Haiti’s Revolution and What It Teaches Us

Photo by Bailey Torres on Unsplash

One of the unfortunate realities of American education is that an already brief history of Black people in the United States is taught nearly entirely without regard or recognition to the broader African diaspora concerning Black liberation and American/European colonial history. For instance, it is not commonly recognized that, proportionally, most Black people from Africa who arrived in the “New World” in the Atlantic Slave Trade did not ultimately reside in North American colonies but, rather, in the Caribbean, Central and South America. That is to say, if you were enslaved (or newly freed) outside of Africa at any point from the 16th through late 19th century, you would’ve had only a one-in-three (or four) chance of living in the United States. Ask your average Black person on the street about this and it is surprising news. Ask your average non-Black person on the street about this and it is even more surprising news. And why wouldn’t it be? Dysfunctional, racialized educational systems, blended with cultural indifference, leave most Americans with limited insight or interest about these foundational historic events.

Not coincidentally, this is why rabid opponents of Critical Race Theory are currently animated and mobilized. They desperately need to continue perpetuating historical indifference and ignorance even when they are themselves largely ignorant of that history. Thankfully, this summer’s July 4th weekend saw attempts to “reset” the American Revolution from its romanticized, simplistic narratives on English Tea and “tyranny”. Our understanding of The Civil War similarly encompasses reductive descriptions of “Southern culture”, while “Reconstruction” –an important and surprising period of American history after the Civil War—also represents a huge body of knowledge in disrepair and in need of (re)teaching.

Understanding the call for a “Revolution”

Think back to the 2016-2020 US election cycles where the call, “We need a revolution!” was prevalent in progressive, activist public discourse. It was likely often mouthed by people steeped in equally biased or negligent educational systems and with little extra-curricular historical exposure. We began to see real gains in the #BlackLivesMatter movement profile, the zeitgeist towards radical change and structural reforms from race to finance and public safety. As a humanist, Black activist, and atheist organizer, I was quite happy to participate in the resurgence of a resistance movement, particularly one centering itself around issues of Black liberation. Yet, what I was not as comfortable with was the appropriation of the term “revolution”—at least not by White and/or younger people of any color/ethnicity who, again, had largely been steeped in the institutional romanticism of revolutionary history taught in primary and secondary schools and too often affirmed in churches.

For over thirty years, I have been engaged in some kind of formal activism and education, so I want to be clear: I absolutely support positive “change” in our society, particularly towards social justice, humanism, and Black liberation. I work to encourage White people and persons of any color and ethnicity in being enthusiastic actors of social/economic/political justice. However, what causes me discomfort is a casual and/or otherwise ahistorical use of the term “revolution” in socio-political conversations about race, justice, history, and radical change, without understanding the history of the term for Black and Indigenous people, particularly so when that term is appropriated for something other than racial equality. For in the last 500 years, “revolution”, for Black and Indigenous people, has been inextricably tied to some aspect of Black resistance in the new world…and to violence. To utilize the term in a way that obfuscates deep racial inequities and erases the violence towards these peoples for resisting in any way makes me uneasy.

What we can learn from Haiti

This year marks the 217th anniversary of the dissolution of Saint Domingue and the establishment of Haiti (Áyitì): the very first Black republic formed through the expulsion of its European colonizers, led principally by its enslaved African population, and named in honor-of (and deference to) its original Arawak and Taino inhabitants. This is “revolution”. Most of us have not studied or been exposed to this history in any appreciable detail, Black people included. It may be a surprise to learn that following the expulsion of the French, many Black Haitians fled to US cities like Philadelphia, Charleston (SC) and New Orleans, successfully blending into early American society. Right now, there are Black, White (and subsequently Creole) people who have traceable ancestry to this Caribbean nation and don’t even know it (for example, actress Issa Rae recently discovered her Haitian roots on Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s genealogy show Finding Your Roots). And, in echoes of “Build that Wall!” chants and recent anti-Haitian immigrant sentiments, Black Haitians who had fled alongside their masters’ family in duty/devotion more than 200 years ago were met with shipping blockades preventing them from disembarking in New Orleans.

July 3rd commemorated a related historical event, the 173rd anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Danish West Indies (i.e. USVI, my hometown), which in years total-held Caribbean territories longer than the United States has been in existence. Like Haiti, slavery’s abolition in the DWI was precipitated by massive slave revolts: the first in St. John in 1733 and later in 1878, with more revolts led by four iconic Black women on St. Croix.

In St. Domingue, many of the enslaved Africans arrived during the 17th & 18th centuries having been soldiers and prisoners of war(s) in West Africa. There, for them (and those in other colonies), radical ideas and change were both long term and short term plots. This was due to extremely high death counts and hyper-production rates that meant a short life-span of only five to seven years following arrival. Here people fought for the dignity of their future descendants as much or more than they fought for themselves. Overall, what has been simplified as the “Haitian Revolution” is actually a long series of revolutions, treaties and formal political negotiations spawned by: innate human desire for equality, healthy skepticism, religious criticism, travel and journalism, allied-wars, and affirmed humanist principles inspired by the French Revolution.

Learning from history to keep moving forward

Throughout history, radical ideas have endured much longer than the specific moment of revolution and change itself. Often the radical ‘idea’ comes long before the actual moment of change, for instance with Black representation in media, the progression of LGBTQ+ rights, or environmental changes like recycling and alternative energy. Additionally, changes tend not to come about in any one moment or by any one person. Instead, change represents the collective efforts of many (often nameless) individuals, organizations, and leaders whose work overlapped in various ways. Many of them died before their advocacy of desired change could be realized and enjoyed. Simply saying “revolution,” “radical change,” and/or conflating change solely with charismatic leaders or politicians without acknowledging radical ideas, people, and efforts over long stretches of time is a betrayal of history and the people working to make change.

In part, I passed the 2020 quarantine intensely digging further into this history, not only for its educational value or my enchantment with Caribbean history, but because of a real curiosity about what and how we can learn from successful organizing within anti-Black, colonial structures of the past. Following the killing of George Floyd and subsequent domestic and international uprisings, I became even more interested in analyzing these organizational models, their success, faults and contours. What I learned is that “revolution” is hard. It is complex. It is quite arguably much harder than anyone (myself included) casually using the word realizes, particularly those invoking the word as an explicit organizing slogan. Humanists and politically active non-religious people alike are not exempt from studying this historical past in detail, particularly as we work on reimagining inter-racial/intra-racial allyship and community. Humanists unfamiliar with the history and terrain of African Diaspora politics of liberation, secularization and anti-colonialism need to become more familiar with what “revolution” has meant to Black and Indigenous people over the last 500 years.

We know that no one person can radically change reality. For Black people, collective action has been an especially transformative and productive practice from the Middle Passage until today. Anyone studying, protesting, manifesting, and politically agitating against our current socio-economic-political structures in America will benefit from studying and comprehending the Haitian Revolution. When we study, “dig-in” and de-romanticize this term we can begin to see how varied, beautiful, ugly, and non-inevitable the results truly can be. In this regard, the term ‘revolution’ must not be used lightly. In contemplation of this history, we can learn from revolution in a way that more efficiently informs present-day Black activism and struggles towards justice of any kind.