Could an All-African Army Liberate Haiti?

On December 16, 1990, in a landslide victory, Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide became Haiti’s first democratically elected president. Less than a year later, Aristide was deposed in a US-backed coup and sent into exile. The following essay, first published in 1992 by Professor Robin D. G. Kelley, of UCLA’s Departments of African American Studies and History, offers some historical reflections on the possibilities of Aristide’s return to Haiti in the context of the history of Black international solidarity movements. We republish it today, well aware that at the present time elections in Haiti are long overdue — and mindful of the fact that under the guise of Opération Burkina Faso there is a strengthening movement to unseat Michel Martelly, to end the United Nations occupation, and to restore democracy to Haiti.

COULD AN ALL-AFRICAN ARMY LIBERATE HAITI?

Robin D. G. Kelley, New York Daily Challenge, June 22, 1992

The growing demand that President Bush, the Organization of American States, or the United Nations send troops to return deposed Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power is neither unreasonable nor without precedent.  Recent events in the Gulf, Panama, and Grenada come to mind immediately, though the United States’ willingness to intervene militarily in the affairs of other countries is part of a very long and established tradition.  It is important to keep in mind, however, that U.S. troops have never been deployed to defend a democratic regime; on the contrary, democratically elected governments have been destabilized by the United States in order to secure business or geopolitical interests, as has been the case in Cuba, Guatemala, Guyana, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, to name but a few.  Indeed, we must not forget that Haiti itself fell under U.S. occupation between 1915-1934.  Under the auspices of the Marines, the U.S. imposed a new constitution on the Haitian people permitting foreigners to own or lease land.  When the Marines finally withdrew in 1934, the U.S. still retained control over Haiti’s customs.

These are important historical lessons, for they underscore and make all the more tenable Earl Caldwell’s recent column in the Daily News, “Army of Blacks can Solve Haiti’s Woe,” in which he ponders the possibility of a volunteer army of African-American and Caribbean “freedom fighters” restoring Aristide to power.  As Caldwell reminded us, not only does the U.S. have a history of supporting such volunteer armies–citing as one treacherous example the “contras” in Nicaragua–but Haitians have voluntarily spilled blood in defense of the U.S.: two centuries ago individuals from the island of Saint Domingue (what would become modern day Haiti) joined the American Revolution against British colonial rule.  And given the Bush administration’s repatriation of Haitian refugees and its refusal to take any significant action on behalf of Aristide’s government, the deployment of an army of black “freedom fighters” on Haiti’s behalf is, in Caldwell’s words, “not such a far fetched idea.”

As our own history as African-Americans makes clear, there are several important precedents for this kind of Pan-African “citizens” intervention.  After Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and initiated what should be regarded as the first battle in the Second World War, thousands of African-Americans, West Indians, and Africans volunteered to create brigades and participate in the struggle to expel the Italian forces.  Almost overnight an array of support organizations were formed, mainly in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, to raise money for relief and medical aid, and the Pan-African Reconstruction Association (PARA) headed by Samuel Daniels initiated efforts to recruit men for Emperor Haile Selassie’s army. According to Daniels, his organization had already mobilized an estimated 1,000 volunteers in New York, 1,500 in Philadelphia, 8,000 in Chicago, 5,000 in Detroit, and 2,000 in Kansas City.  Likewise, in other parts of the world, black people rallied to the defense of Ethiopia.  In Jamaica hundreds attempted to enlist and at least 1,400 people signed a petition repealing Britain’s Foreign Enlistment Act, which would have enabled colonial subjects to participate in the war.  In South Africa, a few hundred black workers initiated an armed march to Ethiopia, until it was eventually circumvented by the British.

Initially Selassie was willing to accept African-American combatants, but pressure from the U.S. government compelled Ethiopia to cease all recruitment efforts.  Indeed, the Roosevelt administration took no action against Italy for its aggression again a sovereign state, a stance no doubt linked to the race of Ethiopia’s inhabitants.  Furthermore, potential volunteers were warned that they would be in violation of federal statute of 1818 governing the enlistment of U.S. citizens in a foreign army.  Despite the law, an organization called the Black Legion allegedly established a training camp in upstate New York for some 3,000 volunteers, while another group made plans to purchase a freighter to carry black men to the Horn of Africa.  None of these efforts came to fruition, however.  According to most accounts, only two African-Americans ever reached Ethiopia–airmen John C. Robinson of Chicago’s Southside, and Harlem’s own Hubert F. Julian.

Although the promise of a African-American brigade in the Horn of Africa was never realized, Blacks discovered another ground on which to revenge Ethiopia and fight fascism directly: Spain.  Black participation in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) marks one of the most important yet little known moments in the history of international and Pan-African solidarity.  Altogether over eighty black men and one black woman (a Harlem nurse named Salaria Kee) risked life, limb, and their own U.S. citizenship to defend a legally elected government from a fascist takeover and to get back at Mussolini for the invasion.  Thanks to a timely book edited by Danny Duncan Collum of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives titled, African-Americans in the Spanish Civil War: “This Ain’t Ethiopia, But It’ll Do” (G.K. Hall, 1992), we have at our fingertips an analogue to Haiti’s current crisis and an historical precedent for intervention.

