Recently, I have begun to construct a genealogy of an important–albeit overlooked–phrase, “Haiti for the Haitians.” Last month, I had the opportunity to present my initial findings at the 2017 AAIHS Conference. I have included the introduction of that conference paper below.
“Africa for the Africans!” The cry exploded from Marcus Garvey’s mouth and echoed throughout Liberty Hall, the building on Harlem’s West 128th Street where the Jamaican Pan-Africanist presided over meetings of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). It soon reached UNIA members in Norfolk who read a transcript of the speech in the Negro World, the official organ of the UNIA. As they met at their meeting hall in coastal Virginia, black sailors and migrant laborers carried the message to similar port cities in the United States, Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Millions more of those colonized and Jim Crowed people subsequently embraced and spread what Garvey called “the cause of Africa for the Africans—that is, that the Negro peoples of the world should concentrate upon the object of building up for themselves a great nation in Africa.” By the 1920s, his cry—“Africa for the Africans!”—reverberated throughout the world.
It was only fitting then that historian Robert A. Hill used his keynote lecture at last year’s Global Garveyism Symposium to trace the unexpected origins as well as the echoes of that Pan-Africanist clarion call. Before an audience of scholars, students, and community activists gathered for the first major academic conference on Garveyism to take place in the United States, Hill, the editor-in-chief of The Marcus Garvey and Universal Improvement Association Papers, demonstrated that Garvey was relatively late in using “Africa for the Africans.” His talk followed the phrase back to British abolitionists of the mid-nineteenth century and Garvey’s Pan-Africanist forbearers before ending with its mid-twentieth century usages, especially among African nationalists who grappled with the implications of its origins in Western culture and thought. The keynote, with its impressive chronological and geographical scope, set the perfect tone for the symposium. It acknowledged Garvey’s significance while confirming that his anti-colonial and emancipatory politics—in fact, his literal language of black liberation—had deep historical roots and global routes leading to all corners of the black world.
It also raised a question: what would a similar genealogy of “Haiti for the Haitians” tell historians? According to historians Michael O. West and William G. Martin, the Haitian Revolution, the only successful modern slave revolt in world history and the event that birthed the lone independent black republic in the Western Hemisphere, was “iconic” and the “central moment in the evolution of the black international.” Theirs is an astute observation, a necessary corrective to dominant historical narratives of black internationalism, a politics crafted in response to slavery, colonialism, and white imperialism, that foreground Africa. It is also a critical insight that coheres with the intellectual history of the African Diaspora from the nineteenth century to the present. For black people throughout the world, Haiti and the Haitian Revolution have proven the righteousness of armed struggle against slavery and in defense of black liberation, the power of black culture as a means of black resistance, the potential of black self-determination, and the possibilities of a world free from white colonialism and imperialism. They have expressed solidarity with Haiti, in ways material and abstract. Certainly, there are countless means of understanding these trends. But nothing better captures Haiti’s global significance or its meaning to black people than these three words: “Haiti for the Haitians.”
In fact, that slogan reveals the continuities and changes, threats to and survivals of, the black freedom struggle over the course of more than two and a half centuries. Its first iteration, “Hayti for the Haytians,” appears in the early 1850s, in the same moment as the better-known “Africa for the Africans.” From that decade through the 1870s, William Wells Brown and other white and black abolitionists from Great Britain and the United States attributed it to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first head-of-state of independent Haiti, and suggested that it was emblematic of his fierce temperament and his policies of black separatism. Neither were acceptable to these proponents of racial integration. Instead, they tended to privilege Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution who had assumed a romanticized image more compatible with their vision of racial reform.
These abolitionist interpretations of “Hayti for the Haytians” stood in stark contrast to the understandings and uses of it that emerged during the Age of Imperialism. In 1884, Haitian intellectual Louis Joseph Janvier published a sweeping indictment of colonialism and a passionate defense of Haitians’ right to political and economic self-determination. He gave his treatise a fitting title: Haïti aux Haïtiens. In the ensuing two decades, white travel writers and editors tried to reclaim the slogan that Janvier put to such subversive use. Their writings argued that “Hayti for the Haytians” was the misguided rationale of Haitian politics, a clear representation of Haitians’ irrational fears of foreign intervention and their senseless prejudices against more cultured whites and mulattoes. Of course, some African Americans including publisher Fred R. Moore of the New York Age challenged those white imperialists. In the spirit of Janvier, he condemned the growing threat of U.S. imperialism in Haiti and demanded an “Independent Hayti for independent Haytians” not U.S. corporate interests or political gain.
The U.S. government did not listen. But, after the beginning of its two-decade long occupation of Haiti in 1915, “Haiti for the Haitians” took on a modern Anglophone spelling and a multilingual meaning that persists to this day. From 1915-1934, liberal white editors, black Marxists, and Haitian freedom fighters all united around the common cause of Haitian liberation. In the same era that Garveyites called for an “Africa for the Africans” they rallied around the slogan of “Haiti for the Haitians.” Following the reclamation of Haitian independence due to that transnational resistance, Western journalists attributed the phrase to dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier in an attempt to blame Haitians for their alleged support of the brutal dictator. However, Haitians and their allies did not allow them to succeed in appropriating the slogan.
Today, protests against the ongoing occupation of Haiti by foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the United Nations, and international corporations possess a similar spirit and a shared slogan. In the streets of Montreal and Miami, within the pages of leftist periodicals, on the Facebook pages of human rights advocates, and in the revelry of Carnival, a similar cry arises. Haïti aux Haïtiens! Ayiti pou Ayisyen! Haiti for the Haitians!1 Haiti in which the promise of the Haitian Revolution and the dreams of the black international can finally, truly be realized.
- Haïti aux Haïtiens and Ayiti pou Ayisyen can either be translated from the French and Kreyòl as “Haiti for the Haitians” or “Haiti to the Haitians.” I have chosen the former translation based on consultations with linguists and native speakers of Kreyòl and French, analysis of the meaning applied to iterations of the phrase in each language, and considerations of the historical context in which the phrase emerged. ↩