Placing History Into Context: Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Legacy of Global Anti-Blackness
Written by: Dianna Tejada
Dios, Patria, y Libertad.
These three words were the foundation for Dominican independence from Haitian rule in 1844. These principles continue being utilized and emphasized to encourage Dominican nationalism on the island of Hispaniola. An island with a name that continues to sting due to the legacy of White supremacy and anti-Blackness surrounding the idea of hispanidad uplifted by Dictator Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. An island unified geographically, but divided based on history and socialized ideas of what it means to be Dominican and what it means to be Haitian…as defined by others.
Let’s go back to 1492, when he sailed the ocean blue. He is Christopher Columbus and after begging numerous empires to sponsor a voyage to the “new world” in an attempt to repay his debts to Italy and Spain, he was finally approved to go to what he thought was India. Instead, he landed in what he would later call Hispaniola, but for now, it was the West Indies. All he knew was that this land was different than what he was used to- it was hot, the sun was blazing, the land was lush, and the people were nice. So nice, that we would exploit them. The largest crops on the island were livestock and sugar with Saint Domingue, or Haiti, being the leader of the Sugar Revolution. Until 1697, the entire island was under Spanish rule. This is where it truly begins.
Liberation means something different for every nation. For Haiti, that meant getting rid of France, Spain, and Britain. For the Dominican Republic, that meant getting rid of Haiti and holding Spain near and dear, so much so, that the Dominican Republic has declared independence THREE times, but only claims one- independence from Haitian rule. There have been entire movements during the US-backed dictatorship that had the primary focus of wiping Blackness off the island. Dominicans were encouraged to marry white or marry light because there was a strong belief that the whiter the nation, the more prosperous it would become. These movements led to events like the Perejil Massacre of 1937, a massacre of thousands of Haitians and darker-skinned Dominicans along the Dominican-Haitian border if they were unable to say perejil with the rolled r due to the technicalities of the French language. These events in recent history signal the longstanding hold of the ideologies planted by the colonizers on the colonies, even centuries later. These ideologies were even more highly encouraged by the United States during their numerous invasions of the island in an attempt to ‘restore democracy’, but we all know what happens then.
The island of Hispaniola has been invaded by the United States eight times total, so as we continue to live in a globalized tourist economy, the influence of U.S. and European countries like Germany and France are undeniable. The influence of these western world powers fueled an already intense rivalry due to the constant reiteration of Dominicans as better than Haitians. The US agreed to help the Dominican Republic settle its national debt by reassuring congress that the Dominican Republic was different and whiter than their sibling nation. Not only that, but these US invasions after 1892 left every country they entered with a dictatorship. The US entered and left behind Juan Crow and a strong pigmentocracy. We see those with lighter skin and straighter hair in power and darker Dominicans erased from history and media. Juan Crow helped Dominicans understand that to be Dominican was to not be anything they considered Haitian.
Context is everything, so it is essential that our analysis of the conflict pulls from the sociohistorical and political implications of what is happening. Not just that, but also bearing in mind that these same policies, ideologies, and practices exist everywhere, but they invoke different responses due to the very brief and abridged histories of the island most people know. It is also important that we consider two very important things: how common it is for border nations to be at conflict with another and the complexity of islandness as state of mind where isolation and insularity alter perceptions of global relations. Discussions about our histories begin and end with the massacre del perejil; there is rarely any exploration about what happened before and after that atrocious moment in history. It is essential that we center these histories and legacies in our analysis to avoid essentializing or erasing the effects of external and internal forces on this bloody sibling rivalry. Both countries are mysteries for those who do not speak French or Spanish, both countries show what institutionalized white supremacy looks like in Black majority context. Both unwanted, unloved, undefined, and misunderstood..except by those of us who cannot escape the reality of who we are.
Today, in 2015, hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent are now stateless due to a supreme court ruling that made their presence illegal under claims of sovereignty. White supremacy and Anti-Blackness still loom over the island like smog that fills our lungs until we are no longer able to breathe. We see how suffocating White supremacy and anti-Blackness are when our darker family members are lynched in public parks, exploited, sexually assaulted, and rendered disposable. We have been plagued by genocide, enslavement, American imperialism, dictatorship, missionary work, reckless tourism and neocolonization. We are still fighting these evils day in and day out both on the island and its diaspora with Dominicans and Haitians teaming up to do as Franz Fanon said: recognize, resist, and rebel.
