The Welcome Table: Felix Jean-Louis III
In this episode of “The Welcome Table,” literary journalism majors Sydney Charles and Tatum Larsen interview Felix Jean-Louis III, ACLS Emerging Voices Fellow 2020–2021, UCI Department of European Languages & Studies.
Tatum Larsen (0:10–0:16): Hi, everyone, welcome to this episode of “The Welcome Table.” My name is Tatum.
Sydney Charles (0:16–0:18): And my name is Sydney.
Larsen (0:18–0:51): And today we’re talking to Dr. Felix Jean-Louis III. As you can see, we are recording separately. I’m usually with my better half. You know, I think she’s up there in the Zoom, but due to the fires, we have to be with our families just to make sure that everything is secure and all that good stuff. So we will be together again in the next episode. But this time around, we are unfortunately apart. Miss her dearly.
Charles (0:51–1:00): The evacuation in Irvine had us going back to our homes. So yes, I’m sad, but that’s OK.
Felix Jean-Louis III (1:00–1:03): It’s probably the best-case scenario, right?
Larsen (1:03–1:16): Right, exactly. Yeah, definitely best-case scenario. But yeah, just to get started with this episode again, we’re talking to Dr. Felix Jean-Louis III. How are you today, Felix?
Jean-Louis (1:16–1:21): I’m well. How are you? Oh, I guess we know how you are. I’m well, thank you very much. How’s everybody at home?
Larsen (1:21–1:55): Surviving, doing pretty well. Felix is going to join the UCI Department of European Languages and Studies, the French Program specifically for the 2020–2021 academic school year as a part of the American Council of Learned Societies. In other words, the ACLS Emerging Voices Fellowship. Thank you again for joining us.
So before we get started with the interview, we like to do a little show and tell. And this week it’s Sydney. So, Sydney, take it away.
Charles (1:56–2:47): So actually, because I’m home now, I have all of my home things around me, and I’m actually able to get a little bit more personal this week. So let’s see, I don’t know if you guys can see this. Oh, yes. This is a picture of my great grandma who is still alive. So this is my mom’s mother’s mom. This was like four generations deep there. I really love her. She lives in Missouri. We talk a lot. I’m just I’m really grateful to be able to have such close relationships with such strong women in my family. I’m so, so happy that I was able to form a bond with her. I’m happy that I get to share a more personal aspect of myself, because usually it’s something that’s in my Irvine home, but now since I’m in my other home, which is with my family. Like I said, we had to leave our Irvine home so yes, I’m glad to share that this week.
Jean-Louis (2:47–2:52): So two things. One, where is your home away from Irvine home?
Charles (2:52–2:56): Yes, L.A.
Jean-Louis (2:56–3:03): And secondly, you should do one of those pictures like that, Jada Pinkett with her mother and generations.
Larsen (3:03–3:05): Yes, that would be cute.
Jean-Louis (3:06–4:26): But, you know, the thing that I actually really brings me back to and this graduating this year in 2020 was very important to me because I have a grandmother. She’s passed. But this was going to be her 100th birthday this year and I was very close to both of my grandmothers. Both of these women sort of really gave me a lot of strength. And for this grandmother that would’ve been 100 this year, Vivienne Jean-Louis. I wasn’t always the straight A student, you know, but she had this belief in me that one day I was going to do something, you know, and she always wanted a Ph.D. in her family.
So this year, when I graduated, I thought of her a lot. That she spoke it into the universe, when it wasn’t entirely clear. So it meant a lot to me to defend my Ph.D. and then to get the ACLS fellowship. I’m a guy, I graduated from community college, OK? So it’s not like I’m one of these people that went to Berkeley out of high school. Like I had to work to get here and she knew I was going to get here. And so it really makes me think about her this, you know, so it’s really cool that you were able to to show us this picture.
Charles (4:26–4:36): Thank you. Yeah. Thank you for thank you for sharing that as well. From grandmother to grandmother. And what did you bring to share with us?
Jean-Louis III (4:36–5:18): So I brought my guitar. I don’t know if you can see it. I sold a guitar in 2003 to go on the trip to Costa Rica and before I went to Florida State after graduating community college in 2005, I bought this guitar. So this guitar has sort of been with me as my only friend along this journey as I went from Tampa to Tallahassee to Miami. I mean, I got married, so I got another friend. But this has been with me along along the way, you know? So this is why I thought this is the thing to show.
