This is why I love teaching. Today, in both my Blacks and Popular Culture class at UNC and in my Music and Political Movements class at NCCU, I discussed the Haiti crisis with my students. Quoting from yesterday’s blog post, in which I published Pat Robertson’s remarks on Haiti being damned, I suggested to my students that Robertson was using the “Devil” as a veiled metaphor to criticize and condemn the Haitian revolution. The controversial topic sparked passionate debate in both classes, and I discovered that not all of my students agreed with me. When I got home (to my delight) I found the following email in my inbox (which I am posting here with his permission):
Hi Prof. Freelon,
I am in the class and as I kept reading about Pat Robertson’s comments about Haiti and what was shared in class, I think you and the class misunderstood what he said. I think he should still be condemned for his wild remarks, but it is important not to misunderstand him. In class, you rebutted Robertson by saying that he implied that Haitians’ attempts to free themselves from the French is making a deal with the Devil and therefore, the opposite of what he said would imply that staying in bondage would be to serve God. That’s not what he said. He said that, “And they got together and swore a pact to the Devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’ True story. And so the Devil said, Okay, it’s a deal.’ . . . But ever since they have been cursed by one thing after another.” In other words, he believes that they made a deal with the Devil to gain freedom, not that for Haitians to gain freedom is to make a deal with the Devil. Robertson’s comments allow for Haitians to gain freedom through other means, but he condemns Haitians for “[making] a deal with a Devil” to do it. Nevertheless, he’s still stupid and the class is awesome.
First off, I want to give props to John for reaching out – he’s definitely earned some extra class participation points. And even thought it’s 3am Friday morning and The Beast has two big shows in Baltimore and New York this weekend (that I should be resting for), John’s observation has inspired me so much that I can’t go to bed without delivering an articulate response. And with no further adieu..
Excellent point, John. Robertson never directly states: Haitian freedom = evil. But I would suggest that he infers as much. Indeed, he is part of a long tradition of scholars and politicians to do so. The Haitian revolution has historically been down-played for ideological, political, and ultimately economic reasons. Here’s a bit of history:
The Haitian Revolution (1804) was largely inspired by the French Revolution (1799) and American Revolution (1776). This was a time where European monarchies were overthrown by democratic governments and ideological shifts led to the development of modern principles like citizenship and inalienable rights.
However, while the French and American slave-holders were fighting for their own rights, they were not so willing to relinquish their control over over their cash-crop/property: enslaved Africans. Luckily for all of us, Haitians didn’t need their permission. Between 1791 and 1803 Toussiant Loverture and others claimed freedom by force in the largest and most successful slave revolt of all time. This shocked, bewildered and frightened Europeans and Americans. As I’m sure you can imagine, slave revolution was bad for business.
By 1804, Europe and America had already reaped MILLIONS upon MILLIONS of dollars from slave labor. Just imagine what must have been going on in their heads following the Haitian revolution. What if other colonies such as modern day Brazil, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cuba and the USA were to follow in Haiti’s footsteps and revolt? The consequences would have been staggering and the economic blow to the West would have made 2008’s global crisis look like a mediocre day at the stock market. Furthermore, word of the Haitian Revolution traveled fast. Nat Turner, the leader of the United States’ largest Slave Rebellion sited the Haitian Revolution as his inspiration. In these revolutionary times, Europeans felt the desperate need to smother the flames of slave rebellion. In order to maintain control over their investment, Europe and America craftily engaged on a political, economic, and ideological campaign to undermine the success of Haiti and the Haitian people. Here’s how:
Spain conquered part of Haiti and established the Dominican Republic, which split the country, and the resistance. Economic embargoes were placed on Haiti to prevent her from being self-sustaining. Get this: as a pre-requisite to limited trade agreements HATIANS WERE FORCED TO PAY REPARATIONS TO FRANCE for revolting in the first place. When the Haitian government sent a letter to John Quincy Adams (the 6th President of the United States) requesting diplomatic ties between the United States and Haiti, Adams penned “not to be answered” in the margins, writing “this Union will not permit the fruits of a successful negro insurrection to be exhibited among us.” Europe NEEDED to do these things in order to make Haiti, and consequently to make slave rebellion, seem like a bad idea. The rationale was simple: “Haiti rebelled, and look at how poor they are now. If you stay with us (Europe/US), and stay in your place, we will take care of you.”
So when Pat Robertson says, “Haitians made a deal with the Devil” I see it as a perpetuation of this centuries-old myth that slave rebellion, and consequently black self-determination, is a bad thing. He essentially believes that rebellion against the white power structure is something to be discouraged, even damned by God himself. Consider Robertson’s quote with this framework in mind:
“…ever since (the revolution) they have been cursed by one thing or another, desperately poor.”
And Robertson is correct. Ever since the revolution Haitians have been desperately poor – but this is not the work of the Devil (at least not the Devil Robertson is referring to). Haitians have been desperately poor because of two centuries of calculated and systematic economic/political exclusion; from the John Quincy Adams administration to the George W. Bush Administration. Robertson goes on compare poor Haiti to their flourishing neighbors:
“The Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy full of resorts, etc.”
This further supports my thesis. When praising the Dominican Republic, Roberton does not evoke images of “God” or the “Devil”. He simply talks about money and political economy. And as proof of prosperity he points to the Dominican Republic’s resorts – the majority of which are American/European owned and filter billions of dollars to western companies. Like a plantation, these resorts exploit the Dominican people with dependent/symbiotic relationships, in which Dominican businesses, workers and environments suffer.
There seems to be a correlation in Robertson’s judgment: if you’re making money for Europe/America and allow yourselves and your country to be controlled on their terms: you’re “prosperous,” “healthy,” and “blessed” – like the Dominican Republic. However if you rebel, like Toussiant L’overture, or like Haiti’s last president Jean-Bertrand Aristide – who has repeatedly spoken out against globalization and western institutions such as the IMF and World Bank for perpetuating debt-slavery and exploiting Africa and the Caribbean – you are condemned, and cursed. On top of that you will probably also be removed from power, which is exactly what the US Military/Bush Administration did to Aristade in 2004.
In conclusion, I don’t think Robertson actually believes that Haitians made a deal with the Devil to get free. Instead, he is one man in a loooooooong tradition of men, who have had a vested ideological, economic and political (not religious/spiritual) reasons for saying: “Damn” and “Haiti” in the same sentence.