A report by Nicholas Hamburger for The Louisiana Weekly.
On Saturday, December 14, the Haitian historian Bayyinah Bello signed copies of her newest book, “Sheroes of the Haitian Revolution,” at Rendez Vous Creole Restaurant in Algiers, marking the final stop on a tour that brought Bello and her publisher, Frantz Derenoncourt, to thirteen cities.
Based in Port-au-Prince, Bello is a professor of history at the State University of Haiti and the founding director of the Fondasyon Félicité, an organization that promotes historical education as a means of improving the lives of Haitians. The institution takes its name from the country’s first empress and the wife of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Félicité, a figure to whom Bello has returned throughout her career, including in her latest book.
In addition to the empress, “Sheroes of the Haitian Revolution” profiles nine women who contributed to the revolt that led to the founding of Haiti, but whose involvement has typically been omitted from historical accounts. “That’s why we have coined the word ‘ourstory,’” Bello said by phone from Port-au-Prince, punning on the word “history.” “We know we’re going to learn about all the different elements which constitute the population.”
Bello began spotlighting women in Haitian history nearly thirty years ago, when she published an illustrated calendar in which a different female Haitian represented each month. While several of these historical figures reappear in “Sheroes of the Haitian Revolution,” Bello stresses that she celebrates such women in order to illuminate the principles by which they lived, such as personal independence, or a devotion to Haiti in the face of hardship. In doing so, Bello implied, she hopes to call attention to the way heroism is present in the country today.
“The average Haitian woman is a shero,” Bello said, conflating the pronoun “she” with “hero.” “The average Haitian woman who has chosen to live in Haiti no matter what, who walks hours for whatever she has to do, does not have a car, climbs up and down the mountains no matter her age – I think these women are daily sheroes in Haiti’s life.”
Featuring illustrations by artist Kervin Andre, “Sheroes of the Haitian Revolution” is the product of a tripartite collaboration between Bello, Andre, and Derenoncourt, the last of whom started Thorobred Books, the publishing company that released the volume. Founded in late 2014, Thorobred has previously published three books on Haitian history, all of which were authored in a style accessible to children by Derenoncourt himself.
“The desire,” Derenoncourt said about the books appealing to children, “comes from personal experience of not knowing these stories as a youth. I felt it would have helped me out to know a little bit more about my ancestors, where I came from, who I was, and what type of people sacrificed for my freedom.”
Raised in Brooklyn by a mother from Carrefour and a father from Port-au-Prince, Derenoncourt had a complicated relationship to his Haitian heritage.
“Everything I knew about Haiti was based off the national media, and all of it was negative. I tried to disassociate myself as much as possible as an impressionable youth,” he said, noting that during the height of the AIDS epidemic, the stigmatization of Haiti only worsened.
“This rumor spread everywhere, and that stigma was attached to you because of Haitian descent,” Derenoncourt continued. “Me having a very French-Haitian name, no matter how I tried to disguise myself or separate myself from Derenoncourt Jr., it was kind of stamped, like a scarlet letter. You can’t really run from it, no matter how hard you try. But I tried.”
Derenoncourt, dissuaded from engaging with his Haitian roots, disinterested in learning Kreyol, instead embraced Jamaican and African-American culture, gravitating towards hip-hop artists such as Special Ed, who, like Derenoncourt, hailed from the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn. Decades later, the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray prompted Derenoncourt, who works as a real estate investor, to become increasingly concerned with social issues, which, in turn, led him to begin researching Haitian history.
“A part of what I’m doing now,” Derenoncourt said regarding his publishing company, “is a way of overcompensating, to make sure that kids growing up in my type of situation, they can take a look at these books and get a sense of pride.”
To this end, Derenoncourt observed that the most notable shift in the character of Haitian-American communities today is their eagerness to associate with Haiti. “Nowadays, you see people rocking Haitian flags.”
This proud identification with Haiti was evident at Rendez Vous Creole Restaurant on Saturday night. Bartheleme and Yolande Jolly, both of whom come from Haiti but now live in Kenner, opened Rendez Vous this past summer in the hopes of providing a hub for the city’s Haitian community, an establishment that would span in culture and memory from New Orleans to Haiti.
Upon entering the restaurant, patrons encounter a mural of the Crescent City Connection, in which the artist has reimagined the geographies that the structure links. In the painting, the bridge doesn’t traverse the Mississippi River and tie the East Bank to the West Bank of New Orleans; rather, it extends across the Gulf of Mexico, running from the Superdome back to Haiti. To Bello, this attachment to the island does not come as a surprise.
“No matter where I go, Haiti is a very special land,” she said. “You may travel but Haiti stays in you. I often view it as the umbilical cord is never cut off.”