Jean Casimir Discusses Decolonizing Haiti's History

September 28, 2021

By Meredith Watkins

Jean Casimir, Professor of Humanities at the University of Haiti and former Haitian ambassador to the United States, presented his most recent book, The Haitians: A Decolonial History, in a virtual Wednesdays at the Center presentation.

The Haitians, which Casimir described as a "history of the Haitians addressed to them," is mainly intended for the country's academic community. “For those who already know its history and have lived through it all their life, the book invites them to consider the theory of its history to attempt to find the reason of its eventual non-development,” Casimir said.

The book provides a sweeping history of the nation dating back to its discovery in 1492 in an attempt to answer the question that Casimir has been pursuing since his Bachelor's thesis: "As the first independent country among the colonies of exploitation, why does Haiti remain so poor?"

Casimir openly referred to the book as "not easy to read" especially for those who enjoy a tidy product. "Those who believe in the linear evolution of humanity towards its own well-being will feel uncomfortable with such an approach which purposely offers an unfinished product," Casimir said. However, by offering the gritty history of the nation from the Haitian perspective, Casimir hopes to, "look outside the sequence of facts listed by the history of the colonial powers or its surrogates."

In order to successfully reclaim the nation's history, Casimir posited that there must also be a reclaiming of its language from its colonizers. "From the day of its discovery in 1492," Casimir said, "Haiti has never been governed by authorities who spoke the language that its people understood, appreciated, and, even less, used to negotiate or challenge their self-appointed commandeurs."

As such, writing the history of Haiti for a Haitian audience required an what Casimir called an "entirely new glossary," as many of the terms often used to describe Haitians in other written histories are incongruent with terminologies in Haitian Creole. "Most important of all," Casimir said, 'the word "slave' is not used in the Creole language, as we have never seen them around us."

Professor Casimir's lecture opened with an introduction by Deborah Jenson, Professor of Romance Studies at Duke, and concluded with commentary from Walter Mignolo, William Hane Wannamaker Distinguished Professor of Romance Studies at Duke.

This event was sponsored by the John Hope Franklin Center, the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies, and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. Wednesdays at the Center is a topical weekly series in which scholars, students, artists, journalists, and others speak informally about their work in conversation with Duke students, staff, faculty, and community members. Check out the upcoming events of Fall 2021.