My cousin was telling me her grievances with the media’s negative undertones when discussing Hurricane Matthew and Haiti. “Hurricane Matthew has struck Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” “Time and time again, you will hear news reporters refer to Haiti as “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” Newscasts may mean well, after all it is a fact. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The majority of Haitian people are politically disenfranchised, economically disadvantaged, and culturally stigmatized. This is a nation crying for help. But as my cousin told me, the takeaway message that media agencies presents to its viewers (could be intentionally) is that Haiti is this way by its own doing, by its own accord. If only the Haitian people would Westernize and then they wouldn’t be a charity case anymore. Simple, right! This country needs to pull itself by its own bootstraps! It is not our right that we help them, is what they are saying –in fact it is a privilege and the Haitian people should be thankful we grant foreign aid period! This is the underlying message that one can hear in the unspoken language of Western politicians, Western media, and even among their citizens. And without fail, with every report of a problem in Haiti from the recent hurricane to the Earthquake in 2010 to the political unrest during Aristide’s reign, there lies implicit classism, racism, and a negative portrayal of a post-colonial society that is simply trying to overcome with the cards that were dealt to them.
The Legacy of Slavery and the Haitian Revolution
“I just wish they would begin our introduction as Haiti, the only and first Black nation formed by a successful slave rebellion in which they have been punished for since its conception and as a result are the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” my cousin explains further. It is a mouthful for sure and a heck of a run-on sentence. But is Haiti not owed proper representation of her history with a more nuanced summary of her state of affairs than as merely poor as hell? To silence the legacy of slavery and imperialism on Haiti’s economy and culture is like ignoring the effects of smoking 4 packs of cigarettes a day on one’s lungs—comforting and innocent in the moment, but overall, idiotic. However, after all, it is human nature to absolve oneself of blame, a guilt the descendants of colonizer nations are not willing to face. Yet still, this type of ignorant rhetoric is even in daily life. My best friend is Jamaican and he knows I’m Haitian so he likes to play around with the infamous Jamaican-Haitian animosity that every Islander is well aware of. After one of our many debates, I remember he retorted, “The only claim to fame that Haitians have is that they were the first Black republic in the Western Hemisphere, and they have not done anything since. That was over 200 years.” I know he means well, this is coming from my best friend since the 7th grade. He is only joking. But I can recall from one famous philosopher who posits that jokes are more than a source of humor—they are a reflection of the cultural beliefs of the times (as anything humans engage in). This little retort, which many non-Haitians utter with no mal intent, is in some part true. Still, it reflects the ignorant views that the average person has of Haiti.
What do Haitians have to be proud of? Provocative to say the least, but Haiti engendered Blackness and the strength of Black unity. Before the Haitian Revolution, and before slavery in general, there were no racial classifications. People were united on the basis of their ethnicity. Race was socially constructed, had no biological basis, and was created by Europeans to justify the subjugation of others for MATERIAL gain and labor. Everywhere in the world one found their identity in their homeland, not their skin color. We were Asante, Yoruba, Mande, Fulani, Igbo, Benin not Black just as the Europeans divided on the basis of English, French, German, Prussian, Dutch not White. Africa is the most genetically diverse continent. If this were not the case, we would not have evolved into the other races we have today which are not “races” but traits of geographic adaption according to climate. But the European construction of race as hierarchy, first by the Portuguese in the 15th century and the other Europeans who would follow, was to treat all African peoples as a monolith to then create and monopolize color-based, generational slavery. Before then African peoples had their own languages, cultures, customs that separated themselves from each other. Being thrown into slavery and mélanged with random other ethnic Africans on the basis of skin color was intentional –to avoid unity between the new slaves. So the Haitian revolution was a turning point in the history of Black diaspora. Never before had Africans of different tribes had united in their new identity as Black. It was a turning point in Western colonial history and changed the course of history forever. The Haitian revolution, inspired by the (White) French revolution asked a question the world. Are we too, deserving of autonomy, freedom, and inalienable rights? Can Whiteness as an ideology be dismantled to be in opposition to Blackness? Could Black people put all their differences aside to unite for the sake of liberation? Yes, yes, and yes.
The legacy of Anti-Blackness
So where did it all go wrong? Well for one, White colonial domination was and is quite overbearing. White colonialism dominates global politics in modern history. When Haiti was deemed a new republic they were first hit with a ridiculous independence debt to French. It took until 1947 to pay off this debt, instead of investing in their domestic needs. It has been estimated that this debt would amount to at least 21 billion USD with interest today. To make matters worse, there were trade blockades by world powers in the 19th century. Haiti was basically black-listed by the rich European world powers who they would ultimately need to trade with. Who would Haiti trade with? They were expecting to make most their money by exporting cash crops like sugar, coffee, fruit, and rum as they did when enslaved, except the Haitian people would be receiving the profit instead of France. Also, although slavery was abolished, there still persisted slavery by another name—wage slavery. Capitalist countries have been exploiting Haiti for cheap labor (why the poor stereotype exists) for decades and today through corporations and outsourcing (an issue not unique to Haiti but to all low-income countries). On top of that, there have been repeated US military occupation since the 1930s thanks to President Monroe’s “Manifest Destiny” stating that the US is the big brother of Latin America and has the right to interfere. In fact much of the anti-Haitian sentiment and anti-Haitian polices in the Dominican Republican has been the on the part of the United States backing Dominican dictator’s Trujillo racial purge of Haitians in the 1930s until 1960s. Under his rule, at least 60,000 Haitians were killed. Any hopes of Dominican-Haitian alliance has been ruined ever since. Every aspect of Haitian society is embedded with anti-blackness as its legacy—down to Haitian geography. For example, plantation slavery, conspicuous consumption of Europeans, and exploitation of the Haitian land has been the main culprit of deforestation of Haiti. No, Haitians do not in fact eat trees. Bummer, right. But the land has sure been robbed of them. And for this very reason, Haiti was hit so badly by Hurricane Matthew because trees tend to be a source of protection in tropical areas. Trees are known to suck up much of the water and strength of hurricanes.
Isn’t it all ironic? Or not really. That at every corner, something rooted in anti-Blackness and the legacy of slavery, is hindering Haiti from progress. The trees were at fault for the destruction, which can be linked to the effects of the rape of Haitian land for European profit. The Red Cross was at fault for the number of homeless Haitians since the earthquake, now exacerbated by the hurricane, a direct result of racist, classist, and opportunist attitudes. (Only 6 homes have been built from the $500 million donated to the Red Cross, they have had over 6 years and the organization is still thinking of a “plan”). Haiti lacks the cultural capital, economic capital, and social capital and has been a free nation for almost as long as the United States has, because one nation decided to start its history as a capitalist plutocracy and another as a true democracy. Which is which, huh? We can only hope that one day people will began to talk about the why of “Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere” rhetoric. But in light of that, we must never forget the significance and relevance of Haiti to Black liberation everywhere.