Haiti was the only successful instance of a slave uprising actually overthrowing the slave-owning class, thus becoming the first self-governing Black country in the Americas, and the Haitian Revolution gave a psychological boost to enslaved people in the United States and the Caribbean.
Yet, in spite of Haiti’s historic pioneering efforts, the country has been grossly misrepresented by mainstream media, says educator and political activist Dr. Angela Davis.
“As a matter of fact, Haiti is represented as the most impoverished country in the hemisphere and that might be true,” Davis said at a University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) event last week at the Bloor Street Cinema. “But it seems that the journalists represent that poverty as being as natural as the earthquake that created the disaster and that somehow or another, the Haitians are just poor and maybe it’s because they are Black or maybe it’s because they are the first self-governed Black country in the hemisphere.
“There is a long history to that poverty and there is a long history that we should acknowledge. The liberation movement that we talk about would not have been possible had it not being for the fact that the Haitian people defeated the British and the French who insisted that they be paid reparation.”
Following a dramatic slave rebellion that shook the Western hemisphere, and 12 years of war, Haiti overcame Napoleon’s forces in 1804 and declared independence. France initially demanded 150 million gold francs as reparation, but lowered the claim to 60 million in the 1830s.
Haiti paid off the original reparations in addition to interest in 1947.
“That was a huge amount of money back in the 1800s and I think the French should return it,” said Davis who also addressed York University students last week. “I don’t know if anyone has demanded that the French return the sum, but I think now would be a great time.”
A former Black Panther member and activist during the Civil Rights movement, Davis reminded students that Black History Month is a time to collectively reflect on the past, the present and the future of the struggle for freedom.
“We celebrate Black History because at its core is a determined, passionate, persistent and resistant struggle to the slave trade and to the capitalism which the slave trade enabled,” she said. “And, of course, the centuries-long struggle for freedom extends from resistance to the Middle Passage to slave uprisings in the Americas, the most successful of which occurred in Haiti.”
Davis is a professor emerita of the University of California Santa Cruz History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies programs. Her sold-out address was the highlight of the UTSU annual Expression Against Oppression event that is a week-long series of activities aimed at raising awareness and promoting action on issues of societal oppression.
“We are very excited to have the opportunity to host Davis for the campus community,” said UTSU vice-president Daniella Kyei. “To be able to learn from this important figure in African history at the beginning of Black History Month is truly a privilege.”
Artist Nichola Lawrence performed at the event while University of Toronto history lecturer Dr. Melanie Newton addressed the recent Blackface incident.
Last October, five students – four White and one Black – dressed up in “costume” as the Jamaican bobsled team from the film, Cool Runnings, for a Halloween party. The White students wore Blackface as part of their outfit while the Black student wore a white painted face.
Students and faculty members immediately recognized the insensitivity and raised concerns, given the long history of Blackface performance and minstrelsy in demeaning Blacks and systematically caricaturing Black culture.
The university’s administration did not issue an immediate response or public statement, prompting some faculty staff, the university’s Black Students Association and the Students Union to organize a successful town hall meeting which concluded that the Blackface incident is representative of much deeper issues on campus.
“The university was brought to understand that there is a connection between academic excellence and institutional diversity and equity,” said Newton who addressed the meeting. “The diversity of the undergraduate population has become a major selling feature of the U of T, allowing it to package itself as a world university where all of the world’s people, culture, language and ideas are reflected…This is quite a fundamental shift, particularly in an urban Canadian society at all levels.
“The Blackface town hall meeting really brought to the fore that essential feature of the current generation of young Black men and women who were born here for whom the U of T and other Canadian universities are their national institutions. They did not come here from somewhere…What the Blackface incident also demonstrated is how universities like the U of T have taken the hard, difficult and painful battle to end what was effectively unofficial segregation and transform that into a marketable item.
“Racial and cultural diversity are now other new items of trade, something which the university can trade in exchange for an enhanced reputation. At the same time, the celebration of a language of diversity and excellence in university publicity mask the way in which the language of multiculturalism is now often used to undermine the ongoing effects of institutional racism.”