The Meaning and Significance of Haiti in African American Studies

*This post is part of our online roundtable on Brandon R. Byrd’s The Black Republic.

Negre Marron, Haiti (Steve Bennett, Flickr).

Of the “idea of Haiti,” historian Millery Polyné writes that there is not one singular idea but many entwined, mutually constituted ideas of Haiti in tension across time and space: “Multiple designs exist. Its roots are rhizomorphic, maintaining local, national, and international strata, and also these ideas continue to be in conversation and in tension with one another.”1 Indeed, Haiti has meant many different things to many different people–from the Taíno, who named their island Ayiti (“land of high mountains”); to Jean-Jacques Dessalines and his Armée Indigène, who named their anti-colonial, antislavery state “Haïti,” fusing their struggle against oppression to the islands first inhabitants in a definitive rupture from European colonial paradigms; to Jean-Pierre Boyer, whose republic of Haiti  “unified” both North, South, East, and West.2

But it was not just the inhabitants of the island that have constructed–and contested–the meaning of “Haiti.” People throughout the Atlantic world made their own ideas of Haiti to suit their needs. In the nineteenth-century slaveholding Atlantic, pro-colonial lobbies in Europe and pro-republican slaveholders in the U.S. created an idea of Haiti as a violent, dangerous, illegitimate non-nation. Their idea of Haiti has a long legacy–one that contributes to the “failed state” narratives of Haiti we see at work even today.3 Yet Haiti was also a highly constructed idea of freedom and promise: a beacon of hope for future liberation and civil and racial equality. This idea of Haiti has its own discursive legacy as well, having inspired numerous anti-colonial histories and creative works of the early twentieth century that used the idea of Haiti to employ various struggles for liberation, freedom and self-determination. It is this latter idea of Haiti, of the great Black Republic, that is the subject of Brandon Byrd’s book.

The Black Republic is impeccably researched and crafted; the writing shows care and intentionality, while the bibliography and notes are generous and rich. It is an intellectual history of an idea of Haiti, that was constituted–and contested–by African American leaders in the post-Civil War period. Building on Polyné’s insights, Byrd probes the many ideas of Haiti as the great Black Republic constructed after the American Civil War: “there existed multiple and sometimes conflicting ideas of Haiti that changed over time but remained critical to African Americans during the long post-emancipation era” (4). Byrd traces the ambivalent attitudes of prominent African American writers, thinkers, politicians, and religious leaders as they engaged questions of “black freedom, citizenship, and enfranchisement now codified in law” in the post-1865 period, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow (14). In particular, he attends to how myriad actors in the U.S. mobilized, “manipulate[d]” and “challenge[d]” ideas of Haiti for their own political, religious, and moral pursuits (11).

By centering (ideas of) Haiti in a relatively understudied period of Black internationalism, Byrd’s book demonstrates how the idea of Haiti productively challenges existing discursive frameworks in African American Studies for thinking about the post-Civil War U.S.. The book undoes the notion of a monolithic or static African American relationship to Haiti, revealing the Black republic instead as an idea that transformed over time and was debated by various actors with varying agendas. The book also reveals the perplexing terms on which some African Americans’ “across the political spectrum” engaged unevenly with the notion of Haitian “civilization.” Indeed, embracing European notions of civilization and progress, some even carried out a kind of civilizing mission of Haiti. This form of imperial evangelism and racial uplift involved assuming responsibility for the putative “improvement” of Haitian education, politics, culture, and society in the interest of ensuring an image of civilized Blackness upon which African Americans’ standing in the world relied.

If the idea of Haiti troubles, it also clarifies. For example, the book brings into focus how central the idea of Haiti as a savage, failed state was to setting the white supremacist terms of national reconciliation in the 1880s. In so doing, the book reveals powerfully, damningly, the simultaneity between these slanderous constructions of Haiti as savage, uncivilized, and the actual violence and savagery enacted by white supremacists against African Americans in the U.S. south. The book also clarifies, for those readers already well versed in Haitian writing and Haitian thought from the same period, aspects of Haiti’s own discursive self-fashioning. Specialists of Haitian writing and thought recognize, when set against the backdrop of US discursive constructions about (the idea of) Haiti, that Haitian writers, politicians and intellectuals were performing a discourse to activate, engage with, take advantage of, and resist the myriad US African American discourses of self-help, racial uplift, and salvation that Byrd’s book carefully unpacks and analyzes.

