- "Nous l'avons gardée en nous, la tranche blanche":Rethinking the Time of the Haitian Flag in Jean F. Brierre's Le Drapeau de demain (1931)
The main difficulty facing national literatures today, as they are defined here, is that they must combine mythification and demystification, this primal innocence with a learned craftiness.—Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse
Since the 1980s, historians studying the Haitian flag have written a relatively thorough, if not altogether complete, account of its development.1 Much is known of the circumstances that preceded Dessalines's creation of the blue and red bicolor in February 1803 and of the significance that can or cannot be legitimately surmised from this gesture.2 The core narrative claiming that Dessalines created the Haitian red and blue bicolor at the Archaie Conference on May 18, 1803, by theatrically tearing out the white strip from the French tricolor has limited historical support among contemporary historians. Despite this, the "foundational fiction" of the Haitian flag continues to form the basis of popular, literary, and even academic recounting, just as it continues to serve as the basis of commemorative ceremonies produced by the Haitian state.3 The question, then, is why? What is at stake in this particular account of the flag's history? What values does it aim to instill in the citizens for whom it is the emblem? And, importantly for this paper, what are the potential limitations of drawing upon this particular fictive past when imagining alternative futures for Haiti?
Both the spread and the particular tenacity of this core narrative owe, in no small part, to the allegories of national union and anticolonial action that are taken to reside in the tale of the creation of the Haitian flag. On one hand, the very image of what Philippe Girard has called a "swashbuckling" Dessalines sabering out the white strip from the French tricolor and creating a red and blue emblem for the rebels of the last phase of the Haitian Revolution (1802–1804) certainly invites an anticolonial [End Page 35] reading.4 The new bicolor suggested the dramatic emergence of a uniquely Haitian national consciousness that saw continued identification with the French metropole as incompatible with the aims of radical antislavery.5 In short, the flag's creation has been conflated with the expression of a project leading to Haitian independence.6 On the other hand, the remaining two colors—blue and red—have also been given a particularly potent allegorical significance. As Doris Sommer argues in her now-classic account, the Latin American romances of the nineteenth century imagined national unification as the sexual union of a couple drawn from the diverse ethnic groups of the new nation. In these allegories, which she termed "foundational fictions," the romantic challenges faced by the frustrated couple were meant to stand as problems hindering national cohesion (and vice versa).7 In contrast, the first Haitian novel, Stella (1859), which retells the story of the Haitian Revolution as the allegory of two half-brothers—one Black, one mulatto—who must learn to unite to defeat the white colonist who murdered their mother, suggested that the foundational fiction in the case of Haiti would be an allegory of fraternal, not sexual, union.8 Similarly, the red and blue stripes of the Haitian flag have been assigned racial or color valences such that, when placed side by side, they represent fraternal unification across difference. In a reappropriation of the French Republican symbolism that had once equated the French tricolor's blue, white, and red bands with the three racial categories of the colony—mulatto, white, and Black—in harmonious union, the newly red and blue bicolor has been taken to signify the unification of Black and mulatto military forces under the command of Dessalines and, by extension, the imagined community of all Blacks and mulattos as a nation.9
Simply put, the story of the Haitian flag might be difficult to rewrite in light of new historical evidence because it functions at the intersection of several consequential national allegories. We need only look at the deliberate and delicate descriptions of the Bois-Caïman ceremony—the Vodou service that purportedly took...