My book, Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution will be out in October 2015! I am super excited and a lot of this has to do with the awesome cover designed by the marketing department at the UNC Press (with a little help from me!).
In the fall of 2008, I attended my first conference–the annual meeting of the Haitian Studies Association. It was in my second year of graduate school and one of my professors, Deborah Jenson, invited me to participate on her panel. The meeting was in Montrouis, Haiti but Deborah and I spent a day or two in Port-au-Prince before the conference started. We were walking around the Champs-de-Mars–I remember this very vividly, it was the day after the 2008 elections and Barak Obama was going to be president. A group of young Haitians cheered Obama as we walked by.
Deborah and I saw a mural of Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s silhouette against the blue and red of the Haitian Flag. We both stopped to take a picture of it. I absolutely love it. What you don’t see on the cover image is that there is a phrase on the adjacent side of the structure: “Idantite se poto mitan tout nasyon. Moun san idantite pa ka fè nasyon. E ou menm, ki idantite ou?” (“Identity is the poto mitan of all nations. People without identity cannot make a nation. And you, what is your identity?” My friend Laura Wagner helped me with the translation and she said that poto mitan is the central pillar of a building–without it, the building cannot stand–and that it is generally associated with vodou as the central pillar of a perestil but that it could also translate at “cornerstone.” Nasyon translates to nation but there is also the notion of nasyon in vodou.)
The image of Dessalines with this question seemed to sum up exactly what I wanted to study: I wanted to study questions of national identity during the early independence period. How, out of a diverse population (many of whom had recently been at war), do you create an “imagined community”? As my project evolved, I answered these questions by focusing on Haiti’s relationship with other empires and countries in the Atlantic World. How would the Haitian government define itself on an international stage and how would foreign governments shape Haiti as a nation? “And you, what is your identity?” is such a timeless question and the answer will always be different–identity (of an individual or a group) is continuously evolving. Nations are constantly aware of their identity and try to shape it for personal and public audiences.
The image of Dessalines is itself quite striking, particularly against the bright blue and red–I love how his silhouette replaces the coat of arms. Erin Zavitz‘s research shows how Dessalines’s reputation has undergone waves of veneration and criticism (she has a chapter in my forthcoming volume on the Haitian Declaration of Independence). Sadly, I have no idea who painted the image and the words or why. Who commissioned it? The government? A foreign NGO? The graffiti overtop of the image adds to its appeal–identity formation is inherently an imperfect process.
The memory of that trip to Haiti makes this image really special. I only have a poor quality version of the image (far too few dpi/ppi for the standards of the marketing department at the UNC Press) but I pleaded with them to use it. The designer worked some serious magic and took the initiative to add a portion of one of my images of the broadside printing of the Haitian Declaration of Independence. This, of course, has additional meaning since it is one of two known remaining government-issued copies of the DOI–both of which I found in The National Archives of the United Kingdom.
I am so pleased with the cover design and I can’t wait to hold a copy in my hands!