Book Review: Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940 (2001) By Mary Renda

Book Review by Hank Broege

“The American Africa”

In the land of sloth and vice
Where they never heard of ice
Where the donkeys and women work all day
Where the land is full of ants
And the men don’t wear their pants
It is here the soldier sings his evening lay.
Underneath the boiling sun
Let them have their Benet gun
And return us to our beloved homes.[1]

This song, constructed and sung by U.S. Marines during their nineteen-year occupation of Haiti, bears a striking resemblance to The Royal Canadian Kilted Yaksmen Anthem, but unlike the Yaksmen described in the anthem, Haiti is real, yet seldom depicted as such, and thus more often depicted as an exotic African fantasy held within a predominantly white U.S. imagination. Due to the significance of Haiti’s Orientalization by U.S. discourse, I decided to title this book review of Taking Haiti after what the evangelical missionary Wilhelm Jordan described as an “American Africa.'”[2]
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Taking Haiti: Military Occupation & the Culture of U.S. Imperialism
, 1915-1940, by Mary Renda, is a colorful and engaging work of historical scholarship comprised of hundreds of sources that Renda uses to articulate the U.S. discourse of Haiti in journals, letters, pulp fiction novels, theatre, and tourism. She discusses the discourse coming from the U.S. government, especially the Wilson Administration, who commissioned the invasion of Haiti in 1915. Renda even discussed a few of the most prominent writers of the 20th century, including Eugene O’Neill, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston and how they depicted Haiti in their literature. However, the primary focus of analysis for Renda are the U.S. Marines, whom Renda sees as an essential vehicle for U.S. discourse on racism, exoticism, gender, sexuality, phycology, imperialism and most importantly, paternalism, which is used so frequently as a framework for examining political and social relations that it at times teeters on the brink of repetitiveness.

It’s difficult to quibble even in that regard, however, because the paternalist framework existed so firmly on several levels. Woodrow Wilson, as president of the U.S., viewed Haitians as rotten little boy in need of severe punishment.[3] Major general Smedley Butler, AKA “The Fighting Quaker,” who headed the Haitian gendarmerie, who he referred to as his “little chocolate soldiers.” Coincidentally, Butler had three little children of his own whom he viewed in a similar light to his “little fellows” on Haiti: Smedley Jr., Tom Dick, and a daughter nicknamed “Snooks.”[4] The Marines themselves of course viewed the Haitians as children, including Faustin Wirkus, who saw himself and other Marines as “trustees of a huge estate that belonged to minors.”[5]

Nevertheless, this would not prevent Marines from indiscriminately killing Haitians who they suspected of being Caco rebels, overseeing Haitians being literally worked to death on cotton plantations, and the rape and killing of nine prepubescent girls in one night.[6] Since they were white Marines in Haiti, any wrongdoing would be attributed to their circumstances and not to their actions, so they were all let off the hook. At worst, they would be sent back to a mental hospital in the U.S., like sergeant Ivan Virski was after his drunken shooting rampage. According to Renda, this behavior stemmed from exposure to a range of discourse on race, gender, and nation before they even landed on Haiti.

While some Marines were born in the U.S., some were immigrants, nor were all the Marines criminals. Nevertheless, nearly all of the Marines shared a sense of racial nationalism and superiority, which was yet another paternalist framework. Furthermore, the marines also had a shared ignorance for Haiti’s history; a history that up until the 1930s, thanks to the promotional work of black pride, black nationalist, and far left organizations, as well as literature published by Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes, had been deliberately omitted by U.S., French, and other Western discourse.

While aboard their ships to Haiti, the only literature on Haiti the Marines could get their hands on was on voodoo, and how Haitians used that to poison their enemies. [7] They even tested what they had learned on the subject by making a Haitian drink an entire bucket of water, and then waited for him to die, which he did not.[8] Therefore, prior to the U.S. occupation of Haiti, the Marines did not read about the thirteen-year Haitian Revolution that concluded in 1804 with the expulsion of French colonialists, and the establishment of the second independent republic in the western hemisphere. They did not read about how American merchants supported the Haitian, which Thomas Jefferson approved of, but could not recognize the Republic of Haiti because of the institution of slavery in the Southern U.S., and the U.S. relationship with France. The Republic of Haiti would not be recognized until the U.S. Civil War was underway. They also did not read about the thousands African Americans who immigrated to Haiti in the 1920s to escape racism and enslavement. Lastly, they did not read about the enormous debt that the French saddled Haiti with for ‘stealing’ their colony, which Haiti could not seem to recover from, especially after the U.S. took control of Haiti’s national bank and its debt in 1910, and then invaded five years later, swiftly dismantling Haiti’s political system (which has yet to be restored), and installed a puppet political system to serve U.S. imperial and neocolonial interests.

 

[1] Mary Renda, Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001) 233.

[2] Ibid, 303.

[3] Ibid, 100.

[4] Ibid, 102.

[5] Ibid, 13.

[6] Ibid, 163.

[7] Ibid, 71.

[8] Ibid, 79.

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