Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

The Failure of Categories: Haitians in the United Nations Organization in the Congo, 1960-64

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

The Failure of Categories: Haitians in the United Nations Organization in the Congo, 1960-64

Article excerpt

The 1960s was a tumultuous decade in world history, especially across the continent of Africa where almost thirty European colonies were dismantled. Although experiences and obstacles varied by country, colonial withdrawal opened up new opportunities for African nationalists as well as black expatriates.1 Activists and radicals from the United States and the Caribbean flocked to postcolonial Africa, along with businessmen and investors seeking to capitalize on promises of development. Kevin Gaines, whose work has become indispensable to the history of black internationalism, documents the experiences of African Americans in Ghana:

Professionals, and technicians seeking refuge from constrained opportunities . . . were welcomed by Nkrumah, who, perhaps more than any other African head of state of his time, encouraged blacks from the Western world to emigrate and lend their skills to building the new nation.2

While Ghana stands out, according to Gaines, because Kwame Nkrumah made it a "destination of radical hope" for black expatriates,3 the Congo was also a significant site for different reasons. In what became known as the "Congo Crisis," former colonial governments and international organizations played decisive roles in the transition to independence as well as in the experiences of the individuals whose diasporic subjectivities led them to Africa.

The United Nations and its specialized agencies began recruitment efforts to replace European administrators of African bureaucracies as early as 1958. After the Democratic Republic of Congo achieved independence from Belgium in June 1960, the UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld launched the most extensive and prominent among these efforts: the United Nations Organization in the Congo or ONUC {Organisation des National Unies au Congo).* For four years, the Civilian Operations Program recruited French-speaking professionals and technicians from all over the world to help establish the country's infrastructure and to supplement the small Congolese leadership class. Hundreds of Haitians-teachers, professors, engineers, and doctors-went to Africa as part of the ONUC program. By 1962, Haitian émigrés constituted the second largest contingent of UN staff experts working in the Congo.5 Maurice Dartigue was Chief of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) Africa Division. Dr. Athemas Bellerive directed the World Health Organization (WHO) medical team that included several Haitian doctors (see Figure 1). And in 1963, ONUC's military force was commanded by Max H. Dorsinville.6

A relatively large number of Haitians participated in the UN programs in Benin and Cameroon, as well as in the Congo. Some Haitians spent career lifetimes with their families there. Yet what is known about the experiences of the estimated 7,500 Haitians in African countries amounts to undocumented fragments that have accumulated over time and are repeated in literature and various commentaries.

The historiography of post-World War II pan-Africanism focuses primarily on Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa as sites of resistance and black internationalist activism. As Martin and West note, referring to Gilroy's The Black Atlantic and The Practice of Diaspora by Brent Hayes Edwards, "That literature, even in its more recent diasporic and Black Atlantic variations, displays a consistent Afro-Saxon bias."7 When Haiti is mentioned at all, it is frozen in time in 1804; in popular and scholarly perception, Haiti's impact on the world is effectively limited to the Haitian Revolution. The connections between Haiti and Africa-and the relationships between Haitian and African peoples-are imagined as largely symbolic, with no attention to the ways Haitian émigrés took tangible, self-determined action on behalf of African sovereignty.8

Equally troubling, Africa only enters the scholarship on Haitian migration in the work of epidemiologists. Here, the "Haitian hypothesis" proliferates, alleging that Haitian people brought AIDS to the United States in the 1970s after returning from Africa. …

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