Between Uncle Sam and Papa Doc

Red & Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957
Matthew J. Smith

(University of North Carolina Press, 2009)


Even for those sympathetic to Haiti, the big events—the great revolution at the close of the eighteenth century, the brutal Duvalier regime, and the roller coaster ride of Aristide’s political career—are probably all they are familiar with. Matthew J. Smith’s new academic (but lively) study Red & Black in Haiti details an enormously important period of Haitian history, one that may help to inform us about the political and social prospects for Haiti’s post-earthquake future.

Smith’s narrative ranges from the end of the U.S. occupation in 1934 to the event—one hesitates to call it an election—that first brought François Duvalier to power in 1957. His special focus is the intellectual currents that competed to shape Haiti after the Marines vacated the country and Haitian independence was definitively reasserted. Marxism and noirisme—the particular form of Black cultural pride in a country long dominated by its minuscule white elite class—were among the strongest and most influential trends. Of special interest to this blog is Smith’s attention to Haitian Marxism. Readers will be introduced to such important figures as Jacques Roumain and Max Hudicourt, who developed differing radical interpretations of Haitian social reality. Daniel Fignolé, who was definitely not a Marxist but who had a far greater urban working class following than the either the Communists or the Socialists, is also discussed at length.

The emotional center of the book is provided by the January 1946 revolution, which was a mass and spontaneous student and worker uprising against the corrupt and authoritarian rule of Elie Lescot. Smith carries out a fascinating narrative of the event, including the participation of Pierre Mabille and André Breton, described in earlier postings on this blog. Smith recounts a comment by Lescot that is fit to be included among the great last words of the foolish tyrants of history, “The youth were not dangerous. They are only dialecticians.”

Sadly, the Haitian Left was slowly but thoroughly marginalized in the period after the revolution, as some of its contradictions led to Haiti’s leaders coopting them into the state. For those who did not take this route, the increasingly extreme levels of repression extinguished opportunities to establish any relationship with the Haitian masses, either urban or rural.

The book ends on an ominous note: the accession to power of Duvalier, who used the school of noirisme to prepare himself for his brutal career. A short but interesting afterword discusses the lasting impact of this period, through the rise of Aristide.

Google Books has a long excerpt of the text available.

2 thoughts on “Between Uncle Sam and Papa Doc

  1. Thanks for these posts, which correspond so curiously to my current interests! I was thinking about writing a blog post on Breton and the 1946 revolution in Haiti, based on what I read in the book of Breton interviews and in the Polizzotti biography, which I had just finished. But I decided to do a little googling around on the topic first and . . . well, here I am. I’m wondering if you’ve read the Polizzotti bio and what you think of it. He doesn’t seem to take Breton’s politics seriously at all, just wants him to be a literary-cultural figure even though he of course frequently cites Breton’s own protestations against Surrealism being reduced merely to ‘literature’ etc. But then at times Polizzotti even seems a little political illiterate — in one place, for instance, mistakenly referring to Karl Liebknecht as an “anarchist.” There were a couple of other moments like that, I recall….

    • I have to say that I have not read the Polizzotti biography (which appeared last year in a revised edition from Black Widow Press), but the split between the “poetry” and “revolution” schools of Surrealism is a real one, remarked upon by Franklin Rosemont, among others. At the very least, Polizzotti has done some heavy lifting as a translator. I look forward to seeing what you write on the 1946 revolution.

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