Dark Specters and Black Kingdoms: An interview with historian Ada Ferrer

THE PUBLIC ARCHIVE: Ada Ferrer is Professor of History and Latin American Studies at New York University. Her research focuses on the themes of race and slavery, and nationalism and revolution, in the nineteenth-century Caribbean and Atlantic World. Her first book, Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868–1898, a critical, path-breaking study of the multiracial history of Cuban independence, was awarded the Berkshire Book Prize for the best first book by a woman historian in any field of history. Insurgent Cuba was translated into Spanish and published in Havana as Cuba Insurgente: Raza, nación y revolución and in French as La Guerre d’Indépendance Cubaine: Insurrection et Émancipation à Cuba! 1868-1898. Ferrer’s second book, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution, has just been published. It promises to add to our understanding of both Haiti’s and Cuba’s struggles for freedom and the significance and impact of the Haitian Revolution on the Americas. Ferrer’s articles have appeared in the American Historical Review, Annales, Review: Journal of the Fernand Braudel Center, Revista de Indias, Caminos, and Radical History Review.

Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868–1898, examines ideas of race, nation and citizenship in the context of Cuba’s late nineteenth-century anti-colonial struggles. Freedom’s Mirror examines the impact of Haiti and the Haitian Revolution on Cuban society. What led you from one project to the next?

My first book, Insurgent Cuba, examined the role of slaves and former slaves in the wars for Cuban independence and in the development of Cuban nationalism more broadly.  One of the things that struck me in doing the research for that book was how very important the idea—or even just the mention—of Haiti was. The Spanish government in Cuba constantly invoked Haiti as a warning and accusation, as a device with which to argue against Cuban independence. “This is a black movement,” they would say; or this is the prelude to “race war,” or to “a black republic like Haiti.” Opponents of independence constantly used the specter of Haiti. This specter of Haiti was not something I discovered; in fact, it was very common for historians and other writers to talk about how the specter of Haiti partly explained the “late” independence of Cuba. As is well known, most of Latin America became independent between 1810-1826, whereas Cuba did not defeat Spain until 1898.  Historians often explained that divergence by arguing that local elites were unwilling to risk a rebellion, for fear of unleashing “another Haiti.”

So, I became interested in getting behind or beyond that specter. It was that interest that led me to begin working on Freedom’s Mirror. I wanted to understand what people in Cuba actually knew about Haiti and how exactly they knew it.

And what I found surprised me. I found that for all the use of Haiti as a specter in nineteenth-century Cuba, in fact, Haiti in Cuba was much more than spectral. A specter is something incorporal, imagined. Haiti was definitely imagined in Cuba, but people also knew it and experienced it much more intimately, materially.

I’ll give you an example: There is a hugely important phase of the Haitian Revolution, in 1793-1794, when most of the black rebel slaves of Saint-Domingue ally with Spain (which controls Santo Domingo, right on the border with Saint Domingue). You have tens of thousands of rebels fighting against the French, and they do so as “auxiliaries” of the Spanish army. What we had not appreciated in the past is the extent to which the Spanish army on the Saint-Domingue border was actually composed of troops and officers from Cuba. So, in effect, you have men from Cuba dealing with Toussaint Louverture, Jean François, Georges Biassou, and other leaders of the black rebellion.  One of the Cuban officers, the Marques de Casa Calvo, who would later be the last Spanish governor of Louisiana, and who owned two sugar plantations and an unknown number of slaves in Havana, actually started a business with the rebels—buying sugar equipment from them and then sending it to Havana. He became the godfather of Jean-François and even flirted and danced with his wife. A sector of the Cuba elite thus had intimate contact and knowledge of the revolution. They thought they could control it and manage it. It was not some shadowy bogeyman, but a concrete, material part of their political education.

Among slaves and people of color you see something equivalent. Many scholars have argued that the Haitian Revolution –to quote Eugene Genovese—“propelled a revolution in consciousness” among African Americans. I agree, but again it was one based on material contact and knowledge. So, I was surprised for instance to see that documents such as the Haitian Declaration of Independence and other important texts of black leaders were actually translated into Spanish, published in newspapers, and circulated in Cuba, where they were read and discussed by people of color. Black people had real access to the words, ideas, and pronouncements of the revolution. Again, it was not only some vague abstract hope that slaves and free people of color in Cuba had; they engaged with the revolution and later with the Haitian state in more concrete ways. There are many other examples I could give and that appear throughout the book.

“A Black Kingdom of this World: History and Revolution in Havana, 1812,” one of the chapters in Freedom’s Mirror, riffs on the title of Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Kingdom of this World. Is Carpentier’s historical imagination important to your own reconstruction of Caribbean and Atlantic events? And what is the significance of 1812 and, as you put it, the “next Black Kingdom” of the world of José Antonio Aponte and others?

Carpentier is a beautiful writer, and I think that is important. His vision of the Haitian Revolution, even perhaps of revolution more generally, also strikes a chord with me. The Kingdom of this World is in many ways a pessimistic novel. The main character, Ti Noel returns to independent Haiti (having spent decades in eastern Cuba) and finds a majestic black world. Black men rule; the priests and saints are all black; so are the artists and musicians. This is power; this is something new created from revolution. But if the artists and saints and kings are black, so too are the men who force others to labor, who compel people to march, to carry stones and build fortresses, to plant and harvest, to obey. This too is created by revolution—a new freedom that contains within it new structures of domination. Some literary critics have argued that Carpentier’s vision of the revolution is too negative, too skewed, too focused on the repression of King Christophe. In some ways, however, Carpentier’s Haiti recalls the one imagined by José Antonio Aponte in Havana in 1811-1812. Aponte’s Haiti (like Carpentier’s) appears to be Christophe’s—not Toussaint’s or Pétion’s.

As some of you know, Aponte was a free black carpenter in Havana; he was a veteran of the colonial free black militia, maybe a priest of santería. And he was apparently the leader of an ambitious plot to rebel, raise the slaves and free people of color, and overthrow slavery in Cuba. The movement did manage to strike on several sugar plantations on the outskirts of Havana, but it was soon crushed.

Aponte was an exceptional, fascinating person—creative and erudite. He kept a book of paintings or drawings—a kind of mixed media scrapbook in which he drew and pasted in other images. It depicts a breathtaking array of stories, allegories, characters: Greek and Roman gods, European and mostly African kings and emperors, black priests, saints and other biblical figures, his own ancestors, Indian women, roosters, ships, moons, stars, and on and on. Unfortunately, the book is lost, and we know about it only through the descriptions Aponte gave to authorities when questioned. Still, there are many things we can glean from Aponte’s judicial testimony.

The book is many things, and I think Aponte created it as many things, as work of art and interpretation that could call forth different stories and different meanings depending on who saw it and what Aponte wanted to reveal to them. Thus an important-looking black figure in the book was—when Aponte spoke to authorities—a black dignitary in Rome. The same figure, when he talked to his co-conspirators, became King Christophe of Haiti. One way that I think Aponte intended the book to be read was as a meditation on black sovereignty. The book was a pictorial, intellectual, subversive experiment in thinking through a black kingdom—the one he and his companions were seeking to create, the one modeled by contemporary Haiti, by historical Ethiopia.

The significance of Aponte for Cuba has always been clear. This was one of the most ambitious antislavery movements in the island’s history. But Aponte—his book and his movement—also provide a wonderful opportunity to explore the intellectual history of the Black Atlantic. Even without the actual book and with only Aponte’s testimony about it, we have an incredibly rich source for exploring the worldview of a black artist and revolutionary, a rare if puzzling glimpse into what he knew and read and what he might have imagined. Still, we do well to think about the book in the context of the political movement that Aponte was making. Aponte showed the book to his fellow conspirators, explaining some of its images as a way to plan for and think about their own revolution. The book is a fascinating object, a missing visual text, but it was also part of the material history of an antislavery revolution.

The essay “Talk about Haiti: The Archive and the Atlantic’s Haitian Revolution” critically engages with the late Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s well-known and oft-deployed claim concerning the “silencing” of Haiti within the historiography of the Atlantic World by examining the remarkable efflorescence of narrative knowledge about Haiti in Cuba during and after Revolution. “If this was silence,” you state in the introduction, “it was a thunderous one.” But I’m wondering what your thoughts are on how and why Trouillot’s claims have gained such traction and how and why the metaphor of silence has persisted?

Trouillot’s metaphor, Trouillot’s work has had such traction because it captures something indisputable about history as written. We all know that history is written by victors. Reading Trouillot’s incisive critique reminds us of that: there is no Haiti in what have long been the standard references on the French Revolution. Indeed, even in the nineteenth century, it was rare to find historical actors writing about Haiti, for the most part they continued to write about Saint-Domingue, or Santo Domingo, or San Domingo. Part of the political isolation imposed on Haiti was intellectual—the powers of the world wrote as if the new nation did not exist. Silence was a political instrument, in addition to being an intellectual position. Trouillot’s insights point us to those truths.

But the intellectual and political work of silencing does not always require a literal erasure. Trouillot himself acknowledges that when he writes about what he calls “banalization”—when something by constant repetition, “gnawed by all sides” he wrote, becomes trivialized, emptied of revolutionary content. At the time of the Haitian Revolution, the revolution was everywhere invoked; power holders spoke constantly of the dangers of “other Haitis.” This was not a literal silence, but a figurative or “thunderous” one, maybe akin to the constant, seemingly automatic addition of the descriptor “the poorest nation in the hemisphere” after the name Haiti in popular and journalistic writing today. This is why Trouillot’s idea of silence—understood broadly as both erasure and banalization—has resonated so deeply; it brilliantly and evocatively captures the ways in which power pervades what we know as history.

There is one area, however, where I think Trouillot’s arguments could be developed differently, and that is in relation to the archive, which Trouillot understands as an institution of power. That is indisputable and I wholeheartedly agree. But having spent a lot of time researching and reading in archives, I appreciate how very messy and unpredictable they can be. Their scope and the every-dayness of the massive volume of records they hold is something that is hard to fathom from the outside. And so I think that in addition to understanding the archive as site of power, we can also understand it as a place that also reveals the fissures in that power. Silences exist clearly, but they do not emerge fully formed, or total. In the abundance and outsized character of the archive, we have an incredible resource for tracing the ways in which the very silences that Trouillot writes about are constructed, maintained, challenged day to day, by real people and institutions, in real places under concrete circumstances.

Ideally, I think, we should be able to somehow combine the eloquent critique of Trouillot’s with the intelligent faith of Arlette Farge in her book The Allure of the Archive.

Can you say something about the nature of the archives you visited and on the kinds of documents you were able to unearth?

For me, the archives—even in their tedium—are an incredible source of energy and creativity and thinking. Their messiness, their voluminousness is generative. For Freedom’s Mirror I worked in about twenty of them, mostly in Spain and Cuba, but also France, England, Haiti, and the U.S.

One kind of document that I used a lot is judicial testimony from cases of rumored or actual conspiracies and rebellions. Over days and weeks, and hundreds and even thousands of pages, authorities asked questions: who initiated the plot, what was their specific plan, who tried to recruit whom, who acceded? And so on. The testimony accumulates, much of it recounting conversations among conspirators or between conspirators and potential recruits. Throughout, denials are routine; also frequent are attempts to deflect blame. Often, one witness’s testimony at the beginning of the process contradicts that given later, and almost always, testimony from one witness directly contradicts that of another. What we encounter in this mountain of testimony, then, is contradictory fragments of captured speech, a profusion of questions “whose answers” to quote Arlette Farge “are incomplete and imprecise, snippets of speech and life, whose connecting thread is difficult to make out.”

Still, amidst the unavoidable uncertainty, we find some arresting surprises in this voluminous archive that records the speech of people whose speech and thought was not usually recorded. For example, witnesses often recount subversive conversations about freedom and revolution. That testimony—that captured speech—regularly reveals that conspirators invoked and discussed histories that they deemed relevant, they analyzed the past for lessons, discussing a range of precedents. For example, sometimes they discussed amongst themselves the rebellions and petitions for freedom by the King’s slaves in the copper mines of El Cobre; they discussed a deadly, but ultimately failed rebellion of slaves in Puerto Principe in 1798; in one instance, African slaves talked about Charlemagne and his twelve peers as an example. More often, they spoke of the Haitian Revolution and, later, of the actions of the Haitian state itself as guides and motivation.

It is the presence of such discussions that makes the testimony of enslaved and free black witnesses an invaluable source for pursuing the study of what Laurent Dubois called “the intellectual history of the enslaved,” or for writing an intellectual history of the Atlantic World in which enslaved and free people of color are active participants.

One of the things that is most exciting about the process of archival research is not knowing exactly what you’ll find. For example, I have spent years looking for Aponte’s missing book of drawings. At one point, I became convinced that maybe it was in the Nobility Section of the Spanish National Archives in Toledo, Spain. The papers of the Someruelos family are there, and Somoruelos was the Spanish governor of Cuba during the Aponte conspiracy. He left almost immediately after Aponte’s execution, and he had apparently asked to see some of the trial material before his return to Spain at the end of his tenure. Could he have taken Aponte’s book with him? And might it now be tucked among his family’s papers in Toledo? So, I went to look.

I didn’t find it. But I found something else, entirely unexpected: a couple of small half sheets of paper, in rushed, sloppy handwriting, with the briefest description of the start of the rebellion in the Havana countryside. I don’t think anyone had used them before, and they revealed something I don’t think anyone had known about before. Namely, that the rebels attacked the sugar plantation owned by Havana’s deputy to the Spanish congress, a man who had very publicly opposed the abolition of slavery and the slave trade just months before. That the rebels would target his property reveals something incredibly important about the political project of the rebels. Yet that aspect of the movement had been written out of contemporary accounts then and since. An instance of the kind of erasure Trouillot wrote about, perhaps. Still, the archive itself helped us find it.

Image: From Justo G. Cantero, Los ingenios: colección de vistas de los principles ingenios de azúcar de la isla de Cuba (Illustrator: Eduardo Laplante) (1857)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January 12, 2010

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Reading Haiti: Ten Books for 2014


Our annual round-up of notable books from 2014 features novels and journals, translations and epistles, ethnographies and histories – all on Haiti.

1. Published by the Haitian Studies Association and edited by USCB Black Studies scholar Claudine Michel, the Journal of Haitian Studies is among the most important and influential venues for the interdisciplinary study of Haitian politics, history, and culture. The Journal’s recent special issue on the life and work of the late anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot counts among their best. With contributions from Nadève Ménard, J. Michael Dash, Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Jemima Pierre, Carolle Charles, and others, the issue is always insightful – and oft-times moving – and serves as a critical testament to Truillot’s life and intellectual imprint.

2. We have much to be thankful for to Kaiama L. Glover and Archipelago Books for their translation of Frankétienne Ready to Burst, given how rare it is to find English versions of the work of the poet, playwright, singer, comedian, painter, and grand force behind Haiti’s “Spiralist” movement. Written in his inimical, electric style and first published in 1968, Ready to Burst is at once a smoldering account of life under the Duvalier dictatorship and a searing demonstration of the rendering of language in the cause of liberation. “I speak the madness of the sea in heat,” Frankétienne writes.  “Dialect of hurricanes. Patois of rains. Language of storms. Unfolding of life in a spiral.” Nuff said.

3. Also by Frankétienne, Chaophonie begins with a request from poet and editor Rodney St. Eloi for a short monograph for Montreal-based publisher Mémoire d’encrier’s Cadastres series. It ends as an epic, visionary, freewheeling eighty-eight page epistolary exploration of time and memory, the practice of writing and textualization, and the nature of cities from Port-au-Prince to Montreal. Another wonderful book from the remarkable Mémoire d’encrier.

4. Also from Mémoire d’encrier: a French-Kreyol edition of Edouard Glissant’s play, Monsieur Toussaint. Set in Fort de Joux, the French fortress where the imprisoned Toussaint L’Ouverture died in 1803, Monsieur Tousaint unfolds through a series of visitations, meditations, and historical flashbacks. Glissant gives us a stark, haunting reconstruction of Toussaint’s journey from enslaved African to Black revolutionary.

5. Historian Ada Ferrer’s Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution is a critical addition to a growing body of scholarship examining the impact and repercussions of the Haitian Revolution on the Caribbean and the Atlantic World. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, Freedom’s Mirror demonstrates how the end of slavery in Saint-Domingue prompted slavery’s retrenchment in Cuba, as Cuban planters scrambled to bolster production of sugar for world markets. But Ferrer also shows how the Haitian Revolution sparked a response in Cuba that is, arguably, still felt in the Americas today: the fear of “another Haiti.”

6. In Liberty, Fraternity, Exile: Haiti and Jamaica after Emancipation, Matthew J. Smith’s traces the movements of exiles and abolitionists, laborers and merchants as they crossed the waters between Haiti and Jamaica over the nineteenth century. In the process, Smith has written a brilliant, path-breaking micro-history of political-economic and social exchange that enhances our understanding of intra-Caribbean migration in the formation of the modern Caribbean while making a critical intervention into studies of the African Diaspora.

7. While the vexed state of Dominicans of Haitian descent is well known, elsewhere in the Caribbean, Haitian-descended migrants and citizens are also catching hell. The Bahamas, where Haitian migrants are regularly imprisoned, deported, and humiliated, is a case in point. In this context, anthropologist Bertin Louis’ My Soul is in Haiti: Protestantism in the Haitian Diaspora of the Bahamas, is especially timely. My Soul is in Haiti draws on fieldwork in the Bahamas, Haiti, and the United States to create a valuable analysis of citizenship, state formation, diaspora, and, importantly, religion.

8. Inspired by the monumental historical work of the late George Corvington, geographer Georges Eddy Lucien’s Une modernisation manquée: Port au Prince, 1915-1956 offers a necessary addition to the literature on Haiti’s capital. Richly documented, Lucien draws on archives in Haiti, France, and the United States, in addition to novels, historical works, and economic studies to tell the ambivalent story of Port-au-Prince’s development and modernization since the onset of the United States occupation of Haiti in 1915. The first published of two volumes, we eagerly await the second.

9. Law professor Fran Quigley’s How Human Rights Can Build Haiti: Activists, Lawyers, and the Grassroots Campaign is an inspiring account of the work of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux and the Institute of Justice and Democracy in Haiti. From the 1994 Raboteau Massacre to the botched recovery efforts following the 2010 earthquake, Quigley documents the work of both organizations in legal battles surrounding everything from the 1994 Raboteau Massacre, to the prosecution of Duvalier, to the botched recovery efforts following the 2010 earthquake while showing the connection between poverty and human rights – and the critical role of grassroots organizations to social change.

10. As 2015 marks the centenary of the United States military intervention into and subsequent nineteen-year occupation of Haiti (1915-1934), we thought we’d close this list with reference to some of the classic studies on the Occupation.  Roger Gaillard, Suzy Castor, Kethly Millet, and Francois Blancpain are among the stand-out French language historians of the Occupation. In English, Rayford W. Logan, Hans Schmidt and Brenda Gayle Plummer have written critical diplomatic histories while both J. Michael Dash and Mary Renda have offered seminal readings of the Occupation’s literary and cultural discourses. Haitian historian Leon D. Pamphile Contrary Destinies: A Century of America’s Occupation, Deoccupation, and Reoccupation of Haiti will be published in July while the aforementioned Journal of Haitian Studies has out a call for papers for a special issue titled L’Occupation 1915-1934: Perspectives on Haiti and the US at the Centennial. We can only hope to see more.

Best wishes for 2015.

The Public Archive’s prior readings lists: Radical Black Reading: 2011. 2012. 2013. 2014. Reading Haiti: 2011. 2012. Radical Black Cities: 2012.

Image: John Relly Beard, “Toussaint Reading the Abbe Raynal’s Work,” “The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Negro Patriot of Hayti: Comprising an Account of the Struggle for Liberty in the Island, and a Sketch of Its History to the Present Period.” London: Ingram, Cooke, and Co., 1853. Source:  Documenting the American South. 2004. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

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.


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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Killing of Patrick Dorismond


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

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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


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.

Posted in Haiti | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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)

Posted in Haiti | Tagged , | 1 Comment