Day 14: “To Become a Great Man for his Country and for his Race”: Happy Black History Month and Valentine’s Day from Jean Price-Mars

Day 14: “To Become a Great Man for his Country and for his Race”: Happy Black History Month and Valentine’s Day from Jean Price-Mars (Haiti)

Jean Price-Mars

Jean Price-Mars (1876 – 1969) was a Haitian physician, ethnographer, statesman, diplomat, educator, historian, religious scholar, and pan-Africanist. As a towering intellectual in Haitian history and Black Studies, in his writings, he called to reevaluate the contributions of Africa in universal civilizations and to revalorize African retentions and cultural practices in the African diaspora, especially on Haitian soil. Through his body of work, Price-Mars, whom the Senegalese poet and President Léopold Sédar Senghor called “the Father of Negritude,” sought to establish connecting linkages between Africa and the African Diaspora, and the shared history between people of African descent in the Diaspora.

Price-Mars is the father of Haitian ethnology and Dean of Haitian Studies in the twentieth century, and arguably, the most influential thinker who has graced the nation of Haiti since the death of his mentor Joseph Auguste Anténor Firmin in 1911. In Haitian thought, Price-Mars has exercised an enduring intellectual and ideological influence on the young Haitian intellectuals and writers of the generation of the American Occupation in Haiti (1915-1934) and the post-Occupation culture from the 1930s to 1970s. In contemporary Haitian society, his legacy continues to shape Haitian history and cultural nationalism. He is especially known for launching a cultural nationalism and an anti-imperial movement against the brutal American military forces in Haiti. His body of work and public intellectualism were instrumental in the process of fostering national unity among Haitians of all social classes and against their American oppressor.

As an educator, from 1912-15, Price-Mars was appointed as National Inspector of Public Education in Haiti. He worked enthusiastically to reform the education system in Haiti and to empower Haitian educators. At a time where Haitian women were not given the opportunity to receive an education and were treated as second class citizens, Price-Mars in his celebrated book La Vocation de l’Elite (1919) devoted a detailed chapter (“La femme de demain”) promoted women’s education and agency, and the equality and the dignity of Haitian women. He persuasively argued that the Haitian government had a moral obligation to ensure women’s rights and freedom in both civil and political societies; according to Price-Mars, the Haitian society was wasting its talents and resources by keeping Haitian women encaged in domestic duties and not affirming their potentiality in advancing the Haitian culture and improving the human condition. As a feminist, Price-Mars affirmed the universal value of women in global history and universal civilization; he was an early pioneer of the Feminist Movement and especially the Haitian Women’s Movement, associated with the “Ligue Féminine d’action sociale,” founded in 1934.

In 1941, he founded the Institute of Ethnology (“l’Institut d’Ethnologie”) in Port-au-Prince, whose objectives also included ethnographic and archeological research about Haitian culture and society, the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and understanding about the religious sensibility of the Haitian people, and the defense of Haitian culture and heritage. At the Institute of Ethnology, Price-Mars served as its first President and was the Chair of Sociology and Africology until 1947. For many years, he has served as Dean of the State University of Haiti (UEH) until his retirement in 1960. Undoubtedly, Price-Mars was a pioneer in developing what is known today as Africana Studies and the discipline of Africology; correspondingly, he had played a major role in advancing the academic study of Vodou and the Social Sciences in Haiti’s higher education.

Moreover, Jean Price-Mars has been nationally and internationally recognized for his accomplishments, global influence, and body of work. In 1956, he was unanimously chosen as President of the 1st International Congress of Black Writers and Artists that took place on September 19-22, 1956 at the Sorbonne in Paris, France; in the same year, he was unanimously elected the first President of the Société Africaine de Culture (Paris, France) (African Society of Culture), an organization affiliated with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Correspondingly, in 1956, the French president Jules Gustave René Coty honored Price-Mars as “Commandeur de la Légion d’Honneur,” the highest French order of merit, both military and civil. In 1957, the Awards Committee of the Université de Paris awarded him with the Doctor Honoris Causa. In 1958, he was appointed as Member of the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (Paris, France). In 1959, the French Academy (“l’Académie Française”) awarded Price-Mars a special prize for his body of work and the Silver Medal of the French Language. Also, in 1959, Price-Mars was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in France and was elected as Member of the Honorary Committee of the ADELF (Association of French Language Writers).  In the same year (1959), the Haitian government, under the François Duvalier administration, awarded him Presidential Pension for life due to his outstanding contributions and services rendered to the nation of Haiti. In 1965, he was selected as the First winner of the ADELF Caribbean Literary Prize (Paris) for his body of work. Finally, in 1966, President and poet Léopold Senghor and the University of Dakar invited Price-Mars to Senegal to award him with the Doctor Honoris Causa.

