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The Lost Years: On Haiti

The large segment of the Haitian population that is unable to read or write inhabits an oral history culture, which produces, when looking into the past, a curious foreshortening. First comes the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, the only successful slave revolution in history and an event with whose fundamentals practically all Haitians are reasonably conversant. Then there's a compressed, indeterminate period of confused and repetitious instability, ending with President Woodrow Wilson's decision in 1915 to use the collection of outstanding American and French loans as a pretext for installing Marines in Haiti to prevent the election of an anti-American president. Following the close of the US occupation in 1934 is another indeterminate period of confusion, ending with the erection of the Duvalier dictatorship, a père et fils monolith that, in its iron duration from 1957 to 1986, still stands taller than anything else on the Haitian historical horizon except for the founding revolution. (Jean-Claude Duvalier assumed power upon the death of his father, François, in 1971.) This foreshortening effect is not without certain advantages; ordinary Haitians tend to feel much more immediately connected to the events of their nation's origin than we in the United States do to ours. Yet how Haiti got from the radicalism of the revolution to the corrupt and bloody Duvalier regime, and thence to the ever more desperate conditions of the present, still tends to be a matter of mystery, both to Haitians and also to outside observers.

In recent years, in large part because of the vogue for postcolonial studies, many more Anglophone historians of Haiti have been drawn to the Haitian Revolution. The American occupation has also been reasonably well examined, as has the Duvalier regime, while the cyclical rises and falls, from 1990 to 2004, of the once and future President Jean-Bertrand Aristide have been practically drowned in ink. But with the exception of the Duvalier period, these well-studied eras all involve Haiti's critical and sometimes violent interactions with foreign powers; the nation's politics get far less attention from non-Haitian analysts. With Red and Black in Haiti, Matthew Smith intends to remedy that neglect, in part, with a minutely detailed examination of the period from 1934 to 1957, when Haiti emerged from the years of US occupation and moved, inexorably or not, toward the Duvalier dictatorship.

In the Haitian context, black often stands for African and red for milat, the Haitian word for people of mixed European and African blood. This color symbolism dates to the declaration of independence in Gonaïves on January 1, 1804, when Haiti's first head of state, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, ordered the white band to be removed ceremoniously from the tricolor of the vanquished French and the red and blue bands to be sewn back together to create a new and uniquely Haitian flag. The flag alteration represented the eradication of the white race as a concept and suggested a new, firmer unity of the black African and milat populations. Indeed, the Constitution issued by Dessalines in 1805 stated, "The national colors shall be black and red." (Smith uses the statement as the epigraph to his introduction.) Under Dessalines, the Haitian flag was modified accordingly, but subsequent rulers restored the red and the blue. Duvalier père, who inhaled a great gust of inspiration from Dessalines's remarkable ruthlessness, brought back the black-and-red flag after seven years of rule, as Smith reminds us in his conclusion.

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