The American Haitians

The Haitian Americans
By Flore Zephir
Greenwood Press – £34.95

That Haiti had six presidents during 1911 and 1915 – with the last one being lynched – substantiates the country’s tempestuous relationship with political and economic (in)stability. Said period also acted as something of a green light with regards the United States taking the initiative to invade.

The thorny trajectory of which still rumbles today.

In this most thorough and respected of references on Haitian Americans, Flore Zephir – herself a Haitian immigrant – has undertaken a robust investigation of her fellow countrymen’s presence within, and influence upon that of the North America. While the narrative primarily focuses upon contemporary settlement patterns, which, regardless of whether it’s New York City, Boston or Miami, resides alongside (the inevitable and perhaps subliminal) undercurrent of elongated displacement, The Haitian Americans also sheds light on Haiti’s fraught relationship with its neighbour to the north.

In ‘Haiti: The Making of a Nation,’ Zephir writes: ‘’At the dawn of the U.S. occupation, there were significant numbers of foreign investors and merchants in Haiti, German in particular. American investors were eagerly looking for ways to have the monopoly of investments in the country. In fact, by 1910, it is said that U.S. bankers controlled the National Bank of Haiti […]. Therefore, financial conditions existed for more U.S. control of Haiti.’’

This obsession with ‘control’ sounds as if it could just as easily have been written during the eighties with regards to Nicaragua, the nineties with regards to Kuwait, or within the last few years in relation to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Clearly, this obsession for geographical control, shows no sign of abating; the kernel of which, reared its ugly head exactly one hundred years ago – as the author continues: ‘’Moreover, the United States, all along, had always wanted to secure a naval base in the Caribbean, and with the completion of the Panama Canal in sight, it had become all the more important for the Americans to obtain such a base and to prevent any further European penetration of the Caribbean […]. Both financial interests and strategic factors weighted heavily in the U.S. decision to occupy Haiti. On July 29, 1915, the U.S. Marines landed in Port-au-Prince, and a 19-year U.S. occupation began.’’

As the prominent historian Oscar Handlin once wrote: ‘’I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.’’

This is indeed true, as the substantial number of studies on almost every (major) immigrant group, testifies. After all, countless books have been written on countless waves of Italian and German, English and Polish, Jewish and Irish immigrants landing upon American shores. Yet relatively little has been made written on the more recent influx of (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Nigerian and Filipino) immigrants.

The Greenwood Press series, New Americans, of which this is an acute example, will invariably set the record straight. Not a moment too soon either, as America’s rich tapestry of varying cultures – of which the aforementioned are a mere tiny tip of the immigrant iceberg – is what makes the country what it is. And where best to start than with The Haitian Americans, a nation and a people, whom so desperately deserve to be heard and understood.

David Marx


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