Haiti, Cultural Politics, and US Occupation

Negre Marron, Haiti (Photo: Steve Bennett, Flickr).

Haiti’s intellectual dissidents played an instrumental role in advocating the Haitianization of Haiti–the embrace of Haitian culture, peasant life, and African origins–during the period of US occupation from 1915-1934. The Haitian masses provided the initial resistance to occupation, which occurred following the assassination of Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume. Their resistance was triggered by the re-establishment of forced labor (corvée) by the Americans and the massacre of Haitian workers. Individual dissidents such as Jean Price-Mars, Georges Sylvain, Leon Laleau, Jean Jacques Roumain, Carl Brouard, and Jean F. Brierre, through persuasive oratory, articulated an ideology which sought to Haitianize the bourgeoisie. Moreover this group of intellectual dissidents embraced the culture of rural Haitians and in doing so defined this cultural reawakening.

The articulation of changing social, economic, and political concerns in the form of poetry and prose is an integral part of Haitian intellectual history. Among the masses this urge took the form of oral accounts from songs and stories to aphorisms. The dynamic and self-searching elements of Haitian literature were articulated best by Haitian dissidents. Aware of the weaknesses of Haitian institutions and the corruption of the past and blocked politically by white foreigners, this group published a new generation of well-crafted plays, novels, songs, and poetry that reflected the Haitian experience during US occupation.

US intervention profoundly shaped Haitian society. Between 1915 and 1934, Haiti was economically and politically an appendage of the US. In addition to controlling Haiti’s import and export economy, the US maintained authority over domestic affairs in Haiti by promoting figureheads to the presidency who, under the Constitution of 1918, lacked the power and authority to influence internal policies. The US High Commissioner who served as both the diplomatic representative of the US and the commander of the marines could veto and draft legislation. The high commissioner also advanced US economic interests in Haiti through his authority to negotiate contracts with American companies.

Much of the nationalist writings during the occupation period focused on a shared Haitian identity and a strong opposition toward the US. Such works as Jean Price-Mars’s Ainsi Parla l’Oncle (Thus Spoke the Uncle), Leon Laleau’s Le Choc (The Impact), and Jean F. Brierre’s “A la Croix de Marchaterre (Poem to the Marchaterre Cross) analyzed what it meant to be Haitian and delineated what many believed to be the horrific nature of US occupation. Scholar and diplomat Price-Mars set the agenda for discussion about Haitian identity, culture, and goals. His long life from 1876-1969 and his extensive literary output and correspondence with Caribbean, French, and American intellectuals and politicians, and later with Africans, gave him considerable influence within his country and the Black world.

Price-Mars’s interests went far beyond a recognition of the African heritage and the importance of the life and culture of rural Haitians. He also condemned the exploitation of women and he called for the reorganization of the educational system to fit the environment and the real needs of the people. Price-Mars was in a unique position to assess the changing political and social milieu. According to Price-Mars, the root of Haiti’s problems lay with the psychological ailment of the elite. In his La Vocation de l’élite, Price-Mars prescribed for the elite a “national thought” and a unifying ideology that consisted of Black pride and Black consciousness.

Cultural nationalism was explicit in Price-Mars writings. From the inception of occupation, the presence of US marines in Haiti implied the superiority of the white race and the justification for the pretext that foreign intervention was necessary to help “civilize” Haitians, as French anthropologist Gustave Le Bon purported. Price-Mars’s Une étape de l’évolution haïtienne (A Stage of Haitian Evolution) rode the wave of consciousness and refuted Le Bon’s contention.

During the 1920s, the collaborationist policy of President Louis Borno provided the fuel for the intensification of nationalist sentiment. Literary and discussion societies flourished during this period and served as windows for viewing Haiti’s past and future. An important precursor to these societies was the Union Patriotique formed by Georges Sylvain in 1920. Molded in some respects after the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), this association had as its prime objective1

the working, in accord with the defenders of the Haitian cause in the United States, for the abolishment of all restrictions placed on the full exercise of sovereignty and independence on the part of the Haitian [g]overnment.”