By the middle of 1936, after Selassie fled to Europe and discouraged volunteers, and Italy settled into its role as colonial ruler, many of the same African-Americans involved in pro-Ethiopian solidarity work found themselves unofficially volunteering for another war–this time in Europe.  In July of that year, a right-wing coup d’etat, led by General Francisco Franco with massive support from Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, overthrew the democratically elected Republican Government in Spain.  When the besieged democracy failed to receive support from the Western powers, including the U.S., International Brigades were formed to defend the Spanish Republic. Altogether, an estimated 35,000 people from over fifty countries and colonies volunteered for the International Brigades, approximately 3,300 of whom were Americans.

African-Americans who responded to the call regarded the Spanish Civil War as an extension of the Italo-Ethiopian conflict.  “By fighting against Franco,” poet Langston Hughes observed, “they felt they were opposing Mussolini.”  Black newspapers, most notably the Pittsburgh Courier, the Baltimore Afro-American, the Atlanta Daily World, and the Chicago Defender unequivocally sided with the Spanish Republic and occasionally carried feature articles about black participation in the Lincoln Brigade.  Several black medical personnel from the United Aid for Ethiopia (UAE) offered medical supplies and raised money in the community; Harlem churches and professional organizations sponsored rallies in behalf of the Spanish Republic; black relief workers and doctors raised enough money to purchase a fully equipped ambulance for use in Spain; and some of Harlem’s greatest musicians, including Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Count Basie, W.C. Handy, Jimmy Lunceford, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, gave benefit concerts sponsored by the Harlem Musicians’ Committee for Spanish Democracy and the Spanish Children’s Milk Fund.  Besides the few who volunteered for service or helped collect money and supplies, the Civil War in Spain attracted a number of prominent contemporary cultural figures, including Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes.

Once in Spain, black volunteers distinguished themselves on and off the battlefield.  Oliver Law, a Chicago radical activist and ex-serviceman, was promoted to captain and subsequently rose to the rank of commander of the Lincoln Battalion, becoming the first African-American in history to command a predominantly white military unit.  Likewise, a black volunteer named Walter Garland was promoted to machine gun company commander and earned the rank of lieutenant after distinguishing himself under heavy fire.  The International Brigades also boasted of three black pilots–James Peck, Paul Williams, and Patrick Roosevelt–when the U.S. Army Air Corps refused to provide flight training to African-Americans.

In the end, the Republicans lost the war and Franco ruled Spain for the next four decades.  Only about half of the volunteers survived the war and few returning vets escaped injury.  This, too, is an important lesson, for all wars have casualties and victory for even the noblest causes is never certain.  More significantly, the defeat of the International Brigades in Spain can be attributed to the refusal of Western “democracies,” the U.S. in particular, to come to the aid of the Republic while the Nazis and Italian fascists used the Iberian Peninsula as a testing ground for modern weapons.  (Indeed, rather than applaud these men and women for risking their lives in a battle America would officially join in 1941, Lincoln Brigade veterans were hounded by the FBI, a variety of “un-American activities” committees, and labeled “premature antifascists.”)

The point, of course, is that the fortunes of any volunteer army in a place like Haiti depends of international support.  Yet, the very threat of a direct intervention of, say, a Toussaint L’Ouverture Brigade or a Dessalines Battalion, as Caldwell’s article implies, would certainly put the issue squarely before the Bush administration.  For President Bush to reject an African-American/Caribbean “contra” strategy while continuing to repatriate Haitian refugees and refusing to offer Aristide more than mere words would expose, once and for all, the hypocrisy of this administration’s policies toward Haiti.  Unfortunately, as the cases of Ethiopia and Spain during the 1930’s remind us, the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy has consistently outpaced our own community’s heroic acts of international solidarity.

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The Killing of Patrick Dorismond

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An unarmed Brooklyn man waiting for a taxicab was shot and killed outside a bar on Eighth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan early yesterday in a scuffle with three undercover narcotics detectives, the authorities said. “Undercover Police in Manhattan Kill an Unarmed Man in a Scuffle,” The New York Times (March 17, 2000)

“I don’t have to ask the police what happened. I know what happened. They murdered him.” Patrick Dorismond: Another Victim of Giuliani’s NYPD,” Haiti Progres: Le journal qui offre une alternative (March 22-29, 2000)

“Giulani made a big mistake. You don’t play with those Haitians…. The Haitian community will bring him down.” “The Funeral March of Patrick Dorismond,” Haiti Progres: Le Journal qui offre un alternative (March 29-April 3, 2000)

