Haiti, Cultural Politics, and US Occupation

By Karen Cook Bell, Black Perspectives

Haiti’s intellectual dissidents played an instrumental role in advocating the Haitianization of Haiti–the embrace of Haitian culture, peasant life, and African origins–during the period of US occupation from 1915-1934. The Haitian masses provided the initial resistance to occupation, which occurred following the assassination of Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume. Their resistance was triggered by the re-establishment of forced labor (corvée) by the Americans and the massacre of Haitian workers. Individual dissidents such as Jean Price-MarsGeorges SylvainLeon LaleauJean Jacques RoumainCarl Brouard, and Jean F. Brierre, through persuasive oratory, articulated an ideology which sought to Haitianize the bourgeoisie. Moreover this group of intellectual dissidents embraced the culture of rural Haitians and in doing so defined this cultural reawakening.

The articulation of changing social, economic, and political concerns in the form of poetry and prose is an integral part of Haitian intellectual history. Among the masses this urge took the form of oral accounts from songs and stories to aphorisms. The dynamic and self-searching elements of Haitian literature were articulated best by Haitian dissidents. Aware of the weaknesses of Haitian institutions and the corruption of the past and blocked politically by white foreigners, this group published a new generation of well-crafted plays, novels, songs, and poetry that reflected the Haitian experience during US occupation.

US intervention profoundly shaped Haitian society. Between 1915 and 1934, Haiti was economically and politically an appendage of the US. In addition to controlling Haiti’s import and export economy, the US maintained authority over domestic affairs in Haiti by promoting figureheads to the presidency who, under the Constitution of 1918, lacked the power and authority to influence internal policies. The US High Commissioner who served as both the diplomatic representative of the US and the commander of the marines could veto and draft legislation. The high commissioner also advanced US economic interests in Haiti through his authority to negotiate contracts with American companies.

Much of the nationalist writings during the occupation period focused on a shared Haitian identity and a strong opposition toward the US. Such works as Jean Price-Mars’s Ainsi Parla l’Oncle (Thus Spoke the Uncle), Leon Laleau’s Le Choc (The Impact), and Jean F. Brierre’s “A la Croix de Marchaterre (Poem to the Marchaterre Cross) analyzed what it meant to be Haitian and delineated what many believed to be the horrific nature of US occupation. Scholar and diplomat Price-Mars set the agenda for discussion about Haitian identity, culture, and goals. His long life from 1876-1969 and his extensive literary output and correspondence with Caribbean, French, and American intellectuals and politicians, and later with Africans, gave him considerable influence within his country and the Black world.

Price-Mars’s interests went far beyond a recognition of the African heritage and the importance of the life and culture of rural Haitians. He also condemned the exploitation of women and he called for the reorganization of the educational system to fit the environment and the real needs of the people. Price-Mars was in a unique position to assess the changing political and social milieu. According to Price-Mars, the root of Haiti’s problems lay with the psychological ailment of the elite. In his La Vocation de l’élite, Price-Mars prescribed for the elite a “national thought” and a unifying ideology that consisted of Black pride and Black consciousness.

Cultural nationalism was explicit in Price-Mars writings. From the inception of occupation, the presence of US marines in Haiti implied the superiority of the white race and the justification for the pretext that foreign intervention was necessary to help “civilize” Haitians, as French anthropologist Gustave Le Bon purported. Price-Mars’s Une étape de l’évolution haïtienne (A Stage of Haitian Evolution) rode the wave of consciousness and refuted Le Bon’s contention.

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