Owning Freedom: State Recordkeeping and the Politics of Historical Representation in 19th-Century Haiti

Friday, January 5, 2018: 8:50 AM
Virginia Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Winter Rae Schneider, University of California, Los Angeles
This paper will approach the lives of rural agriculturalists in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley under the administration of President Jean-Pierre Boyer (1818/20-1843). While scholarship of nineteenth century Haiti describes this era as impenetrable and incapable of historical narration because of either the lack or unreliability of historical sources in Haiti, Boyer’s “era of codification” instead offers a way into thinking about how to read and how to narrate black rural lives during Haiti’s years of state formation and annexation of Santo Domingo. Using notarial documentation from Gonaïves, Haiti, this paper will present stories from Haiti’s nineteenth century Artibonite Valley through state records and notarial land transactions. The lives of non-elite Haitian citizens flash across these records, complicating received conceptions of power under a repressive state. The lives of men and women who survived the society of colonial Saint Domingue and the Haitian revolution, the lives of women who bore and who birthed children, who married, bought, sold and inherited property creating the country’s institution of family land known as the lakou, also give shape to what history can know about the first generations of Haitians more broadly and how they, in turn, lived out the first decades of legal freedom. Through a historical ethnography of Haiti’s bureaucracy and a Critical Race Studies approach, this paper looks at how early Haitians engaged with law and performed legality, addressing and redrawing the legal definitions of personhood within the country’s legal regime in formation.