Saturday, January 30, 2010
Op-Ed: Between Haiti And Hell
To Change the Plight Of The Poor You Must First Change The Heart Of The Rich
By Brian Brown
Haiti has been transformed into a cavern of death by the shaking of the earth. The distance between Haiti and Hell now is but the width of the slenderest narrow. Responding to the wreckage, thousands of volunteers have put their lives on hold to help others hold to their lives. Even poor nations with their own acute deficiencies have given of their penury to a Haiti that no longer has anything. These acts demonstrate the best of human kindness. It is this indomitable spirit that overcomes the tragedies nature visits on us from time to time. It is this same spirit that detours us from the path of self-destruction during those moments when the eruption of ignoble instincts rise to pit man against man in blood contest.
If only this filial sentiment predominated man’s conduct. It would not have prevented the earthquake. However, Haiti would have been a different more prosperous land than the one the quake encountered. The Haiti of this more convivial universe would have been less vulnerable. The tremor would have disturbed the nation but would not have subjected so many innocents to the crushing avalanche of mortar and stone.
The truth is Haiti was a victim waiting to be had. Though unfortunate, the earthquake was the inevitable product of the rhythm of nature and the dynamics of geo-physics. Yet, the Haiti afflicted by the quake did not have to be the Haiti it was. That is man’s fault.
Many people have rushed to blame Haiti and Haitians for the dilapidated state of their nation prior to the quake. Critics point to the nation’s many warts: the sinister Papa Doc Duvalier, his feckless progeny Baby Doc, the netherworld of Vodun, corruption and all the visible ills that helped bedraggle this nation. That Haiti has been hampered by itself is unassailable. It is also just a portion of the entire sad tale. When a child turns delinquent, the seeds of his misdirection often are to be found in the circumstances of his birth and upbringing. This maxim applies to Haiti even more so. More than any state in modern times, Haiti was born an orphan and rejected nation.
As is often the case given man’s history of stony bias against those who look differently than they do, those people who should be most apologetic toward Haiti have rushed to criticize it during this dismal hour of its worst prostration. The popular conservative American television evangelist Pat Robertson had the effrontery to claim Haiti was “cursed.” Robertson asserted that Boukman, a principal revolutionary leader, made a pact with the devil to grant Haiti independence from France. Robertson postulated the earthquake was the result of to this curse. That the confused Robertson would prate such a thing is sad; given his proclivity for naked ignorance, the jejune calumny was predictable.
Sadder still is that many people who should know better actually believe his cant. Throughout America, too many people will believe Robertson because they have been told he is vessel of God. Robertson’s libel will lead to people to subconsciously question whether blacks are capable of good governance when left to their own devices. These same people will take a wary look at their own president and wonder if his election brings upon America a similar curse.
What Robertson presents is racial propaganda disguised as folksy theology. He is less a vehicle of spiritual awareness and more a hawker of half truths and of lies that were never true. Under the guise of Christian certitude, he resurrects the “Black Shame” of olden times. Though spoken with unctuous piety, Robertson’s comments drips with calculated malice. He wants people to think that Haiti and Haitians are abominations. A black nation that struggled to free itself from being under the white heel has sinned a deep and dark sin. Haiti could not have beaten the French by virtue of the valor and desperate courage of the slave. The only reason Haiti won was because it invoked the power of evil.
Because of Haiti’s abysmal condition, it is easy to be swindled by talk that Haiti is cursed. In one sense, the statement may be true. Yes, Haiti may be cursed. However, the curse is that of men not of God.
Any thinking black person should not be inveigled into being ashamed of Haiti for what it has not accomplished. We should be proud of Haiti for surviving despite the odds and obstacles arrayed against this small island nation since its inception. That it has withstood the active mistreatment and malignant indifference of the world’s strongest powers for over two centuries should be a source of black pride not antipathy. Those strong hands that sought to destroy Haiti from its inception cannot now complain that the recipient of their potent blows is deformed any more than a motorist who purposefully runs down a pedestrian has a right to complain that the broken man will not walk and return to hard labor.
A careful dissection of Robertson’s comments illuminates the historic crux of Haiti’s current problems. Robertson’s bottom line is that the black people of Haiti were on the wrong side of God when they opted for freedom instead of the architecture of dire slavery the French had constructed on the island. Robertson cannot fathom that French enslavement of Africans might be seen as an accursed evil, especially by those subject to the bondage. Robertson dare not and cannot say the bone-grinding slavery to which the French shackled the Africans of Haiti amounted to a pact with the devil. To condemn the French would be to blaspheme his own slaveholding antecedents. It would be a case of the cloud calling the cotton white. In Robertson’s warped cosmology, the black man fighting for freedom is of the demon seed; those on the favored end of the whip and the lash were simply Christian soldiers. This theology would be understandable to an antebellum South Carolina plantation owner and slaveholder. However, Moses and the Hebrews exiting Pharaoh’s Egypt would have found Robertson’s assertions indecipherable and not very amusing.
