A recent community forum offered an alternative view to the longstanding image of Haiti as a land of poverty, illiteracy, hunger and disease. About 30 people attended the June 6 event at the Rondo Community Library in St. Paul, where Haiti, its history and its future was discussed by Haitian-Americans.
The first major Black rebellion took place in Haiti in 1791, which left an estimated 10,000 Blacks and 2,000 Whites dead. Over 1,000 plantations were sacked and razed. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte later sent 34,000 troops to subdue the slave armies, but they were unsuccessful. Haiti instead became an independent nation in 1804.
“A little tiny nation was able to overcome larger nations with military might,” said University of Minnesota graduate student Barbara Pierre-Louis, one of five Haitian-American Minnesotans who were featured speakers at the forum.
Haiti is the oldest Black republic in the world, but also the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. In the view of Pierre-Louis, the country essentially has been “punished” for decades by the West because it sought independence.
France only recognized it after demanding the country pay 150 million francs.
Most nations, including the United States, shunned Haiti for over four decades because of fear that its example could stir up more uprisings among slaveholding countries. After the U.S. did grant Haiti diplomatic recognition in 1862, it named Frederick Douglass the consular minister.
The U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915 and held veto power over all governmental decisions there until the military left in 1934. A commission appointed by President Herbert Hoover later concluded that Haitians were excluded from positions of real authority, and the U.S. presence helped create “poverty, ignorance, and the lack of a tradition or desire for orderly free government.”
Two decades later, in 1957, Francois Duvalier was elected Haiti’s president.
Duvalier, better known as “Papa Doc,” was a ruthless ruler who changed the constitution in 1964 so that he could be elected president for life. After his death in 1971, his 19-year-old son took over; Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier proved even more ruthless than his father until his regime finally collapsed in 1986.
After the 1791 revolution, “There was no one left to teach from the beginning trades, how to run a country…none of that ever happened,” local attorney and panelist Jacqueline Regis pointed out. “We have seen the aftermath of that some 200 years later.”
Evangelist Pat Robertson was quoted as saying that the Haitians once “got together and swore a pact to the devil… Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another.” In fact, Roman Catholicism is the official religion of Haiti. Most Haitians do believe in and practice some aspects of voodoo, which revolves around the belief in family spirits.
Hamline University French and Creole Professor Max Adrien explained that after Columbus arrived in Haiti in 1492, “The first thing they [did] is evangelize, and they started to capture [the residents] and enslaved them.” Voodoo was later seen by the slaves as a “liberator” as opposed to Christianity, which was practiced by the White slaveholders.
Adrien added that voodoo supposedly emerged during a secret gathering by the captive, enslaved Haitians. “Christianity told us that we had to suffer. The sky split in half, and suddenly a woman came down among them. That woman…stood among them, pulled out a sword and plunged it into [a] pig’s heart. When she did that…[the slaves] became mad dogs and went out and killed each master that they encountered in the road. For Haitians, this was the road to independence.”
The speakers also discussed ways to help Haiti’s recovery after an earthquake devastated the island country back in January. “It was like the end of the world,” said panelist Roulio Lundy, who was in Haiti when the quake stuck and recently returned to Minnesota after remaining in his home country to help family and others during the aftermath. Lundy told his account in Creole interpreted by his wife Maria Roseler-Lundy, a native Minnesotan who has lived and worked in Haiti.
Lundy said he was driving as the quake took place and walked almost 60 miles to return to his home. He vividly recalled the devastation while he and others helped victims.
“People looked like zombies with dust on [their] faces,” he continued. Many people cried in vain for help, but they were fatally overwhelmed by the rubble created by the collapsed buildings upon them. “People offered to give all their possessions [to us] if we could get them out. But there was no amount that could help [them],” he bemoaned.
In the aftermath of the January earthquake, Haiti continues to need help during its recovery – but not a handout, the speakers all say. Roesler-Lundy suggested, “For a long time, the international community has been giving to Haiti, and for a long time Haitians have learned how to receive. My challenge for you is not to give to Haitians, but to work together with them.”
Haiti must remain a “stable, democratic country,” said Regis, who moved to the U.S. at age 16. “I think it is in the best interest of the United States and the world to make sure that they are engaged in rebuilding Haiti, and not just the roads and the buildings, but also the culture.”
The country’s illiteracy rate is nearly 50 percent, she added. “The education that I believe is most crucial for Haitians [is] how to read and how to be leaders, how to produce the next generation of political leaders who are going to lead, and not in a narrow sense that enrich themselves and not the people.”
The Obama administration “is one of the best hopes that Haiti has had in its willingness to understand Haiti,” noted Regis.
Pierre-Louis, who also teaches languages at Metropolitan State University, expressed her disappointment afterwards about the low number of Blacks (around three or four) who attended the forum. “I’ve gone to many events where we are talking about what happened on January 12, and I haven’t seen much of a connection [with local Blacks],” she pointed out.
“Haiti is certainly a part of our history as a people who crossed the Atlantic several hundred years ago to come home,” surmised Pierre-Louis. “I would like to see a bit more involvement with Haiti from the African American community. It’s a bit disappointing.”
“Our destiny is tied together, and we need to get up and tell the world that we are united,” concluded Regis.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-record er.com.