The Americas 59.1 (2002) 144-145
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When travel writer Harry Franck visited Haiti under United States Marine occupation in 1920, he noted the difficulty of simultaneously "lifting up" and "keeping down" the non-white citizens of the nation, yet that seemed to be the contradictory mission of the intervention. When historian Mary A. Renda re-visited the "U.S. American" military occupation, she found that the competing impulses to nurture and to punish are intrinsic to paternalism, which is at the root of this country's foreign policy toward non-white nations. Renda unpacks her original thesis in this fascinating study, which is based on extensive archival research in the United States and fieldwork in Haiti.
The violence and ultimate failure of the Marine mission in Haiti has been blamed on the high proportion of white men from the Jim Crow South in uniform there, whose racist behavior undermined Woodrow Wilson's benevolent goals. But this study cites a much broader "exoticism" based on race and gender as the source of both the brutal texture of the occupation and the growing fascination with Haiti in the popular culture of the United States during the same years. In tandem with paternalism, a wide range of pejorative accounts of "exotic" religious practices and gender roles in Haiti justified United States domination over Haitians. But U.S. actions in Haiti also prompted an appreciative revision of the country's history and culture, carried out by critics of two closely related subjects: coercive US foreign policy in the Caribbean and racist politics at home.
In addition to scholars in those disciplines listed on the cover of the book—gender and American culture—others outside these fields will want to read this fresh approach to the study of imperialism. It contributes to our understanding of U.S. foreign relations and Caribbean history, as well, and its treatment of some famous writers, such as James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, will draw attention from anyone interested in the international context of the Harlem Renaissance. Readers who have an aversion to the vocabulary of post-modernism will not enjoy the author's deconstruction of the discourses of imperialism. But readers [End Page 144] who understand this language will delight in how Renda rips open the meaning of her sources in constructing this portrait of power, its assumptions, and its challengers.
Those sources are diverse and engaging. Of particular importance are the lessons found in "unofficial and official Marine Corps discourses: in letters, journals, memoirs, songs, and cartoon drawings, as well as in field orders, reports of military campaigns, administrative memoranda, and testimony before the Senate" (p. 303). These documents reveal the savage tactics employed by the Marines against those they defined as being savage themselves, whereas most previous historical accounts downplay the rapes, tortures, and lynching-like murders that occurred during the Haitian occupation. The memory of these crimes has been much more enduring in Haiti, as the author's oral history interviews demonstrate. Because a central aim of the book is to show what the occupation meant in the United States, Renda scrutinized "U.S. travel writers, journalists, novelists, playwrights, anthropologists, and others [who] contributed to the ongoing negotiation of American identity through their reflections on the United States' relationship to Haiti" (p. 304). Such "exotic renderings" made Haiti into "a hot commodity" in the 1920s, a process that makes for some of the most entertaining reading in this entertaining volume.
The wildly differing accounts of Haiti were all "bound up with the cultural fabric of paternalism and exoticism," whether they were produced by Marines who wore that fabric "with pride," or by the great African-American voices listed above, who wanted to "shred" it with their critiques. Renda warns that such paternalism and exoticism contain "the seeds of future trouble for...