When I moved to the Dominican Republic in 2012 to conduct dissertation research on the history of Haitian migrant communities I knew I wanted to become what the world recognizes as a “publicly engaged scholar.” In the years before I began my dissertation, Dominicans of Haitian descent had seen their citizenship rights increasingly curtailed, and the Dominican government was often accused of human rights abuses against Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans. Right-wing nationalists relied heavily on history to justify anti-Haitian policies, claiming that the nineteenth century Haitian occupation of the Dominican Republic precluded any peaceful coexistence between people of the two nations. I believed that historical scholarship could potentially support advocacy efforts to contest narratives of fundamental conflict between Haitians and Dominicans. Unfortunately, while I might have been able to parrot the phrase “publicly engaged scholar,” I had no real idea what it meant, or how to go about finding practical applications for my historical research. Initially, I worked on making connections with different human rights organizations and immigration activists, all of whom were interested in and encouraging of my research. But I could not clearly explain how what I did could be useful for them, and as small organizations working to enact tangible changes for their constituents, this was of upmost importance. As a humanities student it was difficult for me to conceive of my research in practical terms instead of academic ones.
I found a way to get more involved almost a year after I had arrived. While sitting in a crowded bus on my way home from the archives, the radio cut to news of a ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal. Advocacy organizations had been attempting to challenge the legality government policies that denied citizenship to Haitian-Dominicans for years, and the court had finally handed down a decision. The results were shocking: the court ruled that anyone born to Haitian parents working on sugar plantations after 1929 was no longer considered a citizen. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of people had their citizenship retroactively stripped. The Dominican constitution established that anyone born in the country had a right to Dominican citizenship, except those “in transit.” The court argued that Haitian immigrants had been legally considered “in transit” from 1929 on, and therefore any of their children who had obtained Dominican citizenship had done so illegally. I soon realized that documents I had found in the archives months prior disproved the judges’ core argument.
Before I arrived in the Dominican Republic the National Archives had received a dramatic increase in government funding, and the administration was able to open several expansive new collections. Because of the sheer amount of material that had been released, many of the boxes had only been minimally processed and the government seemed to be unaware that newly available collections contained ample evidence that disproved official narratives about their treatment of Haitian-Dominican communities. From the 1960s onward, government officials had been concerned about the growing population of Dominicans of Haitian descent. Official correspondence stated clearly and emphatically that children born to Haitian immigrants were legally considered citizens, and frustrated officials wondered what they could do. Beginning in the 1970s government authorities began to float the idea of using the phrase “in transit” contained in the Dominican constitution, which traditionally had only applied to the children of diplomats, as a way to deny citizenship to children of Haitian descent. These documents proved that the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision retroactively striped citizenship rights from Haitian-Dominicans, a violation of both the Dominican constitution and international law.
I began emailing my contacts the day after the decision, sending copies of the most important archival documents related to the case. Over the next several months, I shared documents with anyone who expressed the least bit of interest. This was challenging at times: it was difficult not to feel some ownership over information I had spent so much time looking for, information that was hopefully going to help me write an innovative dissertation that could get me a job. Sharing archival material removed my power to be the sole interpreter of my research. I of course had still decided what documents were important enough to make it out of the archive, but by sharing them with as many people as I could I hoped they would not only be part of my project but also of a larger discussion about Haitians in the Dominican Republic. While as an academic I wanted to position myself at the forefront of discussions about the Haitian diaspora in the Dominican Republic, as an activist I in many ways wanted to remove myself. Given I could be perceived as an outsider—a white, middle-class American—I felt the best way I could contribute was to try to put documentary evidence in the hands of those who had suffered from the repression recorded there. Eventually, these archival materials did enter into public conversation. One advocacy group submitted them as evidence in a case in front of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and another organization paid to print a full-page reproduction of one of the documents in a national newspaper. A television news program showed the documents to their viewers and the anchors discussed their content.
Because I happened to stumble upon previously secret government documents that directly related to an important national court case, I was presented with a fairly clear-cut way to link research and advocacy. Most researchers will undoubtedly not find such a clear path. I still believe that unveiling archival documents can help organizations incorporate historical scholarship into contemporary political movements. The important role archives, as the institutional(ized) memory of nation- and state-making, can play in human rights struggles has long been apparent to activists and scholars alike. Yet, it is important to recognize the gap that still exists between archival access and archival utility. In many of the locations where human rights violations occur, archives are not digitized or easily searchable. In others, archives have been subject to partial censorship or complete obliteration. Local activists often do not have the time or resources to spend months, or even years, searching through mundane government documents to find the precious few that elucidate wrongdoings.
Those of us that benefit from the support of our departments and institutions can play an important role in bridging the gap between archives and activism. Technology makes it easier than ever to share what we have found. It requires relinquishing some ownership over our research, and it requires persistence. Many of the people I shared documents with certainly did not have the time or interest to look at them. Nevertheless, through diffusion pieces of paper that once held so much power became more accessible. This is certainly not the only, or the perfect, model for engaging in activism as a historian. However, it gave me a way to think about what activists needed from the archives, and how I could use my dissertation research to support their cause.
University of Miami
Image: photograph by author