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Discussing Black History in the Caribbean: A Look at Ayiti with the LAC&E Librarian-in-Residence

(The following is a post by Taylor Healey-Brooks, Librarian-in Residence, Hispanic Reading Room, Latin American, Caribbean & European Division.)

As I prepared for my graduation from the University of Washington Information School, I was uncertain about my path. Like many graduates, I wanted an experience that would give me insight into all fields of librarianship so I could determine the best fit for my interests. I chose to become a librarian because I wanted to work with Black communities and create services and resources that would bridge gaps and address inequities that persist among the most underserved communities. When I accepted the temporary position as a Librarian-in Residence for the Latin American, Caribbean, and European Division in the Library of Congress, I realized that I needed to carve out a space for pursuing my passion for social justice and Black studies while producing a resource that would enable the division to engage more users. This was because my focus never diverted from centering the voices of the people often left out of the conversation.

Librarian looking at Caribbean prints on a table in the reading room.

Taylor Healey-Brooks pictured with Antonio Martorell’s prints titled “Las Antillas letradas.” “Las Antillas letradas” highlights Caribbean writers and thought leaders through a combination of 27 prints that, when placed in alphabetical order, creates a massive map of the Antilles. (Photo credit: Katherine Blood)

When I began my journey as the Librarian-in-Residence during the summer of 2021, I saw a lot of news and social media focused on Haiti. Most of the coverage was negative. As a Black woman who had some research expertise in African American Studies, I knew a little about Haiti, but not enough to contextualize fully the stories I saw in the news. It just so happened that my work assignment found me assessing the electronic resources (research guides and story maps) in the division at the same time. I realized there could be more curated electronic resource celebrating Haitians or, more generally, Afro-Caribbeans for what they have contributed to the Black experience. Though characterized historically as monolithic, the Black experience is tremendously diverse and inclusive of multiple cultures and connections. Many of our most famous Black American leaders and intellectuals have roots in the Caribbean, and those roots are diverse, intricate, and underrepresented. Inspired, I decided to develop a multi-pronged outreach project that would include the creation of a webcast and research guide that responded to a call for more resources among individuals and groups in Haitian Studies.

I began this work with research because, like many people, I did not know a lot about the history of Haiti or how thoroughly intertwined it was with the history of the Black experience in the U.S. Like many others, I heard the same single fact that the Haitian Revolution was the first successful rebellion of enslaved people in the western hemisphere. I wanted to dig deeper to understand Haitian cultural and its historical contributions, particularly to Black liberation movements in the U.S. and Latin America.

My digging required a cross-divisional approach. I started to visit the various reading rooms, including Rare Books and Special Collections, Manuscripts, Newspapers, and Current Periodicals, among others throughout the Library. My mission was to find as much information on Haiti as I could. I discovered books, newspaper articles, manuscripts, photographs, and VHS tapes-all providing new perspectives of Haiti. One thing that struck me as particularly interesting was the extent to which historical communications between Haitians and Black Americans emerged from these resources. As Black Americans began to look elsewhere to escape racism in the U.S., Haiti stood out in the 19th and 20th centuries as a land of opportunity and freedom for all Black people. So many Black Americans did immigrate to Haiti.  According to Dr. Leslie Alexander’s article, “Black Utopia: Haiti and Black Transnational Consciousness in the Early Nineteenth Century,” thousands of free Black people immigrated to Haiti. Why is that important? To me, it struck a chord because it directly contradicted the narrative presented in the media today-Haiti was once a nation of refuge for Black people.

A snapshot of a Toussaint Louverture mural in Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary School, Little Haiti Florida.

A mural titled “Toussaint” painted by Edouard Duval Carrie (2002) for the Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary School in Florida. The image appears in “Continental Shifts: The Art of Edouard Duval Carrie” by Edward J. Sullivan et al. The book is in the Hispanic Reading Room. (Photo credit: Taylor Brooks)

As the project began to take shape, I compiled a list of scholars who study Haiti and the relationship between Haiti and Black Americans and shared the list with LAC&E Division chief, Suzanne Schadl, who had discussed Communities of Practice (CoP) as foundations for other resources in the division. I decided to approach this project from within a Community of Practice (CoP) focused on positive narratives about Haiti and its impact on the Black experience in the U.S. After reading several recently published works, I contacted authors. I asked if they would talk with me about my resource guide to ensure we were not replicating any falsities or imperfect representations in this reference. They were excited to see what I found and share their knowledge about other resources in the resource guide. These discussions also created content for a webcast that connected the Library with an emerging audience discussing Haiti’s history, the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution, and Haiti’s representation in the media, including its positive impact on Black sovereignty in the Americas.

I had the honor of  interviewing Dr. Brandon R. Byrd (Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University), Dr. Leslie Alexander (Fellow, Society for the Humanities at Cornell University, 2021-2022 and Associate Professor at Arizona State University), Dr. Jean Eddy Saint Paul (Professor at City University of New York (CUNY) and founder of their Haitian Studies Institute), Dr. Chelsea Stieber (Former Kluge Fellow and Associate Professor at Catholic University of America), and Dr. Grégory Pierrot (Associate Professor at the University of Connecticut). These accomplished scholars could add context that I would never have been able to produce alone. We created a video and resource guide, released in January 2022 to mark Haitian Independence Day. Hispanic Reading Room Huntington Fellow Alexis Bracey and I named our project “Ayiti Reimagined” to acknowledge Ayiti as the preferred country name and “reimagined” as a response to the call from these scholars to engage in a discussion about Haiti’s impact on the Black experience.

The project includes this video and its companion, a resource guide, full of curated content from the Library and other organizations. This is one of the first projects created within the new Latin American, Caribbean, and European division to highlight the Caribbean materials at the Library. It is an opportunity to highlight the Library’s collections on Haiti and demonstrate a commitment to serving scholars interested in the rich history, culture, and languages present in the Caribbean.

My journey at the Library of Congress has been a whirlwind. Dealing with a cross-country move, working in the Library, and navigating my first librarian position during COVID has made the time go by extraordinarily quickly. As I continue to wrap up my work going into 2022, I am pleased to have brought this project to life. I know this is the first step of bringing Black diasporic experiences to the forefront in the Library of Congress, and I am happy to be a part of the initial push forward.

Mesi! Thank you!

LEARN MORE:

Alexis Bracey and Taylor Healey-Brooks, Freedom in the Black Diaspora: A Resource Guide for Ayiti-Reimagined, January 9, 2022.

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