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Daring to Be Free / Dying to Be Free: Toward a Dialogic Haitian-U.S. Studies

From: American Quarterly
Volume 63, Number 2, June 2011
pp. 375-389 | 10.1353/aq.2011.0028

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While it is now commonplace for scholars of American studies to evoke the image of Haiti when discussing the Age of Revolution, U.S. slavery, and U.S. imperialism, in most of these studies Haiti seems to matter only insofar as it affected American lives, American slavery, American politics, American history, and American literature. Much attention has been paid to U.S. American reactions to and readings of the Haitian Revolution—or what Mimi Sheller has called the "Haytian Fear"—but too few studies analyze the Haitian reaction to the United States' refusal to recognize the new nation, on the one hand, and Haitian reactions to and interactions with readings of their revolution, on the other. This "U.S.-centricity" or "one-centeredness" has had a particularly stifling effect upon Americanists who seek to "critique the insular and exceptionalist analyses of U.S. culture" that Michael Drexler says have "opened up new avenues for research" on the connection between the United States and the Caribbean basin. Thus the U.S.—its authors, its politics, its history and its traditions—remains at center stage in studies that purport to be about Haiti, forcing the Haitian people into a secondary position whereby they operate within the margins of their own cultural and political history.

Even though many nineteenth-century Haitian authors, such as the Baron de Vastey, Louis Joseph Janvier, and Anténor Firmin, corresponded regularly with the U.S. press, its government, and/or authors, rarely do Haitian writers fit into the otherwise remarkable work of scholars in this area. Instead, many contemporary scholars are content to examine images or representations of Haiti in the writings of Charles Brockden Brown, Thomas Jefferson, Leonora Sansay, Claude McKay, or William Faulkner; the "influence" of the Haitian Revolution upon various regions or populations of the United States; or the reactions to the revolution of scared southerners. As a result, keywords in Haitian-U.S. studies end up being repercussions, representations, reactions, and images, rather than interactions, dialogue, or intertextuality. The former words, because they suggest a one-way, almost imperialist gaze upon Haiti, recall Ngugi Wa Thiong'o's critique of "eurocentrism" in Africanist literary criticism. For Ngugi, making European literature the metric by which every other literature is compared and judged produces a "very distorted picture of the modern world, its evolution and its contemporary being." Similarly, by making the United States the center in Haitian-U.S. studies and ignoring Haitian participation in the conversation, we not only produce a "very distorted picture" of the United States and its "evolution," but we miss a crucial factor in understanding the U.S. side of the conversation as well. Opting instead for dialogism and conversation in the context of Haitian-U.S. studies would reflect the fact that Haiti and Haitians are not mere images that have always been readily accessible for cooptation by the United States, but rather that Haiti is a real, physical place and Haitians, like all human beings, are and have always been the agents of their own destinies.

J. Michael Dash's 1997 Haiti and the United States provides a fundamental example of how a dialogic Haitian-U.S. studies works. Dash details the many lurid images or "national stereotypes" of Haiti in U.S. writing, as well as the reactions and interactions of Haitian authors to these portrayals. Dash's work shows that "national stereotypes" about Haiti in the United States, imagined "in terms which emphasize its difference or 'Otherness'," produced real, material consequences for the Haitian people. He also describes how Haitian writers portrayed the United States in their own writing, often by critiquing nineteenth-century abolitionists, U.S. non-recognition of Haitian independence, the U.S. occupation, and "negro primitivism."

Three more recent publications by Millery Polyné, Ashli White, and Matthew Clavin attempt to situate Haiti once again at the forefront of U.S. history. Though their works do not entirely avoid emphasizing representations, reactions, and responses of U.S. Americans to Haitian socio-historical events, they remain important to this emerging field precisely because, as Alfred N. Hunt has argued, many U.S. Americans viewed the U.S. South as an extension of the Caribbean...