This is a guest post by María Peña, a public relations strategist in the Library’s Office of Communications.
I recently interviewed Taylor Healey-Brooks, the Librarian-in-Residence in the Latin American, Caribbean and European Division. She joined us from the University of Washington. She’s used a chunk of her 10-month stint to co-author a remarkable resource guide that explores Haiti’s contributions to liberation movements in the U.S. and across Latin America. “Freedom in the Black Diaspora: A Resource Guide for Ayiti Reimagined” is a terrific site for researchers, students, teachers and readers in general. (“Ayiti” is the Creole spelling of Haiti.)
The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did this project get started?
I saw a lot of news and social media focused on Haiti. Most of the coverage was negative. As a Black woman who had some research expertise in African American Studies, I knew a little about Haiti, but not enough to contextualize the stories I saw in the news. There was a lot of online talk among scholars about the need to contextualize Haiti properly and understand its contributions in the Americas. I wanted to address that issue and create resources to explore Black experiences and the connections between African Americans and the Caribbean.
Scholars saw the need for new narratives…
Scholars wanted their voices amplified in talking about these issues. I reached out to a handful of them to talk about Haiti’s representation in the media, the longstanding relationship between African Americans and Haitians, and what the Library can do to preserve and emphasize these topics in our collections and services.
What sorts of items are in the guide?
In the video “Ayiti Reimagined,” Jean Eddy Saint Paul, a Haitian-American sociologist, says that the U.S. would not be what it is today without Haiti. The Louisiana Purchase evolved out of the success of the Haitian Revolution and its impact on the French economy. The connection between the fight for liberation in Haiti and this country’s territorial expansion is a crucial history reference.
How significant was the Haitian Revolution in the Americas?
Haiti became a beacon for people in the Americas, specifically those of African descent, as a nation that fought against slavery and for equality. The Haitian Revolution inspired uprisings and established Black-governed cities and towns in Brazil, Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico and the U.S. among others.
People often think about Haitians immigrating to the U.S., but there was a time when Black Americans immigrated to Haiti. For many African Americans, in the early 19th century, Haiti represented Black freedom and an opportunity to thrive in a nation that embraced equality.
What were relations like between African Americans and Haitians?
I believe that there was always a sense of collaboration and solidarity, but there were tensions, too. Brandon R. Byrd details these connections and tensions in his book, The Black Republic: African Americans and the Fate of Haiti, which we have at the Library. He also speaks in the video Ayiti Reimagined.
Was there agreement among Black leaders about Haiti?
You had people like Frederick Douglass, a former runaway slave and abolitionist leader, who became an American ambassador to Haiti from 1889 to 1891. He saw Haitians as a positive force for all Black people. Others criticized Haiti every time it fell short of expectations for a perfect society.
Do Black Americans have common bonds with Afro-Caribbeans?
I think there are connections, especially when you look at the history. Haitians were so welcoming to African American immigrants in the early 19th century, both groups shared a common thread of fighting for freedom, equality, and respect. But, similar to what Black Latinos experience, Haitians deal with what some scholars describe as a “triple consciousness” ̶ being Black, American and Caribbean — I think that leads to different means for showing up in the world and representing one’s community. People have to code switch in order to express themselves in response to their immediate audience.
The influence of West Africa on Haitian and African American culture is notable in food and music … and you can see it in the U.S. The connections are present. What’s missing is the ability to reflect on them.
What do you want people to get from this resource guide?
More about connections between the United States and Haiti. Many scholars and writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes and other figures in the Harlem Renaissance were inspired by Haiti and Haitians, and it is seen in their work. Hughes had a well-known friendship with Haitian poet Jacques Roumain, and this is one example of the long-standing connections between African Americans and Haitians.
I would also want people to think about the power of proximity as it relates to the diaspora, all those connections in the Americas and communications between enslaved people during that time period. I’d like people to know that Freedom Journal, the first Black-owned newspaper published in the United States, was co-edited by John B. Russwurm, a Jamaican immigrant who promoted migration to Haiti and Liberia.
What’s next for the resource guide?
It’s a centralized source of information that includes books, manuscripts, and other formats. The first part is focused on the relationship between Haitians and African Americans, Haitian history, and culture. I hope the guide will support the development of a story map, podcast, and/or video interview series on the Black diaspora.
If you don’t approach history from a global perspective, there are lots of things you won’t learn.
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