From Dessalines to Garvey: the Battles of Psychological Liberation

Marcus Garvey Mural at the Martin Luther King Cultural Corridor, Oakland, CA, 2019 (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Over two centuries apart, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Marcus Mosiah Garvey espoused ideas and expounded principles of liberation that descendants of Africa (and those who mean them well) ought to take heed. Throughout the centuries the descendants of Africa have “had to face two fundamental impeding factors, once circularly affecting the other; they are economic and psychological…”1 At this juncture of world history and lived social experiences it is clear that the manufactured “inferiority” complex some developed over time is the outcome of inferior access to material resources, rooted in inferior education (that is substandard or miseducation), lack of agency, and muted political voice.2 As Garvey noted in The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey, “[so] long as Negroes occupy an inferior position among other races and nations of the world, just so long will others be prejudiced against them, because it will be profitable for them to keep up their system of superiority.”3 The two prodigious and percipient world figures, of the early nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, laid bare the meaning of and trajectory to essential and complete liberation for African descendants, from the odious enslavement system to all other forms of exploitation thereafter.4

When Dessalines triumphed in the last military battle (Bataille de Vertières) in November 1803, he recognized that the military victory assured the end of chattel slavery, but the process of the nation’s full liberation had only begun. It remained the responsibility of Haiti’s leadership, and the people, to safeguard their economic and overall sociocultural development.  In his Procès-Verbal de la Proclamation de l’Indépendance d’Haïti (Statement on the Proclamation of the Independence of Haiti)  Dessalines articulated “concise and constructive principles for the new nation…”5 In October 1804 he explained to the citizenry:  

Natives of Haiti! I stood guard, I fought, sometimes alone, and if I am delighted to put back in your hands the sacred trust that you confided in me, remember that it is now your turn to preserve it…And you, a people who has experienced misfortune for too long, witness of the sermon that we utter, remember that it is on your constancy and courage that I relied when I embarked on the career for liberty, in order to combat the despotism and the tyranny against which you fought for fourteen years…6

A people who has experienced misfortune for too long! is lamentably more accurate in 2021 than in 1804.  The perspicacious Dessalines was aware of the severity of the colonial/slavery structures from which the newly-freed nation emerged; he was cognizant of the same structures throughout the Americas, as he was observant and conscious of the impact of such staunch structures on the mindset of the people of Haiti—which could lead to future mis-leadership and national sabotage.  As defensive caution, Dessalines emphasized national responsibility and accountability as a leadership method, in tandem with “collective introspection,” for sustainable development and empowerment.7 He called for the mode of leadership that would stand against national and international exploitation of the people of Haiti.  Among the many principles expounded in Dessalines’ proclamations—as fundamentals to the full liberation of the citizens—, he reasoned “concord” as the guarantor of their success. “[This] successful harmony among you; it is the pledge to your happiness, to your salvation, to your success; it is the secret to being invincible.”8 Dessalines warned and maneuvered against the economic and political re-enslavement of the people.  He was certain that if allowed to take root and grow, the seed of division, based on economic greed/economic power and the low esteem in the nation and its socio-cultural identity, would lead to the detriment of the people.   

In the early 1900s, Marcus Garvey centered his mass global movement on the psychological recalibration of African descendants and economic advancement.  Unity in purpose was a salient point; as such, he admonished those who lacked the courage and the sense of responsibility that are imperative to collectively and effectively lead and uplift the great majority of African descendants. What undergirds Garvey’s message of economic “readjustment”, political and industrial “readjustment” is “preparedness”.  In his philosophy preparedness includes educational readjustment, psychological recalibration, and unity/solidarity among the descendants of Africa, for a common objective.  That objective is equitable human freedom, human rights and fair access to material resources as well as professional institutions—nationally and globally.  Similar to Dessalines, concord, solidarity and integrity will remain the foundation upon which to continue the efforts towards material equity.  For too long, according to Garvey, the race has been “divided among ourselves, parochializing, insularizing and nationalizing our activities as subjects and citizens of the many alien races and government under which we live…”9

Lastly, from the following reflection articulated by Marcus Mosiah Garvey in the early 1920s, we can ponder the state of affairs in Haiti and the Black Diaspora; and Haiti, as the most severe manifestation and result of the blockage of both Dessalines’ and Garvey’s discerning cautions and principles: 

Point me to a weak nation and I will show you a people oppressed, abused, taken advantage of by others. 

Show me a weak race and I will show you a people reduced to serfdom, peonage and slavery.

Show me a well organized nation, and I will show you a people and a nation respected by the world.10

  1. Kersuze Simeon-Jones, The Intellectual Roots of Contemporary Black Thought: Nascent Political Philosophies (New York and London: Routledge, 2020) 14.
  2. Ibid., 21
  3. Marcus Garvey, The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey (Dover: The Majority Press, 1986), 26, Volume I.
  4. With an unbiased study of modern history, Jean-Jacques Dessalines stands as the champion of true human rights.  He is the figure who has actualized—rendered a reality—the concept of the rights of human beings.  Building on the diplomatic and military acumen of Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines will always remain the Liberator of all African descendants, and thereby the one who set the stage for the rights of all human beings.
  5. Simeon-Jones, The Intellectual Roots of Contemporary Black Thought, 53.
  6. Ibid., 54.
  7. Ibid., 54.
  8. Ibid., 57
  9. Garvey, The Philosophy, 12, Volume I. Emphasis added.
  10. Ibid., 14, Volume I.
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Kersuze Simeon-Jones

Dr. Kersuze Simeon-Jones is an Associate Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at the University of South Florida. She is also an Affiliate Faculty in the Department of World Languages and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies. Dr. Simeon-Jones is the author of Literary and Sociopolitical Writings of the Black Diaspora in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Lexington Books, 2010).