The conversation between Cornell University Africana Studies professor Carole Boyce Davies, and the iconic radical black activist Angela Davis went something like this:
“I am headed to Haiti,” said Boyce Davies, a former Florida International University professor who divides her time between New York and South Florida.
“Haiti?” asked Davis, a fellow author and distinguished professor emerita of history of consciousness at University of California Santa Cruz. “I’ve never been.”
And so began the narrative between two scholars that led to Davis, 72, making her first visit to Haiti next week as the headliner of the biggest gathering of writers and scholars on the Caribbean ever to take place in the country.
“This is a historic meeting,” Boyce Davies said about the Caribbean Studies Association’s 41st annual conference that takes place Monday through Saturday in Port-au-Prince at the Marriott hotel. “First, CSA has been everywhere in the Caribbean for 40 years and it’s never done Haiti. Given that it’s the first black Republic, there has been a real gap in our ability to say that we’re covering the entire Caribbean.”
Coincidentally, the Association of Caribbean University Research and Institution Librarians (ACURIL) will start its four-day conference on Sunday with 150 participants at the Karibe hotel in Petionville. This is only the second time in that organization’s 46-year history that it is meeting in Haiti, said Elizabeth Pierre-Louis Augustin, who is Haitian and this year’s president.
“As Haitians, we are very proud to host two major regional conferences and we have worked hard to organize and prepare,” said Augustin, director of programming at FOKAL. “We want to convey a positive view of Haiti.”
Both events are happening as Haiti remains mired in a political crisis over its disputed elections, and as the elections body prepares to announce Monday whether it will accept the recommendations of a special verification commission to re-run the first round of the Oct. 25 presidential vote.
“It’s going to be an experience for a lot of people who are used to things that work, and no major political unrests or demonstrations,” said Alex Dupuy, a Haiti-born retired sociology professor from Wesleyan University in Connecticut who is also presenting. “I hope that the week will be relatively peaceful.”
CSA President Boyce Davies said that despite concerns about the political situation, “the amount of people who responded have exceeded every other conference.”
Like Davis, many of the 650 scholars who are presenting at the conference have never been to Haiti, Boyce Davies said. So in addition to talking about Haiti’s history, she wants scholars this year to see and experience the country, which last year hosted the Caribbean Festival of Arts, commonly known as CARIFESTA, and the 20th Annual Caribbean Multi-National Business Conference.
In all, 701 individuals have registered and the scholars hail from universities across the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean and Australia. Discussion topics include titles such as “The Experiences of Jamaican female workers in the Cayman Islands,” “The Emerging Haitian Diaspora in Brazil,” “Migratory roots and routes of music of the Caribbean diaspora,” and “Beyond Hegemony: Haiti and the Ideology of Occupation from U.S. to UN.”
Dupuy and fellow Haiti-born academic Robert Fatton of the University of Virginia will both discuss one of the conference’s more popular topics, the unequal economic relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola.
“The demand for cheap labor is not just between Haiti and the Dominican Republic; it’s part of the the characteristics of global capitalism,” Dupuy said. “The migration issue can play the same role in the Dominican Republic that it’s playing elsewhere like in the United States with what [Republican presidential candidate Donald] Trump is trying to do.”
Davis, who made headlines last week when she rallied Americans to “do whatever is necessary” to stop a Trump presidency, will address the conference on Thursday evening.
The author of several books, Davis came to prominence in the 1960s as a leader of the radical Black Panther Party and the communist party. She made the F.B.I.’s Ten Most Wanted list and was put on trial for kidnapping and murder charges. The trial made her a cause celebre as supporters launched a “Free Angela Davis” movement. She was eventually acquitted, and has remained an activist fighting to combat racial, economic and gender inequalities.
“Her work as a radical intellectual is influenced by the Caribbean; she talks about that all of the time,” said Boyce Davies, noting that if there is a lesson attendees can take from Davis’ keynote address and ongoing activism, it is that “freedom is a constant struggle; it’s something that you keep working on.”
As part of this year’s conference, Boyce Davies has also devoted a day to Haiti’s teachers. Scholars also donated books and school supplies to a school.
“We need to take Caribbean Studies to the children before they get to the university,” Boyce Davies said. “I get university students and it’s the first time that they are knowing anything about the Haitian revolution. They don’t have details or facts; they don’t know what happened; what went wrong; what did people do right.
“We want children to get that knowledge, and for teachers to be involved from the earliest stages,” she said.