Published Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Haitians celebrate cultural legacy during Black History Month
By JENNIFER KAY
Associated Press Writer
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass and writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston are among the heroes celebrated every February during Black History Month. Shadowed in history, however, are their ties to Haiti, the first free black republic.
That relationship is being examined this year by the founders of Black History Month. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History designated this year's theme as "From Slavery to Freedom: Africans in the Americas," encouraging people to explore the emancipation of slaves and their struggles for equality in the 19th century in Jamaica, Brazil, Haiti and the United States.
It's about time, say Haitian-Americans who want the Caribbean country to be recognized as a foundation of U.S. civil rights history, instead of only as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
Douglass, who had been appointed the first U.S. minister to Haiti, tried more than a century ago to educate Americans about Haiti's influence on their struggle for independence.
"We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy today ... is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons of Haiti 90 years ago," he said, addressing the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago - a city that traces its birth to a Haitian, Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable.
Douglass was referring to a slave rebellion led by Toussaint L'Ouverture that led to Haiti's break from France.
"Toussaint L'Ouverture was not just the father of Haitian independence," said Eveline Pierre, president of the planned Haitian Heritage Museum in Miami.
"He was the father of freedom from slavery," Pierre said this week. "When you think of African-American history, there is no possibility of Black History Month without connecting the dots between Haitian culture and black history."
Few monuments help illustrate those connections, though a Miami society is looking to change that. The Haitian American Historical Society is planning a monument in Savannah, Ga., to honor the Haitians who fought alongside colonial soldiers in the siege of Savannah during the American Revolution. At least 500 free black men from the French colony that became Haiti volunteered with American colonists and French soldiers in October 1779 in an unsuccessful attempt to drive the British from the coastal Georgia city.
Their little-known contribution to America's struggle for independence is a point of national pride in Haiti. After returning home, Haitian veterans of the Revolutionary War led their own rebellion and won Haiti's independence from France in 1804.
"That kind of symbol is not only going to be for the Haitians but also to all people who are African-descended," said historical society chairman Daniel Fils-Aime. "A symbol for people who call us 'Frenchie' or 'boat people,' that we shed our blood for this country."
Pride in the slave revolt that established the first independent black nation and a culture that preserves its African traditions prompts many Haitian-Americans to identify themselves as Haitian first, black second.
"I say that I'm Haitian first, and then we go from there," said Patrick Marcelin, the U.S.-born son of Haitian immigrants who raps in Creole and English as "Mecca a.k.a. Grimo." "I just happened to be born in America, but really I'm a Haitian brother. And Haiti is the direct daughter of Africa."
But the Black History Months he remembers studying never mentioned Haiti's history, even though Haiti was a destination for black Americans searching for their cultural roots. Marcelin now also teaches in the Haitian Heritage Museum's school outreach program, exposing students to the American history he never learned. For example, when talking about writers from the Harlem Renaissance, Marcelin points out that Zora Neale Hurston wrote her novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God" in Haiti in the 1930s, and the poet Langston Hughes wrote admiringly of the Haitian peasants who walked down mountain roads barefoot, balancing baskets on their heads, to sell their wares.
"They should have been teaching this in school, that soldiers from Haiti came to fight in the American Revolution," Marcelin said. "I read about Frederick Douglass in the history books but I don't remember anything about him being the ambassador to Haiti. Or that the founder of Chicago was a Haitian brother."
The study of black history in the U.S. is evolving to include political and social struggles for equality in Haiti and other black communities, said Dhyana Ziegler, a journalism professor and assistant vice president for academic affairs at Florida A&M University.
"We share a history, we share a struggle. It is indeed very appropriate that Haitian history is part of black history," Ziegler said.
But while Haitian-Americans may identify with their ethnic heritage first and American black history second, most people won't see them that way because they share a skin color, Ziegler said.
Haitians have to balance their need for recognition with the larger community's continuing struggle for equality, she said.
"On the one hand you are creating your community, on the other hand you have to assimilate with the wider community," Ziegler said. "You want to keep your culture, your arts, your music. At the same token, you want to be part of the world."
On the Net:
Haitian Heritage Museum: http://www.haitianheritagemuseum.org">http://www.haitianheritagemuseum.org
Haitian American Historical Society: http://www.haitianhistory.org">http://www.haitianhistory.org
Black History Month 2007: http://asalh.org/ThemeIntro2007.html">h ... o2007.html
1 post • Page 1 of 1