Haitian Racial Formations

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Haitian Racial Formations






When it declared its independence from France in 1804, Haiti defined itself as a “black” nation-state. Born out of the only successful slave revolution in world history, Haiti remained diplomatically and culturally isolated throughout the nineteenth century in a Caribbean zone where slavery, colonialism, and racism were the norm. Moreover, the country’s colonial experience had generated persistent divisions between Haitians of full African descent and those of mixed European and African ancestry. The terms “black” and “mulatto” described these two groups, but the tension between them was more a matter of social and political conflict than racial prejudice, as it might be defined in the United States. Nevertheless, the “color question” was a major source of internal political conflict into the twentieth century.


Historically, Haitians have described mulattos and blacks as the two major social or ethnic groups in their country. Haiti is also home to a small number of families of Middle Eastern descent. In the early 1970s, however, the Canadian sociologist Micheline Labelle found that Haitians used as many as 120 different racial terms, and that more than 95 percent of these labels were based on a set of between eight to ten terms. Labelle’s Haitian informants agreed that each of these racial terms represented a specific mix of physical characteristics, especially skin color, hair texture, hair color, and facial features. But when she asked individual Haitians to classify drawings of faces, they applied racial labels in ways that did not match their abstract definitions. Labelle’s other major finding was that informants used these racial labels in class-specific ways.

Labelle’s study confirmed what Haitian intellectuals have long maintained: The terms mulatto and black are more determined by social class than by physical characteristics. Though the wealthiest members of Haitian society also include people who describe themselves as black, all mulattos are, by definition, members of the elite. In other words, light-skinned Haitians who are poor, without much formal schooling, are unlikely to be described as mulattos, regardless of their physical appearance. Since colonial times, mulattos have been seen as more European in culture, education, and lifestyle. After independence, members of important mixed-race families used these characteristics to justify their political dominance. Haiti’s black politicians and intellectuals have historically claimed to represent the majority population, and criticized lighter-skinned Haitians as racist. Yet these tensions were usually confined to the cities. In the 1970s Labelle met many rural Haitians who said they had never seen a mulatto and did not know what one was. Other rural respondents identified mulattos as blancs, a term that means both “white” and “foreigner.”

Haiti’s racial terminology also has a geographic component. The country’s southern peninsula has been historically identified with rich mulattos, while after independence the northern region was controlled by black landowning families. Urban areas, especially Port-au-Prince, were historically the seat of mulatto power, because these families dominated foreign trade and the government offices. The countryside, where high mountains kept peasants isolated, was stereotypically black.

Race labels also have a religious and linguistic significance. Although nearly all Haitians participate in the Vodou religion (“voodoo” is seen as a disparaging term), it is strongly associated with black Haitians. Vodou was only recognized as an official religion in Haiti in 2002.

Though 80 percent of Haitians identify themselves as Catholics, the Haitian Catholic Church, administered by white foreign bishops from 1860 to the 1960s, was long identified with the mulatto class. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, politically active priests helped mobilize poor black parishioners. In addition, the ability to speak French is an important marker of mulatto social status. Though French has been the official language of Haiti since independence, only about 10 percent of Haitians can speak it fluently. All Haitians speak Creole, but the government only recognized this as an official language in 1983.


Haiti’s colonial history began when the island was colonized by the Spanish who named it Santo Domingo, but the country’s Francophone identity began in the middle of the 1600s, when French-speaking buccaneers settled on the island’s western coast. France claimed one-third of Hispaniola, naming its colony Saint-Domingue. Gradually the buccaneers became planters, importing hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans. By the 1780s, slaves outnumbered French colonists ten to one in Saint-Domingue. The Spanish colony of Santo Domingo, on the eastern side of the island, remained relatively undeveloped, with few whites or enslaved Africans.

By the early 1700s, many of Saint-Domingue’s male planters had had children with their slaves. Evidence shows that colonists treated free mixed-race people as white well past the middle of the century. In the 1760s, however, colonial authorities began to worry about colonists’ loyalty. French attempts to “civilize” Saint-Domingue included removing free mixed-race people from “respectable” society. The island had as many free people of color as it had whites by 1780, and this included hundreds of wealthy French-educated mixed-race men and women.

