The Black Republic: An Author’s Response

The most familiar story about nineteenth-century African Americans and the Haitian Revolution is a romanticized account of how the revolution galvanized enslaved people and influenced Black northerners to celebrate Haiti as an example of Black independence, racial equality, or even a potential homeland during the Antebellum period. This story bleeds seamlessly into the narratives produced by twentieth-century Black playwrights, artists, musicians, and writers who proudly claimed Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution as part of their own heritage. This is a story about racial unity, liberation, historical memory, and cultural pride.

It was not the only story that I needed to tell in The Black Republic. Informed by the pioneering work of scholars including Rayford W. Logan and the more recent scholarship of historians such as Leslie M. Alexander, Matthew Clavin, Gerald Horne, Brenda Gayle Plummer, Millery Polyné, and Julius S. Scott, I followed the basic assumption that African Americans looked to Haiti when considering the complex issues that emerged in the aftermath of slavery. It seemed clear that African Americans knew Haitian history did not end in 1804, and they were just as concerned with Haiti’s present and future as they were interested in its revolutionary past.

My initial forays into the archives affirmed these assumptions. References to the Haitian Revolution and Haiti abounded in myriad periodicals, plays, art, speeches, correspondence, and autobiographies produced by African Americans in the post-emancipation United States. They pervaded the records of Black political, religious, and educational organizations and institutions. As the authors in this roundtable all note, Haiti mattered to many African Americans because of its ongoing revolutionary challenges to the world made by European imperial expansion. It was also a major target of mounting US imperial aggression, a constant object of racist discourses, a critical site of US Black diplomacy, and even a persistent attraction for prospective African American immigrants.

Still, these sources did not tell a single story. Instead, they raised deeper questions, even when offering superficial answers. How did African Americans understand Haiti’s abstract and historical symbolism in an international order dominated by imperial nation-states, including the United States? What did it mean for African Americans to defend Haiti as “modern” and “civilized,” or to champion the “Black Republic”? How did solidarity manifest itself, materially and discursively? What were the deeper aspirations and anxieties projected onto and produced from thinking about Haiti?

As the contributors to this roundtable observe, I attempted to chart a history of Black political thought—an intellectual history of what Polyné has called “the idea of Haiti.” Since the establishment of Haitian independence in 1804, various groups across the Atlantic world have crafted ideas about that country to suit their own needs and desires. Readers familiar with current events will be familiar with some of these ideas. It has been derided as a failed state and a “sh*thole”—as the worst form of Blackness, to use the words of Gina Athena Ulysse—by those invested in the maintenance of white supremacy and imperial projects that are incompatible with Haiti’s sovereign existence. Haiti has also been imagined as a bastion of freedom by the enslaved and oppressed. These competing ideas are not and have never been static or monolithic. They do not exist in isolation, either from each other or from the ideas about Haiti produced by Haitians themselves.

Explained by Stieber in her review, the latter point is one that could be emphasized more in The Black Republic. The self-fashioning of Haitians, particularly the political leaders who acted on behalf of the Haitian state, certainly had an enduring influence on African Americans. Haitian heads-of-state, namely Henry Christophe, Jean-Pierre Boyer, and Fabre Geffrard, enticed Black North American immigrants by advertising Haiti as a singular Black nationality. They shaped the ideas of Haiti that persisted in US Black thought and culture, as evident in the embroidered couch that Sarah A. Shimm submitted to the 1884 New Orleans Exposition depicting the Haitian Revolution. Moreover, the dialogic relationship between African Americans and Haitians is evident in US diplomat Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett’s firm defenses of Haiti’s sovereignty, which were informed by the anti-colonial nationalism of his Haitian friends and interlocutors. It is even palpable in Frederick Douglass’s boasts of Haiti’s progress towards “civilization,” which not only reflected the discourses of Victorian-era anglophone Black intellectuals, but also cohered with how Haitian statesmen represented their country.

