The Ideas of Haiti and Black Internationalism
Haiti would not exist had it been up to France, Great Britain, Spain, or the United States. Certainly not if George Washington had had his way. In September 1791, mere weeks after the Vodou ceremony that started the slave insurrection in Saint-Domingue, the slaveholding U.S. president wrote to the French ambassador to the United States pledging to help restore France's control over its richest colony. "I am happy in the opportunity of testifying how well disposed the United States are to render every aid . . . to quell the alarming insurrection of Negroes in Hispanola [sic]," he told his ally. Having just won his country's independence from a colonial power, Washington wanted to see that black people in Saint-Domingue did not secure their own.
Of course, Haitians did just that. They did the unthinkable. In the United States, the so-called Founding Fathers, educated men of the Enlightenment with lofty ideals of representative government and natural rights, had no tools for understanding an actual revolution. Not one initiated by Africans said to lack history, will, and a love for freedom. Not one that overthrew colonialism and slavery in one fell swoop. So instead of celebrating the Haitian Revolution as the most radical declaration of human rights the world had ever known, they characterized it as a savage race war and an unjustifiable attack on (white) property rights. They tried to silence the Haitian Revolution—to speak out of existence the incomprehensible black nation that it birthed.
Haiti, the first black nation and second independent republic in the Western Hemisphere thus became shorthand for a host of evils. In the antebellum United States, Haiti became synonymous with slave insurrection and black barbarism. It came to mean the specter of abolitionism, and for that sin it was shunned. Explaining why the United States refused to grant diplomatic recognition to Haiti, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri proclaimed that "the peace of eleven states in this Union will not permit the fruits of a successful negro insurrection to be exhibited among them." White southerners, he continued, would "not permit black Consuls and Ambassadors to establish themselves in our cities, and to parade through our country, and give their fellow blacks in the United States, proof in hand of the honors which await them, for a like successful effort on their part." They could not acknowledge Haitian independence, at least not without entertaining dangerous questions about the "rights of Africans in this hemisphere."
For men like Benton, to control U.S. foreign policy was to command the marketplace of ideas about slavery and freedom and about Haiti and the Haitian Revolution. From their perspective, to cede ownership of policies or thought would ensure the realization of abolitionist nightmares. It would mean the collapse of a slaveholding empire already built on lands seized from Native Americans and Mexicans—the end of the world that slaveholders dreamed.
Proslavery internationalists had reason for concern. As they knew and scholars have since shown, the concurrent, subversive idea of Haiti was a legitimate cause of worry for white men, women, and children invested in racial slavery. The symbolic power of a black nation-state birthed in a successful slave insurrection undermined the power of white planters and businessmen who reaped from black labor the greatest profits that the world had ever seen. In fact, it encouraged other visions of emancipation and emboldened champions of racial equality.
News of the Haitian Revolution spread like wildfire among black people throughout the Americas. From its outset, free and enslaved black people monitored newspaper coverage of the slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue and solicited reports of its progress by word of mouth. Black sailors on U.S. trading vessels that conducted business in the French colony were more than happy to comply. As they confirmed that slavery was, in fact, under assault in the Caribbean, thousands of planters fleeing Saint-Domingue landed in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Norfolk, and Charleston. While they brought warnings of the so-called Horrors of Saint-Domingue, their enslaved people imported inspirational stories about the rebellious origins of Haiti meant to stimulate similar struggles for black liberation. As Booker T. Washington wrote, African Americans came to appreciate "the Haytian struggle for liberty." They knew of its example even if they were "ignorant of everything except [their] master and the plantation." In fact, they equated it with their most profound aspirations.
For free and enslaved black people, Haiti became a singular beacon of liberty. Enslaved revolutionaries including Gabriel, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner tried to emulate the Haitian Revolution, the lone successful slave rebellion in modern global history. Free black northerners fought for the diplomatic recognition of Haiti, the black nation that they understood to be the embodiment of racial equality. Thousands more accepted the invitations of the Haitian presidents Jean-Pierre Boyer and Fabre Geffrard and fled to Haiti's shores. One black man who emigrated from Washington, D.C., to Port-au-Prince during the 1820s explained the reasons for that refugee movement in a letter sent to friends in his former home. "I have adopted myself a Haytian; and I bid eternal farewell to America," he wrote. "Here I repose under my vine and banana tree, contented with Hayti . . . determined to live and die under the safe-guard of her constitution."
