Monday, February 8, 2010

Haiti Update

Other obligations prevented me from attending the Smith College lecture on the Haitian Revolution today, but I can at least present a brief update here.

• Discussing Pat Robertson's ludicrous and obscene interpretation of the earthquake as an act of divine punishment for satanism, I alluded to the role of President Thomas Jefferson in isolating the Caribbean Revolution in what the United States might instead have chosen to regard as a sister republic.

In the interim, Henry Louis Gates has taken up precisely this theme. Writing in The Root, he likewise notes that Robertson's remark was a garbled reference to the initial Haitian Revolution of 1791 rather than that of 1804, and he moreover calls attention to the prejudicial view of voudou that lies at the heart of Robertson's screed. He goes on to point to the responsibility of US foreign policy—dating back to Jefferson—for at least some of Haiti's problems:

Christian missionaries, as is their wont, denigrated this religion created by black people by characterizing it, in a binary relationship with Christianity, as “devil worship.” (They did the same thing with Ifa and Vodun in Nigeria and Dahomey, by the way, and lots of other religions.) Rev. Robertson is just the most recent example of this ignorant and manipulative tendency; and he should know better.

Actually, Robertson, and many other observers going back to the time of the Haitian Revolution, couldn’t bring themselves to believe that the sons and daughters of African slaves could ever possibly defeat a European nation in a war without supernatural intervention, without, in other words, a pact with the devil himself. That is a sign of how profoundly deep the currents of anti-black racism run in Western culture, and bubble up, in the most unexpected places, even today.

If there is a curse on Haiti, we don’t have to sully another person’s religious beliefs to find it. Perhaps curses, like charity, start at home. And the first two places to search for the source would be the White House and Congress, especially those historically dominated by Dixiecrats. Starting with Thomas Jefferson and continuing in a steady march that only really began to end when President Bill Clinton sent General Colin Powell to broker the deal for the generals to “retire” and restore Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a succession of American presidents and Congresses have systematically undermined the independence and integrity of the Haitian Republic. I thought about this ignoble, shameful history as President Obama proclaimed, for one of first times in the history of both republics, that “we stand in solidarity with our neighbors to the south,” they “who share our common humanity.” It was a noble sentiment, long overdue.

• Those interested in following the developments may find useful Disaster in Haiti: A guide to research and information, compiled by the staff of the Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

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