One hundred years ago this fall, on the morning of October 7, 1919, a group of two hundred to three hundred armed Haitian rebels launched an attack on U.S. occupation forces in Port-au-Prince. Wielding “swords, machetes, and pikes,” these cacos (as they were called) entered the city with hopes of national liberation, driven to violence by a brutal, racist U.S. occupation. This occupation had subjected Haitians to the hated forced labor system of the corvée, seized control over Haitian finance, and rewritten the Haitian Constitution at gunpoint, enabling foreign companies to acquire land in the country. But though well-armed with grievances, the rebels were outgunned; American troops and their Haitian gendarmerie decimated them with rifles and automatic weapons. Rebel leader Charlemagne Peralte was able to escape (for the moment), but dozens of rebels were slaughtered, their base camp overrun, their one field canon seized.
By November 1919, Peralte himself would be betrayed and assassinated, his lifeless body strung up and photographed by his killers as so-called proof that resistance was futile. The American occupiers deliberately spread the photo of Peralte’s corpse across Haiti, attempting to demoralize supporters of the uprising. But standing stripped to the waist, strapped to a door with his arms flung wide, the slain Peralte resembled nothing so much as a victim of crucifixion, martyred by the American Rome. The propaganda image boomeranged on its makers, creating an unintended consequence: Charlemagne Peralte became hailed as a national hero.
As many as three thousand Haitian people would be killed in what has been called the Second Cacos War (1917–20). Yet despite such repression, Haitian resistance to the U.S. occupation would continue for the next decade among students, peasants, and workers alike, until the exit of U.S. troops in 1934. As Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat put it in a 2015 New Yorker article:
During the nineteen years of the U.S. occupation, fifteen thousand Haitians were killed. Any resistance to the centralized, U.S.-installed puppet governments was crushed, and a gendarmerie—a combination of army and police, modelled after an occupation force—was created to replace the Marines after they left. Although U.S. troops officially pulled out of Haiti in 1934, the United States exerted some control over Haiti’s finances until 1947.
The distorting and oppressive impacts of the U.S. occupation have been felt in Haitian society ever since. As scholars such as Michel-Rolph Trouillot have long shown, the restructuring of the Haitian state during this period—from its financial institutions to its dreaded military police—created an enduring and corrupt governmental entity that answered less to the Haitian people than to local elites and foreign interests.
The American occupation of Haiti (1915–34) had unintended consequence in the United States itself as well, where it spurred anti-imperialist consciousness and organizing. As Steve Striffler reviews in his critical history, Solidarity: Latin America and the U.S. Left in the Era of Human Rights, resistance in the 1920s was first centered in the African-American and Haitian émigré communities, with figures such as James Weldon Johnson of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) playing a critical role. The focus on U.S. abuses in Haiti encouraged greater internationalism within the existing “Negro” rights movement, while drawing together a broad anti-imperialist tendency that included magazines like the Nation as well as elements of the radical socialist/communist left. “Such efforts,” Striffler writes, “made the occupation increasingly unpopular in the United States by the mid-1920s, and created space for expanded opposition in Haiti,” ultimately making the formal military occupation untenable.
One lasting legacy of this oppositional movement can be found in the work left behind by politically engaged authors, who, in their creative and critical writings of this period, foreground Haiti and the burning issues its history raises. Across the 1930s, U.S. radical writers looked to Haiti not just to dramatize Black victimization or American brutality, but for insight and inspiration that could empower progressive labor, antiracist and antifascist struggles in the United States and worldwide. As Benjamin Balthaser has shown in his recent book Anti-Imperialist Modernism, left-wing writings from the period of the U.S. occupation of Haiti often emphasized the historical, revolutionary agency of this long-oppressed people. Against the grain of dominant North American discourses that routinely depict the Haitian people as helpless victims, unruly mobs, postapocalyptic zombies, exotic-erotic tourist attractions, or raw human material ripe for exploitation, anti-imperialist literary representations of Haiti from the 1930s treat Haitians as potential revolutionary subjects. A now-well-known work such as C. L. R. James’s Black Jacobins (1938) was not alone in its insight, but rather emerged from the crucible of a broader radical movement that sought to put Haiti front and center—both as capitalist profit center and as site of revolutionary ferment.