In the minds of antebellum African Americans, Haiti was haven and inspiration. It was imitable, too. In the decades before the Civil War, militant black abolitionists including David Walker and Henry Highland Garnet proclaimed that the Haitian Revolution proved the righteousness and efficacy of slave rebellion. They welcomed what they called the Abolition War. During the conflict caused by secessionists who predicted that Abraham Lincoln's election would bring about "San Domingo and Hayti, with all their attendant horrors," black recruiters and soldiers invoked and imitated Haitians. As one chaplain in the Union Army observed, "The name of Toussaint L'Overture has been passed from mouth to mouth until it has become a secret household word." It had encouraged the hundreds of thousands of black soldiers and sailors who enlisted in the Union Army and Navy because they "felt it was right for the colored Haytiens to fight to be free [so] it is equally right for colored Americans."
These "American Toussaints" ended U.S. slavery and put white supremacy on its heels. They did not secure uncontested freedom, though. How could they when their white counterparts still litigated what should have been the incontestable outcome of the Haitian Revolution? No, U.S. black activists, intellectuals, soldiers, and enslaved people won the war but quickly found themselves embroiled in another fight. Like Haitians, they had to grapple with freedom's varied and contested meanings in a world founded on racial slavery and white supremacy.
The Black Republic begins with this premise: there existed multiple and sometimes conflicting ideas of Haiti that changed over time but remained critical to African Americans during the long postemancipation era following the U.S. Civil War. It is a premise that has received little to no consideration to date. For the most part, historians have drawn attention either to white fear of or black fascination with the Haitian Revolution during the eras of slavery and the Civil War. Their works have ended at the conclusion of the Civil War, when numerous black intellectuals identified new and urgent connections among Haiti, freedom, and black self-determination.
This forgotten period of black interest in Haiti overlaps with a significant gap in the scholarship on black internationalism. In recent decades, historians have paid closer attention to the global dimensions of local and national black freedom struggles, compared collective experiences across the African Diaspora, and examined how black organizations, intellectuals, and activists shaped international politics. They have advanced our understanding of black internationalism, an insurgent political and intellectual response to slavery, colonialism, and white imperialism. Still, studies of black internationalism tend to focus on three eras: the Age of Revolutions, at the end of the eighteenth century, when black internationalism emerged as an evangelical and revolutionary struggle for universal emancipation; World War I, when black leftists and nationalists gave black internationalism greater organizational structure and increased geographic scope; and what the scholars Michael O. West and William G. Martin call the "long black Sixties," a period when global Black Power advocates challenged a post-World War II liberal order that betrayed the promises of desegregation and decolonization. By comparison, little attention has been given to global visions of black freedom in the tumultuous decades that followed the U.S. Civil War.
And yet black internationalism was very much alive in that period. Haiti was its heart. For late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African Americans, Haiti demonstrated the opportunity that freedom presented: black self-determination (or black self-government), a malleable idea centered on the demand for individual and collective independence from the political, economic, and social structures that perpetuated white supremacy and limited the opportunities for black people to dictate their own lives. In fact, Haiti confirmed that self-determination and freedom went hand in hand, that the former was a necessary condition of the latter. Accordingly, even African Americans who expressed ambivalence about the political and social conditions of Haiti, characterized it as an incomplete project of black self-government and social development in need of their civilizing influence, or sanitized what they considered to be disreputable aspects of the Haitian Revolution still expressed a deep and enduring investment in Haiti and Haitians. There was no other choice. To them, Haiti was what Frederick Douglass called it: "the only self-made Black Republic in the world"; a black "city set on a hill."
That analogy suggests the complexities of the association of Haiti with black freedom and self-determination. Douglass and other black intellectuals in the United States often imagined Haiti much as John Winthrop and the Puritans had thought of Massachusetts. From their perspective, Haiti was unique albeit imitable, exemplary but imperfect, symbolic though real. It was an experiment in black self-government, distinct yet inseparable from the flawed world that its singular example had the power to change.
In other words, the multiple powerful ideas of Haiti were not evidence of ideological uniformity but rather the product of much debate and scrutiny amid great uncertainty. Across the Civil War, Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction, and early Jim Crow eras, black artists, educators, diplomats, missionaries, clergy, clubwomen, activists, and students—all of them intellectuals in their own right—considered the possibilities of meaningful black freedom in light of the forms of racial oppression that emerged after the end of slavery. They thought about Haiti, a country that the inheritors of proslavery internationalism misrepresented as culturally backward, politically unstable, and proof that black people were incapable of freedom and self-government. Although black men, women, and occasionally children from across the political spectrum believed in Haiti's significance, they did not always agree on how to realize the promises associated with it. Instead, their public engagement with that country and its people, as found in hundreds of untapped sources, including plays, poems, speeches, convention proceedings, letters, periodicals, and books, often revealed significant disagreement and occasional incoherence about culture, nationalism, history, race, gender, politics, imperialism, colonialism, and other pressing subjects.
