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Freedom in the Black Diaspora: Conducting Research for “Ayiti Reimagined”

(The following is a guest post by Alexis Bracey, Huntington Fellow, Hispanic Reading Room, Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division.)

Tell us a little about your background.

I am a student at North Carolina Central University, working towards my master’s degree in Library Science with a concentration in Archives and Records Management. As an undergraduate at George Mason University, I was a student researcher for The Enslaved Children of George Mason project, which seeks to tell the stories of the more than 100 individuals that the university’s namesake, George Mason IV, enslaved.

What drew you to apply to an internship in the Hispanic Reading Room? 

I decided to apply for an internship in the Hispanic Reading Room because I was interested in learning more about how the Library of Congress works.

Manuscript of a letter from Jean-Jacques Dessalines to Thomas Jefferson written in French.

Letter from Jean-Jacques Dessalines. June 23, 1803. The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

What is your project? 

I knew that I wanted to work on a project that focused on the Caribbean region. After consulting with my mentor, Suzanne Schadl, chief of the Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division, I learned that Taylor Healey-Brooks, the Librarian-in-Residence, was working on a project that aimed to center Haiti’s positive impact on Black sovereignty throughout the Americas. Fortunately, Taylor allowed me to work with her and together we created a research guide, Freedom In the Black Diaspora: A Resource Guide for Ayiti Reimagined. Taylor worked on a related webcast, Ayiti Re-imagined: The First Black Sovereign Nation. My research consisted of finding print resources in Haitian Creole, English, French and Spanish within the Library of Congress collections, organizing a section dedicated to Haitian Creole and Caribbean Creole languages more broadly, and locating external websites. It was important to include resources in Haitian Creole because everyone in Haiti speaks the language. In fact, some scholars estimate that approximately 90 to 95 percent of the population in Haiti is monolingual, speaking only Haitian Creole.

One of the most interesting things that I came across in my research was the 1793 Proclamation au nom de la République issued by Etienne Polverel and Léger-Félicité Sonthonax. The proclamation was one of the earliest documents issued by French colonial authorities to be translated into Haitian Creole. I also came across a letter that Haiti’s founding father Jean-Jacques Dessalines sent to Thomas Jefferson in 1803.

Manuscript of a letter from Jean-Jacques Dessalines to Thomas Jefferson written in French, which includes Dessalines’s signature.

Letter from Jean-Jacques Dessalines. June 23, 1803. The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

I have learned about Haiti as a place where Black people knew they could go to seek freedom from slavery throughout the 19th century. For example, in the article “Haiti, Free Soil, and Antislavery in the Revolutionary Atlantic,” Ada Ferrer describes how in 1817, seven enslaved men and boys from Jamaica took control of the ship on which they had been forced to serve and sailed to southern Haiti. They knew that they would find freedom from slavery on the island nation and access to Haitian citizenship under the presidency of Alexandre Pétion.

Everything that I know about Haiti is from teaching myself about the country’s history. I had to take the initiative to read books on my own about Haiti’s history, including the Haitian Revolution, because I did not learn about it in school. I hope that this research guide will make it easier for anyone with an interest in learning about Haiti’s role in anti-slavery and anti-colonialism movements to find information.

Tell us about your process for finding multilingual resources.

I speak Spanish fluently, am a beginner in French, and through this project started studying Haitian Creole. To find resources in French and Spanish, I examined the reference lists that I read in English-language books and scholarly journal articles. To find resources in Haitian Creole, I consulted sources that were published by Haitian scholars. When looking at websites in Haitian Creole or French, I used translation services to understand the content. I also watched videos in which the audio was either in Haitian Creole or French, with subtitles in English, and was able to learn information that was not easily accessible in English.

What has it been like conducting your internship virtually?

Although I have not been able to physically enter the Library of Congress, I have been able to meet virtually with staff members from the Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division who have enthusiastically supported me in my research journey. I have also been able to learn about other divisions within the Library through virtual professional development meetings and webinars.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

In my free time, I enjoy reading. While conducting research, some of the books that have inspired me the most have been “The Haitians: A Decolonial History by Jean Casimir, “Haiti, History, and the Gods by Colin Dayan and “Stirring the Pot of Haitian History” by Michel-Rolph Trouillot and translated by Mariana F. Past and Benjamin Hebblethwaite, which is the first English-language translation from Haitian Creole of “Ti difé boulé sou istoua Ayiti.”

Useful Links

Freedom in the Black Diaspora: A Resource Guide for Ayiti Reimagined (Research Guide)

Ayiti Re-imagined: The First Black Sovereign Nation (Webcast)

Etienne Polverel and Léger-Félicité Sonthonax. Proclamation. In the Name of the Republic. We, Etienne Polverel and Léger-Félicité Sonthonax, Civil Officers of the Republic, Whom the French Nation Sent to this Country to Establish Law and Order. 1793. World Digital Library.

Ferrer, Ada. “Haiti, Free Soil, and Antislavery in the Revolutionary Atlantic.” The American Historical Review, Volume 117, Issue 1, February 2012, Pages 40–66, https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr.117.1.40

Jean-Jacques Dessalines. J. J. Dessalines to Thomas Jefferson, June 23, 1803, in French. June 23, 1803. The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

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