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Field & Specialties
Ph.D, Duke University, 2015
M.A., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2010
B.A. Honours, McGill University, 2007
I am a historian of Africa, the Caribbean, and the African diaspora. My research focuses on the cultural history of slavery in West Central Africa and the Caribbean the early modern period. I am particularly interested how methodologies such as sociolinguistics make it possible to write history in a way that does not silence Africans.
In my book manuscript, entitled Vodou History: the Kongo History of the Haitian Revolution (committed to the OIEAHC/UNC Press), I investigate the trans-Atlantic history of the Kongo men, women, and children who endured slavery in Saint Domingue, helped win the most successful slave revolution in history – the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) – and founded the first black republic, Haiti. To get beyond silences in the archives, I employ a sociolinguistic methodology, drawing on a unique range of archival, linguistic, and ethnographic sources from the United States, Britain, France, Belgium, as well as Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo where I conducted research in Haitian Kreyòl, French, Lingala, and Kiyombe. I use this multidisciplinary approach to identify with greater specificity than possible with written documents alone the geographic origin of captives sold on the Loango Coast, following them from enslavement in west central Africa across the Atlantic to freedom in independent Haiti. By placing the revolution in a broader geographical and chronological framework, one including Kongo and Saint Domingue, before and after the revolution, I shed new light on the intertwined processes of creation and retention that characterized the major institutions of post-independence Haitian society: the lakou system of land tenure, the Haitian kreyòl language, and the socio-religious institution of Haitian Vodou.
My research has won support from the Mellon Foundation (2017-18), the Center for Global Inquiry an Innovation at Uva (2016), the American Council of Learned Societies (2015-16 declined), the Social Science Research Council (2012-13), Fulbright Fellowship (2012-13), US Department of Education (FLAS, Haitian Kreyol, 2010-11), and Duke University Graduate School (James B. Duke Fellowship, 2012-13).
The research for my first manuscript has generated two new projects. The first is an African history of the Haitian Revolution. Writing this history requires recognizing that that Haitian Revolution, like post-independence Haiti, was characterized by diversity rather than unity. To do so, I will build on my extensive archival research, using sociolinguistics and drawing on the “Vodou archive.”
The second new book project is a history of the Loango region from early settlement until roughly the present day. Too few studies focus on Loango, despite the region’s historical importance both in Africa and the Americas. Likewise, few studies bridge the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial periods of history. Arising from archival and field research in the Bas Congo and Mayombe regions of the D.R.C., the next project will use language to investigate the history of how western Kikongo-speaking Kongo peoples responded to historical processes such as Atlantic commerce, the slave trade, European colonization, and post-colonial governance and warfare, focusing on the impact the demographic disasters of the early modern and modern periods had on the social and institutional landscape of the region. This project is part of a larger intellectual ambition to research the history of, first, the Kongo linguistic zone, focusing on the polities of Loango, Kongo, and Tio, and second, the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo from the early modern period until the present day.
I am a passionate advocate of collaborative research across disciplines, including with graduate and undergraduate students. Working in the Duke Haiti Lab, I saw how such collaboration can create archives (Haiti Digital Library), art installations (Haiti: History Embedded in Amber), and even trace the spread, or lack thereof, of cholera to Haiti. As co-director of the Global South lab at UVA, I directed collaborative research on slave ships that sunk, the creation of a website on Atlantic Worlds, and mapping projects. This spring, thanks to a digital research grant, I will teach a seminar on mapping migration in the Atlantic world from 1492-present, a project I hope will serve as a proof of concept for a larger investigation of global migration in the early modern period. These projects reflect my broader interest in the way that digital humanities technologies create the possibility for researchers at all levels to produce new knowledge and new ways of knowing.
I am a historian of Africa, the Caribbean, and the African diaspora. My research focuses on the cultural history of slavery in West Central Africa and the Kongolese Atlantic world in the early modern period. I am particularly interested in the history of the Kongo Zone and Saint Domingue, later Haiti, in the eighteenth century.
In my current book project, "The Kongolese Atlantic: Central African Slavery & Culture from Mayombe to Haiti,” I follow captives from enslavement in Africa across the Atlantic to freedom in independent Haiti. I do so in order to understand how enslaved Africans used cultural practices as survival tools in the context of slavery in the Americas. I use historical linguistics to uncover new information about where in Central Africa captives originated. I demonstrate that contrary to conventional scholarship, the inhabitants of the Loango Coast kingdoms and Mayombe rainforest were not simply middlemen in the interior slave trade but themselves constituted the majority of the enslaved. Using a sociolinguistic methodology, I query how enslaved Kongolese men and women used cultural practices to mediate the experience of slavery on both sides of the Kongolese Atlantic world. I argue Central Africans drew on specific Kongolese spiritual tools to address the material problems of plantation life, demonstrating a remarkable durability of Kongolese ontology of both sides of the Atlantic world. Central Africans, therefore, made important contributions to the three cultural creations of the Haitian Revolution: the lakou system of decentralized land ownership and social organization, the Vodou religion, and the Haitian Kreyòl language. I conclude that the Kongolese used instrumental knowledge and spiritual technologies as tools to recreate communities in the aftermath of slavery and constituted the building blocks of independent Haitian society.
My next project is a history of the Haitian Revolution from the perspective of the African majority. In it, I will resituate the Haitian Revolution within the Kongolese Atlantic world, viewing it from the vantage of West Central Africa, the birthplace of the majority of the population of colonial Saint Domingue.
Awards & Honors
Mellow Humanities Fellowship, 2017-18
Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship, 2015-16 (Declined)
SSRC IDRF, 2012-2013
Fulbright Fellowship, 2012-2013
James B. Duke International Research Travel Fellowship, 2012-2013
Foreign Language Area Studies Fellowship (FLAS) for Haitian Kreyol, 2010-2011
HIAF 1501 First Year Seminar on the African Atlantic World
HIAF 2001 History of Early Africa through the era of the Slave Trade
HIAF 3559 History of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade
HIAF 4993: Tutorial in African History
HIAF 4511: Colloquium on Global South Soccer Politics
HIST 4511/5559: Undergraduate/Graduate Colloquium on Atlantic Worlds
HIAF 4511/5559: Undergraduate/Graduate Colloquium on Africa in the Global South
HIST 4511/5559: Mapping Atlantic World Migration, 1492-present
HIAF 9093: Tutorial in Precolonial African History