Haitian bicentennial reminds us of ‘North Stars’

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 27, 2004

Commentary by Hank Sanders

Two hundred years later, the image is still powerful. It’s the image of enslaved Haitians, rising up in revolt and seizing their freedom. They are the only enslaved persons in the history of human kind to not just revolt but to forge a revolution. It was this image, brought to life through a modern day vision of Ron Daniels, which drew me on the Cruising into History Voyage. It emphasized the truth of the saying, “Without a vision, the people perish.”

We departed Miami on Saturday evening, Aug. 14 We returned on Saturday morning, Aug. 21. In between we traveled to the Bahamas, The Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Haiti. More importantly, we traveled back into history for more than 200 years and forward into a vision for the future. It was a memorable experience, again teaching us that without a vision, the people perish.

We were Cruising into History because of the vision and work of Ron Daniels, a visionary of African decent. Ron’s vocation is manifested through the presidency of the Center for Constitutional Rights located in the New York area. However, Ron’s avocation and life’s mission is lifting the oppressed, particularly oppressed African people, whether in the Americas, Africa, the Caribbean, Haiti or other locales in the African Diaspora. He is also the moving force in the Haitian Support Project.

Nearly three years ago, Daniels envisioned an entire cruise ship filled with local, national and international leaders of conscience, traveling to Haiti to join in the Bicentennial Celebration of the Haitian Revolution. With others, he worked tirelessly to implement this vision in the knowledge that without a vision, the people perish.

Until the last six months, the full vision seemed within reach. Then a twist of fate repeating itself placed out of reach the fulfillment of the full vision. That twist of fate was the United States Government once again removing a duly elected president of Haiti and installing a government of its choosing. The threat of violence already hanging over Haiti was also a factor. So instead of 2,000 leaders cruising into history, we were a little fewer than 500 but still victorious. The remainder of the cruise ship was filled with the usual varieties of tourists.

Nevertheless, the ship became a conference center for us providing powerful experiences of learning and sharing as event after event broadened our understanding and deepened our commitments. I learned more Haitian History than in all my 61 other years combined.

I knew a lot about Toussaint Lounertrue, some about Jean-Jacques Dessalines and a little about Henri Christople, all three brilliant military leaders who lead the rag tag army of the enslaved to victory. I did not know about the visions of Boukmar, Marie Jeanne and others, which helped Haitians to seize freedom rather than perish.

Boukman started the Haitian Revolution. Each year enslaved Haitians would gather in August for a festival called the Bois Caiman Ceremony. This particular year, on Aug. 14, 1791, Boukman, acting in the spirit of his vision, rose and shouted: “The God who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the ocean waves and rules thunder, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us….

But our God, who is good, orders us to vengeance! He will command our arms and will watch over us. Throw away the image of the God [of those] who thirst for our tears and listen to the voice of freedom that speaks within our heart.”

Boukman’s vision was so powerful that in the following weeks some 200 sugar mills and 1,800 coffee plantations were set on fire and thousands of enslavers were put to death. Boukman was killed 70 days later, but the revolts continued because there was a vision, so the people did not perish. The struggle was not just against the enslavers in Haiti but against France, one of the most powerful nations on earth. Thirteen years later, in 1804, all the enslaved were freed as Haiti was declared a free republic.

The Haitian revolution caused France to sell what became known as the Louisiana Purchase to the U.S.A., doubling the size of this country. In spite of this bounty and the fact that it was a newly independent country itself, the U.S.A. led a successful effort to force Haiti to pay reparations to France. Haiti was saddled with a huge national debt from which it has not yet recovered. I asked, “What if the U. S. had to pay reparations to England after winning its independence?”

Cruising into History provided many poignant moments through various presentations in sessions of the conference: Katherine Dunham, the 95-year-old founder of the world famous Negro Dance Ensemble; Jean Claude Martineau, the Director of Education and Culture for the National Television D’Haiti; local community leaders of Haiti; poet/writer Haki Madhubuti; several in the Women’s Forum; and others. All presented visions so that the people will not perish.

What I knew about the Haitian Revolution made me proud. What I learned made me prouder. Most importantly, I again connected to the need to lift this vision so the people will not perish.

EPILOGUE – … Our visions are our North Stars, helping us to get on course and stay on course.