It was therefore the long-standing production and constant reproduction of the ideas of Haiti that proved instrumental to broader black intellectual change. When the United States began its devastating military occupation of Haiti, which lasted from 1915 to 1934, African Americans had long ago reached a consensus that Haiti mattered because it was black and free and self-governing. They had to take interest in the occupation even though there were divergent understandings of its initial meaning. Eventually, opposition to the occupation coalesced among a diverse collection of black intellectuals who saw the attack on Haitian sovereignty as a symptom of broader problems that plagued the entire colored world. Their anti-occupation protests and, by extension, their ideas of Haiti thus became a cornerstone of the anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and anti-racist radical black internationalism that arose in the period between the two world wars.
Put another way, what historians understand as an interwar radical black internationalism has its roots in, even if it did not emerge during, a long postemancipation era that featured black intellectuals' complex albeit consistent debates about Haiti. Tracking these varied responses to Haiti, which ranged from seemingly conservative to quite radical for their day, takes us down a winding and sometimes unpredictable path through changing social and political terrains.
Chapter 1 recounts the initially optimistic and ultimately frustrated international visions of black freedom and self-determination that emerged during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. It draws particular attention to African Americans' concurrent celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation and the U.S. diplomatic recognition of Haiti and U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant's appointment of Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett as the U.S. minister resident and consul general to Haiti and the first black diplomat in U.S. history. For numerous black writers, orators, abolitionists, and freedpeople, these were signs of collective black progress from slavery to freedom to full citizenship. They not only reinvigorated interest in the Haitian Revolution, now viewed as the inspirational story of a slave rebellion that won Haitians freedom and international recognition of their right to self-determination, but also encouraged genuine faith in the United States, the country that now seemed to welcome black citizens as its representatives.
Still, there was cause for concern. The real and imagined descendants of pro-slavery internationalists maligned Haiti in order to undermine the black civil and political rights encoded in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and resurrect the racial hierarchies of the antebellum era. Once synonymous with slave insurrection and abolitionism, Haiti became racist shorthand for the looming evils of social equality and "Negro rule."
Accordingly, Chapter 1 also introduces readers to two additional, related topics: black intellectuals' response to the simultaneous backlash to Radical Reconstruction, the pursuit of U.S. empire, and the ascension of scientific racism; and the attendant birth of black missionary work in Haiti. As white Americans maligned Haitians and African Americans in the same breath, some middle-class black ministers and church members concluded that Haiti had to be improved. Influenced by scientific racism, they pronounced themselves the leaders of the black race, supported U.S. political intervention in Haiti, and sent missionaries to civilize Haitians. They belied their confidence in their country's supposed racial egalitarianism. Unsure about the security of their improved social and political status, black intellectuals tried to manipulate their connection to Haiti, a country that they understood as an imperfect model of black political capacity that had to be sound, according to middle-class U.S. standards, for the sake of the entire race.
So critical to the since-overlooked global visions of black freedom that emerged in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, Haiti maintained its symbolic and practical value to African Americans in the aftermath of Redemption, the violent process through which white southerners returned to power. Chapter 2 highlights how black politicians, missionaries, educators, and would-be emigrationists viewed Haiti as a place where black diplomats could still participate in U.S. politics despite the loss of Reconstruction's gains and an inspiring albeit imperfect model of black self-determination. It draws attention to their response to Spenser St. John. In 1884, in the midst of a transatlantic dialogue on black potential in postemancipation societies, the British diplomat published a widely read book about Haiti that denied the possibilities of any sound black government. Black journalists were prominent among the African Americans who responded. To them, the intensifying rhetorical assaults and military threats to Haiti mirrored the violent efforts to restrict black rights in the United States. They articulated a nascent anti-imperial critique in defense of the Black Republic.
