CANCELLED: Disciplinary Art: Race and Criminal Sketches in U.S.-Occupied Haiti

Sunday, January 4, 2015
2nd Floor Promenade (New York Hilton)
Grace Sanders Johnson, University of Pennsylvania

Disciplinary Art:

Race and Criminal Sketches in U.S. Occupied Haiti

On January 28, 1919, U.S. Navy Mess Attendant Arthur Edward Spence deserted the marine barracks in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. “An American Negro” who spoke fluent Haitian Krèyol, Spence was enlisted for nine months before disappearing. Within 48 hours of his absence, a composite image of Spence was produced. A template drawing of a male body was adorned with arrows and numbers to illustrate Spence’s distinguishing features— “negro” hair, eyes, and complexion. Spence was never found.

On May 9, 1922, First Lieutenant John A. Tebbs struck Extrea Jean Gilles with his car in Cap Haïtian . Defending his actions, Lt. Tebbs and other military officials testified that Gilles was a drunken market woman who walked in front of the moving vehicle. Gilles, on the other hand, repeatedly explained that she was not drunk and that Tebbs accelerated as she crossed the street. To establish the “facts,” a young Private who witnessed the incident sketched the collision scene. The drawing captured the location of Lt. Tebbs’ crashed car and Gilles’ maimed body in the middle of the street. Lt. Tebbs was found innocent of any responsibility, and Gilles died from her injuries on May 14, 1922.

These incidents and drawings reveal fleeting traces of black life under the United States occupation of Haiti (1915-1934). Historians have identified Haiti as a contact zone where Jim Crow era ideas of race, citizenship, and gendered belonging were cast against a Caribbean backdrop. Building on academic interventions in Gender Studies, Africana Studies, and Performance Studies, this poster presentation moves beyond the scholarship that focuses on Haiti in the white American imaginary to consider how images designed to capture and condemn reveal the often unheard voices and actions of poor Haitian women and working class black American men. More specifically, this presentation uses criminal sketches produced during the occupation to study imagery and art as mediums to not only substantiate guilt or innocence, but to understand truth claims about nation, race and sovereignty during a period of Haitian nation building and American expansion.

Similar to popular art or literature produced during the period, these images were developed as evidence to unequivocally prove the criminality of black bodies and justify military violence. Although the images are mediated through the occupiers’ gaze, I assert that the evidentiary art in this presentation sheds light on the social and political meaning of the occupation for poor and feminized black bodies. With a particular focus on the production (ie., quick sketching) and performance (ie., court proceedings) of the art, this presentation reveals how black Haitians and black Americans criminalized under the occupation articulated and imagined their citizenship and national sovereignty.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the occupation and consider the multiple U.S. military and non-governmental interventions in Haiti over the last century, this poster attends to art’s utility for historicizing and understanding Haiti in our contemporary moment.

See more of: Poster Session #2
See more of: AHA Sessions