Haiti Reimagined: On Marlene L. Daut’s “Awakening the Ashes” and Jake Johnston’s “Aid State”

By Laurent DuboisJanuary 30, 2024

Haiti Reimagined: On Marlene L. Daut’s “Awakening the Ashes” and Jake Johnston’s “Aid State”

Awakening the Ashes: An Intellectual History by Marlene L. Daut
Aid State: Elite Panic, Disaster Capitalism, and the Battle to Control Haiti by Jake Johnston

SINCE ITS FOUNDING in 1804, the nation of Haiti has been both the object and the engine of paradigmatic changes in world history. Only 15 years prior to the country’s birth, most of its citizens were enslaved within a brutal plantation system in a colony that was the most profitable in the French empire, and arguably the world. In what began as a slave revolt in August 1791, Haiti’s future citizenry waged one of the most remarkable revolutions in human history: they won liberty for themselves and forced France to abolish slavery throughout its empire. When Napoleon Bonaparte threatened to reverse that emancipation, Haitians won independence and created a new country that was the first in the world to permanently abolish slavery. But that didn’t end the war. Over the past two centuries, Haiti has faced unending hostility and intervention from powerful forces abroad, as well as solidarity and alliance from many who have seen Haiti’s struggle as a mirror of their own. Haiti may be the only country in the world that has endured, and continues to endure, such a complex mix of hopes and condemnations from outside powers and voices. Such projections have transformed Haiti’s historical contexts and possibilities, and continue to do so today.

The challenge in writing about Haiti is that it requires remaining attentive to the interaction between many different scales of analysis. It demands particular heed to the intricacies and layers of national and local histories, even as these developments are intertwined with a range of regional, hemispheric, and global forces. The particular questions at stake today in Haiti are, of course, different from those of the 18th, 19th, or early 20th centuries. But what has not changed is that the country is very much on the front line of struggles that continue to affect all of us in one way or another.

“The world failed the Haitian Revolution,” writes Marlene L. Daut in the last line of her recent magisterial recounting of Haiti’s intellectual history, Awakening the Ashes: An Intellectual History of the Haitian Revolution. The book is the latest in Daut’s constellation of works on the Caribbean intellectual tradition, and Daut is herself one of the most dynamic contemporary voices on Haiti. She is also a former colleague of mine at the University of Virginia, and I have had the good fortune to see this book develop over the past several years. Awakening the Ashes assumes the vital charge of showing us the Haitian Revolution through the eyes of the country’s 19th-century thinkers. Its publication narrowly precedes a new work of rapportage that takes up the enduring consequences of that history in the present: Jake Johnston’s Aid State: Elite Panic, Disaster Capitalism, and the Battle to Control Haiti offers a meticulous and searing account of how a range of actors failed Haiti in the wake of its devastating 2010 earthquake. Both books are, most of all, about failures of the imagination. Daut and Johnston argue that Haiti has always represented a challenge to dominant structures of mind and meaning. And they show convincingly that, precisely because of that challenge—and the ways that outside forces have sought to contain and silence it—understanding Haiti’s history and its present are essential to any productive grappling with our collective human futures.

Though written in very different styles, and with different ambitions, the two books make an urgent appeal for a near totalizing reappraisal of how we think about Haiti, one that can help nurture different approaches to the country’s present and future. Johnston’s investigative work, which builds on earlier analyses and critiques of the response to the 2010 earthquake such as Jonathan Katz’s excellent The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (2013), is rivetingly told. It is a deeply layered and global story involving foreign governments and their multiple (and often competing and uncoordinated) agencies; corporations intertwined with humanitarian projects; mercenaries; and a variety of actors in Haiti, from government officials and local leaders to individuals trying to navigate these contexts, who offer stark and piercing insights into what has produced their realities. It takes its place alongside earlier works by journalists that recounted periods of Haitian history as they unfolded, such as Al Burt’s and Bernard Diederich’s writings on the era of François Duvalier, who built a dictatorial regime starting in 1957 and remained in power until his son Jean-Claude succeeded him in 1971. Amy Wilentz offers similar contributions in The Rainy Season : Haiti Since Duvalier (1989), her essential account of the period after Jean-Claude Duvalier’s overthrow in 1986 and the subsequent rise of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who would become the nation’s first democratically elected president.

