By Julissa Reynoso and Neil Roberts
Shame. Shame and self-contempt. Nausea. When people like me, they tell me it is in spite of my color. When they dislike me, they point out that it is not because of my color. Either way, I am locked in the infernal circle. I turn away from these inspectors of the Ark before the Flood and I attach myself to my brothers, Negroes like myself. To my horror, they too reject me. – Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952)
The Martinican thinker Frantz Fanon prophetically understood the human-all-too-human story of anti-black racism and the political efforts needed to address it in attempts to achieve political freedom in a colonial context. The so-called post-colonial period still continues to present us globally with core problems as we struggle to combat racism and other forms of unfreedom. Fanon witnessed the effects of white supremacy upon Afro-Caribbean women and men living in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade. He came to realize that anti-black racism was not solely perpetrated by those without African descent who believed in the biological inferiority of those possessing African ancestry. To his dismay, many of Fanon’s brothers and sisters of African descent embraced a sense of self-loathing, seeking the complete aversion of blackness. Shame and nausea filled Fanon’s psyche as he felt trapped in a hellish circle.
So what is one to do in the presence of rampant, hellish unfreedom? Fanon’s answer is clear: action. Action for Fanon remains closely tied to love. He remarks near the start of a moving discussion on love and action, “Today I believe in the possibility of love; that is why I endeavor to trace its imperfections, its perversions.” Some understand love in terms of romantic liaisons; others, through the prism of human friendship. A third group, to which Fanon belongs, associates love with political action. Love serves as the impetus for humans to embark upon seemingly impossible tasks. Embracing an ideal of loving action assists one in accomplishing arduous missions in the face of unfreedom. Love’s action comes only after admitting that love carries perverse imperfections. Our mission, like Fanon’s, is to trace a specific set of imperfections and show how they may be overcome by paying attention to the relationships between love, hate, action, and political freedom.
Fighting against the shameful, biological conception of blackness — which reduces individuals to identification by their skin color — must entail realizing that blackness has not always been reduced to biology. On the contrary, blackness took on a new political meaning that transcended the domain of the skin in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution. While a biological conception of blackness justifies many of the world’s unfreedoms, political blackness describes a non-biologically based, transnational ideal of unity rooted in common struggle against unfreedoms such as slavery, Jim Crow, apartheid, sexism, and racism. By adopting the perspective of political blackness, diverse groups can unite in collective action for radical social change.
The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) tied a political concept of blackness to the revolution’s idea of freedom. The Haitian Revolution and its aftermath offer clues into the evolving meanings of blackness, freedom, and the breakdown of blackness as a political category. These clues provide insights into the tensions between Haiti and the Dominican Republic today and suggest broader implications for understanding colonialism, structural injustice, anti-racism struggles, and action rooted in love.
2005: The Modern Dominican State
The modern Dominican state has institutionalized the practice of en masse deportations using skin color as a primary indicator. The 1990s began with a wave of collective deportations and expulsions in which an estimated 35,000 Haitians and Dominican-Haitians were expelled from the Dominican Republic. A second wave of deportations, this time of an estimated 25,000+ people, took place in 1996 and 1997. Deportees were neither afforded a hearing nor given the opportunity to prove their legal status in the Dominican Republic. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights conducted an on-site investigation of the Dominican Republic in 1997 and concluded that there was a systematic, discriminatory pattern in the way Haitians and Dominican-Haitians were singled out for deportation. According to the Commission, many of the deportees were chosen because they were presumed to be Haitian, a determination based primarily on skin color.
Despite changes in governing parties, discriminatory immigration practices have continued. In May 2005, for example, sparked by the murder of a Dominican woman by thieves alleged to be Haitian, a violent and unprecedented wave of xenophobia against Haitian immigrants and Dominican-Haitians swept the Dominican Republic. To date, there have been at least nine reprisal killings of Haitians. Haitian residents have faced forced expulsions from villages and towns, and the Dominican army has organized massive deportation campaigns. The Dominican government claims that it has intervened and summarily deported Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans to preserve the peace. NGOs such as the Movement of Dominican-Haitian Women, the Dominican Human Rights Committee, and the Jesuit Refugee Services insist that the government acted indiscriminately, using the hate crimes and xenophobic sentiments as an excuse to deport Haitians.
