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Santo Domingo, or the Ambiguities: Frederick Douglass, Black Imperialism, and the "Ku Klux War"

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Abstract:

One of the most controversial positions Frederick Douglass took in his later career was to support the annexation of Santo Domingo (today’s Dominican Republic) as a state in the United States. The attempt in 1871 to annex Santo Domingo was derided at the time, and is still, as an egregious act of United States imperialism. The “disreputable scheme” was cooked up by President Grant’s shadier associates who were eager to make money off the island’s rich resources. For his part, Grant was eager for an American naval base there to protect United States' interests in the Caribbean, including the envisioned canal across the Isthmus of Darien. That the United States sought to absorb a nation whose very name connoted black independence was galling to Senator Charles Sumner, who protested it would “wipe out a colored nationality”; “That island is set apart to the colored race. It is theirs by right of possession.” In this talk, I will argue that Douglass lobbied hard to annex Santo Domingo, a bad cause, for fascinating reasons. To dismiss his position outright, as Douglass scholars have done, is to miss the ambiguities of Caribbean U.S. relations and the complex motives behind imperialist dreams.
Douglass used his newspaper, The New National Era, to write extensively on behalf of annexation; despite critics’ complaints that the older Douglass lost his radical edge, his “Letters” on Santo Domingo show him in signature form. He makes one surprising, provocative charge after another: Congressional opposition is not due to qualms about imperialism, he insists, but to color prejudice that balks at accepting a “black” state as an equal partner in the Union. Santo Domingo’s mixed-race population is a welcome sign for Douglass of “racial ambiguity[y]” as an incontrovertible fact. At a time when white leaders dream of a segregated world with a “Saxon” United States and an equatorial “black belt,” Douglass finds the idea of Santo Domingo as “a black sister of Massachusetts” too tempting to resist.
Douglass’s desire to annex Santo Domingo at once indulges in trans-American romanticism and attempts political pragmatism. Douglass wants Santo Domingo because he wants more black territory and more black votes to fight the “the Ku Klux War” that was then gaining ground. Santo Domingo, Douglass fantasizes, would be the “wedge” to the annexation of the rest of the (black) Caribbean, which would choose to join this “Great Western Republic” and the well-developed political and economic infrastructure of the United States. As proof is the fact that the Dominican leadership sought annexation as the antidote to their war-torn country’s ills. Nevertheless, Douglass’s dream of a Caribbean-America is United States-centric in that it willingly sacrifices Dominican independence to the quixotic belief that black territory and votes can defeat white supremacism and force “America’s” claim that all men are created equal into political fact. As such, Douglass’s brilliant and flawed defense of annexation clarifies the strange way in which liberation schemes and imperialism often go hand in hand.
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Luria, Sarah. "Santo Domingo, or the Ambiguities: Frederick Douglass, Black Imperialism, and the "Ku Klux War"" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA, Oct 11, 2007 <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185930_index.html>

APA Citation:

Luria, S. , 2007-10-11 "Santo Domingo, or the Ambiguities: Frederick Douglass, Black Imperialism, and the "Ku Klux War"" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The American Studies Association, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2013-12-15 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p185930_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: One of the most controversial positions Frederick Douglass took in his later career was to support the annexation of Santo Domingo (today’s Dominican Republic) as a state in the United States. The attempt in 1871 to annex Santo Domingo was derided at the time, and is still, as an egregious act of United States imperialism. The “disreputable scheme” was cooked up by President Grant’s shadier associates who were eager to make money off the island’s rich resources. For his part, Grant was eager for an American naval base there to protect United States' interests in the Caribbean, including the envisioned canal across the Isthmus of Darien. That the United States sought to absorb a nation whose very name connoted black independence was galling to Senator Charles Sumner, who protested it would “wipe out a colored nationality”; “That island is set apart to the colored race. It is theirs by right of possession.” In this talk, I will argue that Douglass lobbied hard to annex Santo Domingo, a bad cause, for fascinating reasons. To dismiss his position outright, as Douglass scholars have done, is to miss the ambiguities of Caribbean U.S. relations and the complex motives behind imperialist dreams.
Douglass used his newspaper, The New National Era, to write extensively on behalf of annexation; despite critics’ complaints that the older Douglass lost his radical edge, his “Letters” on Santo Domingo show him in signature form. He makes one surprising, provocative charge after another: Congressional opposition is not due to qualms about imperialism, he insists, but to color prejudice that balks at accepting a “black” state as an equal partner in the Union. Santo Domingo’s mixed-race population is a welcome sign for Douglass of “racial ambiguity[y]” as an incontrovertible fact. At a time when white leaders dream of a segregated world with a “Saxon” United States and an equatorial “black belt,” Douglass finds the idea of Santo Domingo as “a black sister of Massachusetts” too tempting to resist.
Douglass’s desire to annex Santo Domingo at once indulges in trans-American romanticism and attempts political pragmatism. Douglass wants Santo Domingo because he wants more black territory and more black votes to fight the “the Ku Klux War” that was then gaining ground. Santo Domingo, Douglass fantasizes, would be the “wedge” to the annexation of the rest of the (black) Caribbean, which would choose to join this “Great Western Republic” and the well-developed political and economic infrastructure of the United States. As proof is the fact that the Dominican leadership sought annexation as the antidote to their war-torn country’s ills. Nevertheless, Douglass’s dream of a Caribbean-America is United States-centric in that it willingly sacrifices Dominican independence to the quixotic belief that black territory and votes can defeat white supremacism and force “America’s” claim that all men are created equal into political fact. As such, Douglass’s brilliant and flawed defense of annexation clarifies the strange way in which liberation schemes and imperialism often go hand in hand.

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