BLACK SEPARATISM AND THE CARIBBEAN

1860 ed. Bell, Howard H. Essays by James Theodore Holly and J. Dennis Harris. Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Press, 1970.

Review of Bob Corbett, March, 1990.

The question of slavery dominated discussion among American black leaders in the 1850s and 60s. The primary issue, of course, was emancipation. However, emancipation alone was not enough. George William Curtis, in his introduction to Harris' essay says:

"...if slavery in the Southern States were to be immediately abolished, his {the slave's} condition would be only nominally and legally, not actually, equal to that of the whites. The traditional habit of unquestioned mastery can not be laid aside at will. Prejudice is not amenable to law."

Harris notes that the American blacks have several options: violent revolution, which he is sure would be suicidal. (This was just one year prior to the outbreak of the Civil War!); or blacks could strive for economic success and secure their future in economic power; finally, they could seek separatism.

This volume explores two important writers who favored the separatist strategy. Both Rev. James Theodore Holly and J. Dennis Harris supported the notion of an all-black nation separate from the U.S. These two men leaned strongly toward Haiti as either the model, or in Harris' case, the location, for such a state.

Holly's lecture in this volume is in many ways a very sad essay. Entitled "A Vindication Of The Capacity of the Negro Race For Self- Government, And Civilized Progress, As Demonstrated By Historical Events Of The Haytian Revolution." The sadness rests in the fact that the proposition of negro capacity needed defending at all. Holly's strategy is to trace the events in Haiti from 1790 to the establishment of the Republic in 1804. He celebrates the courage and steadfastness of the revolutionary activities of Ag, Chavannes, Toussaint L'Ouverture, Dessalines, Christophe and the mass of black Haitians who followed them.

He focuses on Toussaint's ability to govern during the period of his governorship under the French. The essay concludes with an analysis of the rule of Toussaint, Dessalines, Christophe and Petion and their "civilizing" influence on the recently freed slaves.

Holly makes a powerful case, though in his zeal to demonstrate the positive he unfortunately glosses over significant failures, such as the failure to achieve participatory democracy or Petion's disastrous and fateful failure to rebuild the agricultural base of Haiti's economy.

Harris' letters, collected under the title of "A Summer On The Borders Of The Caribbean Sea" is mainly a travelogue. However, the purpose of his trip was to locate a suitable place for emigration of blacks to begin a new utopian project.

Harris is quite realistic. He knows that the sorts of folks who are needed are farmers and skilled artisans. Further, he recognizes that few American blacks will be attracted and that such a resettlement program will take years.

The place most recommended for settlement is actually in the Dominican Republic. However, Harris not only refers to the whole island as Hayti, but expects that inevitably the island will be one English (!?) speaking nation, presumably from a dominant influence of emigrated American blacks. He says:

"...in the opinion of this writer...the destiny of the island is union:--one in government, wants, and interest, brought about by the introduction of the English language, and by other peaceful and benignant means; such language, wants, and interests to be introduced by the emigration hither of North Americans,--some white, but primarily colored."

Few American blacks ever emigrated. The emancipation of 1864 gave most black Americans other dreams. Holly discusses some 6000 Americans who did emigrate, but who did poorly in their new home, succumbing to illness and being somewhat ill fit by profession and advancing age to succeed in the rigors of homesteading.

The American separatist movement made little contribution to Haiti. However, this book on the separatist movement sheds light on Haiti herself, and particularly on the perceptions of Haiti in the eyes of American blacks.

American blacks have advanced light years since 1860. Yet I found much of the sentiment of Holly and Harris startlingly current. How easy it must be to dream of a land ruled by black folk for black folk; a utopia with justice for all. In Curtis' 1860 introduction he wrote powerfully of the same weight under which American blacks of 1990 still struggle: "Where his face is a crime he cannot hope for justice."


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu