Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Haitian Tragedy. Part 2

Dumarsais Estimé, President of Haiti 1946-1950 (Wikicommons)

Elderly Haitians remember the postwar era with nostalgia. Their country benefited from the postwar doubling of sisal and coffee exports, as well as the boom in tourism. The resulting growth in government revenues made it possible to increase the national budget from 12 to 21 million dollars between 1946 and 1949. The civil service was expanded, and this expansion created a large black middle class (Labelle 1987, p. 56). Above all else, authoritarian mulatto rule had given way in 1946 to democratic black rule.

Yet discontent was high among the main beneficiaries of that era: middle-class blacks. Though much better off than the average Haitian, they preferred to compare themselves with middle-class mulattoes, who often enjoyed the trappings of inherited wealth: two-storey homes, French furnishings, and American cars. In addition to feeling jealous, they also resented having to conform to European norms: speaking, reading, and writing in French and not in Creole, practicing Catholicism and rejecting Vodou, straightening their hair (in the case of girls and women), wearing European-style dress, etc. This resentment strengthened the appeal of black nationalism for middle-class blacks.

In the 1970s, the anthropologist Micheline Labelle went to Haiti to survey middle-class mulattoes and middle-class blacks. The mulatto respondents saw differences between the two groups in terms of values:

[Mulattoes] have more stable fortunes because they know how "to make money work," although on an international scale, with few exceptions, huge fortunes are not to be found in Haiti. They have a sense of business, and they have administrative and economic competence.

In second place [in economic success], the same respondents pointed to the minority of blacks in power, who they said had gained very large fortunes through politics and not through personal effort and work. They [the blacks in power] did not know how "to make money work" or how to make the country progress. [They were] "demi-monde" people who had become millionaires, an elite completely created from scratch in 1946. (Labelle 1987, p. 191)

Labelle found the same discourse among many middle-class blacks:

On the one hand, I was told that "the mulattoes still hold the top," that they control the economy because they know how to earn money through their work and they make money "work" because they know how to produce and team up with each other. On the other hand, [the respondents] denounced the black man who gets rich through politics and who accumulates to show off, refuses to invest, spends outrageously, and does not know how to administer his assets. Few blacks are said to have a stable business, or a business well set up: "Wealth that is based only on politics may be swept away with the arrival of another [political] current," they said.  As for the blacks of the "middle classes" not involved in politics, their behavior was likewise stigmatized: when they have money they waste it like the people in power; otherwise they turn to the "culture" or take refuge "in the State":

"The Haitian finds it degrading to have to work. He envies the white man but doesn't think he should act the same way. He prefers to sit behind a bureau [...]. Those who are in politics hide their money in foreign banks. Never does the Haitian think he should make his capital bear fruit [...]." (middle-class black woman, 22 years old).1 (Labelle 1987, pp. 194-196)

"If you manage to get a good mulatto friend, that friendship is solid. You can count more on that friendship. Among blacks, there is much more distrust, because of their parvenu mentality" (middle-class black man, 42 years old) (Labelle 1987, p. 208)

When questioned on the relative honesty of the two groups, most of the middle-class mulattoes refused to comment. Of those who did, Labelle summarized their comments as follows:

The mulattoes, it is said, have more cohesion, solidarity, respect for their word when given, self-control, sense of responsibility, and scruples. The black man is cunning, mistrustful, thieving, untruthful, treacherous, politically irresponsible, and corrupt.

"There is more solidarity, less harshness among mulattoes. The mulatto world is centrifugal, while the black world is centripetal. The black man absolutely wants to get out of his milieu; he's ready to crush another black man. They say they can trust a mulatto more than a black man" (middle-class mulatto man, 54 years old).

"In my milieu it's said you must not trust black people. It's said they try to get a mulatto's trust in order to betray him afterwards. Put them in power, they'll behave irresponsibly, they'll destroy what has been done, they'll try to profit" (middle-class mulatto woman, 23 years old). (Labelle 1987, pp. 198-201)

Middle-class black respondents tended to see things differently:

"[Mulattoes] are hollow-headed. They have nothing except their big money. For them everything is calculated, even their marriages... their conscience is elastic. In marriage, the black man will go overboard for the woman he loves. For him [the mulatto man], he calculates; usually it's a matter of families, of dowries... Blacks are very much driven by hate because they're categorical, while the mulatto is cunning" (middle-class black woman, 55 years old). 

