L’Occupation: The United States Military Occupation of Haiti in Haitian and American Political Histories
Almost one hundred years ago, the United States of America occupied Haiti. Citing anarchy and the need to protect foreign lives, the United States installed a military occupation on Haitian soil for nineteen years. This occupation was part of long-term changes in U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America. With the end of the Civil War in 1865 — and especially following the Spanish-American War of 1898 — the U.S. came to take up a much more dominant role in the domestic affairs of its Southern neighbours and in the Pacific. Among other policies, it utilised the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine and the Dollar Diplomacy to guide its new foreign agenda.
While the brutal death of Haitian president Guillaume Sam in July 1915 provided the United States with a pretext to occupy Haiti, the real motives for the intervention were strategic and economic in nature. On the one hand, the U.S. feared German presence in Haiti, on the other hand; it hoped that with the establishment of stable (although not necessarily democratic) governments, it could eventually encourage American private investment in the country.
The Occupation succeeded in the first respect in that German presence was inconsequential by the time of the U.S. entry into the Great War. In its second respect, the triumph was much less evident and the implementation of American business enterprises largely occurred at the expense of Haitians who were recruited for forced labour (corvée) and evicted from their lands (especially in the countryside).
Taking much inspiration from the blogger at ‘Historicity Was Already Taken,’ in this current series, we will try to explore the U.S. Military Occupation of Haiti inside a framework that takes into consideration both the political histories of Haiti and that of the United States.
Please note however that we can only go so far with a few blog posts. If the Occupation of Haiti interests you, we encourage you to browse our reading suggestions for this period. While we decided to focus on some specific themes, it is not our intention to obscure or silence any factors related to the Occupation. Again, your best interest lies in reading this series in conversation with other sources on the Occupation.
While Haiti surely never been a stranger to political instability, anarchy and tense elections, the last election of 1957, which brought François Duvalier to office, remains a catalyst. Although most presidential candidates proceed to detail some plans of reform for Haiti’s economy, Duvalier, who enjoyed much support in and out of Port-au-Prince and formal backing from most elements of the Haitian army, did not bother to expand lengthily on such considerations. Playing with themes both present in Catholicism and Haitian Vodou, Duvalier simply presented himself as a healer, eager to treat his nation with a black nationalist (Noirist) agenda. Many scholars, note that he often spoke of himself in the third person, as a true embodiment of the Haitian nation. To be against Duvalier, as his supporters had it, was to be against Haiti. In effect, before his “election” in September 1957, Duvalier had successfully created a cult of personality around himself. Any dissent voice from then on was not only a threat to Duvalierism, black nationalism and order, it was seen as a menace to Haiti’s very existence.
I find this image fascinating. The way Duvalier looks at the camera is mesmerizing and chilling.
While no direct action from the current Haitian administration seems to be moving this direction, many Haitian activists in the past have suggested making April a month of commemoration for the Duvalier era, and more especially, a month to remember gross human rights abuses orchestrated by state actors. Groups such as the Le Comité de commémoration du 26 avril 1963 (established in 2013) and the Collectif contre l’impunité (established in 2011 by former victims of the Duvalier regime) have all advocated for the need of a “devoir de mémoire“(duty or responsibility to remember) crimes associated with the father and son dictatorships.
As a history student, I find the Duvalier era fascinating. While I tremble at the very idea that mass murder, forced detainment, disappearance, rape and torture could have occurred in all impunity, my interests has less to do with the Duvaliers themselves than with the memory of Duvalierism in Haiti and amongst Haitians. If, in the past few years, there has been a multiplication of public and private parties producing impressive lists of victims and assembling primary documents regarding evidence of state sponsored terrorism (see the Collectif contre l’impunité on this respect), most Haitians today remain absolutely polarized in their assessment of the 29 year period. Although some believe that Haiti was “much better then,” many remain skeptical of such evaluation. As a history student, I find it difficult to disregard personal accounts of violence and piles of documents strongly suggestions a state structure which favoured and facilitated violence. Yet — also as a history student — I cannot ignore the very romantic tone in which individuals involved closely (or by far) with the two regimes have tended to remember the Duvalier days. I feel forced to accept that the memory of Duvalierism is very much divided.
This idea of a “divided memory” is precisely what I would like to explore (if time permits it) on this blog for the month of April. Even for those not familiar with Haitian history or with this specific period, I believe analyzing this era permits a very insightful discussions about the interacting between History and Memory. Also, I think it helps reflect on the complexity of speaking of a “collective memory” when there exists many different memories constantly re-negotiated to fit ideological and/or present day sensibilities.
The question of memory and Duvalierism touches more than just Haitians. While many Western governments were quick to denounce the Duvaliers publicly, what they did privately suggests very little commitment to questions of human rights abuses (or at least as they unfolded in Haiti). More particularly, while historians still debate Washington’s exact involvement in supporting both François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, it seems impossible that these regimes could have survived so long without crucial moral and financial help from the State Department. Bearing this in mind, I believe replacing the Duvalier era in the context of the Cold War is essential to any analysis of American entanglement in Haiti but also for a discussion on the larger implications of U.S. foreign policy coupled with the ‘acceptation’ human rights violations.
At any rate, while the goal of this month’s long reflection is not to provide some “final” analysis or commentary on the overlaying questions of memory, dictatorship, violence, Western accountability and so on, I think we would wish to create an initial dialogue for considering what are indeed very difficult questions.
On a happier note, we wish you a very Happy Easter!
These images representing élite Haitian women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are rich sources for historians. While most scholars have abandoned the idea that photographs represent “objective” depictions of the past, and rather, embrace the notion that they might be political objects and statements in and of themselves, these not only assist in imaging the lives of the women they represented, they also help raise questions about the particular intentions of each woman and their photographers. Were these pictures solely intended as portraits for the consumption of close kinship or did they serve to showcase the sophistication of élite Haitian women to a foreign audience at a time when European immigrants were interacting with well-to-do Haitian families?
As black women, Haitian women’s bodies were political terrains. With rampant pseudo-scientific understanding of blacks women’s sexual degeneration since the mid decades of the nineteenth century, these images contrast sharply with what most observers would have imagined when thinking of women in an “exotic” island. Aside from their aesthetic value, these photographs depict female civility in accordance with Western values of the period. If we understand these pictures as political statements, historians may ask: were these photographs attempting to challenge popular discourses of the day regarding black womanhood and if so, does it follow that black individuals, on a global scale, began to view themselves in accordance and with an implicit acceptance of Eurocentric understandings of race? Similarly, what could a study on images of the Haitian élite reveal about what 1920s Haitian intellectual Jean-Prince Mars called collective bovarism (Ainsi parla l’Oncle, 1928) when reflecting about Haiti’s upper crust?
To this date, perhaps due a lack of material sources, few historians have attempted to answer these questions in relations to Haiti. With their various expositions the CIDIHCA (Centre International de Documentation et d’Information Haïtienne, Caribéenne et Afro-canadienne [International Haitian, Caribbean and African-Canadian Center for Documentation and Information]) — has tried to speculate on these interrogations. In the past decade or so, the organization doubled its efforts to recover long lost photographs of Haiti. Much work still needs to be done with a close collaboration between archivists, historians, but also elements of the civil society (in and out of Haiti).
Irrespective of these difficulties, every little visual fragments of Haiti’s past, as these images make clear, can help us re-image Haitian society and its élite.
In 1931, American poet Langston Hughes was on his way to Haiti from Cuba. While he possessed formal letters of introduction given to him by people such as James Weldon Johnson, who had himself visited the Caribbean island a bit more than a decade before in hopes of conducting an investigation for the NAACP, Hughes chose to enjoy his time in Haiti by avoiding most of the “polite élite” (Renda 2001, 261). Similarly to most Americans of his day, Hughes viewed Haiti as this exotic location few miles away from Miami and sought out adventures. He was particularly interested in the infamous “Vodou dances” that many American Marines had popularize with autobiographies relating to their experiences in Haiti (Renda 2001, 262). After two months of amusement in the country and while on his way back to the United States, he meet with Jacques Roumain, the great Haitian poet who had already established himself in his country as one of the most important literary and political figures of his day (Fowler 1981, 85). While their meeting was brief, and Roumain regretted that such a central black poet had not been given a proper reception for his visit (given that few knew that he was in Haiti), the two men still managed to form a lasting friendship.
