Haitian Intellectuals and the U.S. Occupation of Haiti: An Interview with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith

In the sixth part of my series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti, I interview Patrick Bellegarde-Smith. Dr. Bellegarde-Smith is a Professor Emeritus of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has written dozens of articles, book chapters, and books that have been translated into English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. Those works include In The Shadows of Power: Dantes Bellegarde in Haitian Social Thought and Haiti: The Breached Citadel, and Fragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in the New World.

 Bellegarde-Smith is also the recipient of a number of professional awards including the Medaille Jean Price-Mars from Universite d’Etat d’Haiti the Lifetime Achievement Award for Scholarship from the Haitian Studies Association. He is President of the latter organization and the Associate Editor of its journal, the Journal of Haitian Studies. Dr. Bellegarde-Smith also serves as the President of the Congress of Santa Barbara (KOSANBA)

 Our interview focuses on Haitian intellectuals during the period of the U.S. occupation. Topics addressed include the social thought of Dantès Bellegarde (1877-1966), a leading Haitian diplomat and the grandfather of Dr. Bellegarde-Smith.

Dr. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Professor Emeritus at the UWM
Dr. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Professor Emeritus of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Byrd: Let’s start by discussing someone you have written extensively about: your grandfather, Dantès Bellegarde. Who was he? What should readers know about his upbringing? His personality? His career?

Bellegarde-Smith: His great-great grandfather on his mother’s side whose life was saved by [Emperor Jean-Jacques] Dessalines himself became essentially the Minister of Justice under [President] Jean Pierre Boyer. That’s one thing. The great-great grandfather was also said to be the founder of Haitian Freemasonry.

On his father’s side, you are talking about people who fought during the Revolution. You are talking about a man who becomes duke of the second empire under [Emperor Faustin] Soulouque and becomes one of the henchmen of Soulouque. And that also amassed a great deal of money. A great deal of property and the family lost all of it because the family became quite destitute.

On the mother’s side, you are talking about French and mulattoes and on the father’s side you are talking about black. And that would be the black elite in terms of all this. But they lost the fortune. And so when my grandfather was born, out of wedlock, his mother, whom I remember quite well, born in 1857 died in 1952. She was totally white looking. Long hair all the way down to her buttocks and she only spoke Kreyòl. She was uneducated. Did not read or write. Non-literate. So my grandfather started life being Kreyòlophone. He learned French when he went to school.

In a very real sense, this juxtaposes him to Jean Price-Mars who was his friend and they went to school together. [Bellegarde] was saved, and I use the word advisedly, by his skin color. He was able to climb the social ladder in Haiti partly because of his color and he became widely popular abroad, which really helped matters. Once you’re recognized abroad therefore you must be an important person while Price-Mars was destined to play the role that he did even though he was probably more highly born than my grandfather. That was solid middle-class at that point, in terms of Jean Price-Mars. It’s no surprise that he becomes the founding father of what becomes Négritude. Certainly the founding father of Haitian indigénisme and a cultural opposition to the American occupation.

My grandfather was very ambivalent because of course he is seen as the leader of the pro-French forces in Haitian social thought. And he describes Haiti in many of his works as French speaking and Catholic. And Haiti is neither French-speaking nor Catholic . . . [Today] French has lost a great deal of ground in Haiti. I don’t think it can be recovered at all.

Byrd: In the schools, too?

Bellegarde-Smith: The schools such as they are today. It depends on which schools you go to. Once upon a time the public schools were decent. They were quite good. My grandfather went to public schools. So did Jean Price-Mars and they others. They learned French. They learned classical French. Now you have the private schools that are good.

Dantès even though he warned against the U.S. occupation as far back as 1907, that “the U.S. is too close and God is too far,” he served the occupation. He was a cabinet member during the first part of the U.S. occupation. So this is where I see the ambivalence. A portion of the Haitian elite were essentially for it. They were not saying it necessarily publicly. Sténio Vincent, President Vincent, said so publicly. But it was one way to speed up the civilization process. They were concerned that French would lose ground . . . Of course, as you know, the light-skinned elite was re-establishing power in Haiti and kept power until [President Dumarsais] Estimé in the 1940s.

Dantès Bellegarde, early 1900s
Dantès Bellegarde, early 1900s

Byrd: Can we go back to that point about the civilizing process. How exactly did Bellegarde picture it?