His Background

Jean Price-Mars was born on October 15, 1876, in Grande-Rivière du Nord in Haiti, and died on March 1, 1969 in Pétion-Ville, Haiti. His father, Jean Eléomont Mars, was a devout Protestant; his mother, Fortuna Michel Domingue, who died in a smallpox epidemic when Price-Mars was only 6 years old, adhered to the Catholic faith.  After his mother’s death, the young Price-Mars was confined by his grieving father to the care of his maternal grandmother, Marie Elizabeth P. Godart. He was reared in both the Catholic and Protestant traditions. At the prestigious Lycée Pétion in Port-au-Prince, he furthered his secondary education; according to his biographer Magdaleine Shannon, he “identified himself as Protestant, obtained permission to attend Baptist services at the weekends, and explored the city at will during the week.”[1] Another Price-Mars biographer Jacques Carmeleau Antoine states that “though he sought and obtained permission to attend Baptist services, he spent more time roaming about the city than in Church.”[2] Overall, Price-Mars’ attitude toward religion was cold, and he was caught in “the throes of an inner conflict.”[3] By confession, he was both a theistic humanist and religious modernist, that is, he was not devoted to any religious system or creed, whether that of Vodou, Catholic Christianity, Protestant Christianity, etc.

After receiving his baccalaureate in July 1895 from the Lycée (he was 19 years old!), he immediately began medical training at the National School of Medicine. In 1899, he received a scholarship from the Haitian government to continue his medical studies in Paris at the Faculté de medicine. Due to financial difficulty, he was not able to continue his medical training in France and eventually returned to Haiti. Twenty-two years later, in 1922, he completed his studies and received the Doctor of Medicine degree in Haiti. It is not certain if Price-Mars has ever worked at a medical clinic or hospital as physician or has he even actively practiced medicine in Haiti. Nonetheless, his son Louis Mars was the first Haitian psychiatrist and widely known as a practicing physician in Haiti.  It is good to note that in Paris, Price-Mars pursued other interests in the social sciences and humanities at Sorbonne, the Collège de France, and equally at the Musée du Trocadéro and the Museum of Natural History.[4] Price-Mars had read widely in the European modern thought and was schooled in anthropology, ethnography, sociology, and the racialist discourse of Western intellectuals.

Jean Price-Mars had had a productive and long career as an educator, a writer, a statesman, and a diplomat committedly serving and representing his country nationally and internationally. For example, as a diplomat, from 1908-1911, he served as Haitian chargé d’affaires in Washington, D.C., and from 1915-16, he served as Foreign Minister in France. He was also appointed as Haiti’s ambassador at the United Nations, Germany, Dominican Republic, etc. He had enjoyed a successful diplomatic career that lasted for over 50 years. Price-Mars served as Senator for the Department of Nord and was Secretary of State for Foreign Relations. In 1930, during the American occupation, Price-Mars ran for the Haitian presidency, and eventually withdrew his candidacy in favor of the prominent lawyer and politician Sténio Joseph Vincent, who was elected as President of Haiti (November 18, 1930 to May 15, 1941). In 1941, at the end of the Vincent’s second term, he won the senatorial election for a second time.

Price-Mars and the Haitian Society: His Ideas and Writings

The writings of Price-Mars were instrumental in challenging the Haitian intellectual of his leadership role in the Haitian society, and in promoting national consciousness and unity among Haitians of all social classes. Comparatively, his work was a catalyst in the process of shaping and reshaping Haitian cultural identity and reconsidering the viability of the Afro-Haitian faith of Vodou as religion among the so-called World religions. His thought anticipated what is known today in the academia as postcolonialism and decolonization.

Moreover, scholars have also identified Price-Mars as the Francophone counterpart of W.E.B. Du Bois for his activism, scholarly rigor, leadership efficiency, and his unremitting efforts to challenge anti-black racism, Western racial history, and white supremacy in the modern world. Unapologetically, Price-Mars challenged the doctrine of white supremacy and the ideological construction of Western history by demonstrating the equality and dignity of the races and all people, and their achievements in the human historical narrative. As Du Bois, he was a transdisciplinary scholar, boundary-crosser, and cross-cultural theorist; in an unorthodox way, he had brought in conversation various disciplines including anthropology, ethnography, geography, sociology, history, religion, philosophy, race theory, and literature to study the human condition and the most pressing issues facing the nations and peoples of the world, as well as the possible implications they may bear upon us in the postcolonial moment. Price-Mars’ reassessment of the Haitian society and the existence of African traditions and popular beliefs in Haiti resulted in the publication of a trilogy: La Vocation de l’élite (1919), Ainsi parla l’Oncle: Essai d’ethnographie (1928), and Une étape de l’évolution haïtienne (1929). Price-Mars’ discourse on religion is distinguished by its emphasis on Black and African religiosity and spirituality. His other major works include a two-volume work on the social and political (La République d’Haïti et la République dominicaine. Les aspects divers d’un problème d’histoire, de géographie et d’ethnologie. TOME I, 1953, and La République d’Haïti et la République dominicaine. Les aspects divers d’un problème d’histoire, de géographie et d’ethnologie. TOME II, 1953) history, as well as about the genesis, geography, culture, and relations between the two countries that share the island of Hispaniola: the Republic of Haiti (on the West side) and the Dominican Republic (on the East side).

