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Haitian Bicentennial Conference 2004
Re-interpreting Our History
Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat reading from one of her books
July 04, 2004
'Reinterpreting the Haitian Revolution and its Cultural Aftershocks (1804-2004)' was the theme of the Haitian Bicentennial Conference held for 4 days at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. In the conference, organised by the Faculty of Humanities and Education, presenters dealt with different themes of the Haitian situation, including 'Revolution, Race, and Philosophy', 'History, Art and Dance', 'Folk Culture, Language and Resistance', Politics, Economics, and Literature. The Conference's speakers included critically acclaimed Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat, scholars Lloyd Best, Michael Dash and Dany Laferrière, UWI Vice Chancellor Rex Nettleford and Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, among others The conference ran smoothly with sessions generally starting and ending on time.
Some of those that attended the conference were seriously concerned about the predominance of white presenters who delivered papers at the conference. Given that the thrust of the Haitian revolution was against European domination, and that the theme was re-interpreting the Haitian revolution, I share these concerns. it is Caribbean people who have to re-interpret their own history. It is not that White historians are useless, that they aren't able to understand the finer issues of the Haitian revolution because they lack the direct experience of European domination. And this issue is especially important, as there are Blacks who are more than able to articulate Haitian issues very well. There still remains embedded in Caribbean society an over reliance on foreigners and white authorities. Why else would there be so many white scholars needed to reinterpret our history for us? Aren't we capable enough to re-examine and re-write our history, void of the Eurocentric biases of Black and religious inferiority that have plagued mainstream accounts of history? The importance of this issue was shown by the often narrow scope of the presenters, who amazing did not deal with the Aristide situation, save for one male presenter.
On the first day, Lloyd Best presented one of the better papers of the conference. Under the theme, The Revolution and Caribbean Histories, Best presented a paper entitled Locating Haiti in the Caribbean. Quoting Gerald Barthelmy, he pointed out that the most important thing about the Haitian case is the very profound economic and social revolution made by the Haitian people when they repudiated the system of plantation slavery. Best put forth that though whites were eliminated from Haiti, the remaining population was not homogeneous, and between blacks and mulattoes remained problems that dogged society for all of 200 years. Best further highlighted how the peasant society gave impetus to the development of local community organization by way of a local language of Creole, of a local religion, of an indigenous art, of forms of armed resistance, of systems of justice around voudou and with a peculiar set of social rules constituting a civil code. All of this ran parallel to the French language, the Napoleonic code, the Western army with its military hierarchy, and an imported system of jurisprudence and justice.
Referring to orthodox media that report Haiti as a land of voodoo and violence, Best called for another interpretation, humble enough to discard pre-conceived judgments and to make sense of the Haitian experience on its own terms. Most importantly, Best talked about the system of small landholdings that emerged after the Revolution, that displayed remarkable coherence and capacity for organization, expansion, adaptation, and viability. He pointed out that Haiti's current crisis came only when the population explosion the start of the 20th century made this dispensation with its surrounding arrangements a fundamentally unviable one, leading to an exodus first to the cities and then by boat people in search of fresh opportunity. The Haitian locals exhibited extraordinary vigor and vision in establishing a viable system of production. This point is especially important as there has been shallow chauvinistic claims of Haiti's problems being because of voodoo or that Africans are inherently unable to self govern. Apart from being dangerously fallacious, these claims ignore the external and internal forces that give rise to the present situation.
Under the theme, Education and the Revolution, Sandra Gift explored the ways in which Haiti was represented or not represented on school curriculums around the world. Highlighting interviews she conducted in Gambia, Brazil, Denmark, the USA, and the UK, she explained how Haitian history is ignored completely, or when it is included it is often done in a very sketchy manner, and the negatives of the Haitian situation are not put in its proper historical context. She found a general silence on the Haitian Revolution, with many having no knowledge of the Haitian Revolution or Toussaint L'overture. Furthermore, Gift said that in her research, she encountered the view that it would have been better if Haiti had remained a French colony and followed the path of Martinique and Guadeloupe. This idea is very disturbing as it obviously stands upon a false and incomplete understanding of Haiti. Gift further explored how the image contamination of Haiti subverted Haiti's quest for freedom and how two hundred years later, Haiti is still battling the forces of European domination which not only impose physical constraints but also negatively characterize Haiti as the land of voodoo, poverty and violence.
