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Too Hard for the White Folks? Americans and the Haitian Revolution

Scholars as well as religious and political leaders have rightly condemned Pat Robertson’s racist and absurd claim that the recent earthquake in Haiti was punishment because the Haitian people “swore a pact to the devil” during their revolution in the 1790s to gain freedom from the French.  It has been ably noted not only that Robertson’s remarks were bigoted and heartless but also that the “history” he alluded to was a crude misrepresentation.  But beneath the surface of Robertson’s remarks there is another underlying assumption, one both racist and ingrained in conventional American lore.  In his bizarre and merciless condemnation of the Haitian Revolution, Robertson perpetuates an unfortunately all-too-common historical myth:  that black people are incapable of freeing themselves, and must rely on outside forces to “save” them.

This illusion has long been promulgated in popular culture and historical texts, from the representations of abolitionist leaders as white men to the white saviors of Mississippi Burning.  The reality is in fact quite different—African Americans were the primary founders and innovators of antislavery activism in the United States and the architects of the Civil Rights struggle—but the misconception endures.  Within scholarly circles, many historians have finally begun to attend to the important work done by African-American scholars such as Carter G. Woodson, John Hope Franklin, and Nathan Huggins, but cherished myths die hard.  Claims that white abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison “started” the abolition movement and influenced the thinking of his black colleagues (when in fact it was the other way around) can be found in books published in the last decade.  It’s not difficult to figure out what is at play here and why these narratives persist:  white supremacy depends upon the notion that freedom and rights, when attained, are “granted” to blacks by benevolent whites, who then can distance themselves from their racist history through their purported efforts at salvation. 

The Haitian Revolution disturbs these comforting assumptions.  The Haitian Revolution was, as C. L. R. James noted in his classic Black Jacobins, “the only successful slave revolt in history,” and it was planned and carried out by the enslaved blacks of the French colony of Saint Domingue themselves, who effected their own transformation from “slaves, trembling in hundreds before a single white man, into a people able to organise themselves and defeat the most powerful European nations of their day.”  African Americans and other oppressed people, from the time of the Haitian Revolution until today, have been inspired by its success and the Haitians’ attainment of freedom and, ultimately, an independent nation in 1804.  White Americans, though, were threatened in the antebellum period by the implications that their own investment in a republic dependent upon slavery was insecure; ever since, they have ignored the Haitian Revolution altogether, denied Haitians’ own agency in their struggle or even . . . well, we have all heard Robertson’s comments by now.

Frederick Douglass, who served as minister resident and consul general to Haiti from 1889 to 1891, aptly described white America’s responses to the Haitian Revolution, their discomfort with the black self-determination exhibited by the Haitian struggle for freedom, and the importance of a true vision of its history.  Speaking in 1893 at Quinn Chapel, an important African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago, Douglass referred to the “coolness” toward Haiti by the United States, who refused to recognize Haiti’s independence until 1862 (after the secession of the Southern states), although France did so in 1825, with Britain following in 1833.  “Haiti is black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black,” Douglass noted; “after Haiti had shaken off the fetters of bondage, and long after her freedom and independence had been recognized by all other civilized nations, we continued to refuse to acknowledge the fact and treated her as outside the sisterhood of nations.”  He did not disguise his anger as he described how despite the slaves’ heroic struggle which “made themselves free and independent,” American leaders continued to doubt “their ability to govern themselves” and demand that they “justify their assumption of statehood at the bar of the civilized world.”  And he clearly articulated what a full understanding of the Haitian struggle means to African American—indeed, American—history as well as to the meanings we give the past:

You and I and all of us have reason to respect Haiti for her services to the cause of liberty and human equality throughout the world, and for the noble qualities she exhibited in all the trying conditions of her early history. . . .  We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy to-day; that the freedom that eight hundred thousand colored people enjoy in the British West Indies; the freedom that has come to the colored race the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons of Haiti ninety years ago.  When they struck for freedom, they builded better than they knew.  Their swords were not drawn and could not be drawn simply for themselves alone.  They were linked and interlinked with their race, and striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world.
Far from being bestowed upon them by others, Douglass insisted, “the freedom of Haiti was not given as a boon, but conquered as a right!”

Given this significance, it is perhaps not surprising that efforts have been continually made to rewrite this history, with Pat Robertson only the most recent example.  And it is clear why such portrayals continue to be substituted for reality.  Ralph Ellison put it succinctly and memorably in the mouth of one of his characters in the 1941 short story “Mister Toussan.”  Two young African-American boys, Buster and Riley, who appear in various stories by Ellison, discuss Toussaint L’Ouverture, one of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution.  “Ain’t none of them stories in the books.  Wonder why?” Buster asks.  “Hell, you know why,” Riley answers.  “Ole Toussan was too hard on them white folks, thass why.”  Apparently the real history continues to be too hard for the white folks, threatening to complicate comforting beliefs about freedom and liberty.  In their ignorance and denial, they fail to realize the debt all freedom-loving people owe to the efforts of the slaves of Saint Domingue over two hundred years ago.