Haiti is a country in the Caribbean that occupies one third of the island of Hispaniola. When Christopher Columbus set foot in Haiti in 1492, the island was inhabited by the Tainos Indians, who were put into slavery by the Spanish conquistadors. Within 30 years, the Indian population was decimated by the harshness of their new conditions and the diseases brought by the colonizers. To continue expanding their empire, the colonizers turned to West Africa as a new source of people to enslave. Struggle between colonial rivals to control the gold mines in Hispaniola ultimately led the Spanish to agree, in 1698, to a treaty granting the French control over the western part of the colony. Under French colonial rule, the western part, renamed Saint-Domingue, was transformed into a complex plantation system based on a sophisticated capitalist enslavement of Africans, who composed the majority of the population. The wealth of the colony attracted bitter struggles and wars between colonial challengers such as the British, the Dutch, and the Spanish, and after brief periods of conquest by each of these powers, the French again prevailed. During the 1700s, the century of philosophical enlightenment and revolution, Saint-Domingue was the richest colony of France, the major source of power and wealth that underwrote every sphere of French society. The contradictions inherent to the colonial and slavery systems in Saint-Domingue and the circulation of ideas of freedom and equality fostered by the Enlightenment (and culminating in 1789 in the French Revolution and the General Proclamation of the Rights of Man) generated the ultimate conditions for a general slave revolt. It started in 1791 and climaxed in the revolution that overthrew the plantation system and, after a 13-year war of independence, transformed the colony into a new country renamed Haiti (the original name of the island prior to colonization).
The epistemological status of Haiti and its social formation in the social sciences, specifically in history and anthropology, is as problematic as Haiti’s positioning in the latter disciplines. The Haitian revolution (1791-1803), against three centuries of slavery and colonialism, took place during the Enlightenment project; and this along with the emergence of Haiti in the modern world at the onset of the 19th century (1804) challenged the dominant paradigm of racial differences and hierarchies well ingrained in Western modern thoughts and narratives. For the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the precursors of modern history and anthropology, humans were internally differentiated on the basis of biology and culture, which provided the basis for a hierarchy of races and cultures, of which Westerns Europeans constituted the finest achievement of civilization. The revolution that transformed Saint-Domingue into Haiti was at the time deemed an inconceivable embarrassment, for it did not fit the project of men as defined in Western thought, even though liberty and equality were the ideals pursued by the Western thinkers of the time and concretized by the revolutionaries in the Caribbean. Indeed, the emergence of a Black republic was an impossible contradiction. The dominant Western narratives conceptualized and characterized Haiti as a “state of exception” in that for Europeans and Americans in the 19th century, the very existence of a former slave/Black-African-run republic tapped deeply into the contradictions that lay behind the Rights of Man proclamation, namely, a universalism on one hand and an evolutionism on the other. And from this latter perspective, it was necessary to discredit Haiti in order for Euro-Americans to enunciate their notion of civilization. This act, by its very nature, served to centralize the exception, which explains why Haiti figured so centrally in the entire narrative of the present. Haiti’s exceptionalism was intrinsic to Euro-America’s conception of itself, just as the power of Euro-America to normalize itself became intrinsic to the imagination of Haiti.
While all the great colonial powers and slave-holding societies conspired to contain the Haitian revolution at the margins of history, anthropological reports too were questioning the viability of a nation state made of “black people,” plagued by cannibalism, cruelty, and immoral promiscuity. The Comte Arthur de Gobineau summed up the racial ideas that at the time dominated anthropology (scientific racism) to lay down the fundamental inferiority of the “black race” and its unfitness for progress and civilization (the inequality of human races). Based on these ideas, Gustave d’Alaux reported in 1856 how Haiti due to the barbaric nature of its race was destined to failure. Alaux took on the new political system that was being built in the country to illustrate the despotic nature of Haitians and situate them in African tribal traditions. Others described an absolute incompatibility between the idea of a Haitian country and modernity itself. In his widely read book Hayti or the Black Republic, Sir Spencer St. John (1889) showcased Haiti to demonstrate that the “negroes in the great scheme of nature” continuously make apparent that they have no capacity “to hold an independent position.” “As long as he [the negro] is influenced by contact with the white man, as in the Southern of the United States, he gets on very well. But places [sic] him free from all such influence, as in Hayti, he shows no sign of improvement” (p. 134). According to St John, in absence of the “white master,” the Haitians are “falling into the state of the inhabitant of the Congo” in Africa. As William Cohen, among others, has shown in the context of the French colonies in Africa, images of Black people carved during the 18th century were critical in the development of discourses in anthropology, the science of “man,” which, at least through the 19th century, viewed culture as shaped by biology. In these discourses, Africa epitomized the “heart of darkness,” and Haiti was its expression. Since then, the historiography and anthropology of Haiti have been able only to define the country in negative terms when not systematically engaged in “silencing the past” when it comes to Haiti. The “horror of Saint-Domingue” during the time of the revolution, despotic political leaders after Haiti’s independence, voodoo, cannibalism, black magic, poverty, human degradation, and failed nation-state narratives about Haiti in the social sciences have all cultivated a rhetorical depiction that Haiti is a reverse mirror of the West, the location of barbarism versus civilization.