The particular affinity between Langston Hughes and Jacques Roumain is noteworthy. While they were both known for their talents as writers, they came from vastly distinctive circumstances. Born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes had a difficult upbringing. Following his parents’ separation, he lived with his grandmother, and then travelled different cities in and out of the United States where he took up a series of odd jobs. In the midst of those exertions, by the 1920s, he made a name for himself as a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance (Fowler 1981, 85). His work was featured in various periodicals and magazines and his influence reaching out internationally.
For his part, Roumain was born in 1907 in Port-au-Prince. Part of a family of wealthy landed mulattoes (his own grand father was former President Tancrède Auguste), Roumain enjoyed an education from the city’s best schools before travelling to Europe to complete his studies like most young men of his class (Fowler 1981, 85). Despite the ostensible luxury in which he lived, Roumain could never reconcile himself with the injustice so apparent in Haitian society. While he could have moved pass his life quietly, influenced and perturbed by the United States Marine Occupation of Haiti, he instead choose the road of radicalism and by the 1930s became a Marxist.
It was perhaps Roumain’s activism that helped shape his friendship with Hughes. Like many Americans before him, Hughes recounted his experience in Haiti in the written form. In the August edition of the New York Amsterdam News, he strongly criticized the Haitian elite for being a “delightful but futile handful of intellectuals” (Cited from Fowler 1981, 85). While children of the élites indeed enjoyed the benefits of the best schools in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere, few were eager to apply their knowledge in practical ways that could impact the fate of what Hughes called the “people without shoes.” This criticism of the Haitian élite, at this time, must have injured many. Only three years before (1928), Jean-Price Mars, one of the most influential scholars of the country, published Ainsi Parla l’Oncle (So Spoke the Uncle) in which he criticized the Haitian élite for its lack of social usefulness. In Jacques Roumain however, Hughes saw one of the few individuals of the more privileged classes who had a real interest in the faith of poorer Haitians. Not only had Roumain espoused the Indigénisme movement, which sought to reclaim folk culture and Haiti’s African origins, his constant criticism of Haitian political administrations made him the target of repression and he was sent to jail on many occasions (where his health greatly deteriorated).
Although Langston Hughes’ ties to the American Communist Party remain convoluted and he, himself, claimed not to have been a member, Jacques Roumain for his part, was more open in his political positioning. In 1934, with a group of likeminded Haitians, he founded the Parti Communiste Haïtien (Haitian Communist Party). This gestured worsened any state attempts to appease young radicals like Roumain. At a time when most Haitians coming of age politically were increasingly drawn either to Marxism and Communism or Noirisme – a radicalized and essentialist form on the Indigénisme – Sténio Vincent’s government could afford little patience, especially with left-wing groups which were viewed as a more immediate threats to power. Roumain was eventually sent to jail. While in the United States, Hugh closely watched the situation and the same year, along with other important figures of the black American press lunched a “Committee for the Release of Jacques Roumain” (Smith 2009, 21). His appeals were republished in the New Republic and the New Masses (Patterson 2008, 120).
Hughes and Roumain meet at least two more times after their gathering in Haiti. In June of 1937, they were together in Paris. Both men spoke at the Second International Writers’ Congress held the same year (Fowler 1981, 86). The following year, Roumain communist activities materialized in yet another conviction, this time in Paris, but thanks friends he had made there, he was able to avoid jail. By September 1938, he was in New York (Fowler 1981, 86). In November 1939, Hughes and Roumain meet at banquet given in Roumain’s honour by the WYCM of Harlem (Fowler 1981, 86).
While the exact influence of each writer’s in the other’s work is difficult to completely attest to, their apparent closeness might have gone beyond literary prose. In the words of Carolyn Fowler, “the essential bond between Langston Hughes and Jacques Roumain is…in their shared vision of the writer as humanist, as the conscience and the voice of his people. Both men spoke in characteristic fashion, Roumain as the systemic intellectual and avowed Communist and Hughes as the deceptively simple and unpretentious observer.”