Dorismond, 26, had rebuffed the undercover, who tried to entrap him into telling him where to buy marijuana. Another young black man had died, and I lashed out in anger. Peter Noel, “If a cop kills my son: A vow born of rage and sorrow,” The Village Voice (April 4, 2000)

As the killings of unarmed African American men become routine, it is easy for Giuliani to romanticize his ruthless rationales. Carl W. Thomas, “Shake the Trees: After the Latest Police Killing of Another Unarmed Black Man, The Feds Need Little Convincing to Intervene in New York,” The Village Voice (March 21, 2000)

“He kept talking about community-relations initiatives we had never heard of, and we’re the community. And he kept talking about the ‘perception’ of police misconduct.” Nat Hentoff, “Are We in a Police State? Nervous Cops Pull Triggers,” The Village Voice (April 11, 2000)

What was strange about the silence was that Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau went well beyond announcing that his grand jury had failed to return an indictment—an understandable outcome in a difficult case. He refused to assess the propriety of the disturbing police tactics that led to Dorismond’s death. Wayne Barrett, “Morgenthau’s Mess: The D.A. Fires a Blank at the Cops Who Killed Dorismond,” The Village Voice (August 29, 2000)

h/t @kimives13

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If we must die / Si n blije mouri

If we must die

By Claude McKay

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

Si n blije mouri

Si n blije mouri, ann pa fout mouri kou bèt
Trake epi kwense nan yon koridò pwennfèpa
Pandan tout alantou nou djòl bouldòg yo ap fè dlo
Dan yo griyen sou nou, yon bann lach k aksepte sò yo
Si pou n mouri, ann mouri tankou fanm ak gason vanyan
Pou menm lè san n ap koule
San manman yo ap blije wete chapo devan lonè ak kouray nou
Frè ak sè m yo, ann gonfle fòs pou n mache kontre lennmi an
Menm si yo pi plis pase nou, ann leve kanpe doubout, ann goumen
Pou chak rafal mitrayèt yo, ann lache yon kokenn kout poud ki fè yo tranble
Menm lè n ap gade lanmò fasafas
Ann kale je n nan je atoufè lach yo
Ann sèmante pou n mouri nan batay olye n kontinye viv ajenou

Claude McKay, “If we must die,” first published in The Liberator (1919).

Kreyol translation by Dahoud Andre (2000) [via Ezílí Dantó].

Image: Photograph of Claude McKay speaking in the Throne Room at the Kremlin, ca. 1923. Claude McKay collection, 1853-1990, Yale University.

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Migrations and Microhistories: An interview with historian Matthew J. Smith

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MATTHEW J. SMITH is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. His first book, Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957 is a brilliant, pioneering account of the remarkable political history of Haiti from the end of the US Occupation to the rise of Francois Duvalier. Red and Black in Haiti was the recipient of the 2009 Principal’s Award for Best Book from the University of the West Indies and of the 2010 Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Prize of the Caribbean Studies Association. His second book, Liberty, Fraternity, Exile: Haiti and Jamaica after Emancipation, is a path-breaking history of the cross-Caribbean, transnational political and social exchanges of the nineteenth-century.  Smith has also written on the history of Haiti and the Caribbean for Caribbean Quarterly, Radical History Review, Journal of Haitian Studies, Small Axe and numerous edited volumes.

The Public Archive: What first led you, as a Jamaican, to the history of Haiti—and in particular, to the years between the first US Occupation and onset of the Duvalier era?

My interest in Haiti’s history began with my first exposure to Haitian history, through Caribbean Story, the standard textbook for students doing History as one of their Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) subjects. In those studies, I became aware of the Haitian Revolution and its broad outlines. Then, as an undergraduate History major at the University of the West Indies, Mona, in my second-year survey course on Caribbean History (a compulsory course for all History majors), I encountered the Haitian Revolution again and chose to write my term paper on the topic. I read whatever was available to me then – C.L.R. James, David Geggus, and Thomas Ott. Even though I had read The Black Jacobins as a supplementary text on the CXC syllabus while studying for that exam, it wasn’t until the university course that I explored it more fully. That book had an astounding effect on me. I read it cover to cover in no time, drawn in by James’s moving narrative. I felt the immediacy of the revolution. I also felt very strongly similarities in the slavery experiences of Haiti and Jamaica. At the same time, likely influenced by the strong interest in issues related to political independence in the post-colonial Caribbean and the history of radical politics that I was developing at the UWI, I was also nurturing an enormous curiosity about Haiti’s post-Revolutionary history. In the popular discourse at that time (the 1990s), when Aristide’s first removal and then reinstatement was very much in the news, Haiti after 1804 seemed to be regarded as a completely different country than the republic Toussaint and Dessalines had created.

