How Haiti Earned Its Place in Black History

The first independent nation in Latin America and the first Black-led republic in the world shaped the African-American identity

Jacques Fleury
Spare Change News

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” -Martin Luther King Jr.

In the two years since the earthquake that devastated Haiti, a country already marred by political depravity and economic hardship, Haitian scholars have shed light on the profound connection between Haitian and African-American history. The Haitian people’s triumph over slavery and their achievement as the first Black republic have inspired African Americans in their own melee against centuries of slavery and modern-day inequality rooted in racist ideology.

First and foremost, I would like to chart some of Haiti’s history from my point of view, as well as from the point of view of Haitian scholars. I lived in Haiti for the first 13 years of my life until my parents brought me to America to escape the Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s brutal dictatorship. I grew up in a middle-class family and my father was a well-known businessman with his own clothing store in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Although my father was well connected politically, I remember the fear in my parent’s eyes when it came to expressing ideas about politics. No one was allowed to speak unfavorably of the government; we all lived under a conspiracy of silence.

In America, I found that most of the Haitian kids I came into contact with were greatly ashamed of their Haitian identity because they had been misinformed by the American media or knew very little of Haiti’s iconoclastic place in history. These negative ideas were reinforced by the lack of attention paid to African-American history in American schools. I don’t remember being taught much of Black history in either high school or college. Partly due to the recent spotlight on Haiti, I’ve began to study Black history independently. What I have discovered has helped me to understand the correlation between the Haitian Revolution and the African-American experience of railing against a system of racial inequality.

In his book “Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution,” historian Laurent Dubois argues that Haiti’s revolution posed a challenge not only to the French but also to “the existence of slavery itself.” The Haitian revolution inspired people of color in other countries who were waging their own wars against oppression and discrimination and set a precedent for the antislavery insurgencies to come, particularly in the American south.

Toussaint Louverture, a former slave, became a military leader in the Haitian revolution against the French occupiers who had long enslaved the Haitian people. The 2009 film “Egalite (equality) For All: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution” chronicles Louverture and the Haitian army’s fight for freedom. After Louverture’s capture by the French and his subsequent imprisonment and death, his fame reached new heights and he has frequently been compared to George Washington for his bravery and military acumen.

After Louverture’s death, Jean Jacques Dessalines, who had served as Louverture’s principal lieutenant, became the new leader of the revolution. The Battle of Vertieres on November 18, 1803 marked the last major battle of the revolution, and the first time in the history of humanity that a slave army had won their freedom. Dessalines, who became known the Father of Haiti, was the first ruler of the newly free country.

A recent book, also by Laurent Dubois, “Haiti: The Aftershock of History,” argues that even centuries after the revolution, Haiti continues to be punished by the international community for its successful slave insurrection, hurling the country into a cycle of debt, isolation and political instability. Dubois’ book also highlights the Haitian people’s triumphs and resiliency in their ongoing fight for autonomy and equality despite the devastation caused by the earthquake.

According to the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (I.H.R.C) website, Haitians have observed some positive progress since the earthquake. Clean water has become more readily available since the recent outbreak of cholera. Although unemployment remains a pressing concern, an investment from a Korean garment maker is expected to create about 20,000 jobs in the country’s northeast region.

One of the commission’s most crucial goals is to gain the confidence of international donors by promoting government accountability and transparency, no easy task considering the country’s history of corrupt leadership. So far, only half of the $4.6 billion in redevelopment money promised for 2010 and 2011 has been acquired and disbursed. The commission also reports that most of the donated money has been attributed to “non-governmental organizations and private contractors,” a fact that the commission considers to be problematic.

President Michel Martelly, a former popular musician, is reported to be faring better than his predecessor Rene Preval, who was criticized as an impediment to Haiti’s redevelopment goals. In the fall of 2011, Martelly promulgated a plan to provide rental subsidies to 30,000 residents of the six tent cities and to begin construction of new housing developments.

Significant progress is also being made in the areas of health and education. The NGO Partners in Health has unveiled a plan to build a new teaching hospital in rural Haiti. To improve educational opportunities for Haitian children the inter-American Development Bank will direct $150 million in aid money towards training teachers and building and repairing schools.

As rebuilding efforts continue, Haiti will need a profusion of international support to continue on its path towards political and economic stability. In the past, outside help has often proven to be self-serving and to the detriment of Haiti’s people. Now that Haiti is in the international spotlight, government transparency and accountability has never been more important.

Although the country has seen great adversity, Haiti’s monumental achievement as the first Black republic has earned the country a permanent place in African history. Haiti’s unsurpassed legacy of successful rebellion against slavery will leave a revolutionary dent in the hearts and minds of oppressed, maligned and aggrieved people everywhere.

JACQUES FLEURY’s book: “Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir” about life in Haiti and America was featured in the Boston Globe. Contact him at and visit his website at


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