June 5, 1995 I set foot in Haiti for the first time, leading a delegation of twenty African Americans eager to learn about the history, culture and state of development in the first Black Republic in this hemisphere. October 14-18 (the week after the commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Million Man March), plans are to organize a select delegation of African American and Haitian American civil rights/human rights, education, cultural, faith, labor, business and youth leaders, elected officials, opinion-makers and interested persons for a Pilgrimage to Haiti to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the founding of the Haiti Support Project (HSP).
The goal of the Pilgrimage is to expand support for HSP’s Model City Initiative which seeks to utilize cultural-historical tourism as a means to promote people-based social and economic development in the lovely town of Milot in the northern region of the country near Cap Haitien. Though there will be visits to other important cultural and historic sites, the highlight of the Pilgrimage will be a tour of the Citadel, the magnificent mountaintop fortress which stands as one of the great beacons of freedom and self-determination in the Black World! The Pilgrimage will be a fitting commemoration of two decades of arduous, exciting and very productive work in the first Black Republic!
We arrived in Haiti 20 years ago at the invitation of Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the leader of the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP) with whom I had become acquainted through my work as Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Under the leadership of Michael Ratner, CCR was deeply involved in litigating the cases of Haitians with HIV and AIDS imprisoned at Guantanamo detention center in Cuba. CCR was also building relations with human rights leaders and organizations in Haiti. During my conversations with Chavannes I discovered that MPP, the largest peasant movement in Haiti, had very few contacts and relationships with African Americans. In 1994 I invited him to attend the first State of the Race Conference at Sojourner-Douglass College in Baltimore for the express purpose of introducing him to African American leaders from around the country. It was an extraordinary gathering and his presence was well received. Chavannes reciprocated by inviting me to organize a delegation to visit Haiti in the near future. I accepted.
Though no racial animus was intended, there was a deliberate decision to mobilize an all Black delegation for the first visit to Haiti. Other than opposition to the brutal Duvalier dictatorship, Haiti had not been a focal point of the Pan African movement in the U.S. in the era of the 60’s. Much of the humanitarian assistance was provided by predominantly White charities. And, progressive White organizations, artists and entertainers were among the most prominent faces in the opposition to the Duvalier regime. When a nation or people are in need of humanitarian assistance or political support, the color of the skin of the benefactor is understandably of little consequence. But, from a psycho-cultural perspective, it is not healthy to see people who do not look like you primarily coming forth as your principal benefactors/saviors. Therefore, the decision to organize an all Black delegation was designed to clearly signal to our Haitian sisters and brothers that there were Africans in America who were committed to building bonds of solidarity and support.
I will never forget the words of a Priest who welcomed us to Sunday service where hundreds of Haitian young people were receiving first communion. He said, “We have seen many people who have come to support us in Haiti, but this is the first time we have seen Black Americans come with a group to support our people.” He was obviously thrilled to see people who looked like him connecting with the Haitian people!
At the headquarters of MPP in the Central Plateau we received an intensive orientation about the people’s movement for democracy and development among peasant and worker organizations and the ascendancy of Lavalas as the major political force in Haiti under the leadership of the charismatic Priest Jean Bertrand Aristide. We also had meetings with other important cultural and political organizations and leaders. Everywhere we went the delegation was enthusiastically welcomed as Black brothers and sisters from America. We certainly witnessed the tremendous poverty of the Haitian masses, particularly when we visited the sprawling seaside slum of Cite Soleil. But, we also witnessed something else. Beyond the poverty, our most powerful and memorable impressions were of a proud, vibrant, industrious, determined, culturally aware, politically conscious and resilient Haitian people; a people aware of their heritage as the conquerors of the colonial armies of France and Spain and the creators of the first Black Republic in the western hemisphere.
I fell in love with Haiti and the Haitian people, as do most people who actually journey to Haiti to see, feel and touch the people and connect with the history and heritage of a great nation. Upon our return from this memorable experience, I founded the Haiti Support Project to expose African Americans and other people of African descent to Haiti’s history and culture and as a vehicle to mobilize material support for the people’s movement for democracy and development. This decision was not based on sentimentality. It was rooted in the realization that people of African descent everywhere owe a special debt to Haiti for giving Black people back our dignity and hope at a time when the European imperialists had invaded Africa and initiated the holocaust of enslavement -- a tragedy-filled epoch in which millions of Africans were forcibly removed from the motherland and transported to North America, Central and South America and the islands of the Caribbean including, the fertile land of Ayiti, as free labor. The colonizers’ mission was to exploit the region’s rich resources for the development and prosperity of Europe– the home of the “master race.”
Boukman, Toussaint, Christophe, Pétion, Dessalines and the spirit-filled, enslaved Africans shattered the myth of “white supremacy” by defeating the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte to create an independent Black Nation; the first time in the history of humankind that an enslaved people overthrew the regime of the slave masters to create an independent nation. By way of the African “grapevine,” the tale of the heroic success of the Haitian Revolutionaries reverberated throughout the slave quarters and domains of quasi-free Blacks everywhere. Haiti was a beacon of hope and possibility. Of the three great revolutions of the era, the American, French and Haitian Revolution, only the Haitian Revolution permanently abolished slavery and declared that any enslaved African who reached its soil would be a free person and citizen of the Black Republic. The entire Black world took inspiration from this remarkable feat!
The Haitian Revolution was not supposed to happen. A Black Republic at the height of the European and American slave trade and the colonial domination of Black people in Africa and the western hemisphere was a dangerous development. Hence, Haiti had to be isolated, marginalized, stigmatized, invaded, occupied, impoverished and relegated to the status of the “poorest nation in the western hemisphere.” Ever since the Revolution, Haiti has been punished for shattering the myth of white supremacy.”
The Haiti Support Project was founded on the premise that people of African descent must pay a debt of gratitude to Haiti for standing tall for the race. We have a collective Pan African duty to assist the Haitian people to finish the unfinished Haitian Revolution! For the past 20 years HSP has singularly focused on this vision/mission and historical imperative. As a small, unfunded, non-profit initiative of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century (IBW), HSP has raised millions of dollars in humanitarian and development assistance for social, educational and economic development for organizations and projects throughout Haiti. When the disastrous earthquake struck, HSP raised more than $300,000 via Black Talk Radio and appeals to Black organizations and agencies to provide relief and developmental and capacity-building assistance to scores of organizations on the ground.
Equally important, more than any other organization, HSP has been in the forefront of educating and creating greater awareness about the first Black Republic among African Americans. We have led numerous fact finding and support delegations to Haiti and high profile Pilgrimages to the Citadel as part of the Model City Initiative. Indeed, Cruising Into History, the effort which eventually mobilized 500 African Americans, Haitian Americans and friends of Haiti to journey to Haiti via a Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship to Commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the Haitian Revolution, involved a massive promotion/marketing campaign that educated hundreds of thousands if not millions of African Americans and people of African descent in the U.S. about Haiti!
The list of civil rights/human rights and faith leaders, elected officials, artists, entertainers, radio talk show hosts and prominent personalities who have visited Haiti with HSP reads like a Who’s Who in Black America: Marc Morial, Congressman John Conyers, Jr., Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Congressman Gregory Meeks, State Representative Marie St. Fleur, State Senator Connie Johnson, State Representative Opio Toure, Rev. Dr. Major Jemison, Rev. Dr. Tyrone Pitts, Rev. Dr. Joseph Evans, Rev. Dennis Dillon, Dr. Leon Pamphile, Catherine Dunham, Susan Taylor, Sonia Sanchez, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, Dr. Adelaide Sanford, Haki Madhubuti, Atty. Faya Rose Sanders, Dr. Elsie Scott, Joe Beasley, George Fraser, Omarosa, Kangol Kid, Jean Jean Pierre, Damu Smith, Don Rojas, Baba Leonard Dunston, Hulbert James, Dr. Karl Rodney, Bev. Smith, George Curry, Richard Muhammad, Joe Madison, Hazel Trice-Edney, Ricot Dupuy, Earl Maitland, Warren Ballentine, Eddie Harris, Atty. L. Londell McMillan, Erna LeTemps, Drs. Serge and Mae Parisien and Herb Boyd to mention a few. Without question, over the past 20 years, HSP has emerged as the leading African American organization “building a constituency for Haiti in the U.S.”
Despite Haiti’s ups and downs, we have seen incremental progress over the years. When we arrived at the Toussaint Louverture Airport in Port Au Prince in 1995, it was absolute bedlam, a chaotic scene where you had to hold onto your luggage for dear life. It’s very orderly at the airport these days. A trip from the airport to downtown used to be like an adventure in the wild, wild west along unpaved roads with massive lumps and bumps with no traffic lights or police to direct traffic. There are paved roads with traffic lights in the Capital now. Garbage is still a problem in Port Au Prince but far less so today because there are garbage bins/dumpsters and trucks that make collections. Our first trip to Hinche in the Central Plateau to visit with MPP took every bit of eight hours over non-existent “roads,” obstacle courses that left our bodies bashed and bruised by the time we arrived at our destination. Today that same trip takes 31/2 to 4 hours maximum over roads that are like superhighways by comparison. Mangos from Haiti can be found on the shelves in U.S. supermarkets in season because the improved infrastructure makes it possible for them to arrive to port for export more quickly and largely without being bruised and unmarketable as would have been the case 20 years ago.
However, despite this incremental progress the masses of the Haitian people still live in poverty, a condition that was exacerbated by the horrific earthquake. So, the task of people of African descent remains the same; we must relentlessly work to assist our Haitian sisters and brothers to build a better and brighter future. HSP has chosen to do its part by building relationships and sinking roots in Milot at the foot of the Citadel. Working with the Local Development Committee and the Destination Haiti Foundation, we seek to transform this quaint little town into a Mecca for cultural-historical tourism. We believe that every person of African descent should visit the Citadel at least once in their lifetime.
HSP continues to support some 4,000 children every year by providing school supplies, and with the support of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity we hope to build a Model School to provide a 21st century education to produce a generation of Haitian-centered, servant leaders. We have funded a micro-credit lending program to make small loans to local venders and entrepreneurs, many of whom are women, and a jobs-generating greenhouse reforestation project to grow saplings to be purchased by tourists to plant in the National Park which houses the Citadel and Sans Souci Palace. HSP is also seeking African American entrepreneurs to enter into joint ventures with the Local Development Committee to invest in building restaurants, gift shops, a bungalow hotel and the purchase of busses to capitalize on the increasing number of tourists that will soon be coming from Royal Caribbean’s cruise ships at Labadee to tour the Citadel and Sans Souci Palace.
The commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the Haitian Support Project will afford those who join the October 14-18 Pilgrimage an opportunity for a cultural-historical immersion with the Haitian people and an opportunity to witness the work of HSP via the Model City first hand. It will be a life altering experience. You too will fall in love with the first Black Republic and the Haitian people. You will return as an Ambassador of Hope for Haiti, commissioned and committed to the Pan African Project of partnering with our sisters and brothers to finish the unfinished Haitian Revolution!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.