On Tuesday night, Professor of Romance Languages and Literature Hanétha Vété-Congolo gave her inaugural lecture as the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow chair on the influence of language on the history of the Caribbean, entitled “Ethicalizing Caribbean Thought: An African Contribution.”
The endowed chair is granted to an exemplary faculty member for their research and dedication to the studies of romance language. Since the chair was first given to Longfellow in 1829, funded by a donation from Sarah Bowdoin Dearborn, seven members of the faculty have been awarded the seat. Vété-Congolo was awarded this chair in 2021 and is the first woman to receive this honor.
“[Vété-Congolo’s research] brings to Bowdoin an understanding of a world that’s far beyond what those who were at the college in its early days would have possibly imagined,” President Clayton Rose, who attended the talk, said.
Vété-Congolo’s research focuses on how language and history intertwine in the Caribbean and impact the way we see the region today. She began her lecture with a brief description of her geographic focus, discussing how we may see the Caribbean as a set of islands when, in fact, the coast of Central America should also be included.
She then went on to discuss plantation discourse in the Caribbean and how, from a European perspective, plantations are seen as the historical Caribbean identity. Vété-Congolo drew heavily on the writings of French author Baudry des Lozières, who was fundamental in proliferating this European telling of a Caribbean history dependent on African labor. European colonizers stripped power away from these African slaves and instead amplified their own power. She underscored the value of giving back humanity to the Caribbean people after their human existence has been reduced to labor for so long.
As her talk was language-focused, Vété-Congolo also explored the meanings of various French words and how their connotations can further stereotypes and dehumanization in the Caribbean. She specifically touched on the classification of Creole as either a French or African language.
“It opens up avenues and space and possibilities, but it definitely can bring us to review the way we construe what Romance language is,” Vété-Congolo said.
Ayana Opong-Nyantekyi ’23 attended the talk after receiving an invitation from the Student Organization for Caribbean Awareness. She was intrigued by the talk because her honors thesis has themes in common with the research Vété-Congolo presented. As someone of African descent, she was also excited to celebrate Vété-Congolo’s achievement and support her work.
“I appreciated her lens on colonization, because we often talk about it within the context of the United States, but she spoke about it through Caribbean thought, which provided a new perspective,” Opong-Nyantekyi said.
John Schubert contributed to this report.