Black Internationalism and Haiti: An Interview with Leslie M. Alexander
In today’s post, Lauren T. Rorie interviews Dr. Leslie M. Alexander, author of Fear of a Black Republic: Haiti and the Birth of Black Internationalism in the United States (University of Illinois Press, 2022). Alexander the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of History at Rutgers University.
Lauren T. Rorie: How does your book contribute to reshaping global sentiments toward Haitian History and Black internationalism in the United States?
Leslie M. Alexander: Fear of a Black Republic seeks to radically transform how people across the nation think about Haiti and Haitian history. Following the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, news outlets around the United States reported incessantly that Haiti is “the poorest country in the western hemisphere” until it began to sound more like a chant of accusation rather than a statement of fact. What none of the pundits and commentators seemed willing to explore was the deeper question of WHY Haiti became a poverty-stricken nation in the first place. Instead, scholars and media talking heads alike argued that a range of ills specific to the Black nation—from the prevalence of “voodoo” to a fundamental “pathology” among the Haitian people—explained Haiti’s current plight.
In fairness to Haiti’s detractors, it is nearly impossible to escape or ignore the crushing poverty and political instability that plagues the country. But while Haiti has been mocked and demonized for its internal problems, few are willing to ask the hard questions about HOW and WHY Haiti perpetually appears to teeter on the brink of economic and political disaster.
How did Haiti go from being the “Pearl of the Antilles” in the 18th century to being the most impoverished nation in the Americas in the 20th century? The truth is that it was not an accident of history; it was by design. From the birth of Haitian independence in 1804 until the present day, the United States and other western European nations have used their economic and diplomatic strength to isolate and impoverish the island nation often referred to as “The Black Republic.” This is the story that the mainstream media sought to ignore; it’s also the story that Fear of a Black Republic seeks to tell.
Rorie: How does your book address the void in scholarship on Haitian history from the early nineteenth century and bring women from behind the periphery?
Alexander: Fear of a Black Republic seeks to contribute to existing scholarship on early Haitian history and also early African American history by demonstrating the deep, powerful political alliances that existed between U.S. Black activists and their Haitian counterparts in the nineteenth century. This book demonstrates that Black abolitionists across the diaspora were keenly aware of global liberation struggles and felt strong solidarity with the Haitian struggle for recognition of its sovereignty.
This project also hopes to show that although women were largely discouraged from political participation and from foreign affairs in the antebellum era, they cared deeply about the fight against slavery across the Americas and found ways to insert their voices into political conversations whenever and wherever they could. A few, such as Maria Stewart, delivered speeches and wrote essays, while others circulated and signed petitions or raised money—all in support of Haiti.
Rorie: Why do you think it is important to understand the complexities of Black internationalism and its participation in the shaping of Black foreign policy and ideas toward transnational liberation across the diaspora?
Alexander: It’s extremely important to understand Black people in the nineteenth century as political and intellectual thinkers. For too long, popular sentiment has dismissed Black people as intellectuals and has assumed that Black folks in the early period—prior to southern emancipation—were not political actors at all. My hope is that Fear of a Black Republic will silence all the critics who claim that Black people were not political agents and did not have a global vision for the Black liberation struggle in the nineteenth century. I believe my research unequivocally demonstrates the breadth and depth of Black intellectual thought in the nineteenth century and proves the deep engagement that Black people had with the Black freedom movement across the Atlantic World.
Rorie: How does your work address the condemnation/demonization by the “court of public opinion” or media as one of the facilitators in stories that blame Haiti for its own underdevelopment?
Alexander: Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Haiti has been demonized in the American press and depicted as a “failed nation.”—an idea largely predicated on old, racist assumptions that Black people do not have the capacity to effectively govern ourselves. Until very recently, no one has been willing to admit or acknowledge that Haiti’s political and economic struggles have a history—a history that is rooted in centuries of unprovoked punishment, financial theft, and widespread abuse from the global political community. Since the dawn of the twentieth century, U.S. politicians and corporate leaders have occupied, controlled, manipulated, and exploited Haiti, enacting a series of abusive policies and strategies solely because Haiti is a Black nation. And there must be an honest reckoning with how the United States and other western nations have consistently sought to undermine Haitian sovereignty.
Rorie: In your opinion, how important were the responses of Black leaders in the U.S. and Haitian revolutionaries in advocating and securing Black sovereignty, while inspiring a new generation of Black people to agitate for freedom?
Alexander: In contemporary society, we often employ a very narrow lens when assessing success and failure. We tend to measure activism according to tangible “wins” and “losses,” and ignore all efforts we determine to have “failed.” If we apply this overly narrow judgment to the nineteenth century, it would be tempting to dismiss Black activism. After all, it took decades for Black leaders to force the United States government to recognize Haitian sovereignty, and once it did, the U.S. simply used recognition as a path to assert imperial authority over Haiti. But I maintain that we must implement a broader definition of what makes the history of struggle a “success.” As one of my mentors always reminded me, “there is victory in the struggle itself.” In this case, we should not underestimate the commitment among U.S. Black activists to protect and defend Haiti’s right to sovereignty. Their tireless dedication proved that Black people embraced early Pan-African consciousness and believed in the power of unified political action. In other words, they demonstrated that they were as committed to the freedom of Haitians as they were to their own freedom. And there is a powerful lesson for us today in their story.
Rorie: Today, what role do history and scholarship play in the way Haiti is represented, viewed, and articulated throughout the world?
Alexander: Frankly, I think we are still fighting Haiti’s cause in the court of public opinion. We are up against centuries of lies and misinformation that have circulated across the globe about Haiti for generations. So, we still have a long way to go. But it’s my hope that history and scholarship will ultimately win the day—that our painstaking research will reveal the truth about Haiti’s history and its legacies in the contemporary era.
Rorie: You argue, Haiti’s future rests on when and if western nations will “stop fearing the ascendence of a truly sovereign Black republic.” However, given the international political interventions, antebellum past, and economic debt, in your opinion, how can Haitian resistance overcome issues around racism and capitalism today, while rectifying the relationship between Haitian leaders and the people?
Alexander: There is no easy answer to this question because Haiti is still grappling with the aftermath of centuries of abuse and foreign meddling. Such wrongs cannot be rectified overnight. But I think history has demonstrated that the Haitian people possess an unbreakable determination to be free, sovereign, and self-determining. White western nations have used every power at their disposal to crush Haiti and its people, and they have not yet succeeded. Instead, Haitians remain unbowed and unbroken. I think Haitian author and activist Évelyne Trouillot stated it best when she wrote that every today, Haitians battle “in the streets throughout the country, refusing to abandon the struggle that began long ago. Haitians are fighting for another type of government, a State that will listen to their needs, a government that will not use public money for individual interests.” I believe that as long as that fighting spirit remains alive, the Haitian people will, once again, emerge victorious. I do hope, however, that Black activists around the world embrace the ethic of activists in the nineteenth century and agitate for our Haitian brothers and sisters.permission.