Showing posts with label American Occupation in Haiti. Show all posts
Showing posts with label American Occupation in Haiti. Show all posts

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Jacques Roumain and The U.S. Occupation in Haiti: The Economic Impact

Jacques Roumain and The U.S. Occupation in Haiti: The Economic Impact (Part I)[1]

by Celucien L. Joseph

Jean Baptiste (“Jacques”) Roumain was born in Haiti on June 4, 1907 Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to a Haitian aristocratic family, the son of Auguste Roumain, a wealthy landowner, and Marie Émilie Auguste, the daughter of the Haitian President Jean Antoine “Tancrède Auguste” (1912-1913), who succeeded President Cincinnatus Leconte who died in office in August 9, 1912, in a massive explosion that ruined Haiti’s presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.[2] Roumain’s grandfather-President suffered a devastating illness— “a victim of severe anemia caused by advanced untreated syphilis”[3]—leading to his untiming death in office on May 2, 1913. Shortly after the death of President Auguste, the Haitian National Assembly appointed Miche Oreste Lafontant as the “acting President.”

President Lafontant was a progressive leader and a reformer who attempted to modernize the country and unify various antagonistic political parties or groups. He initiated the rebuilding process of the former Presidential Palace that was vanquished. Because of internal political turmoil, he was forced to step down from public office, and ultimately died in exile in New York on 28 October, 1918. After the short tenure of Presidents Emmanuel Oreste Zamor (from February 8, 1914 to October 29, 2014), Joseph Davilmar Théodore (from November 7, 1914 to February 22, 1915), Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam (February 25, 1915 to July 28, 1915), Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave succeeded the office of next Presidency and became the first “official president” of the defacto American military occupation and cultural imperialism, beginning in July 1915 and ending in August 1934.  Nonetheless, American military troops invaded the independent and sovereign Caribbean nation on July 27, 1915, following the popular uprising leading to the ruthless death of President Sam, whose body parts were crushed, split, and thrown in the streets of Port-au-Prince. President Dartiguenave, who was chosen by the American government, would occupy the presidential post from August 12, 1915 to May 15, 1922.

The “suffering Black Republic” experienced a shattering civil war in 1912 that further alienated various political parties, dehumanized the Haitian people,  and substantially weakened the Haitian political and civil society. Political unrest and chaotic order is characteristic of Haiti’s turbulent years during those defacto presidential administrations. As American historian Hans Schmidt has described the “presidential narrative” and the “routine” of Haiti’s Heads of state in the first quarter of the twentieth century:

Revolutions and insurrections in Haiti became more frequent during the late nineteenth century and by 1910 followed well-established patterns. A candidate for the office of president would for a caco army in the north of Haiti, capture the port of Cap-Haitien, declare himself a legitimate rival of the incumbent president, and march on Port-au-Prince. As the caco army approached Port-au-Prince, plundering as it moved along, the incumbent president often would leave the country with part of the treasury funds. The caco army would then capture Port-au-Prince, surround the legislature, and oversee the election of the insurgent candidate by the Haitian Senate. From 1888 to 1915 no Haitian president served a complete seven-year term and only one died a natural death while in office; the other ten were either killed or overthrown, seven of them during the chaotic period after 1911. The main prize for successful revolutionaries was control of the customhouses, which accounted for all government revenues.[4]  

