*This post is part of our online roundtable on Brandon R. Byrd’s The Black Republic.
On January 2, 1893, eighty-nine years after Haiti declared its independence, esteemed abolitionist and former Haitian consul general Frederick Douglass reflected on the United States’ long, troubled history with the Black Republic. Bemoaning the US government’s persistent “coolness” towards Haiti, Douglass frankly and angrily remarked, “Haiti is Black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being Black. . . After Haiti had shaken off the fetters of bondage, and long after her freedom and independence had been recognized by all other civilized nations, we continued to refuse to acknowledge the fact. . . and treated her as outside the sisterhood of nations.” Chastising US politicians and merchants for fomenting internal discord among Haitians, and pleading with his listeners to respect Haitian independence, Douglass pledged his undying wish that Haiti would eventually blossom into the world’s most powerful republic and serve as a testament to Black freedom and Black sovereignty. After all, as Douglass affirmed, “Haiti is the Black man’s country, now and forever.”1 Indeed, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, enslaved and free Black communities across the Atlantic World embraced Haiti as a model for the global Black freedom struggle, and like many Black activists, Douglass knew that Haiti’s destiny was deeply entwined with the destiny of the entire Black race. Despite the oceans that separated Haitians and their US brothers and sisters, Douglass believed that their shared Blackness inextricably linked their fates and, as a race, they would rise or fall together.
Douglass’s plea for Haitian sovereignty was not unique. Instead, it was simply another crucial contribution to a longstanding movement among committed US Black activists who were determined to protect and defend Haitian freedom and autonomy. Until recently, however, historians have largely ignored the Black Republic’s centrality to the global Black freedom struggle, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Certainly, scholars such as Marlene Daut, Millery Polyné, Michael O. West, and Celucien Joseph have diligently labored to rectify this oversight and have produced brilliant, insightful studies that have transformed our understanding of Haiti’s crucial role in the Black liberation movement worldwide. And yet, as Brandon Byrd’s The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti demonstrates, we still have much to learn about US foreign policy toward Haiti and the role that US Black activists played in advocating for justice towards Haiti.
Challenging the popular notion that Black internationalist consciousness emerged later in the twentieth century, Byrd wisely opens his study in 1863 and meticulously examines the complexity of Black political and intellectual thought between the Reconstruction Era and 1934, when the US commenced a brutal military occupation of Haiti. In so doing, Byrd makes a significant historiographic contribution. He urges us to simultaneously consider the two interrelated topics of US foreign policy towards Haiti in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and also the evolution of Black political thought about Haiti. As he notes, by the late nineteenth century, a tragic divide emerged within US Black leadership. While some continued to advocate for Haitian sovereignty, others, consumed with a painful awareness of the omnipresent white gaze, succumbed to Du Boisian double-consciousness and either abandoned the Black Republic or became convinced that Haiti must be “improved” or “uplifted” in order to reach its potential. Fearful that Haiti might never live up to the perfect model of a republic that could effectively and forever silence the enemies of Black freedom, they deserted their commitment to the Pan-African freedom struggle in a hopeless bid for US citizenship. Ultimately, then, Byrd’s work forces us to examine the struggles and failures of Black activism as well as their successes and triumphs. He also urges scholars to expand our consciousness regarding the origins of Black internationalism. As Byrd astutely observes, one can only understand the political consciousness of scholar activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois if one understands the intellectual and political environment that gave rise to later manifestations of Black internationalism.
The Black Republic is brilliant and timely, as Haiti still has much to teach us about the global Black liberation struggle and those who seek to destroy it. Although a decade has passed since a catastrophic earthquake struck Haiti, devastating large portions of the country and killing nearly 300,000 people, the racist and ignorant sentiments that defined the US response to this tragedy still linger. Immediately following the earthquake, as hundreds of thousands of the dead and dying lay beneath the rubble of their homes and communities, televangelist Pat Robertson stated that the earthquake occurred because Haiti and its people are cursed. The curse, he claimed, was the result of a centuries old deal that the Haitian people made with the devil to get their freedom from slavery and from French colonial rule. At the same time, the American media kicked into overdrive, incessantly repeating the mantra, “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” until it began to sound more like a chant of accusation rather than a statement of fact.
What none of the pundits and commentators seemed willing to explore was the deeper question of why Haiti became a poverty-stricken nation in the first place. No one attempted to explain how Haiti went from being the “Pearl of the Antilles” and the New World’s most profitable colony in the eighteenth century to being the most despised, hated, and persecuted nation on earth in the twentieth century. Instead, scholars and media talking heads alike argued that a range of ills specific to the Black nation—from the prevalence of “voodoo” to a fundamental “pathology” among the Haitian people—explained Haiti’s current plight. Such stereotypes about a fundamental pathology persist. In fact, as recently as 2018, the United States’ 45th president, in one of his typical angry tirades, simply dismissed Haiti as a “sh**hole” country and asked, “Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out.”
Yet, few are willing to ask the hard questions about how and why Haiti perpetually appears to teeter on the brink of economic and political disaster. The reality is that Haiti’s current circumstances are not the result of a pact with the devil. Or the religion of Vodou. Or a fundamental inability of Black people to govern ourselves. The truth is far more insidious. The painful truth is that Haiti’s decision to declare its independence from France and to establish itself as a sovereign Black nation caused most Western nations to declare Haiti as public enemy number one. From the birth of Haitian independence in 1804 until the present day, the United States and other western European nations have used their economic and diplomatic strength in an effort to isolate and impoverish Haiti. From the Haitian Revolution, to the indemnity in 1825, to the persistent denial of Haitian sovereignty, to the US occupation in the early twentieth century, and even to US political intervention in the form of Duvalier regime and the removal of Jean Bertrand Aristide, the United States government has consistently sought to control, manipulate, and exploit the Black Republic. This is the story that the mainstream media sought to ignore and, given the problematic history of US intervention in Haiti, only a few brave souls have been willing to tell the simple truth. As New York Times op-ed contributor Mark Danner explained, “there is nothing mystical in Haiti’s pain, no inescapable curse that haunts the land. From independence and before, Haiti’s harms have been caused by men, not demons.”
Thus, as Brandon Byrd’s work demonstrates, we must remember that current understandings of Haiti are incomplete without the broader historical context. One cannot grasp the reasons behind Haiti’s challenges unless one acknowledges its painful journey—the first 100 years in which Haiti was punished, abused, and excluded from the global economy and political community, followed by the second 100 years in which Haiti has been occupied, controlled, manipulated, and exploited by the Western nations. In the end, it is the combination of these factors—the extremes of either neglect or overt imperialism, and the unending weight of external debt—that have caused Haiti’s current predicament. Therefore, we need to acknowledge the full history of Haiti and the role that the American government played in creating Haiti’s plight. We must also have a reckoning with the role—positive and negative—that US Black activists have played in the battle for Haitian sovereignty. This will be particularly crucial for those of us who wish to see Haiti recover, blossom, and grow in the coming years. But the question that Frederick Douglass posed in 1893 still remains, will the US and other Western nations ever forgive Haiti for being Black?
- Frederick Douglass, Lecture on Haiti: The Haitian Pavilion Dedication Ceremonies Delivered at the World’s Fair, in Jackson Park, Chicago, January 2nd 1893 (Chicago, Illinois: Violet Agents Supply Company, 1893), 9, 16, 34. ↩