After UWI, thanks to a Fulbright scholarship, I left Jamaica to pursue doctoral studies in History at the University of Florida. I had intended to study the role of the United States in the movement toward decolonization in Jamaica. Shortly after starting the program though, a few things happened that drew me to Haitian history instead. A crucial factor was that my advisor was David Geggus, a scholar intimately knowledgeable about Haiti and one whose work I had read and admired. Another was that thanks to the friendships I was building with fellow students from Haiti at UF, I was learning a lot about Haitian society, culture, Haitian Creole, and especially music. The music was – and has continued to be – a phenomenal inspiration and influence for me. Listening to David, the Gemini All-Stars album, for the first time drew me to Haiti in ways that are hard to express in words.

With my long-standing curiosity about Haiti and these other influences, by the end of the first semester, I knew that my doctoral work would be devoted to studying twentieth-century Haiti. The focus on the years after the U.S. Occupation emerged because after reading and exploratory archival research, I was struck by how little scholarly attention had been paid to that period. Probably because of the socio-political context in which I had grown up in Jamaica, I noticed the particular gap in historical research regarding issues of class, color, and politics and their relevance to the political history of the period.

Can you say a few words about the Revolution of 1946 within the history of Haiti—especially with regard to the significance and impact of Marxism, surrealism, and an emergent noirisime on it—as well as within the history of the Caribbean region?

The events which took place in January 1946 which became known by contemporaries as the “Revolution of 1946” really marked a turning point in post-Occupation Haiti. To appreciate its effect we should remember the nature of Haitian ‘revolutions’ in the nineteenth century and leading up to the arrival of the U.S. marines in 1915. Most of these were struggles for political power that military elites waged. Democracy had little space in those struggles. After the Occupation, Haitian radicals felt that the nineteenth century cycle had ended. Marxism, surrealism, and a renewed noiriste discourse fueled that hope. The young Marxists who were associated with the newspaper La Ruche, viewed themselves as part of a vanguard that could change the political dynamic in the country. In this context, the January 1946 overthrow of President Elie Lescot was heralded as a monumental shift in Haiti’s political history. The political leaders were acutely aware of the pitfalls of authoritarianism in Haiti—likening the presidents of their own time not only to the country’s nineteenth century leaders but also to fascist dictatorships in Europe. They desired, I believe, a more incorporative system of governance.

At the same time though, these movements energizing the activities in 1946 were disparate; they had different political visions for Haiti. And, as it turned out, they were unable to overcome internal ideological conflicts, deeper social divisions, and the dominant power of the United States and the Haitian military.

I believe that the great importance of 1946 was that it raised the political consciousness of a wide cross-section of Haitians. This gave rise to the support for some very important personalities, including, among others, Jacques Stephen Alexis, Dumarsais Estimé, Daniel Fignolé, and Roger Dorsinville. The debates among these personalities and their struggles for power exposed the contradictions and virtues of black consciousness and left-wing political discourse when applied to Caribbean societies. Their influence also stretched beyond their generation. In many ways the debates in Haiti in 1946 and the decade following were precursors to the sorts of political debates that occurred across the region in the 1960s and 1970s.

You’ve written that “the source material for a study of the Haitian Left is extremely diffuse and research involved threading together fragments of information to build a reliable narrative.” Can you say something about your struggles in finding archives for Red and Black in Haiti and talk about some of the more surprising or revealing archives you discovered?

I think most historians of Haiti would agree that patience and an open-mind are necessary prerequisites for research. A lot of the archival material on Haiti is scattered throughout holdings in libraries and archives in North America, Europe, and the Caribbean. Unlike the Haitian Revolution for which there are incredibly impressive and extensive collections, source material for the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century is more rare and inaccessible. One of the reasons for this is because some important Haitian collections of the national period were dissected, with parts ending up in different collections. Another reason is because a lot of material was permanently destroyed in the Duvalier sixties. A prominent Marxist of the 1940s who I got to know well while I worked on the book, told me that he was forced to destroy all his party documents and literature during the Duvalier period. To keep them was to endanger not just his own life but that of every member of his family. And many other leftists and labor activists also had to do the same. Although internal party documents from that period rarely survived, the party newspapers that did have been quite revealing. While they may not give a lot of information on internal operations, membership, and meetings, they do offer some sense of how the parties positioned themselves in political debates and events. Having said that, there are fine yet underutilized collections in public and private archives in Haiti such as the National Library, and St. Louis de Gonzague in Port-au-Prince. I used newspapers from both collections in my work on Red and Black in Haiti and these provided a lot of contextual information on the period, especially for the years 1946-50 when the free press in Haiti opened up significantly. Research on radical organizations, however, was particularly challenging and to examine this, the most revealing sources for me were the people I interviewed. I was fortunate to have interviewed several people – many of whom have since passed – who were involved in the movements of the period. Their recollections exposed the blurred lines between partisan loyalty and social position, a point that I think is often misunderstood in discussions on Haitian history. These insights shaped the approach I took in the book’s narrative.

Clifford Brandt, the descendant of one of the Jamaican migrants to Haiti you mention in Red and Black in Haiti, has been in the news of late. Could you say something about the history of his great grandfather, Oswald (O.J.) Brandt, and his economic and political importance in Haiti?

