noirisme

Anténor Firmin, the first Haitian pioneer of the Négritude movement?

 "Although Jean Price-Mars is usually credited with being the founder of “noirism,” and later Léopold Senghor hailed him as the “Father of Négritude” (Fouchard 1990), it is probable that Firmin and other illustrious members of Haiti’s nineteenth-century intellectual elite laid the primary foundation for what was to become the négritude movement. At least four of the twenty chapters of The Equality of the Human Races speak directly to the primary role played by the black race in world history and civilization, including “Egypt and Civilization,” “Intellectual Evolution of the Black Race in Haiti,” “Evolutionary Pace of the Black Race,” and “The Role of the Black Race in the History of Civilization.”A cursory reading not only of these chapters but of the entire tome re- veals Firmin to be “noirist” without arrogance or apology. Firmin attended the First Pan-African Congress in London in 1900 which W. E. B. DuBois also attended. Had he not been preoccupied with Haitian politics and a bid to become president as head of a Firminist movement, ending in his exile in St. Thomas by President Alexis Nord, Firmin might have continued this international involvement with the nascent Pan-Africanist movement.“

Read full article here.

Today in Haitian History - April 24, 1966 – Haiti receives Emperor Haile Selassie 

In 1966, Haiti welcomed one of the most symbolic black figures of the world. For the occasion, François Duvalier (left) had public settings redecorated in Port-au-Prince to match the national colours of Ethiopia. While Selassie was met with much euphoria in the capital, some historians maintain that François Duvalier attempted to put forward a new foreign policy agenda with such visit. Aware of his illness and of his regime’s unpopularity with foreign leaders, Duvalier was eager to accord diplomatic recognition to newly independent African states and to establish cordial ties with leaders of the continent in hopes of proving some consistency with his Noirist ideology and to demonstrate that his administration did possess some alignment beyond its professed anti-communism.

Image Courtesy of: Life Magazine. 

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“Come to Haiti” travel posters by the Pan American World Airways. (Images Credit). 

These posters testify to an important partnership reached between Haitian president Dumarsais Estimé (1946-1950) and the  Pan American World Airways. From December 1949 to April 1950, Estimé lunched one of the most memorable moves of his political career with the lavish “Exposition internationale du bicentenaire de Port-au-Prince” (International Exhibition of Port-au-Prince's bicentenary).

Taking full advantage of the Pan American World Airways expanding its activities in the Caribbean and Latin American region following World War II, Estimé hoped to encourage tourism during (and after) the exhibition.  

While Estimé was ideologically a (more moderate) noirist, and his election in 1946 represented a “second Haitian Revolution” for many black students who had grown particularly dissatisfied with Haitian governments since the American Marine Occupation of 1915, many feared that he had “sold out” Haitian culture as an exotic product for foreign consumership, as the first poster vividly expresses. Whatever it may be, this period, and that of Estimé's successor, Paul Eugène Magloire (1950-1956), is often remembered as the "golden age" of Haitian tourism, where along with Cuba and Puerto Rico, Haiti was a leading site for tourism in the region. (Source, Source)

Today in Haitian History - November 11, 1913 - Birth of Daniel Fignolé.

Born into a black family of modest means, Pierre Eustache Daniel Fignolé (left) rose to become one of the most important political figures of pre-Duvalier Haiti. While he struggled for a great part of his life due to poor health issues and having to support himself financially, Fignolé still managed to become a much-loved teacher at the then prestigious Lycée Pétion and at other important institutions such as the Petit séminaire Collège Saint-Martial.

Like many individuals of his generation, Fignolé came of age politically and intellectually during the years of the U.S. Marine Occupation of Haiti (1915-1934). Though he never espoused the Marxist/Communist cause of some of his contemporaries and had a convoluted relationship with the Noirist camp (despite his strong essentialist reading of Haitian history as a battle between blacks and mulattoes), he was still one of the most radical figures of his day and in 1945 participated in the creation of the Mouvement Ouvrier Paysan (MOP), a body mostly popular in Black urban circles. In May 1957, he held office (for 20 days) following the political turmoil that accompanied the fall of President Paul Eugène Magloire. (Source)

Image: Daniel Fignolé with his wife Carmen Jean-François at the Palais National on May 25,1957. Image Courtesy of: Haiti-Reference

Did you know?

Haitian women missed on the right to vote in 1946 because of…Hollywood actors?

Well, not exactly.