Notably, Jean Price-Mars was one of the first Caribbean scholars to use the concept of cultural métissage to describe Caribbean societies and, by implication, the religions of the people in the Region. Cultural métissage is defined as the process of interweaving or cross-breeding; it bears the notion that any civilization, race, or culture, is a creative process that had to take nourishment from without. Accordingly, every culture or race is inevitably dependent upon another, and the path to individual and social development would not happen without the process of interpenetration between cultures and civilizations.[5] In respect to the Haitian society, Price-Mars posited that Haiti had developed a distinctive culture that is neither African nor French but an adulterated syncretic blending of African and European civilizations. He declares: “From this social alchemy derives an original culture that was neither African, nor French, but a harmonious synthesis of both whose development continued and has continued under our eyes for 150 years of gestation in the Americas.”[6] Through the theory of cultural dynamism, Price-Mars was able to apply those ideas in a scientific way to a comparative study of religion. First, he explained how the religious métissage occurred in the context of Haitian Vodou and Catholicism in the colonial society of Saint-Domingue. As he studied the syncretic nature of the Vodou religion and Haitian Catholic Christianity, he explained that “Vodou has assimilated much of Catholic theology; it is also continuous with African religious traditions. Continuity and change are cultural processes in every society and will endure whether or not they are studied by scholars.”[7]

 First, Price-Mars noted that the Afro-Haitian faith is a symbiosis and a process of religious métissage between African animism and Catholic Christianity. Second, he explained the constitutive elements of the two religious expressions, the Vodou faith and the Catholic tradition in the context of the Haitian culture: “It is true this Catholicism is tangled up with its context. It is the expression of beliefs within which all are mixed in indefensible connections with the basic elements of the Vodoo religion–the cult of ancestors and of the genuises–and the dogmatic principles of Catholicism.”[8] Accordingly, Vodou and Catholicism are connected through the shared ritual of ancestral veneration (or the veneration of the saints) and a common theological worldview. While this may not be true in every theological aspect, Price-Mars pursued his observations by establishing historical links and the interweaving dynamics between the two religions: “A long work, a secular work of syncretism ensured a reciprocal penetration of the two religions in the popular soul to the degree that the Haitian Vodou yields its Dahomean metaphysique of which it derives; it has immersed itself into Catholic Christianity to form new linkages which reject the purity of doctrine.”

At this point, he highlighted two important factors: the process of religious syscretism—which also occurs between cultures—and the work of reciprocal penetration, which had helped create new linkages. One can draw several points from his observation. First, religious métissage rejects theological absolutism, or what Price-Mars had phrased “the purity of doctrine.” Second, this phenomenal process is also an attack on absolute religious claims (of truth) and religious absolutism. Third, therefore, religious syncretism by virtue of interpenetration, and reciprocity between religions denies the supremacy of one religion. Substantially, in Ainsi parla l’Oncle, Price-Mars states that “whatever may be the milieu in which two or more religions exist side by side, it is inevitable that they will pervade each other and react upon each other independently of the desire of men,” adding that this phenomenon occurs especially in the course when “the State interferes to protect one religion at the expense of the others.”[9]

            Nonetheless, it is good to note that Ainsi parla l’Oncle is primarily a book about pre-colonial African societies and civilizations. Second, it is a text that establishes ancestral connections between Black Africa and the African Diaspora. Third, the book shows ancestral rapport between Haiti and pre-colonial African culture and cosmology. Finally, in Price-Mars’ epoch-making text, he gives attention to Haiti’s popular culture and beliefs embedded through the Haitian psychology and mentality, the people’s popular songs, traditions, legends, folklore, religious rituals and practices, etc. Price-Mars has devoted several chapters to the study of pre-colonial African general history and civilizations and linked the diasporic heritage of the African diaspora with ancestral cultural traditions and practices in Africa. (The chapters were previously delivered as public lectures in various locations in the country.) Price-Mars is also concerned about unearthing and exegeting the thriving African religious traditions that existed in the Continent before the African people encountered the Europeans and were exposed to Western version of missionary Christianity and European colonial conquest. As Antoine observes, Price-Mars relies on “the most advanced references on Africa available in the early twentieth century,” and his objective was “to establish the map of religious faith of the Negro according to the map of the slave trade.” Price-Mars himself describes the underlying objective of his book in this clear statement: “This entire book is an endeavor to integrate the integration of popular Haitian thought into the discipline of traditional ethnography.”[10] Price-Mars also articulates that the book aims at the restoration of the value of Haitian folklore in the eyes of the people.  With intellectual brilliance, persuasive rhetoric, clear propositions, Price-Mars chronicles the glorious history of the “Old Continent,” and dismisses the stereotypes that Africa was the land of barbarism and savagery. With detailed information and careful interpretation of pre-colonial African history and religious cosmology, Price-Mars has forcefully showcased that “The Dark Continent” was the mother of human civilization and progress. In other words, Africa is the mother of all civilizations and the DNA of all people and races are intimately connected to the DNA of the Continent itself.

