Introduction: Teaching About Haiti

By Jody Sokolower

Illustrator: David McLimans

Illustration: David McLimans

For a few harrowing weeks in January, the eyes of the world were on Haiti, struggling with the impact of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. In the spotlight’s glare, we saw the devastation wrought by the natural disaster. Viewers with a critical eye or access to alternative media also saw a U.S. military presence more focused on security than food and medical help, Haitians labeled as looters for trying to feed their families amidst the rubble, and the eagerness of international finance to rebuild Haiti on its own terms.

What we didn’t see in the mainstream media were the Haitian people’s extraordinary history of resistance, the depth and richness of the culture, or the seemingly indestructible web of grassroots organizations that have sustained the Haitian people through crisis after crisis. Nor did the media explore the impact of European colonialism and U.S. intervention.

Thousands of classrooms and school communities mobilized to raise money to help the Haitian people. Now, as the crisis has disappeared from the headlines, we hope that initial goodwill becomes the impetus to go beyond the immediate crisis: This is a critical time to re-examine the history and culture of Haiti, and to develop ways to integrate Haiti into our curricula.

Despite its invisibility in textbooks, Haiti has played, and continues to play, an important role in U.S. and world history. For example, how many of our students realize that when Columbus first landed on what he called Hispaniola, that was Haiti? Centuries later, in 1804, Haiti defeated France in the world’s only successful revolution of enslaved people. As author Madison Smartt Bell notes:

Both the American and the French Revolutions were founded on ideas of natural human rights to freedom and self-determination.
. . . But only the Haitian Revolution extended this ideology to the African men and women who were brought here as slaves—and therefore only the Haitian Revolution put the principles of the other two fully into practice.

The United States, afraid of the impact on its own African population, led a worldwide boycott against the new nation, and France forced Haiti to assume a debt (for its lost “property”) equivalent to $21.7 billion today. The pattern of isolation and exploitation has only continued, including a U.S. invasion and occupation that lasted from 1915-1934. On the heels of the U.S. occupation came decades of brutal rule by dictators “Papa Doc” Duvalier and “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

Haiti held its first democratic elections in 1991, electing Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the Lavalas Party by a broad margin. Universal education, land distribution, and other popular reforms were instituted, but after only eight months Aristide was the victim of a coup. International pressure and grassroots campaigns brought him back to Haiti, where he was re-elected in 2000. In 2004, the constitutional government of Haiti was overthrown by yet another coup. Aristide was kidnapped and sent into exile on a U.S. military plane.

In the period since, the advances of the democratic years have been under attack and political activists, community leaders, and teachers have been arrested, murdered, and disappeared. According to a 2005 report by the Center for the Study of Human Rights at the University of Miami Law School:

After 10 months under an interim government backed by the United States, Canada, and France, and buttressed by a U.N. peacekeeping force, Haiti’s people churn inside a hurricane of violence. Gunfire crackles, once bustling streets are abandoned to cadavers, and whole neighborhoods are cut off from the outside world. . . . Summary executions are a police tactic, and even well-meaning officers treat poor neighborhoods seeking a democratic voice as enemy territory where they must kill or be killed.

This is the critical context for the earthquake and for teaching about Haiti. Even now, grassroots organizations in Haiti are reorganizing, fighting for a vision of Haiti created by Haitians for Haitians. Our students deserve to learn about the important role Haiti has played in the world and to be reminded that Haitians, like all people, have the right to determine their own future.