Roumain emerged as a public voice and an anti-imperial critic of the American occupation and American imperialism in the first third of the twentieth century. His anti-Occupation rhetoric summons Haitian elite and the masses to unite together under the banner of “collective suffering” to fight the foreing invadors in the Caribbean nation: “Soyons des frères unis, ‘Le peuple et l’elite; sans cela une mise plus cruelle que la mort physique nous attend. Brisons les barriers! (“Let us be brothers united, the people and the elite; without that, a death more cruel than physical death awaits us. Let us break the barriers! In particular, he calls the Haitian youth to be united under the common cause: the liberation of their native land: “Jeunesse, ou etes-vous? Ressaissons-nous! Jeunesse, vous êtes éparpille! Cela ne doit pas être. Groupez-vous! Nous avons donné le branle et nous espérons, après les rudes journées de lutte, entonner l’hymne de la délivrance!”[5] (“Youth, where are you? Group yourselves! Youth, you are scattered! That should not be. Consolidate yourselves! We have set in motion and we hope that, after the harsh days of struggle, we will sing the hymn of deliverance”).
As the President of the Ligue de la Jeunesse Patriote Haitienne, Roumain had exercised a vast influence on the Haitian youth of his generation. The Haitian Youth was committed to his leadership, inspired by his patriotic zeal, and sharp cultural criticism and activism of the social and political order of his day; they followed him unreservedly.

In June 1934, at the end of the American Occupation in Haiti which lasted 19 years  (1915-1934), Jacques Roumain, under the tutelage of the Parti Communiste Haitien (Haitian Communist Party) released an eighteen-page booklet entitled “A Preliminary Analysis of the Years 1932-1934.” The booklet was published in 1934, and is organized according in three broad headings and interrelated topics:

a)      Ecroulement du Mythe Nationaliste/The Collapse of the Nationalist Myth

b)      Préjugé de couleur et lutte de classes/Color Prejudice and Class Struggle

c)      Critique du Manifeste de Réaction Démocratique[6]/Critique of Manifesto of the Group La Réaction Démocratique (RD)

              According to Roumain, the purpose of the booklet was to provide a critical analysis of the Haitian society during the years 1932-1934—a significant historical moment which led to the progressive decline of Haitian nationalism and patriotic fervor. One of the most important observations Roumain makes in the first heading is to link Haitian nationalism, and the economic domination and exploitation of Haitian peasant class and the working class population by the Bourgeoisie-elite minority and the ruling class.  In the second heading, Roumain establishes the intersections of class, color prejudice, economics, and global capitalism.  Finally, the third part consists of an acute response to a distinguished group of Haitian writers who published the twenty-three page essay with the pertinent title Le Manifeste de la Reaction Democratique (RD) (The Manifesto of Democratic Reaction). The Manifeste is signed by Delegate Committee for Signature (COMITE DELEGUE POUR LA SIGNATURE) including the following names: Dr. Marcel Herald, Jean F. Brierre, Lys Dartiguenave, Dr. Georges E. Rigaud, Max L. Hudicourt, Salnave Zamor, depute.[7] In their essay, these thinkers articulate alternative routes to social and economic development which are often contradict Roumain’s own ideology and position on the subject. In their reaction, they have overlooked the active role of the Haitian government in discouraging small businesses in the country to flourish.

Overall, the significance of the 18-page booklet, which Roumain signed at the end as a Member of Central Committee and the Haitian Communist Party (Membre du C.C. du P.C.H.), provides a Marxist reading of the Haitian reality. Roumain expresses a counter-response to the Manifesto of the Group: LA REACTION DEMOCRATIQUE—whose chief leader was the radical Max Hudicourt—. Roumain suggests an alternative path for economic and social development to what’s been proposed in the Manifesto. Roumain’s program of social development gives primacy to scientific socialism, theory of distributes justice, and communitarianism. First of all, he concurs that it is the Haitian peasants and the rural residents of the country who bear the brunt of the economic and socio-political catastrophe. Yet, the predicament Haitian peasant-farmers and the substantial economic disparity which is so characteristic of the country’s daily production and trade can be traced to the overbearing economic system and class organization of nineteenth -century colonial Saint-Domingue.

