The Black Republic. African Americans and the Fate of Haiti

Byrd, Brandon R.
America in the Nineteenth Century
312 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Lena Dallywater, Leibniz Institut für Länderkunde e. V.

Haiti has repeatedly been at the centre of public attention in recent years as earthquakes have severely shaken the island state in the Caribbean on several occasions. While Haiti today tends to be in the public eye for its precarious position between natural disasters, political unrest, and poverty, it had already occupied the attention of journalists, diplomats, writers, and politicians alike for different reasons about a century and a half ago – which Brandon R. Byrd, a historian of black intellectual and social history, shows in his book The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti (2019). He illustrates the shockwaves and repercussions that an event without precedent caused, especially within the African American community: the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) and Haiti’s declaration of sovereignty in 1804.

Byrd’s publication opens with a compelling personal account of his own childhood near Durham, North Carolina; his first encounters with Hayti; and, later in life, Haiti. The elegantly written prologue that connects Durham’s historic black section to the black nation-state draws the reader into the historical study.

The author’s exploration of the powerful yet contested idea of Haiti as a model black republic is divided into five parts: concentrating, firstly, on emancipation, reconstruction, and the dilemma of Haiti; secondly, on its multiple reinventions after reconstruction; thirdly, on the inspirational power that Haiti had in the age of Jim Crow; fourthly, on Haiti’s relevance for transnational politics of racial uplift; and fifthly, on W. E. B. Du Bois and Haiti as a cornerstone for radical black internationalism in the interwar years. The study thus covers the reconstruction, post-reconstruction, and Jim Crow eras of the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries, starting with the year 1863 up to events in 1934 (the final removal of the US Marines) and the pan-Africanist scholar and activist W. E. B. Du Bois’s last visits to Haiti in 1944 and 1955.

Byrd’s book begins with the premise that there existed multiple and sometimes conflicting ideas of Haiti. Those ideas changed over time, he argues, but remained critical to African Americans after the US Civil War (1861–1865). In his book, Byrd concentrates on the multiple ideas of Haiti, which were not at all evidence of ideological uniformity but the result of much debate, incoherence, and uncertainty (pp. 4–5). His aim is to track the varied responses to Haiti and its symbolic importance. Not only does Byrd show that advancing emancipation, freedom, and citizenship was a crucial motivation for individual actors, but he also draws attention to the influence of external interests and secondary reasonings on representations of the black republic.

His arguments are the following. Firstly, Haiti was glorified as well as reviled for various reasons. Secondly, it is not only the long-standing importance assigned to Haiti but also the ambivalence about the black republic, ranging from hope to concern with regard to racial uplift and the demand for African American self-determination, that produced widespread interest. Thirdly and ultimately, the preoccupation with and reproduction of the ideas of Haiti transformed black global engagement and stimulated the rise of the radical black internationalism that took root in the interwar period.

Based on his research on fin-de-siècle US black intellectuals, Byrd critiques the state of the art in the study of black intellectual and social history. Studies of black internationalism tend to focus on three eras: the age of revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, World War I, and the “long black Sixties”.[1] Little attention, however, has been given to global visions of black freedom in the tumultuous decades that followed the US Civil War. He argues that rather than turning inwards, as historians have suggested, black intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries “looked abroad as they attempted to rehabilitate the image of black people” (p. 9). In the five chapters, Byrd carefully depicts these processes of reinvention, repositioning, and gradual advancements of transnational politics. The epilogue, which the author offers instead of a classic conclusion, ends with personal reflections and thus immerses the reader once again in Byrd's own story.

Articulations, celebrations, and contestations of Haiti as a vision of freedom and black empowerment have indeed been published in manifold forms, providing Byrd with a wide range of different sources and materials. The author makes use of these diverse materials and analyses, for example journalistic articles (from both “white” and “black” newspapers), publications (such as books by black authors dealing with biographies of Haitians), plays, reports from observers of public lectures, and reports of official political gatherings. He offers a close reading of the texts, partially in direct comparison of the accounts. In that way, Byrd demonstrates that sources and accounts often contradict each other, he also reveals that in retrospect it is not easy to reconstruct whether accounts are actually “correct” or are rather a product of imaginations, intentions, and quite explicit calculations (e.g. to diminish African diasporic solidarities). This exposition of the plurality of truths can also be enlightening for young readers and students.

Byrd’s writing style is also suitable for students and an international audience, combining good reader guidance and a clear, yet illustrative, language. In addition to the brief summaries and concluding paragraphs within chapters, the introduction offers a very good and concise summary of the book and its intention as a whole. Original quotations from historical sources are nicely woven into the analysis, and black-and-white illustrations accompany individual chapters. This makes Byrd’s study not only innovative but also attractive to a wide readership. But, of course, weaknesses can also be found in any study.