Larsen (5:18–5:20): That’s very sweet.
Jean-Louis III (5:20–5:40): And a friend also told me that he can tell whenever I have a lot of pressure because my guitar technique gets really good, because guitar playing is my procrastination away from doing the work I’m supposed to do. So yeah, when I was writing my dissertation, I got really good at guitar.
Charles (5:40–5:44): Very stressful time, I’m sure. I’m sure.
Larsen (5:44–5:48): My destressing is just eating.
Jean-Louis(5:48–5:50): So yeah there’s that too.
Charles (5:51–6:08): I actually, I play the piano so I can relate, like musician to musician. That’s right. Definitely a way to distress, kind of refocus myself and just segue away from reality a little bit. So I appreciate music like that as well.
Larsen (6:09–6:33): Well, thank you so much for sharing that. That’s so cool. That’s so cool that you have that friend with you until the end. Well, just jumping into the interview for our first question, we wanted to have you walk us through when you first found out you’re going to be a part of the ACLs fellowship, were you excited? What kind of thoughts were running through your mind?
Jean-Louis (6:34–8:27): I mean, I was dumbfounded. I didn’t think I was going to get it. You know, it just, you know, this seemed like things that other more accomplished people get, you know? And I guess you don’t get become accomplished until you get an accomplishment. So, like I really did, I spent a lot of time thinking about it. And then I sent it away and I was like, all right, it’s another application that I sent.
I already had done my dissertation. I graduated. I was kind of chilling, so it was a nothing ventured, nothing lost. And then I was visiting family. We drove up to New York. We were in the backyard quarantine family visit and I look at my phone and you know that — it changed everything. You know, we went from having one salary to two salaries. I went from feeling like that as an academic, you know, I may not find my footing, to being reassured that I did go down the path that I could succeed at. And that’s not to say I’m going to be a star. But that, I can get a job at that. Somebody recognized that hard work I’ve put in and it paid off. It was reassuring. It was sort of destressing because we’re always worried about money, right? We had one one salary and my stipend from graduate school. And it was like, yeah, you know it was a UC and yeah this is a good school. I knew Winston James was there — somebody whose work directly fed into mine. And then there’s Jacques Derrida, the philosopher, who used to teach there, so I was like, “Ok I’m in a place, you know?” But the punchline was I had no idea where Irvine itself was, so I was like, “I know, yeah, so where exactly am I teaching, you know?”
Charles (8:27–8:34): Right, right. You were so you’re from Florida, right? And you used to be a Ph.D. From Florida International University, right?
Jean-Louis (8:35–8:54): Yeah, yeah. I’m not from Florida. I grew up in New York, but my family moved down to Tampa in like 1999 and I followed in 2000. Something like that and then I went to Hillsborough Community College, then to Florida State, then to Florida International in Miami.
Charles (8:55- 8:58): Right, so I mean, that must mean you’re experiencing UC Irvine all virtually, right?
Jean-Louis (8:58–9:00): Yeah, yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Charles (9:00–9:07): So what are some of the difficulties you’ve been experiencing like teaching/learning during this era of COVID?
Jean-Louis (9:07–10:51): You know, there’s a bunch. You know there’s something that happens when things are present in front of you. I got to go do this. I got to go talk to this person. I got to do this, you know, and then when things sort of hang out in the ether. As soon as I closed my laptop, it just disappears, you know? So it’s kind of like making sure that you’re not missing anything.
I haven’t started teaching yet. I start teaching in the winter quarter, so yeah, so that’s that’s been good, but, you know, the people in European languages have been really great, sort of getting me back up to speed. And to be honest, there’s like a COVID doldrum or the COVID blues or the COVID I don’t know what. It happens. People had to warn me about it. When you’re done with the Ph.D., it’s like now what? You spend two years or so of your life completely sort of immersed in this thing. It’s done. It’s successful. You graduate and now it’s summer and you’ve got nothing to do, you know. And so on top of that, then COVID starts to build up and you kind of just you need something to get going, you know? So like Carrie Noland is one of the people who have been has been in contact with me. And, you know, she’s got a whole bunch of energy, you know, and she’s also she’s also from New York. She’s trying to really be like the face of UCI for me and Maria, the other the other fellow, I think it’s been great. Like she’s really sparked me into, like, getting going out of these sort of slowdowns, you know?
