By Makana Eyre
Meet Jean Eddy Saint Paul, Ph.D, the Brooklyn College professor using empirical study to understand New York’s Haitian Diaspora.
On most days, Dr. Saint Paul, the founding director of the City University of New York’s Haitian Studies Institute (HSI), sits in his double office tucked away on the third floor of James Hall at Brooklyn College.
Saint Paul is usually dressed formally, setting himself apart from colleagues and students alike on Brooklyn College’s small but charming campus.
When I met with him, he wore a gray tie hidden by a blue sweater, a plaid jacket, and gray slacks. He wears thick, angular bone-rimmed glasses and has an earnest and welcoming manner.
A sociologist by education, Saint Paul spent much of his life working and being educated in Haiti, his home country, and in Latin America, taking advanced degrees in both Colombia and Mexico. After holding several professorial positions in Mexico, Saint Paul was brought to New York to lead the brand-new Haitian Studies Institute.
HSI was founded in 2016 with a mandate to enable and support studies on Haiti and the Haitian diaspora in New York and across the country. But the Institute also seems to stand simply as a hub for Haitian culture.
For Saint Paul, HSI fills many gaps for the study of Haiti and its Diaspora, especially given the fact that Dominican and other Latin American studies programs have existed in the city for decades.
Beyond the need for cultural awareness, Saint Paul thinks it’s vital that a different voice be heard when Haiti is discussed. He sees the Institute as playing part of that role: “The mainstream outlets will tell you about Haiti when there’s a catastrophe, but they will never tell you about stability in Haiti. It’s like Haiti has never been a country with a stable day-to-day life,” Saint Paul said. “It’s vital to use the Institute to show a counter narrative to this: beyond stigma and charity and disaster.”
Part of that counter narrative is Haitian history, which Saint Paul finds urgent and relevant to today, especially as the United States navigates complex issues of race in politics. For Saint Paul, there’s a lot about Haitian history that would surprise the average American. In school, Saint Paul explained, Americans are taught a lot about political revolutions—most commonly the American and French revolutions. In his view, these movements are what most Americans believe brought liberty and equality to the West. But in his view, these revolutions were meant only for part of the population, usually leaving people of color under the same segregated systems that existed before.
“We cannot take those revolutions as the promulgators of the universalization of human rights,” Saint Paul said. “If we want to seriously study the universalization of human rights, Haiti is the only revolution in which we had masters that we overthrew and which fought against slavery, segregation, and colonialism,” he said.
For Saint Paul, spreading Haitian political history is needed not just because of its inherent importance, but because New York is home to tens of thousands of Haitians and Haitian Americans.
Steven Schechter, executive director of the Office of Government and External Affairs at Brooklyn College, echoed Saint Paul’s point.
“CUNY has a number of institutes that help different groups across the city have their voice heard. But there really was no place for the Haitian voice, viewpoint and research for the community in Brooklyn and for the diaspora,” Schechter said.
Although HSI acts as a cultural hub, it is fundamentally academic, and Saint Paul also intends it to be a place where top-quality scholarly research is done about Haiti and its diaspora.
A big part of Saint Paul’s research in the upcoming months will address some foundational questions about what Haitian Studies is and what is needed to promote it: “We don’t have any theoretical research or publication that engages the discussion of what the field of Haitian Studies actually is,” Saint Paul said.
“Haiti is part of Latin America, Haiti is part of the Caribbean, and we share some things, but Haitian studies has to have its own authority and specialty in comparison to Latin American studies. Why do we have Master’s degrees and Ph.D. programs in Latin American studies in the U.S., but we don’t have any similar program in Haitian studies?” Saint Paul asked.
Saint Paul also wants to delve into basic questions about the Haitian community in New York, about which, he says, little is actually known. “How many people are here, what kind of businesses do they have, what about geographical space of occupation?” These are some of the questions Saint Paul wants to answer. These are also the same questions Dominican studies programs have been answering for years. Even the seemingly simple question of where in New York the heart of the Haitian community lies has been given little empirical study, especially taking into account the rising cost of living in New York.
Answers to these demographic questions would lead to data about the Haitian diaspora that simply does not exist. In Saint Paul’s view, compiling this is an important way to improve understanding of this community.
Saint Paul has much planned for the coming years. There are the basics—like getting a bigger space to house the Institute—and then there are the more ambitious goals—like growing it into an institution that rivals counterparts in Dominican and other Latin American studies programs.
In broad terms, Saint Paul believes that there is a duality to his work and role at the Haitian Studies Institute. On the one hand, he seeks to celebrate and promote the work of Haitians around the world, highlighting the Haitian contribution to the advancement of American society—in culture, economics, and politics.
But at the same time, Saint Paul also runs serious and empirical research. He is a sociologist after all, and a large part of his mandate is to contribute to academic study that leads to a better understanding of Haitians in New York and elsewhere.
That combination of work, Saint Paul believes, fills an important gap in the study of his home, people, and diaspora.