In 1946, following the departure of Haitian president Élie Lescot Marxist/Communist and Noirist groups were very actively disputing Haiti’s future. Color tensions reached an unprecedented proportion. In the midst of those debates, middle-class Haitian women, who had been arguing for greater participation in the country’s political life, were also concerned about gaining the right to vote. While they found some sympathy among noted Haitian intellectuals such as Dantès Bellegarde and other individuals in Marxist/Communist camps, the Noirists, this time headed by people such as Émile Saint-Lot, were absolutely appalled by the very idea of seeing Haitian women entering into what was viewed as a strictly male sphere. Among some of his many arguments for refusing to hear the cause of women that had organized under the Ligue Feminine d’Action Sociale (LFAS), was that, it would seem, Haitian women could not be trusted because of their love for Hollywood actors…who were mostly white. The logic was thus that, since middle-class Haitian women loved white film actors, the best counterpart they could find to those in Haiti were the light-skinned elite mulatto men (some of whom, although not all, were precisely in Marxist and/or Communist camps). The question of Haitian women voting rights in 1946 was thus embedded in both political and ideological considerations. Or was it? …

In all event, Haitian women were deemed too unintelligent to make the difference between film and reality. Their lustful love for foreigners made them incapable of understanding the complexities of politics. Few Haitian women that  participated in those debates were in fact convinced by this (and other similar) arguments. Haitian feminists responded angrily at those charges in La Femme haïtienne répond aux attaques formulées contre elle à l'Assemblée constituante published the same year. (Source)

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Rare Photos of Dumarsais Estimé’s Presidency (1946-1950). Images: Courtesy of CIDIHCA.

Following the United States Marine Occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) the Haitian military, Gendarmerie d'Haïti (later known simply as Garde d’Haïti), received major transformations, from what, by the turn of the last century, was a decentralized and often unorganized coalition, to a modern military force. While the army was key in protecting the regimes of Sténio Vincent (1930-1941) and Élie Lescot (1941-1946), it was through the election of 1946, that which brought moderate noiriste Dumarsais Estimé in power that it was able to test its strength as arbiter of Haitian politics. 

Ironically, the same men who installed Estimé in power later disposed of him due to disputes and Estimé’s attempt to stretch his presidency. He was replaced by Paul Eugène Magloire, one of the key military figures behind the 1946 junta.  (Sources: XX and X)

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NOIRISME IN HAITI, PART I

Images: Courtesy of Corbis Images and Wikimedia Commons (1: François Duvalier; 2: Jean-Prince Mars; 3: Daniel Fignolé; 4: Sténio Vincent)

What was (is) noirisme and how did it (and still does) affect Haiti’s political history?

In this post (and the next), we will look very briefly at the question of noirisme in Haitian politics during and immediately after the US Marine Occupation of the country (1915-1946). 

In making this post, we were informed by two particular concerns.

First, we believe, the overgeneralization of Haitian political history on tumblr, is to say the least, very wearisome. Not only does it fail to capture the intricacy of the historical contingencies in which Haiti evolved as a state, it also becomes the perfect arena for grossly simplistic analysis of that same history (i.e. “it’s all because of the French!” “It’s all because of the Mulattoes!”  “It’s because they killed Dessalines” “It’s all because of the Americans!” and so on.) While the point of this particular post is not to address any of those generalities directly, it still seeks to encourage a careful reading of the large scholarship on Haitian history, which should help discourage making such uninformed statements like these.  

Second, it has also come our attention that while words like “noirisme”  “noiristes” (and so on) have been used on multiple occasions, they have not been defined. While we are under no pretence of fully grasping the complexities of the term (noirisme), we still believe we hold enough of an understanding of its main components to, at the very least, tentatively explain some of its main alignments.    

So, what was (is) the noirisme ideology?

At its most basic level, Matthew J. Smith (2004) defines it as an ideology “which advocated total control of the state apparatus by black representatives of the popular classes.” This, as Smith points out himself would of course be an incomplete definition of what noirisme meant in Occupation and post-Occupation Haiti.  At best, the noirisme ideology should be understood as radical, psychological, cultural, ethnological and political ideology, which argued for black supremacy in Haitian politics. While some appreciate noirisme to be Haiti’s form of Négritude, Michael Dash (2011) is right in his assessment that most Négritude writers were quick to distance themselves from noirisme when they realized the extent of its radicalism. 

