T&T Review Column, August 2012: Axes of Independence or, “What’s so great about being Haitian, anyway?”

Axes of Independence or, “What’s so great about being Haitian, anyway?”

Column published in the Trinidad & Tobago Review, August 6, 2012, pp. 16-17 (centerfold)


By Myriam J. A. Chancy

When I first arrived at Piarco International Airport in Trinidad, it was to be greeted with a banner announcing to visitors the “golden jubilee” celebration of Trinidad & Tobago’s Independence. A quick calculation revealed that T & T had been independent since the summer of 1962 when the British Union Jack was replaced with the black, red and white flag of the new nation. A young nation, I thought, thinking of Haiti, thinking as a Haitian. I wondered what this difference in years could make as, a few months later, I observed celebrations for the 4th of July in the United States. Surprisingly, this year, there was a great deal more open conversation about the controversial aspects of American Independence. Two days before this year’s celebrations, Bill Moyers, a well-respected American journalist and host of public broadcasting’s “Moyers & Company” published a blog post entitled “On Independence Day, Also Remember Thomas Jefferson’s Betrayal.” In the piece, Moyers discusses the fact that that writer of the US Declaration of Independence, signed 236 years ago, Thomas Jefferson, “was an aristocrat whose inheritance of 5,000 acres, and the slaves to work it, mocked his eloquent notion of equality.” “Yes, Thomas Jefferson possessed ‘a happy talent for composition,’ Moyers writes, ‘but he employed it for cross purposes. Whatever he was thinking when he wrote ‘all men are created equal’ he also believed black people were inferior to white people…..To read his argument today is to enter the pathology of white superiority that attended the birth of our nation.” David Zirin, Sports editor for one the US’s most popular news magazines, The Nation, chose, as his fourth of July column, to reproduce the whole of former slave, Frederick Douglass’ speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” The speech was delivered 76 years after the signing of the 1776 US Declaration of Independence, July 5th, 1852, two years after the passing of the Fugitive Slave law, prompting Douglass to write “for black men there are neither law, justice, humanity, not religion,” and eleven years before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation which was to finally abolish slavery in the United States.

Since the slave trade itself had been abolished but not the institution of slavery within the US, Douglass’s speech was meant to have Americans reflect on the hypocrisies of the terms of US independence that excluded its enslaved Black population. He thus wrote:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the             year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your                 boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoining are empty and             heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy….

But we are years away from 1852, and slavery, you might say. What does any of this have to do with us, Caribbean people and Caribbean nations? What does US affairs and independence have to do with anything? Well, the appearance of these op-eds, this year, an election year in the US, in a US governed by a biracial president of African and European descent, where racial inequities continue to reign, suggests that, at least among its left-leaning journalists, a memory of what the nation has never really stood for has become all the more apparent in an age that the least progressive among us have smugly labeled “post-racial” in the face of unremitting structural imbalances between the races in this most exalted of North American nations. When Douglass made this speech in 1852, he was well aware of another history in the Americas well ignored by the pundits of his time. He was well aware that the United States that he spoke of in 1852 had not existed geographically when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776. These United States had come to be in 1803 when Napoleon Bonaparte, defeated by the “Black Jacobins” of Saint-Domingue had to sell (to then president, Thomas Jefferson) a swath of length of 828,000 square miles stretching from the Gulf Coast of Louisiana to the Northwest, about a third of the present-day US, in order to survive the economic devastation of the war. Honestly, everyone has forgotten this footnote in history, none more than my American university students who are always shocked when presented with the maps of the US prior to and after the Louisiana Purchase, surprised that the cost of war with Saint-Domingue could have resulted in such a sale and, in fact, resulted in the consolidation of the nation they know today. January 1, 1804, Saint Domingue renamed itself Haiti, stripping itself of its colonial name and removing the white banner of the French flag from the newly created Haitian “drapo” to represent the removal of French domination. There were no slaves in the new nation for slaves, free coloreds, defectors from the French army (including Poles), and others, fought for the freedom of the nation in the name of freedom itself, that is, freedom from slavery and freedom from colonization. Some forty years after his “What to the slave is the fourth of July?” speech, Douglass would serve as American Consul General to Haiti from 1891-1893.