In 1789, two such men were in Paris when the French Revolution broke out. One of them, the indigo planter Julien Raimond (1744–1802), worked with French abolitionists to make racism, not slavery, the revolution’s main colonial controversy. The other, the merchant and landowner Vincent Ogé (ca. 1768–1791), returned to Saint-Domingue in 1790 and demanded voting rights. Colonists were determined to limit voting to “pure” whites, and they executed Ogé and twenty-three of his supporters. Yet free coloreds continued to demand civil rights, unintentionally opening the way for a slave insurrection.

In August of 1791, hundreds of slaves carried out a massive rebellion in the North Province. As a class, free coloreds sided against the slaves, but many whites resisted granting civil rights to free coloreds until a new revolutionary law was passed in April 1792. Conservative colonists plotted against revolutionary officials, and in June 1793 they rose against them. In exchange for help in fighting these counter revolutionaries, the revolutionaries offered freedom to slave rebels. On October 31, 1793, they emancipated all the slaves.

Rebels increasingly came to join the revolutionary army, the most notable being Toussaint-Louverture (1743–1803), who had joined the rebels by July 1794. Yet the revolution’s new black officers clashed with lighter-skinned leaders, and in 1798 Toussaint accused the mulatto general André Rigaud (1761–1806) of racism and separatism. His army finally defeated Rigaud’s forces in 1800.

In 1802, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) sent an expedition to Saint-Domingue. Its commander, Charles Leclerc (1772–1802), had orders to remove all nonwhites from power, and when he died from yellow fever, his successor, Donatien Rochambeau (1755–1813), used genocidal techniques against a popular rebellion. His brutality led black and mulatto officers to unite against him. Leclerc had exiled Toussaint, but another black general, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758– 1806), forced Rochambeau to surrender. On January 1, 1804, Dessalines declared the existence of an independent Haiti, and in 1805 a new constitution proclaimed that all Haitians were black, though more than half the generals who signed it were mulattos.

The following year a coalition of black and mulatto officers assassinated Dessalines and founded two independent states. In the North, Henri Christophe (1767–1820) established a self-consciously “black” kingdom, while in the West and South, Alexandre Pétion (1770–1818) headed a “mulatto” republic. In 1820, Pétion’s lieutenant, Jean-Pierre Boyer (1776–1850), united the two territories, but a revolt overthrew Boyer in 1843. Although peasants, led by a charismatic small farmer named Jean-Jacques Acaau (d. 1846) could not force Boyer’s successors to respond to their demands, from this point the mulatto class began to rule through a series of black presidents. But not all black leaders, especially military officers, would accept this “government by understudy.” By the 1860s, Haitian politics had become a rivalry between the mulatto Liberal Party and the black National Party. From 1879 on, the National Party dominated the presidency, though regional revolts still deposed individual leaders.

In 1915 the United States Marines invaded Haiti after several violent political riots in Port-au-Prince, and the United States ruled the country until 1934. During the long occupation, anger at U.S. racism fostered a new interest in Haiti’s African roots among urban intellectuals and the rising black middle class. But mulatto politicians and businessmen were the real beneficiaries of the U.S. occupation, which brought foreign investment and the modernization of Haiti’s ports, army, and system of tax collection.

In 1957 a popular reaction against the stronger army and more efficient state created by the United States brought a black country doctor, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier (1907–1971), into the presidency. Under his leadership, racial polarization reached new heights after Duvalier struck out against the mulatto elite. Deeply familiar with Haitian rural culture, Duvalier presented himself as the culmination of a long line of strong black Haitian leaders. He created his own militia, the Tonton Macoutes, to terrorize opponents and overbalance the power of the U.S.-trained army. Thousands of wealthy light-skinned Haitians went into exile. While his racial rhetoric appealed to Haiti’s black majority, Duvalier directed foreign aid and government revenues into his own accounts. When Duvalier died in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude (b. 1951), took over the presidency. Far less capable than his father, “Baby Doc” presided over a series of economic crises, including foreign hysteria over AIDS in Haiti, which destroyed the fledgling tourist industry. He was driven into exile in 1986.

