10 Questions With Julia Gaffield, Postdoctoral Fellow and Assistant Professor at Georgia State University
September 20th, 2013
It started with a fantastic undergraduate class I took while at the University of Toronto on Caribbean history in 2004. Aristide had just been ousted and Haiti was in the news. My interest was furthered when at around the same time I met another student through a community forum on Haiti who had started an organization designed to help Haitian street youth become active, contributing members of society. I volunteered in Haiti that summer on behalf of the organization.
Given Haiti’s ongoing political problems, what attracted you to its history?
I think people are tempted to see the roots of Haiti’s contemporary problems in its history – that there is a linear trajectory from Haitian independence to its current poverty and political turmoil. I don’t see that trajectory. I’m interested in how Haiti developed into a united nation from disparate groups. What united these people? Unfortunately, the archives did not give much insight in how the nation was developed at the local level – at least not the traditional archives. I was able to find sources outside of Haiti related to the relationship between Haiti and the larger Atlantic world. These sources really called into question assumptions about Haiti’s alleged inability to succeed from day one.
You received some media attention for uncovering the Haitian Declaration of Independence while researching in London. What was that moment like?
It wasn’t one moment, but instead a collection of moments. At first it was just another case of finding something cool in the archive. Every historian knows this feeling. It was part of a bigger story about Haiti and its relationship with the rest of the Atlantic world. Haiti wasn’t isolated after independence but, as the document – housed in a London archive – showed, it was part of a larger maritime world. I noted it, but put it aside. It wasn’t until I contacted my advisor and the word began to spread that I thought it was a big deal. Next thing I know Duke is running a press release and the story is showing up in all these national news outlets.
I think what I liked most about finding it was how excited people were about a historical document. It was really cool to see history buffs, random people, Haitians, and Haitian Americans getting in touch with a history they were either not familiar with or were familiar with in a different way.
Did you know what you had?
Yes and no. I thought it was interesting and could contribute to my larger argument, but didn’t expect to get as much attention as it did. I think sometimes we forget how important our research can be to a broader community.
Do you think your discovery will change the way Haitian’s view their nation?
I have found it was non-Haitians who took the most from it. Haitians already have a strong connection to their revolution. It’s taught in schools and a central part of their national identity. Finding an original copy was a reminder, but not new information.
You have been active in translating, digitizing, and posting the Declaration at your blog. Do you think digital humanities have played an important role in communicating the significance of the Declaration to a wider audience?
My first instinct is to share and collaborate. I use the blog to share sources. I’m not giving up my entire source base, but I have found conversations generated by sharing make your work better. My goal is to write the best history possible and that’s best achieved through discussion and collaboration. Making these documents public for people who can’t go to London or afford subscriptions to academic journals can expand the impact of my research and allow it to reach more people.
Has the fame gone to your head?
Totally! Just kidding. It was an interesting experience and one that encouraged me to connect to a broader audience.
Why did you decide to come to Brandeis University?
The topic of the Sawyer seminar. It’s based around a hot topic – not just Atlantic history but specifically the Age of Revolutions. It’s a topic that has become kind of standard practice, but is also sort of new. It’s a topic that needs new evidence and new perspectives. It’s ready for fresh debate. It appealed to me to talk with people coming from different perspectives, but who were also coming from different fields and disciplines.
What are you contributing to the Seminar?
I’m a regular seminar participant and I’m in charge of the blog. I’m also there to offer suggestions of how to incorporate Haiti into the discussion, since it’s an important but often overlooked part of the story. I will also moderate the second symposium on November 14th.
What do you hope to take from your postdoctoral year at Brandeis?
I hope to have time to focus on revising my dissertation without giving up rigorous intellectual discussion. Post-doctoral work can be isolating. With the Sawyer Seminar I can combine discussions with my own research. Only a few weeks in it has already been useful because I am seeing parallels between the newly independent American republic and newly independent Haiti. I may not have seen them without other peers to bounce ideas off of and learn from their work.
Interview conducted by Matthew D. Linton on September 17, 2013. Read this interview as a PDF.