Volume 2, Dossier 3: Thinking Haiti, Thinking Jean Casimir

The present dossier (third in the series “On Decoloniality”) is devoted to a truly de-colonial thinker, Jean Casimir, Haitian scholar and intellectual and former Ambassador of Haiti in Washington.

In 1981 Jean Casimir published a land-mark book La cultura oprimida. The book was published in México and was based on his doctoral dissertation. The French translation (La culture opprimée) appeared in 2001. Although Jean Casimir was well known among the Spanish and Luso intellectuals of the time (he studied sociology in Mexico under the guidance of Pablo González Casanova and was involved in the debates on dependency theory that included Brazilian intellectuals), time has left this book out of current discussion in Latin American circles, in spite of the fact that the book was originally published in Spanish. Perhaps because Spanish American and Brazilian intellectuals (and I include myself in my intellectual beginnings) of the time did not pay attention to Haiti (although we were very attentive to French authors and books); perhaps because Casimir’s book deals with the legacy of slavery, in a context in which colonial issues–at the time–were restricted to Spaniards, white Creoles and Indians but did not include slavery and people from African descent. Perhaps because in continental South America the winds of post-structuralism and modernization cast as traditional issues of decolonization (the work of Frantz Fanon began to be pushed aside in the seventies) and of la culture de l’opprimé. For reasons that can be summarized as coloniality of knowledge, the book unjustly fell in desuetude.

Rereading it a quarter of a century later, the argument has gained in force. In this dossier, Jean Casimir wrote a short introduction to a selection of articles published in recent years. We include also an early essay of 1984 (“Cultura oprimida y creación intellectual”), that shows the continuity of his thoughts.

Jean Casimir writes mainly in French and in Haitian Creole. Among his books we can mention La Caraíbe, une et divisible, co-edited by CEPAl-Caraíbe-Nations Unies and Editions Henri Deschamps, 1991 and was translated into Spanish as La invención del Caribe. In 2000, he published Ayiti Toma. Haití chérie, in French and Haitian Creole. And in 2004 he also published another land-mark book, in French and Haitian Creole, Pa bliye 1804/Souviens-Toi de 1804, published with the sponsorship of Fondation Connaissance et Liberté (Fokal). The Spanish translation, Haití, acuérdate de 1804. was published in México (Siglo XXI), in 2007.

The dossier is introduced by renowned historian, Laurent Dubois, author of A Colony of Citizens. Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804 (Chapel Hill and London: UNC, 2004) and Avengers of the New World (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005).

The project of Jean Casimir is to think Haiti, and to think with and through Haiti about the categories that simultaneously produce its difficulties and limit our comprehension of them. Through his many books, most famously his vital La cultura oprimida (published in Mexico in 1980 and in Haiti as La culture opprimée in 2001), he has produced writings that bring together sociological analysis, historical narrative and interpretation, and theoretical intervention, driven by political urgency and the urgency of transforming the politics of knowledge. These include De la sociología regional a la acción política; un ejemplo latinoamericano a study on North-eastern Brazil published in 1970, La Caraïbe: Une et divisible (Port-au-Prince, Haïti: Imprimerie Deschamps, 1991) – translated as The Caribbean: One and Divisible (Santiago, Chile: 1992) – La Invención del Caribe (San Juan, P.R.: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1997), and the bilingual French-Kréyol text Pa Bliyé 1804 (Port-au-Prince, Haiti: 2004). The writing of these works have gone hand-in-hand with fifteen years of work with the United Nations Secretariat, particularly the Economic Commission for Latin America, as well as service as the Haitian Ambassador to the United States during the years of Aristide’s brief first term as President of Haiti and his exile in the United States.