In January 1893, with the US fully embarked on its campaign of ‘gunboat diplomacy’ in the Caribbean basin, Douglass made a signal speech at the Chicago World Fair in which he encouraged the improvement of US/Haiti relations on the basis that, “We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy today…is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons of Haiti ninety years ago…striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world” – words whose significance still resonate against our region’s forgetfulness. Unfortunately, then, as now, a certain paralyzing amnesia had already set in promulgated by the ideology of the “Black menace” that Haitians and our Revolution were thought to represent; this fear, of course, had been set in place to protect the plantation systems in the American South and Latin America whose wealth was still then fueled by slave labor. (Twenty-two years later, the US would come to occupy Haiti for a 19-year period.) Some scholars of the period debate whether or not the newly Haitian state was truly free of its colonial heritage, arguing that the new constitutions, despite their affirmation of freedom for all men (women were another matter), and the designation of all citizens of the nation as “Black” regardless of race or ethnicity, of the early years of Haiti’s independence were mere mirrors of French codes. There is some truth to this given that there were no other models to replicate but, then, it is also true that the first Black nation in the hemisphere and the second American Republic (second to the US) was also the only non-slave holding state in the Americas in 1803, the only state to make slavery a crime and to declare Africans equal to Europeans. For this, they paid greatly, both economically and ideologically, demonized in folklore, kept out of trade and diplomatic exchanges in the region, and out of global trade by the French until President Boyer agreed to pay an indemnity for war losses in 1825 that no vanquishing state has ever had to pay in modern times (this amount is estimated at today’s rates to equal upwards of 20 billion dollars). Here begins Haiti’s history of poverty after countless decades of being Europe’s richest colony in the Caribbean basin; it cannot be stated enough. That Haiti’s “failure” today is equated with its present state of poverty is just another facet of the historical amnesia that plagues us so — that impoverishes us all.
So, what does this have to do with Trinidad and Tobago and the independence celebrations of today? I’d like to suggest that what has been forgotten between dates and time are the pan-African dimensions of rebellions and resistance movements across Caribbean States and that we don’t know enough about each other’s histories to truly understand the losses and gains of our ancestors, their great sacrifices, even when they were not successful. That, in all of this, more greatly forgotten than most are the Haitians and the costs of their struggle for freedom (not emancipation). Granted that compared to Haiti and most Caribbean countries in its immediate surrounds, Trinidad & Tobago, owing largely to the exploitation of natural resources such as oil reserves and pitch in Trinidad and tourism in Tobago, has an economic infrastructure to be envied; granted that as a result of limiting the reach of tourism in Trinidad itself, and perhaps also owing to the intellectual and social movements of the late sixties into the 70s, in particular, the “1970 Revolution,” which I only learned about during my month-long residency in Trinidad by way of playwright and scholar Rawle Gibbons and Eintou Springer, the former poet laureate of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad has preserved rich cultural legacies which reveal themselves as much in daily living as in the annual Carnival and Emancipation Day celebrations; granted that T&T, with all the complexity of ethnic diversity and a stratified class system along both ethnic and color lines, manages to maintain a certain equilibrium that appears, at least on the surface, tolerant of difference and plurality; granted that Trinis and Tobagans are proud of a history of resistance and intellectual activity that has produced a long line of influential thinkers and creative writers such as CLR James, VS Naipaul, Lakshmi Persaud, Rosa Guy, Earl Lovelace, Carol Boyce Davies, Merle Hodge, Dionne Brand, M. Nourbese Philip, and the list goes on. But why is it that even with all this intellectual production, it was still possible for one Trinidadian interviewer to ask me, “What’s so great about being Haitian?” in a tone that implied there was little to be proud about.
