On January 11 Donald Trump reportedly called a number of African nations and Haiti “shitholes” and enunciated a preference for having Haiti removed from an immigration deal, protecting those who illegally came to the US as children from deportation. He added that he would prefer immigrants from Norway.
So, here’s a New Year’s resolution worth considering: don’t let your practice of reading about the world be dictated to you by the emissions of the current President of the US. Donald Trump is a man of profound ignorance. He is a man who uses expletives instead of adjectives. Accusations of racism and demands for an apology were quick to follow his remarks on Thursday. Those are perfectly legitimate concerns. But enough attention is given to Trump’s abusive language and infuriating utterances. Why not carefully think about the issue at hand instead? The issue is Haiti and Haitian Americans. So, in the spirit of defiance, let’s learn things about Haiti that Trump doesn’t care to know. After all, defiance is a trait on which Haitians pride themselves ever since 1804.
In 1804, after 12 years of revolutionary war, the formerly enslaved African population expelled three colonial powers (the French, Spanish and British) from what had until then been the French colony of Saint-Domingue. It then became Haiti.
The slaves, having been shipped across the Atlantic from different parts of Africa by force, were originally united by a Voodoo priest on the basis of their shared religion. But it was only when Toussaint Louverture, a former slave himself, joined forces with the rebels that they started to achieve military success. It is the only time in history when slaves rose up in revolt and successfully established a state.
Here is a fact for the consideration of Donald Trump: it was this war that left the French government so bankrupt that Napoleon had to sell the Louisiana territory to the US: a purchase which in 1803 doubled the size of the US. Since their revolutionary triumph over the colonialists, Haiti has seen less glorious times. In the subsequent two centuries Haiti has seen 32 coups. It is a politically unstable state and, even more so, a corrupt state. These days it is most famous for the earthquake in 2010 that left a quarter of a million dead, and for being the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Correspondingly, emigration, especially to the US, has been high ever since the late 20th century. Today, though exact population estimates are difficult, up to one in ten Haitians lives in the US. Their lives have become more uncertain with the election of Donald Trump. 59 000 Haitians will face deportation in July 2019 as the US government is ending the protection granted to them after the 2010 earthquake. More deportations will follow, should the administration not change its policy.
Trump’s comments are eerily reminiscent of the xenophobia of a different age, namely the early 20th century. Immigrants from Norway are not as ‘foreign’ to the US as immigrants from Haiti; Norwegian immigrants do not form culturally distinct communities whereas Haitian Americans, almost half of whom are settled in Florida, do. Part of Miami is called “Little Haiti,” Haitian Creole is heard on the streets, Haitian restaurants and barbershops line the streets and Voodoo is still practiced. They celebrate their heritage.
Recent events would justify a celebration of the fact that their ancestors were the first to write a constitution that didn’t discriminate on the basis of colour.