In the booklet already referenced above, Roumain expresses the view that the proletarianization process accelerated at a deadly pace during the epoch of the American occupation in Haiti.[8] The economic impact of the U.S. occupation on Haitian economy was the decisive turning point in Haitian history. In July 28, 1915, the U.S. Marines violently penetrated Haitian soil and lasted for nineteen years. Generally, the American occupation disturbed national pride, humiliated the country’s elite class, and drastically shifted the leadership of Haitian intelligentsia and the ruling class; the imperial power also challenged the country’s sovereignty and the autonomy of the independent “Black Republic.” On the other hand, the exact causes of the American neocolonialism and imperialist intervention are inconclusive and continue to be a matter of scholarly debate.  Some critics favorably maintain that the U.S. imperial interference into the Haitian life and experience was incontestably linked to national anarchy, recent mass executions of political prisoners, and the ensuing assassination of the Haitian President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam in the same year (1915).

Consequently, the goal of the Wilson administration was to restore civil order, national peace, and to improve political and economic stability in Haiti. To justify the invasion, the official records of the Wilson regime sustained that the incursion was compulsory “for the protection of foreign lives and property… and to preserve order.”[9] Some Haitianist historians and Western political scientists have advanced counter arguments, confirming that the ultimate objective of the occupation was to further American economic interest and imperialistic expansion in the island. As historian Mary Renda has observed, the Occupation was after all an institution, a power structure and a symbiotic event in the history of Haiti and the history of U.S. foreign policy.[10]

 Roumain, however, helps us understand the economic impact of the Occupation on Haiti’s national economy and local businesses, resulting in the alienation of national small businesses and enterprises, and the increase of foreign production and trade in the country during that era. As he explains, “Local small industries, particularly shoe making, all died out, to be replaced by technologically produced assembly line goods from the United States or elsewhere.”[11]  For example, in an article entitled “Autour de la taxe ur l’alcool et le tabac”[12] published in Le Petit Impartial, dated September 29, 1928, Roumain publicly expresses his discontent and wage against the implementation of the new law enacted in August 14, 1928 under the Borno administration;[13] the new law established internal taxes on alcoholic beverages, manufactured tobacco, and tobacco productions of local consumption and production, but not on those destined for foreign exportation like the United States of America. The new law brought about shattering consequences on national goods and trade, both in urban and rural Haiti; it was burdensome for peasant- producers to “hold their place in the world market so long as they had to pay.”[14] It was estimated that 150 workshop-producers of Haitian “rhum” and tobacco products were forced to close their doors in various parts of the country—including manufacturers in the North, South, and West of Haiti—a considerable number of workers were abruptly laid off from their former employees.  The ensuing result is tragic, demoralizing, and dehumanizing, as Roumain angrily writes: “While thousands of workers were suddenly dying of desperate hunger, hundreds of courageous young women are unable to earn bread, would probably be forced to themselves into prostitution. The proletarian is starved and languished in the most horrible physical and moral misery. [15]

In addition, the Occupation authorities and the “cooperative government” established the Bureau of Internal Revenue to collect all internal and custom taxes; as a result, these taxes had a substantial impact on the thousands of small distillers and the peasants who purchase smoking tobacco by the leaf.[16] “Those small distillers, unable to pay the taxes, had their business closed by the government and occupation authorities. This in turn affected the small producers of sugar cane who sold their crops to the local distilleries and the small producers of sugar cane who sold their crops to the local distilleries and the small retail merchants who specialized in the buying and selling of alcoholic beverages and other products derived from alcohol.”[17]

According to many critics, any collective attempt or solidarity on the part of the local retailers and Haitian nationalists to challenge the U.S. imperial force would be confronted by the “cooperating Government” and the foreign invaders. As Schmidt points out,

Prior to 1920, all criticism of the Occupation had been strictly toward liberalizing the occupation, restrictions were somewhat eased. In any case, Haitian editors continued to be arrested since they pressed the limits of Russell’s tolerance, whatever these happened to be. With the exception of the few journalists who constituted a minor nuisance and whose jailing made Russell and Borno appear despotic in both Haiti and the United States, the Occupation effectively suppressed all dissent.[18]

