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National Myths, Resistant Persons: Ethnographic Fictions of Haiti

  • Author(s): Farooq, Nihad M.
  • et al.

In 1931, US writer Langston Hughes set sail for Haiti, the “land of blue sea and green hills,” in order – as he recalls in his 1956 memoir I Wonder as I Wander – “to get away from my troubles.” Seeking shelter from the US race problem in what he imagined would be the welcoming arms of the strong, proud, black republic, Hughes received instead a shocking, firsthand glimpse at Haiti’s constitutional contradiction: that the Haitian nation, “congealed around notions of liberty from slavery,” was launched in an opposite direction from the Haitian state, which had “inherited the social and economic institutions from colonial times,” and thus “required a regimented labor force.” The Haiti that welcomed Hughes in April 1931, fifteen years into the US Occupation, was indeed “a new world, a darker world,” but one in which “the white shadows” had encroached, transforming Haiti “into a sort of military dictatorship, backed by American guns.” It had become “a fruit tree for Wall street, a mango for the Occupation, coffee for foreign cups, and poverty for its own black workers and peasants.” All of the labor that kept Haiti alive and the foreign traders rich, lamented Hughes, was done by “the people without shoes.” This essay examines the rhetoric of national identification in twentieth-century Haiti – through the complex literary lens of US writers of the African diaspora, like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, whose own labors to present how “the people without shoes” had worked to prop up Haiti’s economy for centuries, often fluctuated between biting political commentary aimed at the political elite, gentle depictions celebrating local peasant customs, and (strategic) apologies for the US Occupation – all revelatory of a desire to build a space of transatlantic, postnational sense of kinship; a narrative homeland for the exiled and the nationless people on either side of its borders, forging parallels between all New World architects-turned-outsiders in their own homelands.

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