Among the all-but forgotten figures in this underappreciated anti-imperialist movement was the writer Guy Endore (1900–70). Turning to study the history of Haiti just as the formal U.S. military occupation was coming to its end in 1933–34, Endore was inspired to create one of the great neglected, anti-imperialist works in twentieth century U.S. literature, his historical novel of slavery and revolution, Babouk—a book that is still in print, thanks to Monthly Review Press. Born in Brooklyn, raised partly in Europe, partly in an Ohio orphanage, fluent in French as well as German from youth, Endore lacked a sense of a stable social position. He would state later that he had “never been able to discover exactly where I fit in…everything sort of cancels out in me. I’m neither European, nor American; neither Jew nor Christian; neither of the country nor the city; neither of this century nor the last; neither rich nor poor; and even in my studies, I was always divided, always torn between the sciences and the arts.” By the mid–1930s, Endore was, like many young writers of his generation, turning to the left. He would spend two decades as a committed member of the Communist Party (CPUSA)—finding there a kind of home for his homelessness. However, though his political awakening was shaped by the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, “it was when I studied that Haiti business,” Endore recalled, “that I really began to take a side and began to see that there were exploiters and exploited.” In Babouk, “my intention,” he wrote, “was to make the reader feel and smell and taste the crime of slavery, until he abominated it; and not only historical slavery, but all those too-numerous characteristics of it that have survived into our own day.”
Such comments make clear that while eighteenth century Saint Domingue was Endore’s immediate focus, his aims extended beyond that singular situation. He sought to intervene not only in the historiography around Haiti, but also in contemporary 1930s struggles for social justice. To pursue this split purpose—addressing not just “historical slavery” but its present surviving aspects—Baboukdeploys a self-conscious narrative voice that frequently “interrupts” the action of past events to comment directly to the modern reader, drawing parallels to more contemporary injustices and pointing out the failures of traditional history or literature when it comes to representing such issues. While working closely from primary historical documents—thanks to his fluency in French—Endore crafted a meta-historical form that could simultaneously do justice to the historical reality of Haiti, while also allowing the fires of exploitation and revolution there to illuminate a broader contemporary web of capitalism, racism, and empire. Baboukthus deserves attention today not only as a historical document of the “Hands off Haiti” movement, but also as an exhortation and provocation to revolutionary thought and practice more generally.
To be sure, this radical book emerged from an unlikely quarter.
Originally, Endore had been commissioned in 1933 by a commercial publisher to write a “Caribbean romance” set against the horrifying “backdrop of tom-toms.” Exoticizing travel narratives of Haitian “voodoo,” after all, had been in vogue since the U.S. occupation and Endore was at this time best-known as a horror writer, especially for his New York Times bestseller Werewolf of Paris (1933). But Endore’s research, which included an extended trip to Haiti, led him to produce a very different kind of book, one that not only brings the horrifying “backdrop” of Haiti into the foreground, but inverts the nature of the “horror” we encounter. The horror here is not on the side of “native savagery,” but of so-called civilization. From its first page to its last, Babouk confronts us with the callous strategies and often monstrous technologies of physical and ideological repression that were building blocks of colonization and slavery. Readers turning to Babouk for a glimpse of the “monstrous Other” then are likely to be surprised, for the book compels us to recognize how the true monstrosity afflicting Haiti were the products of capitalist “reason” in the service of profit and empire.
And so, sent to Haiti to write a romantic/horrific page-turner, Endore wrote instead a masterpiece to overthrow masters with, a horror tale in which the three-headed monster is capitalism, racism, and empire, and the heroes are slaves in revolt. His commissioned employer, Century Press, seeking a different kind of horror, refused to publish the book and other major commercial publishers followed suit. Clifton Fadiman, then editor at Simon and Schuster and lead book reviewer for the New Yorker, wrote Endore privately to compliment him, “Babouk is a powerful, moving piece of work,” but he added that “it won’t sell because it’s just too horrible. The reviews would warn people away from it. We would be afraid to handle it.”
