Haiti is the only country in the world to have originated from a slave uprising.
Local Name: Repiblik d’Ayiti (Haitian Creole); Ayiti meant “mountainous land” in the indigenous Taíno language
Land of Earthquakes and Mountains:
I think it’s safe to say that everyone reading this blog knows the following about Haiti:
On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit just southwest of Port-au-Prince, the capital. Approximately 230,000 people have died and 3 million people (1/3 of the population) have been affected.
There is a Creole proverb that says, “Beyond mountains, more mountains,” which not only refers to the vertical terrain but also to the inhabitants’ seemingly endless struggles that stretch all the way back to Columbus’s landing in 1492. I wanted to find a book that would familiarize me with some of those struggles.
Title: Kric? Krak!
(before Haitians tell a story they ask “Kric?” and the enthusiastic listeners answer “Krak!”)
Author: Edwidge Danticat (Haitian-American)
Published: 1995 Pages: 224
Acclaim: National Book Award Finalist
Setting: the fictional town of Ville Rose, Haiti; Port au Prince, Haiti; New York City
Time Period: 1937 up to the mid-1990s.
Summary: Danticat’s nine short stories describe a variety of Haitian experience; four of them either take place during or refer to the historical events that I have given a brief background about below. The other five address poverty, prostitution, throw-away children, voodoo and immigration.
“A Wall of Fire Rising”
In 1791 at Bois Caiman (Alligator Woods), Boukman Dutty presided over a voodoo ceremony that triggered the start of a slave rebellion against the slaves’ French oppressors. This war ended twelve years later with the surrender of Napoleon’s army and the creation of the first and only “Black Republic.”
15,000-20,000 people were slaughtered in the 1937 Parsley Massacre when neighboring Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered his army to kill all of the Haitians living on the Dominican side of the Rio Artibonito, a river that acts as a natural border between the two countries. Many of the victims were struck down as they were frantically trying to save themselves by crossing the river into Haiti; the waters ran red and became known as “the Massacre River.” The name Parsley was taken from the way the soldiers distinguished between the French/Creole-speaking Haitians and the Spanish-speaking Dominicans – they would hold up a sprig of parsley and ask what it was – anyone who could not come up with or correctly pronounce the word perejil (Spanish for parsley) was assumed to be Haitian and hacked to death with machetes.
“Children of the Sea”
Over 30,000 Haitians were killed for political reasons while the infamous François “Papa Doc” Duvalier was in power; his secret police, the Tonton Macoutes, wrought terror on the populace. Tonton Macoutes means “Uncle Gunnysack” – the name of a Creole bogeyman who would roam the streets at night, snatching up wayward children and stuffing them in his gunnysack. These children were never heard from again.
“The Missing Peace”
This story refers to the violent September 1991 coup in which reform President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted by the corrupt Haitian military. Aristide had assumed office that February in the first free and fair elections in Haiti’s 186-year-old history. Three years of tyranny followed under the de facto leadership of military strongman Raoul Cédras.
In my book (or, how Haiti has affected me – and maybe you, too)
It’ll put a spell on you
When people think of Egypt, they think of the pyramids; of Italy the food; of India, the Ganges; and of Haiti…voodoo and zombies.
Unfortunately for Haiti, PR is the least of its problems.
I first heard about voodoo and zombies when I was about eight years old – most likely from a Scooby Doo episode.
Voodoo and Haiti are inextricably linked; there’s a saying in Haiti that goes: 80% Catholic, 20% Protestant, 100% Voodoo.
A mixture of African beliefs and Catholicism, voodoo practice includes spirit possession and animal sacrifice. After the American military occupied Haiti from 1915-1934, soldiers returned to the U.S. with terrifying (and crowd-pleasing) tales of evil black priests wielding pin-filled dolls and commanding the walking dead (keep in mind that these stories were written at the height of segregation).
Since then, Hollywood horror movies have misrepresented this folk religion to such an extent that even the Reverend Pat Robertson, who ran for President of the United States, equates voodoo with devil worship.
Anybody got a stuffed effigy of that guy? I’ve got a few pins…
According to anthropologist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Wade Davis, America would be quite a different place if the Haitian slaves had not beaten the French:
“Had it not been for the revolutionary slaves of Haiti, we might well be speaking French in much of what is today the U.S.A.
Napoleon at the height of his power dispatched the greatest military force ever to sail from France. Its mission was twofold: Crush the slave revolt in Haiti, and then proceed up the Mississippi, hem in the expanding 13 Colonies, and reestablish French dominance in a continent that only 30 years before at the Treaty of Paris had become British North America.”
Those words gave me quite a different perspective of Haiti. Events in seemingly insignificant places can have lasting effects on other parts of the world. Thanks to Haiti, the only French word I know is my husband’s last name.