Review- Dubois, “Haiti”

Laurent Dubois, “Haiti: The Aftershocks of History” (2012) – From my years of teaching world history core classes to undergraduates, I know that teaching the Haitian Revolution is de rigueur… but after 1804, Haiti disappears from the syllabus. It was in part to correct this that I picked this book up- it even echoes my teaching experience, where I had read Dubois’s book on the Haitian Revolution first years ago before picking this volume up to read.

Maybe people avoid post-revolutionary Haitian history because it is a stone cold bummer. The country never truly had a chance to recover from the devastation of the revolution, between infighting and the imposition of crushing indemnities to the French slaveholders from which it had wrested its freedom. It had no chance to develop like a “normal” country, indebted and embargoed from the very beginning. The military was the one somewhat functional national institution and often called the shots.

Dubois walks a fine line between ascribing the appropriate amount of blame for Haiti’s misery to outside powers, and to acknowledging the agency of the Haitian people in their own situation. To a certain extent, he splits the difference- the Haitian masses have seldom had any systematic say in their own affairs. Successive strongman governments wrote constitutions that limited the franchise along property lines, and until astonishingly late no government business could be done in Kreyol, the language of the masses, only in French, monopolized by the elite. Foreign governments, including the US, which had the Marines run the country between 1915 and 1934, were perfectly happy with this state of affairs, agreeing with the Haitian elite that the Haitian people couldn’t be trusted to run their own affairs. Ironically, much of the evidence of this was governmental dysfunction… that is, the dysfunction of bodies over which the common people had no say.

The Haitian people, according to Dubois, have had a pretty consistent set of priorities from revolutionary times onwards: disinclination towards anything that reminded them of the plantation system and insistence upon independence on both a personal and a national level. Their central institution is the lakou, or cluster of family-held smallholdings. Most rural Haitians are quietly but stubbornly insistent on working their own land, not working for wages for somebody else, regardless of the inducements, in Dubois’s telling. This is the “counterplantation” system and ideology of the Haitian people. Everyone who has run Haiti, from military men to populists, from the Marines to Papa Doc Duvalier, have attempted to undermine, undo, or at the very least tinker with the counterplantation, even as they mouth its values of independence from foreigners and whites.

Maybe this, the insistence on the part of Haitians to go their own way, is why the rest of the world is so consistently so spiteful where the island nation is concerned. The world has never forgiven Haiti for overthrowing slavery on its own, for being black, for being Haiti. There’s a vindictiveness to the way foreign white people, even today, treat the country that you don’t see in the way other “least developed countries” get treated. Take the way outsiders obsess over the Haitian folk religion of Vodou. While the “backward beliefs of the natives” is a common colonialist trope, nowhere in the world that I know of is a folk religion genuinely seen not just as backwards, but as genuinely sinister and dangerous. As recently as the 1990s, elite US soldiers stationed in Haiti were warned of the danger of “voodoo attacks,” according to an essayist I read who was there. Folks, it’s just syncretism. It won’t hurt you.

Dubois’s book works against this dehumanization — in the case of the panic over Vodou, literally the supernaturalizing — of Haiti and its people. The Haitians he depicts, even outsized and genuinely sinister figures like Papa Doc Duvalier, are recognizably human, acting according to human impulses and massive structural constraints. It’s too bad the counterplantation has generally left us less in the way of records and incident than the elites of Haiti and the government they’ve dominated/ran into the ground over and over again. It’s hard to avoid frustration with the Haitian elite, even if you acknowledge they were victims of racism and other forces outside of their control. But the people of Haiti deserve our respect and admiration for their dedication to their hard-won freedom and their ability to survive blow after blow with their humanity intact. ****’

Review- Dubois, “Haiti”

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