Through his brilliant and forceful vindicationist discourse, Price-Mars was among the few Black writers in the Diaspora, in the first half of the twentieth-century, who sought to rehabilitate African traditional religion and pre-colonial civilizations in the academic study of religion and world history. In Thus Spoke for Uncle, he has devoted three full chapters—which bear the following titles: “Africa, Its Races and Its Civilization,” “Africa and the External World,” and “African Animism.”—to investigate pre-colonial Africa and the study of the religious sentiments of African people. In other complementary chapters in the book where he explains the Haitian life and religious experience—bearing such titles “Popular Beliefs,” “The Religious Sentiments of the Haitian Masses;” and the “Appendix”—Price-Mars links Haitian cultural practices and religious traditions to those of ancestral Africa. In other publications such as Formation ethnique, Folklore et culture du peuple haïtien, and Une étape de l’évolution haïtienne. Étude de socio-psychologie, Price-Mars has offered compelling propositions and arguments to substantiate this underlying thesis.

Using the comparative method in the Humanities, especially in religious study, in his discussion on the concept of God in African tradition religion, Price-Mars would anticipate the brilliant studies by Joseph Kwame Kyeretwie Boakye Danquah, The Akan Doctrine of God: A Fragment of Gold Coast Ethics and Religion (1944); Bolaji Idowu, Olódùmarè: God in Yoruba Belief (1962); and John S. Mbiti’s Concepts of God in Africa (1970). As a precursor to the academic study of African traditional religion, Price-Mars has laid the foundation for a decolonial turn in the academic study of African history, African traditional religion, and African theology. Price-Mars’ postcolonial turn in African scholarship also anticipated important religious works done by African scholars in post-independent Africa such as John Mbiti’s African Religions and Philosophy (1969); Okot P’Bitek’s African Religions and Western Scholarship (1970); Idowu’s African Traditional Religion: A Definition (1973); Kofi Asare Opoku’s West African Traditional Religion (1978); and J. Ọmọṣade Awolalu’s West African traditional religion (1979).

It is true in Thus Spoke the Uncle that Price-Mars had posited that Vodou is largely practiced by the majority of Haitian peasants, but he had not made the claim of Vodou as the “only” religion in Haiti, nor had he excluded other religious expressions in the everyday experience of the Haitian people. Price-Mars never claimed that Vodou is the religion of all Haitians nor has he claimed anywhere that All Haitians are naturally Vodouizan. In acknowledgment of the religious diversity and culture of the Haitian people, Price-Mars made the following statement: “All Haitians are Christian, Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman. In the large cities and more rarely in the country, there are also some followers of reformed religions— Baptists, Adventists, Methodists, Wesleyans—who form an active and Zealous minority.” [11]

Price-Mars, the Haitian Revolution, and Black Achievement in Modernity

Moreover, in his pan-Africanist book, Silhouettes de nègres et de négrophiles, published in 1960, Price-Mars offers biographic information and critical interpretation of the life and work of seven historic figures of African descent: Toussaint Louverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, king Henri Christophe (Haiti); Booker T. Washington, and George Washington Carver (the United States); William Wadé Harris (Liberia); and James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey (Ghana). From a Pan-Africanist perspective, Price-Mars celebrates the history and achievement of Black people and the Black race, both in Africa and the African Diaspora. He praises the African American industrial educator and influential leader Booker T. Washington, and the African American agricultural scientist George Washington Carver for their political activism and enormous contributions to the American civilization and to uplift the Black race in the American society. He underscores the religious sensibility and evangelistic zeal of Liberian Grebo evangelist William Wadé Harris (1860 – 1929), who is dubbed the “Black Elijah” of West Africa. Price-Mars highlights Harris’ anti-imperial and anti-colonial ideas and actions as one who had sought heroically to liberate Black Africa both spiritually and politically. Prophet Harris preached the Christian message of repentance and salvation in Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, etc. Correspondingly, Price-Mars highlights on the formidable leadership and public intellectualism of the Ghanaian educator and missionary James Aggrey. Not only he showcases how each noted individual has served the black people of his respective country; he emphasizes the global impact of their work in the African Diaspora and in the world.

In the same book, Price-Mars focuses on the transnational meaning of the Haitian Revolution for Black freedom and human emancipation everywhere. For example, his references the symbolic significance and humanistic values of the Haitian Revolution and its affiliated revolutionary leaders such as Toussaint Louverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines. Price-Mars interprets that their revolutionary actions and words bear both messianic and humanitarian value, leading to the triumph of human freedom, agency, equality, self-development, and the celebration of democracy and human rights.  For Price-Mars, the ultimate goal of the Haitian Revolution was to create a new beginning and an alternative humanism in the Western world. It is a Revolution that sustains many achievable aspirations, promises, and hopes—both for its time and ours.  Price-Mars’ humanism, based partly on a messianic (re-)reading of the unfolding events leading to Haitian Revolution and the founding moment of the postcolonial state of Haiti, is grounded on the ideas of respect, openness, curiosity, discovery, collective participation, and the common good. For Price-Mars, the Haitian Revolution was both a messianic and humanistic event.  

