A Negro Nation

W. E. B. Du Bois

The Haitian People by James G. Leyburn, Yale University Press.

There was a period when any Haitian or American Negro shuddered when opening a book on Haiti written by a white man. To all the color prejudice of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was apt to be added the special contempt reserved for Negro nations who tried to be independent. Lately there has been change in this respect, and it has been shown by Herskovits, Vandercook, and a few others that it is possible to write on the history and social condition of Haiti and treat the Haitians as human beings. Professor Leyburn's book goes a step further; he acknowledges "the true affection" he feels for the Haitian people and speaks of his obligation to a man like Dr. Price-Mars—"a true gentleman and scholar."

The book is divided into five parts. The longer parts are one hundred pages of historical survey of the rise of class and caste, followed by seventy-eight pages on religion. Two parts of forty to fifty pages treat political and economic matters and modern Haiti; while a third short part treats sex relations and home life. The chief thing to remember about Haiti—and this Mr. Leyburn emphasizes—is that "two centuries ago nine tenths of the Negro ancestors of the modern Haitians were still in Africa, living under the mores of their own localities, and for the most part entirely unacquainted with the mores of the Western World (or, as we ethnocentrically call it, the 'civilized' world). First transplanted as slaves to the Caribbean island, then gaining their freedom after some mixture of blood with the white French, the Haitians have built up not only a state but a Haitian culture."

The historical account of Haiti is, perhaps, too brief, but it is interestingly done. It insists too strongly, I think, upon the conclusion that the caste lines which developed in the island's strange and vacillating experience are relatively permanent and show few signs of immediate change. The overemphasis here probably is due to the underemphasis upon economic conditions in Haiti. What you have in Haiti is economic isolation which makes it extremely difficult for Haitians to plan a way out and to arrange a system of work and wages that will afford a modern standard of living to the majority of the people. It is, as it seems to me, an inversion of causes to intimate that caste and class are the cause of economic difficulty. Economic difficulties, from the beginning, have been the reason for Haiti's peculiar development. To be sure, Mr. Leyburn intimates something of this in his study of politics and economics and his view of present conditions. He gives, perhaps, the American Occupation too much credit for change in the Haitian situation. If one of the difficulties of Haiti's past was the saddling of the country with the huge French debt, its present difficulties are also partly due to the unjust debt which accompanied American Occupation.

The things which stand out as peculiar in Haitian life are the peasant ownership of land, the culture of the élite, and the creole folklore and language. These are emphasized and explained by Professor Leyburn, but they call for even greater emphasis. It is not so much a matter of criticising Haiti from the point of view of modern culture, as imagining certain new cultural possibilities if once this singularly beautiful and tragic land were freed from the clutch of poverty. This result is made difficult in a land where a small independent government of black folk is faced by the grasping tentacles of white imperialism.

The great charm and value of Professor Leyburn's book is that all the points of view, all the facts, have been fairly discussed; and while some of us may criticise the emphasis, we cannot for a moment fail to appreciate the spirit back of the book, the labor that has gone into it, and the inspiration it must give to future scholars.

W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) was an American sociologist, author, and civil rights activist especially known for his seminal works of African-American literature The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction in America.
Originally published:
January 1, 1942


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