Haiti, the Archive, and the Historical Imagination

John Mercer Langston, then a professor at Howard University
John Mercer Langston

In the fall of 1877, John Mercer Langston laid on his bed on board the British steamer “Andes.” He was sea-sick and could not leave his cabin. Again. The new U.S. minister and consul general to Haiti was three days into his first trip at sea and so far the voyage from New York City to Cap Haïtien had been miserable.

But the tide would turn. After passing Cape Hatteras, the admitted “novice in sea-faring life” recovered. Langston “enjoyed the trip thereafter with a zest and pleasure real and inspiriting.” He became filled with a thrilling realization: soon he would land in Haiti. In a few short days, he would “behold now for the first time . . . negro nationality in harmonious, honored activity.”

Childhood lessons about Toussaint Louverture did not prepare Langston for his arrival in Haiti. They could not. One week after leaving New York, Langston was stunned when the British captain obeyed orders from Haitian men who came on board the “Andes” to direct it into the harbor. Put simply, he “had never seen up to that time men of their complexion holding such positions and performing such duties.”

As the captain explained, though, Langston was now “in a negro country.” That fact finally hit the U.S. diplomat when he went on shore. A vibrant port city filled with black people conducting their own affairs, controlling their own institutions, and operating (seemingly) outside of the confines of white supremacy was “a new revelation” to Langston. He had only “seen the negro . . . at home, in nominal freedom and dependence. Now he [beheld] him the owner of a great country, the founder and builder of a great government, with a national sovereignty and power respected and honored by all the great Christian civilized powers of the earth.”1

Skyline of Cap Haïtien
Skyline of Cap Haïtien

I arrived in Cap Haïtien two days ago. Stepping off American Airlines Flight 3603, I quickly took in the cool ocean breeze then made a beeline towards customs. I smiled as I approached the waiting agent. “Where are you from,” she asked kindly. “Etazini,” I admitted, my smile turning sheepish. “Ameriken.” She already knew. And I was already moving towards the line for tourists.

I found the only other black person in the tourist line. I gave him the nod. He looked down. My reluctant companion was no more than thirteen or fourteen years old and appeared to be on a school trip along with ten or so classmates. I imagined it was his first time abroad. I imagined he was trying to process what it meant for us to move to the left while every other black person on our flight moved to the right. I imagined that he was trying to understand what it meant to be a blan.

That teen has likely never heard of John Mercer Langston. I had not at his age. I would be surprised if he’s thought in great depth about black political self-determination to the same extent that Langston did. That’s understandable. He has beheld Barack Obama, the president of a great country. He has always seen men of his complexion holding significant positions and performing important duties.

Still, I could not help but think of me, him, and John Mercer Langston as intimately connected. Two arrived in Haiti at a moment when the prospect of replacing the first black president with a white supremacist one looms large. The other disembarked in Cap Haïtien shortly after Reconstruction collapsed under the weight of southern vigilantism and northern indifference. All left the United States not knowing what they might find when they returned.

John Mercer Langston did not publish his recollections of his time in Haiti until a decade after the end of his diplomatic tenure there. By then, black people in the United States were fortifying themselves and their communities against the violent realities of Jim Crow. Still, Langston assumed a tone of optimism and patriotism befitting a staunch advocate of integrationism and a veteran of the abolitionist movement. Indeed, he dedicated his work to

The young, aspiring American, who, by manly and self-reliant effort, would gain standing and influence, serving his day and generation by such personal accomplishment and useful, heroic achievement, as show him worthy of his citizenship . . . He [had] only, therefore, to be true, brave and faithful, to win the highest rewards of dignified life, as bestowed in honors and emoluments by his fellow-citizens.2

Jean-Jacques Dessalines
Jean Jacques Dessalines

That passage and others like it have forced me to grapple with the complexity of Langston’s thought in his final years. The heady days of Reconstruction were long over. A new fight for black freedom had begun and Langston felt obligated to inspire a new generation in those trying times. He told young men like Arthur Dessalines Langston—his son and the namesake of Jean Jacques Dessalines—to know the value of self-improvement but never forget the importance of black self-determination. He left them with his own longings for full inclusion in U.S. public life and his simultaneous sense of belonging to a much larger Afro-diasporic family.

In that respect, his words have also forced me to imagine. After passing through customs and leaving the airport, I took a taxi to my hotel. All the while, I pictured Langston talking to me and the black teen in the customs line. I imagined us together; three travelers linked by their blackness, their passports and the challenge of grasping what it all means.

  1. Quotations from John Mercer Langston, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol, or The First and Only Negro Representative in Congress from the Old Dominion (Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1894), 358-363.
  2. Ibid., dedication page.
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Brandon Byrd

Brandon R. Byrd is an assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University and author of 'The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti.' Follow him on Twitter @bronaldbyrd.

Comments on “Haiti, the Archive, and the Historical Imagination

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    Many times did I hear John Mercer Langston’s name in my childhood home of Richmond, VA. My parents were avid readers of history. My mother and brother graduated from Virginia State, where Langston was the first president. He is also related to the famed poet Langston Hughes. But more importantly, Langston’s role as a college president is far more enduring, as he worked to educate Black people not only in academic disciplines, but within spiritual, moral and ethical principles. He was deeply religious and believed that the ravages of enslavement had corrupted native spiritual principles of his people. Thank you AAIHS.

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      Thank you for reading, Colita! Yes, Langston was a towering figure of his day. In many ways, his contemporaries placed him on par with Douglass. He is certainly a worthy figure of more attention from historians.

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    I am headed to Cap Haïtien for the Caribbean Studies Association and am overjoyed for all the reasons you mention. At the same time I am hyperaware that there are so many other depictions of Haiti’s present and past as few are as thrilled as I am and many have negative connotations associated with Haiti. Zika virus is the icing on the cake. Thank you for capturing the joy and enthusiasm (then and now) of travel to Diasporic sites rich in history and culture. As a historian, I often have that feeling of wearing bifocals, processing at least two time periods (past/present) at the same time. Looking forward to experiencing Haiti’s past and present in a few months.

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      Thank you for reading and for capturing so well what I hoped to convey. The allusion to historical bifocals is perfect. For me, it is impossible to separate some of the current trepidation about traveling to Haiti from the fear of the “Horrors of St. Domingo.” A free black space was an unthinkable space. A black space is still a dangerous space. Of course, those discourses have evolved though. In the current warnings about disease in Haiti, I hear echoes of invading French troops and occupying U.S. Marines talking in hushed tones about yellow fever. But I also see a painful refusal to grapple with issues of racial and economic injustice at home. Put simply, there is a great deal of attention to the well-being of U.S. citizens who might drink tap water in Haiti. But, until recently, there was none devoted to the welfare of folks who have little choice but to drink the lead tainted water in Flint, MI or Jackson, MS.

      These are complicated things to think through. But I’ll have my historical bifocals on at CSA, too. I hope we can connect and share our experiences of, as you say, the joy of traveling to Diasporic sites rich in history and culture.

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