Who Is Haitian?

April 29, 2022   •   By Adolf Alzuphar

The Haitians: A Decolonial History

Jean Casimir

BECAUSE MOST OF the Haitian literature that is translated into English is about Haiti’s problems or “beauty within the rubble,” a reader might assume that Jean Casimir’s new book is another such treatment. It is not. The Haitians: A Decolonial History, translated by Laurent Dubois, is a book of philosophy in the form of history and criticism.

Casimir presents a central concept of “Haitian,” arguing that its adherents value sovereignty over occupation and have made a non-capitalist culture out of it. He states that sovereignty is by nature decolonial and thus translates into cultural norms.

He throws down an important declaration: Haiti is not “the first black republic.” Several white revolutionaries supported the Haitian Revolution. Nicolas Pierre Mallet, a white man known as Mallet bon blanc (good white) signed Haiti’s Act of Independence, and participated in the meeting at Camp Gerard between Jean Jacques Dessalines and Nicolas Geffrard to create the ideological leadership of the army that defeated Napoleon. Freed Black people were not always loyal to the revolution. The myth of clear color lines has done damage to understanding Haiti and Haitians.

What, then, is Haiti? What are Haitians? Casimir, one of the great social scientists of his generation, has had a career at the highest levels of Haitian and international government and academia. Haitians, Casimir brilliantly argues, are those who live in opposition to colonization within said territory.

Haitians have had no choice but to live side by side with a neocolonial class of individuals and its government, people of all colors who, for the most part, were not slaves before the revolution. Casimir calls this the “sorrowful cohabitation.” A lot of them were the maréchaussée, the cops, who excelled in policing Black people. When dominant French colonials left because of the revolution, the means of production also left. This neocolonial class of individuals had to make do without the colonial plantocracy. But they created a new plantation and a new form of slavery to work the post-independence sugar factories. The new labor contracts, written as Boyer’s Code Rural, forbade workers from leaving a plantation. The peasant became the new slave of this system.

Other Haitians, however, refused to accept this new slavery and produced a culture, guided by proverbs such as tout moun se moun: everyone is a human being. “Decoloniality, or the Permanence of the Response” is a heading in the first chapter and could be the name of the book.

The problem with Casimir’s book is that it is not complete. It is a root book that should lead to further studies. He does not go into detail about this Haitian postcolonial culture where some ethnography would have been appropriate. But this may be expecting too much. Casimir’s brilliance is in being able to understand and identify a nation through its communities. He rightly argues that the army of ex-slaves that won the revolution was an alliance between two communities: a neocolonial one and a postcolonial one. His most engaging idea is the beauty of sovereignty. Not reading this book as a work of philosophy will cut the reader off from this central point.

This is likely not a problem in Haiti, where philosophy inspires passion. Parisian café philo culture thrives; debate hums in public spaces, especially along the capital’s Champ de Mars. Young philosophers, such as Edelyn Dorismond and Ralph Jean Baptiste, are making a name for themselves as such. Casimir could have easily written a much more traditional academic book. (The Haitians has no footnotes.) Instead, he seems to be having a lodyans, a long yarn in the tradition of Haitian philosophical storytelling. Perhaps it is an invitation to hospitable postcolonial conversation. All who are in solidarity with Haitians are fully invited.

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Adolf Alzuphar is a human rights activist and writer.