Throughout its existence, the Union was vehemently opposed to the Haitian government and accused both President Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave (1915-1922) and President Louis Borno (1922-1930) of being willing tools in the hands of the US for their own personal and financial gain.

The Union, under the leadership of Georges Sylvain, played a significant role in advancing Haitian nationalism. In addition to promoting political nationalism, Sylvain proposed using Creole, the language of the masses, as the official language of instruction. The publication of his 1928 work Cric-Crac, which translated noted French writer La Fontaine’s fables into Creole, and the publication of Philolgie Creole, which challenged the prejudices surrounding the Haitian language by asserting that Creole was not a corrupted dialect of French, were potent indicators of his commitment to the Haitianization of Haiti. Sylvain politicized the matter further by stating that Creole was a “symbol of Haitian identity and an appropriate instrument for administrative tasks.”2

The issue of language was essential to the nationalist movement. French remained the official language of Haiti after independence in 1804 and was spoken primarily by urban residents, wealthy landowners, and rural intermediaries. The overwhelming majority of Haitians spoke Creole and were thus locked out of the political process as communication with the government and Haitian laws were in French. Like Sylvain, Price-Mars believed that if “educationalists would admit that Creole, not French was the pupil’s mother tongue, they would first use Creole as a medium of instruction, then teach French as a foreign language.”3

The principle of enlarging rural access to education through the creolization of the education system was an essential theme of the nationalist movement of the 1920s. Both Price-Mars and Sylvain were integral to the movement, which studied and validated rural culture. In addition to advocating the use of Creole, the movement also explored the Vodun religion. Poet, novelist, and anthropologist Jean Jacques Roumain was a crucial figure in this arena. Roumain was captivated by the nationalist movement of the 1920s. In addition to helping to establish the magazine La Revue Indigéne, which attacked the essence of French culture in Haiti, Roumain also helped to establish La Trouee (The Break-Through) in 1927, which took an uncompromising anti-American and anti-Borno position.

The 1930s marked a critical turning point in the nationalist movement. The eruption of a student strike against US educational policies, combined with the tragic events at the 1929 Marchaterre massacre–where US marines indiscriminately killed fifteen-hundred Haitians leading to a national protest–set the stage for US withdrawal. In addressing the tragedy of Marchaterre and the wave of Haitian nationalism, officials in Washington established the Forbes Commission, which arrived in Haiti to investigate. According to Henry Fletcher, an influential member of the commission, “Haiti would not accept the choice of the Council of State as the next President, and that if the Council of State attempted to elect anyone a revolution would ensue.”4 In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Haiti and as a result of his “good neighbor policy,” formally withdrew US Marines.

The failure of the Haitian government in the post-occupation period to embrace and build upon the idealism embodied in the nationalist movement was one of many tragedies of this period. Faced with an opportunity to redefine Haitian society after its second colonial experience, the leaders instead embraced the politics of self-interest. Haiti’s intellectual dissidents provided a prescription for uniting Haiti in a common cause and promoting solidarity. More fundamentally, this group informed nationalist movements in Africa. The faith and commitment of Haiti’s dissidents are articulated best in one of George Sylvain’s poems. He wrote: “O Land of epics, of fierce warrior/Knowing your History I have faith in your destiny/Despite your neglect, your doubts, your poverty/I love you and wish you to be free: Haiti arise!”

  1. See The Crisis, May 1921, 18.
  2.  Albert Valdman, Le Creole: Structure, statut et origine (Paris: Klincksleck, 1978), 313-14.
  3. Jean Price-Mars, La Vocation de l’élite (Port-au-Prince: Impremerie Ed. Chenet, 1919), 71-72.
  4. Brian Weinstein and Aaron Segal, Haiti: Political Failures, Cultural Successes (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1984), 29.
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Karen Cook Bell

Karen Cook Bell is Associate Professor of History at Bowie State University. Her areas of specialization include slavery and the slave trade, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and women’s history. Her book, Claiming Freedom: Race, Kinship, and Land in Nineteenth Century Georgia (University of South Carolina Press, 2018), received the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Council Excellence in Research Award. She is currently working on a monograph titled "Running from Bondage: Enslaved Women's Fugitivity in a Revolutionary Age." Follow her on Twitter @kbphd08.