In the same book and through the reading of the lives of the noted Haitian heroes, Price-Mars also presents the Haitian Revolution and the founding of the nation of Haiti as a double event and as the fulfillment of what I call “Haitian modernity.” The Haitian Revolution should be regarded as an alternative (African) modernity to Western modernity although it is simultaneously connected to European project of human emancipation and enlightenment. Price-Mars interprets the Haitian Revolution as “the commonwealth” of all people, whose ultimate objective is the liberation of all enchained people from the hell of slavery and colonialism. After showing how both institutional slavery and the colonial order had dehumanized people and alienated them from each other, we move forward to explore Price-Mars’ propositions on the process of creating a new world and his insistence on the humanistic values of the Haitian Revolution to engender the first slave-free society in the Western hemisphere. Price-Mars employs messianic language framed within his deep concern for the welfare of humanity and human solidarity, which revolutionary Haiti symbolizes in world history.

Price-Marsian Pan-Africanism

In 1956, Price-Mars was elected as the first President of Société Africaine Culture (SAC) (Society of African Culture). The First International Congress of Negro Artists and Writers took place in Paris (September 19-22). At the first SAC conference, Price-Mars delivered an original 8 page-paper that sought to establish dynamic relationships and interplays between Africa and the Black world in the African Diaspora; he has entitled this lecture, “Transatlantic African survivals and the dynamism of negro Culture.” 

In this lecture delivered to a distinguished of Black writers and leaders of the African Diaspora, (employing the comparative method and theory), Price-Mars seeks to demonstrate the African presence in the African diaspora, forging links between the African people and the descent of Africa in the Black Diaspora. To achieve this goal, he selects several countries in continental America to showcase the African survivals and retentions in their culture; they are Haiti, the United States, Brazil, Cuba, Guiana, the former French colonies, and the former Dutch colonies. The areas of focus, which are the African-diasporic linkages, are language, religion, customs and traditions, food, music, and the arts. Price-Mars goes on in the lecture to explain the kind of spiritual exchanges that African slaves and white masters created in various countries in the American continent—an important mark of his Pan-African worldview. He demonstrates the African presence in those geographical regions through the linguistic factor, the religious factor, the culinary factor, and the music factor.

Price-Mars closes the SAC 1956 lecture on the “Transatlantic African survivals and the dynamism of negro Culture” with the memorable words of the Baltic German philosopher Hermann von Kerserling on the African mark on the American culture, “There is therefore nothing paradoxical on my part in foreseeing that the greatest cultural achievements of America may very well be due to her sons of Negro race.”[12]

The Race Concept and Human Nature

Moreover, in 1959, Presence Africaine under the leadership of Alioune Diop and with the support of the Black leadership of this organization sponsored the Second Congress of Black Writers and Artists. One of the objectives of this historic conference was to promote African indigenous culture in the new postcolonial and independent African countries. The Congress was held in Rome (26 March-1st April), and its underlying theme was the analysis and promotion of “The Unity of Negro African Cultures.” Price-Mars, serving as President of the Society of African Culture (S.A.C.), formally opens the Conference with a fourfold charge to the distinguished and committed Black artists, writers, and intellectuals, which I highlight below:

  1. It implies at the outset the detachment of the [Black] artist from the social and cultural setting in which he is implanted, so that he distinguishes himself from his surroundings.
  2. Above all, it is necessary that he should be in a position to have a conscience worthy of his responsibility as a Negro writer or artist and that the sense of an appropriate ethnic solidarity should be developed in him.
  3. It is necessary that, in every discipline, without his being concerned about it or even observing it, the Negro writer or artist should instinctively represent in his conception of life and art one of the elements or perhaps the very essence of Negro thought throughout the world and down the ages.
  4. Be that as it may, we addressed ourselves to all those whom we knew and who were indicated to us, all over the world, as writers and artists, and we asked them to contribute to their respective disciplines the fruit of their meditations, their labours, their efforts and their ambition. It is from all that that the substratum of our Second Congress is composed.[13]

In this historic conference, Price-Mars presented an important 11 page-paper entitled “La paleotologie, la prehistoire et l’archeologie au point de vue des origins de la race humaine et du role joue par l’Afrique dans la genese de l’humanite” (“Palentology, prehistory and archeology from the point of view of the origins of the human race and the role played by Africa in the genesis of humanity.”). This special paper was published in the same year in 1959 by Presence Africaine.[14]  In the paper, Price-Mars attempts to study the scientific evidence for the human origins and the pivotal role of Africa in the genesis of humanity. To pursue the objective of this scientific inquiry, Price-Mars brings various (related) disciplines in conversation with each other: Paleontology, history, and archeology. Against this backdrop, he examines the scientific evidence for a possible African origin. Knowing the argument articulated by scientists and researchers on the question of the genesis of humanity, Price-Mars undertakes the challenge to counter various theories about human nature and races that seem to dismiss the African contributions to global history and human civilization. Foremost, he introduces the subject matter by exposing this paradox of science or scientific inquiry: (1) that many scientists have presupposed that the beginning of humanity could be traced back to the Melano-Africans, and (2) that because of their dark skin color, these same scientists have “too often subjected them to the scornful discrimination of other men and relegated them to the lowest rung of the human ladder.”[15]  The critical reader should then ask: how could well-educated scientists question the validity of the pigmentation of the historic people who  have given  birth to humanity and human culture? We turn to Price-Mars for an answer.

