The Curse on Haiti

It wasn’t the devil that hurt Haiti; it was Thomas Jefferson.

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According to Pat Robertson, when the Haitian slaves were battling the French for their freedom, they “swore a pact to the devil. They said ‘we will serve you if you will get us free from the French’… so the devil said ‘OK, it’s a deal,’ and they kicked the French out. The Haitians revolted and got themselves free, but ever since they have been cursed by one thing after the other.” In spite of the absurdity of Pat Robertson’s claim that the devastating earthquake in Haiti was a sign of God’s curse on that peaceful people for some abominable sin their ancestors committed in the late 18th century, there has, in fact, been a pernicious shadow beclouding that nation’s horizons since its historic military defeat of its French colonial masters. And the opaque object causing that shadow can be traced directly to the United States.

Robertson, just to be clear, was referring to the fact that the first leader of the Haitian revolutionaries, a man named Boukman, employed Vodou (Anglicized, and broadly misunderstood, as “Voodoo”), to galvanize the slaves into rebelling against their masters in 1791. Vodou is a religion, just as Christianity, Judaism and Islam are religions. Vodou is a New World synthesis of African religions that slaves from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, the Fon people of Dahomey, and the Bakongo from Congo and Angola brought with them on the slave ships, and melded together, over time, in the crucible of slavery. Think of Vodou’s relation to Ifa somewhat like the Greek Orthodox Church’s relation to the Roman Catholic Church, and you will begin to understand its origins and evolution.

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.