Haiti: Racially Profiled!

Against the Current, No. 117, July/August 2005

Patrick Bellegarde-Smith

I THANK THE organizers for this event that places Haiti squarely in our consciousness where it belongs. I am grateful that Honor Ford-Smith, Jacqui Alexander and Alissa Trotz were so insistent that I attend despite my best efforts to excuse myself. A large number of campus units and off-campus organizations came together, and one knows that this is the proper way to approach our subject tonight. Men anpil, chay pa lou (many hands make the load light).

Furthermore I am humbled by the presence of two of my mentors, Robert Fatton and Frantz Voltaire, who have had a significant impact upon my own intellectual development. One doesn’t have to be old to be a mentor! Thank you for your presence.

When I left Haiti as a young boy of 16 for the eastern Caribbean, my classmates at the College of the Virgin Islands from Martinique, Monserrat, St. Kitts or Barbados asked incessantly, “How could things have gone so wrong for so long?” This legitimate question about Haiti was followed immediately by a statement, “You Haitians shame us all! We are ashamed to be black because of you!”

Though I had a solid grounding in Haitian history at that age, I did not have the wherewithal, the presence d’esprit, I did not have the necessary knowledge, the necessary synapses in my brain to go from history, to international relations, to capitalist relations, to issues of race, color and class to respond eloquently to my classmates’ queries.

But I remember most the icy-cold statement, “Haitians shame us all!” It seemed so gratuitous, so nasty. It was anchored in appalling ignorance created by neocolonial school systems that victimized us all. They continue to do so. With the small amount of time I have, I wish to delineate what I think are some significant factors that contextualize Haiti — the big picture — that allow us to place contemporary events in perspective.

Unless one approaches the topic from a multiplicity of sites, one runs the risks of being ahistorical, of not being able to connect the dots that connect Haiti to the rest of the world. In fact, absent this, one would fall back to a journalistic and often unrecognized racialist assertions one often hears from the North American and Western media: “The poorest country in the world,” or “AIDS and voodoo,” or again, “the Black republic,” and in an attempt at being non- racial, “it must be cultural!” (culture, of course, taken in its anthropological sense, not as the expression “political culture”).

Haiti is a victim of racial profiling!

Upsurge and Repression

Anyone who is cognizant of Haitian history realizes that it is a history of constant struggles of those who yearn for both freedom and liberation. Repressive structures are devised by the desire to maintain oppressive conditions, to retain the status quo.

One could argue in fact that the constant struggle for liberation by the vast majority of Haitians, against a plethora of tiny and competing elites, elicit repressive structures. These repressive structures in a political system, for instance, might indeed be an indication that the system itself is weak, not strong at all.

The counter illustration might be that repressive structures in the United States, for instance, are minimized (except in certain cases, for certain racial minorities or political viewpoints), because the system itself is so strong, having achieved forms of perceived legitimacy. Repressive governments may be weak governments, not strong governments, facing the opprobrium and resistance from an insurgent citizenry.

These masses in Haiti found refuge in forms of “marronage,” maroons marooned in the very country of their own creation two hundred years ago. It is essential that we understand the workings of class structure, race and color AND the dynamism between “nation” on the one hand, and the “international system,” on the other.

We must realize the broad alliances that exist amongst groups at all levels, and to include the peculiar but predictable “colonial psychology” by which my classmates at the College of the Virgin Islands, could say “We are ashamed to be black!”

Unequal relations inside Haiti, set in motion in the civil wars of yore and early in French colonialism and exacerbated by two centuries of primitive capitalism, and an unequal relationship between the subaltern Haitian state and the Western powers “in charge” for the last five centuries: These two conditions, in fact, are interwoven, interconnected and commingled.

I wish I could develop each point more fully, by presenting a plethora of illustrations from Haitian history, such as:

* The political compromises undertaken by the early Haitian state, to assuage the fears of slave owning powers.

* The internecine struggles between westernizers and — for lack of a better term this instant — the Africanizers.

* The ostracism and isolation in early 19th century that led, strange as it seems, to improved economic conditions at the grassroots in the absence of international trade, and to the “peasantization” of the Haitian social landscape.

* The embryonic industrialization in the same period.

* The unimpeded evolution of creolized cultural landscapes in the deepening development of a Haitian (Creole) national language — France itself speaks French in its totality only at the very end of the 19th century — and a national religion devised from elements in Dohomean, Yoruban and Kongo systems primarily, in the absence of a Roman Catholic presence.

* Pandemic rural revolts from the 1840s, once the population realizes that the gains of the Haitian Revolution were lost.

* The choice to “westernize” in the 1880s and 1890s that led to a takeover of the “commanding heights” of the Haitian economy, largely by “expatriates” notably from Germany and the Middle East.

* Finally, the endemic Caco wars that led the United States to invade in 1915.

What Democracy Means

I want to devote my remaining moments to overarching concepts that are the sequel of the unequal relationship between Haiti and the powers. We in the Caribbean, in Latin America and in Africa have been too quick to swallow whole the cultural meaninglessness of our lives, and the imposed meanings of “civilization” and “democracy.”

In terms of democracy, I attempted to redefine the concept with reference to Haitian history and culture in my book Haiti: The Breached Citadel and elsewhere. It suffices to say that democracy is not what George W. Bush says it is!

Elections, for instance, are but one mechanism — easily subverted — that may signal democracy, but clearly not enough in the absence of other substantial developments. It is said that the second election is more profound than the first, akin to the second mouse gets the cheese: this is often true. But not enough.

Modernization is not westernization, and westernization not the sine qua non of civilized existence. Apish mimicry does not suit us. Development, in all its realms — social, cultural, economic, political — “when real and successful, always comes with the modernization of ancestral traditions (as in Europe) anchored in the rich cultural expression of a nation.” (Mission Statement, the Congress of Santa Barbara [KOSANBA]).

Haitian progress is achieved when one includes those who are excluded, above and beyond the limited exclusions of the middle classes in 1946 and 1957, or of elements of the proletariat in the period after 1986. Is it enough when, clearly, the system remains true to itself? The vaunted Haitian Revolution disappears with the assassination of Emperor Jean-Jacques Dessalines in 1806, and is followed by the wholesale adoption of European models of statecraft in which, incidentally, Haitian women lost.

Progress also incorporates wholesale acceptance of the Haitian, with all his and her particularities, as Creole-speaking, Voodoo-practicing, and whatever else has come to define Haiti culturally over time.

So before judging Haiti and Haitians, one ponders to what extent we have individually swallowed whole a definition of civilization that seem to suggest that certain peoples have reached this apogee, and these peoples never resemble us. This is a shallow, self-serving definition, and I question the very notion of “civilization” itself, and whether it is proper to use in any context.

ATC 117, July-August 2005