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“The Meaning of Haiti”:
Tragedy, History, Culture, Philosophy

—by Eugene Gogol

The profound depth of the Haitian tragedy seems boundless. The natural disaster of a powerful earthquake continues to unfold with unnatural consequences. It is impossible to get an accurate count of the dead, but it is surely well above 100,000. Tens upon tens of thousands injured, many still barely treated, others treated so late that amputation of infected limbs became the only possible treatment. Haitians died and were injured as tens of thousands of homes in Port-au-Prince’s shanty-towns collapsed, not only from the might of the earthquake, but as well from the reality of Haiti’s devastating poverty. The home-dwellers had no money and materials to afford decent construction. Now, hundreds of thousands are not only homeless, living in the streets and waiting for tents as temporary shelter, but daily are in need of food assistance.

It is a tribute to the vast majority of Haitian people that, as opposed to scare stories of looting and potential violence, their resilience, dignity and simple humanity has been continually present. In the immediate aftermath, they quickly acted to save one another in the collapsed rubble and sought to take the injured to where they could possibly be treated. In the days that followed, they fought starvation, not by hoarding, but by communally sharing whatever food they can obtain.

This is no accident. The Haitians are a proud people. They have endured much, not only in this most recent moment, but for decades: natural and man-made ecological and human devastation, dictatorial repression, imperialist military occupation, neo-liberal exploitation and abandonment. They have resisted foreign occupation and overthrown native-born oligarchies. That resistance, rebellion, and indeed revolution, began centuries ago.

Before the island of Hispaniola’s division into Haiti and the Dominican Republic it was “discovered” by Columbus in 1492, and claimed for Spain. The indigenous population, Taino, were put to work in gold mines, and died off in vast numbers due to mistreatment, malnutrition and lack of immunity to European diseases.

The Spanish began importation of Africans as slaves in 1517. At the end of the 17th Century, the island was divided between France and Spain with France taking over the Western third and naming it Saint-Domingue. By 1790, Saint-Domingue was the richest colony in the Western Hemisphere. Half a million enslaved Africans worked its plantations, supplying Europe with vast quantities of sugar and coffee. So brutal were the conditions that tens of thousands of African had to be continually imported to replace those killed off.

The brutality of the conditions, the creativity of the African-born slaves, and the winds of the French Revolution “conspired” to launch a massive slave revolt in 1791:

In an immensely complex decade-long conflict, these African slave-soldiers, commanded by legendary leaders like Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, defeated three Western armies, including the unstoppable superpower of the day, Napoleonic France. In an increasingly savage war—“Burn houses! Cut off heads!” was the slogan of Dessalines—the slaves murdered their white masters, or drove them from the land.

On Jan. 1, 1804, when Dessalines created the Haitian flag by tearing the white middle from the French tricolor, he achieved what even Spartacus could not: he had led to triumph the only successful slave revolt in history. Haiti became the world’s first independent black republic and the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere. (Mark Danner, “To Heal Haiti, Look to History, Not Nature,” New York Times, Jan. 21, 2010)

If the winds of the French Revolution reached the Caribbean, the great fear of the rulers and plantations owners in the United States was that the winds of the Haitian Revolution would reach the Black slave laborers of the southern states. It was thus no accident that the U.S., under of the author of the Declaration of Independence, but slave-holder presidency of Thomas Jefferson, refused to recognize Haiti (the nation’s name) as a legitimate state. It would be in the midst of the Civil War that would abolish slavery, before Lincoln gave recognition to Haiti.

However, who did recognize Haiti’s slave rebellion/revolution philosophically was G.W.F. Hegel. In the first half decade of the new century, he was at work on his first monumental work, Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), as the Haitian conflict proceeded. One of its crucial sections was Lordship and Bondage, the struggle for recognition, or the master-slave dialectic. There, Hegel wrote of how initially the master was “the power dominating existence,” holding the bondsman in subordination. However, in labor, “in fashioning the thing, self-existence [of the slave] comes to be felt explicitly as his own proper being.” “[T]he bondsman becomes aware, through this re-discovery of himself, of having and being a ‘mind of his own.’” Hegel wrote of two self-consciousnesses, master and slave, of two worlds that became a struggle of life and death. The risk of life taken to destroy the other is “self-activity,” for “it is solely by risking life that freedom is obtained.”

