For several years now, I have used this blog to indulge in one of my favorite hobbies: in the dead of winter, usually during February or March, I like to study and showcase for your edification some of the most fascinating figures in black history.
In particular, I like to study the great presidents of post-colonial Africa: Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, “Emperor” Bokassa of the Central African Republic, Félix Houphouët-Boigny of Côte d’Ivoire, Charles Taylor of Liberia, Comrade Mengistu Haile Mariam of Ethiopia, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, etc.
The many independent black countries and colonial dependencies of the Caribbean are one of the world’s most important extensions of sub-Saharan Africa. I’ve long been fascinated with them because I like to study their historical development and compare their trajectory to their parent countries, cultural and biological. These islands are like laboratories for examining the relative weight of culture and environment.
In the case of Haiti, this would be France, the European colonial power, and the African countries which are now Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Angola, Gabon, and the two Congos. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who was the president of Haiti from 1957 to 1971, was a contemporary of Mobutu Sese Seko, the president of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) from 1965 to 1991:
“Along with a lifetime presidency, the new constitution gave Duvalier a series of titles that recalled the elaborate court of Henry Christophe: Supreme Chief of the Haitian Nation, Uncontestable Leader of the Revolution, Apostle of National Unity, Renovator of the Fatherland, and Worthy Heir of the Founders of the Haitian Nation.” (Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, p.343)
Compare with Mobutu:
“Swiftly, authenticity elided into Mobutuism – never really defined – and an extravagant personality cult. The Guide, the Helmsman, the Father of the Nation, Founding President, the official media called him.” (Michela Wrong, In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo, p.96)
This is “Papa Doc” Duvalier in Haiti:
“A new version of the Lord’s Prayer enabled Haitians to pray for the success of their own ruler: “Our Doc, who art in the Palais National for life, hallowed by Thy name by present and future generations. Thy will be done in Port-au-Prince as it is in the provinces. Give us this day our new Haiti and forgive not the trespasses of those antipatriots who daily spit upon our country; lead them into temptation and, poised by their own venom, deliver them from evil.” The country writes the historian Claude Moïse, was “saturated with portraits, slogans, posters, and speeches constantly reminding people that Duvalier was president-for-life, the supreme chief, and the personification of the nation.” (Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, p.343)
Compare with Mobutu:
“Thanks to the efforts of Sakombi Inongo, his public relations maestro, Mobutu’s face, with its carp-lips and heavy glasses, was on the cover of almost every newspaper. The daily television news broadcasts began with an image of his features, emerging God-like from scudding clouds and his arrival was met with dancing and singing. Officials went so far as to compare Mobutu to the messiah, with the MPR as his church and party cadres as his disciples.” (Michela Wrong, In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo, p.96)
Duvalier changed the Haitian flag:
“Duvalier also remade the Haitian flag, getting rid of the traditional blue and red horizontal stripes and replacing them with vertical stripes in black and red. The change was a return to the flag used by Dessalines when he was emperor and by Christophe when he was king. It carried a potent meaning: the blue and the red had long been considered symbols of Haiti’s two social groups – red for the lighter-skinned people of mixed ancestry, blue for the darker-skinned blacks. Changing the blue to black made the blacks’ presence more prominent. Switching the orientation of the stripes from horizontal to vertical, meanwhile, meant that instead of having both colors share an equal attachment to the flagpole, the black now became the only color that connected to the mast – just as black leaders, Duvalier argued, should have pride of place. Having remade the design, the president placed a flashing neon sign in front of the National Palace flashing a message with his signature at the bottom: “I am the Haitian flag, One and Indivisible – François Duvalier.” (Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, p.344)
Compare with Mobutu:
“The mists soon closed back over the yacht and hid it from our view, but the flag Mobutu created for Zaire – a black fist clutching a flaming torch – stayed with us, fluttering above our bridge.” (Jeffrey Tayler, Facing the Congo: A Modern-day Journey Into the Heart of Darkness, p.64)
Duvalier on authentic black leadership:
“Drawing skillfully on his involvement in the decades of intellectual and cultural effervescence that began in the 1920s, Duvalier presented himself as the embodiment of an awakened Haitian nation. His regime, he insisted, was the fulfillment of the powerful demands made during and after the occupation for a more authentic, indigenous form of governance. “The Haitian democracy is not the German or the French democracy,” Duvalier declared a few years after his election. “It is neither the Latin America or U.S.-type democracy. It is defined in full, according to the ethnic background of the people, its traditions, its sociology, all overflowing with humanism. Those who opposed him abroad, he proclaimed, were participating in a form of “masqueraded colonialism.” (Laurent Dubois, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, p.344)
At least for me, “authenticity” is a term that rings a bell:
“At its best, ‘authenticity’, as a movement born in 1971 was called, was an admirable attempt to recover a sense of African identity and pride crushed by the colonial experience. It was remarkable in a way, that it had taken so long for a new country to feel the need for a fresh image. The country must modernize, Mobutu told his public rallies, but it would do so in a framework of ancestral spiritual values, not by aping Western materialism. ‘Authenticity is the realization by the Zairean people that it must return to its origins, seek out the values of its ancestors, to discover those which contribute to its harmonious and natural development,’ Mobutu told the United Nations. ‘It is the refusal to blindly embrace imported ideologies. It is, in short, the affirmation of mankind, in its place, as it is, with its mental and social structures.’ (Michela Wrong, In The Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu’s Congo, p.96)
Where did the Haitians come from in Africa?
“As the Atlantic slave trade expanded over the eighteenth century, west central Africa became the largest source of slaves deported to the Americas. These slaves were supplied through Portuguese raids into the interior from the port of Luanda, from civil wars in the kingdom of the Kongo, and from kingdoms that captured slaves or received them as tribute from regions in the interior. In Saint-Domingue, these slaves were categorized under the generic term “Kongo” (which at the time was usually spelled “Congo”). They made up the majority of the slaves imported into the colony, accounting for 40 percent of the imports during the eighteenth century.” (Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution, p.40)
What does Port-au-Prince, the capitol of Haiti, look like today? Does it look more like Paris or Kinshasa, the capitol of the Democratic Republic of Congo?
Note: I present to you, Haitians and Congolese, the same people, separated by the Atlantic Ocean and over 200 years of history: