Charlemagne Péralte and Haitian Resistance to the U.S. Occupation: An Interview with Yveline Alexis
For the seventh part of my series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti, I spoke with Yveline Alexis. Dr. Alexis earned her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is currently an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Oberlin College. Her primary research and teaching interests pertain to the History of the Caribbean, the Americas, and the African Diaspora; resistance, agency, and political acts; and oral histories of marginalized groups. Dr. Alexis is in the process of completing her first book, Haiti Fights Back: Charlemagne Péralte and the Structures of U.S. Empire. That project and Haitian resistance to the U.S. occupation is the subject of our conversation.
Byrd: Could you speak a little bit more about the inspiration for that title [of your forthcoming book]? What does it tell us about the major arguments of your book, its themes, that sort of thing?
Alexis: Well first I did want to say mèsi anpil, thank you very much as we say in Haitian Krèyol, for the opportunity to elaborate on Péralte but also just the other Haitians who have resisted colonialism and imperialism time and again. For me, Péralte stands on the shoulders of many Haitians, people like Cécile Fatiman who was one of the Haitian women revolutionary fighters and still today is not getting her shine. Every January 1 is our Haitian Independence Day, I see the same four figures on memes, on Facebook, on posters. It’s all these males but she’s one of the women who helped resist.
But I think Péralte comes from a tradition of Cécile Fatiman or people like Anténor Firmin who you’re probably coming across in your research. And the cacos really inspired this title of Haiti Fights Back.
You know, I entered graduate school during Haiti’s bicentennial in 2004. It was clarifying for me how mainstream media were celebrating two events, both of these events but specifically, about Haiti, the mainstream U.S. media really focused on then President [Jean-Bertrande] Aristide’s departure from Haiti. And what I found . . . they were focusing very little on Haiti’s bicentennial and the arrival of U.N troops to Haiti who, you know, still remain today. Imagine a free nation being supervised by foreign U.N. troops. It’s ridiculous that we don’t talk about that or even know that they’re still there eleven years later.
So during that year, Haitians in New York and other U.S. Diaspora were preparing to celebrate Haiti’s two hundred years of independence and I noticed that Péralte who—and my family is Haitian. I did not grow up on this man. I grew up on Jean Jacques Dessalines—and people like Péralte, his name was everywhere in very practical ways. It’s one of the things I like is how they used Péralte. So he’s on the name of a barbershop in Flatbush, Brooklyn. He’s in newspapers. He’s in the Charlemagne Péralte Center, which is in Brooklyn.
So when I found him and learned of his story, he really held my attention in the twenty-first century for being one of many Haitians who have, since the Revolution of 1791-1804, bravely defended what Dessalines, what Makandal what Cécile started in the colonial period. So this book and the title is really . . . just to the many Haitians who fought back against the U.S. construction of empire in the Americas. I mean, think about the U.S. naming itself America. Every U.S. American I know is like “yea, it’s America” and I’m just like “yo, it’s part of the larger Americas” . . . It’s the story of how they’re fighting against this construction.
Byrd: This leads me to think about what I’ve encountered not only in secondary scholarship but with how folks in the U.S. then were talking about Péralte. I won’t say outside of this tradition of resistance but maybe as different, as sort of a rebel in a pejorative sense, right? I think what you’re doing is not only placing him within this tradition but also understanding him as an intellectual. Could you speak to that?
Alexis: Definitely. It’s this idea of broadening our definition of intellectualism beyond learned institutions. So even if he did not go to Saint-Louis Gonzague where he went or run abroad to France or Africa to get your education, the person holding that machete as a field laborer collaborating with Charlemagne Péralte is a political move, is an intellectual move because the Marines were not expecting to find that type of collaboration. So one of the things that I’m talking about: people like Péralte and all the [cacos] leaders . . . they would always, well not always, often start off their letters—and these were letters they’re sending to recruit people or to try to guard against the U.S. troops—and they would put “liberté, fratérnité, egalité.” And I’m just like “dang.” This thing resonates with them. They often reference people like Dessalines and [Alexandre] Pétion. And I’m like “why would you put these two people together? Oh, it’s Haiti. Duh.” We’re talking about different class, different color. I thought it was brilliant that people like Péralte or someone like Benoit Batraville, who took over the national leadership after the Marines executed Péralte, is . . . saying “Haitians, look. We’re all united even if you’re ‘red,’ ‘yellow,’ ‘dark-skin,’ ‘coffee,’ ‘black.’ This is our position to actually unify and resist this foreign other who is abusing us.” They would often refer to this revolutionary moment of resisting in the name of Dessalines, defending this liberty, etc. And it becomes this huge mantra that they pick up. It doesn’t die. They repeat it over and over again . . .
This is them saying we need to defend what we inherited from 1804. And that’s the thing that brought me to this project. I was like “why do they keep reframing that, in the U.S. archives at least, as a bandit, as a vagabond, everything that’s apolitical!” Then you dig deeper and you look at that startling, very striking picture of how they assassinated him [Péralte]. You realize this is not a man who is a bandit . . . They extended a number of efforts and manpower to eliminate this dangerous thinker and actor. So it’s interesting how the U.S. archives denigrates him versus Haitians whether they’re trained academics or laypeople. Even his great-granddaughter, who I interviewed, she argues that if Haitians find liberty today it is because of Charlemagne Péralte. All over his hometown, the barbershops, the parks. It is so this man. And there’s a reason.
Byrd: You use such a diverse, vibrant range of sources: murals, oral histories, diplomatic archives from both the U.S. and Haiti. How has that shaped how you’ve written this book? What has it done for you to use this broad range of archives, both what we would consider traditional and non-traditional?
Alexis: I think just my training—and this is going back to Cornell as an Africana Studies minor and a History Department major and then continuing into graduate school working with historians who are part of that Africana Studies, the Caribbeanist tradition of things. You know, sometimes our people don’t have the privilege or the opportunity to write histories. Something as simple as our ancestors quilting to writing what’s today known as gospel songs—this is how we express ourselves. And so for that person—even thinking about muralists and how they’re clever. They may not be trained at whatever institution, higher institution that grants art degrees but they know that a painting or this mural will convey with people in a multilingual fashion. And so they put, when they put Toussaint Louverture and Charlemagne Péralte, I was like “wow, remember 1804 and remember 1915.” In my previous trips to Haiti, I had never seen this mural. It wasn’t until Aristide left, either voluntarily or involuntarily, I still can’t figure that out, and the U.N. arrived to Haiti that I saw this explosion of murals . . . [that communicate] “Haitians remember your history, remember your ancestors.” That is how I view various, various murals.
So I think it allows (using these sources allows) very non-traditional voices to be heard and also even the oral histories, the fact that many of them were done in Haitian Krèyol, that was just so fascinating to me. In dealing with presses or in dealing with academic publications in the States, people are like “translate, translate, translate!” Just learn Krèyol or learn French . . . so we can have this multilingual exchange! That was one of the biggest things. Actually, each of my oral history participants said “what are you going to do with this paper? Are you coming back to Haiti? How will you use it?” For me, that was just invitation for reciprocity, this idea that you can’t just come here and make your name off of us . . . give back. I’m adamant. I don’t know if my press is going to do this yet but I’m really adamant about translating the book into Haitian Krèyol even if it just sits on a shelf, on the granddaughter’s shelf, that’s okay for me because it’s very important.
Byrd: This is something you’ve touched on in a number of different places here but there’s just so much going on in this moment right now. The centennial of the occupation. The expulsion of Dominicans of Haitian descent [from the Dominican Republic]. And that’s not to mention everything happening with the black population in the U.S. What is the contemporary meaning of, broadly speaking, this resistance to U.S. empire? How does that resonate today?
Alexis: This moment resonates so emotionally for me. I’m grieving nine families. I have no idea who these people were. But Sunday in church it was important for me to keep grieving their memory. Because it’s like “whoa, can we get a break?” Since Emmett Till or even before then we’ve been grieving in some way either by not wailing, not crying, or just carrying this racial strife. And year after year we’re exposed to more. Like, “okay, they offed us again??” I mean, the Emanuel Nine, the fact that this punk was in a church for Bible study and still acted racially violent was just like “wow.”
I think people like Péralte’s story—or just me searching the archives when you look at some of our ancestors—[shows that] despite the fact that they have tried to annihilate us—like the modern-day gynecological field was built off of experimenting on black women’s reproductive areas and Native women’s reproductive areas—it’s funny to see we black folk are still here. The fact that they literally tried to stamp us out but we’re still here reminds me of the importance of doing this history. Just saying that “this story is important. Black lives matter” because someone like Makandal who ran away, other women chose to take their children’s lives, practice infanticide whether by choice or not by choice given the proscribed conditions to someone like Charlemagne Péralte who’s resisting actively in the twentieth century. We have resisted, we’re still here. So in a way that there’s this system of oppression—white oppression—against us there are our people—these black people—who are thinkers, who are actors, who have fought and will continue in that tradition of fighting.
So that’s how I feel like I can tie all of these things together. And the D.R. is an interesting case because a number of Dominicans, specifically in the Diaspora, have allied with Haitians, have allied with the black population to say “this is modern-day apartheid.” And I think many of their voices and some of the stories they’re writing about how Dominicans and Haitians have collaborated across centuries from maroons to the Dominicans who were for independence against Spain in 1865. I mean there are these pockets of this cross, transnational unity that I think a lot of people are not giving weight to. They’re like “oh, all Dominicans are anti-black” whereas I’m like “no.” People like Junot Díaz—he’s just vocal but there are many Junot Díazes in the D.R. who are saying the same thing.
Byrd: That’s a really important point. You look at some of the things that Harriett Gibbs Marshall, the wife of Napoleon Marshall [clerk for the U.S. legation in Port-au-Prince]. She goes there and she writes back to the U.S. saying “listen, there is a lot of propaganda going on and the U.S. is trying to divide blacks in the U.S. from blacks in Haiti . . . and we have to look beyond that.” So I think you’re point is well taken not to lose sight of the depth of collaboration that exists even when we’re told to lose sight of that.
Alexis: Yeah. I just exposed my students in this radical thinkers class to Amy Jacques Garvey. Bless Dr. Ula Taylor for writing that text. Can you imagine, Garvey or the Garveys are considered the most dangerous elements because they dare to unify blacks in Panama to Costa Rica to Jamaica and erroneously going to Africa with colonial mindsets (laughs). But this idea of this Pan-African unity, this vision of these ships, this vision of black pride and black economic self-empowerment—it’s like of course you have to eliminate this man. That’s huge. Lynchings are occurring everyday on the hour and the Garveys are standing strong, essentially saying “Black Power” without saying “Black Power.”
Byrd: So speaking of black political leaders . . . I think there is an opportunity that you’re taking to sort of show how figures who we don’t normally associate with conversations on policy or politics were in them. Individuals like these cacos. How were they involved those discussions about policy, about empire, about Haiti and the United States?
Alexis: I think that’s a wonderful question and something that I hope will be a burgeoning research when we think of Haitian resistance as beyond “oh, this is how the elite did it, this is how the paysans or the masses.” More so like, how did they each do it together or one learning from the other kind of thing. One of the things that really struck me: I ran in to Charlemagne Péralte’s [mother, Massena Péralte], her letters to her own son were just remarkable. It’s as if she knew U.S. Marines were keeping surveillance. So she would say things like “Charlemagne Péralte, send me some money because I owe this white soldier some money for a cow that I borrowed and, by the way, stick to the woods. The people of Léogâne support you.” When you read it, divorced from your history, you’re like “okay, this is mom checking up on you, asking for financial support.” And then you’re like “take the woods?!” She was making sure her baby survived this U.S. violence and is proud of him. She doesn’t say “halt, stop, go back to being a politician.” She says “Keep. To. The. Woods.” And I’m just like “Yo! How does her voice get commemorated in an archive and how do we read her as this political strategist in addition to this emotionally very proud mother? And I think people like the artist Philome Obim are up on that, do realize that, many of their women including their mothers and grandmothers, sisters are being sexually harassed by these U.S. troops. His insertion of Massena Péralte into that painting of how he reinterprets the assassination of Charlemagne Péralte, I think is brilliant and also shows another person who’s not necessarily shaping the political agenda at the Palais National but . . . Philome Obim is inserting Charlemagne Péralte in different moments of Haiti’s history of resistance. He cleverly issues a painting in 1934 and then ten years later. The U.S. is still in Haiti. They’re not militarily in Haiti but, you know, the bananas, the sisal, all of this cultivation that they’re doing. Economically, our Haiti is still occupied . . .