Fadiman was not far off in his commercial estimates—though considering his position of influence, his lament was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Brought out by the small radical press Vanguard, Endore soon found his novel denounced by the New York Times as an attempt to inspire a “race riot,” and criticized in the New Republic by reviewer Martha Gruening, who charged Endore with producing not a novel at all, but a mere “calendar of horrors.”
Make no mistake: there is certainly plenty in Babouk that could be seen as “horrible,” beginning with the history itself—enslavement, resistance, and ruling-class repression. Moreover, the writing in the text often retains an element of the sensationalist horror style that put Endore on the map. The very first page of the book contains a detailed discussion of the “work” done by a “genius,” a so-called “nigger taster” whose trained tongue helps tell which of the enslaved are healthy enough to be purchased, and which not. (The slave traders after all, are interested in cheating one another as well, hiding the illness of their captives with perfumes and make-up and even fake teeth.) Later chapters detail grotesque diseases and conditions aboard the slave ship, the torture techniques used to punish rebel slaves, and even the brutal pike-impaling of a white infant at the height of the slave rebellion. The book at times seems to sarcastically revel in revealing the historical monstrosities that enslavers and colonizers devise to manage and rationalize their vicious regime. Endore’s wager seems to have been that his talent for the graphic and gothic could be leveraged to bring a broader popular readership to confront uncomfortable social and historical truths. He had clear political motivations for Babouk to be sure, but, as he put it, he also “wrote the book to sell.” In 1934, somehow, it had not seemed impossible for a book to be both an anticapitalist horror and a commercial hit. After all, hadn’t his 1933 horror novel Werewolf of Paris topped the charts, despite (or perhaps because of) its class-conscious account of the Paris Commune?
But it would be a mistake to write off Endore’s vivid depictions of violence as mere sensationalism, or as a left-wing replication of the “exotic discourses” that predominated in U.S. depictions of Haiti at the time. Similarly, it would be a mistake to see Endore’s representation of the repressive effects of imperialism and slavery as a gratuitous objectification of black bodies, aimed at stirring the sentimental emotions of (predominantly white) readers. Rather, Endore’s goal in so vividly depicting historical horror is to bring to consciousness the ways that the most seemingly extreme and “monstrous” acts of the slave system—for instance, the public burning of slave rebels, the clipping of ears from runaways, elaborate regime of torture, and so on—were in fact “logical” and “rational” outgrowths of the capitalistic logic of profit-maximization and social control. At the same time, Endore draws out the ways that such extreme measures of repression testify to the pervasive resistance of the enslaved.
As an exploration of history, Babouk remains remarkable for the way it explores the dialectic of oppression and resistance, foregrounding how contradictions among the ruling classes themselves (such as the contradiction between maximizing short-term profit and sustaining long-term social control, or the contradiction between different blocs of rival property owners), open up space for resistance from below. Even such a totalitarian system as racialized chattel slavery had its cracks and weak links. At the same time, Endore zooms in on slave resistance in its own right, emphasizing the importance of cultural practices—and in particular practices of collective story-telling—as a crucial site of mass resistance and revolutionary preparation. Through the story-telling gifts of his titular character Babouk, Endore suggests the ways in which the verbal arts can be used strategically, raising the consciousness and sustaining the spirit of the oppressed, while puncturing the myths of racial or class superiority that seek to naturalize ruling power. Thus, at the same time as it confronts us with the stark limits of traditional Western historiography, Babouk—as imaginative fiction—explores the importance of creative culture for preparing the path to revolution. Babouk himself might be read as a figure for the radical artist that Endore may have aspired to become, working with complex inherited cultural materials—African trickster stories and European Bible tales alike—to forge unity among the oppressed and to clarify the need for a general revolt.
Thus, while Endore constantly exposes the “background” apparatus of exploitation, the main story of Babouk reimagines the leadup to the Haitian Revolution, through the coming-of-age story of an eponymous protagonist based loosely on the historical figure of Boukman Dutty. Remembered as a crucial catalyst of the early uprisings of 1791, known for his key role at the ceremony of Bois Caiman, Boukman’s early death left subsequent leadership to other, now better-known figures, such as Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. It also left Boukman himself something of a historical mystery, creating room for much subsequent historical debate, while providing Endore with the space for reimagining the unrecorded pre-history of the revolution.