Historical context 

It is difficult to talk about the matrix in which this noiriste ideology evolved without a discussion, even if just briefly, on Haiti’s political landscape in the 1930s, when the movement itself emerged. American Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 (and some would argue until the 1940s when Haiti gained back the control of its national bank). During this period, they put an end to the Franco-German control of the Haitian economy and permanently oriented Haiti towards the United States (see our list for reading suggestions on the Occupation period). More importantly, the Marine Occupation also intensified the color question in the country. While it is important to recognize that “color politics” were an integral part of Haiti’s political scenery long before the arrival of the Marines, the Occupation did serve to strengthen the problem. By the racist policies carried by U.S. Marines, America’s general reputation for negrophobia and the overall preferential (although still racist) treatment of Haiti’s “fairer-colored” elite, the Occupation decades only made an existing problem more explosive.  Haitian intellectuals, Black and Mulatto, all tried to understand what had led to this humiliation Occupation. How did Haiti, a nation (at least in principles) founded on the equality of all, regardless of color and class, could have failed so much throughout the 19th and early 20th century that it was now being occupied by its powerful Northern neighbour who was more than pleased to point out its inferiority? The answer came in multiple forms, but to our interest, was the indigenous turn (mouvement indigéniste) proposed by people like Dr. Jean Price-Mars (and Jacques Roumain). Price-Mars’s 1928 Ainsi parla l'oncle (Thus Spoke the Uncle) had repercussions much greater than the author himself could have hoped for. In his book (and most of his lectures and writing), Price-Mars accused the Haitian elite (Black and Mulatto) of having lost its social usefulness and being entirely self-serving. To him, the Occupation could be, in part, understood as the elites’ failure to address Haiti’s real character and give it proper guidance. Haiti to Price-Mars, was not a sub-product of France, it had a strong African past that the elites had carefully tried to silence in vain hopes of being assimilated, at least in terms of customs, to European society. This, however, is not to say that Price-Mars believed in the biological determinism associated with most noiristes, what he called for was a more “honest” assessment of Haiti’s culture, one that did not necessarily blurred away the French colonial legacies in Haiti, but that did not suppress its African component. Price-Mars and most of the indigénistes poets and intellectuals who followed his footstep where mostly interested in Haiti in terms on ethnology and recognizing the importance of Africa in Haitian culture, especially in peasant areas. Vodou became an important site of investigation, as it was perhaps one of the most easily recognizable “African legacies” of Haiti. At a time when it was linked with sorcery, child murder and zombies, Price-Mars and other indigénistes sought to explain how Vodou had its own religiosity and were to be respected. They did not argue that it was THE only avenue for religious and spiritual fulfillment but it was undeniably important and present throughout the country. To be sure, Price-Mars was most likely not going to renounce his life – which was rather confortable has he was a respected intellectual –  and move to rural Haiti with the peasants he loved to romanticize so much in his writing, nor was he to move to Africa. All in all, the indigénisme must be seen as a “looking inward” greatly provoked by the experience of the Marine Occupation.

Indigénisme, especially for young intellectuals who came of age politically at the end of the Occupation did not go far enough to assess Haiti’s problems. In fact, it did nothing concrete to alter the situation and offered no tangible solution. It was in this context, that indigénisme, in many circles, began to give way to noirisme. While they represented  a neglected group in the early 1930s (the Haitian government focusing most of its efforts in suppressing leftist activity), noiristes did, as the decade went by, began to gain more support. Whatever the “Indigéniste School” had to say, the noiristes radicalized it completely. More than having a dual French and African past, Haiti had an “African element” which could only be directed by real, authentic Black Haitians, who were much closer to the poor and disenfranchised populace. Vodou was no longer an important religious expression among others; it was the supreme link between Haiti and Africa. Haiti not only had to be governed by Blacks to reflect the country’s majority, it had to be governed by a charismatic and autocratic Blacks, since liberalism was a “White” political system. Haitians were thus entirely biologically determined to be the people that they were and the real enemies of the state were Mulattoes with their “mulâtrisme.”

While there were many disagreements, important noiristes in this period included, Daniel Fignolé, but also the infamous “Three Ds”, being: Louis Diaquoi, Lormier Denis and a little known and obscure doctor by the name of François Duvalier. As mentioned before, few paid close attention the noiristes given their radicalism and their “Black myth” as David Nicholls (1975) puts it, of Haitian history. By the time of Diaquoi’s death in 1932, the noiristes were only beginning to better cement their organization and founded Les Griots, an organ where they would discuss their views and the pseudo-scientific origins of Haiti. For the next decade while Communist and Socialists, including Jacques Roumain, were put in jail and exiled, most of the noiristes remained in Haiti and gained more momentum as the decade went by.

⇒Read Part iI here.

The Revolution of 1946: A Short Summary

Antoine Hérard (center) announces Gérald Bloncourt (with white shirt) before a speech at Leconte Park in January 1946, Port-au-Prince. Image Courtesy: Île en Île.