First, Price-Mars argues that the definition of race in modern scholarship entails both incoherence and contradictions, resulting in “its exact meaning that all it has left is a pejorative halo.”[16] Price-Mars posits that modern definition of race contradicts observable scientific facts and that a universal consensus has yet to be achieved, something that is associated with human nature; as a result, 

it can even be said that the concept of race has inspired as many definitions, explanations, and classifications as there have been specialists examining this problem. With rare consistency anthropologists without number have established differences between the varieties of humanity with as much subtlety as finesse. Consequently, the notion of race with respect to the human species has been complicated by philosophical, metaphysical, and political considerations which have caused repercussions on the emotional level.”[17]

According to Price-Mars, the intellectual inconsistencies about the notion of race and its associated ideologies in various disciplines of knowledge led to the belief in the preponderance of the “non-existent Aryan ‘race’”[18] and the doctrine of racial (white) superiority. Price-Mars contends that it is inadequate to appeal to biology to explain “the differentiation of human groups.”[19] To put in other way, he dismisses the biological basis for classifying human groups into various racial categories. As he observes, “Nothing is more confusing than to wonder how and why humans were differentiated by skin color, hair texture, and the relative prominence of the jawbone, to such an extent as to form here and there geographic and ethnic groupings so recognizable that one rushed to classify them into “races.”[20] Price-Mars suggests that a dogmatic definition of race is not consistent with what scientists know about the human nature and the dynamics of the evolutionary process. Because race is linked to various evolutionary factors, therefore it should be interpreted as a dynamic and not a static notion.[21] Further, Price-Mars affirms that

“the concept of race is unanimously regarded by anthropologists as a classification device providing a zoological frame within which the various groups of mankind baby be arranged and by means of which studies of evolutionary processing well-developed and primarily heritable physical differences from other groups. Many populations which cannot easily be fitted into a racial classification because of the complexity of human history.”[22]

Based on the above definition, conceivably, Price-Mars conceivably views race in the same way zoologists have classified animals; nonetheless, because of the variety, complexity, and diversity of human nature and human history, he rejects the strict and rigid arrangement of the races and interrogates the theory of racial essentialism. While zoology has helped to easily classify “a group of animals within the framework of a given class so as to differentiate it from others according to definite and irreducible peculiarities;”[23] by contrast, Price-Mars contends that “such an arrangement encounters innumerable difficulties where man is concerned.”[24] Consequently, the scientific model from zoology as it is applied to human nature is not adequate because  of its emphasis on physical traits and features of the races;  as Price-Mars declares, “nothing is more elusive than discerning the nuances which distinguish important segment of humanity that are nevertheless catalogued as belonging to one race rather than another.”[25] The model from botany may be more suitable for understanding human nature, as it stresses on “varieties” rather on “groups.” Therefore, Price-Mas proposes that we should use the concept of “human varieties” from botany, which explains with better clarity the intricacy of human nature, in contrast to “human races,” that does not account for the wide multiplicity of human nature in the history of the evolutionary process and race mixing.


The single passion of Jean Price-Mars was to become “a great man for his nation (Haiti) and for his race (Black people).” In his (45-page) controversial response to René Piquion (“Lettre ouverte au Dr. René Piquion, directeur de l’École normale supérieure, sur son Manuel de la négritude”: Le préjugé de couleur est-il la question sociale?” 1967), he informed the Haitian people and his general reader that was his mother’s vision for him: to be an exemplary man of valor to the Haitian people, the people of Africa, and those of African ancestry in the Black Diaspora. Because of this obsessive childhood dream (or a dream driven by a passion for Haiti and Africa), in his scholarship and public activities, Price-Mars resisted the separation of Africa, Haiti, and the African diaspora.

Unlike other Haitian intellectuals (i.e. Baron de Vastey, Joseph Antenor Firmin, Hannibal Price, Louis Joseph Janvier, etc.) who interpreted Haitian history—by the virtue of its existence as the first postcolonial state and Black Republic in the Western world  and through its successful revolution and contributions to universal emancipation, human rights, and the end of slavery—Price-Mars constructed an alternative narrative of Haitian history and Haitian society premised on the history of Africa and the Old Continent’s contributions to universal civilization in human history.

