African Americans, Black Internationalism, and the Fate of Haiti

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Brandon R. Byrd’s The Black Republic.

Battle of Vertières that ended the Haitian War of Independence. Original illustration by Auguste Raffet, engraving by Hébert. (WIkimedia Commons)

From the outside looking in, there has always been at least two meanings of Haiti. During the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), white people across the world clung to the racist belief that Africans and their descendants were inherently inferior to people of European descent. Thus, they rejected the idea that enslaved Africans could successfully revolt against slave owners. Then, the “impossible” happened. The Black insurgents emerged victorious in their revolution against France, and established the first independent black republic, Haiti. In response, western nations denied Haiti the rights, privileges, and respect granted to other modern nation states. White prejudice against Black Haiti predominated because the very existence of Haiti proved whites’ greatest fear: that their wealth and privilege were built upon a lie, the myth of white supremacy. This was one idea of Haiti prevalent among non-Haitian outsiders, but there was another. Enslaved and free Black people throughout the Atlantic world did not accept the lie of their supposed innate inferiority. Slavery required intense violence and relentless policing to maintain the status quo. Black people across the Atlantic world learned of the Haitian Revolution and rejoiced. In the Haitian Revolution and the idea of Haiti, the Black republic, they found proof for what they had known all along–that they were indeed human and equal to their white oppressors. To them, Haiti was hope. Haiti was freedom. Haiti was a symbol of Black humanity.

In The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti (2019), Brandon Byrd provides alternative perspectives of Haiti through the eyes of African Americans who saw Haiti as a symbol of Black freedom and equality. Whereas other scholars have analyzed the meaning of Haiti to black people during the early republic period, Byrd focuses readers’ attention on the decades after the U.S. Civil War when race relations in the United States shifted drastically. By centering this time period, The Black Republic offers two primary contributions to historical scholarship. First, it sheds further light on the “nadir” of African American history (particularly the decade of 1880s) and fills a gap in the literature on African American-Haitian relations. Second, throughout its chapters, The Black Republic demonstrates how African Americans linked domestic and global issues through their visions of Haiti and social activism. By advocating for Haiti, African Americans defended their own belonging to the United States while participating in radical Black internationalism. Thus, Byrd argues that African Americans’ radical internationalism developed during this earlier period before the twentieth century interwar years when Haiti remained at the center of African Americans’ intellectual production and activism.

As a historian of the African diaspora, with a focus on late-nineteenth century African American diplomatic and cultural relations with the Dominican Republic, I found The Black Republic to be an excellent contribution to the extant scholarship. For me, the book resonates most with my research on African American missionaries and foreign service officers in the Dominican Republic, and it innovates significantly on these topics. For example, the historiography on U.S. Black missionary work abroad has largely focused on African American missionaries in Africa. Yet, the Episcopal priest James T. Holly and the AME missionaries Charles Mossell and Mary Ella Mossell began Protestant missions in Haiti decades before the AME Church established official missionary stations in West and South Africa. Byrd’s descriptions of African American women missionaries also critiques AME historiography which mostly focuses on male leadership. In a similar way, The Black Republic also revives histories of African American foreign service officers. Although over a dozen black men served in diplomatic positions in Haiti and elsewhere at the end of the nineteenth century, the extant historiography focuses mostly on Frederick Douglass’s tenure in Haiti (1889-1891). Byrd’s description of other U.S. Black foreign service officers in Haiti—Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett, John Mercer Langston, John E.W. Thompson, Frederick Douglass, and John Stephens Durham—provides a preliminary study of other figures whose biographies might inspire further research. This is research is much needed, and The Black Republic opens the door.

Considering The Black Republic within an Afro-diasporic analytical framework, however, does call for a few critiques. While The Black Republic challenges multiple historiographic traditions by self-consciously placing Haiti at the center of African American intellectualism and radical Black internationalism, the book’s strict focus on Haiti also produces its greatest weakness. As Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett reminded readers of the Voice of Negro in 1904, there were three “Black republics” in the world (or, at least in African American thought) during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (p. 187 of Byrd). Haiti was foremost among them. The reader may ask “why?” and will find a succinct answer in the book; Haiti was the site of the Haitian Revolution, the singular event that fundamentally negated white supremacy and proved Black humanity. Yet, given that African Americans’ ideas about Haiti changed over time, it is also both logical and true that their ideas, preferences, and plans for other places also shifted. What of the era’s other two “Black” republics, Liberia and Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic)? Like Haiti, both nations received African American diplomats, emigrants, and missionaries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. How did these countries situate in African American thought vis-a-vis Haiti? And, how did African Americans’ imagined hierarchy of Black peoples shift over time? These questions are left unanswered in The Black Republic, and yet even a modest explanation would have placed African Americans’ thoughts about Haiti within a broader panorama of thought regarding independent “Black republics.” A fuller explanation would require further research beyond the scope of Byrd’s book.

Still, future historical works covering similar topics should not only consider Byrd’s critical arguments regarding Haiti, but they should also take an expanded Afro-diasporic framework into account—particularly when it comes to the Dominican Republic. Not only does the Dominican Republic share an island with Haiti, but eastern Hispaniola was also governed by Haiti for two decades in the nineteenth century (1822-1844). The Dominican Republic additionally suffered a U.S. occupation at the same time as Haiti, albeit for a shorter period (1916-1924). Thus, the two nations’ nineteenth and early twentieth century histories are inevitably intertwined. This is particularly true when it comes to the island’s relationship with the United States. Tellingly, white Americans did not always distinguish between Hispaniola’s two nations, and at times, they used the terms “Haiti” and “San Domingo” to refer to the whole island (p. 181 of The Black Republic provides a case-in-point).1 Although educated African American intellectuals, diplomats, and missionaries knew to distinguish between the two nations, African Americans often grouped Haiti and the Dominican Republic together in their publications and sometimes repeated the mistake of homogenizing the two countries. Such slippage in language may classify as misrecognition or ghosting (to use Dixa Ramírez’s term), but analyzing it as such ignores the ways that African Americans challenged a seemingly intractable border between Hispaniola’s two nations for their own purposes. Said border became all the more flexible in the immaterial sphere of ideas and imagination where all revolutionary acts and radical black internationalism were (and are) first conceptualized.

Despite these critiques, The Black Republic models excellent scholarship. It is thoroughly researched, well-argued, and beautifully written. It is easily accessible to undergraduate students (I have already taught it) and can be taught in multiple historiographical traditions (i.e. African American history, African diaspora studies, diplomatic history, etc.). Moreover, it carries forth a Black intellectual tradition reflected in iconic works by W.E.B. Du Bois, Rayford Logan, and many others. These attributes undoubtedly make The Black Republic a book that will have lasting impact on academic scholarship. Along with these accolades, there is yet one more point to be praised. What I admire most about The Black Republic is the spirit in which it was written, which is most poignantly reflected in the prologue and epilogue. In these brief sections, Byrd considers his own relationship to Haiti and his subjectivity as an African American man. He narrates his intellectual development and shares the lessons he has learned. Radical Black internationalism, Byrd concludes, offers “a better method of historical narration and change.” I agree. This is a rare glimpse into the mind of a historian who has striven to think with Haiti and its people and has challenged us all to do the same. Let us rise to the challenge. We might begin by asking ourselves, “What does Haiti mean to me?”

  1. Dixa Ramírez, Colonial Phantoms: Belonging and Refusal in the Dominican Americas, from the 19th Century to the Present (New York: New York University Press, 2018) 1-11.
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Christina Davidson

Christina Davidson is a historian of the Caribbean and African diaspora and a postdoctoral fellow at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis. Davison is currently working on a book manuscript, Converting Hispaniola: Religious Race-Making in the Dominican Americas. Follow her on Twitter @CeceDavidson.