The Haitian Question

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This dissertation shows how late-nineteenth-century U.S. politicians and diplomats, including Frederick Douglass himself, sought to re-shape rhetorical constructions of Haiti such that it could be considered a vital member of the Atlantic world. Their goal was to ensure that even though Haiti began the nineteenth century as a country disavowed, ignored, feared, and rejected by almost every Atlantic nation-state, it would end that same century—at least in the form of its pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893—as something quite different. As I demonstrate, the Fair was meant to reposition Haiti not only within the Atlantic region but also within constructions of global modernism: not as an antithesis to or problem of modernity, but rather as an exemplar of its possibilities for political, social, and economic advancement.

This alternative history conflicts with the “narrative[s] of stigma” that tend to surround Haiti. While I agree with Caribbeanist Colin Dayan’s assessment of Haiti’s stigmatization, I argue that this stigma accounts for some but not all of the assumptions that undergird what I identify in a larger sense as the Haitian Question. Although I call it the Haitian Question, it is actually neither one question, nor a singular issue phrased in the form of a problem or query. Rather, the Haitian Question is best understood as a collection of inferences or suppositions concerning Haiti, some but not all of which signify a lack or deficiency.

In the chapters that follow, I explore the ways that other rhetorics—those of economic reciprocity, political equality, and racial inclusion—share space with the stories of stigma and degeneracy under the broader umbrella of the Haitian Question. In so doing, this dissertation urges critics to expand their considerations of the narratives of Haiti to include rhetorical forms and historical moments that stand in opposition to the notions of dysfunction and abjection. It is by analyzing these complex forms and moments that we will be able to fully chart the possibilities, the perils, and the price of Haiti’s identification as a modern nation-state. As I argue in my dissertation, examining Haiti’s participation at the Chicago World’s Fair is an important first step in this larger process of re-assessing the economic, political, and racial dynamics that have determined—and continue to determine—its role both in the Atlantic region and on the modern global stage.

Such a perspective allows us to see how crucial Haitian proximity was—and remains—to U.S. militarized zones and key trade sites. Throughout the nineteenth century, this proximity would translate into a series of often-conflicting desires on the part of the U.S.: to denounce, to isolate, to protect, to possess, and to control Haiti. These desires are connected not only to U.S. domestic, political, and cultural concerns (i.e. anxieties about a Haitian-style revolution on North American soil), but also to external pressures and tensions as the U.S. sought to limit the presence of Europeans in territories and trade zones of the Americas. Efforts to limit Europe’s presence often involved extending U.S. political friendship and trade reciprocity to Haiti—an extension made tangible in Haiti’s invitation to the Chicago World’s Fair—in an effort to control traffic in the Windward and Mona Passages, the two shipping lanes that bracket the island of Hispaniola (on which Haiti is situated) in the Caribbean. This dissertation argues that for these and other reasons, Haiti would be an essential location from which the U.S. could expand its reach even further into Latin America and the Caribbean.

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