More than just a celebration of the new year, January 1st has a special significance in the Haitian community; it is Haitian Independence Day which marks the occasion of the declaration of the first Black Republic in this hemisphere after an incredible fifteen-year revolt led by former enslaved Africans to win their freedom and independence. African people and the world are indebted to the Haitian people. Haitian soldiers fought side by side with the Continental Army in the Battle of Savannah, thereby making a contribution to the success of the American Revolution.
But only the Haitian revolutionaries, led by the Vodoo Priest Boukman, Toussaint L?Ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe and Alexander Petion had the courage to overturn and abolish the slave system at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Moreover, this Pan-African revolution (many of the leaders of the revolt were former enslaved Africans from other Caribbean Islands like Jamaica, Grenada and Cuba) helped to liberate the other half of the Island of Hispaniola paving the way for the creation of the Dominican Republic as an independent nation.
Haiti also provided safe haven for Simon Bolivar and equipped him with arms when he launched his campaign to liberate South America. And, the defeat of the mighty armies of Napoleon Bonaparte by the Haitian revolutionaries was directly responsible for the U.S. purchase of the vast Louisiana Territory from France.
Of equal significance, the Haitian Revolution was a bright beacon of hope and inspiration for free and enslaved Africans around the world. It shattered the myth of white supremacy and invincibility thereby giving encouragement to other enslaved Africans to revolt against slave systems wherever they existed. The example of Haitian was frequently noted in the proceedings of the Colored People?s Conventions in the nineteenth-century. Haiti was a proud symbol of Black self-governance and a concrete illustration that African people could achieve the same status everywhere. No doubt the drumbeat of Boukman?s warriors constantly reverberated throughout the slave quarters of plantations in the U.S. Denmark Vesey?s goal was to sail to Haiti with thousands of newly freed Africans if his elaborate revolt had succeeded in Charleston, S.C. As Leon A. Pamphile reveals in his extraordinary book Haitians and African Americans: A Heritage of Tragedy and Hope, Haiti continued to be a source of inspiration for Africans in America long after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. Under the leadership of James Theodore Holly two major migrations of Africans in America to Haiti were attempted. For reasons of cultural differences and political instability each attempt proved unsuccessful. Nonetheless, Haiti as an independent Black Republic maintained a special place in the hearts and minds of African Americans, especially because of the violence and indignities Black people had to endure under apartheid in the South and defacto segregation in the North.
Frederick Douglass was a great champion of Haiti and fought hard to protect the Republic from the evil machinations of U.S. corporations. In the 20th century, the NAACP built solid relationships with the government of Haiti and emerged as the leading voice advocating for the end of U.S. occupation (1915?34) and more favorable treatment towards the Haitian people.
Unfortunately, as the prior reference suggests, the first Black Republic has never been permitted to fulfill the promise of the Revolution, which was consummated in 1804. France refused to recognize Haiti until the government of the Republic paid millions of dollars in reparations to French colonialists and slave masters for their loss of property. The U.S. was not eager to recognize Haiti because the government correctly feared that the example of enslaved Africans overturning slave systems would encourage similar revolts in the South.
Morever, the prospect of exploiting cheap labor in Haiti as a subservient country was quite appealing to the government and corporate establishment. Though there have been unresolved tensions and contradictions within Haitian society from the very beginning, the main reason why Haiti has never fully realized its potential is because the U.S. has always treated this nation as a neo-colony.
As Haiti prepares to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of the Haitian Revolution in 2004, I firmly believe that Africans in America and friends of Haiti must put their arms around the Haitian people and work with them to fulfill the promise of the Revolution in terms of developing real democracy and development in the twenty-first century. It?s time to repay our debt to Haiti for the extraordinary contribution the Haitian people have made to Africans and the world.
In practical terms this means African Americans must continue to work to mediate the current political crisis in Haiti in hopes of achieving a peaceful settlement; fight for a more favorable attitude and policy towards Haiti by the U.S. government; spearhead the movement to compel France to repay the reparations it forced Haiti to pay for winning its freedom and, build a strong base of private humanitarian and material assistance for organizations and agencies in Haiti that are working to improve the quality of life of the people.
We can also assist Haiti by joining with the Haiti Support Project in taking a Pilgrimage to the first Black Republic via the Cruising Into History/Haiti 2004 Initiative (http://www.cruisingintohistory.org). Our goal is to charter an entire cruise ship to take upwards of 3,000 people to Haiti August 14-21, 2004. This fantastic voyage will be a huge boost to cultural tourism in Haiti. It will also uplift the spirit of the Haitian people to see such a large contingent of their brothers and sisters from the U.S. sailing to Haiti to join with them in celebrating one of the greatest feats in history. It?s time to repay our debt to Haiti!