"It's said the mulatto is depraved [vicieux], and thieving: "Sé bèt visyeu, lâch" [It's a depraved and cowardly animal]. They flatter, love money, their governments are woven out of corruption. Sycophants. People recognize that, and they recognize it among themselves..." (middle-class black man, 42 years old). 

"Sé li ki vòlè [He's the one who steals], they're exploiters. They'll trick you every time. They don't consider this country to be their own because they're of foreign origin. They aren't like Haitians, so they have to get the most profit out of this position. Sé yo mêm k'ap manjé kòb pèi a [Only they eat the money of the country]" (middle-class black man, 26 years old). (Labelle 1987, pp. 210)

Nonetheless, some of the black respondents corroborated what the mulatto respondents had said. This was especially true for the older ones who had grown up under mulatto domination:

[For the older black respondents] the mulatto man is more honest than the black man. He acted with more tact and moderation in the past, more intelligence also. He is more respectful of the rules. He is more loyal, acts nastily less often [donne moins de mauvais coups], and hesitates more before doing so. (Labelle 1987, p. 204)

Rise of the black middle class and noirisme

The postwar empowerment of the black middle class radically changed Haiti's social and political landscape. Previously, power had been overwhelmingly in the hands of the mulatto community, with political conflict being between a mulatto-dominated Right and a mulatto-dominated Left. In this conflict, most black Haitians were indifferent bystanders. There was, however, a small but growing black middle class whose political leanings were noiriste (black nationalist) and whom the Right saw as natural allies in its struggle with the Left:

[...] noiriste intellectuals generally came from the emerging black middle class of the occupation period [...]. Paradoxically, despite the U.S. segregation policies and blatant racism, the possibilities for social mobility for blacks improved considerably during the occupation, since for the first time in Haiti's history large numbers of blacks received postsecondary education and entered into the civil service. (Kaussen 2005, p. 69)

It was especially this group that President Sténio Vincent (1930-1941) had in mind when he insisted on making his state addresses in Creole. Under Vincent, noiristes never suffered the persecution that Marxists did, probably because he never imagined that noirisme would become politically consequential.

Yet it did, partly because the black middle class continued to grow, and partly because the U.S. intervened to weaken the competing ideologies of Catholic authoritarianism and Marxism. In 1941, Roosevelt pressured President Vincent to step down:

Indeed, Roosevelt was not ready to support Stenio Vincent for a third term, because the State Department had discovered Stenio Vincent was encouraging and supporting a large political movement of Anti-Americanism. (Laudun 2008, p. 191)

In the context of that time "Anti-Americanism" probably meant Axis sympathies. Vincent was replaced by a weaker and more liberal leader, who in turn had to resign in 1946.

In the ensuing presidential election, all of the candidates were black, and the winner was a moderate noiriste, Dumarsais Estimé (1946-1950). The mulatto minority continued to wield much influence for another decade, but only behind the scenes. Even before the election of François Duvalier, they found themselves increasingly excluded from the political arena and viewed as tolerated guests in their own country. 

The mulatto community had few other options during this time of increasing exclusion and marginalization. Many had invested their energies in the Catholic authoritarianism of Sténio Vincent, but that ideology had come to an end with the end of the Second World War. Others had turned to Socialism and Marxism, but that option too was becoming problematic. In 1944, their main intellectual leader, Jacques Roumain, had died under mysterious circumstances. In the late 1940s, the United States pressured Estimé to distance himself from his radical leftist allies.

Initially, his administration included a coalition of dissidents who led opposition to previous regimes. But Estimé learned the United States viewed his government unfavorably as radically left-wing. As the coalition broke up, fiery labor leader Daniel Fignolé and socialist George Rigaud were eased out of the cabinet. Estimé would later attempt to solidify ties to the United States by exaggerating the communist threat to his government. (Wikipedia 2018).

With the Left sidelined and the Right eradicated, the way was now clear for an increasingly radical black nationalism. "Estimé's noiriste government represented a significant departure from previous administrations. Government jobs, including cabinet positions, were overwhelmingly held by black professionals instead of members of the light-skinned elite" (Wikipedia 2018). Mulatto families who had previously gone into politics or the civil service now had to turn to the private sector (Labelle 1987, p. 66). 

Middle-class blacks thus became direct beneficiaries of noirisme, and its most ardent supporters.

