Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haiti: What We Should Know Now (but aren't being told by mainstream media)

For many, the earth is still shaking.

Sites like have posted the videos and images that continue to tell the harrowing story of the earthquake that hit Haiti late yesterday afternoon.

Tragic facts continued to emerge throughout the night, as aftershocks and news of death and destruction rocked Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. Hundreds have been confirmed dead, but there are many still trapped in the debris of buildings that collapsed around the area.

Unfortunately, as demonstrated by blogger Allison Kilkenny, the press hasn't done a stellar job of providing historical context about the small island nation. That's problematic, because there is a great deal of work to be done there. Because the history of slavery is so denied and ignored in our culture, many Americans don't even understand how the African-descended population in Haiti (and throughout the Caribbean and South America, for that matter) came to be there.

Journalists are presenting the rehashed story of a hapless, poor black nation that audiences are so familiar with.

Few, however, have mentioned Haiti's history as the first independent black nation established in the western hemisphere after a bloody but successful revolt of enslaved Africans against their French slaveholders. The leadership of Toussaint L'Ouveture and the work other warrior strategists in the late 1700s led to the establishment of the nation in 1804, about 60 years before slavery was abolished in the United States.

That made Haiti a target not just for jilted France, but for the wealthy United States, whose leaders chaffed at the possibility of a free black nation so near the American south. In fact, they had good reason to worry.

There were indeed enslaved and free blacks who escaped or relocated to Haiti. There were also enslaved Africans who were forced to travel with white owners escaping the revolt, and ended up in places such as Mississippi and Louisiana's Orleans Territory. Finally, there were aristocratic blacks - often of mixed ancestry and with ties to French slaveholders - who were identified as the enemy of the enslaved blacks. Many in this group also fled to free states in United States (See Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange, for example.)

All of the cross-pollination could be dangerous for the U.S. economy, which relied almost entirely on the boons slave labor - whether it was admitted or not.

(Let's not be fooled by the early abolition dates or the so-called liberal politics in states like Massachusetts. The lucrative textile industry, for example, was built on the backs of enslaved men and women who planted, cultivated, and harvested the cotton that fueled it.)

The Haitian Revolution helped to inspire a number of revolts and movements among enslaved and free blacks in the U.S. Charles Deslondes, the enslaved African man (often falsely identified as a free) who led a "slave" revolt in January of 1811, was born in Haiti, and had come to Louisiana as the human "property" of his white slaveholder, a white refugee who had escaped to Louisiana. Black Nationalists such as David Walker, author of the militant the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829), were directly inspired by it. The uprising became the center of celebrations and commemorations - sometimes secret - among blacks in both the American south and north for decades to come.

Even in 2009, Haiti would represent an extraordinary political threat if it were flourishing. It's no wonder the United States and France have had their foot on Haiti's neck - militarily, economically, and politically - since 1804.

Yes, we've have a lot of multi-government sponsored humanitarian presence in Haiti in recent decades, but you don't have to suffer through (the not-so-subtly-racist-condescending-heavy-handed-liberal-fantasy freakfest known as) Avatar to sniff out the potential rats there. One could step back a little further, and read about our military history in Haiti since.

A quick review really aids an understanding of why Haiti is the poorest country in the Northern hemisphere, and why it has long been the anchor of the dirty corporate practices of child labor-exploitative companies like Disney (and those that have followed). It will also clear up some questions about our actions in Grenada back in the 1980s - don't get me started.

(I'd really, really, like to talk about disgusting ironies related to Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" here, but you'd all think I'd taken a complete left.)

Add to that a discussion of the myriad internal challenges, not limited to the country's environmental vulnerability (a product of Haiti's rampant deforestation) along with serious class stratification, and we might truly have a better handle on things.

But information is only useful if we do something with it. And there's a great deal to be done.

Images Credit: Associated Press. Second image is a "before and after" of Haiti's Presidential Palace.

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