Haiti and Black Internationalism in the Twenty-First Century

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

The Emperor Soulouque, Faustin I., of Haiti, and his Cabinet Ministers, 1859, Presidents of Haiti (Faustin Soulouque Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

African Americans’ tenuous relationship to American citizenship and identity has been a theme unifying much of the scholarship on African American history. The culmination of this work has been a deeply expansive understanding of the correlation between exclusion from the national body-politic and the denial of Black humanity. With The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti, Brandon Byrd offers a welcome contribution to this intellectual project. He examines African American national identity and international hopes in the context of a post-emancipation era Black internationalism coincident with US imperial expansion abroad and a recommitment to white supremacy at home. Foregrounding African Americans’ anxieties, skewed perceptions, and aspirations related to Haiti underscores the challenges in pursuing competing national and international goals. This sustained meditation on the meanings of Haiti that African Americans and their adversaries produced illustrates the difficulties in pursuing belonging to a white supremacist nation committed to empire while acting internationally to dismantle these very systems. Thus, Byrd provides a key intervention that reframes US empire and African Americans relationship to it that is useful for thinking about Black internationalism in the twenty-first century.

The Black Republic claims that scholars have neglected a vital moment in Black internationalism dating to the nineteenth century. Byrd argues that over the span of nearly six decades following the Civil War, African Americans articulated “multiple and sometimes conflicting ideas of Haiti” while seeking freedom, nationally and internationally (4). As the only nation to result from slave rebellion, Byrd explains that Haiti contested the limits of Western thought that confined ideals like freedom, equality, justice, and liberal democratic government to whites. This distinction offered radical inspiration to African Americans defending their hard-won freedom and citizenship in the United States. Many believed Haiti could function as invaluable evidence for contesting racist logic aimed at stripping them of citizenship rights. In these ways, Byrd asserts, Black Americans’ transnational strategies and ideas for gaining entrance into the national body-politic stretch beyond the much studied twentieth century.

African Americans’ enduring interest in Haiti was also a response to attempts to rhetorically dismantle the nation and Black political involvement along with it. Just as Haiti loomed large in the minds of nineteenth-century Black American internationalists, so, too, did it in those of white supremacists. To them, Haiti demonstrated that Black American freedom was a threat in the US and required curtailment. Like their antebellum predecessors, they circulated racial ideas questioning Haitian nationhood. Some retooled the history of the Haitian Revolution, reporting that it was the “Jacobin faction” that had declared Black Haitians free and permitted them to form governing institutions. Others suggested that Haiti was overrun with practices including cannibalism and witchcraft. The common conclusion these ideas shared, Byrd convincingly explains, was Haiti served as proof that African-descended peoples were incapable of civilization without white guidance and input (62).

The backdrop to these discursive configurations were political developments that further jeopardized Black freedom. Here, Byrd points to two key shifts. The first being the unexpected presidency of Andrew Johnson in 1865 that imperiled African American citizenship and claims to American identity. Proposals to annex Haiti during the 1870s served as the second. The US nation’s recommitment to white supremacy and imperial expansion prompted anxieties that Haiti threatened African Americans’ political goals. Where Haiti previously functioned as a source of inspiration, many saw its failure to live up to Western conceptions of modernity and civilization as undermining Black citizenship.

Such dismal circumstances prompted darker imaginings of the Caribbean nation from African Americans. Many took part in attempts to civilize the nation. These efforts ranged from the AME Church’s missionary work to elevate the country’s “moral character” to outright defending annexation. Though staunchly opposed to defending US annexation of Texas, Frederick Douglass saw the Haiti case differently. As The Black Republic explains, Douglass saw “U.S. interventionism born out of benevolence and cooperation” and US settler colonialism as an entirely different animal (46).

One of the author’s most important interventions is exposing the correlation between American identity and imperialism through studying African Americans’ associations with US empire. Yet motivating Black Americans’ participation in US empire were their desires to preserve their freedom and citizenship. They strove to demonstrate their own civility in their attempts to impose Western civilization onto Haitians deemed backward and deviant for their superstitious beliefs and rumored cannibalism. Byrd acknowledges that this conservative turn perpetuated the assumptions inherent to white supremacy and imperialism. Yet he also cautions those who might quickly pass judgement that these Black American internationalists were between a rock and a very hard place. That their strategies involved perpetuating civilizationist ideas justifying imperialism testifies to the deep connections between empire and the American nation.

Understanding US empire in this way invites connections to another imperial legacy: France. I propose that Byrd’s study casts the American nation as, to borrow a term from French colonial historiography, an “imperial nation-state.” A term intended to curb attempts to separate the metropole from its legacy of colonial acquisition, “imperial nation-state” asserts, in the context of French colonialism, that the nation-state is inextricable from its colonial holdings. In my mind, this label is a useful heuristic to revealing how the affiliation with the American nation limits the possibilities of Black American internationalism. African Americans’ challenges with reconciling their quest for “national belonging with their diasporic identification” reveals the deep association between the imperial and American identity (142). Put differently, the struggles Byrd details in The Black Republic illustrates that empire is a fundamental element of American identity. As such, at least in the context of nineteenth-century Black internationalists interested in Haiti, pursuing Americanness required accepting the American empire.

I wonder what possibilities for twenty-first century Black internationalism lie in naming the US an “American imperial nation-state.” Accepting that Americanness is inseparable from imperialism and racism means divesting of the idea that Black folks should pursue American belonging or identity at all. To be sure, these are my meditations on The Black Republic. I am interested in learning how Byrd sees his work as broadly reshaping our understandings of US empire and its relationship with African Americans.

There is credible evidence for foregoing national aspirations to pursue a more global outlook for Black liberation. This year alone underscored the American nation’s reliance and disavowal of Black citizenship. We are in the recent aftermath of an election in which Black votes and campaigning efforts that managed to flip a state reliably red for thirty years proved decisive. Yet in the months prior to that, the devaluation of Black lives has continued during a pandemic that operates on racial arithmetic that has historically designated Black folks as mortally vulnerable. Further exacerbating these conditions were protests against anti-Black legal systems that erupted this summer. With the exception of the US presidential election, these circumstances are applicable elsewhere. In the case of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, a number of activists across the world turned out in solidarity with African Americans. But others in Australia, Brazil, and elsewhere protested racial injustice specific to their own countries. That white supremacy and patriarchy are worldwide is undeniable.

Enduring global refusals of Black humanity suggests that pursuing transnational solidarities is necessary. Byrd’s text indicates that this work might be easier said than done. The subjects in The Black Republic demonstrate that pursuing belonging to a nation predicated on racism and imperialism is incompatible with international connections opposed to these systems. Further, persistent claims to American identity and citizenship continue to frame what freedom looks like for many African Americans. So, while imagining freedom globally is necessary today, Byrd reminds us that doing so demands we fundamentally revise our relationships to the American nation.

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Shaun Armstead

Shaun Armstead is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Her dissertation, “Imagined Solidarities: Black Liberal Internationalism and the National Council of Negro Women’s Journey from Afro-Asian to Pan-African Unity, 1935 to 1975,” charts the understudied international activities of one of the largest African American women’s organizations in U.S. history. She considers their efforts to unite with women of color outside the western world to reimagine liberal internationalism as an anti-racist, anticolonial, and antisexist global order. Her work is at the intersection of histories on women’s internationalism, Black internationalism, and Global South Feminisms during the twentieth century.