My first thoughts when I landed in Haiti were about the ocean. We had seen it from the plane, a great blue body softly folding in and out of itself. Later the same day, when my group arrived at the hotel in Cap-Haitien —across the street from a beach— I realized that the aerial view had been misleading. This sea was not soft, but turbulent and uncontainable. In choppy breaths, waves rose above the sea wall and spilled out over the sidewalk, leaving behind pools of water and mud.
Although the ocean is usually invoked as a metaphor for change, for washing away what we don’t want, I tend to think about it as an archive of memory. In a Caribbean context, the ocean has all at once been a place of survival, terror, and relief; a sustaining force in early indigenous communities, it also, in a literal sense, helped facilitate colonialism and the Atlantic slave trade.
That first day in Cap-Haitien, I thought about Haiti’s own place in this history—what its shores had witnessed. A week before, I had seen Black Panther in theaters, which had explored similar ideas: the stories we tell about countries, and the way the land documents those stories.
The film opens with an animated visual history of Wakanda. Using the (fictional) metal vibranium as the material from which all else rises, we see a vast, shimmering landscape transform into human, mountain, ocean, and slave ship. A narrator, then known only as someone’s “Baba,” explains Wakanda’s origins, its advanced development, and its retreat into secrecy—a shield from the horrors unfolding throughout the rest of the world.
Since its release, Black Panther has been received with an enthusiasm that borders on reverence. Certainly, the film is unprecedented. With a nearly all-Black cast, powerful and complex women characters, and a thrilling plot hinged on themes of pan-Africanism and historical trauma, we haven’t seen anything like it. Perhaps most meaningfully, the film imagines an African nation untouched by slavery or colonialism. It presents us with a possible rendering of “what could have been,” and for that, so many of us in the diaspora feel deeply affirmed.
While in Haiti, I was confronted with similar visions of “what could have been.” After all, at the turn of the 18th century, Haiti was the only Black republic in the world. And if not for the punitive measures wrought against it by colonial nations, perhaps it would have become the economically thriving, culturally rich, and unapologetically Black nation we see and love in Wakanda. Indeed, due to its early independence, its explicit investment in Black leadership, and its wealth at the start of the revolution, Haiti is a compelling example of such possibility.
In 1791, enslaved Black people across the country joined together in a mass uprising to liberate themselves from chattel slavery. And after thirteen years of struggle, they declared Haiti an independent nation. Although the leaders of the revolution —Louverture, Dessalines, Pétion, Boyer— held sometimes distinct priorities, they were consistent in their anti-slavery, anti-colonial stance. After official independence, they sought to unify the island of Hispañola, emancipating enslaved people on the Spanish half (today the Dominican Republic), and ending European control. Haitian leaders also supported anti-colonial movements elsewhere; in 1816, Alexandre Pétion provided vital assistance to Simón Bolívar, who played an essential role in securing independence throughout South America. Importantly, Pétion’s assistance rested on one condition: that Bolivar also seek to abolish slavery. Haiti’s understanding of liberation was in many ways a global one.
The revolution left Western powers trembling. Haiti had been the wealthiest colony in the Americas, supplying France with huge profits from sugarcane production. Slaveholders, in particular, viewed the revolution as a threat to the institution of slavery, worrying that this successful rebellion would inspire others. Moreover, like villain Claw in Black Panther, White leaders were disturbed by the notion of Black people in power. In response to such beliefs, a number of nations —France, England, Spain, the U.S.— refused to recognize Haiti as a sovereign state. This decision meant that Haiti’s Latin American neighbors, at the time controlled by Europe, were also unwilling to acknowledge or collaborate on just terms with the new country.
And then in 1825, in an effort to get better, things got worse. After decades of diplomatic isolation, France and Haiti negotiated a deal: in exchange for official recognition, Haiti would pay France reparations—150 million gold francs, or $20 billion today. Now, many of us are familiar with reparations as a form of amends for slavery, compensating the descendants of slaves for the unpaid, forced labor of their ancestors. In an egregious reversal of that concept, Haiti was to make financial amends with France for freeing itself from slavery, for ending a system of profit predicated on human bondage.
Haiti did not finish repaying the debt until 1947 and doing so flattened its economy. For a century, the government had sent a huge portion of its GDP to France, essentially replicating a colonial relationship. Most Western countries regarded Haiti this way, at once dismissive and exploitative. Although the U.S. regularly traded with Haiti —albeit on uneven terms— it did not recognize the country’s independence until 1862, once Southern slavery began to end with the onset of the Civil War.
Black Panther is in large part driven by a moral question: how could Wakanda have stood by as colonialism and slavery devoured the rest of Africa? Or as, centuries later, Black folks throughout the global diaspora continued to suffer? Perhaps one answer is that through its practice of isolationism, Wakanda sought to avoid a fate like Haiti’s. This answer may not be adequate —in fact, Black Panther’s resolution suggests that it isn’t— but it’s worthwhile to examine how history has treated Black countries that assert their independence. From its first days as a nation, it seems Haiti has been punished by the rest of the world for birthing itself.
Indeed, in the couple of centuries since Haiti began its debt repayment to France, the country has experienced a host of other foreign interventions that have affected its economic and political stability: the U.S. military occupation from 1915 to 1934, a couple of decades under the tyranny of U.S.-backed dictator Francois Duvalier and his son, ethnic purging by the Dominican Republic, and now, a cholera epidemic likely started by UN peacekeepers who arrived after the 2010 earthquake.
I list these points not to diminish the Haitian government’s responsibility for its own people, or to position the country as a passive subject—vulnerable to the whims of other nations. Instead, I want to emphasize that Haiti’s current status is inextricable from the harmful, often racist policies levied against it by Western countries. And that without those policies, things may have been different.
Black Panther brought folks to theaters in millions. Many of us in the Afro-diaspora were drawn by a yawning sense of generational loss, a hunger for a universe in which Black people have lived free. Haiti’s revolutionary imagination rested on a similar premise. In 1804, when leaders of the revolution renamed the newly sovereign republic, formerly known as Saint-Domingue, they chose to honor its origins, its life before slave ships arrived on the shore. Haiti, they decided—after Ayiti, what the Taínos who first lived there had called home.
Haiti is not a country untouched by slavery and colonialism, but one responding to these forces; it’s a country that tried to build beyond these legacies. Maybe we don’t need the purity that Wakanda represents. After all, unlike Wakanda, Haiti recognized the need for Black liberation beyond its own borders; in the years after the revolution, it extended citizenship to any Black person who could make it to the island. Its beauty is not in its distance from the historical traumas that haunt us, but its pursuit of freedom from such horror.
Maya Doig-Acuña is a native Brooklynite and recent graduate of Middlebury College, where she studied race and worked as an editor for Beyond the Green, a writer-activist blog. She has written for Harlem Focus, will be published in a forthcoming issue of Duende Literary Journal, and has received support from Bread Loaf School of English. Maya currently works at Futuro Media Group in Harlem. She is a lover of feelings and television shows that make people cry. She tweets from @mayaisai2.