- From Douglass to Duvalier: U.S. African Americans, Haiti, and Pan Americanism, 1870-1964 by Millery Polyné
Millery Polyné charts an ambitious scholarly path in this work, and explores it well. His title invokes memories of the late scholar David Nicholls' work in From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour, and National Independence (1979 and subsequent editions). Nicholls' last edition (1996) began with the fall of former President Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986 and Polyné's begins with the departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. Nicholls acknowledged that Haiti's revolution became a [End Page 425] symbol of triumph to other Caribbean nations, but he focused on providing an insular look at the island. Conversely, Polyné uses this very historical memory of Haiti as a sign of black freedom and shifts the study of the nation outwards to the larger Americas. He demonstrates convincingly how this historical memory guided transnational interactions between elite Haitians and U.S. African Americans from the late nineteenth through the present century (p. 7). Polyné's well-researched and critical examination of these exchanges has produced a text that widens our understanding of the Americas for the discipline of American Studies and paves the way for new and stimulating discussions in the fields of history and African American and Haitian studies.
Polyné draws from a rich array of primary sources mostly from the United States. The book includes interviews, diplomatic files, presidential papers, and other primary materials from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Library of Congress, the national archives of the United States and Haiti, and other respected institutions. While the author admits to representing the ideologies and actions of elite U.S. African Americans and Haitians primarily, he diversifies his account by studying a wide range of individuals. The chapters in the monograph highlight the varied roles U.S. African Americans have played in Haiti, including the diplomacy of Frederick Douglass, the educational consultancy of Robert R. Morton, the entrepreneurship of Claude Barnett, the leadership of Walter White as executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the dance education contributions of Lavinia Williams. On the Haitian side, the author includes former Presidents Sténio Vincent, Dumarsais Estimé, and Francois Duvalier; anthropologist Anténor Firmin; and choreographer Jean-Léon Destiné, to list just a few. Polyné's chronological and conceptual methods buttress his argument about the inter-American hemispheric discourse that Haitians and U.S. African Americans have participated in since Haiti's revolution in 1804 and the political, economic, educational, and cultural lines they crossed.
For Polyné, the thread that connects these individuals from both nations and across time is the concept of black Pan-Americanism. Relying on ideas from Afro-Modernity and Pan-Americanism, he defines black Pan-Americanism as "a racialized hemispheric discourse on development that sought to protect black sovereignty" (p. 27). Polyné's impressive archival research enables him to examine fully the articulations, practice, limits, and contradictions of this black Pan-Americanism. Each chapter profiles a U.S. African American who sought to represent his or her race and nation while engaging at the same time in efforts to protect and assist their black hemispheric neighbor, Haiti. Polyné highlights their varied attempts to shield the island from U.S. military aggression, engage in projects of racial uplift, and transform Haiti's educational system. Others sought to promote Haiti's tourist industries and project a positive image of Haiti through the media and the island's folkloric dance forms. Readers will appreciate Polyné's careful examination of this historiography and his nuanced analysis of the tenor and extent of these "transnational relationships" (p. 104).
Polyné's work is an engaging study about the encounters of elite U.S. African American and Haitians from across centuries. He has ignited a welcome and relevant debate about [End Page 426] the concept and practice of black Pan-Americanism, which should be applied to...