Charles (10:51–11:26): I wanted to ask you about that. I was probably going to ask you about that a little later. I saw that you were going to be working closely with her. I love Professor Noland, and I took her class on Black internationalism, and that was wonderful. We had great assignments, great readings. She’s definitely awesome. I wanted to ask you a follow up question to like working with her, seeing as you are also a scholar specializing in the study of people of color around the world, what do you hope to gain from your lessons or working with someone like Professor Carrie Noland?
Jean-Louis (11:26–12:30): You know, it’s just great insight; she’s somebody who’s been doing it and she has work about modernism and Negritude movement. I don’t remember the exact title of the book. And one of the things I was working on and thinking about is a Haitian author, Jacques Roumain, and thinking about him maybe as a modernist as well, you know? So, I’m writing actually the article, not that article, but a separate one now, but it’s you know having Carrie there as a source of like, “Hey what do you think about this?” You know I’m not a literature person; I’m a historian. But I, you know, I’m a historian or maybe a literature person who’s writing about books in the past, right? So think about it that way. And so with some of her training to help round it out the way I think about things is something great. We’re just getting started and in the few conversations we’ve had, I think definitely when I submit this paper I’m working on, we’re doing a works in progress, definitely looking forward to getting that feedback from her.
Larsen (!2:30–12:31): Awesome.
Charles (12:31–12:32): Love her.
Larsen (12:32–13:04): It’s always good to have people to look up to and get feedback from, you know, that’s awesome.
So you received your Ph.D. in history, which is so cool. There’s so many great topics to choose from. We’re wondering, while receiving your doctorate in history, was it difficult to narrow down your focus or your subjects, or did you just kind of know straight off the bat what you were going to write about?
Jean-Louis (13:05–15:54): No. So, I came into graduate school thinking I was going to write about slave rebellions in the Caribbean or the rebellion of enslaved people in the Caribbean. So, I’m Haitian. I guess I should’ve started sating both my parents are Haitian but I was born here in the United States. I know I talked about some of the matriarchs of my family, but in my family, my grandfather and my dad are these sort of the lay historians. They discuss Haitian history and other histories.
A family get together is a bunch of these guys talking about Haitian stuff. So I was definitely going to go into that. But then first semester of graduate school, I do a project on the Haitian migration to the United States. And I find out that there’s a small migration that happened to Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance; the new Negro Renaissance. That piqued my interest because I’m thinking that the social category of Haitians that can move and migrate to the United States in 1920 is an elite group of people. It’s not like now where you have sort of people who are able to move across class.
This is particularly clear in my family history because my grandfather, who has the same name, Felix Jean-Louis I, his mother tried to come to the U.S. with him when she was pregnant with him. This grandmother of mine was not from the elite class and she was illiterate or non-literate and a dark-skinned, non-literate woman. And so she was sent back to Haiti because this is what they did at Ellis Island. Race was a major part of it, but, women by themselves would be sent back from Ireland to Italy to wherever. Because a woman by herself is dangerous. These are not my words. So my first semester of grad school, I see this. It ties to my family history. I’m intrigued. So I start looking more into it. And then the next semester, I read a little bit more about this period. I take more classes. So by the time my first year of graduate school is done, I’m looking at who Haitians who were traveling during the Harlem Renaissance period. And the moment I sort of got intrigued there, it just opened up like a huge thing. And I just really I got lucky in that I found something where there’s a missing sort of part in the literature that was interesting to me, that appealed to me and had direct connections to my family.
Larsen (15:54–15:59): Yeah, things are always interesting when you can actually relate to them on a personal level.
Jean-Louis (16:00–16:03): Yeah, year, for sure. For sure.
Charles (16:04–16:30): Going a little bit more into your research. So your research examines the intellectual and political life among African Americans and Haitians during the U.S. military occupation of Haiti. So we already know what got you interested in it because you have a personal tie to it. What exactly, if you were to describe your research, maybe for someone who didn’t exactly know, looking at it from an outside perspective, what things should we know?