The Revolution of 1946 refers to a series of protests and urban unrest that culminated with the overthrow of President Lescot. Initiated by leftist university students in Port-au-Prince, whose newspaper, La Ruche, was banned by the government, the protests erupted into social unrest. The students, led by activists such as Jacques Stephen Alexis, began the movement as a strike, inspired by the strike in Damien in 1929 amid the U.S. occupation of Haiti. After fires, ransacking of businesses, and state violence against the protesters, which grew to include workers and professionals, Lescot was unable to retain the support of the military to crush the rebellion.

After consulting with the US Embassy, a three-man junta formally seized power, paving the way for the freedom of the press and a proliferation of political parties. Although there was tampering in the 1946 elections, Dumarsais Estime became president and appealed to noirists as the first black president of Haiti since the US Occupation began in 1915.

In order to understand how and why the ‘Revolution of 1946’ unfolded, one must include the class, color, and social divisions in Haiti. The noirist camp, an offshoot of Price-Mars’s indigeniste writings, were active writers and intellectuals who advocated for a black president. The left, in this case, socialists, opposed Lescot for a number of reasons, particularly the President’s dictatorial ways and support for US goals and business. The military, modernized under the US Occupation, also harbored dark-skinned officers who sought higher ranks and sometimes opposed the light-skinned elites preferred by Lescot.

The incumbent government’s neglect of the poor and underclass, an unpopular anti-superstition campaign orchestrated by the Catholic Church, and Lescot’s constant attempts to ingratiate himself with the US during WWII, which only benefited the urban bourgeoisie, ultimately undid his regime. Losing the support of sectors of the military, facing growing opposition from the left and the noirists, and last, but certainly not least, glaring social inequalities in the growing capital where working-class residents participated in the protests spelled the end for his regime.

Looking back, one can see that the possibility for democracy was preemptively undermined by the military and US interests in the region, but the Revolution marks a powerful instance in which cross-class alliances across various social groups and schools of thought paved the way for democratic potential. The 1946 Revolution also marked the end of mulatrisme, highlighting the influence of noirist thought on Haitian politics as darker-hued aspirants for political office found growing favor, particularly the small but growing middle-class. These aforementioned aspects of the movement certainly speak to the importance of color and class in Haiti under the US Occupation, where the modern Haitian military was reared, as well as the shifts in Haitian social thought. Needless to say, the persistence of color and class dynamics continued to exacerbate the democratic process, leading to another military junta in 1950 selecting Magloire as president directly, followed by the rise of Duvalier in 1957.

For a broader, regional perspective, the 1946 Revolution was the first popular uprising against a US-supported head of state in the Caribbean. For those interested in Caribbean history, one can compare the role of the Haitian military in simultaneously supporting and limiting the development of civil society or democracy with similar historical examples from Latin America.

For Further Reading

Michel Laguerre’s The Military and Society in Haiti
Matthew J. Smith’s Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957
Robert Fatton’s The Roots of Haitian Despotism

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NOIRISME IN HAITI, PART II

Images: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (1: Élie Lescot; 2: Paul Eugène Magloire; 3: Jacques Roumain; 4: Jacques Stéphen Alexis).

After Vincent and Lescot (⇐Read Part i here.)

While we won’t go into all the details of the important election of 1946 (and invite you to read more on the topic until we make a specific post on it), 1946 proved to be an important year for Haiti. Élie Lescot (then (Mulatto) President of Haiti) was driven out of the country earlier that year – thanks to left wing activities, but also student protests very similar to the 1929 strikes that forced an American investigation with the Forbes Commission – and now, it seemed, perhaps for first time since the fall of Boyer in the 19th century, that Haiti was “open for democracy.” The illusion cleared away quickly but as Smith Notes (2004) this period gave rise to the formation of an unprecedented number of political parties and the general freedom of the press. What became clear by the time an election was to be held was that whomever the Haitian Assembly elected had to be Black. With educational reforms started in the late 19th century and the economical opportunities brought by the Occupation, Port-au-Prince was home of a new Black middle-class and educated elite who refused to accept the “Mulatto oligarchy” any longer. While not all of this group espoused a noiriste ideology, the color of the next president was central. It was Dumarsais Estimé, greatly thanks to the efforts of Col. Lavaud, Levelt and Magloire (Magloire , who later ousted Estimé and became President in 1950), who was chosen.

