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From Price-Mars to Duvalier: Resistance to the U.S. Occupation of Haiti through
the Arts, 1915-34

Jacob Ryan—1322641

HISTORY 2EN3
Dr. De Barros
April 7th, 2015

The United States’ occupation of Haiti, which lasted nineteen years from 1915 to
1934, solidified American control of the Haitian economy and political realm, which until
this point had been largely behind-the-scenes. This occupation, which began with an
invasion of Port-au-Prince by the U.S. Marines, heightened anti-U.S. sentiment among
the Haitian peasant class and created a decades-long climate of conflict, tension, and
political unrest—the effects of which are still felt to this day. This era was marked by
significant dissent and pushback against U.S. occupation and the military forces that
protected the new political elite. This dissent came most notably in the form of armed
resistance by rebel peasant armies known as Cacos, who engaged in guerilla warfare with
U.S. marines throughout the occupation. In addition to this primary form of dissent, many
Haitians engaged in non-violent forms of opposition to occupation, such as public
protests, labour strikes, and organizing with groups such as the NAACP. Also key to this
faction of non-violent dissidents was the arts community: a multi-disciplinary group of
visual artists, musicians, writers of fiction, poets, essayists, and independent publishers
that, despite disparate backgrounds and ideologies, came together under the general
banner of anti-occupation. Anti-occupation sentiment in the arts during this era of Haitian
history intersected with a myriad of other influences, including pan-Africanism,
nationalism, labour struggles, academia, and Marxism, which allowed for a more diverse
set of perspectives than the dominant—in terms of visibility, if not numbers—militant
faction of objectors to occupation. Arts communities during the U.S. occupation of Haiti
during the early 20th century not only documented resistance to imperialism, but were
also able to mobilize the public and affect political processes, playing a crucial role in
bringing about societal change during this period.

The occupation began in 1915 with the arrival of over 300 U.S. marines in Haiti’s capital
under orders from then-president Woodrow Wilson. Though ostensibly to protect U.S.
economic interests during a period of Haitian political turmoil, the occupation was
carried out largely to halt the increasing German presence in Haiti. The U.S. considered
the increasing economic clout of the small German population in Haiti as sufficient
justification for invoking the Monroe Doctrine, a piece of U.S. foreign policy that sought
to prevent further European colonialism in the Caribbean. Tensions between the U.S. and
Germany were especially high during these early stages of the First World War and
Hispaniola was seen as a geopolitically important port. Although the U.S. had occupied
other areas throughout the Caribbean during this period—Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Haiti’s
neighbor on Hispaniola, The Dominican Republic—their decades-long military presence
in Haiti was uniquely galvanizing for opponents of occupation. The occupation marked
the first time in over a century that Haiti had been under foreign control, effectively
ending the nation’s longstanding independence that had begun with a successful slave
revolution culminating in 1804. Haiti’s great degree of independence relative to its
neighbors made the sudden military occupation all the more jarring to many Haitians,
resulting in immediate and persistent resistance. The occupation furthered the divide
between the largely mixed-race, French-speaking upper class, who did little to impede
occupying forces, and the black peasant class, who spoke mainly Kreyòl (Haitian
Creole). This, coupled with widespread racism, set the stage for Haitian nationalism and
pan-Africanism to become major components of the rhetoric of those, including artists,
opposed to occupation.

If one person alone must be credited for this particular form of artistic opposition
to occupation, or imperialism at large, it ought to be Jean Price-Mars. Price-Mars, the son
of a member of the Haitian National Assembly, was politically engaged from a young
age. While attending medical school in Port-au-Prince, he co-founded the politically
dissenting student journal, Journal des Etudiants, before traveling to Paris on a
scholarship. It is here where his ideas on “collective Bovarism” began to germinate in
response to his experiences with European racialist ideologies1. He believed that Haitian
elites of largely mixed ancestry were distancing themselves from their African roots and
Haitian heritage through the rejection of Kreyòl and Vodou while instead embracing
European aristocratic culture. Price-Mars likened this to the abandonment of French
provincial society by the titular character in Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, a book he
came across while in Paris2. Upon returning to Haiti from Europe due to political turmoil,
Price-Mars began his political career, which found him travelling in a diplomatic capacity
to Washington and later returning to France as Haiti’s minister to Paris. It was during this
period of international political travel that he met and was influenced by Booker T.
Washington, particularly in relation to education reform. This lead to Price-Mars writing
one of his seminal works, La Vocation de l'elite, in which he cemented himself as an
outspoken opponent of the occupation, which he believed to be responsible for widening
class disparity in Haiti. As the occupation progressed into its second decade, Price-Mars
wrote increasingly on the subject of Haitian nationalism as a means of uniting the
working class, stressing the importance of folklore, folk songs, and the geographical
                                                                                                               
1  Largey, Michael. Vodou nation: Haitian art music and cultural nationalism. University of chicago
Press, 2006, 50.  
2  Dash,  Michael.  "Haïti  première  république  noire  des  lettres."  Les  actes  de  colloques  en  ligne  du  
musée  du  quai  Branly  (2011).  

landscape of the Haitian countryside3. Key to this idea was recognizing and celebrating
vodou as a legitimate and complex religion, rather than a mere curiosity. Vodou was
quickly stereotyped in U.S. popular culture during the occupation, such as in American
journalist William Seabrook’s novel The Magic Island and the film White Zombie, both
of which associated Vodou with evil and introduced the still-popular zombie mythology
into the American vernacular. These ideas were espoused in Price-Mars’ 1928 book Ainsi
Parla L’oncle, a collection of speeches that sought to reconcile the elite and working
classes, unite urban and rural areas, and resist the occupation through the promotion of
Haitian culture4. Price-Mars’ speeches of this time were highly influential, leading to a
popular presidential campaign and eventually a successful run as a senator, secretary of
state, and United Nations ambassador. Although his personal forays into art were
restricted to writing, Price-Mars’ widely disseminated views on Haitian culture inspired a
great variety of artistic works and movements. This included a revival of traditional
Haitian music, the indigenist visual art movement, and the interrelated noiriste and
negritude literary genres. Price-Mars actions during this time sparked what some consider
to be a cultural revolution5: using culture to oppose and eventually oust colonial forces,
much in the same way Toussaint Louverture expelled French slave-owners at the turn of
the 19th century. For this reason, Price-Mars is regarded as an important figure in
Haitianism.

                                                                                                               
3  Largey, Michael. Vodou nation: Haitian art music and cultural nationalism. University of chicago
Press, 2006, 51.  
4  Dash, Michael. “Reviewed Work: So Spoke the Uncle by Jean Price-Mars, Magdalene Shannon.”
Social and Economic Studies. Vol. 34 (1985): 315-318.  
5  Munro, Martin. "Can't stand up for falling down: Haiti, its revolutions, and twentieth-century
negritudes." Research in African Literatures 35, no. 2 (2004): 5.

Although negritude first emerged in French intellectual circles—an area to which
Price-Mars was no stranger—it soon became inextricably linked to the Caribbean. Three
Caribbean and West African authors, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and Léon
Damas from Senegal, Martinique, and French Guiana respectively, quickly established
themselves at the forefront of the movement. Although none were from Haiti, each wrote
on Haiti’s importance within the negritude movement and traveled there often. In fact,
Césaire declared Haiti as the “land where negritude first stood”6. This was due to the
burgeoning Haitian cultural revolution set in place by Price-Mars that incorporated many
of the same values as the pan-Africanist Negritude literary movement. Although
negritude rose to prominence as the occupation was winding down, it was preceded by
two ideological movements, noirisme and indigenism, both of which prominently
opposed U.S. presence during the occupation. Negritude, which had strong ties to
Marxism, splintered away from noirisme toward the end of the occupation due to
ideological disparity. Noirisme rejected liberalism as a white or mulatto ideology and
sought to re-establish Haiti as a black nation with black political supremacy7. One of
noirisme’s earliest and most ardent supports was a then little-know doctor named
François Duvalier, who later became Haiti’s president and one of the nation’s most
historically notorious figures. Duvalier became a member of Le Groupe de Griots, a
group of black nationalist writers who wrote extensively on vodou and mysticism, which
became integral parts of Duvalier’s cult of personality upon declaring himself “president
for life”. Noirisme in turn evolved from the far less radical indigenist movement, which
                                                                                                               
6  Ure Mezu, Rose, Ph.D. "Haiti: The Land Where Negritude First Stood." Haiti: The Land Where
Negritude First Stood. February 1, 2010.
7  Munro, Martin. Exile and Post-1946 Haitian Literature: Alexis, Depestre, Ollivier, Laferrière,
Danticat. Vol. 7. Liverpool university Press, 2013, 17.

