By J. Michael Dash
St. Martin's Press, NY, 1988. ISBN # 0-312-01684-0

Some comments by Bob Corbett
Sept. 1996

I've just gotten around to reading this interesting and useful book by J. Michael Dash. He sets out to see how writers in the U.S. have portrayed Haiti and how writers in Haiti have portrayed Americans. He doesn't distinguish between writers of fiction and non-fiction.

Dash looks at a few U.S. sources prior to the U.S. Occupation and argues that the political needs of the time influenced the writings. Given that there was a concern about the revolution of blacks and especially slaves in nations that were still slave nations, the Haitians and their revolution were portrayed in an extremely negative light with images of savagery and primitivism.

During a similar period Dash sees relatively little interest among Haitians to portray Americans at all.

However, in the latter part of the 19th century, the image of Haitians in American writings didn't change much, but the American entered Haitian literature, being portrayed as crassly materialistic and intellectually second rate.

These images on both sides were continued and dramatically intensified among writers in both countries during the U.S. occupation, as negative images of Haitians helped justify the occupation and negative images of Americans helped consolidate Haitian resistance. However, Dash does point out that there was a reaction among some anti-occupation writers in the U.S. and that more positive images began to emerge. Dash showed this about the work of William Seabrook (who is often vilified by modern day commentators) and the work of Blair Niles.

Dash claims there was a dramatic change in the post occupation period both in U.S. writings and in Haitian writings. More academic writing began to be done among U.S. scholars and attempts to understand Haitian culture in a more open light dominated. Further, even more popular literature like the travel book of Hugh Cave (HAITI: HIGHROAD TO ADVENTURE) took on much of this positive flavor.

At the same time, Haitian writers began to have more sympathetic views of some Americans, being especially pleased with those writers who were showing a more positive image of Haitian culture, and thus more positive images of Americans appeared in Haiti.

Dash sees Graham Greene as a pivotal figure who changed much of the positivity back into negativity with his THE COMEDIANS and many lesser copies, and sees a corresponding negative response in Haitian images of Americans during the Duvalier period.

I found Dash's book to be very useful. It is simply filled with sources and interesting stories. His treatment of the positive relationships between the Harlem Renaissance and Haitian intellectuals in the 1930s was a joy to read, and, for me, it was refreshing to see a very long and almost bitterly negative attack on Zora Neale Hurston's book TELL MY HORSE, which I have long regarded as one of the worst books every printed in English about Haitian Voodoo. Perhaps my delight was only that Dash articulated clearly many of my own strong feelings about this book which is so often lionized as though it were worth reading.

I was troubled by a couple of tendencies in Dash's thesis. One was to equate the intellectual classes of either nation with the whole of either nation. What the tiny elite of Haiti said about Americans in their books may or may not have been much of an influence on the non-literate masses of Haiti. But Dash acts as though those latter folks don't exist and that what the elite thought and wrote was what Haiti thought and believed. I have my strong doubts, but in any case, Dash gave no reasons to suppose this was true, he just assumed it.

Similarly, he accounts for U.S. beliefs about Haiti as flowing from these sources he cites. But, he also shows shifting periods and changes, especially from 1925 on. Yet he doesn't even discuss such a shifting and contradictory set of views being held by the American masses about Haiti. If these works determine the views, and if the views are in flux from 1925 on, then why does Dash claim that U.S. images have largely been negative and sensationalistic from 1804 onward? There is a strong hint of some contradictions and unclear thinking here.

Nonetheless, I found Dash's book a fascinating read, and am delighted to be coming away from it with three full pages of sources which I don't have in my library but which I am hurrying out today to both bookstores and the library to try to find.


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu