How did black people in the postemancipation United States understand themselves, their changing country, and a world shaped by the restructuring of white supremacy? That question has animated my research agenda. My attempts to answer it have resulted in a research program spanning the fields of African American History, United States History, Haitian Studies, and African Diaspora Studies. They have encouraged an enduring interest in black internationalism, a political and intellectual response to slavery, colonialism, and white imperialism that has prioritized political solidarities among people of color across the world.
In my first book, The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), I explore the ambivalent attitudes that African American leaders in the post-Civil War era held toward Haiti. Following emancipation, African American leaders of all kinds—politicians, journalists, ministers, writers, educators, artists, and diplomats—identified new and urgent connections with Haiti, a nation long understood as an example of black self-determination. They celebrated not only its diplomatic recognition by the United States but also the renewed relevance of the Haitian Revolution.
While a number of African American leaders defended the sovereignty of a black republic whose fate they saw as intertwined with their own, others expressed concern over Haiti’s fitness as a model black republic, scrutinizing whether the nation truly reflected the “civilized” progress of the black race. Influenced by the imperialist rhetoric of their day, many African Americans across the political spectrum espoused a politics of racial uplift, taking responsibility for the “improvement” of Haitian education, politics, culture, and society. They considered Haiti an uncertain experiment in black self-governance: it might succeed and vindicate the capabilities of African Americans demanding their own right to self-determination or it might fail and condemn the black diasporic population to second-class status for the foreseeable future.
When the United States military occupied Haiti in 1915, it created a crisis for W. E. B. Du Bois and other black activists and intellectuals who had long grappled with the meaning of Haitian independence. The resulting demand for and idea of a liberated Haiti became a cornerstone of the anticapitalist, anticolonial, and antiracist radical black internationalism that flourished between World War I and World War II. Spanning the Reconstruction, post-Reconstruction, and Jim Crow eras, The Black Republic recovers a crucial and overlooked chapter of African American internationalism and political thought.