Welcome to the publication, “Representations.” This is a project designed to bring the perspectives of a wider variety of groups to the forefront of the anthropology classroom. To celebrate Black History Month, we are covering the accomplishments of 28 Black anthropologists across 28 days. Learn more about our project; read on for the amazing accomplishments of Michel-Rolph Trouillot.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot was a Haitian anthropologist who began his life as a student activist, history scholar, and writer in Port-au-Prince. He fled his home country to escape a repressive dictatorial regime that viewed academics as a threat to power. Upon establishing himself in the United States, he transformed the lens through which anthropologists study and understand the relationship between power, history, and story-telling.
Trouillot’s work closely examined the relationship between culture, identity, and stories. Trouillot’s work challenged the powerful Western hegemonic framework which allows for social scientists and citizens to tell their stories as a vessel of understanding themselves. In his book, “Global Transformations,” Trouillot wrote, “historical narratives necessarily produce silences that are themselves meaningful. What are the major silences in the history the West tells about itself?”
Trouillot’s influence transcends anthropology, his work lending itself to history, sociology, and Afro-Carribean studies. Trouillot’s work spanned many genres, influencing each of them with his unique writing style and his distinctive understanding of narrative writing. For his accomplishments, he received the Frantz Fanon Lifetime Achievement Award by the Caribbean Philosophical Association in 2011.
In his book, “Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History,” Trouillot argued, “narratives are necessarily emplotted in a way that life is not. Thus, they necessarily distort life whether or not the evidence upon which they are abased could be proved correct. (Trouillot 6)”
In his work, Trouillot rightly pointed out that human lives are not fictional stories written by a singular author. His work demonstrates that life does not have an inherent plot structure but that, rather, the traditional plot structures that we rely on for storytelling are constructed by the human mind. Of course, in order to make sense of seemingly random and confusing elements of life, human beings apply a plot structure to past events. We tell stories about ourselves in order to make sense of what has happened to us.
Trouillot illustrates this by offering his readers the example of The Alamo. The Battle of The Alamo was, as Trouillot explains, a great defeat to the Texans who sought to defend the fort. The chant “Remember the Alamo!” re-framed the military loss as a story of martyrdom to a bigger cause. This slogan was used as a powerful rallying cry that motivated more people to fight, ultimately fueling the defeat of Mexico in favor of the Republic of Texas (Trouillot 2–3).
Trouillot’s work demonstrates the important intersection between history and power. He reminds his readers that only the most powerful typically write our history books. He asks, who decides how we remember our history? In Trouillot’s view, the historical erasure of the experiences of less powerful groups serves the function of shaping our global culture and global mentality, always favoring the most powerful.
Trouillot argues that writing history itself is making history. In other words, the way that we recall our collective pasts can directly shape our belief systems in the present and future choices.
Among his great many achievements, Trouillot wrote and published the first Creole language book on Haitian history that strove to examine the country’s story in a new lens. Titled, “Ti difé boulé sou istwa Ayiti (in English: “A Small Fire Burning on Haitian History”), the book takes a culturally-specific approach to the telling of Haiti’s history that incorporates local proverbs, and religious elements throughout (Bonilla 2013). This book offered a more accessible form of his nation’s history. As a result of his academic activism, Trouillot was forced to leave Haiti for the United States in order to escape the repressive Duvalier regime that strove to silence the voices of student activists (Bonilla 2013).
Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s former student and fellow anthropologist, Yarimar Bonilla, wrote the following in his memory,
“…for Trouillot, the truly important questions would never be answered; they were lifelong pursuits, lifelong passions. He always encouraged his students and colleagues to tap into their own burning questions and to follow their passions — because he knew that this was what would truly sustain them and feed not just their careers but, more importantly, their souls.”
Bonilla, Yarimar. “Burning Questions: The Life and Work of Michel-Rolph Trouillot, 1949–2012.” NACLA, 2013, nacla.org/news/2013/5/31/burning-questions-life-and-work-michel-rolph-trouillot-1949%E2%80%932012.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. 1995.