Clifford Brandt Jr. comes from a family that is one of the most prominent of several well-known Haitian-Jamaican families. In brief, the family’s history with Haiti goes back to Oswald John Brandt, the most known Jamaican in twentieth-century Haiti who in his lifetime was definitely one of the country’s most powerful persons. Brandt was born in 1890 in Albert Town in the Jamaican parish of Trelawny. His father, John William Brandt, was a planter of German descent and quite prominent in the parish. After he completed school in Kingston Oswald worked as a salesperson in a store downtown. Around this time he met Therese Barthe, a young Haitian woman whose father was exiled in Jamaica. There were then very strong links between Haitian exiles and Jamaican elites. When he was barely out of his teens he married Therese and relocated with her to Haiti. He had the benefit of the powerful political and economic connections of his in-laws. Many Jamaican elites had capitalized on their contacts with Haitian exiles when they returned to Haiti and Brandt was no different. In the pre-Occupation period, Brandt got a job working in the National Bank through family links.

After the U.S. invasion he began working with the Royal Bank of Canada which had a presence in Haiti. At all stages in his career Brandt cultivated strong alliances with the political elite. He would eventually leave the bank and start his own business by 1930. Brandt purchased the confiscated businesses of German immigrants in Haiti and turned them into large successes under his company Brandt Brothers, Industrial and Commercial Undertakings, which he managed with his brother Ivan who was a solicitor in Kingston. By the Second World War O.J. Brandt became an enormously wealthy industrialist who controlled significant chunks of the import-export trade including agriculture, motor vehicles, machinery, pharmaceuticals, and textiles just to name a few. He also owned leading manufacturing plants. His economic influence made him a powerful figure in Haiti. Precisely because of this prestige, Haiti’s politicians during this period depended on his good favors. Brandt had an interesting relationship with Duvalier. Already given a national honor by Magloire, in 1960 Duvalier bestowed O.J. Brandt with the insignia of the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of Toussaint Louverture, one of Haiti’s highest national honors. But eight years later Brandt and his son Clifford–grandfather of the Clifford Brandt Jr. who is now implicated in the kidnapping scheme in Haiti–were indicted by the government for allegedly financing a foiled attack on Duvalier by Haitian exiles from Montreal and New York. There was also government suspicion that Jamaica was being used as a base for air raids by exiles and Brandt was Honorary Consul to Jamaica in Haiti. It was a far-fetched belief and part of a long history of Haitian state paranoia over the activities of exiles in Jamaica. At any rate, based on this father and son were arrested and held in the military barracks but eventually released. Interestingly O.J. Brandt never gave up his British-Jamaican citizenship and maintained strong ties with Jamaica. A good source on O.J. Brandt’s power, career and influence is Haitians: Class and Color Politics by Lyonel Paquin whose maternal grandfather, by the way, was also Jamaican.

In the Journal of Haitian Studies you have written of the importance of David Nicholls’ From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour, and National Independence in Haiti within the historiography of Haiti. In many ways Red and Black in Haiti offers a critical rejoinder to Nicholls’ classic text. I’m wondering what other texts on Caribbean history more broadly have been important for you in thinking about not so much your own historiographical lineage, but the craft and literary practice of historical writing on the Caribbean.

I’ve been impressed and inspired by the works of so many people who have written on the Caribbean. I can’t possibly include them all so I will mention some that have been formative to my thinking. Nicholls, particularly in his From Dessalines to Duvalier, and C.L.R. James in his The Black Jacobins made phenomenal contributions because of their conscious framing of Haitian history within the wider spectrum of Caribbean history. Haiti’s Caribbean context seems fairly obvious but I am always surprised by how frequently it is neglected in discussions and books on Haiti. I don’t think it is accidental that both Nicholls and James conceived their studies on Haiti in the Caribbean, specifically Trinidad. Among others, Gordon K. Lewis’s Main Currents in Caribbean Thought was another work that impressed me, especially in terms of its integration of various intellectual traditions across the linguistic divide. And Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery struck me as quite bold when I first read it. I have also drawn inspiration from Elsa Goveia’s work and her emphasis that careful study of the Caribbean past is necessary for the future of the region.

The works of Haitian scholars have been instrumental in deepening my sensitivity to Haiti’s social dynamics. There are many I could name here but I’ll restrict myself to a few classics that I draw on a lot. Michel Rolph Trouillot’s Haiti: State Against Nation, and Roger Gaillard’s body of work especially his studies on the Occupation, Les Blancs Debarquent and his La République Exterminatrice series stand out as formative texts for me.

Caribbean literature has also contributed a lot of nuance to my understanding of the region. In ways that historians often cannot, I find that fiction writers are able to use their imagination to fill the spaces left by the documents. Because there are so many spaces in Caribbean history, literature can contribute a great deal, particularly in emphasizing the power of the narrative of Caribbean history. Since high school, my reading of Caribbean literature helped to craft my perceptions of the region, its diverse cultures, populations and histories. Alejo Carpentier, Edwidge Danticat, Sylvia Wynter, Jacques Roumain, Jacques Stephen Alexis, Rene Depestre, V.S. Naipaul, Louise Bennett, Sam Selvon, Michael Anthony, Derek Walcott and so many others have been very important to me in this regard.