These rhetorical depictions also provided the very frame within which Haiti would define itself in relation to the world and would rely upon throughout the 19th century to formulate its responses to anthropology. While Haiti was being conceptualized as a state of exception—the Black-run nation that proves that Blacks cannot run a nation—it was simultaneously being constructed in Haitian anthropology in terms of hybridization, imbrication, melding, and intersplicing of African and European values and practices. For instance, voodoo is at once an indice of barbarism in terms of political ideology of the modern Euro-American but also the intersecting of Catholicism and African worship systems in ways that cannot be reduced to any simple combination of the two. The result is a notion of the indigenous that is, conceptually, the inverse of the state of exception, the transcending of the latter implicating the abolishment of the former, though this has always remained difficult to formulate, let alone practice, because the notion of the indigenous is one of the chief ideological weapons used to fend off intellectual imperialism.
On one hand, Haitian elites challenged Haiti’s images in Western discourses by embracing a positivist anthropological perspective to locate their country and its people in a position that supplants the Africans closer, however, to the Europeans. Early Haitian anthropologists, while rejecting scientific racism and its thesis of racial inequality, embraced the barbarism-versus-civilization paradigm to situate Haitian society and its elites at the avant-garde of African backwardness. According to this view, even when the majority of the inhabitants of the new republic are practicing “barbaric” religious practices (for example, voodoo, or vodoun) and are judged, like the Africans, to have no clear concept of religion, the Haitian elites stand as an enlightened guide for the masses (and the “black race” in general), which with time will become civilized. Among many other writers, Louis Joseph Janvier published Equality of Races (1884), Antenor Firmin wrote Of Equality of Human Races (Positivist Anthropology) (1885), and Hannibal Price wrote Of Rehabilitation of the Black Race by the Republic of Haiti (1891) in response to the thesis of inequality of races and the inferiority of the “black race” that dominated 19th-century discourse in Europe and the United States, articulated in anthropological thoughts of Arthur de Gobineau’s biologization of history and Herbert Spencer and other Western writers’ Social Darwinism. In these publications, the writers tried to displace the focus of anthropology to its “true” object: how human races are evolving toward “the” civilization, epitomized by Western Europeans. To do so, these authors called attention to a new understanding of uncivilized cultures as a necessary step toward civilization but not as a biological mark that prevented people from these cultures becoming civilized. Haiti (through its elites), according to this model drawn essentially from Auguste Comte’s sociological theory, showcased how African people would move away from barbarism.
The dilemma, of course, for the Haitian elites was how to anthropologically write on Haitian subjectivities as they simultaneously challenged the discursive depictions and constructed images of Haitians and Africans (Black people in general) without recourse to the very categories provided by 19th-century anthropology in the first place. How can a discipline such as anthropology, constitutive of colonialism that provided the categories that depict Haiti as the quintessence of difference and alterity be appropriated and used by Haitian elites to “scientifically rehabilitate the black race” in general and Haiti and the Haitian people specifically.
As the first Black Republic in the modern world, Haiti’s singular dilemma consisted in whether to reject its African heritage and fully embark in the Western project in order to show the world that it is a “civilized” country or to embrace its African heritage and reconfigure it within the confines of the nation-state. This dilemma resulted in the development in Haiti of two different cultural worlds: (1) the Western (French)-oriented sociocultural project, embraced by the upper classes and instrumentalized through the control of the apparatus of the state and the official (public) institutions as well as the social valorization of the French language and Catholic religion, and (2) the African-oriented rural project, agriculturally based with its Creole language, vodoun religion, and West-African-inspired traditions and cosmology. These constituted a system of two autonomous cultural worlds within which discourses on identities as well as sociopolitical practices would develop. Curiously, while the depiction of Haiti’s nonviability was reinforced by anthropological discourses on races, it was to anthropology that the Haitian elites turned to seek to formulate their responses to questions raised by Western writers. Even more curious is the fact that no significant segment of Haitian elites has ever fully embraced Africa or Europe. Yet in their responses, Haiti’s rural classes, the vodoun religion, the Creole language, and the rural family configurations and traditions were relegated to mere folkloric practices— when not represented as barbaric, retarded, or pathologies to be cured by civilization. Paradoxically, this mode of writing about Haiti by Haitians themselves strengthened the negative depiction it intended to challenge; it constituted what Gustav Desai referred to, in the case of African intellectuals’ production of colonial Africa, as “dangerous supplements” to the dominant rhetorical depictions of Haiti.
