The 1914 US Occupation of Haiti and the Struggle for Caribbean Sovereignty

Raphael Dalleo, American Imperialism’s Undead: The Occupation of Haiti and the Rise of Caribbean Anticolonialism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016); ISBN 978-0813938943 (paperback)

• June 2018

In the study American Imperialism’s Undead: The Occupation of Haiti and the Rise of Caribbean Anticolonialism, Raphael Dalleo uncovers the foundational role the 1914–34 US occupation of Haiti played in the history of Caribbean anticolonial writing. His methodology draws from Sibylle Fischer’s work on the disavowal of the Haitian Revolution and Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s concept of the “unthinkable” in historical narratives to read the gaps and silences of the archive in relation to the occupation of Haiti. Dalleo persuasively argues against this erasure and illustrates how the occupation influenced the anti-imperialist writings of Caribbean and Afro-diasporic authors such as C. L. R James, George Padmore, and Claude McKay while not becoming visible as a central preoccupation or origin. The book considers how and why the US occupation of Haiti in the early twentieth century has remained a blind spot within both institutional memory and scholarship in postcolonial, Caribbean, or African diaspora studies. His attention to how Haiti frustrates existing paradigms within the fields of postcolonial studies shows how thinking “of Haiti’s postcoloniality only in terms of its independence from France” (15) leads to papering over US imperialism and its imperialist designs in the Caribbean region; as such, Dalleo’s work revises the dominant genealogy that places the rise of US imperialism after WWII, instead demonstrating a much earlier history of US imperial intervention in the Americas.

Revisiting the historical context that informs C. L. R. James’s classic historical account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, Dalleo counters the idea that the Abyssinian occupation was the backdrop that informed James’s text of anticolonial struggle; rather, he asserts that the occupation of Haiti serves as the silenced event—a kind of absent presence—whose import “shaped the visions of imperialism and resistance for those who lived through it” (27). Dalleo excavates why it was that James, though committed to the anti-imperial lessons of Haitian history, remained silent about the occupation that was occurring during the writing of his most famous work. For Dalleo, the resounding silence in James’s 1930s writing about Haiti’s then-impinged sovereignty, while he continued to produce work about Haiti, confirms an unspoken “anxiety” about the threat that US imperialism posed to anticolonial struggles in the global South. By carefully exploring via what he calls a “speculative methodology” how such anxiety is encoded in James’s classic, Dalleo argues for how “a story of utopian romance” is unable to wrestle with “antiprogressive—even tragic—loss of sovereignty that defined the experience of Haiti” in the early twentieth century (43).

The second chapter considers how the occupation of Haiti became a rallying cry for intellectuals in Harlem, especially black radicals committed to linking US imperialism, white supremacy, and capitalism in the anticolonial struggle. Dalleo demonstrates how Harlem became a center for a global anticolonial Left and how West Indians in particular, through their engagement with the New Negro and Communist movements, sought to emphasize the role of race in buttressing imperialism (45). Moreover, Dalleo demonstrates the significance of the US as the site in which Caribbean intellectuals came to better understand not only racialization but also the workings of Western colonialism/imperialism. His focus on such groups as the ABB (African Blood Brotherhood), radical black and leftist newspapers, and the writings of the African American, James Weldon Johnson, all illuminate how Haiti became a fulcrum around which the struggle for black liberation and anti-imperialism revolved. For example, Dalleo shows how Johnson’s visit to and writings about Haiti were instrumental to his critique of the role of capitalism in germinating imperialism in the region, an idea that would cross-pollinate into the writing of West Indians who took Johnson’s ideas to push for the inclusion of issues of race and imperialism in various intellectual forums of the 1920s and 1930s.

The third chapter delves more deeply into the literary, focusing on both George Padmore and Claude McKay and untangling the central role US imperialist, exoticizing discourses on Haiti play in the counterdiscursive writings of Caribbean authors in diaspora. Whereas writers such as Padmore turned to the primitive and stereotypical ideas about Haiti and the Caribbean more generally within the US to open a space for explicitly subverting such ideas in the realm of fiction, women intellectuals such as Amy Jacques Garvey used a “collage technique” to emphasize a multiplicity of female voices critical of the occupation but also to implicitly question hegemonic values about sex and nation. In Jacques Garvey’s case, this takes the form of turning a “women’s page” of the Negro World into a collaborative forum for a multiplicity of women’s voices and global issues—often focused on Haiti—and that moreover formally and thematically implied “a critique of the Great Man vision of history” espoused by her famous husband (108).

In the subsequent chapters, Dalleo turns to Alejo Carpentier’s foundational The Kingdom of this World and his lesser-known novel Ecue-Yamba-O, emphasizing the occupation of Haiti as a generative matrix for Carpentier’s thinking about Haitian primitivism and religion, which would influence his theory of lo real maravilloso as a “regional aesthetic for Latin America” (122). As such, Dalleo excavates how Carpentier both reproduces dominant stereotypes of his time about Haiti and attempts to open up a space for a subversive vision of the Caribbean as syncretic. Similarly, returning to George Padmore as one of the central Pan-Africanist figures—along with W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey—whose anticolonialism encompassed critiques of both European and US imperialism, Dalleo reinforces the seminal importance of the occupation of Haiti to these authors’ radical antiracist and anti-imperialist projects, and he demonstrates how later decolonial nationalist lenses obscured the prominence of US economic and political domination before 1945. Furthermore, Dalleo shows how Padmore sought to include a critique of racist US Western imperialism while a committed communist, challenging the dominant readings that view Padmore as a fighter of British imperialism and as a communist who failed to express a strong critique of the sinister power of US capital to violate the sovereignty of black states throughout the world (153–54).

Closing with suggestive readings on the role of US discourses on Haiti in shaping classic works by both Jean Rhys and George Lamming, Dalleo points to the productive work other scholars can take up by thinking about how imperialist discourses about Haiti open up creative possibility for Caribbean artists that transcend the event (188). As an intervention in Caribbean, Latin American, and Pan-Africanist studies, as well as in the history of anticolonial struggle in the twentieth century, American Imperialism’s Undead offers an immensely valuable revision of the seminal role of the occupation of Haiti in altering the Caribbean region and thus follows a recent trend in American studies of examining American imperialism. It also offers innovative readings of transnational Caribbean authors who wrestled with dominant Western discourses to shape alternative imaginaries and counter-readings of their Caribbean.

 

F. Joseph Sepulveda is currently a PhD student in comparative literature at Rutgers University, where he focuses on contemporary Caribbean literature and US ethnic literatures, postcolonial writing, and gender and sexuality studies. His essay “Coding the Immigrant Experience: Race, Gender, and the Figure of the Dictator in Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao” was published in the Journal of Caribbean Literatures (2013).

 

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