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Thursday, March 30, 2023

Red & Black in Haiti

redA Review By Patrick Sylvain

Special to CSMS Magazine

Red & Black in Haiti, By Matthew J. Smith (University of North Press, 2009, 278)

“Shifts in historical interpretation are not the invention of one person.  The work of unrelated scholars builds upon each other” (Susan Buck-Morss, 2009:13).

In 1492, following Christopher Columbus’ accidental encounter with the Caribbean -a meeting that resulted in the violent genesis of Haiti and its subsequent thrusting onto the world stage, the native Amerindian population found itself face to face with the new reality of globalization.  As the Americas became a site for conquest European nation-building, ideas and ideologies about the role of Europe in the Americas, as well as perceptions surrounding the nature of the European conquests were discussed and published.  As these debates played out over territories in the New World, Haiti, the first site for Atlantic conquest and slavery, also became the primary centre for revolt against European hegemony.

Revolutionary themes would henceforth become fundamental factors in the lives of Haitians as colonial empires refused to accept Haiti as an independent nation. Haitians themselves would then recreate a colonial-like paradigm of power as they sought out to rule themselves under the vestiges of slavery and foreign domination.  Unfortunately, radical ideologies were never homegrown and have caused more divisions instead of solving our neo-colonial malaise.

Scholarly fascinations with Haiti is grounded in the desire to understand, connect, build upon and demystify certain Haitian notions, moments, and trends that seem elusive or perplexing, as the country remains a difficult terrain to fully understand. This is especially true considering the fact that there are constant violent battles over the nation’s stability and sovereignty.  Since Columbus, the political, social and ecological terrains of this nation seem to be ever-shifting, as power remains the central entity that might propel the Haitian society toward stability, quagmire or distress.

Since the Cacique (Taïno) model of governance (federalized kingdoms) was destroyed by the Spaniards, there has not been a sustainable model of authority to promote responsible and fair rule in Haiti.  Instead, through betrayals and coup d’états, Haitians find themselves stagnant in replicating models of European institutions without taking into consideration the cultural components of their population. Haitian political thoughts, ideologies and actions remain intrinsically connected to the West as “dominant social institutions, fighting to preserve their threatened hegemony” (Smith 2009: 3).

Red & Black in Haiti peels apart Haiti’s complex historical layers that seat the modern genesis of Haitian political quagmire before, during, and after the Duvalier reign.  Matthew Smith’s brilliant exposé and analysis of Haiti’s tragic past following the American occupation of Haiti (1915-1934), details the myriad roadblocks to development in a revelatory fashion.  It lucidly portrays the inherent contradictions that have over time prevented the country from achieving responsible democratic governance. 

As Smith discloses formidable accounts of the maneuverings of various political actors, he sheds a light on both those who tinkered with the various radical “isms” of their era and those who unreservedly sought to maintain structural enjoinment to the United States while forsaking radical political consciousness. An Anglophone Historian, Caribbeanist, and unassuming student of Haitian culture, Smith earnestly delves into the inner workings of Haiti post-US occupation despite its muddled thought-systems and violent entanglements of power.

A strength of the book is its exploration of the contradictions of race and class that were left unresolved by the Haitian founding fathers and resurged after one hundred eleven years of in-fighting between majority slave descendants, who mostly favored land reform and improvement of their social conditions, and the minority “mulatto” elite who feared the loss of their privileged status.  It was the divisive nature of Haitian color politics, a focus of study for David Nicholls, which partly informed Smith’s curiosity as he researched  “the agency on non-elite actors in shaping the terms of political debate” (Smith, 5).

 smithIt was after 19 years of US military occupation in Haiti that race and class relations grew more complicated as young Haitians became politically involved in the various movements sweeping the country.  “International expansion of Marxism in postwar world, the Spanish Civil War, and the flurry of radical ideas among the intellectual youth in Port-au-Prince excited them” (Smith, 74).   Young Haitian writers and poets who were born during the American occupation, and who understood the weight of shame, embraced their nationalism with fervor and became “anti-bourgeois”, anti-imperial and socialist leaning.  Whether Matthew Smith misread Roumain’s understanding of Karl Marx’s scientific studies of various societies where his theory of materialism scientifically shows how history is propelled by material forces and the inherent contradictions ensued eventually erode relations between humans (productive forces, and the theoretical analysis of values), or that Roumain and other elite members of Haitian bourgeoisie misread read—for Marxism is not an ideology, but a systematic analysis of capital, its values in relation to labor. “Hudicourt, like Roumain, regarded Marxism [as] a political ideology applicable to the Haitian situation” (Smith, 17).

Unfortunately, there were many members of the youth movement who lacked sufficient reading ability and were new to French cultural theory, given the exorbitant cost of books and limited access to them. Additionally, as in all movements, there were reactionary elements who wanted to usurp the youth movement for their personal gain. Those radicalized students “had a narrow and blind view of surrealism and were unfamiliar with the critical writings of Breton’s contemporaries” (75).  Such failures became costly for the nation as Haitians began to play an ideological game on a global scale for which they were not institutionally prepared. The radicalized students were members of the minority sub-elite who were collectively thinking, writing, and pushing the society toward a radicalism that was not grounded in the Haitian culture as Jean-Price Mars had advised. Instead, they became aroused by Breton’s “stirring lecture on surrealism and freedom.  Capitalizing on the fervor of the moment, Depestre and Baker led a small demonstration in front of Champs de Mars immediately following Breton’s lecture” (77).  Undoubtedly, the student and youth movement helped in the capitulation of Lescot’s repressive mulatto regime and shepherded in a more democratic space.  However, the institutional dilemmas of the society were never solved.