Jean-Louis (16:30–18:24): Well, I would say that my research looks at the way a group of disparate people of African descent were working together to make a global Black community, right? It’s not inherent that all Black people are connected in Africa before colonialism, before slavery, they were not. But then they found themselves here. And then they were forced to say, “Look, either we’re in this together or we’re going to die.” And so my dissertation is about the role of Haitians in Blackness between the two world wars.
That’s what I would say, because it looks at Haitians and Harlemites during the new Negro Renaissance. But it also has a second part that looks at Haitians in Paris during the same time. There’s some work that looks at African-Americans from Harlem moving, going to Paris and those conversations and Haiti, I don’t know if everybody knows was a former French colony. 1804, they overthrew the French. But by 1915, the United States had come and sort of recolonized them. And so Haitians were caught between these two sort of colonial powers, the French and the Americans. So that gave them the unique position to be talking to people of African descent in the Francophone world and the Anglophone world and sort of bridge both sides.
Because at that time, I, as a Haitian, am obliged to say that Haiti was the only independent Black republic in the world, at the time. It was Haiti and Ethiopia that had never been colonized. And you had Liberia, which was an America colony. So Haiti was the only sort of group of Black people who had their own sovereign nation to move around compared to Jamaicans, African-Americans, Martinique and Guadalupe, Puerto Ricans, whomever.
Larsen (18:25–18:45): Yeah, no, that’s super interesting how a place can be so rich with history. I feel like we tend to just focus on like American history, but there’s like a whole other world out there for Black history that goes beyond the bounds of the Americas.
Jean-Louis (18:46–21:15): And this is actually what I teach. I’m applying for jobs now because in academia, you have to apply the year before. So I’ve written so many times. I am a historian of the African diaspora, to look at the way people of African descent in various locations. Because we do think a lot about, specially in this country, the United States, African-Americans. Just the term African-American says that there’s more than just people in the United States. The Americas or North America, South America, Mesoamerica. So all of these people of African descent, there are African-Americans. So there’s some of this like this tension. What I like to do is draw connections and draw divergences. So one of the classes I teach, I start off by saying there is no such thing as being Black.
There are many ways to be Black. It’s not only in this country where you have Black people from different parts of the country in different classes, but it goes transnationally as well. And within each country, there are multiple ways of being Black or being of African descent. I think the more people in this country with all the power in the United States realize that because African-Americans in this country have a lot of power. They have the power of the United States behind them, whether or not, whatever the level of oppression we face in this country, but we still have like a Barack Obama, exists with all that power here, a Colin Powell, a Condoleezza Rice exists with all that power here. Same thing you could say with Martin Luther King. So it’s important for us to sort of look out because we can look to Brazil and see a similar reality to what we’re living here.
There are divergences, but when you say that this person is Black, even if they behave in ways that we don’t think of as Black. We know the famous term, “You’re not acting black,” with all the racist connotations involved in there. But when we look at somebody else who may not be acting black but who are facing the oppressions associated with being Black, so it’s important that we put these connections, especially with sort of the rise of authoritarianism here and abroad that comes to sort of like in Nigeria, comes to bear particularly on people of African descent and lower socioeconomic people.
Charles (21:15–21:42): Examining those different demographics of Blackness. Yeah, I could do it all day, everyday. I learn something new every single time I open a book start reading and actually learning from people like you and Professor Carrie Noland and such as that. We wanted to ask you, while you’re with the UCI, what are some goals that you set for yourself? Do you have any specific projects that you have in mind that you’re going to be working on?
Jean-Louis III (21:42–24:14): Yeah, I’ll give a plug. I am working with Chelsea Shields in the history department right now. We’re putting together a conference that seeks to bring together people from the Pacific and the Caribbean. And for me, she has her own interest in that but for me, what’s particularly interesting is that, you might not know this, that 44% percent of the people in ICE detention centers are Haitian. And people don’t know that. We think of it and have this one idea of a Central American type misnamed as a Mexican. You know that people from Haiti are coming in through the southern border now shows a sort of a connection. And so the panel that I’m organizing is looking at the way immigration sort of comes to bear on the southern border that gives to California. I am looking forward to talking to people who do Chicano studies and people who do Pacific Asian studies.
I don’t even know like the specific terms for people who are doing migration patterns of people from all over the place but I want to bring this into conversation. Somebody referred to several countries as s-holes famously a few years back, or maybe last year whenever it was, and some of these places are not places that we would like to live in. They’ve been destroyed and the thing is is that they’ve been destroyed by a particular thing and that’s sort of neoliberal capitalism, which sort of pushes all these people to not have to leave their home because their homes have no jobs.
