In memoriam: Michel-Rolph Trouillot
Update, 7 July: As a brief follow-up, I’m somewhat mystified that a Google search still isn’t showing a single English-language news report about Trouillot’s death, let alone an obituary. Time to start bugging media gatekeepers, it seems. He taught at the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins, so @chicagotribune and @baltimoresun, and there’s always @nytimes.
Previous post begins:
I woke up today to reports of the death of the Haitian scholar and anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot. As of this writing, I’m not finding anything from a major English-language news source. It appears this was first reported (in French) by the Haiti Press Network, and there’s an English summary of that report posted on the Repeating Islands blog. HPN has apparently spoken to family members, so that seems like confirmation. He reportedly died at his home in Chicago early yesterday. He was 63.
Trouillot was known as a scholar of the history of Caribbean people, particularly their emergence from enslavement and the trials they have been subjected to in the process of integration into the increasingly global economy, and of the relationship between power and history. It’s his latter work that I’m most familiar with. I vividly remember my PhD adviser handing me a copy of his “Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History,” and how I read it in a clip. The words seemed to burn off the page. It remains, to me, the single most influential book I have read about the way history is produced. In fact, I just noticed that of the 311 references in my dissertation’s EndNote library, that book is #1 – i.e., it’s the first citation I entered.
In very, very brief, Trouillot’s concern in that book is to understand why some narratives of history become more accepted, more canonical, than others. Every account enters the historical record with some of its constituent parts missing: “Silences,” as he calls them, are not oversights of historical archives, but are constitutive of them, due to unequal power among the assemblers and subjects of those archives. When “facts” of history are created, so are silences – the things that are left out, disregarded, minimized. When you consider a historical account, you must recognize it is not an objective assemblage of things that happened, but an account that is shot though with power, and one that has many, many stories behind the story.
This is important to keep in mind whenever we engage with history, through textual archives, oral accounts, even (I’d argue) material culture. He suggests the goal is not to create more stories of history, as there is no empirical “true” account that would not contain its own silences, but rather to guard against trivialization of history by removing radical context, or of complicity in the erasure of silenced stories.
I find this to be heady and challenging stuff, and no doubt I’m doing his ideas little, if any, justice. Regardless, on this day that I find out we’ve lost an eminent scholar, I need to pay some measure of tribute.