Caribbean: Talking to Peter James Hudson of The Public Archive

Peter James Hudson is a historian based at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He was born in Edmonton, Alberta, and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia. His parents hail from the Caribbean —specifically, Jamaica — and Eastern Europe the former Yugoslavia.

Hudson’s field is modern American history, specialising in “the cultural and political-economic history of American empire and the cultural history of the African diaspora in North America,” and he is currently working on a book that looks at the political and economic history of US banks operating in the Caribbean.

In February 2010, together with his colleague Samira Sheikh, Hudson launched The Public Archive: History Beyond the Headlines, a blog-format “clearinghouse of historical and archival sources” on Haiti. (And he tweets at @public_archive.) As he explains, The Public Archive was a response to the debates about Haiti’s past, present, and future that broke out after the devastating January 2010 earthquake.

Peter James Hudson of The Public Archive

Peter James Hudson of The Public Archive

Hudson wrote then:

Given the incredible loss of life resulting from the January 12, 2010 earthquake in the Republic of Haiti, it may appear frivolous to turn to history — but history, too, has been a casualty of this disaster. In the reporting on the earthquake and the relief operations, Haiti’s history has been contorted by cliché, smudged by misrepresentation, or not represented at all. The country and its citizens have been rendered history-less, and its historic significance in the region and the world made invisible.

With The Public Archive’s second anniversary approaching, I interviewed Hudson via email about the issues raised by the kind of “digital humanities” intellectual work the blog represents.


Nicholas Laughlin: Did the idea to start The Public Archive come after the January 2010 earthquake and its media coverage, or was it something you had in mind before that?

Peter James Hudson: While we didn’t have anything in mind before the earthquake, the idea to start The Public Archive came about not as a result of the earthquake itself, but as a result of a profound sense of despair at and frustration with the media coverage of Haiti following the earthquake. As professional historians with laymen’s interests in Haiti, we thought that we needed to make some small, however limited, intervention in the coverage of Haiti, and we agreed that the best way to do it was by mobilising the research skills we had as historians in an attempt to provide some context for understanding Haiti’s history, and how that history was constructed and represented in the media.

NL: Were you involved in an online project like this before, or was this your first foray into using blogging tools for doing this kind of research/archiving/advocacy work (because The Public Archive involves elements of all those activities)?

PJH: I had been involved in those activities in the print world, but never before online.

NL: Are your students and colleagues at Vanderbilt regular readers? How have they reacted? What’s your sense of where the blog fits into your research interests?

PJH: I know it has been used in a number of classes at Vanderbilt and at other institutions. The response has been mostly positive — though, in some cases, I think the idea of “digital humanities” is still recent enough that there is an old guard of academics who don’t believe that digital media are part of the proper set of professional endeavours of academic historians. As academics, we’re encouraged to use blogs and twitter and the like to teach our students, but using them for other purposes isn’t seen as something that will help you on the road to tenure.

As for where the blog fits into my own research interests, in some ways it doesn’t. While it has led me to a number of digital repositories and open-access periodicals and journals that I did not previously know about, the history of Haiti is really a secondary part of my research. I’m trained as an Americanist, and my primary research is on the expansion of Wall Street and American banking interests into the Caribbean at the beginning of the twentieth century. Haiti is significant in this — especially through the role of the National City Bank (the precursor to Citigroup) in the first US Occupation (1915-1934). However, Haiti was but one of the Caribbean republics, colonies, and dependencies on the radar of Wall Street at the time.

NL: Do you have a notion of where most of your readers are, and whether you have a readership in Haiti itself?

PJH: The majority of our readers are in the United States, followed by Canada and Britain, with a smaller segment in Haiti, Jamaica, and India.

NL: Do you think the earthquake — and all the debate and interest it generated — has had a lasting influence on how Haiti is perceived by the wider world, or has it been the case that old stereotypes and received ideas have actually been reinforced by the nature of that debate?

PJH: Many of the old stereotypes persist — but I also think a new set of perceptions have been generated. There is a greater awareness that Haiti exists, but it seems that now Haiti and Haitians are seen as permanent wards of the international aid community. As a permanent ward, Haiti is now competing (in the minds of North Americans) with much of Africa as the site of celebrity rehab and redemption. And here there is the danger — and I think this is already happening — that as donor fatigue sets in, and a new fashionable catastrophe occurs somewhere else, Haiti will return to obscurity, until, of course, there’s another crisis.

More importantly, the moment you assume that Haiti couldn’t survive without your help is the moment that you assume that Haiti can’t be helped. And all the old tropes of dependency, paternalism, and, implicitly, racial hierarchy fall into place. This comes out in some strange ways — in everything from the benignly ignorant advertisements recently produced by Donna Karan in the name of “helping Haiti” to the sickening way non-Haitian photographers can build their careers on, literally, the corpses of Haitians, to the incredible number of architects and designs students who have settled on the idea that the best way of helping Haiti is to design, literally, huts and villages for the Haitian people. While this vision of huts and villages points to the paucity of the imagination of the reconstruction plan for Port-au-Prince, it also suggests Haiti is next to the racist constructions of Africa within the North American imagination. Port-au-Prince is estimated at between two and three million people; it’s the size of Chicago or Houston. Nobody refers to those cities as villages and nobody, from what I know, in those cities lives in huts.