Yet, as Black thinkers such as John Hurst noted, this dialogue was uneven. In September 1909, Hurst, the Haitian son of African American immigrants spoke before a crowd of one-hundred people at Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan AME Church. He lamented that his friends in Haiti thought African Americans were “retrograding”—that Black people in the United States had surrendered their rights and dignity since Reconstruction. He proclaimed that he told those friends that African Americans accepted widespread lies about Haitians being “a very turbulent, restless and war-like people.” Hoping to rectify these misunderstandings, Hurst called for the distribution of US Black newspapers in “Haiti, Cuba and South America and Central America.” He encouraged more dedication to translation, praying “that God may hasten this era of co-operation and of sound understanding between the various branches of the Negro race!” (188-190). He articulated an idea—an aspiration—of Black internationalism avant la lettre.

Looking at historical actors such as Hurst, The Black Republic re-considers the genealogies and periodization of Black internationalism. The internationalist politics of the period between World War I and World War II—when Martinican writer Jane Nardal published “Internationalism noir” and people of African descent rallied to anti-imperialist causes, including the US occupation of Haiti—were an outgrowth of longstanding aspects of Black politics, culture, and thought. As Shaun Armstead eloquently writes, The Black Republic considers how numerous US Black thinkers re-conceptualized their national and racial identities in the uncertain decades following the collapse of US slavery, when white Americans violently reasserted white supremacy and the United States and Europe launched new imperial projects. It explores how these thinkers made claims to national citizenship and diasporic modes of belonging that spoke to African Americans’ mutually constituted ideas of race, nation, freedom and self-determination.

In exploring these themes, The Black Republic reflects on the uses, promises, and challenges of Black internationalism. My goal in this book was to approach internationalism as a process and consider the outcomes of African Americans’ concern with the “fate of Haiti.” For a number of African Americans, thinking about their relationship with Haiti reinforced ideas about US and African American exceptionalism and strengthened their insistence on inclusion in US civil and political life. For others, Haiti’s placement in the crosshairs of a burgeoning US empire helped them develop sharper critiques of the United States and create radical political solidarities with Haitians. A wide swath of African Americans contemplated what Haiti’s embattled standing in the international community revealed about their own condition and what its independence meant for the “colored world.”

Of course, African Americans’ engagement with Haiti is just one part of a larger history of Black internationalism in which Black nation-states have a significant place. In noting that Liberia and the Dominican Republic were also nineteenth-century states governed by people of African descent, Davidson calls for a more capacious assessment of the “broader panorama of thought regarding independent ‘black republics.” I agree that such a work holds immense promise. It might provide new insights into how Black people conceptualized and challenged the “modern” international order of nation-states in its foundational era. It could enhance our understanding of the broad ambitions of Black anti-colonial thought and politics. Accordingly, The Black Republic should be read alongside related scholarship on other “Black republics” and their place in the global Black political imaginary.1

Ultimately, I hope that The Black Republic is met with the critical engagement and collegial spirit that it has received in this space so generously offered by the editors of Black Perspectives. In this roundtable, scholars for whom I have the utmost respect have amplified the principal interventions of The Black Republic and suggested fruitful areas of further research. They identified the contemporary relevance of the book, and in doing so, they have recognized the ongoing political concerns that shaped its writing. Along with Armstead, I was inspired by the anti-racist and anti-colonial protests that spanned the world in the summer of 2020. In thinking with the various subjects of The Black Republic, I am just as convinced that a transnational politics of liberation remains a hard but essential pursuit, especially for those of us living and dying in the heart of the US empire.

  1. Here, I’m thinking of excellent works like Frank Guridy, Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
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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 “The Black Republic: An Author’s Response

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    Lovely, Brandon. Thank you.

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    As a daughter of Haitian immigrant parents, I find your research very powerful and fascinating both from a historical and personal standpoint. Being of Haitian descent but born in the States, the intersection of being a Haitian American female of the Christian tradition has created a quest for knowledge and understanding the relationship between Black America and Haiti. I look forward to diving into this book and receiving some clarity on this journey.

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