Contrary to the evidence presented above, Mats Lundahl in Poverty in Haiti has contended that the American occupation has not worsened Haitian life and affected the country’s economic growth. For him, the Occupation “represents a hiatus in the history of Haiti”[19] and that American imperialism has fostered what he has termed “a constructive phase” in Haitian history.   Lundahls has deliberately ignored the historical economic deficit and the social question, which Roumain and others had pointed out. After intensive research on the Haitian society and politics during the time of the American occupation, Robert Heinl came to the conclusion that

the occupation failed because the Americans never recognized the social situation in Haiti, and their labors were thus in vain….What the occupation did and tried to achieve or build—from infrastructure to creation of a noir yeomanry or a career civil service, even the Garde, it matters not—turned out to be built on sand. The few legacies that did last were indirect: a degree of modernization, and cultural echoes of a prolonged and, for a while—before it too went the way of other blancs—dominant foreign presence.[20]

The economic distress caused by falling coffee prices and increases in government taxes, as mentioned in our previous analysis, lead to national discontent over the apparent continuance of Borno as client-president.[21]  “By the fall of 1929, unbeknown to complacent officials and the state Department, popular discontent in Haiti needed only a rallying point to develop into a major uprising against the occupation.”[22] Roumain is infuriated that those in position of power and influence failed to protect national economy and small businesses against American economic capitalism in the country:

And no one protests, and everyone continues to encourage an inexplicable silence of our country methodically being devoured by the Yankee vultures! The law of the treaty between Borno and the military force, our scarce national industries, also pave the way to the progressive invasion of the country by the US Capital/capitalism.[23]
            Disappointingly, with his anti-imperialist language sandwiched with his anti-capitalist expansion, Roumain denounces the neocolonial project of the American occupation and predict the colossal challenges and damages of the imperial might in Haïti: 

The work of colonization is perfectly running. The time of civilization will soon ring for all Haitians; in the countryside we will soon see the tremendous erection of large stacks of sugar mills. We contemplate, alas, the spread of greenery and enormous tobacco fields or the bristling aggressive horizon of the sisal plants.Our eyes will be marveled as new palaces will be built upon the ancient “halls” that are being ruined and demolished.[24]
            Roumain interprets the conquest or incursion of the American occupation as a form of neo-colonization and economic manipulation of the country’s resources including agricultural productions, the land and its resources, and the nation’s small businesses. In addition, these small local businesses did not have the means and economic resources or power to compete against the newly-established foreign (American) producers. The proletarianization process was particularly disastrous for Haitian peasants. As Roumain remarks, “The peasant of the country’s northern plain in particular has been violently separated from his means of production, to the point where he had to sell the shirt off his back, his labor mercilessly exploited.”[25] Representative authorities from the foreign imperialist industrial companies systematically opposed any attempt at economic autonomy on the part of the local merchants and small businesses; such was the case of a Haitian textile company that tried to unite and was ultimately brought to heel by some American advisor/financier.[26]

For Jacques Roumain, the American occupation and American economic capitalism were the most aggressive and oppressive external forces contributing to Haiti’s underdevelopment and the plight of the Haitian people in the first half of the twentieth century.