The expulsion of Haitians and Haitian-Dominicans was a practice of the Dominican government throughout the twentieth century. Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, who ruled from 1930 to 1961, flaunted his hatred of blacks and publicly denounced Haitians as inferior people. This hatred culminated in the 1937 massacre of thousands of Haitians who did not leave the Dominican Republic when the government ordered them to do so. Estimates ranged from 12,000 to 25,000 killings. The legacy of Trujillismo continued with the rise of Joaquin Balaguer, Trujillo’s protégé, who officially governed for 25 years until 1996. Balaguer’s departure from the political scene did not signal the end of anti-Haitian policies and sentiment. The 1996 presidential elections were marked by racist attacks against black Dominican candidate Jose Francisco Peña Gomez. Competitors claimed that Peña Gomez was going to unify the island of Hispaniola and that over 100,000 Haitian nationals were illegally registered to vote him into power. The automatic association of the black presidential candidate with Haiti was a clear manifestation of the norm of biological blackness in the Dominican political discourse.
The Dominican state’s systematic denial of citizenship to Dominican-born children of Haitian migrants is another example of the state’s antipathy to all things Haitian. The Dominican Constitution confers citizenship on “all persons born in the territory of the Republic.” This right is based on the doctrine of jus soli, which literally means “right of the land” and mandates that a child be granted citizenship in the country where it is born regardless of the citizenship status of its parents. The Dominican government has used an article of the Dominican Constitution which makes an exception to the rule for those persons who are “in transit” at the time of birth. The Dominican government has applied the Constitution’s terms selectively to Haitians despite a decree issued by the Dominican government in 1990 to formally legalize the status of Haitians and their descendants in the Dominican Republic. Under the Immigration Act of 2004, all non-residents of the Dominican Republic are specifically categorized as persons in transit with no right to citizenship — yet another law targeting Haitian migrants and their children. In response to the Dominican state’s discriminatory juridical practices, in October 2005 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held that the Dominican state violated basic notions of equality and ruled that Dominican-born children of Haitian ancestry had the right to Dominican nationality. The Inter-American Court concluded that the Dominican Republic had violated the rights of children of Haitian ancestry and rendered them stateless by refusing to issue their birth certificates.
Dominican immigration and citizenship laws serve as the starkest examples of the anti-blackness norm that dictates the state’s policies. This norm is a legacy of colonialism, which mandated a biological blackness equated with skin color, and it reverses the political course that the Haitian Revolution initiated.
1805 Haitian Constitution: Transforming Blackness
The Haitian Revolution marked the first known time in human history that a group of slaves successfully revolted against their enslavers. The slaves won their political independence from the French in 1804, and the ex-slaves renamed the colony of Saint-Domingue Haiti, drawing upon the territory’s pre-colonial Arawak appellation. During and after the revolution, several Haitian constitutions were created and utilized. From Toussaint L’Ouverture’s 1801 Constitution to Alexandre Pétion’s 1816 Constitution, Haitian leaders put forth varying constitutions corresponding to their visions of freedom. The forms of government endorsed by these creolized documents ranged from the monarchical to the republican. Some of the constitutions unfortunately did not reflect the visions of freedom of the masses that centrally helped eradicate slavery. For instance, while Toussaint is usually portrayed as the defining image of Haitian revolutionary freedom, his constitution privileged a brutal agrarian labor regime that ex-slaves detested.
Of all the constitutions, perhaps the most radical and highly overlooked is the one adopted under Jean-Jacques Dessalines on May 20, 1805. Though Dessalines in the eyes of many represents a much more authoritarian ruler than Toussaint, his constitution better reflected ex-slaves’ ideals. The 1805 Constitution marked Haiti’s first official post-independence constitutional document, and it contained several articles representative of the concept of freedom embraced by the masses of Haitian people who fought in the revolution. The constitution is not perfect, but it sets forth political principles that thinkers today who care about racial and social justice would be wise to revisit.
Consider a few of its provisions. Article 2 abolishes slavery forever. In Article 3, a vital distinction is made between political independence and freedom, a move Toussaint’s 1801 Constitution does not make. Acquiring the ability to rule over a sovereign territory is a major step in the march towards political freedom, but it is not the only hurdle. Freedom, then, means something more than state sovereignty. Article 6 ensures the sacredness of property such that one’s own body and private possessions cannot be taken arbitrarily by another individual or government entity. Slaves and ex-slaves rejected Toussaint’s model of freedom, which required them to remain wed to the plantation system. Article 50 declares that the “law does not recognize a dominant religion.” Under Toussaint, Catholicism was the state religion; the 1805 Constitution opened up space for the majority of Haitians to practice their creolized faith, voudou.