To be cont'd


1. When identifying her respondents, Labelle uses the term "bourgeoisie" for the mulatto middle class and "petty bourgeoisie" for the black middle class. (Labelle 1987, p. 40)


Abbott, E. (1988). Haiti. A Shattered Nation, London: Duckworth Overlook  

Kaussen, V. (2005). Race, Nation, and the Symbolics of Servitude in Haitian Noirisme, in A. Isfahani-Hammond (ed.). The Masters and the Slaves. Plantation Relations and Mestizaje in American Imaginaries (pp. 67-88), New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.

Labelle, M. (1987). Idéologie de couleur et classes sociales en Haïti, Les Presses de l'Université de Montréal.

Laudun, M. (2008). To Set the Record Straight. From Slavery - Independence - Revolution to the United States of America Intervention and Occupation 1915-1934, Victoria (BC): Trafford

Wikipedia (2018). Dumarsais Estiméé


Anonymous said...

Peter, can you write about the current profound change shaking up society which is the #MeToo plague, instigated by women, which suddenly seeks to criminalize relations between men and women and to purge the world of sex? No one else is writing academically about this matter, and men are silent. No one is analyzing why this shift is occurring and how it will impact gender relations. It's a huge topic, and it's far worthier of our time than all these old-school essays about race.

I, for one, am extremely worried that pretty soon men will lose the ability to meet women at all, and that there is now also talk of banning pornography, strip clubs, and anything even remotely smacking of 'sexism.' The world is quietly accepting all these new trends and descending into an anti-sex hellhole, where there will be no sexual activity. For example, the birth rate may plummet, as one consequence.

Do you have no interest in this topic?

Peter Frost said...

Current events are often epiphenomena that mask deeper trends. I agree that #MeToo is starting to go too far, and I especially deplore how unsubstantiated allegations are being used, cynically, to eliminate political candidates just before an election.

Aside from the immediate political aim (providing the voting public with a limited and ideologically vetted selection of candidates), the underlying cause is that single women now outnumber single men in all childbearing age groups (18 to 40). The sex ratio is even more lop-sided if one examines only childless singles. This is a new phenomenon that has developed throughout the West since the 1980s because of declining male mortality during infancy and early adulthood and because of easier divorce laws that enable older men to re-enter the mate market. It is now much easier for single women to engage in reprehensible behavior that would have eliminated them from the mate market not so long ago.

Peter Frost said...

I covered the above topic at:

Anonymous said...

But that's an old article about sex ratios. There was no #MeToo at that time. Even if there is a shortage of women that doesn't mean that women act like evil monsters trying to destroy innocent men who smile at them or flirt with them -- and until as recently as last year they didn't.

This, however, is different in the sense that women are actively sterilizing society, by purging all sexual content from everyday life, under the threat of legal and/or media action. It's unclear why they do it. If they enjoy good ratios and good prospects from their side, they don't need to ignite an all-out gender war all of a sudden, which is what they're doing now. Why? So things are no longer what they were back in 2015 when you wrote that article, something else is going on.

Sean said...

Something to do with the men being more "categorical" perhaps?

Peter Frost said...

Even today most women aren't evil monsters, but I would say that thoughtless behavior has become a lot more common (Yes, in both sexes, but comparatively more so in women). Part of this is due to changes in popular culture, but its my impression that single childless women have become a scarce commodity in the 20 to 40 age group.

Anonymous said...

Already, people are starting to write about and discuss this "sex counter-revolution" currently underway:



From the 2nd article: "The consequence of this new sexual counter-revolution? No sex at all. We are in the middle of a profound shift in our attitude towards sex. A sexual counter-revolution, if you will. And whereas the 1960s saw a freeing up of attitudes towards sex, pushing at boundaries, this counter-swing is turning sexual freedom into sexual fear, and nearly all sexual opportunities into a legalistic minefield.

The rules are being redrawn with little idea of where the boundaries of this new sexual utopia will lie and less idea still of whether any sex will be allowed in the end."

Anonymous said...


There may be a shortage of women in an absolute sense, but what about the fact that women today are a lot more educated and financially independent and have greater status than they did in previous generations? Since women typically don't seek men who are less educated, less wealthy, and lower status than themselves, this may mean that the effective ratio may not have changed or may have changed such that there is now rather a shortage of men from the standpoint of women.

Men typically prefer, or at least don't have a problem with, marrying down, whereas women prefer marrying up. Thus if women's relative status were more like that of previous generations, and they were not as educated and financially independent as they are now, then perhaps the greater absolute numbers of men now would not be as much of an issue.