[1] This excerpt was taken from Dr. Joseph’s forthcoming book, Thinking in Public: Faith, Secular Humanism, and Development in Jacques Roumain (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2015)
[2] For helpful biographical information about Jacques Roumain, see “Jacques Roumain,” in Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical-Writing Encyclopedia, edited by Herdeck and Lubin, 480-493; “Jacques Roumain,” in Caribbeans and Caribbean Americans, edited by Mendez, Cueto, and Deynes, 379-381. French and literary scholar Francois Leon-Hoffmann, the editor of Jacques Roumain: Oeuvres Completes, 2003, has written the most comprehensive biographical and literary chronology on Roumain, Hoffmann, “Chronologie,” 1209-1225.
[3] Abbott, Haiti: A Shattered Nation, 50.
[4] Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 42.
[5] Roumain, “A la Jeunesse,” 463.
[6] Roumain, “Analyze schematique:32-34,” 650-668.
[7] Ibid., 657-668.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Pamphile, Haitians and African Americans, 103.
[10] Renda, Taking Haiti, 20. Renda has written the most judicious, sophisticated work on the American occupation in Haiti.
[11] Roumain, “A Preliminary Analysis of the Years 1932-1934,” 51.
[12] Roumain, “Autour de la taxes sur l’alcool et le tabac” (1928) ; Also, see Roumain, Œuvres Complètes, 500-501.
[13] (Eustache Antoine Francois Joseph) Louis Borno was a puppet president who cooperated with the Occupants and approved new legislations in favor of American imperialism in his native land. Borno served as President of Haiti from 1922 to 1930. Roumain was a fierce critic of the Borno administration.
 Roumain, “Appel à la Presse,”  524.
[14] Drake, Money Doctors, Foreign Debts, and Economic Reforms in Latin America, 50.
[15]  Roumain, “Autour de la taxe sur l’alcool et le tabac,”500.
[16] Dupuy, Haiti in the World Economy, 134.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti, 196.
[19] Lundahl, Poverty in Haiti, 9.
[20] Heinl, Written in Blood, 513.
[21] Schmidt, The United States Occupation of Haiti 1915-1934, 197.
[22] By the fall of 1929, unbeknown to complacent officials and the state Department, popular discontent in Haiti needed only a rallying point to develop into a major uprising against the occupation
[23] Roumain, “Autour de la taxe sur l’alcool et le tabac,” 500.
[24] Ibid., 500-501.
[25] Roumain, “A Preliminary Analysis of the Years 1932-1934,” 51.
[26] Ibid.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Haitian Intellectuals and the U.S. Occupation of Haiti: An Interview with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith

Haitian Intellectuals and the U.S. Occupation of Haiti: An Interview with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith

In the sixth part of my series on the centennial of the U.S. occupation of Haiti, I interview Patrick Bellegarde-Smith. Dr. Bellegarde-Smith is a Professor Emeritus of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has written dozens of articles, book chapters, and books that have been translated into English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. Those works include In The Shadows of Power: Dantes Bellegarde in Haitian Social Thought and Haiti: The Breached Citadel, and Fragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in the New World.

 Bellegarde-Smith is also the recipient of a number of professional awards including the Medaille Jean Price-Mars from Universite d’Etat d’Haiti the Lifetime Achievement Award for Scholarship from the Haitian Studies Association. He is President of the latter organization and the Associate Editor of its journal, the Journal of Haitian Studies. Dr. Bellegarde-Smith also serves as the President of the Congress of Santa Barbara (KOSANBA)
 Our interview focuses on Haitian intellectuals during the period of the U.S. occupation. Topics addressed include the social thought of Dantès Bellegarde (1877-1966), a leading Haitian diplomat and the grandfather of Dr. Bellegarde-Smith.

