JCB Director Ted Widmer: “How Haiti Saved America”

If you’re looking for a snapshot of Haitian history in light of the recent tragedy, nobody tells it better than the John Carter Brown Library’s own Ted Widmer, in the Boston Globe. It’s a long one for sure, but Widmer, an expert in Haitian history who has studied in the region, doesn’t waste anyone’s time with his analysis of this captivating story of Haiti’s role in American independence.

“It is easy to see why we have generally passed over this history. It is obscure, buried in old newspapers and articles, many written in French. It describes a lost colony that seems to have slid off the face of the earth. But Haiti survived Saint Domingue, and now it has survived what may be the greatest crisis in its history.

“But the story does not end there. In fact, it doesn’t end anywhere, because Haitians and Americans will always bump into each other in the small hemispheric space that we occupy together. Many more arguments could be cited to convey how entangled are the roots of our liberty trees. How many Americans live in the great heartland that stretches from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains? They owe a debt not only to Thomas Jefferson, Louisiana’s purchaser, but to Toussaint Louverture and the Haitians who fought so tenaciously for their freedom that Napoleon was forced to cash out of America. (He exclaimed, on hearing of the death of his best general, “damn sugar, damn coffee, damn colonies!”) How many Americans have been moved by the prints of John James Audubon, or the writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, or the many other descendants of Haitian families, white and black, who came here in the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution? How many of us have admired the iron balustrades of New Orleans and Charleston, wondering where the artisans came from who designed them?

“Thousands of Americans have rushed to Haiti’s hospitals and shelters and with their expertise and aid. We have given deeply — $700 million and counting. But as the spring rains come, perhaps we can pause to consider this shared history, and do more by a sister republic that has dogged our steps and weighed on our consciences since the dawn of the American experiment. It has often been said that freedom is not free. Should we not show how highly we value it, by repaying a small fragment of the debt we owe to the descendants of a people whose blood, sweat, and tears helped us to become the United States of America?”

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