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It is in the spirit of Haitian civil rights activist Jean Claude Bajeux, that I offer the following analysis of recent comments by University of the West Indies (UWI), Cave Hill Campus Principal, Sir Hilary Beckles1, American journalist/author Naomi Klein2, journalist Isabel Macdonald3, and others who seem content to exclusively blame America, France and other European powers for Haiti's historical difficulties.
Some years ago I wrote a CANA article on Bajeux's call for the naming of Haitians who had perpetrated grievous crimes against their own people. That article followed Bajeux's address to a modest audience gathered at the Barbados Workers Union auditorium. There he lamented that the Haitian masses were being punished - through donor nations’ withholding of badly needed development funding - for a silence that was being imposed by nefarious persons who were operating with impunity in Haitian society.
It is my view that whether intentionally or otherwise, Beckles and others who focus exclusively or predominantly on Americans’, Europeans’ and others’ misunderstanding of, hatred of and cruelty toward Haitians (real as those things often are) are helping to cloak, and in so doing perpetuate, the culture of criminal impunity that has plagued Haiti historically.
I believe the best course for Haitian recovery from the recent devastating earthquake must entail a national stocktaking, soul searching, and acknowledgement by all Haitians, of how they have conspired against their own best interests. A basic premise here is that only when Haitians acknowledge their own weaknesses and shortcomings – not Americans’, Europeans’ or anyone else’s - will they be best positioned to build on the extraordinary strengths they possess.
And I do not write for the benefit of Haitians only, but for Black people everywhere who endure the imposition of a similar internally (nationally) imposed "strategic silencing", by an array of weak and degenerate individuals, groups – even institutions – that reside among them. These sinister, parasitic agents range from petty, bullying thieves and thugs, to self-serving political, religious, academic and other elites (or elitist aspirants) who hijack and make merchandise of the legitimate needs of blacks everywhere.
Jamaicans surely can attest to this phenomenon, as can Barbadians, Trinidadians, St Lucians, Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Cubans and Afro-Americans. The fact is, the sinister silencing I am addressing is not peculiar to black people: fundamentally it is a human problem.
Before I proceed though, a bit of “Poetic Jazztice”:
Please, Sir Hilary
Please, Sir Hilary: Don’t you think we’ve had enough
Of such poisonous, political pedagogy?
Can you not see the toxic content of those thoughts?
Do you not see the violence such thinking has wrought,
On your own?
Or are you purely concerned with legal pronouncements?
Has your high regard for the “popular imagination”,
Somehow been dissolved?
Do you not care what the masses think, any more?
Or are you too exalted in your ideological ivory tower
To have ever really cared at all?
Perhaps, you think the masses’ brains are too small,
To see, the shambles that was made of your legacy
The day the murderous hatred that you court
Was manifested in your own cherished sport.
Or do you think that was “cricket”?
Do you think we can make a game of slaying prophets?
Please, Sir Hilary: can you not see the venomous, viral character
Of a one-sided racist, history?
Would you redeem Africa by making her heroes hollow?
Do you think that the people of Jamaica and Haiti do not know
Of the defects and deficiencies of their own sacred champions?
Do you not think they possess the ability to reason
That those who stood for right, were capable of wrong?
Would you reduce the deep, complex ballad
Chronicling human nature's intricacies,
To a facile, shallow, simplistic, silly song?
Can you not see in Jamaica’s homicidal homily
The sad outcomes of such insincere singing:
The hero-mania hubris in the boys and girls,
Lying lionizing in the men and the women;
Sons and daughters all of Boukman (the “Book Man”),
Burnham, Bishop and Barrow;
Cipriani and Gairy.
Is there in your heroic narratives,
No place for humility?
Beckles, Klein and others are calling for reparations for Haitians. The practicality of such a call is debatable. It may well be that the most Haitians can hope for is a programme of debt cancellation, such as was recently announced.
That though is a secondary matter. The fundamental issue, is the silence-secured inequality and injustice that exists among Haitians, and especially the inequality between Haitian elites and the masses of Haitians.
The pervasive, persistent reality of this inequality virtually guarantees that any benefit of a reparations package or debt cancellation will not reach many of the neediest Haitians.
This inequality – that secures the silence of most needy Haitians’ voice – is historically entrenched among Haitians. It in fact dates back to the earliest period of the Haitian revolution.
