by José Pérez for the Black Voice News (Riverside/San Bernardino, CA)
In Spartacus, Kirk Douglas played a Roman slave that led an epic struggle for freedom. For countless moviegoers, this motion picture was awesome and inspiring – and heartbreaking.
In the end, the brave band of unlikely warriors saw their rebellion end as just about every slave insurrection in history has: in bitter, crushing defeat. However, in the long and oft times obscured annals of history, there stands one slave revolt that did indeed rip away the shackles: Haiti. This New Year’s Day, in the year 2004, this small, poor, yet perpetually proud Caribbean nation and its children throughout the world will celebrate its bicentennial. On January 1st, Haitians everywhere will celebrate a victory so improbable, so impossible that it still evades true comprehension and, thus, true appreciation.
In the late 18th century, Haiti was known as San Dominque and it occupied the western half of the heavily colonized Antillean island of Hispaniola. It was the richest colony in the world and, as a result, was the greatest jewel in imperial France’s mercantile crown. Sugar, coffee, and other sources of almost innumerable revenue for the French helped make France the most powerful nation on Earth at that time.
Indeed, had it not been for French military and economic aid, the American Revolution may not have ended in victory for the ranks of Washington and Jefferson.
To help maximize the profit margins of these commercial endeavors, the French employed the best method known to Europeans at the time for lowering labor overhead.
The “institution” of slavery was well-entrenched in San Dominque and quite sadistic. Because the French were of the belief that the number of Africans available to satiate their inhuman greed was inexhaustible, the practice of literally working slaves to an early and brutal death was more than common; it was the rule.
C. L. R. James, in The Black Jacobins, wrote that “the planters deliberately worked [the slaves] to death rather than wait for the children to grow up.” Thus, at the time of the inevitable slave uprising, more than two thirds of the almost half million slaves in San Dominque had survived the cruel Middle Passage.
Of course, many African-American students of history know about the aforementioned as well as the legendary Toussaint L’Ouverture, the self-educated slave who succeeded in the West Indies where Spartacus failed in ancient Rome.
That, however, is not meant to be the scope of this article. No, it is painfully apparent that this particular part of this important story is not enough to rouse the sort of excitement and devotion to “Hayti cheri” that every person of African descent should feel in his or her bosom when that noble name is uttered. The sad reality is that most African-Americans have a negative and very inaccurate perception of Haiti and its significance in the pantheon of human achievement.
Where did Haiti get such a “bad rep”? From the same source that still tries to tell Black Americans that Malcolm X was an evil devil in glasses. In delivering a speech about “the only self-made Black republic in the world” during the Chicago World Fair in 1893, Frederick Douglass explained the reasons for the well-documented American hate of Haiti in very plain terms. “Haiti is Black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being Black or forgiven the Almighty for making her Black.”
Haiti is more than Black. Haiti is, as James wrote, “Africa in the West Indies.” Because so many of the Blacks in Haiti at the time of the revolution actually remembered what life was like in Africa, many of the rich cultural traditions survived and shaped an incredible national identity. It was in Haiti, early in the twentieth century, that the cultural and artistic movement known as “Negritude” was born. A definitively Afrocentric movement, Negritude preceded (and likely influenced) the Harlem Renaissance that followed.
Much of the food, dance, religion, language, et cetera that is so integral to what it is to be Haitian is without a doubt quite African.
Haiti’s historical place as what Douglass called “the original pioneer emancipator of the nineteenth century” is beyond debate. As America’s great Emancipator pointed out 110 years ago in Chicago, “until [Haiti] spoke, no Christian nation had abolished Negro slavery” nor even given legitimate debate to the thought.
Not only did the victory of Haiti’s proud male and female warriors influence how and when the African slave trade and practice in the Western Hemisphere would die, it also directly impacted the freedom of millions of Spanish-speaking Americans.
While Haiti was still in the very early moments of its republican infancy, a desperate Simón Bolívar arrived in Haiti lucky to be alive after his first disastrous attempt to oust Spain from South America. Haitian President Alexandre Pétion, who had succeeded Jean-Jacques Dessalines after his death, generously gave Bolívar more than just asylum and respite.
He outfitted the young Bolívar (who’s godmother was a Black Cuban woman) with arms, ammunition, funds, and soldiers on his eventual return to what would become the independent nations of Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador.
Pétion’s only request of Bolívar was the permanent abolition of slavery in all liberated territories.
Dessalines was the man that, on January 1st, 1804, in Gonaïves, declared that it was “not enough to have expelled from your country the barbarians who have bloodied it for two centuries . . . which held for so long our spirits in the most humiliating torpor. . . we must at last live independent or die,” as he tore the white from the French flag thus creating the modern flag of Haiti.
Haiti’s contribution to the United States herself is significant and, unfortunately, swept under the historical rug. One of the aftershocks of the rag tag group of bare footed and ill-equipped Africans defeating not only the French but also the British and the Spanish during ill-fated attempts to gain control of San Dominque was that it forced Napoleon to rethink his grand plans for the Americas. More than a decade before the Duke of Wellington defeated him at Waterloo, Napoleon had to swallow a disastrous defeat in Haiti when ten of thousands of his best troops (under the command of Leclerc, the French dictator’s second in command) were devastated by Haitian patriots.
These same Haitians were told that, if he or she died for fighting for freedom, their soul would travel back to Africa where it would rest in peace.
Because his best could not retake his most valuable, Napoleon thought it a waste of time and resources to hold his largest. Hence, one of the biggest bargains in the history of real estate, the Louisiana Purchase, fell into the slave holding lap of Thomas Jefferson.
Not too long afterward, Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer invited American Blacks to resettle in Haiti. This invitation was as per the Haitian constitution, which guarantees a home to all people of African descent.
Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, led approximately 2,000 people to the Caribbean in the mid 1820’s. Among the group led by Allen to Haiti was Alexander Du Bois who stayed in there for about a decade before he returned to the United States. With him, he brought a son born there, Alfred, who later became the father of W. E. B. DuBois.
The contributions of Haiti and her children to oppressed people around the world in general and Black people in America specifically are too numerous to mention in this brief space. However, if the above is not enough to finally convince the reader of the special cause for celebration for all people of African descent on January 1st, then perhaps nothing will awaken such pride within the conscious.
That is because to celebrate Haitian independence on January 1st is akin to the more commonly known Black power mantras first made popular in this country during the 1960’s. To lift one’s voice in praise of the sacrifices of tens of thousands of forever unknown Africans in Haiti two hundred years ago is to continue what luminaries such as Jamaica’s Marcus Garvey and Trinidad’s George Padmore worked so tirelessly for in the 20th century.
To always remember and remind others that Haiti “was the first of the New World in which the black man asserted his right to be free and was brave enough to fight for his freedom and fortunate enough to gain it,” as Douglass said, is to do your part to express gratitude for how Haiti “grandly served the cause of universal human liberty.”
To teach your children Haiti’s motto “L’union fait la force” (in unity there is strength), is to ensure that neither they nor their children will have to suffer through what your parents and their parents did during less free times in this country.
Put most simply and truthfully, when you say “Vive Haiti”, you are declaring that “Black is very beautiful.”