Cherry TArts asked Temple Historian Harvey Neptune to help us place the earthquake in Haiti within the larger historical context. Trained in the fields of African Diaspora and Latin American history, Neptune’s research and writing focus on the postemancipation Caribbean. He is the author of Caliban and Yankees: Trinidad and the United States Occupation (University of North Carolina Press, 2007)

Here is what Professor Neptune had to say:

Requests to speak about Haiti, I have to admit, are worrisome.  Why?  They almost always come on the heels of disheartening news that make (or, at least, ought to make) scholars painfully aware of the perils of ‘representing’ people who lack the resources to do so themselves.

For the truth is, despite lectures that laud the creation of Haiti in 1804 as the most inspiring and daring democratic movement in the modern Western world, the nation’s subsequent fate bears way more than its fair share of despair.  From the very beginning, this fledgling black republic was punished for its precocious, defiant seizure of freedom from French colonizers.  Over the next two centuries, peace and prosperity have proved precarious if not elusive on the western third of Europeans’ pioneering New World settlement.  Racist international recrimination, destructive civil war, abrupt agro-industrial collapse, arrogant US occupation, violent chauvinist neighbors, cruel Cold War meddling, atrocious dictatorial leadership, relentless ecological ruin —  name your setback, and there’s a good chance that it has visited Haiti,  conspiring to make Haitians’ present often appear like a mockery of its heroic past.  In their eyes, history must surely sometimes seem like an extended rendezvous with defeat.  Once a sugar colony of legendary riches, the soil of this country has become in recent times an infamously iconic patch of global poverty.

Given Haiti’s overwhelming and comprehensive insecurity, “natural disasters” precipitate consequences whose enormity is anything but natural.  The aftermath of such catastrophes, in fact, tend to magnify the perversity of the impoverished situation in which most people live.  Haitians have come to feel this terrible truth mostly in the wake of the merciless hurricanes and unsparing floods.  Two days ago, however, it was not high winds and heavy rains that reminded inhabitants of their historic vulnerability.  It was the unsteady underground.  Earthquakes are not exactly strangers to the islands and continental edges that make up the Caribbean (Jamaica has endured two colossally destructive earthquakes, in 1692 and then in 1907).  Their tolls, however, are likely to pale in comparison with the havoc evident in and around Port au Prince.

Enough with history, though.  Or, better, the time has come now to embrace the responsibility of acknowledging that history.  For those of us who believe that insofar we have a “civilization” worth saving, we owe no small part of it the small black republic founded two centuries ago, it is time to give concrete meaning to that conviction.  To be truthful, there is no silver lining in the dark clouds hovering over Haiti.  Clichés do not apply.  What does exist is a challenge, a monumental one.  In the devastation lies an opportunity for us all to help build a Haiti that honors the large sacrifices this nation has made for liberties we all cherish today.

Posted by–Kim Fischer