Celebrating Haitian Independence is a Bittersweet Affair

Home News & Politics Celebrating Haitian Independence is a Bittersweet Affair

Heartbreakingly, the spirit of Haitian independence has been replaced by a menage of new ways that white powers attempt to reassert their grip on my homeland.

When I was younger, the new year always began with a trip to my grandmother’s. My mother’s family would gather in the living room and celebrate with each other, basking in the accomplishment of getting through the old year, as well as the warmth and possibility of newness.

Everyone would also enjoy a plate or two of my grandmother’s soup joumou, a tradition that spans over 200 years across the Haitian diaspora. My mother recalls being young and waking up every January 1st to a big pot of it, served throughout the day, seemingly never-ending. 

Since Haiti won its independence from French colonial rule in 1804, soup joumou has been a staple. The slaves of Saint-Domingue were not allowed to eat what was then considered a French delicacy, something for the most elite of the colony, so when they finally managed to drive out their oppressors and abolish slavery, they adopted this food as their own. Because they could now do so without fear of retribution or violence at their slavers’ hands.

Making this soup their own was part of the Haitian people’s revolutionary spirit, and we have carried it on with dignity.

For many in the Haitian and Black diaspora, the success of this armed struggle—and the uncompromising way in which it achieved victory, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines’s battle cry of “koupe tet, boule kay” (“chop off heads, burn houses”) striking terror into the hearts of whites—has been a source of great pride and inspiration. Haiti is the first Black republic in the Americas to free itself from the vile and perverse grip of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and the model that this rebellion and revolution presents has become a sort of marker for the possibility and need for Black self-determination and relentless, unapologetic struggle.

However, this year, as I reflect on the anniversary of my country’s remarkable initial dedication to freedom and independence, I cannot help but also contemplate the fascistic and neoliberal efforts to keep Haiti under the imperialist boot.

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Haiti is still a colony in everything but name—or, more accurately, it is a neocolonial project. While the revolution is celebrated, Haiti’s elite calls for tourism as a major economic resource—casual Western incursion as the cousin of codified Western abuse. Benevolence and violence intertwine to justify further imperialist interference across all strata of society and identity. Heartbreakingly, the spirit of Haitian independence has been replaced by historical tone policing, concern trolling, and a menage of new ways that white powers attempt to reassert their grip on my homeland. Resorts replace colonies, but the dehumanization of the latter still soaks the foundations of the former. Haiti is simultaneously coddled and exploited across variances of rhetoric. Its people are treated as children, both innocent and dangerous—antithetical to the imperialist vision. The proud spirit of what our country accomplished is increasingly remanded, not only to the dusty distance of history, but to the revisionist violence that undergirds Haiti’s current position in the world.

The freedom my ancestors fought for, the immense pride of a revolution won, is treated by the imperialist powers that be as nothing more than a symbol, while they take and take. The imperial core will use the suffering, poverty and unrest that they’re responsible for to justify their never-ending presence and hold on Haiti. Our destabilization is at their hands, but somehow their hands are always left clean.

Even after gaining independence, Haitians have been subject to unwanted visitation from colonialism since 1825, when the French, incensed at the “theft” of their slave labor, sent warships over to the island to intimidate, threaten, and extort the Haitian people. Demanding the modern equivalent of 21 billion dollars for what they considered irreparable harm to their economy. The French would ensure that Haiti, once considered the richest colony in the west, would be sent spiraling into poverty. The so-called independence debt would not be paid  in full until 1947. France has continuously denied Haiti its reparations (despite their ironic and vampiric pressure for repayment), with leaders downplaying the importance of the demands, and concluding that the only debt they have to settle with Haiti is a moral one. According to France, the only thing they owe to Haiti is a heartfelt apology.

Along with being extorted by France, Haiti would also have to contend with the United States and its occupying forces. In 1915, with President Woodrow Wilson calling the shots, American troops were sent to Haiti under the pretense of restoration of order after the assasination of then-president, Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam—to “prevent anarchy,” as the US government puts it. This prevention also brought with it the perfect chance to “make sure that the Haitian government was compatible to American economic interests and friendly to foreign investment,” and boy, did they take advantage of that chance. The US gained total power over the country’s finances, forcing the election of pro-American Philippe Sudré Dartiguenave into the presidency almost immediately after arrival, and attempting to strong-arm the legislative branch into adopting a whole new constitution two years later. US representatives were also granted veto power over governmental decisions, and Marine Corps commanders served as administrators. Any insurrections against the invaders were met with violence. This occupation ended in 1934.

But this was simply the beginning of the intervention story for Haiti. After 1934, there were coups upon coups. One of the most notable was in 1991, which was led against the first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Aristide rose in popularity after the brutality of the Duvalier father-son dictatorship, promising better for the poor who had endured the brunt of the violence, and going after the Church, who had enabled the Duvaliers, as well the Haitian army, who enforced the violence wished upon the Haitian people. For as many people Aristide had celebrating him and his attempts at righting the wrongs of Haitian leadership preceding him, he also made a lot of people angry. His leadership promised a future of the self-determination the Haitian people had fought for, and it is widely held that pressure from the US, never once letting up, drove the coup. Members of the Haitian National Intelligence Service, which was set up and financed by the CIA as part of the war on drugs in the 1980s, were heavily involved in the coup, and the service was still receiving funding and training from the CIA for intelligence-gathering while the coup was under way.

Although Bill Clinton would eventually help bring Aristide out of exile and back into leadership, he and his wife also have some blood on their hands when it comes to furthering the destabilization of Haiti. From Bill wielding his political power in the 1990s to further Haiti’s dependency on American agriculture, to Hillary’s involvement in the stifling of the country’s minimum wage, to the Clinton Foundation’s purposeful mishandling of deploying aid promised after the 2010 earthquake, which leveled much of the nation, these people have a lot to answer for. As they are regarded as the country’s largest benefactors and leading economic proponents by the outside world, the people of Haiti do not think of them as heroes. Haitians are more than angry, and we have a right to be.  

The promise of liberation and the pride of the liberatory movements our ancestors established can often feel like guiding forces, both optimistic and historical. The combination of these ideas can fill us with pride and resolve, a fire that we imagine will never be tamped down.

While I strive for this—desiring with all my heart these feelings and truths—the story of the Haitian Revolution both empowers and complicates my dreams. My forefathers and foremothers fought and died for a great cause, and they won. They fucking won.

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But colonial imperialism crushed their achievements, perverted their accomplishments, and spilled their blood twenty times over. Now as I try to celebrate the great revolutionary achievement of my kin and countrymen, I find myself caught between merrymaking and mourning: victory achieved, then crushed; victory striven for then suffocated. It feels as though pride and dehumanization, strength and abjection ping pong about inside my head, a great ugly and complicated cocktail made from the liquid and bitter strains of anti-Black, pro-colonial history.

Still, now, as I sit writing this piece, I strive to remember the great and unimaginable achievement of my ancestors, who shed their chains and took up the blade to do what needed to be done. I also mourn for those in my country for whom that legacy feels so distant, trod upon by the vile boots of so many Western ulcers. 

Chop off heads, burn houses. Build our homes, keep our heads high. Let the bittersweet compel us to find the sweet beyond the bitterness. Long live the Pearl of the Antilles.

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