Yele: A Haitian Requiem

13 01 2010

A terrible thing happened today to a place that I love. It’s a place you should love too, for good reason.

I grew up in Evanston, Ill., and just like everyone else on this planet, I am a product of my surroundings. I was raised in a place where I was fortunate enough to come across all walks of life, especially when I entered high school. At Evanston Township High School I played two sports, and by pure coincidence, both sports but me in direct contact with a number of Haitian and Haitian-Americans, some of whom I still consider good friends.

Though I knew nothing about the country itself during my time at ETHS, I firmly believed it was one of the coolest places in the world. Why? Because those teammates and coaches we some of the coolest people I knew, and at 14, that’s really all it takes  to like something you know nothing about.

When I reached college, I soon forgot about Haiti for the most part. I still had a soft place in my heart for it, but I was removed from my direct ties to it. Until sophomore year.

I picked-up a Latin American history class after I decided to add History as a major, and because I was in the honors program at the time, I had extra work to do.

At the encouragement of Professor Smale (a wonderful teacher. Here was a fearless man, born and raised outside Las Vegas — or maybe Texas — with bright orange hair and a goofy smile, who now spends time between the United States and Colombia — or maybe Bolivia — with his South American wife. His enthusiasm for the material was unrivaled, and it’s teachers like Professor Robert Smale that give our educational system hope) I decided to write a 20ish-page paper on the people of Haiti.

And I fell in love with the history of the place.

For the next four years, if an opportunity to further my knowledge of that unique country presented itself, I took it. My senior capstone was on the Haitian Revolution, one of the most significant events in world history, yet something that centuries of racism have made all but invisible in our historical textbooks.

If you live west of the Mississipi River, be especially thankful for the Haitians. When the Haitian Revolution began at the turn of the 19th century, Napoleon had planned to use Haiti to finance his conquest of Europe. It was a viable belief too, since two-thirds of France’s exports came from Haiti (then called Saint Domingue) at the time.

But the slaves of Haiti rebelled. And they succeeded, something that no slave revolt had ever done before or has ever done since. Napoleon sent endless waves of French soldiers to try and subdue the Africans who dominated the island, led by heroic men such as Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Vincent Ogé, André Rigaud and, of course, Toussaint L’Ouverture.

One of history’s finest quotes comes from L’Ouverture, who, when told he was to be arrested and sent back to France, said, “Your ship cannot hold a man like me.”

With Haiti in turmoil, Napoleon needed to find a way to finance not only his current campaign in Europe, but the war to put Haitians back into bondage. So he sold some land.

The Louisiana Purchase to be exact.

Haitian is directly responsible for the make up of the United States of America.

That’s just one story of how a country we consider so poor and so weak is actually one of the greatest  stories of success in human history. They were the second independent country in the Western Hemisphere, at a time when most its citizens were slaves in any other country. Their defeat of the French substantially weakened Napoleon’s army, which would be defeated by the Russians shortly thereafter. Haitian were known to paddle little more than canoes to places like Florida and Jamaica and stir up abolitionist movements.

These are just a few more stories.

Today, an earthquake ravaged the most populous city in a country we had all but forgotten about. I beg you, after you tell those you love how thankful you are for them, go to and help pick up a nation that has had to pick themselves up time after time after time.

Haiti is worth saving. Its people are descendants of some of humanity’s greatest heroes, responsible for shaping the world you live in today.

Haiti is worth saving.




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