The monument to Haiti on the Washington DC Mall
Being back in the United States has forced me to examine the relationship I had tried to create with the people of Haiti and to look more closely at my country’s influence on those people’s well being. I had to ask myself again and again, how one can be a global citizen, committed to the well being of others, without repeating centuries of colonial and imperialist ways of thinking. I saw my life and everything around me through the lens of Haiti and the lessons she so generously taught me.
Shortly after returning to the United States, I went to Washington DC for a Helping Babies Breathe conference. I got up early one morning to ride a bike around the monuments that stand as testimony to what the country stands for. I had not had the opportunity to ride a bike in some time so having the wheels beneath me on a morning washed clean by a warm, summer rain felt delicious.
I rode comfortably down wide bike lanes, reflecting on the many ways US cities have come alive with pedestrians, housing, art and gardens. Efforts to recycle and collect rainwater were everywhere and there was even a beehive in the White House kitchen garden.
As I approached the mall, memories of tear gas, singing, marching and prayers swept over me. Most of my memories of Washington DC were as a demonstrator and not as a tourist.
As I rode past the statues, fountains and monolyths, I saw them with my Haiti lens. I began to see the monuments within the monuments; the spaces between the marble where the unwritten stories were told. In my imagination, I saw the monument to Haiti; a monument celebrating the second independent republic in the western hemisphere and the first and only successful slave revolution in the world.
I saw Haiti in the other monuments too.
I saw Haiti at the Washington monument; saw the not yet written engraving that said, “The father of the American Revolution, tired, overworked and misguided sent $400,00 in arms and supplies to help defeat the second revolution in the Americas. He, who gave so much for the freedom of some, failed to recognize that until everyone is free, no one is free.”
As I turned past a group of school children, lining up for a photo, I thought of the young Henri Christophe who had been a 14-year old drummer boy at the Battle of Savannah in the Revolutionary War. He along with four hundred and fifty men from Haiti came and fought in our war for independence! That same boy went on to be a revolutionary leader in Haiti’s own bid for independence. I see the invisible statue of that young boy, with his drum, there amongst the monuments. Did our revolutionary leaders accept the young boys offer to fight their war and then deny him help when he too strove for the very same independence?
I ride past the Jefferson Memorial as school children are getting out of the first buses of the day. Jefferson refused to acknowledge Haiti as an independent nation and in 1806 declared an embargo on Haiti; a legacy that was to hurt the Haitien people for many years to come. There can be no doubt that save for the revolutionary efforts of Haiti, France would not have been forced to sell the Louisiana Purchase to the United States and Jefferson’s great legacy would have been told differently. The efforts of the former slaves in Haiti had caused the landmass of the young US republic to double.
Haiti was not recognized as an independent nation, by the United States, until Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Haiti’s recognition became a battle cry of the abolitionists. When the south succeeded, there were, at last, enough votes to recognize the tiny island as an independent nation.
I think about the fourteen year old Henri Christophe leading the long march against colonialism. I think of Jefferson and Washington and how some guidance, friendship and support might have caused Christophe to choose democracy for his new republic instead of declaring himself king. I think of Washington who turned down an offer to be king and how that might have been a model for Haiti had our founding fathers shown a little kindness and believed the words they themselves wrote. If there had been support instead of embargos perhaps the Hatien revolution would have been less violent and easier to achieve. Perhaps today the ease and standards of schools, health care and clean water would have been a given and not an on-going struggle.
In my monument to Haiti, I see Fredrick Douglas, the first ambassador to Haiti and there is a plaque that quotes Douglas.
“Haiti is black and we have not yet forgiven Haiti for being black. After Haiti had shaken off her bondage, and long after her freedom and independence had been recognized by all other civilized nations, we continue to refuse to acknowledge that fact and treated her as outside the sisterhood of nations.”
I peddle into the new monument to Martin Luther King Jr. He is is the only statue but I see many others come to stand with him and it is there that I put my imaginary monument to Haiti. I see Martin Luther King surrounded by a crowd of people who fought to destroy slavery and its legacy. And there in the group that stands beside him is a farmer/ soldier from Haiti; arm in arm with all those who fought marched, prayed and sang their way to freedom.
As I ride away, the sun high in the sky, I think about all the untold stories of the Washington monuments. I think of the shadow of Haiti and other countries like her who were always there providing labor and natural resources that in some way helped build the clean, smooth streets I ride on.
I find myself wanting to apologize for Washington and Jefferson’s tolerance of slavery; for their lack of support for Haiti; for so much. I want to explain to the visitors that it is not quite the way it looks.
But our history and the history of Haiti are always being created each day. There is more empty land around the pools and still time for the monument to our mistakes and vulnerabilities; for the places where we failed and a monument to the places where we keep trying. This is the monument that I love best. The one that allows me to love my country because of all the goodness in the people and for their fight to keep trying to be better while learning from the past.
I love living in a country with a rich history of immigration but I am sad for all the conflicts that caused them to flee or be forced off their own land. My monument is the monument of this dichotomy; the place of discomfort and the place of pride.