In his 1852 speech, Douglass wrote to his fellow Americans: “The simple story of it is that, 76 years ago, the people of this country were British subjects. The style and title of your ‘sovereign’ people (in which you now glory) was not then born. You were under the British Crown. Your fathers esteemed the English Government as the home government; and England as fatherland. This home government, you know, although a considerable distance from your home, did, in the exercise, of its parental prerogatives, impose upon its colonial children, such restraints, burdens and limitations, as, in its mature judgment, it deemed wise, right and proper.” One of these impositions was the limiting of “carnival” celebrations by British authorities which historian Michael Anthony traces back to the “Canboulay” or “burning cane” fires when cane fields were set on fire when slavery was abolished in 1834 , one year after the Abolition Act was passed in the British parliament. Through a children’s pre-Bocas storytelling event animated by storyteller and performer Dara Healy, I learned about the Canboulay riots of 1881, brought alive through Eintou Springer’s story, “How Lil Joe helped defeat Captain Baker.” Neither I nor the children gathered knew much about the ways in which descendents of slaves fought for their right to commemorate their emancipation as well as the struggles of their ancestors for their right to be free, a struggle which re-surfaced in the later part of the twentieth century with the 1970 Revolution.
Earl Lovelace’s most recent novel, It Just a Movie, which recounts the events of the time so that they not be forgotten, was rewarded for the Bocas literary prize this year, which suggests that enough time has passed that this historical moment in T&T’s history can be regarded as a relic, turned over for examination and observation, prodded to yield answers to a bygone era. Yet, what is also clear is that, below the surface, tensions remain between communities, and that power structures of inequity remain firmly engrained. A battle for cultural survival is taking place, especially for indigenous and African-descended populations, some of whom have begun to join forces to collectively address imbalances of political access and redress for cultural and economic survival and advancement. It is also clear that stratification by class is a pervasive issue, here as in other parts of the Caribbean, affecting African-descended populations disproportionately, and judging from comments that I received throughout my stay in T&T sometimes assigned by nationality regardless of one’s lived class status elsewhere. Yes, the nation is proudly independent today, but, at what cost? Is it possible that Haiti has gained something in return for its hard-won Revolution that doesn’t meet the eye, that makes it possible for Haitians, across class, to, yes, be proud of their nation and its history, despite its current state of deprivation?
The work of the majority of the T&T writers I’ve enumerated above concerns the hauntings of colonialism and the search for a valorization of Trinidadian, Tobagan, or Caribbean identity. The means of communication are questioned (Philip’s phrase, “English is a foreign anguish,” comes to mind), as are the limits of independence (along the lines of gender and sexuality, for example, in the works of Boyce Davies and Brand), the need for a profound re-assessment of cultural values in order to produce an effective revolution (think CLR James), and laments and continued voicing of insurrectionary rhetoric by those who recognize that some of the ideals of the 1970 Revolution, in terms of racial equity and advancement, are still to be met (Springer and others). Given the extensive intellectual tradition of T&T, upon which I have only briefly alighted here, it comes as no surprise that most Trinidadians and Tobagans I had occasion to meet were proud of a rich history of contribution to the Caribbean imaginary. What was also clear, however, is that perhaps due to isolationism, perhaps due to the relative youth of the nation, most were not aware that those traditions were linked to previous movements and moments in the Caribbean. The general wisdom I encountered regarding Haiti and Haitians in conversations with scholars, students, and laypeople in the general population is that Haitians are cursed (because of vodou – a topic I will return to in a future column), impoverished, lamentable. Off-handed remarks also suggested that Haitians did not know, or value, their own history, and that Trinidadians, historical or contemporary, could do a better job of representing Haitian history than Haitians themselves (via CLR James, or UWI students currently studying Haiti or working in Haiti). Most seemed to think that Haitian literature was born in the US with the illustrious works of Edwidge Danticat, and, given that Danticat writes in English, that she was heir to the Anglophone Caribbean tradition (there is no truth in first assertion though some to the second since Danticat was trained as a writer in the US and was the student of a number of Caribbean authors, among them George Lamming and Paule Marshall). Certainly sensationalist news coverage of Haiti (think CNN), has something to do with these distortions, but lack of awareness of Haiti’s rich intellectual and literary legacy, owing in part to lack of translations, has perhaps contributed to this knowledge gap, as well as what appears to be a concerted effort to re-situate, at least in letters, T&T as a formidable Caribbean Anglophone presence to the exclusion, elimination or distancing of Francophone exchanges (even when such exchanges might take place in English). The problem with all of this, however, is that the discrete histories of island-nations in the archipelago are intertwined, as are our intellectual traditions and we only impoverish one another if we pretend otherwise.
