illustration by Jamilla Okubo
Most white people in the U.S. lazily tuck African-Americans away into one category: the Black one. There’s some variation within that “Blackness” but it’s mostly limited to “black,” “blacker,” “scary black,” “less black,” and “high maintenance.” You’re lucky to get that much from white people because most of them are too busy shouting “I don’t see color” at the top of their lungs when you ask them about race. As an oblivious white American, I would’ve never imagined there were almost 30 confirmed classes of “Blackness.”
Robert Fatton Jr. is professor of politics at the University of Virginia and author of Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy. Fatton told me that in Haiti there are 27 different ways of classifying someone’s color based upon “your shade, your hair type, the shape of your nose and countless other things.”
The names come in a French patois, so be prepared to swallow your tongue while pronouncing them. Are you very light skinned but with a big nose and red hair? You’re “grimaug,” says Fatton. Do you look nearly white, with a thin nose, thin lips and very fine hair? You qualify as “bongenmulaté.” Not too dark, but with slightly finer hair and a nose that’s “not too flat?” Well, you’re “griffé.” The 1987 book Color Ideology and Social Classes in Haiti also includes names like “marabout,” which is defined as a “person with dark and velvety skin, straight hair and ‘good features,’” –whatever that’s supposed to mean. It also contains descriptions like “mulâtre 18 carats” (18 karat mulatto).
This is a lot to swallow for somebody who grew up thinking “octoroon” was a kind of mollusk. But, of course, if you want 40 words for snow you go where the snow is. Similarly, if you want a million words for “Blackness” try the world’s first Black-led republic in recorded history. All those color tags in Haiti’s classification system have a dark side, however, and they’ve been gnawing at the island for more than two centuries.
The nation formerly known as Saint-Domingue was once the most profitable colony in the eighteenth-century because that’s what you get when you work thousands of people without pay. Just ask Mississippi, which housed half the nation’s millionaires at the height of slavery. Unlike the U.S., however, Haiti’s slave class abruptly stomped human bondage into the dirt when it orchestrated the only successful slave revolution in Western history. That flair for toppling evil slave regimes quickly pit the little island nation against all its evil slave regime neighbors. These included the racist, heavily-militarized United States, naturally, but also many South American slaver nations such as Brazil, the colonized neighboring island of Cuba and just about everybody else in Haiti’s hemisphere.
In addition to this, Haiti had to deal with the lingering animosity of various European colonizer nations on the other side of the planet. Immediately after being born, the fledgling nation had to deal with a 60-year global embargo. The U.S. refused to even call it a legitimate nation until 1862.
Heck, some white people today are still furious. After the devastating 2010 earthquake that struck the island, U.S. televangelist Pat Robertson claimed Haiti had invited the disaster by making a “pact with the devil” while throwing down its slave masters in 1804. Amy Wilentz, Haitian history scholar and professor of English at the University of California, Irvine, says there’s no need for Pat’s shade. In fact, he and the rest of the U.S. ought to be grateful.
“The Haitians defeated the French and Napoleon. (After losing Haiti) Napoleon had to give up the Louisiana territory, so Haitians ultimately made the U.S. a continental power. But despite this they were universally reviled because the world powers were all based on slave labor,” said Wilentz, who also wrote the memoir Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter from Haiti.
Fat and rich on slave labor, these powerful nations were able to isolate the little island. France took advantage of the international bushwhacking by bullying its fragile economy into paying France for all those slaves Haiti stole away from those poor defenseless slave-owners. They demanded Haiti keep paying for its freedom all the way up until 1947. In 2004, the Haitian government and international critics finally demanded it repay Haiti for the $21 billion in today’s dollars it extorted. In 2015, France refused.
The international community was not the extent of Haiti’s problems, however. Throughout it all, Haiti also waged war with itself through a poisonous hierarchy of colorism. A relic of long-dead slave-owners, that hierarchy opened the door for dangerous, homegrown parasites like François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his misbegotten family.
“If you were to look at Haiti in 1950 and the Dominican Republic, Haiti was slightly more economically advanced, but then when Papa Doc came to power, he destroyed it altogether,” Fatton told Lighthouse.
It took a special kind of malfunction to put a travesty like Duvalier in power, but Haiti’s ubiquitous color-based class division was as big a wrench as anyone needed to break a nation. Duvalier, Fatton explained, rose to power on a wave of ‘noirisme.’ Loosely translated as ‘Black power,’ noirisme’ became a 1950s movement fueled by centuries of resentment at Haiti’s privileged mulatto class. Mulattoes represent roughly five percent of the population, but they’ve held a position of wealth ever since Haitian independence. That advantage cultivated the kind of enmity that Duvalier was able to exploit by pitting the bigger, poorer underclass against the lighter-skinned elites. To understand the immensity of that bitterness an outsider would first have to comprehend the consummate colorism that creates almost 30 different designations for a Black human being.
Color-based classism devised by ancient white slavers is not the kind of problem I would expect to find on an island that stomped slavery into a puddle of blood, but Fatton says racism within racism is what helped grease the wheels for the cultural divisiveness that defined critical Haitian elections. There’s no need to look surprised, of course; color decides U.S. elections all the time.
The sheer vileness of a bad system does not decide its durability, according to Trina Jones, law professor at Duke University School of Law, in North Carolina. What determines durability is how well it works for enough people to want to keep it around.
“The truth is that intergroup distinction can lead to intergroup discord and tension. One way you might want to split a group is by exploiting differences that are socially salient. People naturally want to move up in any hierarchy. And to the extent that color will get you higher in a hierarchy—even in a hierarchy that’s not constructed by people of color, by the way—then people will naturally want to position themselves. And that could lead to intergroup … reinforcement of that hierarchy and intergroup tensions and exploitation.”
Today Haiti unquestionably has an army of forces working against it. Just recently, we witnessed its vulnerability to the growing challenges of climate change and failing infrastructure. A zombie, color-based system devised by ancient, whip-cracking ghouls appears to be the least of its problems. Still, there is no discounting the damage left by a system that undermines pivotal elections and sweeps wealth into the arms of families who look a certain way.
Fatton said the island is coming to terms with the deadly rot of colorism. Duvalier and his family are gone; his wife died in poverty near Paris. But Haitian elections are so destabilized now from decades of corruption and abuse that rebuilding them without international resources and infinite patience is almost guaranteed to fail, just like the one that put the recently assassinated Jovenel Moïse and his predecessor in power.
The international community will have to trust the people of Haiti to make their own political decisions, however, and that’s something the rabidly anti-communist and anti-socialist U.S. has never supported.
“I would suggest they help, but not dictate,” Fatton said. “And by helping, I mean give space to the different political actors and try to help them organize some sort of setting where they can negotiate their own solution. That also means you don’t interfere with the process and, above all, you accept what comes out of it.”
Haiti may finally have reached the point where centuries of fossilized social division and distrust might not produce a Trumpy, race-baiting candidate, but it will still have to deal with international racism from almost every corner of the world that isn’t brown.
“The truth is that Americans fear a united Black population,” Wilentz said. “They don’t fear they’re going to descend on the U.S. and attack or anything. They fear what it might represent: a changing of political consciousness in Haiti that would mean the (powerful) people that we’ve (traditionally) been doing business with there for so long are no longer going to be in power. That scares Americans because they won’t know how to wield power or control the situation like we want to.”