Black Lives in a Colony in Crisis: An Interview with Nathan H. Dize

Spanish Map of Hispaniola. Photo: Wikipedia.
Spanish Map of Hispaniola. Photo: Wikipedia.

This month, I had the opportunity to interview Nathan H. Dize, one of the founding authors and the content curator, translator, and editor of A Colony in Crisis: The Saint-Domingue Grain Shortage of 1789. Colony is a digital project that presents translated and curated archival sources from a critical albeit overlooked episode in the history of Saint-Domingue, the grain dispute of 1789. Begun in 2014 with the support of the University of Maryland-College Park University Libraries and its College of Arts & Humanities, Colony is now on its third issue. Each issue contains an introduction, original French documents, English translations, and historical background notes.

nathanNathan H. Dize is a PhD student in the Department of French and Italian at Vanderbilt University where he specializes in Haitian theater, poetry, and revolutionary poetics during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before coming to Vanderbilt, he earned a Master of Arts in Modern French Studies, a Bachelor of Arts in English and French Languages and Literatures, and an advanced certificate in Latin American and Caribbean Studies from the University of Maryland-College Park. Along with his work with Colony, Dize has also become the editor of the H-Haiti series “Haiti in Translation,” an editorial assistant of the African American Intellectual History Society Blog, and a member of the 2017 AAIHS conference committee. He has presented his research at the annual meetings of the Caribbean Studies Association and Haitian Studies Association and published numerous translations, review essays, and chapters.


Brandon R. Byrd: Since its inception in 2014, A Colony in Crisis has become a model of digital pedagogy and scholarship. Most recently, it was reviewed in SX Archipelagos. For readers who are not yet familiar with the website, could you tell us a bit more about how Colony came about, its mission, and how it has contributed to the growing field of Digital Humanities?

Nathan H. Dize: A Colony in Crisis came out of a set of pedagogical questions. At the University of Maryland-College Park, there is an archive of over 12,000 pamphlets in French, around 500 pertaining to the French empire during the 18th century. Kelsey Corlett-Rivera and I worked with this archive to index and catalogue the individual items, but we wanted to have scholars and students engage with the archive in the classroom. We realized that we needed to curate, translate, and present the documents as useable objects for teachers, and for undergraduate students in particular. We wanted to pull lessons out of the colonial archive, to recover lost voices, and to provide students with a way to tell history through primary source documents.

In order to do this, Kelsey and I sought the pedagogical expertise of Abby Broughton to help curate the sources for an undergraduate audience. As co-authors, we realized that we were wading into new territory by creating a digital primary source document reader, so we started soliciting the assistance of specialists in the fields of French studies, history, and Afro-diasporic studies to serve as peer-reviewers. This layer of the editing process initially gave us a great deal of attention because our work was associated with leading scholars in Haitian history like Carolyn Fick, David Geggus, Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall, among others. However, as we are now in our third issue of translated documents, our site is helping to provide visibility for the emerging scholars on our Advisory Board like Manuel Covo, Erica Johnson, and Chelsea Stieber. Our site, thanks to initiatives like SX Archipelagos, has a certain status in the field of Digital Humanities, and we are trying to recognize the intellectual labor that our reviewers contribute to our work. This includes things such as circulating syllabi that feature A Colony in Crisis as well as formulating announcements for reviewers to send to their colleagues within their institutions. I think it’s worth asking how many DH projects never get off the ground, and for those that do, how long are they able to sustain their mission. As a DH project that has survived more than two years and four major site updates, I believe we have a mandate to advocate for better recognition of DH within the academy.

Byrd: As you explain on the website, a major goal of Colony is to make underutilized primary sources more accessible and relatable. To this point, how have scholars made use of Colony, particularly Issue 1.0 and Issue 2.0?

Dize: As of now, we know that Colony figures prominently into many course library guides in Latin American and Caribbean studies, French history, French studies, and other subjects. One particular use case that we highlight and feature on our website is the Background Note project that Sarah Benharrech helped us create in her course on riots and revolution in during the 18th century. For this project, students had to write a 250-350 word encyclopedic note for a person, place, or social demographic group featured on Colony. We went directly into Benharrech’s class and taught her students how to interpret primary sources and how to use digital tools to curate historical documents. Through this intervention, students were able to engage in transnational and Transcolonial discussions of revolution and revolt that are so frequently occluded in the French language classroom due to a lack of materials.

