In the renaming of the calendar undertaken during the French Revolution, March 18’s guiding spirit– St. Salvatore—was replaced by the delicate fern known as capillaire, cheveu de Vénus, or adiantum. Before you disregard this little-known dweller of the forest floor, remember that ferns were long added to cough syrups and respected for their medicinal benefits. In a garden, these ferns provide a beautiful light green color, highlighted by the contrast with their black stems. They bring luminosity wherever they grow. Luminous applies to the writing and teaching of Marlene Daut, too. And so today’s blog celebrates her with Quilt no. 8 in the “Respect” quilt series.
Reading Tropics of Haiti, Marlene Daut’s 2015 book on the literature produced in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, I was struck by how corrosive ambivalence can be. Ambivalence is an unsurprising, human reaction to difference—difference of opinion, of creed or beliefs, or of appearance. Like its synonyms, doubt and hesitancy, ambivalence rings alarms in our psyches. It slows down thought and throws up barriers, telling us it is ok to dislike something without even understanding it. As Daut notes throughout Tropics of Haiti, it is cruel to treat a fellow human being with ambivalence, because callousness and hatred follow close behind. She argues that when a person is treated with ambivalence, the person will develop an inner voice of doubt, a hesitancy about one’s self-worth that over time will become toxic: self-loathing. The cumulative psychological cost is devastating.
Daut aims to show how racism affects both those who perpetuate it and those who bear the burden in daily life, and, more specifically, how “racial” thinking continues to operate in our understanding of Haiti in a way that is so implicit as to appear to be “common sense.” “Common sense” attitudes, when unchecked and unchallenged, turn into vernacular “truths”. But they are not truths at all! Rather they are ways of story-telling, as magical or malevolent as stories may be.
Daut’s book—and her chapter in Teaching Representations of the French Revolution—point to what she calls the “ontological consequences” of race thinking, that is, the invasive power of ambivalence, hatred, and fear in all our minds. We all suffer when racialized stereotypes invade our thoughts and dictate our actions. Indeed, Daut argues that this insidious ambivalence and doubt about the self-worth of Black people “may have been far more collectively destructive for the then free people of Haiti than the immediately material consequences of slavery” (150, Tropics of Haiti).
In her quilt, Marlene is represented not only as a teacher and leader, but also as an unstoppable wave of colors—red, yellow, blue, and black. May her influence continue to power our society out of its systemic racism, and into a more humane, luminous future…
Humanity, I too believe in you!
Marlene L. Daut, Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789-1865 (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2015).
Marlene L. Daut, “Teaching Perspective: The Relation between the Haitian and French Revolutions” in Teaching Representations of the French Revolution (New York: Modern Language Association, 2019), 264-274.
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Check out Marlene Daut’s op-ed article in today’s New York Times!