Endore presents Babouk as a field slave, emphasizing his talents as an unconventional, yet popular story teller. In stark contrast to those nationalist writers of the 1920s and ’30s who sought to champion Haiti in the face of imperialist degradation by celebrating its long line of strong black military men, from Toussaint and Dessalines to Henry Christophe, Endore chose instead to foreground a lowly field worker, whose only power among the Haitian masses comes through his well-chosen words. Though Toussaint and Dessalines are never mentioned by name in the book, Endore implies a sharp distinction between Babouk and those leaders who were “as astute as the whites” and would come to dominate the Haitian state after the revolution. Emphasizing the “gold bedizened uniforms” of leaders who seek to imitate their former masters, Endore reminds us that some of these figures were all too eager to compromise with colonial powers, some even proposing the reintroduction of slavery. “Babouk,” Endore writes, “had nothing to do with these.”
Babouk thus attempts a tense balance: conjuring the emancipatory spirit of slave insurrection and emphasizing the revolutionary importance of storytelling, but without romanticizing the contradictory aftermath of a revolution that—despite its historic achievements—would leave in place new forms of egregious exploitation and inequality. Recalling Peralte’s attack on Port-au-Prince, Endore chooses to focus Babouk’s climax not on a heroic moment of victory, but on an insurgent attack that fails…but that (like this historical uprising led by Boukman in 1791) helps usher in a broader mass upsurge. As we finish Endore’s novel, we are still in 1791, the Haitian Revolution represented not as monumental accomplishment of the past, but as an insurgent necessity of the present. He leaves us looking at the burning sugar cane fields beyond the walls of the city; the horizon of emancipation remains a future to be fought for.
In this way, Endore distinguishes his narrative from accounts that portray the human aspirations of the Haitian Revolution as fulfilled with the achievement of national independence alone, as if the formal rejection of foreign rule had thereby ended economic exploitation and extreme social inequality in the formal colony.
In his critical report from Haiti in 1934, “Haiti and U.S.A. Occupation,” published concurrently with Babouk, Endore specifically targets the ruse of nationalism as a main danger to the cause of liberation. In this (nonfiction) piece, published in the antifascist magazine Fight, Endore offers a sharp class critique of Haitian nationalism (and the U.S. liberalism that embraces it), taking aim at the notion that rule by the local elite represents genuine progress as far as the working Haitian masses are concerned. This local elite is a class of exploiters, he underscores, just as much as U.S. financiers and occupiers, notwithstanding their claims to the contrary.
At the same time, Endore’s essay makes an effort to understand why well-intentioned liberal or African-American intellectual observers feel the impulse to rally to a nationalist defense of Haiti, as “the last refuge” of “Negro pride” in a world dominated by European colonialism. But to identify Haitian elite rule with a refuge from racism or class domination would be, Endore argues, not only “erroneous” but “vicious.” “A Negro bourgeoisie can and has in some places replaced a white bourgeoisie with no improvement in the lot of the majority,” as he points out. “Such are the fruits of Haitian nationalism acquired so painfully at the price of the lives of a hundred thousand Negroes.”
Nor is Endore’s problem only with the particular nationalism of the Haitian elite. Rather, he generalizes the point, arguing that “national prejudice is only a different form of the class system by which the ruling class is assured of always having someone to remove its garbage or do its unskilled factory work, someone whom the ruling class will despise and keep in his ‘place.’” Whether in the United States or elsewhere, Endore writes, race prejudice is “fostered by capitalism to disrupt the strength of the proletariat by preventing the oppressed white worker from acting in concert with the Negroes.” (We can hypothesize that Babouk was aimed in part at helping those oppressed white workers to see why they should act in concert with their black brethren and reject the racist bait of their own ruling class.)
Endore closes his Fight article by asking readers to “strip the bright paint of patriotic idealism off the Haitian upper classes and reveal what is beneath,” while at the same time forging a Hands off Haiti movement that sides not with the “gros negre kulaks,” (that is, the wealthy Haitian landowners), but with the “cacos spirit” for the “realization of full social justice.” Clearly, Peralte’s Cacos insurgency of 1919 was not far from Endore’s mind as he attempted to articulate a class-conscious anti-imperialism.
