This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti was recently published by University of Pennsylvania Press.
Author of The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti is Brandon R. Byrd. Byrd is Assistant Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. His research focuses on nineteenth and twentieth-century Black intellectual and social history, with a special interest in Black internationalism. It has been featured in publications such as the Journal of African American History, the Journal of Haitian Studies, Palimpsest, and Slavery & Abolition. In addition to teaching and research, Byrd serves as co-editor of the Black Lives and Liberation series published by Vanderbilt University Press. Follow him on Twitter @bronaldbyrd.
In The Black Republic, Brandon R. Byrd explores the ambivalent attitudes that African American leaders in the post-Civil War era held toward Haiti, the first and only Black republic in the Western Hemisphere. Following emancipation, African American leaders of all kinds — politicians, journalists, ministers, writers, educators, artists, and diplomats — identified new and urgent connections with Haiti, a nation long understood as an example of Black self-determination. They celebrated not only its diplomatic recognition by the United States but also the renewed relevance of the Haitian Revolution.
While a number of African American leaders defended the sovereignty of a Black republic whose fate they saw as intertwined with their own, others expressed concern over Haiti’s fitness as a model Black republic, scrutinizing whether the nation truly reflected the “civilized” progress of the Black race. Influenced by the imperialist rhetoric of their day, many African Americans across the political spectrum espoused a politics of racial uplift, taking responsibility for the “improvement” of Haitian education, politics, culture, and society. They considered Haiti an uncertain experiment in Black self-governance: it might succeed and vindicate the capabilities of African Americans demanding their own right to self-determination or it might fail and condemn the Black diasporic population to second-class status for the foreseeable future.
When the United States military occupied Haiti in 1915, it created a crisis for W. E. B. Du Bois and other Black activists and intellectuals who had long grappled with the meaning of Haitian independence. The resulting demand for and idea of a liberated Haiti became a cornerstone of the anticapitalist, anticolonial, and antiracist radical Black internationalism that flourished between World War I and World War II. Spanning the Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction, and Jim Crow eras, The Black Republic recovers a crucial and overlooked chapter of African American internationalism and political thought.
“In this extraordinary book, Brandon R. Byrd both rewrites the history of Black internationalism, locating Haiti firmly at its center, and offers a refreshingly nuanced reconsideration of the many ways that US African Americans engaged with the ‘Black Republic’ after the American Civil War.” —Marlene L. Daut, author of Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism
AAIHS Editors: What type of impact do you hope your work has on the existing literature on this subject? Where do you think the field is headed and why?
Brandon R. Byrd: Black intellectual history is crossing borders and disciplinary boundaries, moving along paths cleared by the earliest Black historians. As scholars, including Robin D. G. Kelley, have previously noted, Black historians have written and thought about the history of Black people in diasporic, international, and transnational terms since the nineteenth-century. Black studies was birthed as a diasporic project. In recent years, numerous scholars have built on these traditions with innovative new histories of Black peoples’ internationalist politics and thought. Historians Keisha N. Blain and Quito Swan have even introduced a book series on Black internationalism!
The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti contributes to the increasingly expansive field of Black intellectual history by offering a geographic and temporal re-framing of Black internationalism. In contrast to the plethora of important studies focused on African Americans’ political, cultural, and intellectual engagement with Africa and Africans, East Asia, or the Communist International during the twentieth-century, The Black Republic places Haiti firmly at the center of African American political thought as it developed in the long post-emancipation era that followed the US Civil War. My book offers a more nuanced understanding of African Americans’ ideas about Haiti, not just the Haitian Revolution, and shows how their fluid thinking about Haiti’s symbolism and its existence as a Black state shaped broader developments in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Black political thought.
Besides influencing how scholars write about Black internationalism and intellectual life by recovering a forgotten period of African American engagement with Haiti, I also hope that The Black Republic contributes to ongoing conversations in Haitian Studies. The Black Republic focuses on a diverse range of Black political actors and intellectuals who shared the belief that Haiti was unique because of its revolution and its subsequent standing as a Black state in a world dominated by self-consciously white empires. Yet, it also considers how those African Americans grappled with Haiti’s material realities and geopolitical relations, sometimes in conversation with Haitians or through travel to Haiti. Accordingly, The Black Republic not only contributes to ever-pressing conversations about the ideas of Haiti — about the historical and contemporary narratives about Haiti’s past and present that so often focus on its perceived exceptionalism — but also encourages further scholarship on nineteenth-century Haiti, particularly its connections to the United States, the African Diaspora, and the Atlantic World.