Your latest book, Liberty, Fraternity, Exile: Haiti and Jamaica After Emancipation, examines the history of migrations between Jamaica and Haiti in the nineteenth century. What is the larger significance of these migrations, especially against the better-known stories of migration to Montreal, New York, Miami and other urban centers? And what do such “microhistories” teach us about the Caribbean and the African Diaspora?

Haiti and Jamaica each have deep histories of large-scale movements from the island to other locations. The migrations to North America are better-known because of the size of the migrant populations. Today Haitians and Jamaicans form the largest numbers of non-Hispanic Caribbean migrants to the United States. This is a clear and justifiable reason for the intense scholarly attention to these migrant communities. But if we are to have a wider and more accurate perspective on the phenomena of Caribbean migration we have to look to other places where there were smaller numbers of migrants and study their movements over time. By privileging twentieth-century North American and European migration we leave out quite a lot. Recent migration histories give closer attention to this point and I am happy that there has been a noticeable shift in the scholarly literature.

My contribution in Liberty, Fraternity, Exile, is to tell the story of migrations and connections between Haiti and Jamaica in the nineteenth century which, though little-known and much smaller than twentieth-century migration, were very important. After emancipation from slavery in the British Caribbean in 1838, Jamaica was more attractive to migrating Haitians. This migration was fairly continuous. In Kingston they worked, cultivated friendships, traveled around the island, married Jamaicans, raised children, and made new lives for themselves. When they returned to Haiti, as many did, they carried these experiences with them. In turn, the interactions connected the two islands and over time Haiti became a site of Jamaican migration in the nineteenth century.

For me the great lesson from these “microhistories,” such as the ones I examine in the book, is that the Caribbean was not as divided as we often think. We need to revise how we perceive island relations. Travel between the islands was much easier than it is nowadays. Migrations more tangibly connected the islands and made people there more aware of their neighbors. Take for instance the long-standing view that post-Revolutionary Haiti was a threat to the political stability of its neighbors who feared its influence and export. While this may have been a perpetual feature of colonial and elite discourse, the presence of Haitians in Jamaica and vice versa challenge the perception of successful campaigns to isolate the islands from one another. Haiti represented much more than an endless series of revolutions and dictatorships. It also offered opportunities that could be tapped by the freedpeople from the British islands who went there or the middle-class merchants who organized business networks between the islands. Over several decades these migrations led to the formation of lasting networks that superseded island or imperial boundaries. Whenever a coup or revolution broke out in Haiti an immediate consequence was the arrival of Haitian migrants in neighboring islands such as Jamaica. These islands were closer than North America, cheaper to get to, less restrictive in granting entry, and importantly made the possibility of return to Haiti more foreseeable. Today there are families in both places whose origins can be traced to this earlier nineteenth-century migration. This situation can be widened to other places in the region where people crossed linguistic borders such as the case of Trinidad and Venezuela, and Haitian and British West Indian migration to Cuba. I feel strongly that we need to study more closely these sorts of connections and how they figured into the historical narratives of the islands. We run the risk of obscuring the history of the region and the diaspora by ignoring them.

You travelled to Haiti in February 2010-a month after the earthquake. Can you say a little about the background and purpose of that trip and tell us what you found? What changes or developments have you observed in the intervening years?

Immediately after the shocking news of the earthquake reached us in Jamaica the senior management of the UWI, Mona campus organized a meeting to discuss how the UWI could respond. The campus felt it was necessary to make a strong intervention that drew on the strengths of the UWI as a regional university. Then Principal of the Mona Campus, Professor Gordon Shirley, appointed me the director of this effort which became known as the UWI Haiti Initiative. Our mandate was to determine how we could best assist our partner universities in Haiti. It was with this purpose that I traveled to Haiti in February 2010. The devastation was quite far-reaching and serious. What was striking was not only the scale of the physical destruction, but the trauma and the emotional reverberations from the ordeal.  It was a difficult experience for anyone who was there at the time.

I met with colleagues and directors of the State University of Haiti (UEH) and based on those meetings the UWI Haiti Initiative organized a plan of action. The UEH was badly affected by the earthquake. Most of its faculties were terribly damaged and the institution lost faculty members, staff, and students. Attentive to that urgent situation, the UWI Haiti Initiative proposed to offer full scholarships to UEH students in various disciplines who were in their final year of study but were unable to complete their programs given the circumstances. We believed that providing them with the opportunity to finish their final year of study in Jamaica offered many advantages. The most important was that once the students completed their degrees they could participate in the recovery efforts in Haiti when they returned. With colleagues from the UWI I traveled to Haiti several times that year to work out the modalities with our counterparts at UEH. With local, regional, and international funding we were able to award nearly 100 full scholarships to UEH students who studied at the Mona campus and also the St. Augustine campus in Trinidad. I am very proud to have been part of that effort. Having Haitian students at UWI campuses and interacting with students from across the region was truly special. It was an important learning experience for all. At Mona there was strong support from the student body for the Haitian students and some lasting friendships were formed.