Aimé Cesaire, who coined the term “negritude” and founded the movement with Léopold Senghor, recognized Haiti as a precursor and model for revolutionary thought and action when he wrote in his Cahier/Return to My Native Land of 1956, the seminal line: “Haïti où la negritude se mit debout pour la première fois et dit qu’elle croyait à son humanité/ Haiti where Negritude stood up for the first time and said it believed in its humanity.” Before Césaire, there was the work of Haitian anthropologist, Jean Price-Mars and his So Spoke the Uncle of 1928, published approximately six years before CLR James’s The Black Jacobins and untranslated into English until the 1990s, though Price-Mars was himself well-known to African descended intellectuals of the region and period transnationally (presiding and participating alongside such figures as Richard Wright, Léopold Senghor and Aime Césaire in the First Congress of Black Writers and Artists of 1956 held in Paris). In turn, Price-Mars’ foundational arguments were derived from the work of Haitian anthropologist Antenor Firmin, the first known anthropologist of African descent, who presented to the Paris Anthropological Society, in 1885, and in the presence (and mockery) of contemporaries, his essay ”De L’egalité des races humaines [Of the equality of human races].” Embraced, on the other hand, by Haitian and African intellectuals through whom his ideas continued to survive and circulate from one generation to the next, Firmin’s views were not popular with the mulatto elite since they heralded the equality of the underclasses, but he was respected and appointed to the post of Haitian Minister of Foreign Affairs to Paris, both to acknowledge his stature and to remove him from local influence. This position may have had a role in spreading Firmin’s reach more than is presently acknowledged since it is known that he attended the first Pan-African Congress in London of 1900 which was also attended by an equally important political and literary figure in the Americas, W. E. B. Dubois, author of The Souls of Black Folk, whose grandfather was also Haitian.
Jean Price-Mars’s work had emerged in response to the US Occupation of Haiti begun in 1915 and ending in 1934, when he, along with other Haitian intellectuals of the time, defined in his work a movement that was to be called -indigénisme- not to be confused with the ‘indigenismo’ movements of Latin America, in which peasant and Haitian cultural forms of African derivation, were to be held sacred as cornerstones of Haitian culture and future survival; we can see here, then, the seeds which would lead to the focal point of many Haitian writers from the 1920s to the 1960s, especially those who wrote under threat of torture, expulsion and disappearance. James Weldon Johnson (who, as head of the NAACP reported on the armed resistance to the Occupation), Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Dunham, Maya Deren, and music ethnographer, Alan Lomax, were all among a select group of Americans who visited Haiti during the Occupation, whose true purpose was containment, as the first World War commenced. Yet, the Occupation had the ironic effect of opening up Haiti to the world while its intellectual class met the onslaught with serious intent and resistance, developing new frames of reference by which to capture that singularity of spirit, only to be crushed, killed, and exiled both physically and from the annals of memory under the violent repression of the Duvalier regime.
