On Haiti

When I was hired as the ninth grade Humanities teacher at Codman Academy in 2007, my principal told me that my course would be called “Justice and Injustice.” And while the bones of the course were there, and some of the topics had been taught by teachers who came before me, there was one unit that he wanted me to design from scratch: a case study of the Haitian Revolution.

Problem was, I had no idea what the Haitian Revolution was.

As I have said before, I was educated in a Eurocentric system. I grew up in a town where 94% of people are white. I learned history from white teachers surrounded by white students. A history textbook once convinced me that the primary cause of the Civil War was “states’ rights,” and I unquestioningly believed that until I got to college.

So I did what teachers do: I took myself to school. I Googled my heart out. I researched and read and took notes on the Haitian Revolution.

That episode was pivotal in my development as a young teacher. It forced me to reckon with the depth of my own ignorance and white privilege. It made me reflect on how my identity as a white teacher would impact my practice, especially in a classroom with 98-99% students of color, several of whom were Haitian-American.

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Yesterday, during a discussion on immigration, President Donald Trump questioned why the U.S. should take in immigrants from what he termed “shithole countries.” According to the Washington Post, Trump asked, “Why do we need more Haitians?”

I can’t get those comments out of my mind. They’re playing on loop. I picture my kids and my face gets hot.

But I don’t want, ultimately, to focus on one man’s prejudice. I subscribe to Nelson Mandela’s belief that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” So if you, like me, never learned about the powerful history of Haiti and its revolution, let me tell you some of what I know about Haiti’s history. (Warning: This is gonna get nerdily detailed at times. I’m a history teacher. You can skip to the end if you know this history.)

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The indigenous people of the Caribbean were the Taíno, who were part of a larger group of people who spoke the Arawak language. (Taíno means “good.”) Until 1492, they were doing well–farming, fishing, building civilizations, including one on an island they called Ayiti or Haiti.

Then Christopher Columbus showed up. He claimed Ayiti as a Spanish colony and renamed it “La Española,” or “the Spanish island.” (Later, that name would be translated into “Hispaniola.”) In their desire for gold, he and his men launched a genocide of the Taíno. When there wasn’t enough gold, he wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

At the time of Columbus’s second trip, sugar was all the rage in Europe. So when he returned to Hispaniola, he brought some sugarcane plants with him. Those little plants were the beginnings of hugely profitable sugarcane plantations on the island, and enslaved Taíno were forced to do the work.

By 1505, so many of the Taíno had died that, according to Philip Martin, “the Europeans turned to Africa. Between 1505 and 1888, an estimated 9.5 million Africans were brought into the Americas as slaves. About 2.5 million worked in the Caribbean, mostly on sugar plantations. For over 300 years, slavery reigned, and millions of human beings suffered, labored in terrible conditions, and died harvesting sugarcane.”

In 1697, Spain ceded the western third of Hispaniola to France. This French colony was called Saint-Domingue, and it became known as the “Pearl of the Antilles” because it was, by far, the most profitable European colony in the Caribbean.

On the night of August 14, 1791, enslaved people from plantations near the city of Le Cap gathered in the woods for a Vodou ceremony led by Cécile Fatiman and Dutty Boukman (so named because he could read and was, therefore, a “book man”). C.L.R. James, in The Black Jacobins, transcribes Boukman’s speech to those assembled: “The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works. Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all” (87). The revolution began that night, and it lasted for thirteen years.

One of the most famous leaders of the revolutionary army was Toussaint L’Ouverture, who rose from slavery to face off against Napoleon Bonaparte at the turn of the century. L’Ouverture was strategic, alternately allying himself with various European countries’ armies to ensure his people’s freedom and driving them out of the colony. Eventually, he succeeded in taking over the entire island of Hispaniola. In 1801, he sent a new constitution to France, proclaiming, “There cannot exist slaves on this territory, servitude is therein forever abolished. All men are born, live and die free and French.” L’Ouverture was captured in 1802 and imprisoned in France, where he died a year later.

Leadership of the revolution fell to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, also formerly enslaved in Saint-Domingue. Legend says that Dessalines famously cut the white fabric from the center of the French flag and gave the red and blue scraps that remained to his goddaughter, Catherine Flon. She sewed them back together and embroidered the new revolutionary flag with the slogan Liberté ou la Mort (“Liberty or Death”). The rebels defeated the French and declared independence on January 1, 1804. Dessalines signed a new constitution in 1805 declaring Saint-Domingue an independent country, to be named “Hayti” after the indigenous Taíno name for the island.

Dessalines’ constitution also abolished slavery, named him Emperor, and, radically, proclaimed: “All meaning of color among the children of one and the same family, of whom the chief magistrate is the father, being necessarily to cease, the Haytians shall henceforth be known by the generic appellation of blacks.” In other words, all Haitians would be called “Black,” blurring the racial divisions that violently divided them before (and during) the war.

The Haitian Revolution was the most successful large-scale slave rebellion in the world. Haiti was the first country founded by people who had been enslaved, the first free Black republic, the first sovereign country in the Caribbean and Latin America, and the second country in the Western Hemisphere to successfully free itself from European colonization.

Haiti has not had an easy path since 1805. France demanded to be paid for its lost revenue and refused to recognize Haiti’s sovereignty until 1825. (Haiti’s crippling debt can be traced back to the roughly $21,000,000,000 in “damages” it finally paid.) The United States was terrified of Haiti’s power to inspire and influence enslaved people here and didn’t recognize Haiti as an independent country until 1862. Haiti has suffered under a series of dictators and from coups, massacres, and outside interference. In 2010, the country was devastated by an earthquake and has yet to recover. And in 2018, my students read headlines calling Haiti a “shithole.”

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Haiti’s history is rich and inspiring. I love exploring it with my students. I love it when they connect the dots between Columbus and Napoleon, when they read Boukman’s speech aloud and debate the ethics of revenge, when they grapple with whether France should pay reparations to Haiti.

Most of all, I love the pride in my Haitian-American kids’ eyes when they see that we are studying their country not as “the poorest country in the Western hemisphere,” but as an example of a place where people fought for justice.

All of that complexity and beauty gets flattened out by stereotypes about Haiti and its people.

We can’t change the world unless we’re willing to confront our own ignorance.

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Here are some of the resources that my students and I use to learn about Haiti:

  • Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States gives us Zinn’s admittedly-biased view of Christopher Columbus. You can read Chapter 1 of Zinn’s original book here.
  • Philip Martin’s article “Sugar and Slavery,” from the book Rethinking Columbus, helps students understand the link between Columbus and the African slave trade in the Caribbean, as well as the details about what manufacturing sugar required.
  • Brown University’s Choices program has a great curriculum on the Haitian Revolution that helped me understand the history as I started trying to educate myself. They also have a series of videos available online with scholars discussing the history.
  • C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins is dense and tricky for my students, but we read excerpts from his chapter on the beginning of the rebellion to bring the history to life.
  • For years, students read Edwidge Danticat’s short story collection, Krik? Krak!, to accompany our study of this history. “A Wall of Fire Rising” weaves together Haiti’s revolutionary past and its present really beautifully.
  • Nick Lake’s In Darkness is a newer YA book that takes us into the mind of Shorty, a Haitian boy trapped after the 2010 earthquake, who begins having visions from Toussaint L’Ouverture’s life.
  • Just today, someone posted this booklist for teaching about Haiti online.