Haitian elites’ dilemma about Haiti’s African heritage is constitutive of the Haitian soul and therefore addresses the question of the extent to which narratives intended for Euro-American consumption must be internalized locally (for example, the Creole language as inherently inferior or vodoun as barbaric). Indeed, these narratives generated counternarratives embraced by other segments of the same elites, with a political background formulated around color lines opposition (Black versus mulattoes) in their struggle for hegemonic powers in Haiti. In other words, the Haitian anthropology is not a unified stand in relation to Haiti’s dominant characterization abroad.
During the 20th century, anthropology in Haiti introduced a new realm of interpretations, due to a combination of circumstances both in Haiti and in the Americas. The struggle between factions of Haitian elites over political and economic control of Haiti throughout the 19th century only reinforced the marginalization of urban and rural masses and precipitated the collapse of Haiti’s public institutions. At the beginning of the 20th century, Haiti’s political instability was seized by the United States as an opportunity to gain control of the country. The United States’ invasion of Haiti in 1915 led to the development of strong nationalist and indigenous movements. A segment of the Haitian elites, including Haitian anthropologists like Jean Price-Mars, inaugurated a different approach on Haiti and its sociocultural life. Religious practices, family life, the Creole language, and cultural materials that constitute the environment of the masses came to be sources of inspiration for this segment. Carrying on reflections initiated by some Haitian writers in literature, such as Frederic Marcelin, Price-Mars’s publication So Spoke the Uncle launched an ethnographic program that placed at the center of investigation Haitian vodoun and its cosmology. In a larger regional context, the postslavery situation required a new approach on and understanding of “Black people” in White societies. In the United States and Brazil, the debate between Melville J. Herskovitz and Franklin Frazier about the impact of slavery on African American sociocultural life in the United States renewed discussions about Blacks’ adaptation/ assimilation in White-dominated societies. Later, Herskovitz took Haiti as a case in point to illustrate the survival of African cultural practices through religion, cultural materials, language, and traditions among Haitians. Herskovitz’s team, comprising both Haitian and American anthropologists, helped develop professional anthropological studies at the Bureau of Ethnology of Haiti, which later led to the creation of the Faculty of Ethnology at the State University of Haiti.
Haiti is a site, spatially, conceptually, and politically, of battle for the two anthropologies. The first is anthropology as a political discourse, the second anthropology as a discourse belonging to the field of science. The struggle lies in that they were originally one discourse, the second gradually emerging from the former, not least by the struggle to grasp what Haiti is. Today, current debates in Haiti are still selfconsciously that of the second discourse taking account of the first, and also of the reality that the first racist discourse not only has currency in the politics of this hemisphere but also, at a deeper level, is still present in the second discourse in terms of the way in which it inflects the forms of supposition and misrecognition.
Although Haiti and Haitian sociocultural practices are, today, the object of study by many anthropologists from different perspectives in different languages, Haiti’s excess of political turbulence, violence, socioeconomic degradation, and AIDS has provided new grounds for the resurgence of the notion of the state of exception. These foci illustrate the continuing symbolism of Haiti as representative “Blackness” (characterized in its radical negativity) in a world where race and racialization can be hinted at without having to cite it specifically. Hence, the evolution of political histories in terms of the evolution of a historically expository narrative that is mutually constitutive—Haiti and Europe/America—can only be imagined in terms of separate and sovereign spaces, which is itself a dimension of their mutual constitution, placing anthropology in a predicament for which it is still deciphering its own interpretations.
- Brown, G. S. (2005). Toussainfs clause: The founding fathers and the Haitian revolution. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.
- Dayan, J. (1995). Haiti, history, and the gods. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
- Desai, G. (2001). Subject to colonialism: African self-fashioning and the colonial library. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Firmin, J.-A. (2002). The equality of the human races. Champagne: University of Illinois Press.
- Fischer, S. (2004). Modernity disavowed: Haiti and the cultures of slavery in the age of revolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Price-Mars, J. (1983). So spoke the uncle. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press.
- St. John, S. Sir. (1889). Hayti: or The Black Republic. London: Smith, Elder.
- Trouillot, M.-R. (1995). Silencing the past: Power and the production of history. Boston: Beacon Press.