Claude Beauboeuf (PhD) presented a paper titled The Haitian Revolution and Aristide Downfall" Comparative Analysis and Implications. For someone that lives in Haiti, Dr. Beauboeuf presented quite a parochial analysis of Haitian history that completely ignores some critical considerations. In it he likened those who overthrew the system of chattel slavery in the Haiti Revolution to the anti-Aristide movement that helped overthrow Aristide. Although Beauboeuf acknowledged the US and France as having a role in the 'resignation' of Aristide, he makes no connection between the Haiti freeing itself from colonial bondage and the 200 years of isolation and international pressure (including US sanctions and vicious IMF/World Bank policies) that has culminated in the Haiti we presently know. Describing the attitude of the US to Aristide's 'political and economical mismanagement' as realistic Dr Beauboeuf ignores two hundred years of Haitian history, and places the reason for the horrific economic and social realities of the Haitian people squarely on the lap of Aristide.
The conference closed with scenes from Haitian Earth, a play written and directed by Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. The misrepresentation of Haiti's revolutionary leaders was unfortunate and insulting: Dessalines for example was portrayed as a rapist and a blustering ego-maniac. While a sugar-coated representation of the characters of the Haitian history is not necessary or even desired, some aspects of Walcott's play were clearly without historical basis.
All in all, the four-day conference was an interesting mix of contradictions. Two hundred years since Dessalines proclaimed Haiti as an independent nation, the first Black republic in the New World, in a conference celebrating the Revolution, the same forces of European forces that Haiti has battled for over 200 years, manifested as if to remind people that the struggle of the Haitian people to achieve self determination is far from over. The circumstances of the conference has emphasized that it is Blacks and Haitians that are most qualified to re-interpret their own history (given that they are informed), and they must be given the space to articulate their deep painful story that echo a dream of freedom, freedom from the Eurocentric ignorance and arrogance that have dogged their development for two hundred years.
Furthermore, talking to a Black Haitian lady, she explained that Haitian issues are very sensitive and is hardly discussed openly among Haitians because of the discrimination and possibility of reprisals. As she put it, there is a culture of silence as discussing an issue today, can be the bullet that kills you tomorrow.
Given that Haiti has been inconspicuously consigned to the sidelines of history, many are unaware of the debt that Black/Caribbean people owe Haiti, and the sacrifice that was willingly given for the cause of human dignity, freedom and national self-determination. So challenged were the prejudices of the time, by this brave nation of people who climbed the highest mountain and swam the deepest sea in search of their freedom. The underdevelopment that Haiti has been subjected to has reinforced dangerous stereotypes of Black inferiority and the inability of Blacks to self-govern. As one presenter put it, Haiti has become a metaphor for the supposed inabilities of Blacks/Africans to self govern. More proactive movements need to be made by CARICOM to help Haiti who is still experiencing international neglect and Euro-American domination. Including a proper account of Haitian history in school curricula as well as providing scholarships to Haitians will be a good start to counter the underdevelopment forced unto our Caribbean neighbors. I reminded of a haunting poem by the powerful Jamaican Poet Mutabaruka.
"haiti yuh goin an' no one seem to care
haiti yuh goin neighbors beware
de poverty an' death that haunts everyday
de boat dat leave to de u.s.a.
yuh payin payin boukman is not a sleep
u gave us haiti de strength to fite
black people in de caribbean i say unite
brake de chains dat keep us apart
haiti suffers because it made a start
haiti haiti yuh 'ave de will
haiti haiti afrika calls u still
too black too strong you'll 'ave to pay
balcker than nite never seein de day
but too black is always de reason for your pain
but your fite for freedom will not be in vain
haiti yuh goin an' no one seem to care
haiti yuh goin neighbors beware
de blood seat an' tears dat shed today
will be a guide for afrika an' afrikans along de way
cuba beware/jamika beware/trinidad beware/greneda beware
caribbean beware beware beware/care no fear care no fear
caribbean beware beware beware
break de chains dat keep us apart
haiti suffers because it made a start
but too black is no reason for pain
de blood for freedom wil always stain"
- Muta Baruka