Black History Month Series: Week 1

Hey folks! It’s Black History Month! The time of the year where everyone tries to learn our history before they forget about us the rest of the year. 🙂

In the past year or so, I’ve been learning more about my Haitian roots and black history across the diaspora. Learning about the Haitian revolution was so impactful for me as I saw the powerful legacy that I come from. What I learned wasn’t taught in schools. Why would it be? As Assata Shakur says, “nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free.” And that’s what I’ve been trying to do for myself. 

So for Black History Month, I’ve been highlighting some dope black folks across the diaspora that I’ve gotten the chance to learn about on my social media. The folks I’ll be highlighting are not just related to the civil rights movement in America because black/Africana history is rich, diverse, and goes way beyond the 1960s. And we should be learning about black history everyday, not just in February.

This week I highlighted a few dope ass revolutionaries that I’ll share below. The folks that are highlighted are Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, François Mackandal, and Sanité Bélair. Come back next week to see who I’ve highlighted for week 2! If you can’t wait for the full list at the end of the week, check out my IG page @forever_sam_i_am to see who I highlight during the week.

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François Mackandal (died in 1758)

François Mackandal was a Haitian revolutionary, inspiring many leaders that came after him. His actions were considered to be the precursor to the 1791 beginning of the Haitian revolution. He was an enslaved African runaway and rebel leader in Ayiti (Haiti) during the early to mid 18th century. François Mackandal was known as a doctor, an herbalist, a gifted orator, or the “Black Messiah” to some. He prophesied that Ayiti (Haiti) would soon be ruled by black people themselves and that the French would be defeated – a vision that was unprecedented and believed by some to be unrealistic.

Mackandal was an extraordinary herbalist and had extensive knowledge of plants and Ayiti’s (Haiti’s) ecology. He was able to teach a network of Maroons (formerly enslaved folks) and enslaved folks how to poison the food of their French masters and black collaborators, using nature as their weapon. He organized slaves still working on the plantations as an intelligence network while his Maroon forces would raid and burn plantations.

This was an excellent terror weapon and the French authorities feared that many Landowners would leave Haiti because of the risk of poisoning. It is estimated that Mackandal’s forces killed thousands during the many years of insurrection. He was eventually captured by the French when one of his own betrayed him. Haitian folklore has it that when he was captured and burned at the stake by the French, he escaped to safety by turning into a fly or a mosquito. Mackandal had told his followers that he was immortal and would be reincarnated as a deadly mosquito to come back and do more damage to the French. 

Almost 30 years after his death, a massive plague of mosquitoes carrying yellow fever arrived in swarms during the Haitian revolution around 1794 to bring death to over 30,000 British and French troops trying to take Haiti back from the revolutionaries. Mackandal was one of the great leaders that sowed the seeds for the later successes of revolutionaries after him in the Haitian Revolution. 

Portrait of Sanite Bélair on a Haitian 10 Gourdes banknote from 2004. From a series of bank-notes commemorating the 200th anniversary of Haitian independence (1804 - 2004).

Sanité Bélair (1781 – 1802)

Sanité Bélair – also known as the Tigress of Haiti – was a Haitian freedom fighter and revolutionary, and one of the few female soldiers who fought during the Haitian Revolution. Her brilliant mind, bravery and undisputed determination allowed her to rise up in the ranks, eventually becoming lieutenant in Toussaint L’Ouverture’s army. 

She married Brigade commander and later General Charles Bélair, nephew of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Together, she and her husband are responsible for the uprising of almost the entire enslaved population of L’Artibonite, against their enslavers. Though she fought valiantly throughout the revolution, she became a prisoner of war during an attack on Corail-Mirrault.

On October 5th, 1802, Sanité and her husband received a death sentence: Sanité was sentenced to death by decapitation because she was a woman, and Charles was sentenced to death by firing squad because he was a man. Learning this, she refused to die by decapitation and demanded to be executed just like her husband, whom she just witnessed being executed by firing squad. She wanted nothing less than a soldier’s death.

Stories say that she walked to her death with bravery and defiance, refusing to wear a blindfold. Even at her end, it is said that she had to direct the firing squad for the execution. Sanité fought to die on her terms and won. Before she was shot to death she cried out, “Viv Libète anba esklavaj! (“Liberty, no to slavery!”). Their deaths, however, did not deter the revolutionaries, who continued fighting for Ayit’s (Haiti) independence. Ayiti became an independent nation in 1804.

Toussaint L’Ouverture

Jean Jacques Dessalines

Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803) and Jean Jacques Dessalines (1758 – 1806)

Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean Jacques Dessalines are two of the most famous leaders of the Haitian Revolution. Toussaint L’Ouverture was a former slave who rose to become the leader of the only successful slave revolt in modern history known as the Haitian Revolution.

Toussaint taught himself military strategies and organized the Haitians into troops, and trained folks in guerilla warfare. He was tactical and had extraordinary ability as a military commander. Toussaint’s biographers describe him as far savvier than either Napoleon, who ignored his attempts at diplomacy, or Thomas Jefferson, an enslaver who sought to see Toussaint fail by alienating him economically through embargos and not recognizing Ayiti (Haiti) as a state.

Jean Jacques Dessalines was also a former slave who became a military leader and politician. Unable to read or write, Dessalines was nonetheless a quick study under L’Ouverture earning the nickname “the Tiger” for his fury in battle.

In 1802, Napoleon dispatched his brother-in-law, Charles Leclerc, to capture L’Ouverture and return the island to slavery under French control.  Captured and imprisoned at Fort de Joux in France, L’Ouverture died of pneumonia on April 7, 1803.

But the fighting continued under the leadership of Jean Jacques Dessalines, (L’Ouverture’s lieutenant who replaced him after his death), and Henri Christophe. They finally won freedom in January 1804, two years after Toussaint’s death, when Haiti became a sovereign nation. When Dessalines proclaimed Saint Dominque’s independence, he chose the name Ayiti (Haiti) for his country, the name used by the Tainos, the island’s aboriginal inhabitants. 

In the Vodun (Haitian voodoo) worldview, Toussaint was a legba of the revolution,, the lwa (spirit) that comes to open the way and trace the road. Dessalines, was an ogou, the one that comes to make things happen by any means necessary.  And indeed they both did as Ayiti (Haiti) was the first independent nation in Latin America, the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world, the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion, and the world’s first nation to permanently abolish slavery. 

Sources/Links for more info:

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