Dr. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Professor Emeritus at the UWM
Dr. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, Professor Emeritus of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Byrd: Let’s start by discussing someone you have written extensively about: your grandfather, Dantès Bellegarde. Who was he? What should readers know about his upbringing? His personality? His career?
Bellegarde-Smith: His great-great grandfather on his mother’s side whose life was saved by [Emperor Jean-Jacques] Dessalines himself became essentially the Minister of Justice under [President] Jean Pierre Boyer. That’s one thing. The great-great grandfather was also said to be the founder of Haitian Freemasonry.
On his father’s side, you are talking about people who fought during the Revolution. You are talking about a man who becomes duke of the second empire under [Emperor Faustin] Soulouque and becomes one of the henchmen of Soulouque. And that also amassed a great deal of money. A great deal of property and the family lost all of it because the family became quite destitute.
On the mother’s side, you are talking about French and mulattoes and on the father’s side you are talking about black. And that would be the black elite in terms of all this. But they lost the fortune. And so when my grandfather was born, out of wedlock, his mother, whom I remember quite well, born in 1857 died in 1952. She was totally white looking. Long hair all the way down to her buttocks and she only spoke Kreyòl. She was uneducated. Did not read or write. Non-literate. So my grandfather started life being Kreyòlophone. He learned French when he went to school.
In a very real sense, this juxtaposes him to Jean Price-Mars who was his friend and they went to school together. [Bellegarde] was saved, and I use the word advisedly, by his skin color. He was able to climb the social ladder in Haiti partly because of his color and he became widely popular abroad, which really helped matters. Once you’re recognized abroad therefore you must be an important person while Price-Mars was destined to play the role that he did even though he was probably more highly born than my grandfather. That was solid middle-class at that point, in terms of Jean Price-Mars. It’s no surprise that he becomes the founding father of what becomes Négritude. Certainly the founding father of Haitian indigénisme and a cultural opposition to the American occupation.
My grandfather was very ambivalent because of course he is seen as the leader of the pro-French forces in Haitian social thought. And he describes Haiti in many of his works as French speaking and Catholic. And Haiti is neither French-speaking nor Catholic . . . [Today] French has lost a great deal of ground in Haiti. I don’t think it can be recovered at all.
Byrd: In the schools, too?
Bellegarde-Smith: The schools such as they are today. It depends on which schools you go to. Once upon a time the public schools were decent. They were quite good. My grandfather went to public schools. So did Jean Price-Mars and they others. They learned French. They learned classical French. Now you have the private schools that are good.
Dantès even though he warned against the U.S. occupation as far back as 1907, that “the U.S. is too close and God is too far,” he served the occupation. He was a cabinet member during the first part of the U.S. occupation. So this is where I see the ambivalence. A portion of the Haitian elite were essentially for it. They were not saying it necessarily publicly. Sténio Vincent, President Vincent, said so publicly. But it was one way to speed up the civilization process. They were concerned that French would lose ground . . . Of course, as you know, the light-skinned elite was re-establishing power in Haiti and kept power until [President Dumarsais] Estimé in the 1940s.
Dantès Bellegarde, early 1900s
Dantès Bellegarde, early 1900s