In 1944, with his health greatly weakened by his numerous imprisonments, Jacques Roumain died in Port-au-Prince. He was thirty-seven. While his death sent shock waves to many young Haitian radicals who felt they had lost an important leader, his passing also moved intellectuals and artists in and out of Haiti. Before his passing, Roumain had completed the manuscript for his seminal work Gouverneurs de la rosée (Masters of the Dew). With help from Roumain’s widow and in cooperation with Mercer Cook from Howard University, Langston Hughes worked on the first English translation of the novel.
While Hughes and Roumain untimely came from vastly different background and each evolved with its own particular artistic considerations, as stated by Fowler they “shared a vision of the function of art as the articulation of a people’s condition, as a reflection of the culture which that people develops to cope creatively and to express their hope for the fulfillment of universal human aspirations” (Fowler 1981, 86).
This last poem was written by Langston Hughes to pay tribute to the Haitian author following his death:
You will be
Finding out about
The ever bigger world
Always you will be
Hand that links
Erzulie to the Pope
Damballa to Lenin,
Haiti to the universe
Bread and fish
(Quoted from Patterson 2008, 128-129)
Fowler, Carolyn. “The Shared Vision of Langston Hughes and Jacques Roumain.” Black American Literature Forum 15, no. 3 (October 1, 1981): 84–88.
Patterson, Anita. Race, American Literature and Transnational Modernisms. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Renda, Mary A. Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Smith, Matthew J. Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
“The overthrow of Guillaume and its attending consequences did not constitute the cause of American intervention in Haiti, but merely furnished the awaited opportunity. Since July 28, 1915, American military forces have been in control of Haiti. These forces have been increased until there are now somewhere near three thousand Americans under arms in the republic. From the very first, the attitude of the Occupation has been that it was dealing with a conquered territory. Haitian forces were disarmed, military posts and barracks were occupied, and the National Palace was taken as headquarters for the Occupation.” (Project Gutenberg’s Self-Determining Haiti, by James Weldon Johnson)
In July 1915, following the gory assassination of the Haitian President Guillaume Sam, American Marines headed by Admiral William Banks Caperton, occupied Port-au-Prince and finally took control of the entire country. Citing anarchy (as only between 1913 and 1915, four different administrations had taken the lead of the country)[i] — but also, the possibility that American lives might be injured by the chronic instability in Haiti, Washington finally decided to take control of the situation by sending its troops. While most elements of the American press originally welcomed the occupation as an act of benevolence to the revolution-prove Caribbean island, as the years progressed and the closure of World War I brought about a new logic for “self-determinism” imbedded in Woodrow Wilson post-war world logic, many began to question Washington’s policy towards Latin America and most notably Haiti.
One of the first organizations to openly criticize U.S. Marine conduct in Haiti was the NAACP. In March of 1920, just a few months after being named field secretary of the association, James Weldon Johnson toured the island as a special envoy to conduct an investigation. While there, he meet with people of various social conditions, but most notably with Georges Sylvain,[ii] a famed Haitian poet and former diplomat whom he convinced to revitalize L’Union Patriotique, an organization formed to denounce the U.S. occupation of Haiti in 1915.[iii] When Johnson came back to the United States, he recounted his findings in a series of articles for the liberal journal The Nation and for the NAACP’s own Crisis edited by WEB DuBois. As the passage quoted above illustrates, by the time of his investigation, Johnson was convinced the United States occupation of Haiti constituted both a continuation of American politics in the region but also a persistence of U.S. unequal bilateral relations with Haiti. The assassination of Guillaume Sam, as grotesque as it was,[iv] provided only an excuse to execute what “formal” diplomacy had not been able to achieve. As Johnson himself observers later in his analysis, Washington’s plans to occupy Haiti can, at the very least, be traced back to the previous year, when the Wilsonian administration was drawing plans with the Navy Department to that effect.[v]
Following the publication of Johnson’s articles, public opinion about the occupation began to evolve. While some were still convinced the gesture was imperative to bring much needed technological innovations to Haiti, others like the editors of the New York Times, which up to that point, had largely supported of Washington’s policy in Haiti, began to express some signs of doubt and confusion.[vi]
That the NAACP’s interest for Haiti should have arisen at this time is not completely surprising. For many scholars, more than coinciding with a moment in history when, for the first time, an African-American was appointed field secretary of the organization, the association’s particular attention to Haiti can also be seen as part of a changing “global sensibility” towards blackness and Black Internationalism.[vii] Whether in Harlem, Paris, London or elsewhere, Black individuals from across the globe began to view their destinies as interconnected because of a worldwide race prejudice that, unlike what many believed before, had not been eliminated by the Great War. Though this new Black Internationalism should not be romanticized to the point of obscuring the fact that linguistic, political, social and educational barriers still alienated what would now be termed the “Black” or “African” Diaspora, nor should it assist to sanitizing major disagreements between those same individuals, this period still constitute an important moment for unforeseen solidarity.