Haiti’s history provides a rich terrain for understanding both the ongoing power of colonial categories and the alternatives that are available to us. The “jewel” of the French empire of the eighteenth century, the most productive colony in the Americas of the period, was unmade and re-invented through a revolution of the enslaved. An incredible military and political victory, this revolution was also a remarkable act of imagination, proposing and enacting a new order, based on the ashes of plantation slavery. And yet, as Casimir has shown us throughout his work, the colonial plantation world has in many ways continued to shape post-independence Haiti, nourishing conflicts and creating a political and economic context within the country that has led to ongoing, and wrenching, difficulties, in the 20th century and now into the 21st century.

But Haiti was always also shaped and constrained by the relentless hostility of the empires and nations that surrounded in the 19th century. One of the many forms of exile and isolation it suffered has been a certain kind of intellectual quarantine, in which the many writings and contributions of Haitian scholars have remained too-little read and known outside of the country. In part this has been the result of language barriers – and the value of Casimir’s work is that it has circulated in four languages (Spanish, English, French and Kréyol) – but there is more to it than that. Although Haitian intellectuals were in constant dialogue with French thinkers (most famously, perhaps, in Anténor Firmin’s response to racist “science”), French intellectuals engaged with Haiti surprisingly little. Indeed, Jacques Chirac once claimed, during a visit to the Caribbean, that Haiti had never been a French colony! In the United States, meanwhile, generations of thinkers did engage directly with Haiti, during the 19th century when Frederick Douglass was ambassador to Haiti, again during the U.S. military occupation of Haiti when African-American leaders spoke out against the occupation. It is through this link that Haiti has been most discussed and debated within the United States. In the process, though, some of the complexities and internal conflicts within Haiti have sometimes been overlooked or at least insufficiently analyzed. That is another value of Casimir’s work – that it allows us a clear-eyed, often discouraging but always incisive, look at the profound difficulties of realizing political and social change and beyond.

In this dossier, Casimir presents a series of interventions that exemplify the range and possibilities opened up by his thought. First, he presents key chapters from La cultura oprimida, with a new introduction looking back on the text’s publication after 25 years. How should we translate the concept of la cultura oprimida? As Casimir pointed out to me in a recent exchange of messages, my impulse to translate the term as “the culture of the oppressed” misses the point. Casimir is speaking about an “oppressed culture” or “a culture under siege”: “a set of knowledge and corresponding institutions” that finds itself “constantly under attack by the modern (plantation) vision of the world.” As he puts it in his introduction, his articulation of the concept is meant to highlight the existence of “a choice between the vision of the conquerors and that of the conquered, which American Social Science has to make.” The goal of such Social Science, he argues, should be “to discover how the dominated can recuperate their history.”

Casimir refuses and critiques reigning visions of the history of Haiti, emphasizing the uniqueness of the experience that produced the country and defending the choice of the refusal embodied in the revolt of the enslaved against the plantation that produced it. “There is no universal history that Haiti should have borrowed,” he insists in his essay, “Le planteur avait une esclave, ma grand-mère était une captive,” which reflects on the complex history of the “peopling of Haiti.” And the mistake of many Haitian thinkers, he suggests, has been to fail to conceive of Haiti from within the political project of the oppressed that produced it.

As he emphasizes in his essay, “Saint-Domingue et Haïti dans le monde moderne,” the peoples of the Caribbean “were not conquered,” but rather “emerged in the heart of established empires, inventing themselves and being reborn constantly while differentiating themselves from the modern states on the other side of the Atlantic.” He seeks to bring together an understanding of all the formative elements of Caribbean, and specifically Haitian culture: the “production” of the slaves through the plantation and a lawless colonial state, the transformation of a “multitude of deportees” into a somewhat unified whole through the force of colonial racism, and, centrally, the mass revolution that emerged in Saint-Domingue and created the Haitian state. He points out in “Haïti et sa créolité” that Haiti was the only colony to transform itself from an “exploitation colony” into a “settlement colony.” During the 19th century, a period when agricultural production of coffee and other crops actually outran that of the colony of Saint-Domingue at certain points, the oppressed culture took root and created a space for itself within Haiti.