Arguably, the 1805 Constitution’s most radical act revolves around Article 14. By stating that “Haitians shall be known from now on by the generic denomination of blacks,” Article 14 transformed the category of “black” from a biological to a political category such that even biologically “white” women and men were included. The white women granted this status were colonists of French descent who acquired the status of black through acts of benevolence in support of the revolution or through marriage to Haitian revolutionaries. Polish and German white male mercenaries gained the status of black due to their refusal to massacre several hundred slaves near the revolution’s conclusion. Political blackness here includes persons previously known in biological terms as “black” and “white” based on their participation in a revolution that sought to enact transnational notions of freedom.
Political blackness breaks out of the model of sovereignty-as-freedom because its perspective is transnational: while forged in a single locale or territory, it seeks to enlist others beyond its specific locale. It offers the hope of taking action in the streets and corridors of communities around the globe by not limiting participation based on skin color. Not merely a hip phrase, political blackness as an ideal carries with it the weight of a loving, action-oriented upheaval.
Commentators such as Anthony Bogues and Sibylle Fischer have recently pointed toward the radicalism of the 1805 document. Fischer especially talks about the tragic effects of disavowal of blackness and revolutionary anti-slavery. Fischer, though, does not talk about love, and it is the disavowal of love that rests at the core of the Haitian Revolution’s legacy. If the Haitian revolutionary aftermath put into action a political idea of blackness and the Dominican response to Haitians developed into a rejection of Haitians’ transnational political ideal, what happens when the subsequently independent Dominican state evolves into a discriminatory nation — basing its discrimination against Haitians on the basis of “biological” blackness? What would modern race relations look like if the Haitian experiment had been successful and the biological racism of the colonial era had failed and been abandoned by the Dominican side of Hispaniola? This is where we believe the contemporary deportations from the Dominican Republic reveal the tragic result of biological notions of blackness. This ultimately results in a hellish breakdown in freedom and truncation of political action.
Political Blackness As Loving Action
Yet some do respond to hellish unfreedom with action. The Dominican state’s anti-Haitian practices have faced organized mobilization from both Dominicans and Haitians in the Dominican Republic and abroad. Indeed, the Dominican and Haitian Diasporas have gone as far as lobbying the New York City Council to pass an official resolution condemning the Dominican state’s historic anti-Haitian practices and its failure to prevent anti-Haitian violence.
Beyond Dominicans and Haitians, why should progressives around the world care about the modern practices and norms on the island of Hispaniola? What can progressives do to influence the reinstitution of political blackness in the Dominican Republic for the purpose of denouncing the deportations of Haitians and Dominican-Haitians without treating the people of Hispaniola as problem people (as opposed to people with problems generated heavily by their states’ policies and norms)?
To answer these questions, we return to Fanon. Fanon believed that freedom was the most fundamental facet of humankind, but that its meaning was constantly butchered. To overcome the butchery and perversion of freedom under colonialism, freedom required constant conceptual reconstruction. In the conclusion to Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon writes, “I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence.” Fanon urges us to jump out of our comfort zones if we really seek to act radically. In the last lines of the text, Fanon asks, “Was my freedom not given to me then in order to build the world of the You?”
If we truly are serious about freedom, we must take seriously the call to “build” the world, to reconstruct the planet, to constitute and reconstitute. The ancient Greek title of Plato’s classic work The Republic is politeia, meaning “constitution.” The Haitian Revolution did not need Greek wisdom to understand the relevance of constitution making. In fact, the Haitian Revolution redefined the meaning of freedom. Yet, the Haitian revolutionaries understood the importance of constitution making in the forging of a loving “republic.” The Haitian Revolution and Fanon distinguish themselves by reorienting us toward an active political notion of blackness. Progressives both inside and outside the Caribbean can become involved by familiarizing themselves with the assumptions behind contemporary anti-Haitianism, thinking about constitution-making, and taking action toward political blackness. We believe it a mistake to conflate the policies of a state with the practices and beliefs of its people — and the Dominican people deserve better. Enacting another reversal in the direction of political blackness may be the essential tool needed to combat anti-black racism in the Dominican Republic and beyond to make freedom a political reality.
Julissa Reynoso is an attorney in New York City. Neil Roberts is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Chicago and a member of the Caribbean Philosophical Association Board of Directors. The authors may be reached respectively at: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.