Annotation: Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s “An Unthinkable History” (1995)

Peer-Review: 0

This annotation was written in reference to my paper: “Looking Behind the Bedroom Door: Productive Sensationalism and Domestic Violence in Leonora Sansay’s Secret History.” See my prospectus here.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. “An Unthinkable History: The Haitian Revolution as a Non-event.” Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995. 70-107. Print.

In his article, Trouillot offers important historical background on the Haitian Revolution. He exposes the paradox of Enlightenment thought, which celebrated universal human rights and equality while oppressive institutions of slavery and racial oppression still persisted. Trouillot asserts that “Colonization provided the most potent impetus for the transformation of European ethnocentrism into scientific racism,” where the enslavement of blacks were rationalized as a result of their inherent biological inferiority (77). He demonstrates that for the first time, humanity was considered in terms of varying degrees, where some groups were more human than others. It was widely believed that at the very bottom of this scale, “enslaved Africans and their descendents could not envision freedom—let alone formulate strategies for gaining and securing such freedom” (73). Trouillot therefore argues that even as it happened, the Haitian Revolution was “unthinkable” for the people of the time and even afterwards as world nations refused to officially acknowledge the new republic. Trouillot borrows Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the “unthinkable” as referring to “that which one cannot conceive within the range of possible alternatives which perverts all answers because it defies the terms under which the questions are phrased” (82). He describes how French delegates, such as Jean-Pierre Brissot, could not immediately accept the news that a revolution had occurred in Sain Domingue, outlining reasons for its sheer impossibility. Trouillot further asserts that when such facts became undeniable, much effort was expended to specifically narrate the revolution in a way that would fit into a white European worldview and uphold its racial and cultural hierarchies.

He discusses two different “formulas of silence” employed, one that involves complete erasure of the Haitian Revolution all together through archival omission and the another that attempts to trivialize the event by ignoring its radical, singular components (96). As examples of the first Trouillot cites Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age o Revolutions 1793-1843, which makes almost no reference to the Haitian Revolution and the way in which French historians have long downplayed the significance of losing Haiti, its most valuable colonial possession at the time. (99, 101). The second, which Trouillot seems to identify as even more troubling, is how specialists on Haiti persist to search for external factors that influenced the revolution rather than accepting and recognizing the internal work of the slaves themselves.

Trouillot’s emphasis on the importance of analyzing how the Haitian Revolution is narrated and for what ends will be particularly helpful in formulating my own thesis. In Secret History, Sansay herself seems to directly comment on how the Haitian Revolution was “unthinkable” for the French who believed that it would be easy for them to quickly re-colonize the island. I will examine further whether this is due to her status as an American in Saint Domingue. I am also interested in exploring how the narrative addresses other realms of the “unthinkable” in regards to gender relations—the murderous jealousy of Creole ladies and women of color as well as Clara’s own horrifying experience of domestic abuse which was “unthinkable” for her sister.

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