When in the past, Hegel historians asked, what was the source of this master-slave dialectic?, they looked to philosophic sources in Greek philosophy, or saw it as an abstract construction with no historical antecedents. However recently, the work of Susan Buck-Morss, has cast an important illumination on its origins within the contemporaneity of the Haitian Revolution and Hegel’s writings of the Phenomenology:

No one has dared to suggest that the idea for the dialectic of lordship and bondage came to Hegel in Jena in the years 1803-5 from reading the press-journals and newspapers. And yet this selfsame Hegel, in this very Jena period during which the master-slave dialectic was first conceived, made the following notation: “Reading the newspaper in early morning is a kind of realistic morning-prayer. One orients one’s attitude against the world and toward God [in one case], or toward that which the world is [in the other].The former gives the same security as the latter, in that one knows where one stands.” (“Hegel and Haiti,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 26, No. 4. (Summer, 2000), pp. 821-865). See her Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, University of Pittsburg, 2009, where she as well explored the question of writing, or failing to write, history as a universal history.)

Buck-Morss documents how the news of the Revolution appeared in the French and German papers and journals of the period, of which Hegel surely was aware. This intertwining of Haiti and Hegel, an unexamined subject, can lead us to explore further the relation of freedom struggles and dialectical thought. The peoples of Haiti not only entered decisively into the history of revolution at the turn of the century, but entered into Hegel’s revolutionary dialectic of negativity.

The aftermath of this second revolution in the New World was both profound and contradictory. Not only did the United States refuse to recognize the new nation, but France attempted to invade Haiti twice. This threat only ended when France demanded and obtained reparations—payments for the loss of territory, property (the slaves), and the slave trade. Under the threat of invasion and blockade, Haiti was forced to pay France over many decades, greatly crippling any possibility for its economic development.

The new Haitian nation had an important relation to what would become the Latin American Wars of Independence. Simon Bolívar was first given refuge, and then given financial and military assistance for his fight to liberate Venezuela, on condition that he free whatever slaves he encountered in his military campaign for South American independence.

However, within Haiti, a new form of exploitation arose:

[T]he slaves had become soldiers in a victorious revolution, and those who survived demanded as their reward a part of the rich land on which they had labored and suffered. Soon after independence most of the great plantations were broken up, given over to the former slaves, establishing Haiti as a nation of small landowners, one whose isolated countryside remained, in language, religion and culture, largely African.

Unable to replace the whites in their plantation manors, Haiti’s new elite moved from owning the land to fighting to control the one institution that could tax its products: the government. While the freed slaves worked their small fields, the powerful drew off the fruits of their labor through taxes. (Danner, op.cit.)

In the 20th century, Haiti was subject to a series of invasions and occupations. The most prominent in the first half of the century was the U.S.’s military occupation beginning in 1915 and lasting until 1934. Withdraw did not mean the end of U.S. domination, only its presence in a different form, most especially its acquiescence to and support of the dictatorship of the Duvaliers, first father and then son.

It was only in the 1980s and the 1990s that a powerful movement for self-determination took root under the leadership of a former priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who spoke of and practiced a theology of liberation. In 1991 he won the presidency, winning more than two-thirds of the vote, in the only free democratic election in Haiti’s history. This movement, principally of the Haitian poor, became know as the Lavalas, (the flood or torrent). For both the rich families that controlled much of the wealth within Haiti and for the United States, an Aristide presidency and the powerful movement from below that it represented and released, became intolerable. Therefore it was no surprise that Aristide was overthrown and murderous attacks took place on Lavalas members and supporters.

