Dr. Leslie Alexander: Historian. Professor. Author. Activist

The Birth of Black Internationalism

My newest book manuscript, "The Birth of Black Internationalism: African Americans and the Battle for Haitian Sovereignty" is forthcoming with the University of Illinois Press. It explores the origins of black internationalism at the dawn of the nineteenth century and traces its growth and expansion over more than a century. 

Opening in 1804, with the declaration of Haitian independence, this project reveals how the struggle for Haitian sovereignty inspired U.S. black activists to develop a transnational political consciousness and to shape U.S. foreign policy towards African Diasporic nations. Specifically, it examines how black leaders in the United States viewed Haiti from the moment of independence in 1804 until 1915 when the U.S. commenced a brutal military occupation. "The Birth of Black Internationalism" also exposes why the U.S. government denied Haiti’s sovereignty for several decades, how U.S. black leaders pressured the U.S. government for changes in its foreign policy towards Haiti, and what the debate over Haitian independence revealed about the larger battle over race and slavery throughout the Atlantic World.

I argue that black internationalism emerged in 1804, following the successful revolution in Saint Domingue and the subsequent creation of Haiti, the first independent black nation in the western hemisphere. These transformative events inspired black people throughout the United States and motivated them to articulate their political views on an international stage. Black activists understood Haiti’s symbolic and real significance as the only country in the world where former slaves had defeated the world’s most powerful army, eradicated slavery, and established a sovereign black nation. They also understood that as people of African descent in the diaspora, they shared a common destiny with Haitians and believed that their own fate was entwined with Haiti’s success or failure. As a result, throughout the antebellum era, black activists ardently defended Haiti’s autonomy and condemned the U.S. government for refusing to formally recognize Haitian independence. 

The conflict over diplomatic recognition exploded in the 1850s when U.S. politicians briefly considered annexing Haiti. Black leaders steadfastly opposed such efforts because they were deeply committed to their vision of a sovereign black republic in the Americas. They also feared that if the government annexed Haiti, Southern slaveholders would re-impose slavery on the island and strengthen their political and economic power in the U.S. and abroad. Thus, black activists battled against annexation and tirelessly lobbied the government to recognize Haiti diplomatically. By 1865, black activists had witnessed considerable success; they won the dispute over annexation in 1859, President Abraham Lincoln begrudgingly extended formal recognition to Haiti in 1862, and the U.S. finally outlawed slavery in the aftermath of the Civil War. However, as the institution of slavery slowly began to crumble across the Americas, black leaders became increasingly concerned about which social and economic systems would replace slavery. As a result, they carefully monitored events in Haiti, which they hoped would be a beacon for future independent black nations. Despite their optimism, however, Haiti continued to struggle politically and economically, which threatened black activists’ dreams about Haiti’s destiny. As a result, tensions flared between 1866 and 1871, when the U.S. government again reconsidered the possibility of annexation, this time, creating intense division within the black leadership over their commitment to Haitian sovereignty. Yet, ultimately, their determination to support Haitian independence persisted even after the U.S. military invaded and occupied the fledgling nation in 1915.

While existing scholarship concentrates almost exclusively on the twentieth century, “The Birth of Black Internationalism” challenges historians and lay readers to consider the origins of black internationalism. In fact, I assert that it is not possible to fully understand the international dimensions of the modern black freedom struggle without understanding its roots in the nineteenth century. As such, this study expands the burgeoning fields of black internationalism and African Diaspora Studies and transforms our understanding of the scope and influence of transnational black activism in the nineteenth century and beyond.