Living hi Doctoral candidate to preserve stories of Ivory Coast’s founding

Binghamton University

“Where are you from?” is a complicated question for Binghamton University graduate student John Trinidad.

“I am from ‘all over,’ for lack of a better term,” said the doctoral candidate in history.

The story begins in Massachusetts, where he was born. At 10 months old, he headed to France with his parents and then, at the age of 2, to Mali in Western Africa. His parents were missionaries there, and he spent most of his childhood in the Malian capital Bamako, along with a few years at an Ivory Coast boarding school in Bouake. He grew up tri-lingual, speaking English, French and the West African language Bambara.

Trinidad spent one last fall semester on the African continent in 2002, only to have civil war break out in Ivory Coast.

“My two most poignant memories are the firefight that government troops had with rebels while our boarding school was in the middle, and waking up the next day to a strange engine noise and looking out my dorm window to see a French tank rolling past my dorm,” he said. “My family had lived through a coup d’état in Mali in 1991, when the ruling dictator was replaced by a representational government, so when the school administration requested an evacuation, I knew it was serious.”

After evacuating to Bamako, Trinidad spent the next two weeks bidding farewell to his friends. He joined his parents in the United States, and finished high school in Central New York, where his father worked as a pastor. After high school, he spent a semester at the University of Hawaii, followed by another semester at SUNY Cortland and a summer on a fishing boat in southeast Alaska. He then joined the military in 2007, but was discharged a year later with a knee injury.

“I went back to school, this time with more of a determination to do well,” he recounted.

He graduated from SUNY Cortland in 2010 with degrees in history and anthropology, earning his master’s degree in history there in 2015. Over the next three years, he searched for the right doctoral program that would foster his interest in African history; Binghamton University proved the right choice.

Now, a Fulbright award will take him back to Africa, where he will interview elders who have lived through the establishment of Ivory Coast’s nationhood in 1960.

“I am happy and excited about this opportunity, but it also takes me out of my comfort zone,” he said of the Fulbright. “I am immensely grateful to have this opportunity; grateful to God, grateful to my advisors, to my friends in West Africa; and to the people who have encouraged me to keep ‘fighting the good fight.'”

As a researcher, Trinidad is most interested in the intersection of Indigenous political and religious power with colonial power structures, such as the government and the military, and how both sets of power structures interact with foreign missionaries, he said.

Returning to Ivory Coast

“I study a variety of historical topics because I am very interested in the ways that the history sub-disciplines interact with one another,” he explained.

His Binghamton professors have aided his diverse intellectual journey in a variety of ways. History Professor Anne Bailey helped Trinidad develop an appreciation for the use of interviews and oral history in research, as well as the conflicts between public history and public memory. Other inspirations have included Associate Professor of History Heather DeHaan, Political Science Professor Ricardo René Larémont and Associate Professor of History Elisa Camiscioli, in fields of study as wide ranging as genocide, political Islam and French history.

“In the United States, we have sought to preserve the memories of those who fought and lived through World War II; others have poignantly captured the testimonies of Holocaust survivors for audio and film archives. The work John is doing in recording the memories of the survivors of the colonial era in West Africa is important in exactly the same way,” said Bailey, who is Trinidad’s advisor. “I am so thrilled that John’s grit and hard work has earned him a Fulbright. I also think he is going to be a great ambassador for the work we are doing here.”

At Binghamton, he also took part in research seminars that gave him the skills he needs to conduct long-distance interviews across national lines, including what to do if a foreign government official refuses to allow the interviews to be disseminated.

In other words: “How to salvage a research seminar when you have to start from scratch halfway through the semester,” Trinidad said. “It was the single most academically stressful semester of my life, but it was immensely beneficial.”

Travel restrictions connected to the coronavirus pandemic stalled his progress toward a dissertation prospectus. Last summer, he was finally able to travel to the Ivory Coast, where he gained access to scholars and sources unavailable in the United States. It was a crucial step for both his dissertation and his Fulbright proposal.

The Fulbright will enable him to do both urban and rural historical research in Ivory Coast. He will focus on interviewing members of the generation that lived through the end of colonialism and the beginning of Ivory Coast’s nationhood in 1960, most of whom are significantly elderly. To that end, he will visit as many locations in the country as he can.

“The Alliance Historical Society of Ivory Coast is working on building an archive from this pivotal time period for future researchers to use. I am hoping to help them with this goal. I will visit as many elders as I can and preserve their stories and experiences for posterity. My advisor referred to these elders as ‘the living libraries of West Africa’ and I agree with her,” he said. “I hope to help preserve a set of unique perspectives on the world.”

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