commodity crops, the masses saw the freedom for which they had battled in the Revolution evaporate. Trouillot explains how Louverture used family rhetoric to argue that Haitians needed to work for the good of the state, but that “family ideology is an extremely useful disguise for classes or groups in power” (156). Hinting at Duvalier’s manipulation of religion to control people, Trouillot describes Louverture’s instrumentalization of both Catholicism and Vodou in service of his regime, and the growing resistance to his rule by the Haitian grassroots.

In contrast to foreign scholars who have written of Louverture critically, Trouillot clarifies that he does not wish to attack Toussaint himself. He adds that he means not to denigrate Louverture or other Haitian revolutionaries, but “to identify the illness that’s passed through the family” and “where that illness came from” (169). While respecting the achievement of Louverture and others in winning independence for Haiti, Trouillot tells his readers that it is more urgent to focus on past mistakes: “your eyes must be well scrubbed so you can recognize the illness each time it appears” – that is, when a Haitian leader seeks to divide Haitians racially, or calls them to serve the state in a way harmful to their own interests (170).

This short summary cannot do justice to Trouillot’s rich and nuanced analysis of the Haitian Revolution and its legacy, though I hope it will entice others to read it. Now that Ti difé boulé has an English translation, more readers can access this deeply Haitian perspective on the Revolution and on revolutions in general. Thanks to Past and Hebblethwaite, Stirring the Pot offers a fresh opportunity to understand Haitian history through the lens of one of the most brilliant theorists of our time. 


Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall is Professor of History at California State University – San Marcos and a specialist in Haitian and French history. In addition to her newest book Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film and Video Games (UP Mississippi, 2021), she is the author of The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism (UC Press, paperback 2021), and Haitian History: New Perspectives (Routledge, 2012).

Title Image: Image of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, courtesy of John Hopkins Press.

Endnotes:

[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past (Boston: Beacon, 1995).For a fuller analysis of Silencing’s reception, see Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, “Still Unthinkable? The Haitian Revolution and the Reception of Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past,” Journal of Haitian Studies 19, no. 2 (2013): 75 – 103.

[2] Trouillot, Haiti, State Against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1989); Trouillot, “The Odd and the Ordinary: Haiti, the Caribbean, and the World,” Cimarron 2, no. 3 (1990): 3 – 12.

[3] For more on the Trouillots and their associates in these years, and how Ti difé boulé fits into Trouillot’s larger oeuvre, see Trouillot Remixed: The Michel-Rolph Trouillot Reader, eds. Yarimar Bonilla, Greg Beckett and Mayanthi Fernando (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2021), including Laura Wagner’s translation of a Kreyòl-language interview with Trouillot about Ti difé boulé. Évelyne and Lyonel are now two of Haiti’s most celebrated novelists and intellectuals. Évelyne’s novels The Infamous Rosalie(Nebraska UP, 2013) and Memory at Bay (UVa Press, 2015) have been translated into English; her 2020 book Desirée Congo, about an enslaved woman in colonial Haiti, awaits translation. For an introduction to Évelyne Trouillot’s works, see Sepinwall, “If This is a Woman: Evelyne Trouillot’s The Infamous Rosalie and the Lost Stories of New World Slavery,” Fiction and Film for Scholars of France 5, no. 4 (2015); and Régine Jean-Charles, “The Affect and Aesthetics of Fear in Evelyne Trouillot’s Novels,” Palimpsest 8, no. 1 (2019): 15-21. There is also a sizable literature on Lyonel’s novels by scholars such as Marie-José N’Zengou-Tayo, Nadève Ménard, Martin Munro, and Jason Herbeck; Anglophone readers might start with the translations of his Street of Lost Footsteps (Nebraska UP, 2003), or Kannjawou: A Novel of Haiti (Schaffner, 2019).

[4] See for instance Ernst Trouillot, Prospections d’histoire; choses de Saint-Domingue et d’Haïti (Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie de l’État, 1961); and Catts Pressoir, Ernst Trouillot, and Hénock Trouillot, Historiographie d’Haïti (Mexico: Instituto Panamericano de Geografía e Historia, 1953). Michel-Rolph cited works by both Hénock and Ernst in Ti difé boulé’s bibliography.

[5] On this point, see also Nathalie Pierre, “Ti Dife Boule sou Istwa Ayiti as Haitian Civic Education,” Cultural Dynamics 26, no. 2 (2014): 211; and Mariana Past and Benjamin Hebblethwaite, “Ti dife boule sou istoua Ayiti: Considering the Stakes of Trouillot’s Earliest Work,” Cultural Dynamics 26, no. 2 (2014), 153-54. On the relative statuses of Kreyòl and French, see Michel DeGraff, “Kreyòl Ayisyen, or Haitian Creole (Creole French),” in John A. Holm and Peter L Patrick, eds., Comparative Creole Syntax: Parallel outlines of 18 Creole Grammars ([London]: Battlebridge, 2007), 101-126; DeGraff, “Language Barrier,” Boston Globe, June 16, 2010; and Hebblethwaite, “Haiti’s Foreign Language Stranglehold,” Foreign Policy, Aug. 3, 2021.

