Haiti weeps. The world reacts. We try to grasp the numbers: as many as 50,000 dead, a population roughly the size of Iowa's (plus several hundred thousand more) rendered homeless in under an hour. Tragedy on an unimaginable scale.
Behind all this, from time to time, there emerges a fatigue and incomprehension set so deep as almost to be audible: Haiti. Again.
"One thing after another," says a frowning CBS reporter standing in the rubble during a morning newscast. Back in New York, someone asks if he has been able to find any Americans affected by the tragedy, as though that matters more, as though tens of thousands of Americans don't have relatives on that more sandy soil.
"Plagued nation" a woman says in private. Her words, though uttered with compassion, twine in my mind with those of Pat Robertson, who announces in utter seriousness that Haitian freedom, won from France in a massive slave revolt led by Pierre Dominique Toussaint in a 10-year war with slave owners, was made possible in a "pact with the Devil" that would render centuries of trouble.
There will be countless hours of coverage, the emergency relief, the best instincts on display, the preachers and the volunteers, the stupid comments. Behind it, always, that refrain; words that go to Duvalier, the tonton macout, the corruption, the greed, the poverty, and chronic pain. "Plagued nation."
Let's flip that.
Brave nation. Turn off the news feed for a time and stop to think what Haiti helped create. In winning freedom from the French, blacks who shook off slavery on that ground helped inspire freedom fights across the hemisphere.
Many had tried. In the 1700s, when on thousands of plantations the ranks of the enslaved outnumbered owners by huge margins, wave after wave of rebellion swept the Caribbean. In Antigua, Barbados, the Bahamas, Curacao, Cuba, Guadalupe, Jamaica and St. Kitts -- places where today glossy brochures lure tourists for the sun and beaches -- plots hatched in crowded quarters and among field hands during sugar harvests erupted in violent upheavals. All were crushed. Once crushed, plotters were hung, "broken on the wheel," tortured to death, beheaded, burned to death in public, left to starve and succumb to sunstroke in the stocks in public places.
In Haiti, the same punishments existed. The same monstrous inhumanities were put in place in an effort to control humanity. Still the Haitians tried. When they succeeded at last, the whip came down hard elsewhere.
In Charleston, S.C., many years after Toussaint's victory, a black man named Denmark Vesey, who had purchased his freedom with money won from a lottery, tried to end slavery there. The plot was exposed. The leaders were killed. Slaves who alerted their white masters were granted freedom, and allowed to keep a few slaves for themselves. New laws were put in place. Fearful of this powerful talk coming from afar, city fathers ordered free black sailors arriving in the port to stay locked inside the city jail until their ship set sail again. If a captain would not pay the proper fee for that unusual hospitality, a black man who stepped ashore as a freeman one day could be sold into slavery on the next. Bum luck.
In Caribbean islands like Antigua, where slaves were sometimes left to die of thirst in times of drought, slave revolts had come and gone without success. News from Haiti, when it came, was balm to broken souls. It gave them hope. The spirit raced through slave communities. It sometimes worked on the deep, moral consciences of others, too.
In time, freedom came with all its chaos. The journey back to wholeness has proved long and hard. It continues, when we let it.
So as we mourn this cataclysmic shifting of tectonic plates, let's also celebrate something as important. Let's celebrate the courage Haitians showed against the staggering odds of willful, sustained, and profound human injustice. And let's remember that their spirit, so-long-tested, can meet this seismic challenge with the same determination they used against that other, more fleshy and persistent one two centuries ago.
Because in the end, who -- in this country especially -- wants to say a fight for freedom is a "pact with the Devil?" And who, upon sober consideration, would consider a nation such as Haiti "plagued?" Not even Pat Robertson, I would surely think. Instead, it is a nation blessed with rare determination. And they do need that blessing now.
C.S. Manegold, a former reporter with The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, is the author of "Ten Hills Farm: The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North."In 1994, she reported from Haiti during the U.S. military intervention.
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