While Endore abstains from commenting directly on the U.S. occupation in Baboukitself, there can be no doubt that what he learned from Haitians themselves had a major effect on his novel. For instance, during his trip to Haiti, Endore learned of how the U.S. military occupation facilitated massive land theft, turning literacy itself into a weapon against the Haitian masses. It was “easy” to steal local peasants’ land, Endore recalled:
You just go up to a man and you say, “Who owns this land?” He’ll say, “I do.” Then you go to the land records office and you record your name for that land, and then you go to him and you say, “I’ve got a record for this land. I own it. Where’s your record? Let’s see which one is the real one.” Of course, he hasn’t got a record.… If the man refused to leave [the land] the American would threaten him with a gun, and if he was halfway decent, he’d give him a job. So, in this way, a number of plantations were built up.
Acutely conscious of the power of written “records” backed by guns, it is surely no coincidence that, near the climax of Babouk, as the Haitian masses set fire to the sugar fields outside the capital, Endore champions the insurgents, not merely as race rebels or as black workers, but as “rebels against the bill of sale.” Employing his ironic narrator to ventriloquize a self-righteous ruling class, he sarcastically declares:
Here is our bill of sale! Flag of the unmapped land that covers the earth!
Revolt against that if you dare and you will be broken on the wheel!…
Millionaires! you true internationalists who regiment your workers into countries, hoist aloft your flag: the bill of sale!
You wretches out in the burning plain before Le Cap, where is your bill of sale? What! Have you [slaves] taken your liberty and you have no bill of sale?
Then beat the general alarm!… Down with the rebels against the bill of sale!
Reframing the historic slave revolt this way, Endore distills from the rebellion of 1791 a universal meaning that can resonate with readers in other places and times, beyond the immediate context of the fight to end chattel slavery or colonialism. To be sure, as is now widely known, generations of Haitians have been burdened with a massive and odious “bill of sale” forced on them by French gunboats and U.S. banks after 1804, as penance for its costly “theft” of property in flesh, (a debt the equivalent of $21 billion today). But Endore’s “bill of sale” frame resonates even more broadly, allowing us to see a kinship to other struggles as well, wherever the militant movement of the people come up against the sacred “property rights” of their would-be masters—whether that be in the form of an eviction blockade, a workplace occupation, or the expropriation of the expropriators of Marxist prophecy.
In such a way, Endore implies that the mass of humanity—across the illusory lines of race and nation—is still in a sense enslaved to the domination of “the bill of sale.” At the same time, he suggests that the kinds of brutal repression brought down on eighteenth century Haitian rebel slaves may lie in wait for all those who are serious about depriving the ruling class of their most precious property. Babouk thus asks readers to see in the revolt of Haitian slaves the vanguard of a more general and global revolution, while confronting us all with the sobering fact that, if the goal is revolution, grievances alone will not be enough.
The second to last chapter of the novel ends with a description of how Babouk’s body is decapitated, dismembered, and publicly displayed—not unlike Peralte’s own—as a warning to those who would challenge the masters’ power.But like the photo of the martyred Peralte, the displaying of Babouk’s corpse does more to incite rebellion than to quell it. In this way, Endore pays closing honor to the cacos martyrs whose brave attack on imperialist occupation—however ill-fated—nonetheless helped raise the consciousness of people who came after them, including North American writers such as himself. Perhaps Endore wagered that, like the death photos of Peralte, the depicted brutalities of his own book would help inspire new waves of revolt.
Coming off Babouk, in 1935, Endore seemed to be full of the sense of radical possibility, publishing a vision for what he called a “new school of Marxian historical fiction,” whose principal aim would be “the revelation of the hidden but unending class struggle of the ages.” His enthusiasm for the work to be done is palpable as he lists what might have been his next series of books: “Gracchus [Babeuf], Spartacus, the Crusades, the Peasant Wars, colonial expansion—history is replete with magnificent untouched material that the old novelist bent on portraying love triumphant, picturesque adventures or some trivial plot, could not use.”
