When I mention Haiti, what’s the first thing that comes to your minds? If it’s poverty, you’re not alone. If the second thing is violence, you’re not alone there, either. But if you think of FREEDOM, give yourself a gold star!
Those first two impressions are the most common ones, but they are only a partial view; neither tells the TRUTH of what Haiti is.
Admittedly, it’s hard to find that truth unless you look beyond the media coverage. Most people don’t think about the country’s history. They only consider what’s been put in front of them in the last few years. Frankly, most people don’t know any better.
I’m not Haitian, so I don’t claim to know everything, but I’m happy that we learned about the Haitian Revolution, which took place in 1791, in our Caribbean History classes. We learned that the rebellion of Haiti’s enslaved people was successful. It is the only nation to have gained independence after a successful slave rebellion. Think about that for a minute. It’s why for me, the notion of freedom is inextricably linked with Haiti.
Rebellions of enslaved people took place at regular intervals in all the Caribbean territories (no, enslaved people weren’t “happy workers”, despite the myths) but, important as they were, those rebellions weren’t successful. In the rest of the Caribbean, independence only came when the Europeans were ready to grant it. And there was nothing altruistic about it - it was a dollars and cents decision.
So, Haiti stands out for its success. But you know what can happen when Black people raise their heads above the parapet: Haitians were punished for that success. Clearly, as a country, Haiti got too “uppity” for its former colonial masters. What we didn’t learn till later is that Haitians paid for that success in dollars and cents (well, francs and euros) for centuries.
Much of the country’s current poverty results from that punishment. In order to keep their hard-won freedom, Haiti had to pay France big money, something that only stopped in the last couple of years. That freedom tax was high, and kept the country poor. It was compounded by a lack of support by other big countries that didn’t want to see a formerly enslaved nation achieve success, as well as decades of corrupt leadership. Frankly, the country has had a raw deal for centuries. I don’t think enough people take that into account, and most media coverage certainly doesn’t.
So when you talk about Haiti - or read about it - please give it some context, and recognize the country’s major achievements. Haiti is the first Black-led post colonial nation in the world, and the first independent Caribbean state. These are what we should be celebrating. (Of course, if all the Europeans had just stayed home, we wouldn’t even have to have this discussion, but that’s a whole other story.)
If you ask me, the fact that Haiti took its freedom and kept it despite the odds is worth shouting about. In contrast, the behavior of the colonial powers, and their role in keeping Haiti poor, doesn’t do them any credit. However, both things must be included in any well-rounded analysis of Haiti. And perhaps, if we ever get reparations, Haiti should be first in line.
Learn more about what happened to Haiti after the successful revolution in the following articles:
You can also read The Kingdom of this World by Alejo Carpentier, a historical novel which covers the story of Haiti before, during and after the Haitian Revolution.
P.S. If you have connections with Haiti, and wish to add your insight, please feel free.
Thanks for reading,
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Cover photo courtesy of Canva.