Haitian_Revolution
Battle of Vertières in 1803

Byrd: You and your collaborators just released Issue 3.0, an issue that highlights “pressing concerns about the kind of knowledge about life under slavery that can be gleaned from the colonial archive.” This seems to represent a change in focus from the first two installments. Could you talk about this shift and what this issue hopes to illustrate that perhaps the previous ones did not?

Dize: It is quite a shift from the first two issues. When we were creating the context around the “grain crisis”—a rhetorical strategy that the Planters conjured up to break French trade monopolies—one outside reviewer commented that he would have liked to have seen a deeper investigation of the subjectivities of people of color and of the enslaved as it related to Saint-Domingue in 1789. Not until Anne Eller reviewed Colony in June did we figure out how to approach this criticism. Eller suggested that the current debates surrounding the colonial archive, such as the December 2015 issue of Social Text, provided a way for Colony to shift from a very top-down model of history to a history of black lives “from below.”

These debates, combined with the extreme displays of police violence in the United States, encouraged us to look deeper into the archive to attempt to recover the lives of people of color—enslaved and free. For instance, one of our documents recounts the instance of two slave revolts that take place on Pierre Lesens’ ship as they are transported in captivity to the Caribbean. Another document discusses attempts to eradicate revolting slaves in order to preserve the colonial status quo. In this issue we took care to highlight these acts of resistance and foreground peoples of color as they attempted to survive in a colonial slave society. By telling these stories of extreme state violence towards people of color, perhaps we can teach students about how we got to the moment where we are now.

Byrd: In her introduction to Issue 3.0, literary scholar Marlene L. Daut argues that the “colonial archive undermines the idea that freedom, equality, and humanity have ever been universal ideas serving singular and shared goals.” That is an incredibly pressing observation. I wonder what, if any, contemporary relevance the authors of Colony see in this issue and its associated questions about race, slavery, and the archive?

Dize: It is absolutely pressing. This is exactly the type of entry point that we hoped to provide scholars with as they teach history, language, and law. If you look at the “Request and Petition” written by Free People of Color in the French colonies, we can see how even those who had property and their freedom from slavery lived extremely precarious lives. This “freedom” came with the psychological burden of being constantly re-enslaved for harboring maroon slaves, baring arms, practicing medicine and other things that constitute the daily life of a fully free citizen in 18th century Saint-Domingue.

Through these documents, I think we’re able to have a conversation with our students about what it really means to be free. At one point, the authors of the “Request and Petition” say “Sirs, the Whites have only spoken of their misfortunes, which are nearly entirely imaginary: it is a conflict of authority that they are raising between themselves and the Administrators of the Colonies, and certainly this conflict only interests us to increase our fears, to heighten our despair.” There is a way of reading this document that perfectly resonates with the fears of people of color now under a Trump presidency. The authors conclude by stating that the fears of people of color are much more real, which as Ta-Nehisi Coates articulates in Between the World and Me means to fear for one’s life.

Byrd: What is next for Colony and how can scholars interested in collaborating best reach its authors?

Dize: The next step for Colony is to make sure that the site is getting used in classrooms. We see this as the most urgent intervention that we can make, and the reason why we translate and curate documents for an undergraduate reader. For those interested in collaborating with us you can find me on Twitter @NathanHDize, via email (Nathan.dize@gmail.com) or directly contact us at (contact@colonyincrisis.lib.umd.edu).


Brandon R. Byrd is an assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University and working on a book manuscript entitled, An Experiment in Self-Government: Haiti in the African-American Political Imagination. Follow him on Twitter @bronaldbyrd.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Brandon Byrd

Brandon R. Byrd is an assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University and working on a book manuscript entitled, An Experiment in Self-Government: Haiti in the African-American Political Imagination. Follow him on Twitter @bronaldbyrd.