Why, one might ask, would this contributor, who in the past has written exclusively on subjects germaine to Haiti, dare to weigh in on the most recent controversy concerning race in the United States -- the now infamous cartoon published in the New York Post showing policemen, with smoking pistols, standing over the corpse of a monkey and implying by their captioned comment that the slain monkey was the author of the stimulus package. In the view of many Blacks, voiced most vociferously by the Rev. Al Sharpton, the monkey in the cartoon was clearly President Obama -- an image simultaneously threatening and demeaning to African-Americans. Many Whites on the other hand, seemed to accept the view of the Post's publisher, Rupert Murdoch, that the cartoon was simply a take-off on a true story of a monkey who assaulted a woman and had to be shot and a metaphor for the lack of intelligence in the drafted legislation. Both sides squared off in the media and at this writing, there are rumors circulating of a defamation lawsuit being filed by Rev. Sharpton against Mr. Murdoch and his paper.
Strongly held opinions are usually held in the absence of data. Psychologists have recently weighed in, citing a study that seems to show an association, at least in some White's minds, between Blacks and apes. Few, however, would consider this study Q.E.D. The question therefore becomes, is there any hard evidence that Whites have historically considered Blacks as less than human? Is there a different "smoking gun" in support of that claim? The answer to that question is "yes," and it is to be found in a study of Haitian names.
I've long been fascinated with Haitian names (3), as they offer insights into Haiti's unique culture and history. For those unfamiliar with Haitian history, the slaves of the French colony of St. Dominique rose in revolt in 1793, drove out their masters and established the Republic of Haiti in 1805, the only successful slave revolt in the history of mankind. Shortly thereafter, rather than returning to the plantations, most former slaves fled to Haiti's mountainous interior -- an impoverished subsistence existence is the price they paid for freedom.
Some Haitian names -- "Merzadieu" ("Thanks to God"), Dieudonne ("God's gift") and Theophile ("Love of God", in Greek, no less!) simply reflect the piety and spirituality of Haiti's people. Curiously, however, Aristotle ("Aristide") Rousseau and Voltaire are also common Haitian names. I used to think this tribute to the philosophical fathers of "liberté, égalité, et fraternité" was a national homage to the principles of not just the French, but also the Haitian revolution or perhaps a reflection of the value Haitians place on wisdom. Now, however, thanks to the monkey and the smoking gun, I think not.
The cartoon reminded me of another name you see with surprising frequency in Haiti -- "Simeus" or "Sineon" -- the Latin words for "ape" or "like an ape". One could almost see a curmudgeonly, misanthropic, aristocratic planter dubbing his new purchase with a name who's significance only he understood. Thinking about it, he probably had no love for the philosophers of the Enlightenment either. By naming his slaves "Voltaire" and "Rousseau" he was mocking both the philosophers and their namesake. The name "Simeus" went a step further, implying the slave was not even human.
So there's your smoking gun, Rev. Sharpton and Mr. Murdoch. Shake hands, kiss and make up and don't give any more of your money to lawyers. Instead, how about a healthy donation to an organization like Project Medishare, working in Haiti, where the legacy of slavery, in the form of extreme poverty, so sadly still exists?