Jacques Stephen Alexis was one such writer. His major works and their influence are currently being celebrated this year in different venues around the world as, had he lived, he would be 90 years of age today. Disappeared at age 39, most likely tortured and killed by the henchmen of the Duvalier regime, with the last known photo of him living taken while he descended in Havana after trips to China and Russia, his works remain fonts of optimism and solace for Haitian writers today, as can best be seen in the title of Lyonel Trouillot’s recent novel, La belle amour humaine [Beautiful Human Love] of 2011. In his novel, Compère Général Soleil [General Sun, My Brother], of 1955, Alexis, like Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, who re-imagined the Haitian Revolution for the purposes of thinking through a Cuban Revolution in his novel of 1949, El reino de este mundo [The Kingdom of This World], sought (like Price-Mars) to represent the Haitian landscape and the peasant as a font of regeneration. The reader’s transformation in the reading act, owed everything to the journey of the peasant traced out from obscurity and anonymity to the centrality of everything that it is to be Haitian, including the granting of equality to women as intellectual and creative peers. In the absence of texts recovering encounters between literary figures from across the Caribbean, and translations of the most influential texts shared between them, Haiti’s place in these exchanges remains obscure at best, as obscure as the cumulative effects of interventions, occupations, and economic interferences Haiti has suffered since 1804 until the present, especially, today, under unofficial US governance. From the period of Occupation through to the late 1940s, Haiti had a place in intellectual exchanges of the region as political and intellectual leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean looked to Haiti as a model. From 1815-1816, Venezuelan leader, Simon Bolívar, found refuge in Southern Haiti under Haitian leader and former revolutionary Alexandre Pétion. In the aforementioned The Kingdom of This World, Cuban writer, Alejo Carpentier re-imagined the Haitian Revolution from the perspective of the slaves, both those who ascended to power and those who did not. Searching for a model for what was to become the Cuban Revolution, which Fidel Castro himself had claimed was partly inspired by his exchanges with Haitian workers on his father’s plantation in Oriente, Carpentier’s retelling of the Haitian Revolution served as blueprint and cautionary tale. Nicolas Guillen, on the other hand, rather than retell Haitian stories, told his own but discovered in the work of writers like Jacques Stephen Alexis a brotherhood of spirit and thought. Through Guillen, younger generations of Afro-Cuban writers, like poet Nancy Morejon, read Haitian writers like Alexis and fostered their appreciation for the contribution of the enslaved to the struggling new Caribbean nations. Not surprisingly, then, mid-century exchanges took place between Cuban and Haitian intellectuals as recounted in Cuban scholar, Emilio Jorge Rodriguez’s recent text, Haiti & Trans-Caribbean Literary Identity/Haití y la transcaribeñidad literaria by (tr. María Teresa Ortega; St. Maarten: Nehesi Press, 2012), in which he underscores the pivotal importance of visits to Haiti by Nicolas Guillen and Alejo Carpentier and exchanges in person between Guillen and Jacques Stephen Alexis, between Alejo Carpentier and the Kreyol poet Felix Morisseau-Leroy. Up through the early 1960s when François Duvalier devastated Haiti’s intellectual class through torture, expulsion and silencing, Haiti’s writers were a recognized, regional intellectual force. Lack of translations and the repression of these writings, especially if they were produced in French (due to an active anti-French anti-colonial movement that has been growing in force since the 1990s as Haiti becomes more and more Americanized, via, ironically, English), as well as the corruption of the Duvalier regime itself, has atrophied any memory Caribbean people have of Haitians as active political and intellectual agents towards in common cause of Black and indigenous liberation movements in the region.
“At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed,” writes Douglass in his 1852 essay, “O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.” Douglass, of course, was speaking metaphorically, but we, island-people, know two well the effects of devastating natural storms, hurricanes, earthquakes. Haiti’s earthquake has occasioned a new opening, sometimes uncomfortable but, nonetheless, an opportunity to rediscover and reassess important milestones in our discrete as well as shared histories, to take stock of all that our ancestors struggled for and against, and to weigh their successes not by the measure of their wealth but the health of our cultural complexities and uniqueness. By this measure, Haiti is richer than surface appearance suggests and deserving of consideration and examination, not as a pauper but as an equal in the kingdom. As I’ve sketched only briefly here, Haiti’s rich intellectual history reveals itself, from the time of the Revolution down to period resistance to the suppression of the Duvalier regime, as one of unique figures and thinkers, traversing ideological and geographical spaces to create communities of resistance and freedom. My argument, in the end, is that independence celebrations should be taken as an opportunity to bring alive the forgotten circuits of literary and intellectual history that binds us. In the case of Haiti, breaking the circuitry of exclusion and amnesia, a legacy, actually of colonial patterns of thought, serves to resituate Haiti and her slain and forgotten, politically engaged and socially committed, scribes, as essential, if neglected, griots of our region’s intellectual legacies of resistance.

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