Estimé, unlike most of Haiti’s Black leaders, had been a schoolteacher, and not in the military when he became president. He was a noiriste to be sure, but a moderate one and did not share all of the noiriste ideology, which became a source of friction. What he did do, to a certain extent, was attempt at having a more “balanced” cabinet, accepting few members of the opposition into his government. Most notably, it was the great noiriste “intellectual” François Duvalier who became his Secretary of Labour and Public Health.

As we end our discussion here, since our main objective was simply to explain the emergence and early mechanism of the noirisme ideology, we should note that this diving force in Haitian politics did not end with the 1946 election (if anything, it only had a confirmation that it could be an effective exertion for the emerging “Black oligarchy” to win the political power it felt rightly entitled to). 

Our conversation on noirisme in the 1930s and 1940s is of course incomplete. We do hope that the reader recognizes that reading one blog post on the topic is certainly not enough to claim an understanding of this complex ideological and political movement. We therefore encourage you to read (beyond) the few books and articles suggestions we attached to this post.

A fuller analysis of the noirisme should have included:

  • A historical portrait of the evolution of the color question until the Marine Occupation in 1915;
  • A discussion on the United States’ role in the 1946 and 1957 elections;
  • A discussion of left wing opposition in Haiti (Communist and Socialist) that saw the noiriste as no more than opportunist Blacks;
  • The divisions within the noiriste movement;
  • The rise of noirisme after the Dominican Massacre of Haitians in 1937 and the reaction (or lack thereof) of Sténio Vincent following the affair;
  • The relationship between political adherence and color (Theologians/Historians like David Nicholls, perhaps in an attempt to make the discussion of political currents in Haiti during the 1930s and 1940s more digestible suggest that intellectuals were usually divided in two main fractions: Mulattoes were leftists and Blacks were noiristes. While it is tempting to make this claim, and to a certain extent accurate, what do we make then of figures like Jacques Stephen Alexis (later murdered by Duvalier’s men) and René Depestre, who were Black and did not adhere to noirisme? Or Carl Bouard, from an elite Mulatto family, who became one of the greatest defenders of Vodou during the 1930s and also, was a close associate of the Denis and Duvalier during the same period?);
  •     …

While this post is of course incomplete, we hope that it helps, at least in some respect, highlight the complexities of an ideological movement that greatly affected Haiti.  

FURTHER READING (NOIRISME AND COLOR QUESTION)

WORK CITED

Dash, Michael. “Haïti première république noire des lettres.” In Les actes de colloques en ligne du musée du quai Branly. Musée du quai Branly (département de la recherche et de l’enseignement), 2011.http://actesbranly.revues.org/480.

Nicholls, David. “Idéologie et Mouvements Politiques En Haïti, 1915-1946.” Annales. Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations 30, no. 4 (1975): 654–79. doi:10.3406/ahess.1975.293637.

Smith, Matthew J. Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957. 1 edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

- - - . “VIVE 1804!: The Haitian Revolution and the Revolutionary Generation of 1946.” Caribbean Quarterly 50, no. 4 (December 1, 2004): 25–41. 

⇐Read Part i here

Today in Haitian History - March 21, 1986 - Daniel Fignolé returns to Haiti. Prominent black nationalist and populist, Fignolé was an active member of the noirisme movement, and championed in his speeches, the plea of the urban Blacks. While some debate his exact political inclination, his harsh criticism of the Occupation and post-Occupation governments (especially Élie Lescot), and his overall tendency to support popular causes framed him as a “left” wing (or at the very least a radical) figure. While he did become interim President in May 1957, he was ousted less than a month later, and finally exiled. The last election of 1957 was “won” by François Duvalier. (Recommended Reading)

Edited: 28.12.14 for clarification and spelling mistakes

Today in Haitian History - April 21, 1971 – Death of François Duvalier

Born April 14, 1907 in Port-au-Prince, François Duvalier was deeply affected by the political currents of his day. Like many Haitians of his generation, he was radicalized by the experience of the U.S. Marine Occupation of Haiti (1915-1935) and by the ideas embedded in Jean Prince-Mars’ Ainsi Parla l’Oncle. A passionate advocate of Noirisme, Duvalier found much support during the 1957 election within the army, the burgeoning black urban middle-class and Haitian peasants throughout the country. While he presented himself as healer of his nation, creating a personality cult around his person, his presidency was associated with unparalleled corruption, gross human rights violations (which included everything from forced disappearance, torture and rape) and a complete destruction of the Haitian civil society. Duvalier successfully took advantage of Cold War dynamics to assure outside support for his regime. Despite all this, his presidency is well-remembered in many circles for the appearance of normality and order in created. To this day, Haitians remain bitterly divided over his ultimate legacy.

Image Courtesy of: Corbis Images.