In his landmark account of that revolution, The Black Jacobins, the prominent Caribbean thinker C. L. R. James discloses an extraordinary occurrence that somehow seems to miss the attention of Beckles – a historian by training – and other Haiti commentators. I refer to the first deal that Toussaint L'Overture and other military elites sought to make with the French government.
This is not the reparation deal of1825, proposed by the French as the price for Haiti’s independence. That French-proposed deal is the one highlighted in Beckles, Klein’s and others’ articles and arguments. I am referring to a Haitian-proposed deal, about which, sadly, Beckles et al, are silent.
This deal, scripted in late November or early December 1791 by L’Overture for the revolutionary leaders Jean Francios and Bissau - under whom L’Overture was then serving - proposed that these leaders would abandon the yet young (four month old) slave rebellion, in exchange for guarantees of their own freedom, and that of a few hundred other slaves. This select group of ex-slaves, it was proposed, would in turn govern Haiti on behalf of the duly restored French colonial master. Essentially, they proposed selling the Haitian masses back into slavery, so that they, a privileged military elite, could remain free!
The French rejected this offer, mistakenly assuming that with time they could crush the then floundering rebellion.
According to James, the deal was offered at a time when the revolutionaries felt that the devastation they had wrought on Haiti’s landscape and infrastructure during the first few months of their struggle had brought them to a dead end. Their numbers being depleted by famine, they offered this peace deal as a way of redeeming a seemingly hopeless situation.
Notwithstanding this, and while explicit in his general praise of Toussaint and other slave revolutionary leaders, James is also stark in his denouncement of this proposed deal. For him it clearly constitutes a betrayal of the Haitian masses by their leaders.
He wrote: "Political treachery is not a monopoly of the white race, and this abominable betrayal so soon after the insurrections shows that political leadership is a matter of programme, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered."
He also declared “In the long and cruel list of leaders betraying brave but ignorant masses this stands high".
The question exercising my mind is: How could Professor Beckles know of this betrayal (and I feel certain that he does) and not take full account of it when he assesses Haiti's long-running challenges? He and Klein do not even cite it – as one thinks they might – as a forerunner to the later reparations concession for independence.
The fact is though, this kind of betrayal is integral to the historic narrative of Haitian society. In fact, I could go further, and say that it is integral to the narrative of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and continues to exert a significant influence on the evolution of Caribbean political and wider societal dynamics, down to the present day.
Like the many Africans “sold down the river” into slavery, Caribbean people are not strangers to such political machinations. We are not unfamiliar with this "racket".
That is precisely what the nefarious, ostensibly "afrocentric" Guyanese leader Forbes Burnham called this deadly game. He was at the time speaking to a young Reverend Vivian Comissiong. "You're in one racket, and I'm in another." Comissiong claims he said, when they first met.
And Burnham, it is widely acknowledged, was a profoundly perverse racketeer. Many still hold him responsible for the slaying and silencing of the prophetic voice of Guyanese Pan Africanist historian Walter Rodney.
He is also believed to have had significant ties to the murderous, megalomaniac American preacher Jim Jones. A number of sources suggest that Burnham, his wife Viola and/or others close to them, facilitated the establishment of Jones' socialist-styled Peoples Temple - the notorious Jonestown - in Guyana, for a price. (Incidentally, Jones is also alleged to have considered Barbados and Trinidad as possible sites for his revolutionary, “apostolic socialism” project. I would be interested to learn if the Reverend Holmes Williams of Barbados’ “Peoples Cathedral” knows anything about that.)
One inquiry following the mass suicide and murder at Jonestown in November 1978 even sought to make Burnham take direct responsibility for that controlled carnage of men, women and children.
That is no doubt a simplification of Burnham and his government’s contribution to the tragedy. However, examination of the Burnham-Jones relationship can lead to a fruitful exploration of the true complexity of the hallucinogenic heroic instinct: a complexity that Beckles’ and other’s one-sided, paranoia prone analysis does not even begin to engage with.
How do those who set out with seemingly good, altruistic intentions manage to make such a mess of things? How do persons inspired by a vision of the beauty that could be, come to embody a terror to humanity?
Were Haitians robbed, as Beckles, Klein and others insist, by an imperial American government, of a benevolent blessing in the person of Aristide? Or were they spared his peculiar “priestly” brand of tyranny?
