Revolution: A Great Intellectual Moment

It’s hard when researching Haitian history as a Black American to not focus on the seminal moment of the revolution for independence. As I searched for a link between this month’s celebration of Black History and the history of Haiti, it’s easy to focus on the point at which slaves overthrew their masters.

As someone who had dedicated his life to the importance of ideas over violence – a legacy left by the two generations before me – I became more interested in the more powerful moment.

When did the Haitian people become free? By which I mean how did the slaves, indigenous people, freed people of color and mixed race inhabitants of the island of Hispaniola dare to let their hunger for freedom overcome their fear of their oppressors?

A culminating moment of freedom we see today in the streets of Egypt and spreading like wildfire of freedom across the Arab world.

True revolution is not when someone who is beaten fights back. That is human nature. Revolutions happen when we realize that our liberation can and will happen through our collective strength. The vision to see that world as it should be despite an unending violence of how it was, is a mind blowing moment worth note. More so than the final realization of that belief via an end to armed conflict.

As Aime Cesaire sung, “Haiti is where Negritude stood up for the first time and declared its belief in its own humanity.”

As the Duke University translation of the Haitian Declaration of Independence in 1804 said, “We have dared to be free, let us be thus.” 1804 was that culminating moment when the dangerous belief that all people are human was imbedded into a government.

So dangerous was this revolutionary and simple belief that it reverberated across the world and sent fear down the spine of slave owners and oppressors alike.

In America, Thomas Jefferson’s concern for the Haitian Revolution was not the influx of guns and weapons or an invasion of freedom fighting Haitians (as later happened in Latin America alongside Simon Bolivar’s liberation forces); Jefferson worried about the value of freedom would catch fire among American slaves. In a letter to James Madison in 1799 on a bill to continue trade with Toussaint, Jefferson wrote: "We may expect therefore black crews and super cargoes and missionaries thence into the Southern states... If this combustion can be introduced among us under any veil whatever, we have to fear it."

The scary ideals of liberation carried by Haitian missionaries so threatened the fabric of American society that we did not even recognize Haiti as a country until Abraham Lincoln’s administration in 1862.

The search for the ideas and influences that inspired fear in the slaveholders and hope in Blacks across the Americas is the gift from the Haitian Revolution to Black History. The search, however, confined me to the limitations of European historians explaining how the moment created by the French Revolution in 1789 when the colonizing power was thrust into chaos provided the confluence of events that allowed the revolution to happen.

The French Revolution in 1789 does not explain why slaves in Haiti dared to imagine freedom not as individuals but for all peoples of the island, when so many slaves in the Caribbean, Latin America and Northern America — just an inundated with freedom — could not. Nor does it explain how Haiti was successful in getting a population to not back down for its fight for freedom when so many other revolts in the 1750s failed to resonate with the people.

The heart of what made the 1791 revolution different, what made it lasting, what made it so terrifying for the rest of the world was not in a powerful dynamic leader. As the kidnapping and killing of Toussaint L'Ouverture did not end the revolution as the killing of leaders has for so many other movements.

In January 1794 Jean-Baptiste Belley, a former Haitian Slave who fought for his freedom, Jean-Baptiste Mills, a mulatto, and Louis-Pierre Dufaÿ, a white European, arrived in France as elected officials from the northern region of Saint-Domingue [Haiti] to the French National Convention. Together they let the French people know of the Haitian Revolution and on February 3rd the three asked in the Convention to officially abolish slavery throughout the colonies. The strength of the Haitian Revolution is represented in this act.

Seeing liberation bound together and for everyone – all people as equal human beings - inspired an uprising and brought fear to the rest of the world. It is that legacy that inspired my grandparents and parents in our US fight for Civil Rights.

As we take a month to celebrate and deepen our commitment to using the lessons of our history to inform and inspire our present future, I am left wondering what inspired such courage, such a beautiful vision for a society among those slaves in 18th Century Haiti. It is a wisdom we could use today to inspire our struggle against the seemingly insurmountable monsters of invisible institutional racism and indifference to our struggles.

Jordan Berg Powers is the Deputy Director of Mass Alliance. He is an organizer, political consultant, and freelance writer who lives in Worcester, MA.