The Haitians I knew at my South Florida high school were not exactly the devil-dealing types. Thousands of them had arrived by boat in the early 1990s following Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s (first) ouster. Most knew little English and had not been introduced to such luxuries as deodorant or a high-top fade. Their clothes were out of date. They didn’t know the latest lingo or styles.
In the American high school social order of things, they raced for the bottom. As their enrollment hit critical mass at my high school, the meaning of the word “Haitian” was transformed from a sign of national identity, into a catchall insult. “Shut up, Haitian!” “Ooooh, you got a Haitian haircut!” “You smell Haitian!”
As a transfer student from the Midwest grappling with culture shock of my own, I was mostly confused. Why the scorn-tinged pity from my white classmates and teachers? Why the utter disdain from my black classmates? How did they come to be in such a wretched predicament?
Most of all, why the hate?
You won’t find satisfying answers in most world history texts.
In the wake of the catastrophic earthquake that has claimed thousands of lives, the tenor and emotional response to the people of Haiti has returned to a familiar place: Mostly pity, but from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, disdain. And Pat Robertson has a theory of where the hate is coming from: It’s the devil!
As a black female host nodded reverently, Robertson’s voice grew into hushed, conspiratorial tone as he explained on Christian Broadcasting Network's The 700 Club why the people of Haiti have suffered.
“Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it," he said. "They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘we will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’
“True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it's a deal.’"
The level of ignorance in this statement would be pathetic enough if it weren’t so dangerous. Consider the average person watching the devastation on CNN, wondering why Haitians have had such darn bad luck. They say the devil is in the details, and when I was a student at Howard University, I was lucky enough to actually learn them. My French professor, Herman F. Bostick, was hard-core and of the old school. To him, the fundamentals of French didn’t begin with grammar and syntax, but with a tour of the history of Francophone Africa and everywhere black people spoke the language.
Haiti was clearly his favorite stop. As soon as he got to the part in their history where the free mulatto elites joined with the darker-skinned enslaved masses to overthrow the French, he added some pep in his stride across the room. His eyes danced as he performed the brilliant machinations of the onetime slave overseer, General Toussaint L’Overture, outwitting Napoleon. His bravura performance climaxed when the Haitians kicked out the 80,000-strong French army.
As a kid, learning about the American version of revolutionary struggle was thrilling. But this was all the more exciting, learning about people who looked like me battling it out in a liberation struggle, leading the world’s first successful slave revolt. (For an excellent recounting of this story, read The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James.)
So, no Pat Robertson, in overthrowing the French, the good people of Haiti did not make a pact with the devil. But in the 200 years since that uprising, the world has treated Haiti as if it had made a deal with the devil. Haiti was made to pay for not accepting its place in the European social order of things. American revolutionaries who defeated their European oppressors were hailed as brave patriots; Haitians weren’t recognized by the United States until slavery ended here.
France, ignoring the ideals of its own 1789 revolution, refused to recognize Haiti until it paid a multi-million dollar indemnity for property French citizens lost. Haitians have faced brutal expulsions and apartheid-like policies cutting them off from their island mates, the Dominican Republic. They have clearly haven’t had effective leadership. A string of shady dictators notwithstanding, the world has starved the country of trade and development. (The U.S. occupation from 1915-1934 didn’t help, either.)
This “devil” talk is an almost laughable caricature of that enduring hostility. In a headline to Slate France’s version of Joel Dreyfuss’ excellent and concise telling of his native Haiti’s struggle, the editors felt the need to insist “No, Haiti Is Not The Worst Country in the World.”
So for me, excluding Haiti in the mainstream world history curriculum is even more egregious. Every student of world history should have access to Professor Bostick’s animated lesson. If they did, maybe so-called Christians like Robertson wouldn’t embarrass themselves on live television.
Haitian history is a gift to the Diaspora. There is dignity in suffering in slavery and colonialism until things get better. But it’s also powerful to know that black people resisted—and won. That’s Haiti’s real deal, and in its time of need, it’s time for the Diaspora to repay.
Natalie Hopkinson is The Root’s media and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.
Photo caption: This is a 1996 photo of Howard University French Professor Herman F. Bostick III (right) as he greets Haitian Prime Minister Rene Preval (left) in an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. At center is Natalie Hopkinson, then a Howard University student and intern in the Palm Beach Post Washington bureau.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.