In 2002 James Morrel, head of the Haiti Democracy Project, and others contended that the former-preacher-turned-President’s original purity of purpose had been polluted by the experience of political power. They represented him as a manipulator of public opinion, pay-rolling self serving PR campaigns to court the support of Black US power-brokers – including John Conyers and Charles Rangel of the Congressional Black Caucus (http://haitipolicy.org/content/265.htm). Morell claimed that one lobbyist, Ron Dellums, a former Black Caucus member was paid $210, 000 by Aristide’s administration – a significant sum, by any standards, for one of the world’s poorest nations to pay for a bit of PR.
It was all well and good for Aristide to make valiant calls for France to pay reparations to Haiti, but I can’t recall him stipulating what steps would be taken to ensure that any money repaid would reach the impoverished masses, and not end up solely or primarily in the bank accounts of political elites and other PR types loyal to him.
Surely the example of Robert Mugabe’s selective “reparations” (land redistribution) project is not lost on Beckles and others who clamour for reparations.
Enough of Zimbabwe though. If Beckles needs any evidence of how elitist Afrocentrics’ reparations bid could become confused with their personal interests, there is evidence enough among Barbadians – especially some of those who accompanied him to the 2001 United Nations antiracism conference in Durban South Africa.
If for no other reason, I remain ambivalent on the question of reparations because of the silence imposing rapacity of Barbadian political, academic and other elites that I witnessed personally, around the time of that Conference. One elitist aspirant, a known psychiatric sufferer, graciously employed in then Prime Minister Owen Arthur’s office, even had the nerve to table a motion banning any mention of Africans’ involvement as traders in the slave trade.
That individual also went to extraordinary lengths to maximise his own potential reparations package – presumably, compliments the British government that administered the Barbadian slave economy – by claiming that he had done genealogical research which proved conclusively that he had descended from royal African ancestors, and was therefore entitled to “exemplary damages” (royal rations) for the indignities he and his fore-parents had suffered.
Perhaps seeing the improbability of that argument and the broader reparations bid succeeding, he later proposed bringing legal action against the Barbados government for leading himself - and others who had previously emigrated to England - to believe that it was a land of opportunity and/or that they would be welcome there.
I have often wondered what pact – what part even – a person of Beckles’, Klein’s, Macdonald’s and similar intelligence could have with such desperate persons. It is very tempting to think that such associations are purely exploitative, a matter of political strategy or expedience on the part of one party or the other - usually the most seemingly intelligent.
However, we should not assume that the questionable motives that inspire such alliances are entirely one-sided; there are often mutual4. And intelligence, does not always eqate with common sense, does it.
Such though, is the nature of politics. Remember James’ words: “political leadership is a matter of programme, strategy and tactics, and not the colour of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered.”
James, a Marxist, had a predominantly secular outlook on politics. He therefore probably allowed little or no place in his theory of political leadership for what a “semi-theist” like I might call providence. But I digress.
Some years ago, delivering a talk on afrocentric education, at a retreat for Pan Africanists in Barbados, I suggested to fellow members of the local movement that we give more attention to the quality of the interpersonal relationships that existed among us. I had been concerned for some time that interaction among us lacked authenticity – that there were many unresolved issues, giving rise to misunderstanding, suspicion and distrust.
I felt, and still feel, that this state of affairs exists because Pan Africanists are always in danger of becoming so preoccupied with the “big picture”, the broad sweep of afrocentric history, and its attendant generalizations and stereotypes about Africans and Europeans, that we miss vital details that should inform our day-to-day, domestic and social interactions and existence.
We are easily seduced, as it were, into a “strong man” hero-focused hysteria; we live for the “big occasion” and are driven to delusion (and possible distraction, ultimately) as we become immersed in a self-deluding “cult of personality”; we become immersed in our own myths.
In these circumstances, our silence on or failure to engage with our own and other Pan Africanists’ limitations, may well be pathological – a matter of unconscious, self-alienating denial. It follows naturally that our outspoken criticism of Americans, Europeans and others designated villains (and thus contrasting with, and in turn highlighting our heroism) may be of an equally mentally afflicted or diseased character.
I once shared a related perspective with Beckles’ colleague, Dr. Eudene Barriteau of the Center for Gender Studies at UWI. I told her the extraordinary true story of an American (or Canadian) Pentecostal pioneer who broke down in tears as he was being honoured for establishing Pentecostalism in the Caribbean.
The elderly cleric cautioned the younger pastors and evangelists not to be so consumed by a desire to “save the world” that they fail in the critical duty of minding their own homes. “Today” he said, tears streaming down his face, “I do not know where my own son is!”