One of the things I’m writing about now: I was so dismayed with the amount of violence. It was amazing to me just the privilege that white people assumed. Just casually writing, “oh, yea. I cut my slave’s tongue off today because he talked back.” Why would you write that down? Or this U.S. troop that I ran across he was like “yea, I threw this four foot cord over this woman because she was refusing to give me information.” So basically you threatened to lynch a woman and then you cared not. You literally wrote this and reported this to your superiors as if this is like “oh, it’s 98 degrees in Haiti today.” Whoaaa. Even looking at these women’s stories or how Haitians protected the cacos by—I think they elevated them by calling them patriotic kin. Like “even though we don’t come from the same parent, I need to protect you. Even though I’m not picking up arms, I’m gonna stay silent and keep telling these U.S. troops who are in my face “I don’t know. What do you mean Charlemagne Péralte? He was never here.”” And that’s a system of resistance that I think we don’t talk about. Those hidden transcripts of resistance whether it’s being silent, claiming ignorance, etcetera all contributed to dismantling the U.S. empire.
Byrd: That’s remarkable. I know when James Weldon Johnson was there and he talked to Marines, they were very candid in saying that they did x, y, and z to Haitians. You’re finding that same frankness.
Alexis: Yeah. You know Péralte was a bold man because he wrote this letter to the President [Woodrow Wilson] and calls him a vagabond, he calls him a traitor. He accused him of not living up to these progressive ideals and these ideals of democracy. Keep in mind that this is World War I. It’s hard for me to even think about that when I’m thinking about some of the stuff that’s happening in Haiti. But I’m like “what a minute, this is World War I!” So this idea that you’re fighting for democracy abroad but you’re not really practicing it in Cuba, in Haiti, in the D.R.
One of the most startling things that comes to mind: I ran into this U.S. troop who had just finished his station in France and he was like “oh my God, the way we’re treating these Haitians is atrocious. I can’t believe I just fought for this war in France and this is what I’m running into in Haiti.” It’s just so deep and very telling about again this system of normalized violence and how black lives did not mater. They’re looking at people and saying “I don’t know? Okay, let me threaten you with a four foot cord.” Because people like that soldier Captain [Jesse L.] Perkins were used to blacks hanging from trees.
Byrd: Well, I really appreciate the time. Was there anything else you wanted to add?
Alexis: . . . The only other thing I would emphasize to everybody that I speak to is making sure that you don’t study Haiti conveniently from abroad in the United States archives or the French archives. Really try to understand her people and the nation using Krèyol using French if you have to in Haiti. The librarians and the archivists, the people themselves are so—they want to partner. They want to share their stories. But you making that journey to Haiti is important or Jamaica if you’re studying Jamaica. Actually traveling to the sites where this story is unfolding is hugely important.
Comments on “Charlemagne Péralte and Haitian Resistance to the U.S. Occupation: An Interview with Yveline Alexis”
Very interesting article. Even with all the reading I have done about Haitian history I had not previously encountered Fatiman, Firmin or Batraville. I can’t wait to learn more about them. Mesi anpil anpil!!
Thanks for reading, John. I was excited to interview Dr. Alexis because she brings such a fresh perspective to this history, in part by assigning great importance to individuals (including Massena Peralte) who have received little serious, scholarly attention. I, too, look forward to following her work.
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