Ecologically, their homes are destroyed because of this. I found it very interesting that it’s meeting on the southern border, the person who called them, “crap holes” doesn’t realize that this is the result of foreign policy. And so that they’re meeting in the same place with a prison industrial system that’s waiting to put them in prisons. It’s is a great conversation to have with people who study migrants who live on the West Coast and myself who’s interested in the Caribbean. Just a final plug, the conference will be in May. We will send emails out for people to come and see us.
Larsen (24:14–24:15): That is awesome.
Charles (24:15–24:16): Tatum and I will be there.
Larsen (24:16–24:21): Yeah, we will definitely look out for that. We will be in the virtual crowd. Hopefully, in the real crowd.
Jean-Louis (24:21–24:27): Nah, virtual crowd. We’ll see how things are going.
Larsen (24:27–24:41): Well, that’s super important. Obviously, you’re going to be doing lots of great things at UCI and beyond. That leads us to our final question. What do you hope to do in the future, both personally and professionally?
Jean-Louis (24:42–27:46): Personally, to become a better guitar player, be a better dad to my daughter. I’m a good dad but you always can be better, find that extra ounce of patience. Professionally, a couple things, for me, there are different kinds of academics. There’s some who are very interested in writing and in living the life of the mind. That’s no knock on them.
I come to academia as a form of activism. So I would like to be teaching students whom I’m helping understand the world around them better, preferably at a public university so that first generation students, students from who are working part-time students, students who are maybe migrants themselves, people who need somebody. Because I’m sure there are plenty of professors who went community college but I’m not sure it’s the majority.
For these kids, it’s important. I had to go down to the bursar’s office be like, “How do I? Which way is up? How do I do this? Is there anything that I’m not thinking about?” I have these experiences and I also went to crappy public schools that did not prepare me for a college life. So, I understand that public schools in general are crappy. No offense to those of you who went to good public schools and that this is the difference. I tell my students that I’ve had to this point that the people at Harvard are not smarter than you. They just got better training. My job here is to get you better trained because we want you in those positions, because if people who come for work from where we come from can get to those positions, that’s how we can change the society that we want.
If more people of color are in positions of power, some of the issues that we have will resolve themselves, not all of them, but some will. If more women are in positions of power, some of those issues will resolve themselves, not all. And so this is what I’m trying to do. I think some of the changes that people have wanted to see, especially post George Floyd. I think we need all kinds, but it’s multi-vectors. We need the people who are going to protest in the street, the people who are going to build unions and we need professors who are going to say to students, “Hey, wake up to your reality. Hey, learn to make your voice clearer, sharper, more informed. Hey, this is how you write.” These things, I think, this will make a better citizen to help change the world at least how I wanna see it. That’s my power, you know.
Larsen (27:46–27:48): That’s beautiful.
Charles (27:48–27:51): Yeah, I was empowered. I’m feeling you through the screen.
Jean-Louis (27:51–27:54): Thank you. Thank you. Take my classes.
Larsen (27:54–27:56): We definitely will.
Charles (25:56–28:00): Yeah, we’ll be at the webinar in May for sure.
Jean-Louis (28:00-28:02): For sure, for sure.
Larsen (28:02–28:10): Ok, thank you so much for coming on the show. That was such a great conversation. You’re so fun to talk to.
Jean-Louis (28:10–28:24): Awe thank you. No, you guys make it easy. It’s great talking to you. You all should do a professional show. I don’t know what degrees you have or if you guys are in some kind of communications program. But you have a future. You definitely have a future.
Larsen (28:24–28:28): Thank you so much. We’re journalism students.
Jean-Louis (28:28–28:32): There it is. That’s the other way. Sorry, I couldn’t think of the other things that lead to like having a TV show.
Larsen (28:32-28:33): Potato, potato.
Charles (28:38–28:42): Thank you guys for watching another episode of “The Welcome Table.” This has been Sydney
Larsen (28:42–28:43): And Tatum.
Charles (28:44–28:47): See you next time when we’re together again.
Watch all episodes of “The Welcome Table with Sydney and Tatum” here.