Category: November 14 (Page 1 of 4)

Thoughts about the Haitian Revolution

The Haitian Revolution, on the same stage as the American revolution and the French revolution, was the first revolution in the Western world to abolish slavery, and this field of study of Haitian Revolution has just come to the public horizon. This Monday in our STS series sponsored by Colby Humanities and Arts, history Professor Jeremy D. Popkin from University of Kentucky presented Haitian Revolution to us from a completely new perspective.


Haitian Revolution is truly remarkable in its own ways. It is the only slavery rebellion that actually succeeded in modern history. Referring back to my sociology class from freshman year, the Bacon rebellion in the US only resulted in worsened treatment of the slaves; therefore the Haitian Revolution was a defining period for racial relationships in the Western world.


Similar to other social movements, the Haitian Revolution was built during a time demanding changes: social stratification, slavery suppressions, regional conflicts, and the divide between nationalism and globalization, at the time mostly taking form of colonization.


Sparked by the influence of Enlightenment ideals and the societal changes in France, the Haitians had no help but their own and successfully carried the revolution through, regenerating a lasting impact that fed into later slavery abolishment revolutions.


However, the Haitian Revolution, despite its lasting changes, was never pretty. Thousands were killed during the rebellion while a massacre was carried out against the remaining white population. Now, in hindsight, many people critiqued the violence element of the revolution while acknowledging what the revolution has accomplished. However, given the circumstances the revolution probably could not have been more successful and less brutal.


In terms of brutality, every revolution almost certainly comes with bloodshed. The Chinese civil war, a revolution that transformed China from capitalism to communism, sacrificed tens of millions of people solely on the march that trekked through half of China. The American Revolution; however, saw much less bloodshed with a death toll of thousands. The English revolution was completed without even beheading a king. What made the difference?


I personally speculate that the brutality is dependent on the previous political infrastructure, and how much non-violent power a citizen has. In China, where the political voice of the common people was not represented, the only way to push for a revolution was through violence and battles. In the US, however, though the divide was so great and forces must be used to reconcile the difference, an ordinary citizen could express their opinion through a vote, rather than through the burrow of a gun. In England, the revolution was hardly a populous one and the transformation of power was completed at the top, when the mass was not mobilized.


However, all the revolutions aforementioned transformed the nation one step closer to democracy. Given different circumstances, the brutality pattern might not follow at all; and in light of Aleppo we must continue to figure out how to fight a social battle instead of a violent one.

Revolution of Revolutions

I think that Professor Jeremy Tompkins lecture was really interesting in that it added to the discussions of other lectures that we have had in the class cycle already. In thinking about the way in which knowledge is reproduced, it is often done from the perspective or lens of the dominant party, often of an oppressing party. We read in our textbooks often of great American victories and humanitarian efforts but very little or very infrequently do we hear of the ways in which we have screwed up as country, we are taught that we have succeeded in our role as a global citizen. I am not criticizing the Unite States so much as I am criticizing the way in which we are taught to think about the terms of international politics and of the central idea of globalization and colonialism. At the core of globalization is the economic them of capitalism, of which there are usually definitive winners and losers. I bring this up to exemplify just how powerful of a mechanism the global economy is not just in its ability to be far reaching and immense, but in its power to alter the production of knowledge.
The talk focused not so much on the Haitian revolution, but on the idea that we were studying the independence of a people that previously we were not taught about. Even if we were, we were taught about the revolution from the perspective of the French, not from the perspective of conquered people who were a previous colony. In putting the perspective of the Haitians on the same plane of power as other nations, we have indeed revolutionized the idea of what history is supposed to be, from the perspective of the few to the perspectives of the many. In thinking about this idea, it is a movement that some are very uncomfortable with. The idea that those who have previously been silenced and exposed to censure would finally have a platform which allowed them a voice on history is something that we currently grapple with and will continue to struggle with so long as there are knowledgeable alternative perspectives that have yet to be heard.
One of the things that I think about when I hear about the revolution of the Haitian Revolution being taught is ideas around race in the United States. Children who grow up being taught that a group is worse than another group based on a history have no choice but to think about their experiences in that lens. Take something like the confederate flag. Children who grow up thinking about what it represents in the South might be taught that it is a proud memorial for those who lost their lives defending their homes and way of life, ignorant of the fact that their way of life oppressed and enslaved an entire group of people. For this reason it is important that those children learn the perspectives of those who are endangered and have been attacked by the representations of their histories.

