05/14/2014 04:05 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Slaves of Saint-Domingue Did Not Dream, They Exploded

I am a hypocrite; not to a large degree, only enough so it's noticeable to me, especially now, as I write a piece about Haiti. I'll explain my hypocrisy in a moment -- first, I must describe to you the night sky above a country whose name to many, is synonymous with tragedy. The country, of course, is Haiti.

The night sky above Haiti is beautiful. A trillion stars stretch across its onyx firmament, glimmering above palm tree canopies in a region where few lights shine below. At night, the stars blanket the ubiquitous fervor of hard work to come. During the day, the streets of Port-au-Prince are noisy with motorcycles, cars and public buses -- buses which are brightly painted pick-up trucks with "Merci Jesus" written across the crest of the windshield. A multitude of Haitians can be seen clasping to the rear of these vehicles as potholes and unpaved roads are met with casual disregard. Port-au-Prince is crowded, and needless to say, hot.

Carnaval Haiti 2014. Jacmel, Haiti (Dorothy Claybourne)


Coming into Haiti, our flight captain switched on the intercom to tell us, "It's 96 degrees Fahrenheit outside. Welcome to Toussaint Louverture International Airport." I felt a gust of hot air sweep into the cabin from outside. Fifteen minutes earlier, we were gliding above the island formerly named Insula Hispana by the tyrant Christopher Columbus. Haiti, the inherited mother of descendants of African slaves, slaves who 223 years ago, launched the world's only successful slave revolt against three colonial superpowers: France, Britain and Spain.

Ever since I can remember, I've embraced historical identities of Africans, particularly those whose ancestors were successful in battles against slavery and colonization. There aren't many, but I do this to compensate for my lack of knowledge of my own ancestral history. To say that Haiti draws me closer to that understanding of myself is an understatement. This affinity, however, is not without its problems.

One of the reasons I often romanticize revolution is because I have never been part of one. I tell you this because it's key to understanding my aforementioned hypocrisy. I dream about fighting whitey and establishing a world were black and brown children are not treated like game, racially profiled and thrown into cages, but to what end? The slaves of Saint-Domingue in 1791 did not dream, they exploded.

It's not equitable to view modern Haitians and think only of the Haitian revolution. During my visit, many Haitians expressed to me their deep indignation at the practice of outsiders equating Haiti with destitution and perpetual devastation. They revealed that another detrimental trend comes from African diaspora visitors who wish to sweep Haiti's extreme poverty under the rug in preference for its beauty. The truth is, today's Haiti is tragic; there is no way around it.

On the ground

While flying over the country, my heart was crushed as I scanned the barren, almost treeless countryside. What happened to the trees? I imagine French colonizers who arrived over two centuries ago found a much different island, one with numerous untouched forests. What happened? Poverty happened. Viewed from above, Haiti appears to offer nothing more than endless bald hilltops, desolate roads and sparse infrastructure.

On the ground, remnants of 2010's earthquake are evident. Some structures, I imagine, remain as they were in the weeks following the catastrophe. However, in highly populated cities I visited, such as Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, infrastructure improvements are apparent. For example, in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel, electricity is provided, albeit sporadically, from sun down until 11 pm.

2014-05-13-_1110737.jpgBustling streets of Port-au-Prince (Dorothy Claybourne)

In Haiti, some live in tents or huts, while others dwell in apartments or houses. And of course, there is the bizarre sight of a mansion or two. Forget about indoor plumbing and clean drinking water. Forget your smartphone. Forget your train being late. While stock market trends scroll below talking heads on the evening news, flights arrive and depart from nowhere, and acclaimed chefs serve dead animals to well-fed zombies. Others, survive on close to nothing. I suppose this Social Darwinism allows those who have more than they need to sleep in peace. I suppose that's all that matters.


It was my third day in the country, and I began to feel depressed. Myself and my travel companions: Chicago rapper Psalm One, Dorothy "Fluffy" Claybourne and Paul Karner -- our trip's liaison and the director of the Carrefour Collaborative -- were being driven to Léogâne, a port town and the actual epicenter of the 2010 earthquake. I was experiencing what some would call culture shock, although I believed it was the feeling of absolute hopelessness.