Daut and Johnston both make clear that what happens in Haiti has not just shaped the broader world, but has also often preceded and portended what is to come elsewhere. Haiti’s revolution was a turning point in the history of Atlantic slavery, reformulating the debates around abolition and the forms of action against it. As Daut writes, by founding “the first antislavery, anti-colonial, and anti-racist state the world had ever seen,” the country’s founders envisioned and made possible the slow and arduous destruction of slavery elsewhere. That was why, Daut notes, “Haiti’s first constitution attracted immediate attention from the foreign media,” reminding us that the impact of such media representations—something Johnston focuses on in the present day—goes back to the country’s founding. Those threatened by Haiti’s example pioneered new techniques against the small nation. The early diplomatic history of the United States, for instance, developed around Washington’s initiative to politically isolate Haiti. The 1825 indemnity France imposed on Haiti in return for diplomatic recognition, which The New York Times documented in its 2022 project “The Ransom,” forced the country into a morass of foreign debt that would, in the 20th century, become a globally familiar story. The US occupation of the country from 1915 until 1934 was a pivotal moment in the forging of a broader set of practices in the Americas and beyond, and reshaped popular tropes and culture in North America. The version of humanitarian aid in the wake of natural disaster that outside powers have foisted upon Haiti is just one particularly intense implementation of approaches that will be increasingly visible and impactful for people throughout the world, both in our era and into the future.

Given its place at the crossroads of both revolutionary movements and evolving technologies of control arrayed against them, Haitian thought is a particularly valuable resource for all of us. That makes Daut’s work all the more essential. The premise of Awakening the Ashes is that, during and after the Haitian Revolution, thinkers in the country crafted profoundly important and influential ways of contemplating the very nature of history itself—and, therefore, of human action and possibility. Daut writes that thinkers have become her “guides,” and she invites us to see them the same way: “I rely on their eyes and ears, their acts and deeds, their poetics and their dreams, to gather the story of Black freedom and Black sovereignty marked by the Haitian Revolution against slavery, racism, and colonialism.”

Daut begins with Baron de Vastey (the subject of her previous book, 2017’s Baron de Vastey and the Origins of Black Atlantic Humanism), whose “methodology was consulting the dead to share their stories from the grave” as he sought to “awaken the ashes” of the victims of colonialism and slavery. He spoke with and through those whose “testimony came from below the ground.” Along with other thinkers of his generation, Vastey had lived through the dramatic transformations of the 1790s and early 1800s and sought to shape the future of independent Haiti. They “derived their method” for writing history, writes Daut, “directly from Haitian revolutionary thought.” Vastey and other thinkers, she argues, innovated methodologically, notably through their frequent inclusion of firsthand accounts of survivors of the violence of slavery and war, which enabled them to forge “histories produced in collaboration with the oppressed.”

The goal of Daut’s work is, in large part, to demand that readers learn about and pay attention to these thinkers. Throughout the text, Daut explores the ways in which they have been marginalized and erased from dominant intellectual histories, building on Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s famous thesis about the silencing of the Haitian Revolution in his foundational work Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995). She also builds on the insights of Trouillot’s first book, a Kreyòl language interpretive history called Ti dife boule sou istoua Ayiti, published by an independent press in Brooklyn in 1977 and recently translated into English under the title Stirring the Pot of Haitian History. As Daut emphasizes, Trouillot sought different ways of conceptualizing his country’s history throughout his work, notably by using “resonant concepts” such as “the kalfou or crossroads” or the “rasanbleman (gathering together).” Daut argues that the erasures of Haitian thought have limited our broader understanding of global intellectual history, for as she convincingly shows, a great deal of 19th-century historical and political discourse outside of Haiti was shaped by the currents of thought she documents. “[E]ven as they were sometimes energized by ideas from abroad,” Daut notes, “Haitian writers inspired those outside their country,” including figures such as Jules Michelet, a founding figure in the writing of French history and of the practice of history generally.

