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What The Haitian Revolution Tells Us About The U.S. Movement For Racial Equality

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

What can the Haitian Revolution tell us about the struggle for racial equality in the United States here today? As part of our series of conversations about democracy called We Hold These Truths, we're going to be taking a look at history that often gets ignored in the United States when discussing the current state of our union, and that is the history of our regional neighbors. Historian Marlene Daut from the University of Virginia joins us now to talk about the through lines connecting the Haitian slave rebellion to the Black Lives Matter movement here in the U.S. Welcome to the program.

MARLENE DAUT: Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to be here today.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell us briefly the story of the Haitian Revolution? I mean, give us the sort of 30-second synopsis. Obviously, it's complicated.

DAUT: So the Haitian Revolution refers to a collection of slave revolts and rebellions but also military strikes that occurred on the French claimed island of Saint-Domingue, which is today Haiti, beginning in August of 1791. So that's sort of the formal start date, although there were slave revolts and rebellions that occurred on the island previous to that, along with a lot of fugitivity called marronage. At the very end of this slave revolt and rebellion and this military strikes that involved England and Spain at one point, we have Haitian independence. So around 1802, what was a revolution against slavery, which occurred on the island, turned into a war of independence and led to the independence of Haiti from France in January 1804 officially.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We know that the revolutionaries were largely people who had been enslaved, denied education. How did they organize and communicate with each other, considering what had happened to them?

DAUT: They had multiple ways that they could organize and communicate. In order to make life better for themselves - for example, I mentioned marronage. These fugitives from slavery would live in the hills, and they would often communicate with those who were still on the plantation. The other thing is that because it is a plantation economy, ships are constantly coming and going. And many of the sailors on those ships would bring newspapers with them. And so enslaved individuals would get news and understand what was taking place on other islands around the Caribbean and also back in western Europe - for example, the French Revolution of 1789.

The other way that they organized was through religious gatherings. And in fact, the night that the large-scale revolt is planned, it happens in mid-August 1791 under the direction of a man named Boukman Dutty, who is very famous in Haitian revolutionary history for having led what is called the ceremony at Bois Caiman. It starts as a religious ceremony and it ends with a speech in which Boukman tells the enslaved who are present that the God of the whites is a God who wants their subjugation but that the God of the Blacks is one who wants their freedom. And so it is up to them at that moment to go and take it. And within about 10 days, so many of the plantations in the northern plain are on fire, and they have essentially brought the plantation economy and slavery in the northern plain to a standstill.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, the revolutionaries did self-liberate and became the first Black republic in the New World. But beyond the sort of incredibly important symbolic significance of that, what steps did the revolutionaries then take to sort of protect and value Black life? What did it look like once they had control?

DAUT: They really started to make life better in the colonies. So the abolition of whipping, they talk about that. They want days off. So now that they are turning into a kind of day laborers who are still going to be largely engaged in planting and picking of sugar cane and refining of sugar cane and all of the business that had gone on under slavery, they're saying we want better working conditions. And under Toussaint Louverture...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Toussaint Louverture, of course, was the leader of the Haitian Revolution.

DAUT: In his constitution that he has written, he says slavery is here forever abolished. Any form of servitude cannot exist. Everyone is going to live here free and they're going to die here free and they are going to remain French at that point, so it's not yet a war of independence. And later, when Haitian independence is struck, we see a further refinement of these ideas under Jean-Jacques Dessalines, also a general from the Haitian Revolution, considered the founder of Haitian independence, who spells out liberty in some incredibly profound ways, including banning conquests, so no more colonialism. And we're not going to become like the European empires. No color prejudices; the only distinctions that exist here are those of merit. We're not going to base it on skin color.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let me ask you this. When the Black Lives Matter movement started here in the United States, and you are a specialist in the Haitian Revolution, what parallels did you see?

DAUT: To a large extent, the Haitian Revolution is the first Black Lives Matter movement. And the reason I say that is that if we think about when chattel slavery began, racial taxonomy started to crop up the categorizing of human beings by skin color and by their physical attributes to justify slavery. Suddenly, we have enslaved people, particularly in Saint-Domingue, saying, no, we reject this system, we reject this terminology. What they have to put in its place is a kind of specificity that says we are human beings, too, because the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 in France used the words all men but didn't mean women and didn't mean Black people. And so when the Haitian revolutionaries declare their independence, they put in those precise measures that were missing from the European versions of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and basically reject the version of universalism that is becoming more and more popular in western Europe and in the United States, whereby you just say all people, but you don't actually mean all people. And the Haitian revolutionaries and founders of Haitian independence say, no, we're going to spell out who are all of these people, and this specificity is going to protect us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The United States sees itself as unique, as exceptional. And yet there's so much incredible history of liberation and democracy that happened in the other Americas that don't have to do with the founding white fathers of American democracy, who, as you say, were not specific in their founding documents. Why is it important, do you think, to look for stories beyond our borders?

DAUT: I think that especially the story of the Haitian revolution and Haitian independence teach us what exactly was missing from the U.S. Declaration of Independence because the Haitian Declaration of Independence, the official version on January 1, 1804, also spells out that slavery is over. It also has anti-conquest language. Paying attention to what is happening, as you said, in the other Americas, so to speak, really illuminates that the founding fathers, they had missed a few steps along the way, and that's because most of them had their feet firmly entrenched in the plantation economy. And this is what we really need to consider when we think about why they didn't want to be specific.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so what place do you think the Haitian Revolution should hold here in the U.S. historically? I ask because it struck me watching the Netflix show "Bridgerton," which tries to imagine an alternative British regency world of equality, that those stories existed in the Caribbean, certainly of racially mixed societies of agency, of Black people really taking power into their own hands. Why don't we look here in the United States at what is so close to us?

DAUT: I mean, it's such a great question because can we judge historical figures by the sort of values, political values, ideological values of today? And one thing I always respond is, but there were so many people who were anti-slavery in the 18th and 19th century. For one, enslaved people and the Indigenous of the Americas constantly said, no. They engaged in warfare, the Indigenous did, to try to prevent their subjugation and to prevent European encroachment on Jamaica, for example. On the island of Grenada, there was Fedon's rebellion, which was directly inspired by the Haitian Revolution. And so I do wonder how the face of education would change in the United States, in particular, if we started to include these stories from the outset instead of hiding them away or leaving it up to individual teachers to kind of fill this in. In the other America, there was another way of doing things that was put forward. And why don't we learn more about that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Marlene Daut is a historian from the University of Virginia. Thank you very much.

DAUT: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.