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Campus groups raise awareness about Haiti

Becky Hogan | Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Hands and Hope for Haiti Project held a lecture Monday which featured Anthropology professor Karen Richman, who spoke to students and faculty about the importance of understanding the Haitian history in order to grasp the complexities of Haiti’s modern culture.

The lecture was the last of three discussions aimed at increasing awareness about Haiti.

Richman, who researches Haitian culture and immigration, said that today Haiti is an island of immigrants.

She said that as a result of Christopher Columbus’ conquests in the West Indies, the natives of the Haitian Island, called Tainos, were eliminated by cruelty and disease as a result of European colonization.

“Everyone who arrived in Haiti was an immigrant because the aboriginal population had been wiped out,” she said.

According to Richman, more than 10 million Africans were forced into slavery and brought over to Haiti in what was the “largest forced immigration of human beings in history.”

When Haitian slaves won their independence from France in 1804, they shocked the world, Richman said.

“The reaction in 1804 in the U.S. … was to lead the so-called ‘civilized world’ in a boycott of this freed state,” she said.

“White supremacy and slavery was embedded in [the United States] from the beginning of the country. There was great fear that our slaves would get the idea to revolt from Haitian slaves.”

As a result of its rise to independence, Richman said that Haiti has remained “unthinkable” to the rest of the world even today.

“Haiti has remained unthinkable in the modern world … you cannot trust anything you read in the news about Haiti … you have to be very skeptical,” Richman said. “Haitians did the unthinkable and have been placed in this box as unthinkable, weird and exotic.”

She said that when slaves in Haiti won their independence from France – the most powerful nation at the time – it was “a huge world event.”

“It was unthinkable that a rag-tag group of slaves revolted and won … and that France with the most powerful navy in the world could not retake its colony,” she said.

Richman explained that racial diversity in Haiti has implications for understanding race in the United States today.

She said that in 1791, slaves outnumber free people 10-to-1, and those who populated the island fell into three groups – 450,000 were slaves, 40,000 were whites and 30,000 were free people who were not white.

Those who control Haiti today are descendants of people who had both white and African ancestry, Richman said.

“Now we have a presidential candidate … who is a descendent from that group. We need a much more nuanced understanding of mixed race if we want to understand Haitian history.”

Richman also said that in rural Haiti, people remained tied to the land even when they emigrate from Haiti.

“Every child grows up believing that they are going to leave to send money back home,” she said. “There are supposedly 8.3 million Haitians, and their numbers in the U.S. are probably well over a million.”

Richman said that there are mixed feelings about immigration in Haiti.

“People [in Haiti] feel very ambivalent about migration. People are resenting them for ever having left. Meanwhile, migrants here [in the U.S.] see the people back home as lazy.”

In Leogane, Haiti, Richman said that most families had at least one of their members abroad – most of them living in southern Florida.

According to Richman, Haitians are part of a “trans-national orbit” because unlike most immigrants which leave their country of origin and never look back, the people of Haiti are “intimately involved in each others lives no matter where they live.”