On the one hand, as stated above, Byrd offers very good reader guidance, a clear language, and regular summaries throughout the exposition of rich empirical material and the close reading of texts. On the other hand, the summaries are provided many times throughout the work, making them appear a bit repetitive. In addition, several of them tend to be rather generalized and broad. While these simplified summaries are meant to help the reader and guide him/her through the study, they partly counteract Byrd’s concern to show the different sources and positions he is presenting. The mixed responses from African Americans he highlights are then treated in a rather uniform perspective, ranging “[f]rom the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific coast” (pp. 25–26). This combination of detailed, nuanced, and sometimes contradictory sources and a more general framing of the findings is a challenge that all historical studies face. Byrd does a good job of trying to point out and navigate this complexity between individual positions and general trends. Although sometimes succeeding, the contradictions could perhaps have been left to speak for themselves.

A second minor criticism would be Byrd’s choice of words, which, at least for the international reader, sometimes gives the impression of a judgmental or biased attitude on the part of the author. Rationales for decisions remain unclear and hidden behind the words, and individual actions are shaped by many antagonisms, the author highlights. Nevertheless, Byrd tries to read the motivations and thoughts from the sources he uses. In his dense analysis, he points to the individuals’ various motivations beyond establishing a government that is sympathetic to black visions of racial equality (p. 38). However, notions like “misguided” (p. 32) or “genuine belief” (p. 35) convey a specific impression that does not contribute to tracing whether the individual action is in fact strategy, conviction, unfortunate misfortune, or fatalism after an unhappy love story. Learning even more about facets of personal life such as successes, failures, personal relations, and daily survival would be an exciting aspect. What about money, career planning, and appealing to women? Profound frustration as well as gradual disappointment and disillusionment make actors change their attitudes and positions over time. An exuberant account on one day can very quickly give way to disappointed irony the following week. If it is at all possible to find out more, such behind-the-scenes stories could paint an even more accurate picture of the individuals and their reasonings. Certainly, neither word usage nor summarizing paragraphs substantially detract from the excellence of the study, and the author attempts to walk the tightrope between interpretation and exposition of the sources well.

Byrd explicitly positions his study in the research field, distinguishing himself from existing studies and filling in a gap in scholarship by tracing the developments in a period that has so far been rather neglected. Studying black internationalism from a global perspective is a growing field of research, and many insights have been gained in recent years from contributions from different disciplinary angles. [2] The book is situated within these studies on pan-Africanism, transnational blackness, and (radical) black internationalism, of which several focus on interwar and post-war developments in the mid-twentieth century. In this regard, Byrd’s study is an illuminating and refreshing alternative, complementing existing analyses of the many transregional entanglements of black intellectual and political engagement. But it also ties in with publications on the global revolutions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In order to better situate the story he traces in a global history of interconnectedness and entanglements, the study of recent books on the “age of global revolutions” [3] can be recommended. [4]

Byrd makes references to the relations to and reactions from other world regions and alludes to international politics of racial uplift. The strength of The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti lies in the in-depth study of a powerful and enduring discourse despite its transformations and the motivations of the actors behind them. Byrd’s study is a book that has the potential to interest and stimulate a wide range of scholars, from student to professor, with an interest in black intellectual history. It is an enjoyable read and is thoroughly recommended.

[1] Michael O. West / William G. Martin / Fanon Che Wilkins (eds.), From Toussaint to Tupac. The Black International since the Age of Revolution, Chapel Hill 2009.
[2] To name but a few from English-speaking academic communities, there are, for example, Marable Manning / Vanessa Agard-Jones, Transnational Blackness. Navigating the Global Color Line, Basingstoke 2008; Minkah Makalani, In the cause of Freedom. Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917–1939, Chapel Hill 2011; Hakim Adi, Pan-Africanism and Communism. The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919–1939, London 2013; Marc Matera, Black London. The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century, Berkeley 2015; Merve Fejzula, Negritude and Black Cultural Citizenship across Senegal, Nigeria, and the United States, 1945–66 (Doctoral thesis, 2020); Tiffany N. Florvil, Mobilizing Black Germany. Afro-German Women and the Making of a Transnational Movement, Black Internationalism, Champaign 2020.
[3] David Armitage / Sanja Subrahmanyam (eds.), The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760-1840, Basingstoke 2009.
[4] These are, for example, Suzanne Desan / Lynn Hunt / William Max Nelson (eds.), The French Revolution in Global Perspective, Ithaca 2013; Alan Forrest / Matthias Middell (eds.), The Routledge Companion to the French Revolution in World History, London 2016; Matthias Middell / Megan Maruschke (eds.), The French Revolution as a Moment of Respatialization, Berlin 2019, and also Sujit Sivasundaram, Waves Across the South. A New History of Revolution and Empire, Chicago 2021.

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