Monday, July 15, 2013

The Danger of a Single Story

When we only retain a single story of another person, country, or culture we can develop damaging misconceptions that mislead us to act in inappropriate, and harmful, ways.

By far, the two most frequent comments I receive from others when talking about moving to Haiti are, "Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere," and, "watch out for Vodou down there." Haiti is one such place often defined by a single story. This post is about uprooting that single story and presenting additional information about the country to which I'm moving. 

These details are not meant to define Haiti in its entirety, or collectively present a certain view. These are simply a few details from my reading that have challenged my previous understanding of Haiti and Haitian history.

Inspiration for this post came from a TED Talk video by storyteller Chimamanda Adichie that we viewed at training in New York. I strongly encourage you to watch this engaging speaker explain the danger of a single story here: 

  • The name Haiti (Hayti) comes from the Taíno people who lived on the island before colonization by Europeans. They died out from disease shortly after the arrival of the Europeans. 
  • In the 18th Century, Saint-Domingue, the French colony that preceded the free nation of Haiti, was the richest and most productive colony of the French empire and the world, more valuable to the French than all American colonies combined were to the British.
  • Cap Haitian, a large city on the northern coast, was once referred to as Paris of the Antilles.
  • The slave system in Saint-Domingue was originally based on social status not race-which, for a period of time, led to a population of free people of color. (This is not to say racism was absent in colonial life in Haiti.) The larger relative population of slaves contributed to the eventual revolution. In 1791 there were 39,000 whites, 27,000 "mixed" people of color, and 452,000 black slaves. 
  • 1804-Haiti became the words first independent black republic after the first successful slave revolt. Within a year, slavery was outlawed in the entire French Empire. The slaves defeated Napoleon, preventing his vision of an empire in the New World from materializing. In order to finance his efforts against the revolt, Napoleon was forced to sell the U.S. the territory known as the Louisiana Purchase.
  • The Faustian deal was struck between Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer and King Charles X in 1825. In it, France promised to recognize Haitian independence if Haiti agreed to pay 150 million francs ($3 billion American today) in damages from the revolution. This debt prevented significant development within Haiti for decades.
  • The U.S. did not recognize Haiti's independence until 1861, when President Lincoln was considering emancipation in the U.S.
  • The U.S. occupied Haiti in 1915 for twenty years, with the U.S. rewriting their constitution to allow foreigners to own land. Future U.S. President FDR was the writer of that new constitution.
Baptism Castera Bazile

  • Haiti is world famous for its art. One local icon was the Sainte Trinite Episcopal Cathedral in Port-au-Prince. Fifteen murals depicted Biblical scenes set in Haiti. The cathedral fell during the 2010 earthquake, destroying all but three of the murals. Those surviving murals are being restored by the Smithsonian Institute and the Ministry of Culture, and are expected to be installed in the rebuilt Episcopal cathedral. To purchase some Haitian art, visit this site for the Art Center in Cange, Haiti:
  • The Khian Sea: Philadelphia in 1986 experienced a problem with overused landfills. The solution was to burn new trash and ship the ash to the Bahamas for disposal. 15,000 tons of ash were shipped on the Khian Sea. The Bahamian and six other Caribbean governments deemed the ash toxic and refused to accept the waste. When the ship arrived in Gonaïves, Haiti, port authorities were told the ash was fertilizer for topsoil, and 4,000 tons of ash were deposited on the beach before the local authorities realized what the cargo was. The ship fled the scene, continuing around Africa and Asia before arriving empty to Singapore. In 1996, the U.S. and Haitian governments finally reached a deal to ship the toxic waste back to the U.S.; however, that did not happen until 2000, 14 years after the ash was dumped on the beach in Haiti. The ash was buried 120 miles from Philadelphia, and the incident prompted the Basel Convention in 1992 leading to an international treaty regulating hazardous waste exports. The treaty is signed by 175 countries-Haiti and the U.S. have not yet signed on. 
Siege of Savannah
  • Saint-Marc is a trading town on the inner coast of Haiti north of Port-au-Prince. In 1779, 500 free men of color sailed to the U.S. to fight in the American Revolution against the British. They fought in the six-week Battle of Savannah in Georgia.
  • Haiti was the second independent republic in the Americas, the U.S. being the first.
<Sources for this information can be found under the reading list tab at the top of my blog.>

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. This is all very interesting. I often notice these single stories within my own culture too. What happened in the Finnish Civil War in 1918? It all depends on who you ask and what your family experienced during that year. What was our connection to Germany in WW2? Most Finns refuse to see much any connection even as late as 2013. What was Finland's position during the Cold War? Again most people close their eyes. To mention just a few examples.