Colour wars

By J. Michael Dash

Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934–1957, by Matthew J. Smith
(University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 978-0-8078-5937-7, 296 pp)

Arguably, the definition of a major work is not that it provides all the answers, but that it allows other works to be written. Its full significance is, as it were, always deferred. The publication of Matthew Smith’s Red and Black in Haiti allows us to both recognise the importance of David Nicholls’s From Dessalines to Duvalier (1979) and to see, as Smith does, the blind spots in Nicholls’s invaluable survey of Haitian political history. Over thirty years ago, Nicholls set out to show that Haiti was not an anomaly in the Caribbean region, and that colour divisions in the society were the major cause of Haiti’s political failures. It was the historical divisions between the mulatto elite and the black mass of the population which have been “one of the principal reasons why Haiti failed to maintain an effective independence,” Nicholls wrote.

From Dessalines to Duvalier stood out from other books of the time which treated Haiti as an exception. Works like Robert Rotberg’s Haiti: The Politics of Squalour (1971) and Written in Blood (1978) by Robert and Nancy Heinl attempted to explain the Duvalier dictatorship in terms of defects within Haitian folk culture. Instead of the culture-as-destiny approach, Nicholls explained Duvalierism in terms of a contest for political power that came to a head in the aftermath of the US occupation (1915–1934). While paying homage to Nicholls’s path-breaking study, Smith’s new book — which covers what he justifiably calls the “understudied” period between the end of the US occupation and the election of François Duvalier — aims to correct the weaknesses in Nicholls’s analysis.

Smith correctly recognises that Nicholls’s treatment of the pre-Duvalier period tended to over-emphasise racial ideology to the detriment of political nuance. Scoffing at the Left in Haiti for being superciliously elitist and out of touch with the masses, and seeing all “noiristes” as one and the same, are points of view that Smith sets out to complicate in Red and Black in Haiti.

If Smith illuminates areas of Haitian political life that were glossed over by Nicholls, it may well be related to the different ideological contexts in which the two works were written. While doing research on Haiti, Nicholls was painfully aware of the explosive divisiveness of race and colour in ethnically plural Trinidad, where he worked in the 1970s. Smith, in the twenty-first century, is writing in the wake of failed leftist experiments in Jamaica and Grenada, and is particularly sensitive to the tensions between Left and Right, the “Red” and the “Black,” in the contemporary Caribbean. One of the cruel ironies of monolingual Caribbean leftists is their blindness to failures of the Left elsewhere in the region. Red and Black makes such innocence inexcusable, at least in the case of Haiti. In the same way that C.L.R. James in The Black Jacobins turned to the example of the Haitian Revolution as a way of understanding the decolonisation movements that had begun to sweep the colonised world, Smith sees post-occupation Haiti, where “radicals with contrasting views of black power, radical nationalism, and Marxism fought for political space,” as a preview of “postcolonial struggles elsewhere.”

Smith’s book has appeared at a time when there is not only a surge in academic studies of Haiti, but when seeing race as the basis for Haitian nationhood is highly contestable. In his superb history of the Haitian Revolution, Avengers of the New World (2004), Laurent Dubois speaks of the need to avoid essentialising racial differences, and rather to focus on shifting political allegiances in Haitian history. He therefore sets out to describe a revolution in which “complicated ideological and political forces often divided groups that we might be tempted to see as unified by ‘race.’” According to Dubois, “the most useful approach is to focus on the political projects that emerged at the different stages of the revolution, and on the ways they were shaped by and in turn shaped the individuals and groups that articulated them.” What Dubois did for the Haitian Revolution, Smith sets out to do for another turbulent period in Haitian history.

Jacques RoumainJacques Roumain

Red and Black in Haiti is a predictably detailed and closely argued work of political history. Smith examines carefully not only the nuanced positions taken by the Left and Haiti’s black nationalists, the noiristes, after the US occupation, but also the role played by US Protestantism and even the service provided by Pan American Airlines in the aftermath of the occupation. Two recurrent themes are the division of the Haitian Left after the founding of the Haitian Communist Party in 1934, and the emergence of black nationalism at a time when folklore was in fashion. Smith’s clarifying of the divisions and tensions between the Haitian Communist Party and the Socialist Party is as invaluable as it is unprecedented. He highlights not only the contacts between the Haitian Left and its American counterpart, but the internecine squabbles between Socialists and Communists that led to “undermining the strength of the Marxist Left.” In so doing, he pays attention to such leftist figures as Max Hudicourt, Etienne Charlier, Christian Beaulieu, and Georges Petit, who have been eclipsed by the prominence of Haiti’s most renowned Marxist, Jacques Roumain. While Roumain was in exile, and after his early death at thirty-seven, the leftist movement in Haiti depended on individuals like these, among others.

