A terrible earthquake anywhere in the Caribbean would have hit a sympathetic nerve in most Americans. But as the first black republic of the West, born when slaves overthrew white rulers, Haiti holds a unique place in the hearts of many American blacks.
That’s why Toussaint Tabb, a college student named after the Haitian slave-turned-general who led the revolution more than 200 years ago, was jolted when he saw televised images of the devastation in Haiti.
“They looked just like any other black people over here in America,” said Tabb, a history major at North Carolina Central University. “They’re the same people.”
“I would say it hit home harder because it was a predominantly black country, and my name is Toussaint and it’s Haiti.”
Joel Dreyfuss, a native Haitian and editor of the black-oriented Web site TheRoot.com, said American blacks easily “could have ended up in Haiti instead of the U.S., depending on where the slave ship stopped.”
“I think there is a connection,” Dreyfuss continued. “It’s not unreasonable or racist, it’s human nature, just as Jews identify with Israel. … There’s a natural sense of identification with people who look like yourself.”
Much of that connection revolves around racial issues, said Jean-Max Hogarth, a physician born in the United States to Haitian immigrants.
Haiti’s status as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere “has a lot to do with the fact it has been independent since 1804, it had a long period of discrimination, it had to pay reparations” and had corrupt dictators, said Hogarth, whose medical practice donated a five-figure sum to send him and other doctors to Haiti to treat earthquake victims.
“That has created further solidarity with African-Americans,” he said. “We think about Haiti being a nation that gained its own independence through struggle. It gives a sense of pride not only for Haitians, but for African-Americans as well.”
Under French rule, Haiti’s abundant sugar plantations made it perhaps the richest colony of the Caribbean. The slave rebellion began about 1790 and a leader soon emerged: Toussaint L’Overture. After years of fierce fighting, L’Overture was captured by Napoleon’s forces and died in France.
The rebellion lived on, and Napoleon’s mighty forces were defeated. Haiti declared itself a nation on Jan. 1, 1804. For years to come, however, Haiti would pay reparations to France.
The loss of Haiti’s riches and strategic location was part of Napoleon’s decision to sell the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States.
In America, where blacks were still seeking freedom, there was pride and wonder that Haitians had seized their destiny. This left an indelible imprint on African-American culture.
“The negro character at that eventful period, burst upon us in all the splendor of native and original greatness,” read a 1827 edition of “Freedom’s Journal,” according to the new book “African Americans and the Haitian Revolution.”
In 1893, the black abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass said Haiti’s revolution “struck for the freedom of every black man in the world.” After a trip to Haiti in the 1930s, the poet Langston Hughes wrote of “people strong, midnight black … mulatto politicians, warehouses full of champagne, banks full of money.”
Artist Jacob Lawrence painted a 1934 series based on the Haitian revolution. Duke Ellington’s jazz symphony “Black, Brown and Beige,” which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1943, paid homage to the Haitian soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War against the British.
Charles Mingus’ 1954 jazz classic “Haitian Fight Song” appeared years later in a car commercial. In her landmark 1975 play “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” Ntozake Shange named a main character Toussaint.
A Hollywood film about the life of the Haitian general is in the works, directed by Danny Glover and tentatively starring Don Cheadle.
“Throughout history, you have all these remembrances,” said Maurice Jackson, a Georgetown University professor and co-editor of “African Americans and the Haitian Revolution.”
Jackson also cited the challenges Haiti faced as a black nation existing just south of a slaveholding giant such as America refusing for decades to recognize or trade with the new republic.
“There’s no doubt Haiti was treated differently because they were a black nation,” Jackson said.
America occupied Haiti from 1915 until 1934, then supported a series of dictators until 1990. Today, Haitian refugees are treated differently than those from other nations, which many believe is partially due to race.
Rep. Yvette Clarke, a child of Jamaican immigrants whose Brooklyn, N.Y., district includes many Haitians, has visited the island three times. She said many African-Americans are deeply touched by the Haitian earthquake because it’s reminiscent of the destruction Hurricane Katrina brought to New Orleans.
Many blacks in her district have offered their assistance and expertise to the relief effort, and “many find it perplexing that there’s a nation with this much poverty so close to America.”
That includes Toussaint Tabb: “Had not that quake happened, I wonder if anybody would be talking about Haiti.”
The 20-year-old was named Jerrell Toussaint Tabb by his parents. As a youngster he was embarrassed by his middle name, until he learned its origins.
A few years ago, he started using Toussaint as his first name.