That said, I think the question of perception and representation of Haiti is in some ways misleading. Sure, these things shape how we see Haiti, but I think what more people in this part of the world need to do is look less at Haiti than at the engagements the United States, Canada, France, and Brazil have with Haiti. At this point, I think it would make more sense for Oprah and Kim Kardashian to visit the Red Cross or the United Nations.

NL: Have you thought about expanding the scope of the site to include other Caribbean locations, or do you plan to keep it focused on Haiti?

PJH: In the Caribbean, I’ve thought about expanding it to include Puerto Rico. I had the opportunity to spend a month in 2010 as a visiting scholar at the University of Puerto Rico’s Institute of Caribbean Studies. The energy of its director Humberto García Muñiz — especially in the face of the constant cuts to his budget — was inspiring, and he has a real vision of Puerto Rico in a pan-Caribbean context, something that comes through in the pages of the interdisciplinary journal Caribbean Studies, which he edits. But my time in Puerto Rico and, after I returned to the US, the incredible protests organised by the UPR students, really made me aware of the absolute ignorance that we in North American have about Puerto Rico. Yet the work going on at the Institute, and the protests of the students, coming long before the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, suggest a visionary understanding of the processes of neoliberalism and neo-colonialism in the Caribbean and the wider world.

On another tip, we also considered expanding The Public Archive to include Somalia and Pakistan.

NL: What other online resources on Haiti or the Caribbean would you point readers to?

PJH: I follow the twitter feeds of Alterpresse, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, the Haiti Information Project, BriKouri Nouvèl Gaye, Defend Haiti, and Haiti Liberté for Haiti news. Together, they create a consistent and critical newsfeed. I also follow Inner City Press for their dogged pursuit of answers from the United Nations on the activities and behavior of MINUSTAH.

For the Caribbean, my favorite blog is Norman Girvan’s Caribbean Political Economy. I was always a fan of Girvan’s writing on the political economy of development and underdevelopment in the Caribbean, and the impact and role that transnational corporations have had on Caribbean political sovereignty and economic integrity. Girvan’s Corporate Imperialism, Conflict, and Expropriation: Essays in Transnational Corporations and Economic Nationalism in the Third World (1976) and his Aspects of the Political Economy of Race in the Caribbean and in the Americas (1975) are, in my mind, classics of political economy and, of course, his theoretical work with the New World Group in the 1960s is inspirational — I wish more people were reading both the New World anthology Readings in the Political Economy of the Caribbean, which Girvan edited in 1971, as well as the recent collection that Girvan edited with Brian Meeks, The Thought of New World, The Quest for Decolonisation. All of these texts provide important ways of understanding the contemporary global economic crisis.

Girvan’s Caribbean Political Economy blog offers an important extension of this work, providing an accessible entrance into many of the questions of economy and politics facing the contemporary Caribbean, and while it displays the depth of knowledge of a policy wonk, it is written with the clarity and language of a journalist.

I’m a huge fan of many of the better-known literary and cultural sites on the Caribbean — sx salon, The Caribbean Review of Books, La Jiribilla, and Repeating Islands — and also the African Diaspora, but I think we need more work on political economy. Girvan is sending us in the right direction. There is also a fantastic blog on Dominican thought and culture called Cielo Naranja, and I’m also a regular reader of Pambazuka.

I also want to mention two digital history sites that I regularly frequent, and whose online archives have led to posts on The Public Archive. The first is the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) — an online archive run by a cooperative of partners and administered by Florida International University and the University of the Virgin Islands. While they have a specialised Haiti collection, they also have documents, periodicals and newspapers, maps and photographs, letters and documents from throughout the region. The second is the Centre International de Documentation et d'Information Haïtienne, Caribéenne et Afro-Canadienne — or CIDIHCA — based in Montreal. CIDIHCA do not have the slickest website out there, but as a highly specialised, well-curated independent archive, they offer a model of possibility for other similar institutions and organisations looking to create online archives. They have uploaded back issues of the Montreal-based Haitian journals Nouvelle Optique and Collectif Paroles, as well as collections on the Haitian Left and Haitian numismatics. Both the Digital Library of the Caribbean and CIDIHCA are well worth a browse.

NL: In these interviews I always like to ask what’s been the most unexpected thing about running the site.

PJH: Probably the power of Twitter. I wasn’t really a social media person before the site started; since then, I’ve found that through Twitter you can curate an individualised clearinghouse of information and news on whatever theme you’re interested in, that goes far beyond a reliance on a single mainstream news source. By now, this is probably obvious to most people, but it wasn’t to me. Twitter has become an important source for generating traffic to the site, but also for creating a broader historical and cultural context — and a broader community — in which the site is engaged. I’ve also spent more time on Google Books than I’d like to admit, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that the entire back run of Black World/Negro Digest has been uploaded.


  • […] limited, intervention in the coverage of Haiti, and we agreed that the best way to do it was by mobilising the research skills we had as historians in an attempt to provide some context for understanding Haiti’s history, and how that history was constructed and represented in the […]

  • […] limited, intervention in the coverage of Haiti, and we agreed that the best way to do it was by mobilising the research skills we had as historians in an attempt to provide some context for understanding Haiti’s history, and how that history was constructed and represented in the […]

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