@LeBarondeVastey and Tweeting Black Atlantic Humanism, A Conversation with Marlene L. Daut
For those on academic Twitter, the platform has become a fruitful place to hash out new research ideas, communicate with colleagues, and share new work in our respective fields. For scholars of Haiti, there have been running threads and conversations over the years like the #Haitisyllabus (which mirrored pioneering Twitter syllabi like the #FergusonSyllabus and the #CharlestonSyllabus) that have generated important discussions about Haitian history, literature, language politics, and political organizing within and outside of the academy. There is also a tightly-knit group of scholars who regularly tweet about the Haitian monarch Henry Christophe and his Kingdom, like Dr. Marlene L. Daut @FictionsofHaiti and her second account dedicated to the Kingdom’s most prolific writer @LeBarondeVastey.
I recently had the chance to (virtually) sit down with Professor Daut, Associate professor of African Diaspora Studies in the Carter G. Woodson Institute and the Program in American Studies at the University of Virginia, to talk with her about her twitter account @LeBarondeVastey. Before joining the faculty of UVA, Daut was Associate professor of English and Cultural Studies at Claremont Graduate University. She is the author of Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism (Palgrave, 2017), Tropics of Haiti: Race and the Literary History of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World, 1789-1865 (Liverpool, 2015), and co-editor of the forthcoming collection, An Anthology of Haitian Revolutionary Fictions. She is also co-editor and co-creator of H-Net’s scholarly network, H-Haiti and curates the websites, http://haitianrevolutionaryfictions.com and http://lagazetteroyale.com.
Nathan H. Dize: I remember the initial post, a poll asking the Twitterverse which Haitian statesman they preferred more Henry Christophe or Alexandre Pétion, and was glad to see that Christophe claimed a resounding victory. What initially inspired you to start the @LeBarondeVastey twitter account and how has your use of it changed over time?
Marlene L. Daut: Yes, I do believe the poll was one the very first posts! And the king was victorious, which is hardly a surprise given that the @LeBarondeVastey account personifies one of the most prominent men in Henry’s kingdom.
And, honestly, the account just started out as maybe this temporary little thing I was going to do for a while—tweet the very quotable anti-colonial, anti-slavery statements that make Vastey’s work so important— and then stop when it got boring or people stopped engaging with the account. How it started was that after the publication of my book, Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism, I would occasionally tweet things about the baron from my own personal account (@fictionsofHaiti) that would get a few re-tweets, like this one of his Royal Coat of Arms. And I just happened to mention one day to a couple of Twitter followers that I wasn’t sure if I was posting too much information about Vastey —stuff that was esoteric for the majority of people who follow me on Twitter—since he is still a relatively little known nineteenth-century historical figure. And these followers really encouraged me to start the Baron de Vastey account. Doing so, gave me another chance to amplify Vastey’s extremely important analyses of various parts of Haitian history, including, the role of the maroons in the Haitian Revolution, the righteousness of Haitian independence, the Spanish conquest of the island of Ayiti/Kiskeya, whether or not the word “slave” is an appropriate term to describe enslaved Africans, and the French empire’s continuously aggressive response to Haitian sovereignty, in general.
NHD: It’s fun to think of the Baron de Vastey as a person on Twitter, as someone capable of commenting on current events, and employing Black humanist philosophy to decry the ongoing legacies of white supremacist thought. Do you see Baron de Vastey as a person whose writing fits more squarely within the frame of a person providing extended commentary on historical events via threaded argumentation or is his writing more adaptable to the “bot” persona that just sends out isolated tweets and ideas? Do you think of @LeBarondeVastey in these terms? Do you find them useful?
MLD: Well, I think that the answer to this may be complicated by the fact that, on the one hand, there is a person—me, Marlene Daut—living in this world of 2019, who selects the tweets, and I can select them based on current events, if I believe they are relevant. Then, on the other hand, there is a definite limitation as to what can be tweeted in connection with today’s politics, since of course the Baron lived in a very different time place and his entire œuvre concerns the politics and history of his world. Related to this in another way, I would say that there is also a third element, perhaps, which is the audience. And I am not sure that the baron’s followers really want him to be commenting on present day issues, or rather, I do not know if they have a desire to read his works in light of contemporary events. I actually think, based on comments and replies, and the most liked and re-tweeted threads, that most people come for the history. For example, the two most popular threads of the baron’s involve asking the question, “Who killed Dessalines (according to Vastey)?”, and how the government of Christophe learned that the French were plotting to send troops to “Saint-Domingue” shortly after the Bourbon restoration. In addition, I know that at least one Twitter follower and fellow scholar has been using the Baron de Vastey account in a class, and so I think it has probably become more important to stay on message. The point of the account is truly to bring deeper more nuanced knowledge of Haitian writers like Vastey, as thinkers and important theorists of the world, to a wider audience. I also enjoy just letting Vastey shine, as some of his prose is truly poetic.
NHD: Most of the tweets you send are in English, in fact, you recently said that you translate on the fly for @LeBarondeVastey. How important is translation for understanding Jean-Louis le Baron de Vastey’s legacy today, particularly in the digital realm of Twitter?
MLD: Yes, that is right. First, I translate all the phrases into a word document. Then as I type them into Twitter, there is another level of translation, which is what I have to do to the quotes to fit them into the 250-character count. In order to adhere to Twitter’s limits, I am often having to cut words, or choose a shorter synonym that is perhaps less elegant than my original choice. Also, every once in a while it has been the case that I have had to choose a word that was not exactly le mot juste simply because my audience would have had no context for understanding the baron’s rhetorical flourishes. This was the case in one of Vastey’s texts where he used the word, “amphibiologique,” which I translated as “amphibious,” instead of its literal translation as “amphibiological.” You can see from the dialogue that followed that certain readers of the Vastey account became intrigued and then went right to the original source to read for themselves. I’d call that a translation, and scholarly! win, since it started an entire conversation about the translation itself, first, and foremost; and then second, we contended with questions about what on earth Vastey was doing with that intriguing word. The answer to the latter was, of course, he was describing the treachery of the French colonists, which is his favorite subject.
NHD: You also have your own personal account @FictionsofHaiti in addition to @LeBarondeVastey, how do you practically manage the two accounts? Do you have any advice for folks who are trying to maintain a healthy balance between life, work, and multiple social media personas that play a crucial role in their (public) scholarship?
MLD: Goodness, I would say that managing two accounts is rougher than I had imagined. Of late, I have been neglecting the Vastey account a bit, as I finish up a few other projects. I think that what is key is remembering that even though I know people enjoy the account, everything will be fine if I don’t tweet from it for a while. Tweeting from the Vastey account is extremely time-consuming because I often have to go back through my notes to find themes across Vastey’s published writings (and there are eleven of them!), just to figure out which series of tweets should appear together. Then I still have to do the translations. It is not possible right now to use a bot, to answer the question from above in a different way. And so I would say to anyone looking for healthy balance between life and work, just tweet when you can. The world can wait.