[6] The 1977 edition (inside back cover, Stanford University Libraries copy) indicates that the book was sold in bookstores in Brooklyn, Queens, Montreal, and Paris. There are few traces left of the copies sold in Paris; the BNF does not own the book, and the Catalogue collectif de France lists only one copy, at the Institut des Hautes Études de l’Amérique latine at Paris-3 (donated to the library by anthropologist Gérard Barthélemy). Two copies of the 1977 edition remain in Montreal at CIDIHCA. Only a few US libraries hold copies, including York College-CUNY, the Schomburg Center (NYPL), Johns Hopkins and Stanford.

[7] L. Trouillot, “Preface,” to Stirring the Pot, translated by Past and Hebblethwaite as “English Translation of the Preface,” xxi – xxii [though the Preface is also included in Lyonel’s original French, I am using the translators’ English version, xxii]. Lyonel Trouillot provided additional details on the making of the 1977 edition in the “Entwodiksyon” (Introduction) to the 2012 Inivèsite Karayib edition, 4-5.

[8] Hebblethwaite is a noted specialist in Haitian language and culture; see his Vodou Songs in Haitian Creole and English (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2011); and A Transatlantic History of Haitian Vodou (UP Mississippi, 2021). Past specializes in Caribbean literature written in Kreyòl, French and Spanish; her works include Toussaint Louverture: Repensar un icono (coedited with Nathalie Léger, trans. by David González and Jorge Luis Hernández; Santiago de Cuba: Editorial del Caribe, 2015), numerous articles on Haitian literature (including Ti difé boulé), and a brilliant unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, “Reclaiming the Haitian Revolution: Race, Politics and History in Twentieth-Century Caribbean Literature,” Duke Univ., 2006.

[9] Gina Athena Ulysse, Why Haiti Needs New Narratives: A Post-Quake Chronicle (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2015).

[10]Trouillot charted differences between foreign and Haitian scholars in Silencing the Past, 95 – 107. As I note in Haitian History: New Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2012), 19, much foreign scholarship since Silencing appeared has celebrated the Revolution (see for instance, the works of Nick Nesbitt and Marlene Daut). Still, even as he was critical of the revolutionaries, Trouillot differed from foreign scholars who have treated them unheroically (see for instance descriptions of the revolutionaries as “barefoot rebel slaves” and “barefoot freemen” in Philippe Girard, The Slaves who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801-1804 [Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press, 2011], 8, 345). Trouillot criticized in Stirring depictions by white scholars that make Haitian revolutionaries seem backwards and primitive: “Some of Haiti’s revolutionary generals had received a French education. This detail challenges the notion that the Haitian Revolution was won exclusively by masses who were enslaved and uneducated – a discourse that… reinforces reductive perspectives about Haitians in general” (125n68). For more on different schools of writing about Haitian history, see also Celucien Joseph, “‘The Haitian Turn’: An Appraisal of Recent Literary and Historiographical Works on the Haitian Revolution,” Journal of Pan African Studies, 5, no. 6 (2012): 37-55.

[11] See Carolle Charles’ fascinating article “New York 1967–71, Prelude to Ti difé boulé: An Encounter with Liberation Theology, Marxism, and the Black National Liberation Movement,” Journal of Haitian Studies 19, no. 2 (2013), 152-59, which also discusses the diverse political ideologies in Haitian New York of the late 1970s. On Trouillot’s other political and musical involvements in the 1970s, see his brother-in-law Guy-Gérald Ménard, “Tanbou Libète: Yon Eksperyans kiltirèl patriyotik,” Journal of Haitian Studies 19, no. 2 (2013), 160-64.

[12] The translators acknowledge the negative connotation of the category “mulattos” (building on Marlene Daut’s critiques of the term), but explain that they wanted to retain Trouillot’s “original discursive content” (xxix) in their translation.

[13] Trouillot often follows the historiographical tradition of using Toussaint Louverture’s first name, just as scholars frequently refer to Napoleon Bonaparte using his first name. In Stirring the Pot as in Silencing the Past, Trouillot sometimes refers to Louverture using his last name and other times using his first or full names.

One thought on “Before Silencing the Past: Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Stirring the Pot of Haitian History

  1. This is impressive and it’d made Michel feel good. I was a colleague of his brother Lionel Trouillot, and uncle Enock Sr. at a Haitian newspaper in the 80s.
    Enoch Sr. was a mentor to me.
    How would Michel react to the recent NY Times articles on Haiti’s inherited economic stagnation?

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s