The pre-history of people, places and things
To return to Salt and Aloes is to begin again the work of looking and processing this world out loud and in public…and on schedule. It took a few months to accept that challenge (!) and I hope that those of you who subscribed continue this journey with me and remain curious about our material world and how those things make up what we call “Caribbean”.
To return to writing now, however, is also to recognize that there are times when a “new, fresh take” fails to meet the moment. These are the opportunities to reflect on more nuanced and softer rememberings, past work that resets our understanding of the now.
My plan this week had been to jumpstart my monthly postings with a close look at a beautiful straw hat, made in Haiti and gifted to me by a friend who had many times spoken frankly and lovingly about living in that country. It is a wild hat, with a brim full of of loose, unwoven material. That wildness has made it a special addition to the collection of straw hats that hang much more demurely on my bedroom wall. Like most things we acquire and display, the specialness of even this piece becomes dulled by familiarity. I have come to know this object purely in this static context, set and still in the here and now. Truly seeing an object, however, demands an acknowledgement of as many of the stories it contains as possible.
My friend and I have been in contact since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and then more recently, the earthquake. He was not on island for either of these events and our conversations were too brief to tell whether he felt he should be. What I have gathered from others, however, is a feeling of exhaustion. Recent history as repeated history has become a well worn and weighted story. What I reach for here, in a moment where many are rushed for words, is a pre-history. A framing of Haiti beyond a point of immediate pain…how can we make and hold space for more?
To that end, I give way to the work of Laurent Dubois who begins his work on the Haitian Revolution with the voice of one of its own,
I have avenged America.
—Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1804)
From Avengers of the New World (Dubois, 2006)
The revolution began as a challenge to French imperial authority by colonial whites, but it soon became a battle over racial inequality, and then over the existence of slavery itself. The slaves who revolted in 1791 organized themselves into a daunting military and political force, one ultimately embraced by French Republican officials. Facing enemies inside and outside the colony, these Republicans allied themselves with the insurgent slaves in 1793. They offered freedom in return for military support, which quickly led to the abolition of slavery in the colony. The decision made in Saint-Domingue was ratified in Paris in 1794: the slaves of all the French colonies became citizens of the French Republic.
These events represented the most radical political transformation of the “Age of Revolution” that stretched from the 1770s to the 1830s. They were also the most concrete expression of the idea that the rights proclaimed in France’s 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen were indeed universal. They could not be quarantined in Europe or prevented from landing in the ports of the colonies, as many had argued they should be. The slave insurrection of Saint-Domingue led to the expansion of citizenship beyond racial barriers despite the massive political and economic investment in the slave system at the time. If we live in a world in which democracy is meant to exclude no one, it is in no small part because of the actions of those slaves in Saint-Domingue who insisted that human rights were theirs too.
…The impact of the Haitian Revolution was enormous. As a unique example of successful black revolution, it became a crucial part of the political, philosophical, and cultural currents of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By creating a society in which all people, of all colors, were granted 6 avengers of the new world freedom and citizenship, the Haitian Revolution forever transformed the world. It was a central part of the destruction of slavery in the Americas, and therefore a crucial moment in the history of democracy, one that laid the foundation for the continuing struggles for human rights everywhere. In this sense we are all descendants of the Haitian Revolution, and responsible to these ancestors.
It’s good to be back - See you next month