The Dominican government and independistas were led to believe that modernity and world power status could be achieved only if they stood on the side of the nations that were refusing to trade with the first independent Black nation. This divide in ideology and the divide created by two rival colonizers created the foundation for what we now think of as the Dominican/Haitian conflict. Both countries continue trying to survive in a system with a foundation that has been left behind in just about every country that has ever been colonized, but rears its head differently based on the context in which it exists. Both continue trying to survive, even if it means hurting one another for the sake of ‘modernity’. But, we live on the same island, how could we possible be so different?
Our identities have been constructed like two sides of the same coin. Since 1492, there has been an attempt to divide both sides of the island to ensure that there would be no chance for people on both sides of the island to unify and fight against the colonizers. In fact, the language barrier led to an even bigger divide after Haitians took over the entire island in attempt to have the first independent Black ISLAND. We have had our identities defined by others for centuries; by individuals who utilize their own subjectivity to force, enforce, and reinforce ideology and terminology that makes them feel more comfortable. We have had our histories erased and replaced by those with the power to mass produce literature- a privilege those on the island do not have. We have had our identities defined by those whose identities have been constructed differently due to the way they have been socialized in the place where they come from- namely, the US. Dichotomous structures, as we know, are not and will never be successful, unless we are determining success by the status of the group that has been placed into power- whether they are the majority or not. The power dynamics exhibited on both sides of the island function under the superior/inferior dichotomy to ensure that, similar to the US, those who do not have the power, will never have access to it. But, this structure does not account for the nuances of Dominican identity which in turn leads to even more confusion and turmoil.
Yo soy Dominicana.
This affirmation of one of the most salient aspects of my identity, is one that garners one of two responses: Folks will either get extremely excited and tell me how much they love Dominican people, the island itself or both OR they will begin asking me all sorts of questions about the relationship between Dominicans and our familia Haitiana. I am often told that the Dominican Republic, as a whole, is anti-Black and is a vehicle of white supremacy. I would argue, however, that although anti-Blackness and white supremacy play an enormous part in the strenuous relationship between both countries, there are so many other factors that play into this deadly sibling rivalry. Anti-Blackness and white supremacy are at the root, but we must acknowledge the histories of both countries individually and of the island as a whole. We, like most of the world, exist within a white supremacist, cisheterosexist, capitalist patriarchal society. We did not create these systems, we are just surviving in them trying to find ways to turn back the clock to ensure that we are all able to thrive in a messy system.
No hay Dominicanidad sin Haitianidad y no hay Haitianidad sin Dominicanidad. We are like two sides of the same coin.
Sources For Further Reading
Galeano, Eduardo, and Cedric Belfrage. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the
Pillage of a Continent. New York: Monthly Review, 1997. Print.
Jiménez Román, Miriam. & Flores, Juan (Eds.). (2010). The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History
and Culture in the United States. United States: Duke University Press.
Matibag, Eugenio. Haitian-Dominican Counterpoint: Nation, State, and Race on Hispaniola.
New York: Palgrave, 2003. Print.
Peña, Julissa. “Yo soy negro, pero negro blanco:” Hispanicity, Antihaitianismo and Genocide
in the Dominican Republic.” Master’s thesis, Wesleyan University, 2012.
Pulley, Raymond H. “The United States and the Trujillo Dictatorship, 1933-1940: The High
Price of Caribbean Stability.” Caribbean Studies (1965): 22-31.
Rosado, Shantee. (2009). “El Que no Tiene Dinga, Tiena Mandinga: Black Collective
Identity Formation among Afro-descendants in Dominican Republic and Ecuador”.
Honors Projects. Paper 21 http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/soci_honors/21
Sidanius, Jim, Peña, Yesilernis & Swayer, Mark. (2001). Inclusionary Discrimination:
Pigmentocracy and Patriotism in the Dominican Republic. Political Psychology, 22(4),
Simmons, Kimberly Eison. Reconstructing Racial Identity and the African Past in the
Dominican Republic. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009.
Torres-Saillant, Silvio. “The Tribulations of Blackness: Stages in Dominican Racial Identity.”
Latin American Perspectives 25, no. 3 (May 1998): 126-146.