Byrd: Can we go back to that point about the civilizing process. How exactly did Bellegarde picture it?
Bellegarde-Smith: Well, he thought that Haiti could not remain independent unless it stayed essentially in the cultural orbit of France. And he saw Haiti as being an intellectual province of France. It’s interesting if you see the way his family lived, he and his seven children in Port-au-Prince, you would be transported to southern France in terms of the way the house was set-up, in terms of what they ate, in terms of what they talked about. As he got older, after he got to be about 80, the only time he would leave his house was to go to a funeral which was quite often and also go downtown once a week to pick up French conservative newspapers that were reserved for him, that came into Port-au-Prince once a week. So I was raised reading those newspapers after he was done with them. We’re talking about Le Monde. We’re talking about Le Figaro Littéraire, which is one of the right-wing publications in France and that kind of thing. But he was certain and he said it over and over again that a Dahomeyen island in the middle of the Americas would not survive because see what happened to Africa. Dahomey did not survive colonization. Why should Haiti imitate, take on that process itself?
I have one of Price-Mars’s books, La Vocation de l’Elite, where my grandfather read it, that was part of his library, he had about 10,000 books in his library, and when he was intrigued by a passage he would take his thumb and with his nail mark it. So you have markings all over the page and sometimes he wrote notes in the margin. And when Price-Mars accused the Haitian elite including my grandfather, who was his friend, of cultural bovarism, as in Madame Bovary, he said “but I’m a mulatto, what do you want me to do? (laughs)” “Not a negro, I’m a mulatto.” A “leave me alone” kind of thing. But at the end of his life when he was dying and my aunt said that he was delirious and not to believe what he said, he kept repeating over and over again “but I’m black, but I’m black, but I’m black.” He kept saying that he was black, something that he did not say publicly earlier.
He was minister of education and agriculture in the first cabinet installed by the Americans. And when for instance the U.S. wanted to impose a loan to the Haitian government and the Haitian government said absolutely not, we are not going to borrow money, the Americans stopped payments of the salaries of all the public persons including my grandfather. And the Haitian cabinet caved in because he said he had seven babies at home and they were very young and he had to feed his kids. So they accepted that onerous loan from the U.S. government. At first they resisted.
His opposition to the occupation occurred internationally while he was a government official. That was starting with the League of Nations in Geneva and also as a member of the Pan-African Congresses especially the one in 1921 in Paris, the second reunion of that particular congress where everybody was attacked by the French government and especially by the American government. [He] developed a very close friendship at that time with [W.E.B.] Du Bois and with this very young whippersnapper Rayford W. Logan (laughs).
At the League of Nations when he [Bellegarde] assailed the United States, making everybody uncomfortable, he was essentially fired. The American government forced his resignation. He was recalled back to Haiti. He had attacked the United States while trying to forge a grand alliance between all the Latin countries. Of course, Haiti, he saw it as a Latin country . . . he wanted a grand alliance of all Latin American countries even though Latin America did not come to the rescue of Haiti. They were more likely to protest the invasion of the Dominican Republic but not of Haiti.
Byrd: I’m interested in this development, the emergence of Bellegarde’s public opposition to the occupation. By the 1920s, Du Bois and his peers are staunchly against the occupation. Is that burgeoning collaboration influencing Bellegarde?
Bellegarde-Smith: There was a sturdy friendship between Du Bois and my grandfather and James Weldon Johnson and also Walter White. Growing up there was a picture of Walter White in my grandfather’s library in Port-au-Prince to the point that I thought he was family. Since he was always there, on the mantle.
The NAACP, and I have found papers in my grandfather’s library going through these things, where there was a great deal of support given by the NAACP advising the Haitian government as to how to quicken the exit of the Americans out of Haiti. The NAACP was highly respected in governmental circles in Haiti. They were taking advice from the NAACP as to how to handle the U.S. government and that was not pleasing to the American government, of course. And I remember, for instance, in 1931 when my grandfather was sent as the ambassador to Washington, D.C.
He was recalled after making a horrible speech attacking the U.S. at the Pan-American Union (now the Organization of American States) where he called the U.S. all kinds of names in French and Cordell Hull, who was Secretary of State, was smiling and applauding not understanding a word of what was being said.
Also there was anger on the part of the American government because my grandfather had established some very strong connections with the African American bourgeoisie. People like Raymond Pace Alexander, the judge out of Philadelphia . . . and other luminaries in the African American world. People from the Gold Coast on 16th Street in Washington, D.C., what it was called in those days.
That irritated because supposedly Haitian ambassadors had not entertained the African American population up to that point from what was said. I don’t believe that that was necessarily true. But there was close friendships developed at that point.
My grandfather stopped his dealings with Du Bois when he became a communist. He had no interest in that. My grandfather was a rabid anti-communist. He was essentially a positivist.
When my grandfather died the first person to come to the house was Price-Mars himself . . . they remained friends despite public spats (laughs).

Jean Price-Mars, 1956
Jean Price-Mars, 1956

Byrd: Could you elaborate on Price-Mars and the changes that were occurring within the Haitian intellectual community during the occupation?
Bellegarde-Smith: Price-Mars was an outsider in many ways. Highly-educated. A physician. A medical doctor. Coming from a Protestant family. So outsider, outsider, outsider. From the provinces. Outsider again. Dark-skinned. That kind of thing. So it was almost foretold that he could possibly lead folks into new ways of thinking about the Haitian culture. At the very same time, he was quite flattered when a French senator referred to Haiti as an advanced lighthouse of “Latinity” in the Americas. And he was very flattered by that. He liked the fact that Haiti was an advanced beacon of “Latinity” in the Americas. And he was a positivist. Auguste Comte was one of his heroes and that kind of thing. And Herbert Spencer and these folks.
Yes, he was radical in many of his ideas. Not so much so in terms of politics, actually . . . but he obviously talked about the obvious. Haiti is not exactly, we are not, colored Frenchman.
Byrd: It sounds like there was always this distinction made between the United States and, say, France. I’m sure they [Haitian intellectuals] were very cognizant of American racial politics . . .
Bellegarde-Smith: It’s interesting. The Haitians would not consider the French as being racist. Not that they were not. But somehow it did not occur to Haitian intellectuals because they were well-treated in Paris. Then again they were distinguished people to start with. In the very same way that James Baldwin and the others and Josephine Baker and all these African Americans who at some point were in exile in Paris were treated beautifully. And so France had that aura about it.
The first black generals of European armies were French generals. From Toussaint Louverture to Alexandre Dumas and the other people. And so France was seen as civilized. It’s interesting. In the early ‘60s when I was thinking of coming to the U.S. to continue my education, my mother was against it. The first thing was, “you have to go to France.” Because it is civilized. So she was against the U.S. She said “maybe Canada.” And I said, “what about the U.S?” She said “maybe Boston. That’s the only civilized place in the U.S.” No other place is civilized . . . When I finally said that I am going to the U.S., she made me swear that I would never go below the Mason-Dixon line. And I said, “why?” And she said, “because you are just like me. The first time a white person looks at you funny, you are going to kill him” (laughs).
The U.S. was seen as uncivilized. Certainly the U.S. was seen in Haiti as wanting to institute sort of a Booker T. Washington field to Haitian education which the Haitian elite revolted against.
Now my grandfather was in charge of the Ministry of Education for a very long time and this is one ministry that the U.S. paid very little attention to. They forgot all about it. So he was able to institute a number of reforms which, by the way, gave rise to a large number of people who would rise to become middle-class in Haiti, which a generation later were able to revolt and change the complexion of Haitian politics, pun intended. But the U.S. cannot be given credit for that. In terms of the schools that were created at the time. Now people want to claim that the U.S. reformed Haitian education. They may have reformed the road system to get the Marines from one point to another but I don’t think they reformed the education system and that sort of sticks in my craw because my grandfather had something to do with it.
Byrd: Your scholarship covers such an impressive scope but two of your works are of particular importance to this series and in thinking about Haitian intellectuals, the occupation, and imperialism in general. I was hoping you could talk about the titles—the meaning behind—The Breached Citadel and In the Shadow of Powers. What, if any, message about Haitian intellectual history do they convey?
Bellegarde-Smith: It’s interesting. I had to fight with my publisher in Canada because of the translation of the title. He wanted to do In the Shadow of Powers as A L’ombre des Pouvoirs. I said, “No!” My grandfather was in power in those days. He was not in the shadow of power. He was the power in Haiti. Power means puissance not pouvoir. Puissance meaning the United States, France, England, Germany. So in the shadow of these world powers, that’s what was meant by that particular title. I insisted on putting Haiti in the context of Latin American intellectual development, in terms of what was happening in places like Mexico and Argentina and especially France and England, which was quite powerful in the minds of Haitian intellectuals. Something that was not done. Even in early Haitian history they talk about Haiti as if it did not belong to the rest of the world, as if it were not an important colony of France therefore subject to all those international influences in the nineteenth century and the seventeenth century. So they looked at it in isolation. And people are still looking at Haiti in isolation. It’s resilient. It’s different. It cannot be contrasted with Nicaragua or Bolivia because it is black and there’s always going back to this thing: people see color and they don’t see much else.
And by the way, Haitian intellectuals were very much concerned about U.S. power. Obviously from the very beginning it was an imperialistic force. It was a successor of Rome. And one of the reasons so many intellectuals went with France is because economically and militarily it was not going to re-colonize Haiti. If you were to choose between imperialism, choose France. Because it’s more “benign.”
By Breached Citadel, I was thinking in terms of culture, that an autonomous culture if it wants to maintain its integrity and be self-sustaining controls and chooses how it is going to integrate various elements from the outside. It has that choice.

Source:  African American Intellectual History Society