Smith’s book is a remarkable primer for non-Haitian analysts who are not well versed in the crucial period that followed the US occupation, which saw the import of Jim Crow segregation and François Duvalier’s ascendancy to power. The book contends that the Haitian culture of protest emerged from the lingering effects of the first black revolution, US military occupation, French critical cultural theory and German philosophy.  In all, each factor had some lasting cultural impact as “cultural protests against social contradictions in Haiti broadened the appeal of black radicalism.  An emphasis on an authentic Haitian culture, which included recognition of Kreyòl and vodou, was an important part of the radical discourse of the noiristes and, to a much lesser extent, the Marxists.  Much of this drew on a romanticized view of peasant culture” (192).  Fostering a romanticized view of the peasant or not, and also regardless of the isms they inspired to, thousands of Haitians gave their lives in order to aspire a nation towards a democratic future.

Given the lack theoretical grounding to support the culture, Haitian radicals borrowed models that have never fit the society as a whole. Since the inception of the Haitian State, real democracy or populist democracy has never been exercised in Haiti because the interests of the people always run counter to the interests of the elite who still hold on to the remnants of the colonial system. “Noirism,” which Duvalier and Lorimer inspired was an aberrant form of racism and did not contribute to the advancement of the society. In fact, Duvalier’s Noirism fractured and fragmented the society.

Even the reforms of 1946, which Haitians and even Smith erroneously called “the Haitian revolution of 1946” only brought about electoral reforms and diminished the mulatto stronghold on executive power that the Americans exploited.  Despite a legitimate aspiration to “improve social conditions” and enlarge “black middle-class access to State power,” Smith writes that the Estimé administration was incapable of rooting out a corrosively putrefied system of corruption in his government, nor could he prevent the Catholic Church from “undermining his regime.”  However, “Estimé viewed himself a man of destiny with the responsibility to lead his country on its path to progress.  Although his political record suggested otherwise, he believed in the rhetoric of his black power supporters who argued that his regime had a historical mission” (Smith, 111). 

As tensions mounted against his government by the people who came to master political protest and the union leaders “who implored their workers to strike for better conditions,” Estimé, unfortunately, resorted to repressive measures, including playing “the communist card by telling U.S. officials of the constant threat they posed and the State’s attempts to silence them” (131).  By the time he had lost the support of the army and was overthrown by Paul Magloire, a US trained army officer who became president in 1950, he “was determined to eliminate all forms of radicalism.”

Despite political fervor and the development of a culture of protest, in the absence of formidable democratic institutions, it can be argued that power will always be controlled, in one way or another, by the dominant group. This is especially true when conflicts are afoot, as in the case of President Estimé, whose fall from power was precipitated by “an internal political clash between two dominant groups within the power elite” (Smith, 150).  Since the dominant groups in Haiti at this time were never radicalized to embrace national interests, the hegemony of the West will continuously be safeguarded.  Despite some institutionalized changes that President Magloire brought about, he remained an ebullient leader who did not threaten the mulatto elite, the French clergy, and certainly not the United States.  Clearly, although François Duvalier cloaked himself an Éstimisme, he surely couldn’t be placed among the radicals since he received, albeit late in his campaign, the United States’ support (183-184).

In conclusion, in light of the various radical tendency that suffused the Haitian political class, it is dictatorship that left its hideous marks, and unfortunately various leaders of the so-called “left”, François Duvalier erroneously included, consistently pushed the populace into an “enduring fight for the realization of true democracy in Haiti,” one that is “rooted in the indefatigable efforts of the men and women who refused to accept the legacies of foreign occupation” (Smith, 195).  Smith’s historical interpretation of Haiti’s recent past is in and of itself an important legacy, one that can serve as a blue print for the scorching Haitian political landscape. We have yet to see a true gauche in power, and we recently saw how reactionaries have used students’ as well as peasants’ movements to usurp power and to later reveal their dictatorial tendencies.

Note: Patrick Sylvain is a poet, writer, translator, scholar, and a faculty at Brown University’s Center for Laguage Studies.  Sylvain is also a 2014 Robert Pinsky Global Fellow at Boston University Creative Writing Department. He is published in several anthologies, academic journals, books, magazines and reviews including: Agni, Callaloo, Caribbean WritersSX SalonHaiti Noir, Human Architecture: A Sociology Journal, Poets for Haiti, Fixing Haiti and Beyond, The Butterfly’s Way, Tectonic Shifts, The Best of Beacon Press, The Oxford Book of Caribbean Verse. Recently featured in: PBS NewsHour, NPR’s «Here and Now» and «The Story», he was also a contributing editor to the Boston Haitian Reporter. Sylvain’s academic essays are anthologized in several edited collections, including: “The Idea of Haiti: Rethinking Crisis and Development,” Edited by Millery Polyné; “Politics and Power in Haiti,” Edited by Paul Sutton and Kate Quinn.

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