Bellegarde-Smith: Well, he thought that Haiti could not remain independent unless it stayed essentially in the cultural orbit of France. And he saw Haiti as being an intellectual province of France. It’s interesting if you see the way his family lived, he and his seven children in Port-au-Prince, you would be transported to southern France in terms of the way the house was set-up, in terms of what they ate, in terms of what they talked about. As he got older, after he got to be about 80, the only time he would leave his house was to go to a funeral which was quite often and also go downtown once a week to pick up French conservative newspapers that were reserved for him, that came into Port-au-Prince once a week. So I was raised reading those newspapers after he was done with them. We’re talking about Le Monde. We’re talking about Le Figaro Littéraire, which is one of the right-wing publications in France and that kind of thing. But he was certain and he said it over and over again that a Dahomeyen island in the middle of the Americas would not survive because see what happened to Africa. Dahomey did not survive colonization. Why should Haiti imitate, take on that process itself?

I have one of Price-Mars’s books, La Vocation de l’Elite, where my grandfather read it, that was part of his library, he had about 10,000 books in his library, and when he was intrigued by a passage he would take his thumb and with his nail mark it. So you have markings all over the page and sometimes he wrote notes in the margin. And when Price-Mars accused the Haitian elite including my grandfather, who was his friend, of cultural bovarism, as in Madame Bovary, he said “but I’m a mulatto, what do you want me to do? (laughs)” “Not a negro, I’m a mulatto.” A “leave me alone” kind of thing. But at the end of his life when he was dying and my aunt said that he was delirious and not to believe what he said, he kept repeating over and over again “but I’m black, but I’m black, but I’m black.” He kept saying that he was black, something that he did not say publicly earlier.

He was minister of education and agriculture in the first cabinet installed by the Americans. And when for instance the U.S. wanted to impose a loan to the Haitian government and the Haitian government said absolutely not, we are not going to borrow money, the Americans stopped payments of the salaries of all the public persons including my grandfather. And the Haitian cabinet caved in because he said he had seven babies at home and they were very young and he had to feed his kids. So they accepted that onerous loan from the U.S. government. At first they resisted.

His opposition to the occupation occurred internationally while he was a government official. That was starting with the League of Nations in Geneva and also as a member of the Pan-African Congresses especially the one in 1921 in Paris, the second reunion of that particular congress where everybody was attacked by the French government and especially by the American government. [He] developed a very close friendship at that time with [W.E.B.] Du Bois and with this very young whippersnapper Rayford W. Logan (laughs).

At the League of Nations when he [Bellegarde] assailed the United States, making everybody uncomfortable, he was essentially fired. The American government forced his resignation. He was recalled back to Haiti. He had attacked the United States while trying to forge a grand alliance between all the Latin countries. Of course, Haiti, he saw it as a Latin country . . . he wanted a grand alliance of all Latin American countries even though Latin America did not come to the rescue of Haiti. They were more likely to protest the invasion of the Dominican Republic but not of Haiti.

Byrd: I’m interested in this development, the emergence of Bellegarde’s public opposition to the occupation. By the 1920s, Du Bois and his peers are staunchly against the occupation. Is that burgeoning collaboration influencing Bellegarde?

Bellegarde-Smith: There was a sturdy friendship between Du Bois and my grandfather and James Weldon Johnson and also Walter White. Growing up there was a picture of Walter White in my grandfather’s library in Port-au-Prince to the point that I thought he was family. Since he was always there, on the mantle.

The NAACP, and I have found papers in my grandfather’s library going through these things, where there was a great deal of support given by the NAACP advising the Haitian government as to how to quicken the exit of the Americans out of Haiti. The NAACP was highly respected in governmental circles in Haiti. They were taking advice from the NAACP as to how to handle the U.S. government and that was not pleasing to the American government, of course. And I remember, for instance, in 1931 when my grandfather was sent as the ambassador to Washington, D.C.

He was recalled after making a horrible speech attacking the U.S. at the Pan-American Union (now the Organization of American States) where he called the U.S. all kinds of names in French and Cordell Hull, who was Secretary of State, was smiling and applauding not understanding a word of what was being said.

Also there was anger on the part of the American government because my grandfather had established some very strong connections with the African American bourgeoisie. People like Raymond Pace Alexander, the judge out of Philadelphia . . . and other luminaries in the African American world. People from the Gold Coast on 16th Street in Washington, D.C., what it was called in those days.

That irritated because supposedly Haitian ambassadors had not entertained the African American population up to that point from what was said. I don’t believe that that was necessarily true. But there was close friendships developed at that point.

My grandfather stopped his dealings with Du Bois when he became a communist. He had no interest in that. My grandfather was a rabid anti-communist. He was essentially a positivist.

When my grandfather died the first person to come to the house was Price-Mars himself . . . they remained friends despite public spats (laughs).

Jean Price-Mars, 1956
Jean Price-Mars, 1956

Byrd: Could you elaborate on Price-Mars and the changes that were occurring within the Haitian intellectual community during the occupation?