Revolution in Retrospect: The Haitian Revolution

The most interesting aspect of Mr. Popkin’s lecture to me was that it was being presented as a revolution that the Haitian Revolution was now being studied.  Because for all of my previous studies of history in secondary school the Haitian Revolution was a part of the World History cirriculum.  It was in my textbook, and on the AP test I took.  I took it for granted.  Popkins lecture though was more about how the revolution of the small island nation came to be be viewed in the way it is today, as the major turning point where democracy went from the idealistic approach of the American and French Revolutions to a real form of revolution that aimed at much more human causes.

In Haiti this specifically was the oppressive manner in which it was governed by France.  It was a slave colony.  What the Haitian revolution arose from was the logical notion that a majority of a population having no control over their own lives was not an ideal, and just plain wrong.  It was a reaction against colonialism, the first of it’s kind, that would set the precedent for how the next two centuries of world history would end up unfolding.  This is the consensus amongst modern historians.  What Popkin’s lecture sought to point out is that this was not always the case.  That the way history is thought of is up to the same bias’ as politics or government.

For the Haitian revolution this was a consequence of it being on the opposite side of history as the historians.  For historians have primarily worked in the West in the great empires of old.  To celebrate or acknowledge a revolution that worked to destroy their very notion of how history worked would be a tough pill to swallow.  Yet it was, and the inclusion of the Haitian Revolution in modern curriculum is a sound defeat of this notion.

This is all to say that revolutions are defined as much by those that view them as the people involved in them.  That the Haitian revolution occurred is historically an interesting tale.  That this tale didn’t reach a mainstream western audience until recently is as interesting.  It’s an exploration into how we define the phenomena that have shaped human kind-of which revolution is a marker of.

I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now

Professor Jeremy Popkin spoke about the Haitian Revolution, something I had never heard about before this talk. Throughout my schooling, I have studied the American Revolution at different times and at varying intensities. I have studied the French Revolution, though in less detail. I find history to be intriguing, but I left this talk with a feeling of uncertainty and an intense curiosity. If I had been sheltered throughout my education, being it 12 years since I entered 1st grade, and only now hearing about a successful, important revolution. If I had not heard about the largest slave rebellion in world history, a 12-year revolution in which the underdogs came out on top, then what else have I not been introduced to? I am not well-versed in history, but I left this talk not only feeling like I haven’t learned enough, but also questioning if what I had learned about anything was the whole story.

Deeper than this idea of how history is taught through a Eurocentric and white lens in American schools, Popkin also hit on the idea that the writers of history are the ones who frame it for all generations to come. This is a frightening reality. The thought that any historical fact could have been altered by the person who documented it is hard to grasp. Primary sources have been translated time and time again. Something as simple as a different interpretation could affect how significant an event was in a given context, and also how that event impacts ideologies of today. A large-scale game of telephone can have interesting and potentially devastating effects on the future. Some events are set in stone and well-documented, but any historical account must be analyzed through many different lenses. Even after looking at all of the facts; biographical information about the writer, historical context and cultural context, etc. there is still a great deal of assumptions. Who really knows what mindset of the writer was on that day or what their personal views are? How can one tell how willing the writer was to impose their interpretation on the facts? These are important questions and favor a holistic and detailed approach to studying history. I’m sure many others feel this way, but this is the first time that I’ve really spent time reflecting on my personal history of studying history. I felt a certain passion that I hadn’t before.

