“Haiti Then and Now” Interviews Professor Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

Marlene Daut's picture

“Haiti Then and Now” Interviews Professor Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

“Haitian Thinkers in the Public Space: An Interview Series”

“Haiti Then and Now” Interviews Professor Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall

Conducted by Dr. Celucien L. Joseph

March 1, 2021

Dr. Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall


HTN: Tell us about yourself, your background, education, upbringing, connection to Haiti, etc. Who is Dr. Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall ?

AGS: Thank you so much for including me in your series, Dr. Joseph! I am a big fan of your Haiti: Then and Now interviews. I’m a historian (trained first at the University of Pennsylvania and then at Stanford) who began my career focusing on both France and on Haiti; over time the balance has shifted more toward Haiti. My first book (The Abbé Grégoire and the French Revolution: The Making of Modern Universalism [UC Press, 2005]) compared how French revolutionaries dealt with difference in their empire, whether of religion, race, gender or culture. It looked at Grégoire’s ideas for “regenerating” Jews, people of color, women and dialect speakers, as well as his relationships with Toussaint, Boyer and other Haitian leaders.

For someone like me, who is interested in Jewish history as well as in the history of other minoritized groups, it was natural to want to compare how the revolutionaries treated demands for equality by French Jews (who had long faced discrimination) with those of other groups in France. And obviously, during the Revolution, free Blacks and enslaved people were chief among those with grievances. I say “obviously” now – but when I was writing my dissertation in the mid-1990s, the “Haitian turn” had not yet happened; most work on French history was still metropolitan focused.

As far as my background, I am from northern New Jersey, with a mother from the Bronx and a Dad from Montreal, both from immigrant Jewish families. While I didn’t have any Haitian friends growing up (before the post-1986 wave of migrations) – I had friends from diverse backgrounds, and the issue of universalism v. particularism had long interested me. How did my own struggle to balance my family’s Ashkenazi Jewish culture with the dominant culture compare to those of friends whose families hailed from other places?

As I began to focus on Haiti more in the 1990s, and learned more about Haitian culture, there was so much I loved. Having spent lots of time as a young adult going into New York for work or concerts, I already loved Caribbean music– and then discovered Haitian writers and historians. I can tell you more as I answer the other questions!

HTN: I should also add that in addition to your research specialties in French and Haitian Revolutions, slavery and colonization, and the history of gender, you’re also interested in visual and pop cultures. Please allow me to congratulate you on your new book, Slave Revolt on Screen: The Haitian Revolution in Film & Video Games, which is coming out in Summer 2021 from the University of Press of Mississippi. What a stunning and remarkable book cover? Who is the artist?

AGS: Thank you so much, Doctor Lou. The cover was created by University Press of Mississippi book designer Jennifer Mixon, with Production and Design Manager Todd Lape. Though I tackle big issues in my book about representations of slavery and Black history in popular culture, I worried that the title might sound too niche. But Jennifer and Todd understood (especially in the summer of 2020 when they designed it) what my book is doing; the cover is ingenious. Though fire-igniting matches didn’t exist in the eighteenth century, the Haitian Revolution was the metaphorical spark for resistance by enslaved people around the Atlantic then – and for that of many Black activists worldwide since. The cover also captures the fact that the book treats animated representations of the Revolution in both films and games. I’m so glad you like it!

HTN: I suppose the focus of this book on the cinematic representation or projection of the Haitian Revolution (HR) in film and video games is a “new genre” in the historical study and analysis of the Haitian Revolution. Isn’t it? Is there a tradition of such genre in the French and Anglophone world in regard to the Haitian Revolution?

AGS: Yes, it is new! So many of our brilliant colleagues have written about literary representations of the Haitian Revolution, in novels and in theater. But this is the first book on cinematic representations of the HR (though Charles Forsdick, Philip Kaisary and Mariana Past have written articles about individual films on the Revolution). In terms of video games, this is not only the first monograph on Haitian Revolution-related video games, but also one of the first books by a historian on video games at all. It is tempting to see video games as trivializing and then ignore them. But as I note in Slave Revolt on Screendepictions of history in video games often reach millions more viewers than films. Indeed, the Haitian-slave-revolt-themed game Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry has been played by many more viewers than any Revolution-related film. So, I think it’s urgent to interrogate the representations in these games. As Soraya Murray has argued, “the faulty idea that video games are unimportant galvanizes their power. This allows them to proceed unchecked in the world…, without the same modicum of accountability and critical analysis that even films and theatre bear” (On Video Games: The Visual Politics of Race, Gender and Space [London, 2018], 15).

HTN: In your research for this new book, especially in the major films and video games you analyzed on the Haitian Revolution, can you share with us some of your observations and findings.

AGS: Thank you for asking, Doctor Lou. I started out drafting a journal article – and ended up writing a ten-chapter book. The book has several different arguments; one concerns how former colonizers still have greater power to define slavery and colonialism on screen, because of the economic legacies of these histories. Popular-culture portrayals of the past thus tilt in favor of the narratives of colonizers and enslavers, leaving audiences with distorted understandings of history.

Read the rest here: https://haitithenandnow.wordpress.com/2021/03/01/haiti-then-and-now-interviews-professor-a...