I think Haiti has been in a state of flux since 2010. Progress has been slow and uneven. There are so many areas where there is evidence of this. I also think that the earthquake exposed many of the inherent problems in Haiti that were little-known outside of the country. People have always been aware of Haiti’s poverty and its political challenges. But the complexities of how those problems function and replicate themselves across a range of domains was a surprise to many people unfamiliar with Haiti. I recall on early trips to Haiti in 2010 hearing foreigners and Haitians alike optimistically chant that Haiti would be completely rebuilt in short order. An experienced foreign educator who I heard speak at a 2010 conference in Haiti even mentioned that given the international support in funds and personnel, Haitian universities would make a dramatic recovery in a year. Such claims reminded me how deep the dissonance is between outside perceptions and Haitian realities. The country is still in many ways grappling with the consequences of that dissonance today. In the midst of it, there is always hope though. One of the most encouraging developments for me is the hard, daily work that people on the ground are still doing; the majority of these people work tirelessly without recognition. Some have been there since the earthquake and they continue to channel their energies to improve conditions at the community level. That is where the most positive changes are happening.

Image: Christopher Cozier, “Castaway,” from the Tropical Night series.

An archive of The Public Archive interviews can be found here.

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Seven Obituaries for Jean-Claude Duvalier

L’ancien dictateur d’Haïti Jean-Claude Duvalier est mort.

Ex-Haiti dictator ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier dies.

Haitian dictator known as Baby Doc who ruled by fear and brutality until he fled in 1986.

Jean-Claude Duvalier dies at 63; ruled Haiti in father’s brutal fashion.

Jean-Claude (‘Baby Doc‘) Duvalier was Haiti’s ‘president for life’ whose 15 years of misrule ended in ignominious and extravagant exile.

Justice denied by Duvalier’s death.

Jean-Claude Duvalier, Haitian dictator, 1951-2014.

Image: A.M. Maurice, Haiti Crucifiee (1986)

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Ebola, Cholera, and the Epidemiology of Anti-Blackness or, Black Lives Don’t Matter

The ravages of Ebola in West Africa and of cholera in Haiti – and the world’s response to both – remind us that the scourge of anti-Blackness is savage, deadly, and global. The response to the two epidemics suggests that Black people are expendable, unprotected from the most abject and degrading forms of suffering, immaterial – waste. And it raises the question: how do we begin to build a movement claiming Black lives matter when, clearly, they do not?

The United Nations brought cholera to Haiti in the fall of 2010. The cholera bacteria was present in the fecal matter of Nepalese soldiers stationed in the country as part of MINUSTAH, the United Nations force that has militarily occupied the republic since 2004. When the soldiers’ shit was pumped from the MINUSTAH camp into the rivers of the Artibonite Valley in central Haiti, the bacteria quickly spread unchecked. To date, cholera has killed close to 9,000 people, and sickened more than 700,000.

For Haitians, cholera’s degrading symptoms – uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea – reinforce the humiliation and indignity suffered at the hands of foreigners. So too does the international response to the epidemic. Despite reams of scientific evidence proving the source of the bacteria, the UN has refused to accept responsibility for the epidemic and its consequences. Their initial action of literally shitting on Haiti and Haitians by callously dumping toxic matter into water that served as a source for drinking, bathing, and irrigation for thousands of people, was shrugged off. They have also responded to Haitian requests for aid or compensation with a cruel impunity. When Haitians and their international allies tried to sue the UN for its actions in an attempt to get redress, UN Secretary general, Ban-Ki Moon declared the organization’s immunity – and Haiti’s lack of sovereignty – by coldly claiming that the charges against it were, in legal parlance, “non-receivable” – and hence, inactionable. In essence, the assertion of non-receivable becomes a curt denial of Haitian humanity.

Similar circumstances have emerged in West Africa were Ebola has stricken primarily Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Like in Haiti, the symptoms associated with Ebola mark it as especially degrading, the disease particularly “dirty.” A virus of no known origin that is spread through contact with bodily fluids, Ebola shares with cholera certain symptoms, such as vomiting and diarrhea. Though while the victims of cholera die from organ failure and acute dehydration, those of Ebola often die from hemorrhaging.

