Saturday, January 12, marks the three year anniversary of the earthquake that left Haiti in ruins. Immediately after this earthquake, scenes of Haitian suffering appeared with unprecedented frequency on TV screens throughout the United States. In response, many North Americans looked upon Haiti with compassion, sending money to assist the impoverished country in its rebuilding efforts.
But we did not hear very much about why Haiti was so poor in the first place. Haiti’s poverty seemingly appeared out of thin air, and, like all facts of life, was thought to require no explanation. In this framing, when we think of Haiti (and surely, we almost never think of Haiti) we imagine it a country in need of North American benevolence. We imagine ourselves heroes–aid workers, missionaries, liberators. Never do we consider ourselves among the major villains of Haitian history.
But we should.
As I explain in an article for The Other Journal, the histories of Haiti and the United States exhibit an abiding interconnectedness that stretches back to each country’s revolutionary inception more than two hundred years ago. For most of this history, to Haiti, the United States has operated not as an ally but as an oppressor. Both countries threw off the shackles (and only in Haiti’s case were these shackles literal and not metaphorical-rhetorical) of their colonial oppressors. But the American Revolution comprised a quarrel between white supremacies while the Haitian Revolution served as a stunning repudiation of it. Thus,
Despite the fact that after its revolutionary defeat of Napoleonic France, Haiti was the only other Republic in the Western hemisphere (and to this day, the only successful slave revolt in the history of the world), the United States fought with France against Haitian freedom. The independence of Haiti was the United States’s worst nightmare—the mere fact of Haitian self-rule threatened to disprove the natural inferiority of black to white that gave the institution of slavery its moral legitimacy. Moreover, many North Americans feared that the Haitian revolution would inspire a similar insurrection on U.S. soil. It is for this reason that Virginia Senator Eppes, Thomas Jefferson’s son-in-law, pledged, “to venture the treasury of the United States that the Negro government should be destroyed.”26 The United States would not even recognize the existence of the Haitian Republic until 1862, and would only do so in response to the newly acquired attractiveness of the “black country . . . as a place to dump freed slaves.”27
As I chronicle in this article, this white supremacist, and later, capitalist oppression of Haiti did not end when chattel slavery did. U.S. oppression followed Haiti into the twentieth century and continues to this day. Despite the allegedly progressive goals of the Obama administration, the President, like many of his predecessors, still sees Haiti as a means to the end of North American profit. Haiti exists not for Haitians but to line the pockets of (mostly) white U.S.-American businesswomen and men.
For example, several years ago, the Haitian government passed a law raising its minimum wage to 61 cents an hour. (not a typo). As uncovered by Wikileaks and published by The Nation magazine, “the Obama administration fought to keep Haitian wages at 31 cents an hour” in order to assuage the outrage of American corporations like Levi Strauss and Hanes. If Haitian garment workers received slightly higher wages, cushy corporate giants could not make quite as much profit.
The United States’ white supremacist and neo-imperial relationship to Haiti carries more than just ethical implications. It also qualifies as a theological problem. At stake, I argue, is the very ability of North American Christians to be disciples. Haiti compels North American Christians to effect an epistemological shift–to see themselves with new eyes, giving Haitians not just charity but justice. And I argue, the 17th century priest and imperfect prophet Bartolome de las Casas provides contemporary Christians a model for the type of discipleship demanded of those of us living in imperial nations like the United States. I encourage anyone interested in learning more about this history and/or las Casas to give this a look.
Thanks so much, Katie, for this post and for linking it to you article in the The Other Journal. One concrete way that we can try to remember empire is to try to influence U.S. policy and your writings certainly make a really compelling case for why we are responsible for doing this. But I’m wondering if you have any more ideas about how folks can remember empire and choose to be disciples, especially as Americans and even as “women in theology”. I’m not necessarily looking for a well-thought out response to this, I’m just wondering whether you might have some (even incomplete) musings. And, umm, feel free to ignore this question if it is putting you too much on the spot.
what a great question, Julia. I think the first thing is that North Americans need to have the will to know the truth about their country’s impact upon the world. And then I think we need to have a willingness to sacrifice certain of our privileges…like for example, refusing to let our government use its power (political and military) to intimidate the Haitian government into participating in subsidizing the wealth of already wealthy corporations like Levi and Hanes. So I think there needs to be a greater commitment to a type of evangelical poverty or at least a willingness to live more simply…
Thanks for this, Katie. The Other Journal piece is great as well.