Say “Haiti” on campus these days, and you are sounding a series of buzzwords: earthquake, poverty, corruption, tragedy.
But long before the Caribbean nation was a headline splashed across international newspapers, it was something else for Jean Casimir—home. And in his four months at Duke, the Mellon Visiting Professor at the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies has sought to provide the University with an understanding of his country that goes deeper than a natural disaster.
“So many countries accuse Haiti of failing, when really the world has failed Haiti,” he said. “It’s fundamental that we get people to talk about this place, and ask questions without just assuming they know the answers.”
When it comes to sharing Haiti with the world, Casimir has a lifetime of experience. An acclaimed expert of social change and development at the University of Haiti, his academic career has taken him from the Caribbean to the Congo to Columbia University. His work has been published in four languages. His globetrotting, accolade-stacked resume does not end there: Casimir is also the former Haitian ambassador to the United States under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
While he may be used to fielding demands from the world’s most seasoned diplomats, this semester Casimir faced a far different crowd: Duke students. He teaches two courses on Haitian society at the University, which has been an experience that brought him face-to-face with how American students perceived his country—if they knew about it at all.
“To be honest, at the beginning of the semester most of my [undergraduate] students had no idea about Haiti,” he said. “Or if they knew the Haiti of today, they did not know where it had come from.”
But for Casimir, that lack of understanding is hardly new. Having spent much of his adult life in voluntary exile to avoid the grip of the brutal father-son Duvalier regime in Haiti, he developed a deep understanding of his country from the outside looking in. He said he has always felt a personal mission to make sure Haiti was portrayed in a fair and nuanced way on the world stage.
Laurent Dubois, professor of French studies and history and a longtime friend of Casimir’s, helped arrange the scholar’s Duke stay for precisely that reason. He wanted to open new lines of dialogue about Haiti between scholars, students and the community at large. So far, he said, he has not been disappointed by the experience.
The two professors are team-teaching a graduate history seminar on Haiti in the 20th century, and Dubois said Casimir’s participation has added depth and immediacy to the course material, giving students a direct line to Haitian intellectual and political life.
Junior Nnenna Ene, a student in the class, said she is awed by having a professor who has not only studied the history he teaches, but also helped to shape it. She added that his enthusiasm and narrative style of speaking—peppered with French, Spanish and Haitian Creole—makes for an engaging and entertaining class experience.
“You ask him one question and he answers two or three,” she said.
As Casimir’s semester at the University nears its end, he has joined Dubois, Professor of French Studies Deborah Jenson and French studies graduate student Julia Gaffield to organize an academic conference titled “Haiti’s History: Foundations for the Future.”
Taking place on campus today and Friday, the event draws together intellectuals from across the United States and Caribbean to discuss Haiti’s past and the country’s reconstruction, with special regard for the preservation of archival materials displaced by the January earthquake. Casimir sees Duke’s resources as one of its best assets.
“The libraries [at Duke] astound me,” he said. “You live in opulence, true opulence. Haiti has very little compared to that.”
Once the conference finishes, Casimir will stay at Duke for a few more weeks to watch the last of the semester unwind. But soon, he has somewhere else he needs to be.
“It’s time to go home,” he said.
Naureen Khan contributed reporting.