When seen through in a framework of transnational Black commonality, Johnson analysis becomes easier to appreciate in its historical incidence. While to be sure, as noted by Mark Robert Schneider, the campaign against the Marine occupation did bring the NAACP much publicity inside the United States,[viii] Brenda Gayle Plummer maintains that:
“The spirit of the times made Haiti an important issue to blacks. The timing of the occupation was especially significant. The Bloody Summers of 1918 and 1919, the agitation for a federal anti-lynching bill, and the rise of miltant nationalism put racial matters at the forefront. Black Americans perceived the Haitians as related to themselves, and increasingly admired the Haitian tradition of resistance to servitude and fierce independence. It is therefore not surprising that the Haitian issue was featured prominently by the NAACP.”[ix]
Hence, in many ways, James Weldon Johnson and other prominent Black Americans began to perceive the occupation of Haiti of a dissemination of American racism.[x] While in Haiti, U.S. Marines soon began to segregate public spaces such as clubs, hotels and restaurants.[xi] Consequently, denouncing the occupation of Haiti not only became a matter of criticizing a violent feature of U.S. foreign policy; it was also part of recognizing that the same racial intolerance plaguing the life of American Blacks in the United States was now suffocating Haitians in their country.
In the end, while the Haitian question lost predominance by late 1920s and did not bring an end to the Marine occupation of Haiti, in many ways, the organization can be credited for embarrassing Wilson’s administration with their articles and for encouraging President Harding to call an investigation in 1921-1922. Moreover, this episode represents an important moment in the history of the association and on the development of twentieth century relations between African-Americans and Haitians.
[i] Leon D. Pamphile, “The NAACP and the American Occupation of Haiti,” Phylon (1960-) 47, no. 1 (March 1, 1986): 91.
[vi] Pamphile, “The NAACP and the American Occupation of Haiti,” 94.
[vii] For a detailed analysis of Black Internationalism in this period, see Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2003).
[viii] Mark Robert Schneider, “We Return Fighting”: The Civil Rights Movement in the Jazz Age (UPNE, 2002), 87.
[ix] Brenda Gayle Plummer, “The Afro – American Response to the Occupation of Haiti, 1915-1934,” Phylon (1960-) 43, no. 2 (June 1, 1982): 131.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At its most basic level, Matthew J. Smith (2004) defines it as an ideology “which advocated total control of the state apparatus by black representatives of the popular classes.” This, as Smith points out himself would of course be an incomplete definition of what noirisme meant in Occupation and post-Occupation Haiti. At best, the noirisme ideology should be understood as radical, psychological, cultural, ethnological and political ideology, which argued for black supremacy in Haitian politics. While some appreciate noirisme to be Haiti’s form of Négritude, Michael Dash (2011) is right in his assessment that most Négritude writers were quick to distance themselves from noirisme when they realized the extent of its radicalism.