It is this last point, Haiti’s own discursive self-fashioning, that I want to elaborate on here, in terms of the performative power of discursive self-representation.4 Byrd’s book reveals how African Americans’ lived experiences, texts, agendas, and hopes shaped their own representations of Haiti. There is power in African Americans intellectuals’ vindication of Haiti. But there is also power in Haiti’s anti-colonial, anti-slavery, anti-imperial words and texts, not just in their enunciation, but in the very act of printing and disseminating; of claiming space within the public sphere, by force, by a people not deemed “legitimate” or “civilized” to be able to wield that discursive power. Yet as Byrd’s capacious accounting reveals, there was not a robust infrastructure in place for translating and disseminating Haitians’ own discursive self-representations from the same time period. While Haiti’s French-language self-representation finds a ready home in Haitian Studies and, to an extent, French and Francophone Studies, it remains unsounded in African American studies.

The question is: how can active collaboration and mutual enrichment across fields and disciplines help to amplify the performative power of Haiti’s own self-representation? What infrastructures do scholars need to put in place to render legible and powerful Haiti’s own vindications, reframings, and rewritings?  First, translation: as simple as it is, specialists of Haiti need to continue the important work of making texts more widely available5; second, centering Haiti: Marlene Daut’s work has been transformative in its call to center Haitian actors and Haitian texts within studies of the Atlantic world; third, and finally, intentionality: Byrd does an excellent job staking out the terms of his book and the “ideas” of Haiti that he is wrestling with. Scholars must do the work of clearly delimiting the work they are doing, rendering clear the distinction between what it means to engage with ideas of Haiti and what it means to engage Haitian texts, voices, and self-representation. This is not limited to historical sources, either: engaging Haitian voices and self-representation extends to contemporary scholarly research produced in Haiti that scholars must be intentional about including and highlighting in their own citational practices.

Byrd’s book is a testament to how much is gained by centering the idea of Haiti within African American studies. There is yet more to gain by centering Haiti’s own self-representation. Haiti—as an idea, a place, a concept—productively troubles the assumptions and epistemological structures of Western modernity. Haiti thus requires that we reconceptualize the organizing principles of our fields and create new spaces and means for cross-boundary inter-field collaboration in African American Studies, Haitian Studies, French and Francophone Studies, and beyond.

  1. Millery Polyné, “To Make Visible the Invisible Epistemological Order: Haiti, Singularity, and Newness,” in Millery Polyné, ed., The Idea of Haiti: Rethinking Crisis and Development (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), xi.
  2. On the naming of Haiti see David Geggus, “The Naming of Haiti,” NWIG: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids 71, nos. 1–2 (1997): 43–68. On the language of Boyer’s “unification” and “occupation” see Andrew Walker, “All Spirits Are Roused: The 1822 Antislavery Revolution in Haitian Santo Domingo,” Slavery & Abolition 40, no. 3 (2019): 583–605.
  3. On these early American discursive ideas of Haiti, James Alexander, Dangerous Neighbors: Making the Haitian Revolution in Early America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016).
  4. On Haitian print culture and performativity in claims of equality, see Doris Garraway, “Print, Publics, and the Scene of Universal Equality in the Kingdom of Henry Christophe,” L’Esprit créateur 56, no. 1 (2016): 82–100. On disrupting and displacing established discourses of authority, see Judith Butler, “Restaging the Universal: Hegemony and the Limits of Formalism,” In Contingency, Hegemony, Universality, by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (London: Verso, 2000).
  5. There are a host of excellent translation projects that already exist, but I am particularly enthusiastic about (and must disclose) a forthcoming series of essays and critical translation into English of Haïti aux Haïtiens by the Haitian author Louis Joseph Janvier that I am editing alongside Byrd (under contract with Liverpool University Press).
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Chelsea Stieber

Chelsea Stieber is an Associate Professor in the Department of Modern Language and Literature at The Catholic University of America. She is a specialist in Haitian literature and history, and her research focuses on post-independence Haitian writing and civil war. She is the author of 'Haiti's Paper War: Post-Independence Writing, Civil War, and the Making of the Republic, 1804–1954' (NYU Press, 2020). Follow her on Twitter @chelseastieber.

Comments on “The Meaning and Significance of Haiti in African American Studies

  • Wow! Not only was this amazing article posted on my birthday, I completely agree with the idea of building alignment with the idea of Haiti and the African American experience. I think it highlights and completes gaps in both realities and ultimately helps strengthen the story of what it means to be Black in the western world and how to face, and shift lost narratives that tell a full story.

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