So, if Professor Popkin’s exigence in delivering this talk was to inspire listeners to question history and look deeper than what is being spoon-fed, then he succeeded. Any time that I have to analyze a historical event, I will make sure to approach it from unique and varied angles. I will look into sources that counter each other and investigate why they might be in opposition. And just as the Haitian Revolution was not spoon-fed to me, I want to learn more about the history that hasn’t directly impacted my peaceful life in America. I want to learn about the failures, noting where civilizations have failed, but also about the successes and the positive parts of human history. Why not spend time looking at how people worked together and fought for what was right and succeeded? I hope to improve my knowledge of history, I hope to attain a more holistic and unfiltered knowledge.

New Perspectives on the Haitian Revolution

The Haitian Revolution and the Origins of Modern Democracy was presented by Jeremy D. Popkin is the William T. Bryan Chair of History at the University of Kentucky. He focused on the years 1776, 1789, 1804. The events he described are over two hundred years ago yet the term “Haitian Revolution” has been used only in the past few decades.  From the Haitian revolution we learn that how significant the Haitian Revolution is and how we consider revolutions when comparing it to American and French revolutions. What truly stood out to me throughout the lecture was Bryan’s ability to relate the events discussed to today’s classrooms.

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Discrepancies Between Histories

Professor Popkin’s account of the Haitian Revolution was particularly interesting for me because I had recently written a paper in my Anthropology class about Paul Farmer’s conceptualization of systemic violence, specifically using his case study in Haiti. I wrote about the ways the Haitian Revolution has been erased from history by America, influenced by France, and so used as a weapon of systemic violence. This erasure helps progress America’s political reign. When we enact modern embargoes on Haiti, through the means of blocking the Inter-American Development Bank’s promise of a $500-million aid package, the U.S. has more leverage and false innocence when no one talks about the historic embargo we placed upon Haiti after they gained freedom from France. This exploitation of Haiti and the fierce pursuit of trade and tourism systematically builds economies where afflictions can embed. The U.S. has helped create modern Haiti—the same country we pity and send more “aid” and missionaries and voluntourist groups to.

I studied, these implications of the Haitian Revolution. I learned about the reparations from this point of view. I had not heard about Professor Popkin’s side of history in which reparations weren’t for lost slave labor. Regardless, it does not seem fair or just to me that the reparations should occur. It does not seem fair or just to me that France should continue to exploit Haiti. It does not seem fair or just to me that the U.S. should pretend it is so much better than Haiti when they are the main actors in keeping Haiti’s economy crippled and built the systemic barriers that make solid infrastructure or stable health facilities possible in Haiti.

The Haitian Revolution should be in every history textbook. I am fortunate enough that I learned about Toussaint Louverture in AP World History (though I heard a very watered down, U.S.-centric version of the Revolution). In conjunction with the teaching of this vital history, however, we must provide a complex and complete history of our involvement with France to help disparage Haiti. I do not believe an accurate telling of the Haitian Revolution can be told without looking at its effects in the present day.

However, I do wonder about history and memory. What kind of conception do students have of the Haitian Revolution who sat through Professor Popkin’s lecture who had not previously learned about the Revolution? How does it compare to my understanding? What gaps exist for me that do not for them? What truths do I hold about the Revolution that Professor Popkin does not? And vice versa? How might we discern the truths of the events from the blameless bias we each hold? I would love to have been able to sit down with Professor Popkins and Professor Besteman (my Anthroplogy professor) to discuss the discrepancies between their individual understandings of the Haitian Revolution. I would love to hear this discourse, decide between the disagreements, and bask in well-informed arguments. Moreover, what does the distortion of memory do to how we understand the events of the Haitian Revolution? In other words, beyond our own biases, what have the biases of time and past done to distort the truth?

“I am not an activist, but a personal advocate to protect people.”

This Tuesday, I had a chance to have a meal LaToya Ruby Frazier and I attended her lecture on Thursday. She made me rethink about the art as a weapon for social change. Her work is amazing and inspiring. She made a model for us to do creative work for social justice.
LaToya a photographer and video artist who uses visual autobiographies to capture social inequality and historical change in the postindustrial age. Her works included self-portraiture and social narratives. Her themes included social justice, environmental justice, and racial conflicts. Her styles include landscape, black and white photos and video works.
For years, I have been thinking about how art can facilitate social change. First of all, arts might not result in direct change. Many policy tools can help, such as executive orders, bills or regulations. However, arts are merely a media to express opinions and positions. Secondly, how can artwork spreads out the message? How many people can have access to these works? Will they be able to understand and absorb the information from them?
After all, as to modern arts, many artists believe that the point of making art is for art itself. There are no limitations for classic styles such as realism or impressionism. The meaning of artworks is decreasing and simplified.
I think LaToya Ruby Frazier provided me with her version of answers. She firmly believed that art is a weapon, which is a catalyst for social justice. Effective documentation and storytelling will be highly powerful if people feel moved and that is the point of doing it. “Indeed,” she said, “art is not the final answer, but its purposes are to ask questions.” Many people have realized social problems, but they couldn’t formulate the questions. Art is to ask these questions in a more concrete and creative way. After a lot of people could perceive these messages,  bottom-up revolutions could begin.
She also describes the expectation of being an artist. She didn’t think herself as an activist, because she is not in the first front line. The camera and lenses made her voice powerful and because of them, she was able to ask questions in a more powerful way.
I believe her story and experiences are inspiring. From what she did, I understand that people can play different roles in social change. Her works gave me confidence to speak out and express my ideas, and allowed me to believe that arts indeed are great weapons. Therefore, in the near future, arts will lead the social waves.

Hidden Revolutions

Jeremy Popkin’s talk “Haitian Revolution and the Origins of Modern Democracy” discussed the many revolutions Haiti underwent (1776, 1789, and 1804) to establish itself as a democracy. Popkin provided insight into how the Haitian Revolution is often overlooked, forgotten, and/or disregarded. However, as unique as the Haitian Revolution was for becoming the first African-American run democracy in the New World, there may be legitimate reasons for historians to overlook the revolution.

What has the Haitian Revolution resulted in? Was it truly successful? Historians choose to delve into significant historical events. Why? Significant events, such as the American revolution, are more apt to influence subsequent historical occurrences. An event like the Haitian Revolution, although having potential  to empower freed African-Americans and former slaves, did not change the world sphere. Rather, the event passed by. Some people may point to racial injustices, I would point to how the Haitians’ independence didn’t involve high stake powers and was separated from the, at the time, main-stream world.

This is my personal reflection regarding the Haitian Revolution. Although many historians will continually point to racial injustices, I would argue it would be worthwhile for them to at least consider this point of view, and at least bring it up, or counter it, when calling for people to reconsider overlooked historical events.

The Necessity and Identity of Social Revolutions

As we have spent months focusing on the theme of Revolutions, I have thought back to countless history classes detailing the revolutions of developed nations worldwide.  However, as the semester went on, and I as listened to Professor Popkin’s lecture, I recognized the degree to which Western schooling marginalizes and suppresses the narrative of non-white revolutions, such as that which occurred in Haiti.  This post will explore why Western learning ignores the stories of oppressed non-white populations, and why the Haitian revolution has meaning and context today.

