Trump’s Fixation on Haiti, and the Abiding Fear of Black Self-Determination


Doreen St. Félix (The New Yorker, 12 January 2018) writes on Trump’s “fixation on Haiti,” which she interprets as an “abiding fear of black self-determination.” Especially poignant is her statement that “[Frederick] Douglass observed in his 1893 speech that the American mistreatment of Haiti demonstrated how ‘our boasted civilization is far behind all other nations.’ His judgment has not yet been disproven.” [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for sharing this article.]

Eight years ago today, at 4:53 p.m., an earthquake hit Haiti, killing an estimated three hundred thousand people and displacing more than a million. An ensuing cholera crisis, for which the United Nations has admitted responsibility but has not given reparations, claimed tens of thousands more lives. When, on Thursday, in a bipartisan meeting with lawmakers about the status of the Dreamers, Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador, and several African nations as “shithole countries,” the timing compounded his insults. The governments of Haiti and Botswana condemned his remarks on Friday morning. Mia Love, the lone Haitian-American G.O.P. congresswoman, also managed a statement of disapproval. “This behavior is unacceptable from the leader of our nation,” Love said. This anger felt familiar. Eight years ago, on the first Sunday after the earthquake, I attended a church vigil in Brooklyn with my mother, who immigrated to the United States from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in the late nineteen-seventies. Telephone lines in Haiti were still down, and so we had no way to know who in our family had survived the disaster. A Haitian priest at the vigil insinuated that the earthquake was an act of God—“a price for our freedom,” I remember him saying. A woman, her head bent under a mantilla, stormed out of her pew. She knew that the priest had forgotten his original idols, and had submitted to an American one.

Haiti declared its independence from France on January 1, 1804. The American government refused to recognize the country until 1862. Thomas Jefferson, in 1799, referred to the leaders of Haiti’s violent overthrow of French colonial order as “cannibals of the terrible republic.” Haitian sovereignty, and the nationalist insurrections it inspired in the global South, was seen as an aberration from the Enlightenment’s racial ideal, a framing that has persisted for two centuries. The peculiar nineteenth-century physician Samuel Adolphus Cartwright, in his description of “drapetomania”—which he defined as “the disease causing Negroes to flee”—used the “insensibility” of Haitian free black society as an example of why America’s enslaved population had to be psychologically broken down. Haiti’s sin was black self-determination, and its people the sinners. A day after the 2010 earthquake, the evangelist Pat Robertson said on his TV show, “The 700 Club,” that the natural catastrophe was the result of Haiti’s “pact to the devil”: “You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But, ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

Considering his incuriosity and general historical illiteracy, one doubts that Trump is consciously aware of this grotesque propaganda. But he has nevertheless absorbed this bigotry whole—has become one with it. According to the New York Times, Trump, at a White House meeting in June, complained about the fifteen thousand visas that had been issued to Haitians in 2017, saying that Haitians “all have aids” and that he wanted to “take them out.” The Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat patiently expounded on the origins of this awful talk, which has its roots in a public-health campaign from the nineteen-eighties that spread the rumor that Haitians had brought the disease to America. But Trump’s remarks yesterday sent me to Frederick Douglass, who, in 1893, gave his “Lecture on Haiti” in Chicago, the city founded by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, himself believed to have been born on the portion of Hispaniola that would later declare itself Haiti. In his talk, Douglass spoke of the ideological hazard that the world’s first free black republic might pose to the U.S., saying, “But a deeper reason for coolness between the countries is this: Haiti is black, and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black or forgiven the Almighty for making her black.”

Vulgarity like Trump’s inevitably incites an equal heat. On Thursday night, a kind of delirium seemed to consume cable-news commentators on CNN, as they, uncensored, repeated the word “shithole,” revelling in its nastiness. I watched with my mother. We were made queasy by the whole affair—not just by Trump’s audacity but by how, every time he does something like this, a game follows of trying to prove the dignity of black and brown people by associating them with accomplishment and richesse. (The hashtag #ImFromAShitholeCountry is an attempt at reclamation that fails to activate, for me, any sensation like pride.) The reactions felt to us somehow both significant and banal: this is the man who launched his campaign by calling Mexican men rapists. What new thing were we learning about him? The strengthening of anti-immigration policies and the stoking of a flamboyantly nationalist vernacular are, we know, victories to him. As my colleague John Cassidy wrote today, it would be “absurd,” by now, to deny that our President is a racist. [. . .]

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