The Duvaliers’ corruption made it impossible for any Haitian politician to claim to represent the black majority. Instead, a charismatic priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide (b. 1953) created a political movement called Lavalas, or The Flood, by openly discussing the tensions between rich and poor. Aristide won Haiti’s first truly democratic election in 1990, and when the army drove him into exile eight months later, no one used racial labels to describe the event. But Lavalas splintered after U.S. troops returned Aristide to power in 1994. He was re-elected in 2001, but many supporters had lost confidence in him. Refusing to denounce the violence of gangs that claimed to be his supporters, and unable to create a functioning government, Aristide was driven into exile in 2004 by a coalition of opposition groups and private militias, with the support of the United States.


Since the fall of the Duvalier regime in 1986, labels such as “black” and “mulatto” have been increasingly replaced in Haitian public discourse by a more frank discussion of the tensions between rich and poor, between urban elites and rural masses. On the other hand, emigration from Haiti has made racism more than ever a problem for Haitians leaving their country. In 1980, approximately 12 percent of Haitians were living abroad, and that number rose dramatically in the following decades.

Since the early 1900s, sugar companies in Cuba and the Dominican Republic recruited Haitians as field workers. Between 1915 and 1929 there were as many as 300,000 Haitian workers in Cuba, and a similar number worked in the Dominican Republic. Reviled and persecuted in these countries, many migrants could not afford to return home, even when the Great Depression closed the plantations. In 1937 the Dominican army massacred between 10,000 and 30,000 Haitians after President Rafael Trujillo (1891– 1961) launched a program of “racial cleansing.” Nevertheless, Haitians continued to work on Dominican sugar estates into the 1990s. Similarly, there are well over 100,000 Haitians working on other islands throughout the Caribbean, often illegally.

According to the U.S. Census, there were nearly 750,000 Haitians living in the United States in the year 2000, and their experience has also been marked by racism. This is best demonstrated by the explanations some U.S. medical researchers offered in the early 1980s to explain the emerging AIDS epidemic. The presence of Haitians among the earliest victims of the mysterious new disease produced lurid theories that AIDS originated amid the orgiastic rites imagined to be part of Haitian Vodou. Until 1985, “Haitian” was a medically defined “risk group” for AIDS. Throughout the decade, Haitians living in the United States lost jobs and were shunned by their neighbors because of this identification with the dreaded disease.


Anténor Firmin (1850–1911) was the most prominent antiracist intellectual in late nineteenth-century Haiti. European writers such as Arthur de Gobineau had used Haitian “savagery” as evidence to support racial theories that Africans were incapable of civilization. In 1885 Firmin published De l’égalité des races humaines (On the Equality of the Human Races) in response to Gobineau’s influential Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (Essay on the inequality of the human race, 1853–1855). Firmin directly challenged the racist anthropology of the day and suggested that race was a social construction. At the same time, Firmin condemned both Vodou and the Creole language. Because these “backwards” traits were a product of Haiti’s environment, he believed they would eventually be eradicated.

The physician, diplomat, and anthropologist Jean Price-Mars (1876–1969) was the founder of Haiti’s Négritude movement of the 1920s and 1930s, which was begun in recognition and support of African cultures. Price-Mars’s book, Ainsi Parla L’Oncle (So Spoke the Uncle, 1928), written under the racism of the American occupation, led many Haitian intellectuals to reconsider their attitudes about peasant culture. Price-Mars insisted that Haitians recognize that their cultural roots were in Africa as well as France. He described Vodou as a theological system, not a collection of superstitions. In 1941 he helped found the Bureau and Institute of Ethnology in Port-au-Prince, though this did not prevent a state-run “anti-superstition campaign” targeting Vodou practitioners that very year.

SEE ALSO Caribbean Racial Formations; Children, Racial Disparities and Status of; Firmin, Anténor; HIV and AIDS; Poverty; Racial Formations; Social Welfare States.


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John D. Garrigus