Beyond the windows of our tour van, I saw a nation being punished by the "developed" world for killing slave masters. At the same time, however, I observed a nation taking pride in hard work, family, education, heritage and the entrepreneurial spirit.

During my interview with Jean Yves Alliance, 31, founder of Messiah Brown Studios, a wildly underfunded music studio in Léogâne, and the space where our group slept for two nights, I was told, "the UN says maybe Haiti wasn't ready for independence."

Although the comment, to my knowledge, is unsubstantiated, the intergovernmental body wouldn't have to state it publicly; its actions already express that very belief.

2014-05-13-_1110389.jpgHaitian school girls in Jacmel (Dorothy Claybourne)

Some blame Haiti's condition on its history of political corruption. To that I say, show me a 'developed' nation whose history isn't marred by political corruption and acute tyranny.

In many cases, great national wealth can be traced back to an original crime against humanity, such as slavery, the exploitation of indigenous populations, war and the privatization of natural resources. If this is true, perhaps Haiti's former leaderships weren't criminal enough.

Music as medicine

People want happy endings to stories; we want everything to be okay. It's our way of processing a world which at its core has no rhyme nor reason. This expectation presents a challenge when writing about the "third world" because there aren't many cheerful resolutions. There are, however, individuals who inspire moments of happiness, but this is true wherever you are.

One such moment of happiness occurred during the collaboration between our Chicago hip-hop artists and Haitian musicians in Léogâne. We arrived at Messiah Brown Studios, a small room behind the family home of Jean Yves Alliance, where area musicians are often invited to record and produce music.

"Everything you see here was brought on an airplane by someone from abroad," Alliance told me as he pushed "enter" on the studio's Mac computer. He continued,

Haiti doesn't have a large import-export system in place, so everything comes with people on airplanes. The only mail that can be received comes through DHL, which delivers anywhere, but is extremely expensive.

The studio housed only the bare minimum: a computer, a keyboard, a microphone and a mic-stand. For electricity, Alliance ran cables from a Honda generator at the entrance of the property through the house and back to the studio. It made a lot of noise, but it worked.

Christie watching Nina Simone (Ferrari Sheppard)

Under shady palm trees, local residents, rappers, singers and friends lounged on plastic chairs and listened to the music made in this miracle of a studio. Messiah Brown is a miracle because there is nothing like it in Léogâne.

Chickens walked around us, pecking at the ground.

On that day, we had a wi-fi adapter. I handed Alliance's fiancé, Christie, a laptop so she could watch her identical twin, Nina Simone, perform "What Have I Got." She smiled, brushed her fingers across the laptop screen and said something to me in Creole I couldn't understand. I found a translator. "She wants to know if Nina Simone is Haitian," the translator said to me. "She could have been," I told the translator.

The sun was setting as we began the process of preparing for complete darkness: We grabbed flashlights, bug repellent and began filling the generator with expensive gasoline.

One misconception outsiders have about Haiti, or any so-called "third world" country, is that poverty is all there is. Reality tells a different story. People live, die, get married, lose their virginity, graduate high school and college, dream and strive in Haiti. There are, in fact, many possibilities.

Grants vs. Charity

During that sunset at Messiah Brown Studios, I began thinking about my hypocrisy. I thought about my return to the United States; how I would likely take a long shower, leave the faucet running later as I wash dishes and light an empty room of my apartment.

I imagined myself walking past homeless people camped out on the freezing streets of Chicago. But how can I help someone else when I'm barely surviving capitalism and America myself? "Fuck them," I think to myself. I need to get to where I'm going.

Yet there in Léogâne, outside of Messiah Brown studios, hope returned to my fragile psyche. Maybe I could change. Maybe Haiti could blossom to become synonymous with growth and prosperity against all odds. Who knows? What I'm certain of is that creative grants should be offered to Haitian artists in the way they're offered to those in "developed" nations. Not as a handout, or charity, but as a grant. The reason I stress this fact is because Haitians are humans, not symbols of poverty. But you shouldn't have to go to Haiti to find that out.

Support creative grants for Haitian artists, visit Carrefour Collaborative's official website.