But it was always under siege, both from the outside and within at the hands of certain elites. Conscious of the depth of this rupture, his work nevertheless emphasizes the important continuities between the colonial state and post-independence Haiti, and the ongoing continuities between the colonial vision of the eighteenth century and the organization of knowledge in the present. It is this latter point that he emphasizes in “Haiti et ses élites: L’interminable dialogue de sourds,” lamenting the layering incomprehension that he argues has and continues to exist between those who have sought to analyze Haiti and the intellectual and theoretical perspectives embodied in the “oppressed culture” of Haiti itself. He concludes with a mixture of despair and glimpsed hope. He notes that Haiti’s “solitude” in the midst of a world still run by the plantation order “defines it” and seems “inevitable.” The revolutionaries who created the nation understood, though their slogan “Vivre livre ou mourir!” – “To live free or die” – that it might be necessary to die to be free, but they also hoped that it would be possible for Haiti to live free. That option, laments Casimir, seems today to be “annulled.” But a careful confrontation and working through of the past’s tear through the present might make it possible “to build a world in which other worlds will remain possible.”

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Conquered or enslaved populations modify their cultures or elaborate new ones by contesting the conquistadors’ worldview. The colonialists block the development of these thought systems whose historical roots predate their irruption or contradict and ignore the endeavors of the enslaved populations. The aggressed populations cannot fully supplant the logic and dynamics of their genocide and ethnocide; so, the war against their thought systems last indefinitely.

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Capitalism takes root in colonies and underdeveloped countries by dominating non European peoples through policies bordering on genocide and, at best, ethnocide. These peoples oppose such aggressions with survival strategies, intertwined in a contesting culture, specific to each one of them. Their private and community lives operate as the cradle for this oppressed culture that the political authorities persecute systematically and confine within local spheres of action. Even though isolated and unable to develop themselves or to negotiate their relations with the dominant culture and society, oppressed cultures remain the cornerstone of social change in the former colonies.

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In order to confront the cultural war initiated by the conquest, a new type of social science, which chooses to speak amongst the destitute people of the continent and promote their participation in the national dialog, needs to zero into the logic of their practices, map out the universe they control, and identify the alternative solutions they use. This new social science then modifies the themes to be studied, articulates the current methodology and the addressee of scientific reflections, and identifies the rhetoric and the level of explanation to be found satisfactory.

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The enslaved had to integrate into the Latin world of Saint-Domingue while the awareness of their captivity was renewed through exchanges with their peers. Their Latinity, linked to the process of modern colonial and national state building, was inseparable from this legacy of enslavement. Their endogenous culture, an aspect of their isolation even today, emerged and perpetuated itself by opposing such inheritance, paradoxically revamped by an increasing immersion into the Saxon universe, which followed the 1915 US Occupation.

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Creolization, understood as acculturation or ladinización, was secondary in the assembling of the Haitian culture. A truncated presence of Latin culture in the management of public life justified and operated the mechanisms of domination, but these dehumanizing devices were upset by a private and community life where Latinity participated on an equal footing with other ethnic cultures.

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The transformation of Saint-Domingue into Haiti was due to the encounter, on the one hand, of the endemic revolt of the enslaved enacting issues relating to the Rights of the Nations and, on the other hand, the rising of freed persons inspired by the Rights of Man and the Citizen. A modern state cannot solve the first set of problems, and therefore, it needs to eradicate the issue from social awareness. It then has to fabricate a sense of sterility of the oppressed culture where the rights of the nation to preserve its differences are grounded.

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Ethnics groups considered by the dominant classes as a homogeneous mass of Blacks merged into one nation during the transformation of Saint-Domingue into a settlement colony: Haiti. The international community by isolating the country forced its endogenous development. However, the elites kept endorsing the civilizing mission of the West, supported and continued by the American Occupation of 1915, and applauded the exclusion of the masses from any decision-making processes.