Awakening the Ashes homes in on one feature of Haitian thought that is as true now as it was in the 19th century: Haiti occupies a relatively small geographical space on an island divided between it and the Dominican Republic, yet it has always been a pivotal strategic and geopolitical locus in which world-historical conflicts have been pursued and worked out. While others have often sought to diminish, silence, or ignore Haitian voices, the country’s citizens have rightly seen themselves as “primary actors in a revolutionary stage of the world,” as Daut writes.

That is because Haiti’s people, from the moment in 1791 when they launched an insurrection that would ultimately overthrow slavery, have always been targets for those frightened by the implications of these movements. Daut is particularly good at parodying and skewering the various contortions of those who have sought to diminish the achievements of Haitians precisely because they were terrified of them. She writes about the “incoherent” analysis of Toussaint Louverture by a French official: “Louverture, in his estimation, was all at once stupid, illiterate, incompetent, and incapable of understanding French, or any complex problems, but he was also a mastermind, the architect of the entire revolution and of his own project of independence, who duped monarchs.” Such convolutions have had the effect, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unconsciously, of diminishing the roles and thought of Haitians themselves.

Since the 1790s, and still today, there are many versions of the Haitian Revolution that somehow manage to take the actual Haitians out of the story, fixating on the actions of particular white actors (there was a whole school of thought at the time that blamed the entire unfortunate thing on royalist conspirators using insurgents as puppets), or on mosquitoes and yellow fever as the key agents. They all have in common a basic assumption that enslaved people couldn’t have been thinkers at the same level as others during the period, bringing together abstract political and philosophical ideas with strategic decisions based on careful observation of geopolitical realities. Such readings are impossible to maintain in the face of any actual engagement with the history of the revolution, but they serve an important purpose, in that they allow people not to have to think too hard about Haiti and what it implies. Daut memorably and aptly describes whole swaths of lengthy writings about Haiti as a “seemingly endless number of discursive tantrums.”

Johnston’s book also describes rather bitingly a number of contemporary international actors who claim to work on behalf of Haitians but often actively marginalize Haitians’ projects and visions for the country when such local initiatives do not align with their own interests. In the process, Aid State follows many of the powerful figures who have steered Haiti over the past decades, and analyzes a certain number of “discursive tantrums” they have also thrown along the way. Johnston effectively illustrates how Haiti’s political and economic crises are constantly being co-produced by actions both inside and outside the country, and points out the ways simplified interpretations—those that single out one or another set of foreign actors or actions, or those that retreat into blanket attacks on Haiti’s people and culture—have undermined the possibilities for positive change. Johnston offers an interpretation of how foreign powers have, often with little transparency, made decisions that contributed to creating the very crises they deplore, and how different actors have remained trapped in myopic categories of analysis.

Haiti, as Daut and Johnston make clear, deserves the same level of analysis that any place deserves, one that takes into consideration the full range of factors shaping its reality. But in Haiti, this imperative is particularly acute because of the depth of intervention on the part of many from outside the country, as well as the power of racism to structure narratives (racism that has both shaped and been shaped by discourse about Haiti). Because of the particularly intense ways in which a lack of conceptual imagination has constrained Haiti’s possibilities, attempted solutions to the nation’s problems offer important insights into our contemporary world more broadly.

Johnston notes that foreign governments grow particularly concerned with Haiti in “times of transition” and seek to control what happens politically in the country during these moments. The 2010 earthquake was one such period. What unfolded in its wake, Johnston shows, was that foreign governments and organizations reasserted approaches that they should have questioned instead. As he notes, Haitian president René Préval pointed this out in the midst of the reconstruction process, in a speech given at the United Nations in September 2010. The president, writes Johnston, “drew a straight line from yesterday’s colonialism to today’s globalization.” As Préval himself declared, “the globalization that began centuries ago, with the colonization and importation of African captives to work as slaves on sugar-cane and coffee plantations, whose products would then be exported to the West or the North, needs to be reinvented.”

