The sons and daughters of the iconic and troubled island nation of Haiti, do in their own ways, seek ways to shine light upon all the 216-year-old country has to offer, and this does not come easily seeing that Haiti’s negatives these days are painfully weighty.
When it achieved independence in 1804, the formerly known Saint-Domingue became the first nation with a majority Black populace to declare itself free from European colonial rule. In the middle of the 20th century, Africans would take inspiration from the heroism of the Haitian people and independence leader, General Toussaint Louverture.
But the victory of Haiti’s Black people over those who used to be their owners and taskmasters would taste nothing short of the bitterest triumph. Face2Face Africa last year explained in a well-received piece, how Haiti was doomed from birth for daring to be free.
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The French, unremorseful of the depravity of slavery and colonization, insisted that the new nation paid what would today qualify as more than $20 billion as compensation for independence. Slave and plantation-owning white families were not pleased that they could no more own their properties and they wanted to be paid for damages.
It would take Haiti 122 years to settle this burdensome amount. This morally absurd debt crippled Haiti before it could walk and the pains of scarcity, political instability and natural disasters have thrown a sea-full of salt into two centuries of injury.
Now, Haitians like Jimmy Jean-Louis are looking forward and trying to pull along others with them. The actor sat down with Face2Face Africa to discuss his journey and experience as a Black actor in Hollywood and touched on what he was trying to do to help in his native country.
“I always go back to the roots. As I have said, I have always gone back…I at least go back once or twice of five times a year,” Jean-Louis.
“After the earthquake, you have to understand that I was on a TV show called Heroes and I played a character called ‘The Haitian’. And back then in 2006, Heroes was the biggest show in the world. So being The Haitian, that gave me visibility to represent Haiti. So after the earthquake, my phone just started to ring. Every single news outlet in the world…because for them, the only reference [sic] they had at the time was Wyclef and The Haitian on Heroes,” he added.
Jean-Louis explained that the position of representation into which he was thrust came with responsibilities owed to the Haitian people. Fulfilling his responsibilities to the Haitian people – to collaborate “to get out of the situation in which we are” – is incumbent on drawing strength and pride from Haiti’s unique history.
“Yes, Haiti is in a hole right now but I always want to say and want to reaffirm that Haiti was the first Black republic to fight and win and get their independence back in 1804. Whatever I say about Haiti, that sentence has to come first so people understand what Haiti stands for first,” the Citation actor explained.
Jean-Louis went on to draw comparisons between Haiti’s significance in the 19th century or at least, the significance of the Haitian people successfully fighting their colonizers, and that of America’s influence today in global politics. Clearly, the actor sought to identify how the people’s revolt in Haiti forced changes in global politics
“If it wasn’t for Haiti, part of America would still be French. The purchase of Louisiana was made because of the Haitian revolution,” Jean-Louis pointed out.
It is hard to see much wrong with Jean-Louis’ analyses of this piece of history in the western hemisphere. France did own the lands that now form, in whole and in parts, 15 individual American states and two Canadian provinces, until 1803. Concerned about the revolution in Saint-Domingue, Napoleon Bonaparte decided the French had to let go of possessions that they could not keep along with fighting the British in Europe and in the Americas.
There was fear that the rebellion in Haiti could inspire free Black people in the France-administered Louisiana to seek higher degrees of self-determination. The French understood that freedom is infectious and would rather take $15 million, or what has been put at $2.6 billion in today’s costs, to relinquish the rights to the lands to the American government.
America was changed forever with the westward expansion of the 19th century.
These days, Jean-Louis is proud of what he has been doing for his country over the last decade and a half through his non-profit Hollywood Unites For Haiti and he hopes to keep it going.