“I was born a slave, but nature gave me a soul of a free man….”
On January 11, 2010 Haiti was struck with a massive earthquake at 7.0 magnitude. Immediate horror and fear spread amongst the people living in Haiti, especially those living by the epicenter located in Port au Prince. Much international aid was provided to Haiti militarily, economically and politically. On question 39 of the Global Studies NYS Regents comes from a political cartoon in the The Record, a newspaper based in New Jersey. The cartoonist takes a cruel jab at Haitians. A white-appearing newscaster standing in front of palm trees and a few Haitians standing around states that “Haitians line the streets… devastation and despair are everywhere… and then the massive earthquake struck.” There are two critical errors in this question. One, the cartoon, and the correct answer that “the people of Haiti had been facing serious economic problems before the 2010 earthquake” states that Haitians alone are to blame for “devastation and despair” in their country. Second, the fact that this was the only question about Haiti on this exam strongly implies that “devastation and despair” is all students in New York State should know about the country.
Just yesterday, also in 2016, the stupidity and racism of this type of attitude towards the Haitian people came to the fore again in American media coverage of the recent Hurricane Matthew. As a Category 4 storm pounded the island, the Weather Channel’s newscaster, Jennifer Delgado, said “They take all the trees down, they burn the trees,” Delgado said. “Even the kids there, they’re so hungry they actually eat the trees.”
After immense social media pressure, she apologized within 24 hours, saying “I want to begin by apologizing for a statement I made yesterday that was found inappropriate. My intention is always to inform and educate.” Not only did the apology sound insincere, it also carries with it misplaced blame for deforestation on an island first deforested, not by “the Haitian people” as she faults for the cause of the risk from the Hurricane, but by Columbus’s soldiers in 1492.
I have come to the realization that the society in which I live has not and may never show Haiti as the beautiful country that it is, but instead it will always be quick to show the darkest moments of Haiti’s history. It is with great lost for the upcoming generation that they will never see the beauty that lies in the first black republic, yet instead society will eliminate the real history of Haiti and brainwash students with false information and ideologies.
As a Haitian-American, a teacher and someone who has spent the past decade highly invested in history, I was so appalled by the perspective of the cartoonist (and the newscaster this week), and the tacit agreement of the Board of the Regents with this perspective to actually put it on the Regents exams.
Let us not forget the history Haiti has gone through, prior to independence from France in 1804, and since then. In 1492, Columbus arrived representing the Spanish crown. His first order of business was to begin deforestation and resource-grabbing, which centuries of Spanish and then French conquest continued. In 1697, Spain ceded the western third of the island of Hispaniola to France. The French took the western portion of the island and focused their colonization efforts on the production of coffee and sugar. As sugar plantations became the prime money-making enterprise, sugar can not be grown in a forest, so what did European masters order to be done? Deforestation.
By the late 1700s, the island was producing nearly half the sugar and coffee imported to European countries. Who was the labor force in this wealth-producing effort for the French empire? Enslaved Africans, living under a racialized system of enslavement and segregation that has had lasting effects on Haitian society.
In 1791, former slave, turned military commander Toussaint L’ouverture led the Haitian Revolution with a rebel army of formerly enslaved Africans with the help of Georges Biassou, Jean-François Papillon, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe. They rose together to to become free from European influence. After three centuries of colonial rule, Haiti was declared an independent state.
The terms of independence were not neutral, however. Unlike the new United States, the new African-led republic of Haiti had to pay reparations to France, in the form of 150 million francs (21billion 2016 US dollars) in exchange for French recognition of the country’s sovereignty. From the beginning of the new nation, a huge portion of income generated was immediately lost, returned to French coffers overseas.
100 years later, Haiti was physically occupied again, this time by none other than the United States. From 1915 to 1934, US Marines occupied Haiti. President Woodrow Wilson sent the United States Marines into Haiti to “restore order and maintain political and economic stability” not only in Haiti but all of the Caribbean. United States government representatives took control of Haiti’s institutions, banks and including the national treasury. Almost half of Haiti’s national income was delegated to repay debts to American and French banks additionally to stripping away most of Haiti’s natural resources leaving little to nothing for the people of Haiti (similar to what’s happening in Puerto Rico today).
I wouldn’t necessarily put all the blame of Haiti’s economic situation today on France, our colonial oppressor, because many United States officials have intervened as well. Most dramatically, in 1991, the US backed a coup d’etat to remove a popularly elected president.
Jean Bertrand Aristide was the first democratically elected president of Haiti. He became a focal point for the democratic movement under “Baby Doc” Jean Claude Duvalier’s military transition. Aristide stepped into office in 1991, winning the election with 67% of the majority vote. In September of 1991, the United States threatened the Haitian government by performing a military coup under Operation Uphold Democracy (OUD). Ten years later, however, Aristide became president again (from 2001-2004) until the United States performed another coup, sending him to exile in Central Africa and later South Africa.
Some Haitians may say Aristide made the country unlivable by trying to control power by any means necessary which opened the doors for the United States to intervene. Kids could not go to school for a period of time because of political turmoil but it does not mean the Haitian people wanted the US to intervene and maintain order. Other Haitians may differ and say he put fear in his people to obtain power and order in the streets.
Superpowers have done a lot to harm Haiti, starting with France making us pay back for our independence and United States that invaded and occupied Haiti as well as the UN’s disastrous role in the cholera outbreak after the earthquake..
Today and prior to the earthquake with the help of the UN they have stepped to the plate to help create order. Under the UN branch of Haiti known as Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Haiti (MINUSTAH) they have been the peacekeepers in Haiti, led by the Brazilian Army. Haiti has gotten help from other foreign countries before the earthquake, they were not desperately in need of United States to intervene in Haiti’s government. After the earthquake there were far more European and Latin American countries providing long term aid to Haiti as I witness for my own eyes from traveling back and forth.
The inaccuracy on question 39 states that people were standing in lines on the street or Haitians were in despair prior to the earthquake. Where were these Haitian people going anyway? As a Haitian native the only time people stand on line in Haiti is at church, for election or festivals. Thanks to the UN under MINUSTAH Haiti is slowly progressing and it has become safer to travel to Haiti for both natives and foreigners.
Hurricane Matthew’s course, I hope, is not too devastating for my country. The last thing we need, though, is ignorant newscasters placing blame on Haitian children, and then Haitian entrepreneurs, for problems like climate change and deforestation which originate continents away, in the countries that now control the global markets. The last thing our students need is to face the racist perspective of ignorant newscasters as they take high stakes exams required for graduation. It is time for New York State graduation requirements to reflect better values; changing the racism within the multiple choice portion of the Global Regents is one small step towards achieving this aim.
Teacher, East Brooklyn Community High School