Too Hard for the White Folks? Americans and the Haitian Revolution

News Abroad

Jacqueline Bacon is an independent scholar whose work focuses on African-American history and rhetoric. She is the coeditor, with Maurice Jackson, of the new book African Americans and the Haitian Revolution: Selected Essays and Historical Documents, recently published by Routledge.

Scholars as well as religious and political leaders have rightly condemned Pat Robertson’s racist and absurd claim that the recent earthquake in Haiti was punishment because the Haitian people “swore a pact to the devil” during their revolution in the 1790s to gain freedom from the French.  It has been ably noted not only that Robertson’s remarks were bigoted and heartless but also that the “history” he alluded to was a crude misrepresentation.  But beneath the surface of Robertson’s remarks there is another underlying assumption, one both racist and ingrained in conventional American lore.  In his bizarre and merciless condemnation of the Haitian Revolution, Robertson perpetuates an unfortunately all-too-common historical myth:  that black people are incapable of freeing themselves, and must rely on outside forces to “save” them.

This illusion has long been promulgated in popular culture and historical texts, from the representations of abolitionist leaders as white men to the white saviors of Mississippi Burning.  The reality is in fact quite different—African Americans were the primary founders and innovators of antislavery activism in the United States and the architects of the Civil Rights struggle—but the misconception endures.  Within scholarly circles, many historians have finally begun to attend to the important work done by African-American scholars such as Carter G. Woodson, John Hope Franklin, and Nathan Huggins, but cherished myths die hard.  Claims that white abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison “started” the abolition movement and influenced the thinking of his black colleagues (when in fact it was the other way around) can be found in books published in the last decade.  It’s not difficult to figure out what is at play here and why these narratives persist:  white supremacy depends upon the notion that freedom and rights, when attained, are “granted” to blacks by benevolent whites, who then can distance themselves from their racist history through their purported efforts at salvation. 

The Haitian Revolution disturbs these comforting assumptions.  The Haitian Revolution was, as C. L. R. James noted in his classic Black Jacobins, “the only successful slave revolt in history,” and it was planned and carried out by the enslaved blacks of the French colony of Saint Domingue themselves, who effected their own transformation from “slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day.”  African Americans and other oppressed people, from the time of the Haitian Revolution until today, have been inspired by its success and the Haitians’ attainment of freedom and, ultimately, an independent nation in 1804.  White Americans, though, were threatened in the antebellum period by the implications that their own investment in a republic dependent upon slavery was insecure; ever since, they have ignored the Haitian Revolution altogether, denied Haitians’ own agency in their struggle or even . . . well, we have all heard Robertson’s comments by now.

Frederick Douglass, who served as minister resident and consul general to Haiti from 1889 to 1891, aptly described white America’s responses to the Haitian Revolution, their discomfort with the black self-determination exhibited by the Haitian struggle for freedom, and the importance of a true vision of its history.  Speaking in 1893 at Quinn Chapel, an important African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago, Douglass referred to the “coolness” toward Haiti by the United States, who refused to recognize Haiti’s independence until 1862 (after the secession of the Southern states), although France did so in 1825, with Britain following in 1833.  “Haiti is black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black,” Douglass noted; “after Haiti had shaken off the fetters of bondage, and long after her freedom and independence had been recognized by all other civilized nations, we continued to refuse to acknowledge the fact and treated her as outside the sisterhood of nations.”  He did not disguise his anger as he described how despite the slaves’ heroic struggle which “made themselves free and independent,” American leaders continued to doubt “their ability to govern themselves” and demand that they “justify their assumption of statehood at the bar of the civilized world.”  And he clearly articulated what a full understanding of the Haitian struggle means to African American—indeed, American—history as well as to the meanings we give the past:

You and I and all of us have reason to respect Haiti for her services to the cause of liberty and human equality throughout the world, and for the noble qualities she exhibited in all the trying conditions of her early history. . . .  We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy to-day; that the freedom that eight hundred thousand colored people enjoy in the British West Indies; the freedom that has come to the colored race the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons of Haiti ninety years ago.  When they struck for freedom, they builded better than they knew.  Their swords were not drawn and could not be drawn simply for themselves alone.  They were linked and interlinked with their race, and striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world.
Far from being bestowed upon them by others, Douglass insisted, “the freedom of Haiti was not given as a boon, but conquered as a right!”

Given this significance, it is perhaps not surprising that efforts have been continually made to rewrite this history, with Pat Robertson only the most recent example.  And it is clear why such portrayals continue to be substituted for reality.  Ralph Ellison put it succinctly and memorably in the mouth of one of his characters in the 1941 short story “Mister Toussan.”  Two young African-American boys, Buster and Riley, who appear in various stories by Ellison, discuss Toussaint L’Ouverture, one of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution.  “Ain’t none of them stories in the books.  Wonder why?” Buster asks.  “Hell, you know why,” Riley answers.  “Ole Toussan was too hard on them white folks, thass why.”  Apparently the real history continues to be too hard for the white folks, threatening to complicate comforting beliefs about freedom and liberty.  In their ignorance and denial, they fail to realize the debt all freedom-loving people owe to the efforts of the slaves of Saint Domingue over two hundred years ago.

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Ruel J. Eskelsen - 2/1/2010

I very much agree that more should be done regarding incorporating a detailed history of the Caribbean into the study of American history.

The emerging area study referred to as "Atlantic History" is an encouraging development. I just finished a course on "Atlantic Revolutions" that examined the interconnectedness of the American, French and Haitian revolutions, as well as detailed expostions on the African slave trade and subsequent abolition.

