Black History Month, day 22

What I want to write about for today is how Haiti went from a brutally oppressive slave plantation to an independent nation, but what I mostly know about Haiti is how little I know. I just find it intriguing, for several reasons: how widespread the revolt was, a real grassroots movement. How they defeated England, Spain, and Napoleon, for heaven’s sake. How the successful revolt by slaves got the attention of US Americans: definitely that of northern abolitionists and southern newspapers, who commented on it, and surely that of enslaved people as well. The question of whether the Haitian revolutionaries were inspired by the US war of independence (seems likely enough), in which case there is an elegant circling-round, with our revolution partially inspiring theirs, then theirs in turn inspiring our “next revolution,” the Civil War. The interesting personalities of the leaders, such as Toussaint L’Ouverture and Boukman Dutty (I’m finding myself wanting to read a biography of each, and I almost never read biographies). How complex the racial and class relationships were, with a caste of black landowners, maybe even an aristocracy, such as never existed in the antebellum US South. How after the Haitians established a free republic, they waged a war to free the slaves of the Dominican Republic. How, nevertheless, their leaders were not agreed on whether to sustain a democracy or set up new autocracies.

If there were any sense of fair play in world politics, everyone would keep their hands of Haiti–a country that had overcome so much, the only one where slaves reasserted their rights and took over to the point of establishing a new republic, should be hailed and helped by all democracies from then on. (I know, naive. I also have this idea that people who survive cancer should all live to old age and never die of something as ridiculous as a car accident.) Obviously it doesn’t work like that, and not only because Haiti’s leaders vacillated between democracy and dictatorship. The US, far from seeing Haiti as a sister in freedom, invaded in 1915 and set up a puppet government, just one of many cases of the US invading a Caribbean or Latin American country at the behest of corporations. Of course, then-president Wilson was such a white supremacist that, far from rejoicing to see a former slave state gain freedom and equality, he probably found it galling. Again, if black people could run a country, what did that say about his harsh judgment about “governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes” after the Civil War? (Read his chapter on Reconstruction in his History of the American People, volume IX, if you can stand it.) We’ve meddled in Haiti ever since.

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