In his foreword to Dr Anne C Bailey’s book African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade (2007), Professor Beckles quotes the following observation by the Jewish Holocaust survivor, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel: "The executioner always kills twice - the second time with silence."
Beckles, it may be said, has himself been a victim, or if one considers that his wounds are self-inflicted, a dubious “beneficiary” of the selective, strategic silence that is my primary concern here.
To the best of my knowledge, the grave scandal that hit this most prominent of Barbadian educator’s home a few years ago – the deeply disturbing revelations of his son’s involvement in the slaying of Jamaican "prophet" Khalil Campbell, has yet to be properly ventilated and seriously interrogated and analyzed by any of Barbados’ supposedly independent, democratic-discussion-advancing institutions – media houses, political parties, unions, PTAs, churches or similar organizations.
I sympathize with those who would want to spare this leading social activist avoidable embarrassment, but I feel that his station in Barbadian society as our foremost educator arguably, mandates some degree of accountability to the public for his parental stewardship, in this instance.
It is not as though the questioning of Beckles’ parental judgement is without precedent. This strident afrocentric’s profile as a parent first came under scrutiny several years ago, when it emerged that he had sent his son to a whites-dominated private school in Barbados. The reason he allegedly offered for selecting the school in question for his infant son became the focus of that scandal.
I will not go into details here, but it should suffice to say that when former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, some years later supplied a comparative “elite school” scandal, the rationale he offered for doing so was more consistent with the reasoning one might expect from an average responsible parent.
Beckles’ dilemma, like that of so many other visionary Pan Africanists, fundamentalist Pentecostal Christians, and other ideologues consumed by a “world mission” of one kind or another (and I include blissfully confused semi-theists like myself, and ardently fundamentalist, evangelical atheists like Richard Dawkins in this group), is that he seems to view the average or ordinary with abhorrence.
I believe it was Aristide’s misfortune, in 2001, to fall under the influence of such fantasists, following the Durban Conference. Klein notes that he was pushed or “jumped” from power shortly after initiating a reparations bid on his people’s behalf, but I am not sure that she saw the connection.
Is it likely though, that champions of puerile positions on reparations for Haitians would ever admit to misleading the Haitian President, issuing him ideological cheques he could not possibly cash?
I do not think so. To do so would be to admit fallibility, and these heroes are seem to think they are infallible.
In closing, I offer two examples of Pan Africanists who, like myself, affirm our fallibility, and the consequent value of critical introspection.
The first is the late Ricky Parris. At one of the preparatory meetings of the main NGO committee that met to plan Barbados’ contribution to the 2001 UN Conference mentioned above, Parris, then President of the Pan African Movement of Barbados, urged the need for Pan Africanists to be self-critical. Sadly, it too often seems that his words fell on deaf ears.
The other more or less moderate Pan Africanist is afrocentric educator Dr. Viola Davis. In her book, The Creative Use of Schizophrenia in Caribbean Writing, published by Intelek International to mark the conference, Davis repeatedly impresses on Caribbean people, the need to confront our own darkness and demons. Her study of the mystic Guyanese novelist Wilson Harris, is particularly instructive in this regard.
There are others of course, who could bring balance not only to the analysis of Haiti’s future prospects, but to discussions of the ravages of HIV AIDS in the Caribbean, the alarming spectre of escalating crime and violence, the decline of the deeply symbolic West Indies cricket and an array of other issues confronting this region.
In the spirit of Bajuex, I pray that their voices will not be silenced.
1. Sir Hilary Beckles, “The hate and the quake”, Nation newspaper, January 17, 2010; http://www.nationnews.com/story/guest-column-hilary-beckles-copy-for-web .
2. Naomi Klein, “Haiti: A creditor Not a Debtor”, The Nation magazine, February 11, 2010; http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100301/klein.
3. Isabel Macdonald, ”'New Haiti,' Same Corporate Interests”, The Nation magazine, January 29, 2010; http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100215/macdonald.
4. Barbadian political scientist Hilborne Watson, Professor of International Relations at of Bucknell University in the United States has commented on “selective silencing” among Afro-Barbadians, linking it to their ambivalent and often contradictory economic issues. Delivering Barbados' third annual National Heroes Day Lecture Watson implicated the majority of Barbados' working-class citizens, along with its black political directorate and intelligentsia (including the late "Father of Independence" Errol Barrow) and British-based civil society organizations in a self-contradictory conspiracy of silence that has maintained Barbados' elitist class structure and confounded the democratic aspirations of the majority of its citizens.
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