At bottom, Robertson hails the American Revolution as one inspired by the providential hand yet denigrates Haiti’s attempt as a malignancy. The mistreatment that fueled the American Revolution was shallow compared to the depravity heaped upon the slaves of Haiti. For Robertson and those like him the difference lies not in how the people were treated but who they were. For whites to seek a better way was fine; but it would have been in the best interests of all, including the blacks, for them to have remained subservient to another man’s designs.
On the eve of the Haitian Revolution, that colony was the “Pearl of the Antilles,” one of the most profitable parcels lands on earth. French nobles went to Haiti to make their fortune in sugar. African slaves went there to live short brutish lives and die under the some the harshest conditions known to man or beast. The universal acclamation that adheres to the French for their cultural refinement would have surprised the slaves. They came to know the French as the definition of human cruelty, nothing more, nothing less. The base maltreatment led the slaves to author the one of the most remarkable feats in history. Longing to be free, an amalgam of untrained literates chased the army of Napoleon into the sea. Freedom came at heavy cost. The conflict was feral. No quarter was asked and none was given. After the fighting, the colony’s infrastructure lay ruined. Plantations were burned, the fields were deracinated and the ex-slaves utterly disinterested in returning to harsh labor.
Yet, the greatest injury was done by the outside world. Haiti was an unmitigated pariah to slaving holding America. In this, America was an ingrate. The Haitian revolution spurred Napoleon’s sale of the vast Louisiana territory to America. The Haiti struggle accreted more land to America than its own revolution. Without the Haitian revolution, America would not have attained the geopolitical assets of a first-rate power. Haitian slaves are the unsung heroes of American greatness. America returned the favor by imposing an embargo and denying diplomatic recognition. The powerful slave-holder was suddenly frightened by the power of slaves. Nearby blacks had taken the concept of liberty too far by applying it to themselves and who knew where that might lead? Great Britain, although combating Napoleonic armies for control of Europe, similarly mistreated Haiti. With both Haiti and England at war against France, the new Caribbean island country should have been an ally of the North Atlantic island nation. Something primordial impeded the entente: it was the matter of race.
Although giving each other the death stare in Europe, the nations were allied in their disgust for what Haiti represented. The black nation was a bacillus to be contained not an emblem of freedom to be celebrated. By its very composition, Haiti was an eyesore condign for only one destiny – to be annihilated. Perhaps the only reason Haiti was not extinguished was that the revolution cautioned the powers that destroying the new nation would be an expensive undertaking.
If they could not kill the nation outright, they set eye on the next worst thing. They would strangle the poor nation to death. Consequently, they conspired to cripple the Haitian economy through embargoes and other indecorous practices that would have been considered declarations of war if imposed against a “normal” state. Making matters worst, the French, backed by America and England, forced a massive war reparations debt on Haiti in 1825. Although it made annual payments, the debt was not extinguished until 1947! At times the yearly payment amounted to 80 percent of annual income. No nation that could endure such a debt burden yet emerge prosperous. Haiti is not to blame for this. Racism is.
The emptying of the Haitian pocket was not merely a massive transfer of money. It was another form a servitude less brutal but no less costly than slavery. After all of its sacrifices, Haiti was forced to return to work for the prosperity of Frenchmen and not of its own citizens. The economic loss occasioned by this protracted capital outflow is incalculable; it rendered Haiti incapable of accumulating the quantum of wealth needed to produce greater wealth. It succeeded in causing Haiti to accumulate that quantum of poverty that would produce mass poverty. The psychological impact of this economic decimation may be even more severe. Depletion of capital naturally deflated the economy. With less to go around, the hyper-kinetic competition of a large number of people scrambling for an unnaturally small amount of resources was inexorable. Unjust impoverishment fomented social tumult and political corruption. By fleecing Haitian resources, the French consigned Haiti an impecunious existence. A nation and its people were forced into survivalist mode.
When Haiti hedged on paying the debt or its politics became too untidy, American gunboat diplomacy would rule the day. America invaded Haiti in 1914. Its troops stayed for twenty years. The intervention was less than benign. Many of the troops were from the southern United States. They imposed segregation with a rigor and crassness they dared not display in the United States. For years thereafter, when Haitian mothers wanted to discipline unruly children they would threaten to place them in the hands of the notorious American military commander, Smedley Butler. The children would come to their best behavior upon hearing the dreaded name.
There is a litany of injustices external forces have heaped on this tiny black nation just because it was a tiny black nation. There is also a litany of wrongs Haitians have done to themselves. Both external and domestic abnormalities have contributed to rendering Haiti so fragile that, when it shook, the quake would achieve such lethal dimensions.
When we see the rubble, chaos and mad scramble for existence in Haiti, we must look beyond what we see. We must look into history to discern the proximate causes of the devastation. If we look objectively, we will see that statements such as Robertson’s have no place in legitimate discourse. They are the ravings of a man who deploys canards and odes to racial superiority to fill the larger voids in his knowledge of history. As such he and others like him easily confuse good for evil and evil for good when it comes to the quest for black equality and freedom.
If one believes in spiritual and moral justice, you will see the quake did not come to punish the Haitian people. It came to remind other nations that there remains a tremendous debt to be paid.