But, sadly, Endore would not complete—indeed, would hardly even begin—the avowedly revolutionary literary project he outlined. Quickly, he fell from this vista of enthusiasm; Babouk sold only a few hundred copies, met mixed reviews, and soon went out of print. Even sympathetic comrades failed to grasp the richness of his radical work. African-American Marxist literary critic Eugene Gordon praised the book in The New Masses as the “best of its kind” and yet, notwithstanding Endore’s comments to the contrary, criticized Babouk as “too nationalistic,” suggesting that it implied a modern world driven by racial resentments, rather than the systemic forces of capitalism.
Having his forgotten masterpiece fail to connect was a profoundly deflating experience. By 1941, while still publicly identifying as a communist, Endore wrote not to herald a new revolutionary genre, but to lament a radical conundrum:
The writer’s task is to amuse, to interpret, to exhort. It is my aim to do all three together, whenever possible.… The predicament of the writer is that the average person wishes to be amused and not instructed in his short leisure; he does not wish to be made aware of his misfortunes; he wants something to help him forget; while the upper classes threaten to tear the social structure down with them, if, by interpretation or exhortation, their privileges are attacked.
Still later, Endore lamented: “I wrote [Babouk] to sell, but I misjudged the people, I misjudged the time, everything. So, I turned away from that kind of writing and worked on motion pictures.” (Soon after he would be blacklisted from Hollywood for his communist political affiliations.) Chastened by Babouk’s failure, Endore would later refer to himself as a “hack writer” who wrote only “for money to support myself and my family, and that’s it.” It is important to underscore that Endore would remain active for decades, as a writer of Hollywood screenplays and popular novels, and as a communist activist, authoring pamphlets against racism and teaching writing in CPUSA-run schools near Los Angeles. But the revolutionary fusion of literary and political intervention that Babouk represented was no longer on his agenda. Yet decades later Endore would still refer to Babouk as his “forgotten masterpiece.”
But though it failed commercially in Endore’s own time, Babouk deserves renewed consideration in ours, from those interested in reimaginings of slavery and the Haitian Revolution, and more broadly. For by closely studying the particular history of Haiti, Endore presents us with broader insights about the ongoing class struggles that continue to drive world history, while offering a radical critique of the ways that inherited literature and dominant history tend to hide those struggles from view. At the same time, Endore points us towards the need for a different kind of historical imagining—and a different kind of story-telling—that might become a weapon in the revolutionary struggle. At one point, Endore apostrophizes his own main character, confronting the paradox of recovering voices of resistance that all too often have been lost to written history:
Babouk, we have gone beyond your century. Your voice is lost in the past. Your wavering voice is lost in the steaming field of Saint-Domingue. It is lost both in time and space. And yet it cannot be lost altogether, Babouk. It cannot die in a void. Oh, no. All the wavering voices of the complaining Negro, be they of the dead or of the living, of Africa or America, yet they will someday be woven into a great net and they will pull that deaf master out of his flowery garden and down into the muddy stinking field.
If studying Haitian history helped inspire Endore to take the side of the exploited and oppressed, Babouk weaves together stories of struggle, arming readers for the battle to come. Whatever we ultimately make of the literary weapon he forged, Endore’s own story reminds us that, by confronting the horror and hope of history, it is possible for people (even from ostensibly privileged groups) to transform themselves and their work in solidarity with the oppressed.
And let us not forget, even in Endore’s own time, there were readers who were ready for Babouk. The glowing 1935 review for The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP, makes that very clear. “Here is a book that should be in the bookcase of every Negro family” as they wrote:
Devastating is the only word that describes adequately the irony running from its first page to the last. Speaking through Babouk and seeing through the slaves’ eyes, the author punctures all the cruelty, greed, pomp, and vainglory of whites with deadly rapier thrusts. There is scarcely a topic in this whole race problem which the author does not permit Babouk to address.… Babouk should be in your library.
Thankfully today, Monthly Review Press continues to keep Babouk’s voice alive into the twenty-first century. In a world more than ever dominated by “the bill of sale,” and still shaped by the legacies of slavery, Endore’s “forgotten masterpiece” deserves a place on the radical bookshelf.