“He only listens to the suffering of his own people.”  I remember as a young learner in middle school, my 8th grade American History teacher opened our course with an aphorism that was meant to guide and contextualize our learning for the year.  In his mind, history was indeed a story told by the victorious, that the suffering, the subjugated, and the seriously underdeveloped were, in the annals of history, the voiceless.  My teacher wanted us to acknowledge that suffering was not a path to having your story told in a favorable, or empathetic manner: instead, suffering almost guaranteed your story would not be told at all.  Indeed, in conflicts amongst the greatest political bodies, there are losers, too.  However, the Napoleonic Wars that produced the Vienna Conference, which established balance of power politics as the governing ideology in international relations, did not produce a loser that for decades after would suffer from complete government instability and widespread disillusionment in the population.   The point here is that when the dust settled from the Battle of Ticonderoga, or when the streets were finally filled again after the Battle of Trafalgar, no state was left considering whether the structure of their country would prevail, whether their ideals would find their way to the next generation, and most importantly, whether it was safe enough to engender a next generation. 

Enter here the story of the Haitian Revolution, the largest slave rebellion in world history, and a tale of grassroots collaboration and the fight against colonialism that not only saw the little guy emerge victorious, but managed to be hid under the volumes of textbook readings that would rather discuss the “enlightening” and “democratic” French revolution.  The Haitians fought tooth over nail for 12 years to gain their independence from a country that was at that point, growing disinterested in the daily proceedings of their colony (France), but was nonetheless unwilling to slight their pride by giving the Haitians independence.  In this incredible irony, that France did not care but cared enough to protect pride, we see a major struggle of oppressed groups.  Only when the dominating, first world power grows tired of expending resources does an uprising become an option, and even still, if that option becomes a victory, the story will not be told, for it is a dangerous precedent in the mind of the colonizer to let the colonized win, and even more costly to let them spread the tale of freedom to other subjugated groups.  This is why we see the tale of history ignore the various Latin American revolutions that gave independence to millions and a hero to a country, such as with Simon Bolivar.  Because for those countries that will always be on top, letting the little guy get the notion that somewhere in the distance, after the battlefields and funerals, freedom lays in the form of a revolution, is paramount to passing around “get out of jail free” cards in the international arena.

The Haitian Revolution

Professor Popkin’s main point of emphasis of his lecture on the Haitian Revolution was the lack of knowledge and coverage it gets in American society and education institutions. While this is true and unfortunate, his other focal point was the lack of documentation and accurate information of the Haitian Revolution available. These two restrictions, in my opinion, are not ideal, but are causes of one another and cannot be so harshly blamed on certain people, as Professor Popkin suggested. It is because there was poor documentation that there is limited knowledge of the events, and therefore, rare teachings of the revolution. I am sure that Professor Popkin was to some extent correct in claiming that racial bias played into these effects, but it is certainly not the only and probably not the main reason why we know little about the Haitian revolution.

Hierarchy of politics of power most definitely influences what people are told is important. This includes the country they are in and the relevancy of historical events to that country, political powers across the world depicting which countries’ histories are most important, and what Professor Popkin mentioned, power dynamics among races and demographics. History classes in America focus on American history. I would argue this is the case for most countries too, that their historical knowledge reflects their country’s history. So, in comparison to all the historical events that have been drilled into the minds of Americans, how relevant was the Haitian revolution to those Americans’ lives today and to America today? I would say, not so relevant. Then there is the sheer fact that the United States has far more power and importance in global politics than Haiti, therefore, is it not reasonable for the States’ history to also overpower Haiti’s history?

There is also limited documentation and knowledge available on the exact details of the Haitian Revolution. Basically no one documented the events at the time, and frankly, outsiders also did not seem interested in recording the revolution or even trying to learn about it until recently. Most of the information is derived from oral recounts through generations and generations, and the reality has most likely been integrated with cultural myths. Therefore, there is no way of determining what is true and what is not, so how could we confidently educate a whole population on an historical event that may or may not contain mythologies? It is incredibly unfortunate and sad that the historical understanding of the Haitian Revolution is as unclear as it is and that many people are unaware of the event, but that is the way it is, and at this point, there is not point blaming people and not recognizing why it is that we are uneducated on it. There is no doubt that I am ignorant of numerous historical accounts around the world and there is reason for why I prioritize the history I do know.

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