It is difficult to talk about the matrix in which this noiriste ideology evolved without a discussion, even if just briefly, on Haiti’s political landscape in the 1930s, when the movement itself emerged. American Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 (and some would argue until the 1940s when Haiti gained back the control of its national bank). During this period, they put an end to the Franco-German control of the Haitian economy and permanently oriented Haiti towards the United States (see our list for reading suggestions on the Occupation period). More importantly, the Marine Occupation also intensified the color question in the country. While it is important to recognize that “color politics” were an integral part of Haiti’s political scenery long before the arrival of the Marines, the Occupation did serve to strengthen the problem. By the racist policies carried by U.S. Marines, America’s general reputation for negrophobia and the overall preferential (although still racist) treatment of Haiti’s “fairer-colored” elite, the Occupation decades only made an existing problem more explosive. Haitian intellectuals, Black and Mulatto, all tried to understand what had led to this humiliation Occupation. How did Haiti, a nation (at least in principles) founded on the equality of all, regardless of color and class, could have failed so much throughout the 19th and early 20th century that it was now being occupied by its powerful Northern neighbour who was more than pleased to point out its inferiority? The answer came in multiple forms, but to our interest, was the indigenous turn (mouvement indigéniste) proposed by people like Dr. Jean Price-Mars (and Jacques Roumain). Price-Mars’s 1928 Ainsi parla l’oncle (Thus Spoke the Uncle) had repercussions much greater than the author himself could have hoped for. In his book (and most of his lectures and writing), Price-Mars accused the Haitian elite (Black and Mulatto) of having lost its social usefulness and being entirely self-serving. To him, the Occupation could be, in part, understood as the elites’ failure to address Haiti’s real character and give it proper guidance. Haiti to Price-Mars, was not a sub-product of France, it had a strong African past that the elites had carefully tried to silence in vain hopes of being assimilated, at least in terms of customs, to European society. This, however, is not to say that Price-Mars believed in the biological determinism associated with most noiristes, what he called for was a more “honest” assessment of Haiti’s culture, one that did not necessarily blurred away the French colonial legacies in Haiti, but that did not suppress its African component. Price-Mars and most of the indigénistes poets and intellectuals who followed his footstep where mostly interested in Haiti in terms on ethnology and recognizing the importance of Africa in Haitian culture, especially in peasant areas. Vodou became an important site of investigation, as it was perhaps one of the most easily recognizable “African legacies” of Haiti. At a time when it was linked with sorcery, child murder and zombies, Price-Mars and other indigénistes sought to explain how Vodou had its own religiosity and were to be respected. They did not argue that it was THE only avenue for religious and spiritual fulfillment but it was undeniably important and present throughout the country. To be sure, Price-Mars was most likely not going to renounce his life – which was rather confortable has he was a respected intellectual – and move to rural Haiti with the peasants he loved to romanticize so much in his writing, nor was he to move to Africa. All in all, the indigénisme must be seen as a “looking inward” greatly provoked by the experience of the Marine Occupation.
Indigénisme, especially for young intellectuals who came of age politically at the end of the Occupation did not go far enough to assess Haiti’s problems. In fact, it did nothing concrete to alter the situation and offered no tangible solution. It was in this context, that indigénisme, in many circles, began to give way to noirisme. While they represented a neglected group in the early 1930s (the Haitian government focusing most of its efforts in suppressing leftist activity), noiristes did, as the decade went by, began to gain more support. Whatever the “Indigéniste School” had to say, the noiristes radicalized it completely. More than having a dual French and African past, Haiti had an “African element” which could only be directed by real, authentic Black Haitians, who were much closer to the poor and disenfranchised populace. Vodou was no longer an important religious expression among others; it was the supreme link between Haiti and Africa. Haiti not only had to be governed by Blacks to reflect the country’s majority, it had to be governed by a charismatic and autocratic Blacks, since liberalism was a “White” political system. Haitians were thus entirely biologically determined to be the people that they were and the real enemies of the state were Mulattoes with their “mulâtrisme.”
While there were many disagreements, important noiristes in this period included, Daniel Fignolé, but also the infamous “Three Ds”, being: Louis Diaquoi, Lormier Denis and a little known and obscure doctor by the name of François Duvalier. As mentioned before, few paid close attention the noiristes given their radicalism and their “Black myth” as David Nicholls (1975) puts it, of Haitian history. By the time of Diaquoi’s death in 1932, the noiristes were only beginning to better cement their organization and founded Les Griots, an organ where they would discuss their views and the pseudo-scientific origins of Haiti. For the next decade while Communist and Socialists, including Jacques Roumain, were put in jail and exiled, most of the noiristes remained in Haiti and gained more momentum as the decade went by.
