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Recently, much attention has been made of President Obama’s “bucket list,” those things he would like to accomplish before the end of his term. Among the items on his list is a visit to Cuba. This would be a dramatic event, climaxing one of the signature achievements of his presidency – breaking the decades- long diplomatic and economic isolation of Cuba to usher in a new era of normalized relations. The sight of the first African American president, being welcomed in Cuba, an Afro-Hispanic nation, would be stunning and historic.
I also believe a visit to Haiti, the world’s first Black Republic, should be on Obama’s bucket list. The Haiti Support Project of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century always views January as Haitian Independence Month because it was on January 1, 1804 that General Jean Jacques Dessalines declared Haiti’s independence. This after a long, brutal but glorious struggle for self-determination during which the Haitian freedom fighters defeated the British, Spanish and ultimately decimated the army of Napoleon Bonaparte of France. Never in the history of humankind had an enslaved people defeated their slave masters to create an independent nation.
The Haitian Revolution, which gave birth to the world’s first Black Republic, was one of the greatest feats in history. Not only did the Haitian freedom fighters create an independent nation at the height of the European and American slave trade, they further declared that any enslaved person who set foot on Haitian soil would be free.
These declarations alone are of sufficient historical significance to warrant acknowledgment with a visit by President Obama. This recognition would be particularly significant since Haiti was stigmatized, marginalized and punished by the U.S. and other slave trading nations for fear that the example of an independent Black nation would be infectious, spreading among enslaved Africans everywhere to fuel rebellions. This was indeed what happened.
The U.S. owes a huge debt of gratitude to Haiti for its contributions to this nation’s struggle for independence and the expansion of its territory. Under the leadership of General Henri Christophe and at the behest of the French, Haitian troops contributed to the defeat of the British in the battle of Savannah during the Revolutionary War. Indeed, during the commemoration of the bi-centennial of Haiti’s independence in 2004, Haitian-American Daniel Fils Aime led a successful campaign to have a monument to this achievement erected in Savannah.
The colonies achieved their independence and were able to found a new nation on what was Native American land, because the Louisiana Purchase was a direct outgrowth of the defeat of Napoleon’s armies by the Haitian Freedom Fighters. This disastrous defeat ended Napoleon’s grand vision of creating an economic axis between Saint Dominique (Haiti), the most prosperous “colony” in the Caribbean and the vast French territory in North America, anchored by the city of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River. After the humiliating defeat at the hands of the Haitians, Napoleon abandoned this ambitious goal and sold the Louisiana Territory to the U.S. at a bargain basement price. The size of the U.S. nearly doubled as a result of this acquisition, a fact that Americans should forever be thankful to the Haitians for facilitating.
Here’s another little-known fact:. Denmark Vesey planned the most extensive insurrection of enslaved Africans ever conceived in the U.S. His destination? Haiti.
King Henri Christophe’s first Minister of Education was an African American. And, scores of African Americans migrated to Haiti to escape oppressive life in the U.S. Frederick Douglass was appointed the first Ambassador to Haiti and pointedly warned against treating the Black Republic as a U.S. colony.
When the U.S. invaded Haiti in 1915, it was the NAACP under the leadership of Walter White that led the opposition to the U.S. occupation. The reality of an independent Black nation in the Caribbean undercut the argument of Black inferiority as a rationale for legal and de facto segregation in the U.S. Haiti was a beacon of hope to African people everywhere.
A state visit by President Barrack Obama would be an occasion to acknowledge these historical wrongs and properly recognize Haiti’s contribution to the U.S. and the world.
Ron Daniels is president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, he can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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