 

stemmed from the writings of Jean Price-Mars and was more ideologically similar to
mid-century negritude than noirisme. Despite varying mandates and arenas—whether
political or literary—each of these movements understood Haiti in the context of its
African roots and sought to re-establish black political presence.
One of the most prominent Haitian writers of this period was Jacques Roumain,
who first became influential during the occupation but continued writing until his
untimely and mysterious death in 1944. Although his work is most aligned with the
indigenism associated with Price-Mars, it also takes many cues from late-occupation
negritude, largely due to the incorporation of Marxist thought and themes. Roumain’s
Marxism expanded beyond his literary works and into his burgeoning political career. He
founded the Haitian Communist Party during the final year of the U.S. occupation and
was eventually exiled for his beliefs by president Sténio Vincent, who had become
increasingly authoritarian following the withdrawal of U.S. troops. As such, Roumain
stands as one of many examples of artist who move from politically engaged artist to
politician during the occupation and post-occupation periods. Roumain’s most notable
occupation-era achievement was co-establishing alongside poets Carl Brouard, Philippe
Thoby-Marcelin, and Antonio Vieux La Revue Indigene: Les Arts et La Vie, a literary
journal that brought together like-minded authors under the indigenist banner. This
followed a series of increasingly politicized independently published literary journals,
such as Price-Mars’ Journal des Etudiants as well as La Ronde, La Nouvelle Ronde, and
La Trouée: revue d'intérêt general8. Next in this lineage of pan-Africanist journals would
be Les Griots, which was edited by François Duvalier and was more focused on
                                                                                                               
8  Jack, Belinda Elizabeth. "Negritude and Literary Criticism." The History and Theory of „NegroAfrican “Literarure in French (1996): 35.

biological determinism and pseudoscience than its literary-minded predecessors. While
many of these writers focused reviving black Haitian art as a means of resistance rather
than direct protest of U.S. troops, some were more explicit in their disdain. A prominent
example of this is the poet Frédéric Burr-Reynaud, who rhymed “marines” with
“latrines” in his collection Anathèmes9. Despite featuring a wide variety of forms—
poetry, prose, essays—and opinions, these journals and literary works during the U.S.
occupation were linked together by the common thread of Haitianism and by extension,
the rejection of occupation.
Because many of its largest proponents, such as Jean Price-Mars and Jacques
Roumain were writers, indigenism is best known as a literary movement. Despite this,
many visual artists found inspiration in indigenist writings in journals such as La Revue
Indigene: Les Arts et La Vie and La Trouée and incorporated many of the key tenants of
indigenism into their works. Many of these artists were joined together in a loose-knit
collective called the Pont St. Gérard Group, which despite some ideological variance was
united in opposition to the occupation and by admiration of the values laid out by PriceMars in Ainsi Parla L’oncle10. Price-Mars’ focus on emphasizing Haitian folklore and
black heritage while distancing oneself from the European or U.S. colonial culture
exemplified by the mixed-race upper class was echoed by the Pont St. Gérard Group,
who painted working class Haitians against largely rural agrarian landscapes while
rejecting European artistic conventions. As a result, many of these artists employed a
more impressionistic style known to some as “primitivism”. The indigenist movement
                                                                                                               
9  Gindine, Yvette. "Images of the American in Haitian Literature during the Occupation, 19151934." Caribbean Studies (1974): 43.  
10  Accilien, Cécile. "Revolutionary freedoms: a history of survival, strength and imagination in
Haiti." Caribbean Studies Press (2006): 157

made the leap from the literary realm to
visual art after William Edouard Scott, an
African-American painter, visited Haiti for
an extended period of time in 1930,
painting a number of works largely
depicting Haitian peasants at work. These
works were exhibited at the Port-au-Prince
Circle and seen by many, including a
young Petion Savain who was moved to
immediately take up painting, despite
minimal prior artistic experience11. He
Figure  1:  Night  Turtle  Fishermen  by  William  Edouard  
Scott,  1931.    Retrieved  from  the  Official  Madam  Walker  
Biography  Blog,  
https://madamcjwalker.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/
madam-­‐walker-­‐as-­‐a-­‐patron-­‐of-­‐the-­‐arts-­‐black-­‐history-­‐
month-­‐2014/  (Accessed  April  7th  2015)  
 
One  of  the  paintings  that  inspired  Petion  Savain,  
launching  the  indigenist  visual  art  movement.

believed he could fuse indigenist ideology
with visual art to create a new, distinctly
Haitian national art style. Working with
remarkable speed, his first works were

displayed in 1932, by which time he had already integrated himself into the indigenist
literary community and had gathered a group of like-minded artists who soon became
known as the Pont St. Gérard Group. This group included Georgas Remponneau, Xavier
Amiama, Antoine Derenoncourt, and Yvonne Sylvain, who was notable as one of few
women involved in the indigenist struggle against occupation. Although there was no
unified style or colour palette among these indigenist painters in the Pont St. Gérard
Group, they were unified in their subject matter and their commitment to indigenist
                                                                                                               
11  Lerebours, Michel-Philippe. "The Indigenist Revolt: Haitian Art, 1927-1944."Callaloo (1992):
714.

 


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