Such critiques of the response to the earthquake, Johnston argues, discomfited many in the US government and aid circles. His book documents in detail the roles these US actors played in steering a presidential election away from the candidate from Préval’s party, Jude Célestin, in late 2010. Drawing on interviews and private emails exposed through WikiLeaks, Johnston argues that the United States was ultimately only interested in a “veneer of democracy” in Haiti. During an interview Johnston conducted with Préval, the former president described how, as the United States became involved in contesting the results of the 2010 election (which ultimately stretched into 2011), he asked the ambassador why they were intervening when they were not a Haitian political party, the only ones who legally could contest such results. “I’m part of these elections,” the ambassador apparently replied, “because I’m paying for these elections.” The United States and other outside governments had invested $18 million to support the election infrastructure and staffing in the country. But behind the scenes, Johnston claims, a tremendous amount of intervention and manipulation took place.

What happened in the electoral sphere, however, was part of a much larger set of decisions about who would control and define the nature of post-earthquake Haiti that Johnston so witheringly critiques. “The Global North,” Johnston writes, “provided a template for nations of the Global South to climb up the ladder of development, but the rungs continued to snap on the way up.” Préval’s statement highlighted an even bigger problem, though, which is that the ladder itself was colonialism. The wealthy nations of Europe and the United States—the ostensible examples to which Haiti should aspire—are what they are because of the same processes that made Haiti what it is. There is no way to replicate the stages of economic development that took place in France in Haiti. Who will offer to Haiti what it gave France through the massive profits made with plantation slavery, which undergirded—as they did in England—the economic expansion of the 18th and 19th century?

At present, models for development that reigned through the late 20th century are becoming increasingly frayed in any case. It seems a mirage that any such models might lead to scalable transformation in Haiti or in other countries in a similar position, whether such changes were enacted through neoliberal policies that privatize public utilities or the building of industrial parks (the two big proposals made to Haiti over the last decades). What Johnston traces is a much more sinister reality, one that demands our careful attention. Johnston warns that what he and others have called “disaster capitalism” will draw tremendous profits from cases like the Haiti earthquake. As he documents, many actors see opportunity in such crises, because humanitarian aid is big business and can enrich both individuals and companies. Johnston ends his book with a recounting of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in 2021 and the increasingly violent situation in the country since then. Ultimately, he argues that the current moment is the logical outcome of decades of weakening the Haitian state and manipulating the political environment to stall the march of true democracy.

Contemporary Haiti has many voices who, like the thinkers Daut writes about, are demanding a radically different approach to the country’s problem. Jean Casimir, a sociologist and former ambassador to the United States, has insisted in his work—such as The Haitians: A Decolonial History (2020), which I translated into English—that the answer is a wholesale critique of the categories of analysis that Haitian intellectuals themselves have long used. Such an overhaul would, Casimir posits, help construct a viable political trajectory based on the visions and worldview of Haiti’s population rather than on those of interested parties who have always been fundamentally hostile to Haitians’ aspirations and practices. The traditional patterns of action in Haiti, including the deployment of foreign troops and patterns of humanitarian intervention, seem at least for the moment to have exhausted themselves. The present conundrum is that there is a deep urgency to address the intense crises facing the Haitian population, and yet it feels like only a profound and wholesale rethinking of the country’s possibilities can lead to any viable path forward. That takes time, and it feels like there is no time.

LARB Contributor

Laurent Dubois is the John L. Nau III Bicentennial Professor in the History & Principles of Democracy at the University of Virginia, as well as the co-director for academic affairs at the UVA’s Democracy Initiative. He is a specialist on the history and culture of the Atlantic world, and his scholarship spans the Caribbean (particularly Haiti), North America, and France.


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