On one hand, Price-Mars did not reference African traditional society and life, or the culture of Haitian peasants, which is African in content and practice, as a model to “build” the contemporary Haitian society. On the other hand, he appealed to Haitian intellectuals and the country’s elite-minority to reconsider the African retentions on Haitian soil and Haiti’s indebtedness to Africa. The Price-Marsian clarion call to affirm the African presence in Haiti does not mean that Price-Mars has undermined Haiti’s triple heritage: Africa, Native American, and European. This attitude, however, does convey that Africa is first, and that the “Black Continent” should shape and occupy the Haitian imagination.

Overall, the whole of the Price-Marsian project was “to build” a new Haitian society and an alternative humanism rooted in these seven pillars: Africa (ancestral values and heritage), community (Lakouism), women (the Poto-Mitan of Haitian society), family, participatory democracy and politics, free public education, and human equality (in respect to Haitian masses and peasants). I argue that these seven propositions explain why Price-Mars wrote whatever he has written about the Haitian people and the nation of Haiti.

  • Ancestral Affiliation and Identity: the reclaiming and acknowledgement of Africa’s indebtedness to Haiti. Africa has given Haiti its dominant religion and the legacy of strong and flourishing pre-colonial civilizations.
  • The ethics and practice of Communitarianism and Kombitism.
  • The Haitian intellectual as servant leader and activist for the people.
  • Haitian politics and democracy as a catalyst to foster national unity, cultural growth, and prosperity.
  • The education and equality of Haitian masses and peasants as imperative factors contributing to social development, economic mobility, and human flourishing in Haiti.
  • The recognition of Haitian women as the “cement” of Haitian society and as the “trait-d’union” (“hypen”) between the Haitian family and Haitian civil and political society.
  • The role of religion as a unifying force in society.

Finally, in 1966, three years before his death, the ninety-three-year-old Haitian statesman, Pan-Africanist, and humanist attended the First Festival Mondial des Arts Negres, marking his first visit in Dakar, Senegal, as a special guest of President and Founding member of the Negritude Movement Leopold Sedar Senghor. Senghor welcomed him wholeheartedly, and the University of Dakar conferred upon Jean Price-Mars an honorary doctoral degree (honoris causa) and simultaneously the Government of Senegal decorated Price-Mars.

Selected Bibliography by Jean Price-Mars

  • “Le Préjugé des races” (1919, pp. 165-187).
  • “De l’Esthétique dans les races” in the same volume (1919, pp. 191-209).
  • Folklore et Patriotisme [Folklore and Patriotism]. Revue de la Société haïtienne d’histoire, de géographie, et de géologie, 23(84), 1-16.
  • Témoignages sur la vie et l’œuvre du Dr. Jean Price-Mars,1876-1956. Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1956.
  • “The Vocation of the Elite,” translated by Bernadette Farquhar, in Yanique Hume and Aaron Kamugisha (Eds), Caribbean Cultural Thought: From Plantation to Diaspora. Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 2013.
  •  “From So Uncle Said,” translated by Raymond F. Betts, in I Am Because We Are: Readings in Black Philosophy, edited by Fred Lee Hord, and Jonathan Scott Lee. Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 2016. pp.145-151.
  • Jean Price-Mars, “La Diplomatie haitienne et l’indépendance dominicaine (1858–1867),” Revue de la Société d’Histoire et de Géographie d’Haiti, 10, No. 32 (1939), 1–72.
  • Jean Price-Mars, “Les Origins et le destin d’un nom Jean-Baptiste Belley Mars, l’ancêtre,” Revue de la Société d’Histoire et de Géographie d’Haiti, 12, No. 36 (1940), 1–24
  • Jean Price-Mars, Lettre ouverte au Dr. René Piquion, 2nd edn. (Port-au-Prince: Ed. des Antilles, 1967)
  • Jean Price-Mars, Ebauches … Vilbrun Guillaume-Sam: Ce Méconnu (Port-au-Prince: Impr. de l’Etat, 1961)
  • La Vocation de l’élite. Port-au-Prince, Imprimerie Edmond Chenet, 1919.
  • Ainsi parla l’Oncle. (Essais d’ethnographie). Paris, Imprimerie de Compiègne, 1928.
  • Une étape de l’évolution haïtienne. Port-au-Prince, Imprimerie La Presse, 1929.
  • « À propos de la “Renaissance Nègre” aux États-Unis. Partie 1», La Relève, 1 (1): 14-20, 1932.
  • « À propos de la “Renaissance Nègre” aux États-Unis, Partie 2», La Relève, 1 (2): 9-15, 1932.
  • « À propos de la “Renaissance Nègre” aux États-Unis, Partie 3», La Relève, 1 (3): 8-14, 1932.
  • « Le Professeur Melville J. Herskovits et son œuvre », La Relève, 1 (7): 11-15, 1933.
  • «Life in a Haitian Valley (“La Vie dans une vallée haïtienne”): la dualité de deux cultures», La Relève, 5 (10): 14-20, 1937.
  • Formation ethnique, folklore et culture du peuple haïtien. Port-au-Prince, V. Valcin, Imprimeur, 1939.
  • « L’Afrique noire et ses peuples: introduction au cours d’Africologie à l’Institut d’ethnologie», Revue de la Société haïtienne d’histoire et de géographie, 13, 44: 30-43, 1942.
  • « Classe ou caste? Étude sur The Haitian People («Le Peuple haïtien») de James G. Leyburn», Revue de la Société haïtienne d’histoire et de géographie, 13, 46: 1-50, 1942.
  • «Folklore et patriotisme», Revue de la Société haïtienne d’histoire, de géographie, et de géologie, 23, 84: 1-16, 1952.
  • Joseph Anténor Firmin, l’indomptable lutteur, mal aimé et martyr. Une grande partie de l’histoire d’Haïti à travers la formation et le destin d’un homme. Port-au-Prince, Imprimerie Séminaire Adventiste, 1978.
  • Une étape de l’évolution haïtienne. Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie La Presse, 1929/
  • Formation ethnique, folkore et culture du peuple haïtien. Port-au Prince: Éditions Virgile Valcin, 1939.
  • Contribution haïtienne à la lutte des Amériques pour les libertés humaines. Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie de l’État, 1942.
  • Jean Pierre Boyer Bazelais et le drame de Miragoâne: à propos d’un lot d’autographes, 1883-1884. Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie de l’État, 1948.
  • La République d’Haïti et la République Dominicaine. Port-au-Prince: s.n., 1953; Lausanne: Imprimerie Held, 1954.
  • Le bilan des études ethnologiques en Haïti et le cycle du Nègre. Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie de l’État, 1954.
  • De Saint Domingue à Haïti: Essai sur la culture, les arts et la littérature. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1959.
  • Silhouettes de nègres et de négrophiles. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1960.
  • Vilbrun Guillaume-Sam: ce méconnu. Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie de l’État, 1961.
  • (Ébauches, 2e série) De la préhistoire d’Afrique à l’histoire d’Haïti. Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie de l’État, 1962.
  • Lettre Ouverte au Dr. René Piquion, directeur de l’Ecole normale supérieure, sur son manuel de la négritude. Port-au Prince: Éditions des Antilles, 1967.
  • Ceux d’autrefois. La lutte pour le pouvoir entre Florvil Hyppolite et François Légitime en 1888-1889. Port-au-Prince: C3 Éditions, 2013.
  • Haïti et la question de race. Port-au-Prince: C3 Éditions, 2019.
  • Le bilan des études ethnologiques en Haïti et le cycle du Nègre. Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie de l’État, 1954.


