Today (May 18) is one of my personal holidays, right up there with Juneteenth. It’s Haitian Flag Day! When people ask me to explain my interest in Haiti, they always nod in understanding when I toss out that I grew up in Central Florida. Of course. Tampa boasts a robust Haitian community. But I use that connection as a conversational shortcut more often than I should. To be honest, the question really needs to be: Why wouldn’t I as a Black American have some knowledge of and pride for Haitian history and culture?
I know full well that Americentrism permeates even the Black American subconscious. In general, we are not immune to the tendency to know much less about other (Black, diasporic) cultures than they do about us. American culture is an export; Black American cool is commodified. Inasmuch as Black American folks have varying degrees of ownership of that commodity, we still have somewhat more global visibility than others in the Black diaspora. I acknowledge the norm of Americentrism accounts for the surprise.
But over the years, I have learned too much about Haitian history and culture to not celebrate it. My appreciation for Haiti goes beyond what Haitians have meant to the United States, although that, too, is important. Haiti is impressive in her own right.
Haitian contributions to Black American culture are numerous
A Haitian friend of mine hipped me to Haiti Week held by the Haitian Embassy and Busboys and Poets in D.C. to celebrate Haitian Flag Day. The week kicked off on May 13th with events ranging from Haitian cuisine cooking classes, a tour of the Embassy, and an acoustic concert by renowned singer Emeline Michel. Most of the free passes went quick. But ya girl snagged two events! Yesterday, I had the honor of visiting the National Museum of African-American History and Culture again (you can read here about my first visit) for a guided tour of Haitian contributions to Black American culture.
I hauled Bean and Button down to D.C. and got to the museum at about 9 AM. If you have ever schlepped kids anywhere or have ever braved D.C. traffic and mass transit solo or with bambinos, hug me now. LOL! Dr. Joanne Hyppolite, a celebrated Haitian-American author and the NMAAHC “Cultural Expressions” curator, met a group of about 25 of us in the lobby. She led us through specific parts of the museum, pointing out mentions of Haiti and Haitians in the Americas.
Perhaps what made this tour magical was the warmth and interactivity. Dr. Hyppolite recognized the experts in the group, including several local professors of French and Haitian history, a former Haitian minister of tourism, several Embassy officials, and a Haitian art gallery owner. I learned as much from them as I did from our esteemed curator.
From their impromptu history lessons and Dr. Hyppolite’s expertise, I’m sharing 18 reasons why Black folks in the U.S. should celebrate Haitian Flag Day–and Haitian history and culture.
1. Haiti’s original wealth and importance on the world stage.
Haiti was originally richer than all 13 American colonies combined. St. Domingue, as the French called it then, was the richest European colony in the world prior to the Haitian Revolution that began in 1791.
2. The Haitian Revolution helped shift White American views of slavery.
Lasting from 1791 to 1804, the uprisings of Black slaves in the colony put the fear of Black rage into U.S. slave owners. The cry of “koupé tèt, boulé kay” (cut off the head, burn down the house) against White French colonizers fomented unease that the same could happen in the American South. In a backwards way, it cemented racist ideology of inherent Black violence and the superiority of Whites. Slave owners tightened their grips on the peculiar institution as a social need–rather than an unfortunate reality– for the U.S.
3. Without Haiti’s rebellion, the US as we know it wouldn’t exist.
When tiny French emperor Napoleon lost Haiti, he decided to sell France’s property in the New World. Haiti’s uprising spurred the Louisiana Purchase, the largest real estate purchase in history. Consequently, America doubled in size.
4. The strong thread from Louisiana to Haiti.
Many Haitian people of color emigrated to then French-held Louisiana to flee the instability of the Haitian Revolution. Louisiana had a strong community of free Black people before the territory changed hands. A lot of similarities exist between the Louisiana Creole and Haitian Creole languages.
5. Haiti knew what WTF to do with a colonizer’s statue.
In February 1986, after the fall of dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, a group of Haitian students from L’Université d’État d’Haïti (State University of Haïti) uprooted and threw a statue of Christopher Columbus into the sea. One of the students said they did it to decolonize the mentality of the Haitian people. Given the historical connection between Haiti and New Orleans, I find it poetic that #TakeEmDownNOLA just did similarly to Confederate monuments.
6. One of Haiti’s folk heroes is a proud Taíno Queen.
Queen Anacaona of the Taíno Indians was a ruler of Kiskeya, the original name of the island of Hispaniola. She was executed by the Spanish in 1503 because she refused to sell her people into slavery in exchange for her life and concubinage.