If black intellectuals increasingly saw similarities between their precarious status and the contempt for Haiti in the post-Reconstruction era, that connection became even clearer during the 1890s. Chapter 3 advances our understanding of two well-known events involving Frederick Douglass: what became known as the Môle-Saint-Nicolas affair and the Chicago World's Fair. As the U.S. government tried to seize Môle-Saint-Nicolas, a port town in Haiti, Douglass, a proponent of U.S. expansion in the Caribbean during the promising days of Reconstruction who then served the U.S. government as its minister resident and consul general to Haiti, tried to encourage racial egalitarianism rather than racial domination as the foundations of U.S. foreign policy. He failed. The heavy-handed negotiations for Haitian territory, occurring as Europeans solidified their control over Africa and the United States pursued its own empire in the Caribbean and the Pacific, clarified the intensified threats to the freedom of the colored world during the Age of Imperialism and Jim Crow.
The expansion of U.S. and European empire also showed the heightened importance of Haiti. The belief that Haiti was a shining beacon of militant black resistance to white oppression and virile black manhood during the emasculating depths of racial segregation and colonialism was front and center at the Chicago World's Fair. At that event, African Americans flocked to the Haitian Pavilion, where Douglass now proudly represented the Haitian government, not the United States. More artistic and journalistic representations of Haiti and the Haitian Revolution soon followed. They presented both as models of black resistance that embattled African Americans could and should emulate.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Haiti was thus central to a transnational politics of defiance. Black journalists were foremost among the African Americans who contrasted the real crimes committed by white southerners with the invented tales of barbarism in Haiti. In bearing witness to the victims of racial violence at home, they vindicated black independence abroad. Theirs was a burgeoning anti-imperial politics in defense of Haiti that contrasted with the concurrent efforts by some black elites to claim citizenship through participation in U.S. empire.
Chapter 4 links those politics to the seemingly disconnected ones that took root amid intensifying investigations of the "Negro problem." As white social scientists continued to insist that Haitians proved that black people were incapable of assimilation into a modern, industrialized society, black spokesmen such as Booker T. Washington relied on Haiti to disprove racist stereotypes used to justify lynching, black disfranchisement, and racial segregation. These proponents of racial uplift, an intraracial and international politics of self-help and self-improvement, encouraged Haitians to pursue industrial education in the United States and called for skilled African Americans to move to Haiti and modernize that country. They were adamant that through these efforts Haiti would become an unassailable model of black self-determination in an era when segregationists and imperialists in the United States and Europe drew the global color line.
To be sure, informed by the stereotyping of black people in Africa and the African Diaspora and often functioning as a civilizing mission, racial uplift ideology buttressed a host of ineffective and detrimental pursuits. It reinforced intraracial class differences and Afrodiasporic hierarchies. It reified U.S. models of development in the United States and overseas. In fact, it motivated William Pickens, a future leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to lead the call for the annexation of Haiti by the United States.
Still, the transnational politics of racial uplift rested on potentially subversive foundations. Rather than turning inward as historians have suggested, fin de siècle U.S. black intellectuals looked abroad as they attempted to rehabilitate the image of black people, affirm black respectability, and achieve black progress at a time when white supremacists demanded black subordination. They looked to Haiti and Haitians. Outside of a few strident voices espousing cultural relativism, advancing anti-imperialism, and demanding Afrodiasporic political solidarities, most U.S. black intellectuals struggled to reconcile their imagined connection to Haiti with their strivings for the rights associated with national citizenship. Still, the continued attempts to link domestic and global issues reinforced the enduring idea that U.S. birth was compatible with Afr-diasporic belonging. They provided the most immediate foundations of a reenvisioning of Haiti in a new moment of radical black internationalism.
As Chapter 5 shows, the long-standing importance assigned to and ambivalence about Haiti produced widespread interest among African Americans in the ensuing U.S. occupation of Haiti. When U.S. Marines landed outside of Port-au-Prince, African Americans were undecided about what to do. Could U.S. intervention stabilize Haitian politics? Would African Americans strengthen their claims to political and civil rights by participating in the occupation government? Was it possible to make the U.S. government live up to its progressive ideals?
The ensuing violence of and Haitian resistance to an occupation motivated by the belief that black people could not govern themselves clarified the answer: no. As Haiti groaned under the U.S. occupation that censored the Haitian press, conscripted Haitians to forced labor, seized control of the Haitian treasury, and waged war on the Haitian peasantry, W. E. B. Du Bois, once a proponent of U.S. intervention in that country, changed course. In his mind, the occupation became evidence of the destructive impact of racism, capitalism, militarism, and imperialism on the entire colored world. He, with the encouragement of Haitian freedom fighters, joined an emerging group of radical black internationalists who, during and after the First World War, imagined the free Black Republic as the foundation of black and working-class emancipation.