While we will not go into all the details of the important election of 1946 (and invite you to read more on the topic ), 1946 was a central year for Haiti. Élie Lescot (then (Mulatto) President of Haiti) was driven out of the country earlier that year – thanks to left wing activities, but also student protests very similar to the 1929 strikes that forced an American investigation with the Forbes Commission – and now, it seemed, perhaps for first time since the fall of Boyer in the 19th century, that Haiti was “open for democracy.” The illusion cleared away quickly but as Smith Notes (2004) this period gave rise to the formation of an unprecedented number of political parties and the general freedom of the press. What became clear by the time an election was to be held was that whomever the Haitian Assembly elected had to be Black. With educational reforms started in the late 19th century and the economical opportunities brought by the Occupation, Port-au-Prince was home of a new Black middle-class and educated elite who refused to accept the “Mulatto oligarchy” any longer. While not all of this group espoused a noiriste ideology, the color of the next president was central. It was Dumarsais Estimé, greatly thanks to the efforts of Col. Lavaud, Levelt and Magloire (Magloire , who later ousted Estimé and became President in 1950), who was chosen.
Estimé, unlike most of Haiti’s Black leaders, had been a schoolteacher, and not in the military when he became president. He was a noiriste to be sure, but a moderate one and did not share all of the noiriste ideology, which became a source of friction. What he did do, to a certain extent, was attempt at having a more “balanced” cabinet, accepting few members of the opposition into his government. Most notably, it was the great noiriste “intellectual” François Duvalier who became his Secretary of Labour and Public Health.
As we end our discussion here, since our main objective was simply to explain the emergence and early mechanism of the noirisme ideology, we should note that this diving force in Haitian politics did not end with the 1946 election (if anything, it only had a confirmation that it could be an effective exertion for the emerging “Black oligarchy” to win the political power it felt rightly entitled to).
Our conversation on noirisme in the 1930s and 1940s is of course incomplete. We do hope that the reader recognizes that reading one blog post on the topic is certainly not enough to claim an understanding of this complex ideological and political movement. We therefore encourage you to read (beyond) the few books and articles suggestions we attached to this post.
A fuller analysis of the noirisme should have included:
A historical portrait of the evolution of the color question until the Marine Occupation in 1915;
A discussion on the United States’ role in the 1946 and 1957 elections;
A discussion of left wing opposition in Haiti (Communist and Socialist) that saw the noiriste as no more than opportunist Blacks;
The divisions within the noiriste movement;
The rise of noirisme after the Dominican Massacre of Haitians in 1937 and the reaction (or lack thereof) of Sténio Vincent following the affair;
The relationship between political adherence and color (Theologians/Historians like David Nicholls, perhaps in an attempt to make the discussion of political currents in Haiti during the 1930s and 1940s more digestible suggest that intellectuals were usually divided in two main fractions: Mulattoes were leftists and Blacks were noiristes. While it is tempting to make this claim, and to a certain extent accurate, what do we make then of figures like Jacques Stephen Alexis (later murdered by Duvalier’s men) and René Depestre, who were Black and did not adhere to noirisme? Or Carl Bouard, from an elite Mulatto family, who became one of the greatest defenders of Vodou during the 1930s and also, was a close associate of the Denis and Duvalier during the same period?);
While this post is of course incomplete, we hope that it helps, at least in some respect, highlight the complexities of an ideological movement that greatly affected Haiti.
Dash, Michael. “Haïti première république noire des lettres.” In Les actes de colloques en ligne du musée du quai Branly. Musée du quai Branly (département de la recherche et de l’enseignement), 2011.http://actesbranly.revues.org/480.
Nicholls, David. “Idéologie et Mouvements Politiques En Haïti, 1915-1946.” Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations 30, no. 4 (1975): 654–79. doi:10.3406/ahess.1975.293637.
Smith, Matthew J. Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957. 1 edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.
– – – . “VIVE 1804!: The Haitian Revolution and the Revolutionary Generation of 1946.” Caribbean Quarterly 50, no. 4 (December 1, 2004): 25–41.