Bellegarde-Smith: Price-Mars was an outsider in many ways. Highly-educated. A physician. A medical doctor. Coming from a Protestant family. So outsider, outsider, outsider. From the provinces. Outsider again. Dark-skinned. That kind of thing. So it was almost foretold that he could possibly lead folks into new ways of thinking about the Haitian culture. At the very same time, he was quite flattered when a French senator referred to Haiti as an advanced lighthouse of “Latinity” in the Americas. And he was very flattered by that. He liked the fact that Haiti was an advanced beacon of “Latinity” in the Americas. And he was a positivist. Auguste Comte was one of his heroes and that kind of thing. And Herbert Spencer and these folks.

Yes, he was radical in many of his ideas. Not so much so in terms of politics, actually . . . but he obviously talked about the obvious. Haiti is not exactly, we are not, colored Frenchman.

Byrd: It sounds like there was always this distinction made between the United States and, say, France. I’m sure they [Haitian intellectuals] were very cognizant of American racial politics . . .

Bellegarde-Smith: It’s interesting. The Haitians would not consider the French as being racist. Not that they were not. But somehow it did not occur to Haitian intellectuals because they were well-treated in Paris. Then again they were distinguished people to start with. In the very same way that James Baldwin and the others and Josephine Baker and all these African Americans who at some point were in exile in Paris were treated beautifully. And so France had that aura about it.

The first black generals of European armies were French generals. From Toussaint Louverture to Alexandre Dumas and the other people. And so France was seen as civilized. It’s interesting. In the early ‘60s when I was thinking of coming to the U.S. to continue my education, my mother was against it. The first thing was, “you have to go to France.” Because it is civilized. So she was against the U.S. She said “maybe Canada.” And I said, “what about the U.S?” She said “maybe Boston. That’s the only civilized place in the U.S.” No other place is civilized . . . When I finally said that I am going to the U.S., she made me swear that I would never go below the Mason-Dixon line. And I said, “why?” And she said, “because you are just like me. The first time a white person looks at you funny, you are going to kill him” (laughs).

The U.S. was seen as uncivilized. Certainly the U.S. was seen in Haiti as wanting to institute sort of a Booker T. Washington field to Haitian education which the Haitian elite revolted against.

Now my grandfather was in charge of the Ministry of Education for a very long time and this is one ministry that the U.S. paid very little attention to. They forgot all about it. So he was able to institute a number of reforms which, by the way, gave rise to a large number of people who would rise to become middle-class in Haiti, which a generation later were able to revolt and change the complexion of Haitian politics, pun intended. But the U.S. cannot be given credit for that. In terms of the schools that were created at the time. Now people want to claim that the U.S. reformed Haitian education. They may have reformed the road system to get the Marines from one point to another but I don’t think they reformed the education system and that sort of sticks in my craw because my grandfather had something to do with it.

Byrd: Your scholarship covers such an impressive scope but two of your works are of particular importance to this series and in thinking about Haitian intellectuals, the occupation, and imperialism in general. I was hoping you could talk about the titles—the meaning behind—The Breached Citadel and In the Shadow of Powers. What, if any, message about Haitian intellectual history do they convey?

Bellegarde-Smith: It’s interesting. I had to fight with my publisher in Canada because of the translation of the title. He wanted to do In the Shadow of Powers as A L’ombre des Pouvoirs. I said, “No!” My grandfather was in power in those days. He was not in the shadow of power. He was the power in Haiti. Power means puissance not pouvoir. Puissance meaning the United States, France, England, Germany. So in the shadow of these world powers, that’s what was meant by that particular title. I insisted on putting Haiti in the context of Latin American intellectual development, in terms of what was happening in places like Mexico and Argentina and especially France and England, which was quite powerful in the minds of Haitian intellectuals. Something that was not done. Even in early Haitian history they talk about Haiti as if it did not belong to the rest of the world, as if it were not an important colony of France therefore subject to all those international influences in the nineteenth century and the seventeenth century. So they looked at it in isolation. And people are still looking at Haiti in isolation. It’s resilient. It’s different. It cannot be contrasted with Nicaragua or Bolivia because it is black and there’s always going back to this thing: people see color and they don’t see much else.

And by the way, Haitian intellectuals were very much concerned about U.S. power. Obviously from the very beginning it was an imperialistic force. It was a successor of Rome. And one of the reasons so many intellectuals went with France is because economically and militarily it was not going to re-colonize Haiti. If you were to choose between imperialism, choose France. Because it’s more “benign.”

By Breached Citadel, I was thinking in terms of culture, that an autonomous culture if it wants to maintain its integrity and be self-sustaining controls and chooses how it is going to integrate various elements from the outside. It has that choice.




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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.