“The Need for Haitian Biographies in English: The Top Ten”
This is a great era for Haitian studies! The body of scholarship about Haiti and its national history continues to blossom in the Anglophone world, especially in North America (i.e. the United States). In contemporary Haitian studies, there are two major sub-areas that continue to dominate the contemporary academic discourse in the English language: studies on the Haitian Revolution and research on Haitian Vodou. Both areas are valuable as they contribute substantially to our understanding of the colonial system, slavery, the French empire, and the formation of the Haitian postcolonial state, as well as revolutionary Haiti’s contribution to modernity, universal emancipation, and human rights discourse. Second, correspondingly, contemporary studies on Haitian Vodou, what many American scholars simply call, the “Haitian Religion,” is also a significant sub-area that informs us in significant ways about the interesting link and intersection of faith, culture, identity, and politics in the Haitian experience and Haiti’s civil and political societies. The Vodou religion is also important to study because it helps us to establish linkages and parallels between Haiti and continental Africa, Haitians and their African ancestors, African traditional religion and other religious traditions such as ancient Egyptian religion, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, etc.
Nonetheless, there exists a profound gap in contemporary Haitian studies and Africana studies to produce more “intellectual biographies” in the English language on Haiti’s major writers and thinkers. For me, this is a pressing academic necessity because Haitian studies as a promising learning field is growing rapidly in the Anglophone world. Allow me to provide two examples relating to this important concern. In 2017, I had the pleasure to publish a detailed intellectual biography on the renowned Haitian Marxist and communist public intellectual Jacques Roumain. The biography, “Thinking in Public: Faith, Secular Humanism, and Development in Jacques Roumain” was published by Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Currently, I am working on an intellectual biography on Jean Price-Mars for Vanderbilt University Press. About two years ago, I had the immense joy to collaborate with a group of talented writers and thinkers contributing to the publication of a seminal book on Price-Mars entitled “Between Two Worlds: Jean Price-Mars, Haiti, and Africa” (Lexington Books, 2018; I served as the lead editor of the book). A year ago, two senior editors of two different prestigious universities presses approached me to submit a book proposal for an intellectual biography on the prominent Haitian thinker and anti-racist intellectual Joseph Antenor Firmin. A biography on Firmin in English would be a major intellectual achievement!
Further, I have to admit a personal weakness. I love reading intellectual biographies on great men and women who have left their marks on our lives and their rich legacies that continue to inspire and empower us—toward social transformation, the common good, and human flourishing. I also enjoy reading big books that are interdisciplinary in scope and content, and whose focus is on the subject of history of ideas.
Generally, biographies are important for various good reasons I am not even able to name here. In the same line of thought, biographies about Haiti’s major writers and intellectuals are crucial for the following five reasons I outline below:
- To help us understand the world that made those thinkers and the context that shaped their life, their actions, and their legacy in the world;
- To assist us in making sense about the complexity of human nature and human relations from the perspective of the so-called subalterns and the political trajectories of the developing nation-state of Haiti;
- To continue to enrich our intellectual growth and curiosity, as well as to nurture the life of the mind from different sources of knowledge production, and epistemological deconstruction and construction;
- To expand the field of Haitian studies and Africana studies, respectively, and to integrate and to be in conversation with other equally important sub-areas of study, which will contribute to the expansion of human knowledge and understanding; and
- To invite other role models and circles of influence, that have graced the former world, in our present life so we can learn from their experience, wisdom, and actions as to improve the present human condition—contributing to the common good and human flourishing.
It is from this perspective, I would like to recommend students of Haitian studies and Haitianists to consider researching and eventually writing (intellectual) biographies in the English language on the following major Haitian writers and thinkers; I limit my recommendations to ten writers who have lived through the twentieth-century:
- Joseph Auguste Anténor Firmin (1850 –1911)
- Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain (1898-1975)
- Madeleine Sylvain-Bouchereau (1905-1970)
- Félix-Morisseau-Leroy (1912-1988)
- Marie Vieux-Chauvet (1916-1973)
- Jacques-Stephen Alexis (1922-1961)
- René Depestre (1926-Present)
- Paulette Poujol-Oriol (1926 –2011)
- Georges Castera (1936 –2020)
- Franck Étienne “Frankétienne” (1936-Present)
*** Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1949-2012) needs to be among the top ten!
Happy research and writing!