Michel-Rolph Trouillot, scholar of Caribbean history, 1949-2012

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a professor of anthropology at UChicago and a leading authority on the dynamics of power across cultural boundaries, died July 5. He was 62.

“Rolph touched many people, both personally and professionally. He had a deeply challenging, critical and caring mind and leaves behind an impressive scholarly legacy that extends beyond his published work,” said Greg Beckett, PhD’08, 
Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences Division, of his former professor.

“As a teacher and colleague he offered a model of compassionate, concerned and joyful intellectual inquiry. Rolph asked difficult questions, and he insisted others do the same. He opened new frontiers in the study of the Caribbean, but his impact extends far beyond the region. His work has significantly transformed our understanding of the role of power in the modern world. I am grateful to have known him and worked with him.”

Trouillot joined the UChicago faculty in 1998 after serving as the Krieger/Eisenhower Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and director of the Institute for Global Studies in Culture, Power and History at Johns Hopkins University.

Trouillot grew up in Haiti and came to the United States to join the Haitian exile community in New York during the years of Duvalier dictatorships in the late 1960s. Before beginning scholarly study, he was a songwriter and activist involved in political protest against the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti and against the American government’s treatment of undocumented Haitian immigrants.

He wrote an important book in Haitian Creole published in 1977, the year before he graduated from college: Ti Dife Boule sou Istoua Ayiti. The book was a history of the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804.

He received a BA in Caribbean history and culture from the City University of New York in 1978 and a PhD in anthropology from Johns Hopkins in 1985.

He also studied the historical evolution of Caribbean peasantries, their inconsistent integration in the world economy and their role in the building of nationhood.

He was the author and co-author of a number of other books, including Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World (2003), Open the Social Sciences (1996), Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995), Haiti: State against Nation: The Origins and Legacy of Duvalierism (1990) and Peasants and Capital; Dominica in the World Economy (1988).

The Caribbean Philosophical Association awarded him the 2011 Frantz Fanon Lifetime Achievement Award “for the originality of his interrogations in the human sciences, especially anthropology and history, and his articulation of the importance and challenges of Haiti in contemporary discussions of freedom and reclamations of the past.”

Jean Comaroff, formerly a professor of anthropology at UChicago and now at Harvard University, said at the time: “There could be few more appropriate recipients of the Fanon prize than Michel-Rolph Trouillot. His life and work embody the brilliant, restless spirit of Fanon, carrying forward the long, searing conversation between Caribbean critique and the legacy of Western humanism.” Fanon, who grew up in Martinique, was a writer who influenced postcolonial studies.

Yarimar Bonilla, PhD’08, a former student of Trouillot and an assistant professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, said, “It's hard to know how to mark the passing of someone who has so thoroughly transformed your life through both word and deed.

“Rolph's work is the gold-standard for me intellectually, but he was also a deep personal inspiration: bold, charismatic, unabashed, unapologetic, and fully engaged with life's pleasures and ironies. He offered a model of an academic who never compromised on life, love or laughter. I don't think this was coincidental to the power of his work. His writing does not just inform — it inspires and transforms. He always encouraged his students to find their ‘burning questions’ to follow their passions as this was what would truly sustain them and feed not just their careers but their souls.”

A service will be held in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A public memorial at UChicago is being planned for the fall.