[1]Magdaleine W. Shannon, Jean Price-Mars, the Haitian Elite and the American Occupation, 1915-1935, p. 16.

[2] Jacques Carmeleau Antoine, Jean Price-Mars and Haiti, pp. 24-25.

[3] Jacques Carmeleau Antoine, Jean Price-Mars and Haiti, p. 25.

[4] Magdaleine W. Shannon, Jean Price-Mars, the Haitian Elite and the American Occupation, 1915-1935, p. 162.

[5] Vaillant, 1990, p. 264.

[6] Price-Mars, De Saint Domingue à Haïti: Essai sur la culture, les arts et la littérature, p. 107.

[7] Cited in Lesly Desmangles, The Faces of the Gods, pp. 11-12.

[8] Price-Mars, De Saint Domingue à Haïti: Essai sur la culture, les arts et la littérature, p. 86)

[9] Price-Mars, Thus Spoke the Uncle, p. 166.

[10] Price-Mars, Thus Spoke the Uncle, p. 7.

[11] Price-Mars, Thus Spoke the Uncle, p. 103.

[12] Price-Mars, “Transatlantic African Survivals…,” 166, in Yanique Hume and Aaron Kamugisha, eds., Caribbean Cultural Thought.

[13] Price-Mars, “Reply of the President of S.A.C,” 41.

[14] Coquery-Vidrovitch, “Presence Africaine: History and Historians of Africa,” Mudimbe, ed., The Surreptious Speech, 91.

[15] Price-Mars, “Paleontology, Prehistory and Archeology,” 55.

[16] Price-Mars, “Paleontology, Prehistory and Archeology,” 55.

[17] Price-Mars, “Paleontology, Prehistory and Archeology,” 55.

[18] Price-Mars, “Paleontology, Prehistory and Archeology,” 56.

[19] Price-Mars, “Paleontology, Prehistory and Archeology,” 63.

[20] Price-Mars, “Paleontology, Prehistory and Archeology,” 62.

[21] Price-Mars, “Paleontology, Prehistory and Archeology,” 57.

[22] Price-Mars, “Paleontology, Prehistory and Archeology,” 57. This definition of race was the result of an international gathering associated with the United States, after World War II, of a group of intellectuals to define as a “Declaration” the concept of race. This manifesto was published under the auspices of UNESCO.

[23] Price-Mars, “Paleontology, Prehistory and Archeology,” 57.

[24] Price-Mars, “Paleontology, Prehistory and Archeology,” 57.

[25] Price-Mars, “Paleontology, Prehistory and Archeology,” 57.

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