Beaulieu and Roumain died in 1943 and 1944, respectively, dealing a serious blow to the movement. Yet leftist ideas remained very influential in the 1940s, inspiring another generation of Marxist activists to overthrow the Lescot government in 1946. It is a pity Smith does not pay more attention to Haitian literature in his account of the Left in the 1940s and 50s. Many leftists were writers, and Roumain in particular arguably used his novel Masters of the Dew to speculate about the globalising of Haitian labour. Many of the claims of Analyse Schématique, the work that launched the Haitian Communist Party in 1934, are expanded and applied in literary projects. For instance, the importance of Cuba as a political crossroads for displaced Haitian workers questions national ideals as the most useful way of organising an anti-imperial opposition. Similarly, in the following generation, Jacques Stephen Alexis was preoccupied in his novels by the impact of US imperialism on the Caribbean and the creation of a new border-crossing subjectivity among migrant workers. This is particularly true of his last novel, In the Flicker of an Eyelid, which was published on the eve of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. It is replete with references to workers’ movements in Cuba and the Caribbean, and sited in a liminal frontier space where Vaudou and Catholicism, Cuban meringue and Haitian rara, exploiters and exploited of the Other America encounter each other.

As Smith is at pains to point out, Haitian Marxists were harassed, imprisoned, and exiled in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. This pattern came to a gruesome climax with the murder of Alexis himself at Fort Dimanche in 1961. Meanwhile, not a single black nationalist was touched. Noirisme was appealing to an emergent black middle class as well as to urban workers who had strong ties to that class. Furthermore, black nationalism became increasingly fashionable in cultural circles in the 40s, where “developments in the Haitian arts, intellectual life, and communications brought noiriste ideas to popular conscience.” Cultural nationalism was also favoured by the Lescot regime, which institutionalised folklore studies by funding dance troupes, national choirs, and the Centre d’Art.

Culture was also an important commodity in keeping with the US policy of Pan-Americanism in the 1940s. However, as Smith astutely notes, it was “the labour movement” and the rise of the charismatic labour leader Daniel Fignole “that assured its full penetration.” The elections of 1946 marked the ascendancy of noiriste politics and the political defeat of the candidates representing the Haitian Left. This was particularly surprising given the fact that the overthrow of the Lescot regime was Marxist-led. Dumarsais Estimé was elected to the presidency in 1946, and under him “the rhetoric of black power . . . gave rise to a systematic attempt to create policies and programmes aimed at its inclusion in national life.” The Haitian Communist Party — viewed with suspicion by Estimé’s regime and elsewhere in the region and the US — was abolished in 1948, and was not reorganised until after the fall of the Duvaliers in 1986. The role of the Left was taken over by a heterogeneous Socialist Party, which survived the suicide of its founder Max Hudicourt to be a potent if short-lived force in the labour movement of the late 40s. The emergence of Francois Duvalier “as a key figure in the post-Estimé noiriste movement” meant that the writing was on the wall for leftism in Haiti.

The central thesis of Smith’s work is not simply a gratuitous rehabilitation of the Haitian Left. He makes the case that leftist movements have had an impact on the post-Duvalier present, in that grassroots organisations and the fight for true equality in today’s Haiti owe much to the leftist legacy of the post-occupation years. As he concludes, “Perhaps the greatest testimony of the impact of post-occupation radicalism is its influence on the post-Duvalier years.” The parallels are fascinating, as Jean Bertrand Aristide can be seen as a latter-day Daniel Fignole, and once more the Left is split in Haiti between the Convergence Démocratique and Famille Lavalas, neither of which is represented in the upcoming November 2010 elections.

Furthermore, Haiti’s experience of radicalism in the three decades covered by his book is seen by Smith as anticipating “a pattern of resistance in the modern Caribbean . . . And therefore may be regarded as an important chapter in the history of Caribbean resistance.” As a rhizome study — rooted in From Dessalines to DuvalierRed and Black in Haiti painstakingly traces the different stages and shifting loyalties of post-occupation radical politics and, as Laurent Dubois puts it, perceptively explains “the ways they were shaped by and in turn shaped the individuals and groups that articulated them.”


The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2010

J. Michael Dash, a Trinidadian, is professor of French at New York University. He has written on Haiti and Édouard Glissant. His most recent book is Culture and Customs of Haiti (2001).