About the Unexpected Caribbean Symposium

Painting of three angels descending upon a child

In 1779, the first permanent resident of what was to become Chicago, IL was arrested by the British army, who suspected him of being an American sympathizer in the U.S. Revolutionary War. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable later moved to St. Charles, MO, where he died in 1818. While his home at the mouth of the Chicago River is now established as a National Historic Landmark, few people realize that this key figure in Midwestern history was of African descent, and likely of Haitian origin, arriving to the Upper Midwest through French Louisiana. He represents one of the most prominent examples of the “Unexpected Caribbean” in the Midwest, and in the greater United States.

Recent natural disasters in the Caribbean such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, which demolished island communities in Dominica, St. Maarten/St. Martin, and Barbuda, and devastated parts of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, have brought a large wave of im/migrants to the continental U.S. from the Caribbean. News reports have publicized American resistance to these “foreigners,” and those from Puerto Rico in particular, but hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have been traveling back and forth between the island and the mainland for decades, given Puerto Rico’s status as a territory of the United States. In fact, in 2013, more Puertorriqueños resided in the contiguous states than on the island.

Far from being exotic and isolated islands suitable only as tourist destinations or the site of natural disasters, epidemiological crises, and charity work, Caribbean societies have long been integral to U.S. history, economies, and cultural production (as well as the histories, economies, and cultures of England, France, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, and their territories and former colonies). The interplay between Caribbean cultures and people and the rest of the world reveals dynamic relationships and many instances of the “Unexpected Caribbean”—both within the Caribbean and outside its geographical borders.

The Unexpected Caribbean Symposium is a two-day interdisciplinary symposium and an educator workshop for regional teachers focusing on art, culture, and history of the archipelago, to be held at the University of Kansas Lawrence campus from October 18-20, 2018. Scheduled events will provide opportunities for participants to get involved in important dialogues beyond the University's walls for community-based conversations about the intricacies of Caribbean cultures, and the impact of the Caribbean on other cultures and histories. Ulrick Jean-Pierre, a visual artist born in Haiti whose work explores the connections between the histories and cultures of Haiti and Louisiana, will be one of the keynote speakers. Jean-Pierre’s paintings will be on display at KU’s Spencer Museum of Art during Fall 2018, and will highlight the Mary Lou Vansant Hughes Haitian art collection, including pieces by Rigaud Benoît, Wilson Bigaud, Charles Ermistral (Thialy), Max Gerbier, Edith Stephane.