There is no need to follow the back-room deals and maneuvers, the murderous gangs and terrible immeseration that have characterized the rest of the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century. It resulted in terrible blows against the movement of the Haitian people to determine their own destiny. On top of this destruction of authentic self-determination, there has been the layering upon—and at times an imposition upon—Haiti’s poor, an incredible number of “aid” organizations—humanitarian, religious, ecological, medical, United Nations, and on and on—all with their different agendas “to help” the Haitians. Such aid began as early as the Duvalier dictatorship and reached almost unaccountable numbers in the most recent period. It is sure to obtain new heights in this post-earthquake world. Haitian-born photographer Daniel Morel spoke of encountering this aid scene in the first days after the quake:

Since day one of the earthquake, I have everything. I’m on the street covering what other people don’t cover. I’m covering the people. I want their voice to come out. Massive aid is coming every day. Big cargo plane is landing every 15 minute at the airport. What happened to that aid? Why do people still have to buy their own prescription at the hospital? That’s the question I’m asking myself and the world… They’re playing with people here. CNN is playing with people… They’re doing show business here… All I want to say is: stop playing with my people. Stop playing with my people. If you want to help, help. Don’t come here for show business… They’re playing with the Haitian people again… The press is playing with them. The government is playing with them. The U.N. is playing with them. That’s the reason I’m not so excited when they talk about rebuilding Haiti. (New York Times, Jan. 27, 2010)

It is against this onslaught—economic, military, humanitarian—that we need to again focus on the Haitian masses, on their long history of resistance and revolt, and on what they will do now. Their future will in part be determined by their past as history, as culture, with their roots in Africa and their permanent manner of resistance and revolt. In the Haitian Revolution, “most of those half-million blacks had been born in Africa, spoke African languages, worshipped African gods” (Danner). Even when, in the intervening centuries, some of the original traditions have faded, new modes of resistance have appeared, rooted in the ongoing cultural development of the Haitian people: religion of their own creation and not that of their oppressors; language, not of the occupiers, whether French or English-speaking, but Creole, related to French, but distinct to Haitians.

The question is: With the unprecedented destruction from the earthquake, combined with the huge influx of needed aid—but aid controlled by the outside or by powerful elites within—what will happen, what is the future of Haitian culture—the creative resistance and self-determination of the Haitian people?

Maggie Steber, who has worked on Haitian projects, photographing and documenting their lives and travails for more than 20 years, wrote a short essay in the immediate post-earthquake period, “A Culture in Jeopardy, Too”:

Port-au-Prince—Ten days after the earthquake. Where to begin and what to say? …Devastated by the loss of its people and its places, Haiti stands on the precipice of losing something more precious—as audacious as that sounds amid all this death—because it is transcendent. Haiti stands to lose its culture. Culture describes a people more than anything. It stems from history. It is the glue that holds a nation together when all else fails. But now that, too, may be lost, in the well-intentioned rebuilding efforts by the international community. In Haiti, culture is something ephemeral that floats just above the fray of daily life. In it is embedded an identity with ancestors who must be served; a history marked by unimaginable violence and a resounding victory over slavery; a character that might seem eccentric elsewhere but works very well here; a tradition of incredible art and music and story-telling and even voodoo which—despite the claims of missionaries—is perhaps the single most important aspect of life for peasants and slum dwellers… All around me, I see a greater loss. And Haitians see it, too. Haitians had their culture, if nothing else. If the world is going to rebuild Haiti, Haitians must have a say. And not just the bourgeoisie, who would most likely want to see Port-au-Prince become a modern city without character (New York Times, Jan. 21, 2010).

The question is, Who decides in Haiti?—for culture, for the life and labor of the Haitian people, for the Haitian nation? That Haiti needs a huge amount of assistance is undeniable. But the history of assistance to Haiti, not only in recent decades, but for its entire history is abysmal. Exploitation, racism, military invasion and domination—all brought in from the outside; repression, corruption, more exploitation, murderous gangs created and manipulated by dictatorial rulers and the rich elites within; the foreign powers and the native rulers often working hand in hand to close any doors to self-determination, to real development in material and human terms. All of this is the real history and true reality of Haiti.

It is time for another reality, another history-in-the-making—new human beginnings—rooted in the Haitians masses own ideas and actions. No other pathway is a viable one.

—Eugene Gogol January 31, 2010 egogol@hotmail.com

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