7. The Haitian Flag has a dope origin story.
To distinguish the insurgency from French sympathizers, leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines famously ripped the white stripe out of the French tricolor (blue, white, red) flag. No more centering whiteness in the new republic! This left blue (symbolizing former Black slaves) and red (symbolizing gens de couleur libres or free mulattoes of African and European descent). Dessalines’ daughter, Catherine Flon, sewed the first widely adopted Haitian bicolor at the Congress of Archaiae on May 18, 1803.
8. The Harlem Renaissance had a vital connection to Haiti.
Artist Aaron Douglas was originally known for painting with an Art Deco style; he had studied under European painters. After receiving a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship, he traveled to Haiti and studied art there. This trip greatly informed his later work, as seen in his painting Haitian Street Scene on view at the NMAAHC. Here’s a short clip of Dr. Hyppolite’s mini lecture.
Writer Zora Neale Hurston also received patronage to study and record culture as an anthropologist in Haiti. She documented this work in her book Go Tell My Horse and her memoir Dust Tracks on a Road.
Poet Langston Hughes translated many of the works of celebrated Haitian author, Jacques Roumain. One of those includes Gouverneurs de la Rosée (Masters of the Dew), perhaps Roumain’s best-known novel.
9. Many American Black people emigrated to Haiti in the 1800s.
News of a Caribbean free Black republic so impressed free Black Americans that they chose to emigrate to Haiti instead of Africa or Canada. It’s estimated 20% of free Black people in North America migrated to Haiti before the American Civil War.
10. Haiti helped America fight for its independence.
If you ever visit Savannah, go see the monument to the 500 Haitian gens de couleur libre who joined American and French colonists in the effort to expel Britain from Georgia in 1779.
11. Toussaint Louverture is a Black hero, period.
I didn’t learn much about Louverture growing up–he was far too radical a Black man to be enshrined in a White American school system. Still, he inspired the people who inspire me. Find a poem about a Black girl falling in love with Toussaint in Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Dr. Hyppolite told us many free Black people named themselves or their children after the Haitian freedom fighter. Example: Pierre Toussaint, a 19th century Haitian-American businessman and philanthropist. He adopted the surname Toussaint after his owners moved from Haiti and freed him in New York.
12. One of America’s first Black supermodels is of Haitian descent.
13. A Haitian-American helped popularize the Kangol.
Hip-hop breakdancer and UTFO member The Kangol Kid, a Haitian-American named Shaun Shiller Fequiere, was the first person to get an endorsement deal from Kangol.
14. Nat Turner drew inspiration from Haiti’s revolution.
During our tour at the NMAAHC, we stopped by to see Nat Turner’s Bible. Nat Turner led an unsuccessful slave revolt in 1831 that has been documented as viewing the Haitian Revolution as proof freedom by overthrow was obtainable.
15. Blackness (or non-Whiteness) is intrinsic to Haitian identity.
I once read somewhere (maybe at Woy Magazine) that the term “Afro-Haitian” is a curious designation because Haitian people are proudly of African descent. Part of Haiti’s uprisings (recent and past) have hinged on uplifting Blackness and the French ideals of equality, liberty, and fraternity as a human right of Black people.
16. Haitian poet Félix Morrisseau-Leroy and dialogue on AAVE.
The NMAAHC has a great section on the Haitian poet Félix Morrisseau-Leroy and his advocacy for the recognition of Haitian Kreyol as a legitimate language. He wrote several books and poems in Kreyol on Haitian identity. Leroy’s works helped propel the movement that led Haiti to establish Kreyol as a language of instruction in 1978. Dr. Hyppolite mentioned the parallels between this achievement and the fight of Black Americans to destigmatize African-American Vernacular English.
17. A former enslaved Brazilian chose freedom in Haiti over the US.
We also learned about Mahommah Baquaqua, an African from modern-day Benin, who became Brazilian after being sold into bondage. He escaped his masters on a trip to New York City and chose to flee to Haiti. There, he learned English and Kreyol and went on to publish his memoir in 1854 with the help of an abolitionist editor. His is the only Brazilian slave narrative in known existence.
18. Haiti’s Nèg Mawon statue is a stirring image of Black liberation.
The statue of the Unknown Slave (Le marron inconnu), completed in 1967 by Haitian sculptor Albert Mangonès, depicts a runaway slave holding a conch shell to his mouth and a machete at his side. It commemorates the abolition of slavery in Saint Domingue.
I celebrate Haitian Flag Day because the people of Haiti did what no one else could. For me, Haiti’s rebellion and existence spiritually represents a large scale marronage (or willful escape and removal of self from slavery/White supremacy). The United States owes Haiti a great debt for many more reasons than I listed. As a Black American woman, I celebrate Haiti like my enslaved ancestors must have, dreaming of a tiny, powerful land where Black people proclaimed themselves free, indeed.
Happy Flag Day!