"Counter-Editorial: Déboulonnons le récit officiel: Haiti’s challenge to a monumental version of the past," by Chelsea STIEBER

Marlene Daut Discussion

Counter-Editorial: Déboulonnons le récit officiel: Haiti’s challenge to a monumental version of the past

Protestors in Paris, June 16 2020. Photo credit: Mathilde Larrere, Twitter @LarrereMathilde

 Featured,The Abusable Past |  

June 26, 2020


As monuments are dismantled and statues brought down across the globe, debates about slavery, memory, histories, and silences have come to occupy the public sphere and public squares the world over. Though earlier moments of collective action have resulted in crushed dictators, capsized Columbuses, crumpled confederate soldiers, and beheaded empresses, the global scope and speed at which monuments to enslavement and imperialism are coming down is breathtaking. It has also unsettled some people, whose understanding of history–and of our present–hews closely to the official, monumental version of the past. 

It is not surprising that these debates about memory, slavery, and H/history spilled out into public view on social media and the listserv of H-France, the digital scholarly platform that bills itself as the “largest scholarly organization for Francophone history and culture in the Anglophone world.” The affair began rather mundanely: Dr. Marlene Daut (a full professor of African Diaspora Studies and woman of color who, in full disclosure, I know and work with) posted a message to the discussion list linking to a recent piece she had written calling for the removal of Thomas Jefferson’s statue in Paris and replacing it with more meaningful antislavery figures. Her message was met with a swift and rather staggering reply from Vivian Gruder (an emeritus professor of history whom I do not know) who policed the original poster’s tone on behalf of “historians” (“The voice is not the voice of a historian”) and proceeded to engage in what a scholar of French history deemed “pure moral relativism” regarding Jefferson’s legacy. That Gruder’s response also encouraged listserv readers to further explore “the nature of slavery and slave-trading also in Africa” and a separate aside on the “less glorious” legacy of the Haitian Revolution may shock, but it certainly does not surprise. 

Overall, the response from the H-France community was critical of Gruder’s treatment of Daut, as many of the archived responses (on the listserv and on Twitter) attest.[1] Daut herself provided a blazing response, evoking Lauren Berlant’s concept of “Diva Citizenship” to describe what happens “when a person stages a dramatic coup in a public sphere in which she does not have privilege.” Annette Joseph-Gabriel, who recently published an interdisciplinary literary and historical study of black women activists, wrote a response that highlighted how language is coded and mobilized to delegitimize a speaker. The affair struck a nerve outside of academia, too, mobilizing critics invested in exposing the problem of “liberal academics” and upholding a certain, monumental version of Western civilization. 

Read the rest here: