Book Review: Taking Haiti

Caption: United States Marines on patrol in 1915 during the occupation of Haiti. A Haitian guide is leading the party..
Caption: “United States Marines on patrol in 1915 during the occupation of Haiti. A Haitian guide is leading the party.”  Image Courtesy of: Wikimedia Commons.

Renda, Mary A. Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Review

Since the 1980s, many historians of international relations have tried to incorporate a “cultural approach” to the study of diplomacy. In Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940 published in 2001, Mary A. Renda gives a prime example of this type of scholarship. While various scholars, most notably Hans Schmidt (1971) have explored the United States Marine Occupation of Haiti as a larger chapter of American imperialism in the Caribbean, in this provocative research, Renda argues that paternalism was a central feature of this particular intervention. More than simply influencing the lives of Marines who ventured in the Caribbean island, Renda shows that the Occupation created a space for Americans “back home” to negotiate and re-negotiate their understanding of Haiti in terms of gender, sexuality, exoticism and race. For Renda, the Occupation of Haiti was thus much more than a mere episode of American interventionism in the early twentieth century; it was a crucial instant for the history of both countries and continues to taint their relations to this date.

Taking Haiti. Book Cover. Original Image Courtesy of: Amazon.
Taking Haiti. Book Cover. Original Image Courtesy of: Amazon.

Divided in two main parts, Renda sets to understand the impact of a paternalistic discourse on individual Marines and the American public during the first Occupation of Haiti. In the primary section, entitled “Occupation,” she looks at the individual experiences of American Marines stationed in Haiti through various diaries, autobiographies and novels produced by military personal during and after their time the country. In the second part named “Aftermath,” Renda analyses how Haiti, in and of itself, became a “commodity” that both fascinated and repelled the American public.

Throughout her volume, Renda emphasises that whatever discourse may have been created and reinforced about Haiti in this period, it should never be seen as something “fixed”. Rather, it ought to be understood as a field where meanings of paternalism, race, gender, sexuality and exoticism were negotiated and constantly re-articulated. While Marines and the larger American public were encouraged to see Haiti as this “ward” (p.16) “abandoned” by France and in need of paternal authority (that only the United States could fulfill), Renda argues that Americans participated, protested and re-shaped this role.

A striking example of Marine paternalism in Haiti would be that of Major Smedley Butler and the letters sent to his own father during his time in Haiti. Renda stresses that through his correspondence, Smedley Butler argued both for the importance of his work in Haiti but also for the particular father figure role he was to play in the Republic (p.104). Responsible for the formation of the Gendarmerie d’Haïti, Butler felt personally concerned for the work of “his men” in “his native land” (p.103). Renda suggests that such language exemplifies the personal relationship of father and child subordinates that the Marines were encouraged to take while in Haiti. These paternalistic attitudes were not simply rooted in the military institutions. As Renda shows, they were part of a lager development in American culture (p.114), which in the Wilsonian years, was encouraged through “liberal, benevolent paternalism.” Therefore, politics and military became channels in which this paternalism could be conveyed. In this paradigm, Haiti was the Marines’ and the United States’ adopted “fallen” “ward” to be taken care of until she was able to take care of herself as a “respectable” self-governing nation (p.115).

Whatever adventures Marines experienced while in Haiti, the American public, otherwise uninvolved with the military, also consumed it with much interest. As Renda turns to the second part of her book, she demonstrates how this is so through a closer scrutiny of articles, plays, travel books, novels and movies. Renda maintains that “Haiti became…an object of cultural fascination – indeed, an object of desire, a valuable commodity” (p.185). Aside from their stories and published diaries, Marines played a crucial role in this commodification of Haiti. For instance, John Houston Craige author of Black Bagdad (1933) and Cannibal Counsins (1934) collected “Voodoo drums” and proudly posed with them in pictures (p.214). Many desired travelling to Haiti in hopes of coming in contact with such “authentic” Haitian “artefacts.” Haiti became this place within the reach of the United States where all the daily constrains of normal human life did not matter. It existed outside the norms of proper civilization and gave the perfect setting for any macabre adventure.

All in all, Taking Haiti successfully shows that the Occupation of Haiti created a unique moment both in the history of Haiti and that of the United States. For Haiti, it was a humiliating defeat carried with much violence for nineteen years after the collapse of its own government in 1915. For the United States, it created a sort of psychological moment where a culture complete with ideas, images and meanings surrounding Haiti influenced the way in which people thought and sought to make sense of the island.

Personal Appreciation

Taking Haiti’s reputation’s hardly needs to be made as the book won many prestigious awards. With this work, Renda is both effective in showing the value of a cultural approach to international relations, but is also convincing when conveying the various ways in which American created, and were in turn shaped by, the matrix of contradictory meanings surrounding Haiti. While the book may not be suited for readers interested in a general introduction and narrative description of the Occupation, those more familiar with the event are sure to find Renda’s analysis valuable.

In light of the fifth anniversary of the 2010 Haitian earthquake and the upcoming centennial of the U.S. Marine Occupation, Renda’s analysis takes new meaning. Indeed, in the past week many media outlets have expressed their wishes for a “better Haiti” and some — as it was only to be expected — took the opportunity to, once more, point out the material poverty of the country. Without excusing the many obvious failures of the Haitian governing élites, Renda’s study reminds the reader that the idea of picturing the Haitian state and its people as “others” completely incapable of self-government is an integral part of the way in which most Americans have historically fashioned Haiti. Although it is difficult to establish whether the discourse around a sort of “inherent Haitian inferiority” in fact truly influences policy in Washington, Renda does show that it may impact those who are charged with carrying orders. This is an interesting lesson when reflecting on the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) today.

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Photo Post: Jean Price-Mars, 1956.

Portrait of Haitian intellectual Jean Price-Mars. October 1956. Image Courtesy of: Centre International de Documentation et d’Information Haitienne, Caribéenne et Afro-Canadienne (CIDIHCA) Archives.
Portrait of Haitian intellectual Jean Price-Mars. October 1956. Image Courtesy of: Centre International de Documentation et d’Information Haitienne, Caribéenne et Afro-Canadienne (CIDIHCA) Archives.

Although he remains a contested figure, in part due to the influence his work (most notably Ainsi parla l’Oncle published in 1928 during the American Marine Occupation), had on the norisme movement often associated with François Duvalier; for many, Price-Mars remains one of the most important Haitian intellectual of the twentieth century for his severe criticism of the self-serving Haitian élite and for his commitment to the study of Haitian folklore.

* I find it disheartening that, even today, in some Haitian circles, many blame Price-Mars for the way in which the noriste camp interpreted some of his work. While – with all due respect for this important scholar – it may be difficult to agree with all of Price-Mars’ ideas, it seems too easy to place the blame on his person rather than on those who used noirisme as a political tool to gain power and carry a regime of terror.