Ultimately, The Black Republic advances our understanding of black political thought and the ideas of Haiti that have long preoccupied the Western world. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, North American and European politicians, diplomats, and military personnel banded together and "produced discourses that intensify the [modern] notion of a progress-resistant, deviant and childlike [Haiti] unaware of the material and ideological benefits of democracy and capitalism." White travel writers and journalists consistently added their own prejudices to those discourses. Time after time, they rendered the creolized religion of Vodou as nothing more than cannibalism, witchcraft, and paganism while characterizing the Haitian state as the bastardized product of the unholy marriage between black inferiority and military despotism. Taken together, these foreign actors popularized an enduring notion of an "enigmatic Haiti, largely produced by the gravitational forces of North American and Western European ideologies of Christianity, capitalism, and whiteness." They rendered Haiti ahistorical and irrational, characterizing it as a black nation with dark pathologies that transcended time.
African Americans participated in those discourses, too. For nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African Americans, the Haitian Revolution confirmed the possibility of freedom from slavery and the ability—perhaps even the necessity or destiny—of all black people to seize their freedom through militant action. The subsequent establishment and long-awaited U.S. recognition of the independent government of Haiti demonstrated the opportunities that freedom presented: self-determination, both communally and personally. African Americans understood the Black Republic as a singular site of and litmus test for black potential.
It was potentially exceptional, too. Reflecting on the modern transformations of deeply rooted historical ideas about Haiti, the late Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote that when "we are being told over and over again that Haiti is unique, bizarre, unnatural, odd, queer, freakish, or grotesque, we are also being told, in varying degrees, that it is unnatural, erratic and therefore unexplainable"—or, at the very least, extraordinary. African Americans have been no less complicit in those renderings of Haiti, often representing Haiti as singular (although imitable) in an attempt to manipulate or challenge the more damaging and pejorative assessments of its unique world-historical meaning and its standing in global affairs. Their representations of Haiti and the Haitian Revolution raise a question: What is the historical impact of African American (as distinct from Western) imaginings and articulations of Haitian singularity? Have they simply encouraged the placement of outsized, even unattainable, burdens on Haiti, the much-needed model of black freedom and self-determination? Or have they produced powerful intellectual change, a new envisioning of how black people might replicate the Haitian Revolution and resist the forces that built the racial inequalities of the modern world?
The answer presented in this book is both. From the 1860s to the 1930s, over the course of the long postemancipation era, African Americans offered their own thoughts about Haiti and its people. They did not just react to white racial thought, though. Their ideas—found in the visual and dramatic arts, newspapers and literature, and everyday acts and extraordinary celebrations—sometimes derived from considerable time spent in Haiti and among Haitians. At other times, they came less from amateur ethnographic research or transnational exchange and more from what those black intellectuals thought was true about Haiti: it was black and free and self-governing and that was what mattered. And, ultimately, Haiti did matter. It mattered a great deal for African Americans thinking about emancipation and Reconstruction, the uncertain years that preceded the onset of Jim Crow, and the ensuing challenges that rose from the depths of racial segregation and white imperialism. It influenced their imaginings of the means and ends of achieving black freedom in a world that demanded black subservience, imaginings that tended to come full circle and birth new thoughts about Haiti and its people.
In the end, this preoccupation with and reproduction of the ideas of Haiti was not just another piece of a diasporic consciousness or a single moment in a long tradition of black engagement with the world. Instead, it transformed that global engagement and stimulated the rise of the radical black internationalism that took root in the interwar period. Even before the ink had dried on the Emancipation Proclamation, African Americans thought deeply about the connections between freedom and self-determination. Although interpretations of both would differ in the ensuing decades, changing alongside the shifting methods of and threats to achieving what was often characterized as black progress, the conviction that both were connected to Haiti remained. The strength of that conviction produced considerable interest in the U.S. occupation of Haiti. African Americans who condemned Wall Street, the U.S. Marines, and the U.S. government for stripping Haitians of their sovereignty did so in an era when black intellectuals across the African Diaspora reconsidered the conditions and ideologies that would bring about complete black liberation rather than incremental black progress. They knew from a wealth of literature, art, oral traditions, and family history about the importance of Haiti, the singular example of black self-determination that had fallen under white rule. They had long-standing ideas about Haiti from which to draw their own. For those black men and women who would help tear down the U.S. occupation while transforming black thought, there was no doubt about the inspiration for the world they sought to build. It was Haiti. The Black Republic.