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Adjusting lenses: discourse, power, and identity, at home and abroad

Author(s): Stephan PalmiƩ

Journal: New West Indian Guide
ISSN 1382-2373

Volume: 68;
Issue: 1;
Start page: 105;
Date: 1994;
Original page

Keywords: Haiti | social history | social development | cultural identity | Voodoo | religion | international relations | migrations | book review

[First paragraph] Schwarze Freiheit lm Dialog: Saint-Domingue 1791 - Haiti 1991. C. Herrmann Middelanis (ed.). Bielefeld: Hans Koek, 1992. 62 pp. (Paper n.p.) Mama Lola: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Karen McCarthy Brown. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. x + 405 pp. (Cloth US$ 24.00, Paper US$ 13.00) Caribbean New York: Black Immigrants and the Politics of Race. Philip Kasinitz. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. xv + 280 pp. (Cloth US$ 39.95, Paper US$ 13.95) Ever since the first truly free nation of the Americas emerged from the agony of the Haitian Revolution, the western part of Hispaniola has been subject to torturous exertions of the European and American imagination. If, by reappropriating their own persons, the Haitians withheld a prime object of capitalist desire, their defiance was answered, in part, by the symbolic objectification of Haiti - this time not by merchants and empire-builders, but by philosophes, literati, and artists "organic" to various European and American regimes, anciens as well as nouveaux. Part of this was pragmatically motivated. The mere existence of Haiti spelled an immediate threat to the stability of New World polities predicated on the exploitation of unfree black labor. If slave revolts were endemic to the region, the events after 1791 seemed to exemplify the pandemic potential of black insurrection in its most virulent forms. Moreover, though direct connections to the events in St. Domingue could rarely be substantiated, the outbreaks of violence in Grenada, Demerara, Louisiana, St. Vincent, and Jamaica in the mid-1790s, and the subsequent proliferation (of real as well as imagined) plots in Cuba, Virginia, and Trinidad lent additional weight to fears about the contagious nature of libertarian ideas (cf. Genovese 1979 and Geggus 1989 for rather different assessments of the reality behind such perceptions). Hence the frantic attempts to establish a cordon sanitaire between the source of revolutionary disease and those slave populations still uncontaminated - a course of action which may well represent one of the first instances of genuinely international information control. Yet slaveholders' recensions of the Haitian Revolution as symptomatic of a morbid process in need of containment did not exhaust its semantic potential.
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