But beyond the symptoms, the response to cholera in Haiti and Ebola in West Africa has been strikingly similar – though, perhaps, in West Africa the indifference to Black suffering, and the desire to preserve White life, has been startlingly blatant. Indeed, many in North America found out about the Ebola outbreak when news that two white missionaries were given an experimental drug and flown out of the Liberia to the U.S. (at a cost of $2 million for each evacuation and treatment) for further treatment. A third white U.S. citizen was flown to Nebraska for treatment. But warnings of an epidemic had been circulating since late 2013 and by the time news of the White flight reached the shores of the Americas, Ebola had already infected more than 1660 Liberians, killing scores.  As of September 18, there have been 5,300 infected with Ebola and 2,630 deaths, with most of the cases in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

Here, again, we see a pattern where African — Black — lives are demeaned and deemed disposable. As Africans, including African doctors and aid workers were dying from the disease, three white missionaries were given the experimental drug – itself under much speculation – and flown to safety. By mid-September, when a fourth African doctor, Dr. Olivet Buck, head of the Lumley Health Center in Freetown, Sierra Leone, died of the disease, it was revealed that the World Health Organization refused to send her to Germany for treatment. At the same time, two Dutch doctors stricken with Ebola were flown home to Europe. It has also emerged that the first African doctor to die of the virus, Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, the chief Sierra Leonean physician treating Ebola, was also denied the chance by Doctors Without Borders to receive the experimental drug, ZMapp, given to the two white missionaries. To add insult to injury, the U.S. government first announced that a $22-million, 25-bed Ebola hospital was intended for foreign (read: mainly white) healthcare workers. While outrage forced the U.S. to include African health workers in its plans, it was – and has been – clear that African lives don’t matter.

The western, white, response to the cholera and Ebola epidemics ultimately teaches us that global white supremacy thrives on Black suffering, denigration, and death.  Next to the stories of Black disease as endemic and linked to uncivilized and untamed Black cultural practices – as well as the way white media revels in publishing pictures of dead Blacks – we get the construction of  “brave” and “heroic” white saviors who risk their lives for the Blacks and non-whites: the “white savior industrial complex” at its best.

Of course, there is no mention of the decidedly non-heroic relationship of the white western world to countries like Haiti and those of West Africa. As Teju Cole argues, the “white savior industrial complex supports brutal policies…[where] the banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality”: imperialism, neocolonialism, military occupation.

In a recent interview, Dr. Joia Mukherjee, of Partners in Health, explained the racism behind the west’s Ebola response by saying, “I think it’s easy for the world — the powerful world, who are largely non-African, non-people of color — to ignore the suffering of poor, black people.”

But we have to see this as more than ignoring the Black suffering poor; it is about white supremacy’s desire for Black death and Black suffering. It is about coming to terms with the fact that there is something systematic – and sinister – about Black killing globally. It is about the reality that in a universal context of anti-Blackness, Black lives don’t matter – anywhere.

This essay was originally published by The Black Agenda Report.

Image: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Riding with Death (1988). Source: Gagosian Gallery.

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Black Looks: The Haiti Feminist Series

After a ten year run, our dear friend Sokari Ekine has stopped publishing the excellent blog Blacks Looks, but she’s left us with an incredible archive of Haitian feminist intellectual, political, and cultural history. Black Looks’ “Haiti: Feminist Series” consisted of a clutch of essays, interviews, and videos with Haitian artists, intellectuals, and activists addressing a range of issues and concerns on resistance, community organizing, and movement building. We’ve collated links to the “Haiti: Feminist Series” posts below. They’re well worth checking out.

Haiti: Feminist Series 1: Women’s Movement Building and Creating Community in Haiti.

Haiti: Feminist Series 2: Movement Building and Creating Community in Haiti.

Haiti: Feminist Series 3, A Theology of Liberation: Interview with Madam Euvonie Auguste of Famm Voudou Pou Ayti

Haiti: Feminist Series 4: In Conversation with Flaurantin Marie Enise

Haiti: Feminist Series 5: In Conversation with Paulette Joseph

Haiti: Feminist Series 6: In Conversation with Souzen Joseph

Image: Sergine André (Djinn): “Untitled (2011)

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Frederick Douglass and Haiti: A Dossier

Letter from Frederick Douglass to Secretary of State James G. Blaine, Accepting the Appointment as U.S. Minister to Haiti, June 25, 1889

Hon. Frederick Douglass, “Haiti and the United States. Inside History of the Negotiations for the Mole St. Nicolas, I,” North American Review (September 1891)

Hon. Frederick Douglass, “Haïti and the United States: Inside History of the Negotiations for the Môle St. Nicolas, II,” North American Review (October 1891)

Hon. Frederick Douglass, “Lecture on Haiti,” (Speech delivered during the dedication ceremonies of the Haitian pavilion at the World’s Fair in Jackson Park, Chicago, January 2nd, 1893). [French Translation]

Frederick Douglass, “Toussaint L’Ouverture, Manuscript. Folder 1. Folder 2,” Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress (no date).

“Frederick Douglass on Toussaint L’ouverture and Victor Schoelcher,” The Open Court (1903) [pdf]

Frederick Douglass at desk in Haiti (photograph)

Title image: New York Public Library Digital Collections

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