Interview with Laurent Dubois, Winner of the $25,000 Frederick Douglass Book Prize


Nhu Vien Thi Nguyen is an intern at HNN.

Banner ad for History Posters. History Posters. click to see 400+ selections.

In November 2005 Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition awarded the Seventh Annual Frederick Douglass Book Prize to Laurent Dubois. Dubois, associate professor at Michigan State University, won the prize, orth $25,000, for the book, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804. According to the chair of the jury, historian John David Smith: "Not since C.L.R. James in his The Black Jacobins (1938), has a scholar examined the broad nexus of revolution, slavery and emancipation as creatively and as powerfully as Dubois. A Colony of Citizens is a decidedly original, path-breaking and incredibly well-researched work that positions slavery, emancipation, re-enslavement and then eventual re-emancipation in Guadeloupe within an international framework and suggests the complex fruits of emancipation in the French Caribbean and the Atlantic World."

What's new about your approach to slavery in the French Caribbean?

I always hesitate to claim something is "new": my approach is part of a broad movement among historians of the French Caribbean and the Atlantic more broadly both to focus on the experiences and actions of the enslaved and to integrate the history of places like the Caribbean into a broader world that includes Europe, Africa, and the rest of the Americas. Whatever contributions I made were influenced by and inspired by other work that read and learned about as I was working on the book.

But the history of Guadeloupe during the revolutionary period, while the subject of good work by historians writing in French, had not been the subject of any detailed studies in English before my book. In terms of approach I sought to integrate a local story, of communities in Guadeloupe, with a larger political narrative of the revolutionary transformations of the age. I also sought to bring together many different kinds of analysis, bringing together social and intellectual history, for instance, and using a wide range of sources to do so. And I placed the history I present in the context of contemporary political and literary debates about how to remember and represent this period and how to understand its connections to the present. These are some aspects of the approach that I think readers have appreciated and found useful, at least!

Are you surprised at how well the book has been received?

Most definitely. I had always hoped to gain an audience among historians of the Caribbean and of France, but have been surprised and gratified to have it acknowledged as a broader contribution to the history of slavery and emancipation generally.

Did you always expect to turn your dissertation into a book?

I always hoped to, but I also knew that this is sometimes a challenge so I wasn't always sure I would be able to.

What was it that influenced your decision to study Latin America and slavery?

I became interested in Haiti as an undergraduate student (in the 1980s and early 1990s) mostly because of current events. The political changes there, the migration to the U.S., and the racism experienced by Haitians here all concerned me, and so I became interested in placing these in a broader historical context. Once I began doing reading and research on Haiti, I was hooked, and became interested in other parts of the Caribbean as well.

I did also have excellent teachers, one in a course on Latin American history named Michael Jimenez, two bibliographers at the library at Princeton, John Logan and Peter Johnson, and others in English, particularly Barbara Browning, and Anthropology, particularly James Boon, who encouraged me a great deal in these early interests. I also was lucky enough to meet Richard Price and Joan Dayan, two important Caribbeanists, while I was an undergraduate. All of this inspired me to continue on.

As an undergraduate I did a junior paper and senior thesis about Haiti and Guadeloupe respectively, both focusing on the 20th century -- one on representations of Haiti in the U.S. and the other on healing practices in contemporary Guadeloupe. It was actually not until graduate school, and really until I dove into archival research in France, that I became particularly interested in the earlier history of slavery and slave revolts which I ended up focusing on in the book. But I ultimately understood that many of the roots of contemporary questions that interest me lay in this period.

Why do you think the earlier period of colonization of the Americas by Spain, Portugal, France and England has been overlooked?

It hasn't been overlooked by historians, who have written a great deal about it, it has just been somewhat overlooked in theorizations and debates about the history and culture of empire, which have focused on the 19th and 20th centuries for the most part. But this has really changed a lot in the last years and is continuing to, thankfully.

You had two books published in 2004. Did you work on them simultaneously, or was the publication date a coincidence?

This was basically a coincidence and a matter of different timetables for editing and publishing by different presses. A Colony of Citizens was completed as a manuscript several years before it came out, but was edited intensively and carefully by the editors of the series it was in. This really improved the book enormously! But it meant that by the time it was published I had been able to write another book, Avengers of the New World. This latter book focuses on Haiti rather than Guadeloupe and is more synthetic, bringing together scholarship on the Haitian Revolution to present a narrative of the event, and it grew out of my work in A Colony of Citizens.

Have you felt under pressure to publish a lot of books?

Publishing, and particularly publishing a book in the case of history, is one of the main expectations for professors, and one of the central ways we share our research and ideas. Once I was hired here at MSU I knew that I would be expected to publish a book in order to get tenure. But by that time I had already published a short book (based on the material in Part I of A Colony of Citizens) in French and had a book contract for A Colony of Citizens, so by then I felt that I was on the right track towards fulfilling these expectations.

Do you have any other books in progress or is it time for a break?

I'm working on several new projects. I have a book entitled Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1787-1804: A History in Documents, which I co-authorized with John Garrigus of Jacksonville University, which I just finished and is coming out early in 2006. This will be published by Bedford Press and is a book of primary sources about the revolutionary period, most of which we translated from French, and includes a short overview of the revolution, and is meant primarily for students. I am also working, with Professor Richard Turits of the University of Michigan, on a general history of the Caribbean, which is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press. And I am starting to work on some other potential book projects, one on the history of religion in Haiti and another on the history of the banjo. So I am keeping busy!

Are there any historians that specialize in African-American or Latin American history that you would like to work with in the future?

I have been lucky to come to know and exchange ideas with wonderful historians in these fields, from my advisors in graduate school to others I have met since -- really too many to list -- and hope to continue to work with many of them!

And perhaps the most important question, is this prize money marked for celebration and relaxation, or investing in further academic pursuits?

I'm not sure yet! Some of it will certainly be spent on travelling and buying books, which are two things I love to do! I'm still getting used to the idea of having received the prize, which was a great surprise to me.