This approach was quite a revelation to me, so even though Toussaint L'Ouverture was know to me from my secondary education, the Atlantic Revolution course greatly augmented my existing knowledge of American History and will prove a significant asset in my World History graduate studies at George Mason University.

Two books from that course that I could recommend are: "Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution: by Laurent Dubois (2004) and "An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean" by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy (2000).

Mark L Liveringhouse - 1/30/2010

"White Americans, though, were threatened in the antebellum period by the implications that their own investment in a republic dependent upon slavery was insecure"

This line is patently absurd. The Haitian revolution created the massive expansion of the United States, and secondarily the expansion of slavery into the Old Southwest of the United States. His defeat of the French led Napoleon to abandon any interest in North America and the subsequent selling of the Lousiana Territories to the United States.

I do agree that over the decades preceding the Civil War, as the slave population grew to such great numbers that the southern planter was worried about slave revolts. But it is clear that they believed that political issues, primarily the massive growth of norther population and economic strength threatened them more.

Casey Walrath - 1/26/2010

I'm a 24 year old white male who went to school in Utah and I never heard of Toussaint L'Ouverture until college. I'd venture that most white folks are totally ignorant of Haiti and its history. Certainly US interactions with Haiti have been tinged with overt racism, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, which is crucial to building a counter-narrative to American triumphalism and exceptionalism that still dominates our schools. The problem is that too few Americans know anything at all about Haiti.

Lewis Bernstein - 1/23/2010

More than 100 years ago Henry Adams saw the links between the Haitian Revolution and the early survival and expansion of the Federal Republic. I would suggest all check his history and see what he says and how he links the two. Historical fabulists depress me because history is forgotten or changed depending on the questions asked which depend on the needs of the society asking the questions.

Maarja Krusten - 1/23/2010

You haven’t convinced me that a zero sum approach is effective. The history part of the essay was interesting but the ending really fell flat. Hard to believe an historian wrote that but I’ve seen that type of broad brush approach previously on HNN. The truth is, few Americans read history or know much about it, their own or even less so that of other countries. I very much doubt many of HNN’s readers could write thoughtfully about the repression my family members faced in Estonia, a previously sovereign and democratic nation which fell behind the Iron Curtain at the end of World War II. I wouldn’t dream of saying, “the end of World War II liberation narrative, with the U.S. as freedom loving good guys, while comforting, doesn’t apply to everyone. We as a nation were unable to save some human beings from a terrible fate under Stalinism. But that’s too tough for the American folk.” I wouldn’t dream of writing about depictions of the end of the war that way. That’s because I think it’s better to focus on educating people than trying to force fit them into pigeonholes and broad stereotypes. Above all, I believe that it’s not a zero sum game, history isn’t a contest to be won by saying one people suffered more than another. Lots of people suffer. Lots of other people are ignorant of their suffering. Why not just tell the story in the areas you know best?

Shekhem Tehuti Aakhut Amen - 1/20/2010

To Pat Robertson:
Let's recall, it was traditional African spiritual wisdom, misnamed and distorted as "voodoo" who gave the Haitians their independence - not Christianity. On the contrary, Christianity was used as a tool of enslavement of the mind to prevent the people from reaching their full potential and take charge their destiny. There is a silent war being waged against the traditional African spirituality preserved by freed Blacks as it connects them to their Ancestors being their source of strenght. Sadly, the Human Family is so blinded by religious dogma that the majority of people will quickly fall prey in the hands of demons disguised as "angels of Light", manipulating them via their ignorance. There is no higher religion that the one of the heart. Have you weighed your heart lately? No one can escape Judgment. I hope Pat Robertson reads.

Ruel J. Eskelsen - 1/20/2010

I am a 55 year old white male who went to school in Utah and Toussaint L’Ouverture was in our Jr. High and High School history books back then and was portrayed as a hero and liberator.

So rather than quote a fiction book on what white folks supposedly think about this period of history, how about asking some white folks what their real experience is.

Robertson and Limbaugh are well-known ignoramuses. They don't represent anywhere close to a majority of so-called white folks.

Karen Ann Tackitt - 1/19/2010

The comments made by Robertson and Limbaugh have nothing to do with race but everything to do with morals. There is a difference. Anytime someone criticizes someone else who is black they are immediately branded a racist.A technique for drawing one's attention from the true story and to appear politically incorrect.
I would encourage those who are uninformed abut the history of Haiti to do research. Skip mindless rhetoric and focus on the facts. Only the truth really makes us free!

Plaid Avenger - 1/19/2010

Great, great story. The marginalization of Haiti after their bloody independence is, in my mind, the real beginning of the 200 years of hard times for this nation and the reason that they continue to be impoverished into the modern era. Thank you so much for bringing up this topic as opposed to simply reporting on the human suffering, which seems to be all that other news sources can muster.

Plaid Avenger - 1/19/2010

Great, great story. The marginalization of Haiti after their bloody independence is, in my mind, the real beginning of the 200 years of hard times for this nation and the reason that they continue to be impoverished into the modern era. Thank you so much for bringing up this topic as opposed to simply reporting on the human suffering, which seems to be all that other news sources can muster.

Stephen Foree - 1/19/2010

I, as a white American appreciate this piece. It can serve as a catalyst for a paradigm shift for reasonable people. It is important for me to include within my very conservative views, a realistic view of the struggle of all men, which tends to be skewed at every turn ones own prejudice as their ancestors have passed on the historical information. I absolutely agree that the end of slavery as we know it, was not a “boon” given by the white man, but was demanded by the enslaved and oppressed. As this struggle continues at home and around the world people of all color and race will eventually understand that we are all deserving of equal respect and opportunity.