Second lines and voodoo queens. Gris-gris charms and creole cottages and sugarcane. Sound like New Orleans? Yeah, you right. But these icons of local culture are owed, like much else in history and life here, to a Caribbean nation where striding the streets behind a raucous band is called rara and whose vodou lifeways were forged amidst the only successful slave revolution in history. They’re owed to Haiti.
In colonial days, the trading post of Nouveau Orleans was a backwater. The pearl of France’s American empire was Sainte Domingue: the stunningly lucrative and brutal sugar colony, on the island of Hispaniola, where between 1701 and 1791 the French imported upwards of a million enslaved Africans to furnish sweets to Old World tables. When those slaves rose up to kill their masters, they founded a new black nation on the world stage and changed history. They also changed New Orleans.
The triumph of Haiti’s Revolution didn’t merely ensure that New Orleans would become a part of the United States by convincing Napoleon, after his forces lost a last bid to re-take Sainte Domingue in 1803, to cut his New World losses and sell Louisiana. The Revolution’s aftermath also guaranteed that this city would remain a French-speaking place for decades thereafter, by sending thousands of refugees—sugar planters, freed people of color, and slaves alike—to New Orleans. When ten-thousand more of these refugees were expelled from Cuba in 1809, their arrival to New Orleans doubled the city’s size, and planted in its creole mud seeds whose flourishing made not a few of the traditions we most identify with a time of year we call Mardi Gras and Haitians call kanaval.
Its those seeds’ source that we hail today, from Calliope to Congo Square, by bowing down to a nation that’s caught shit from another idiot king of late but whose mighty culture and contributions, as evolved people across the Americas know, demands not our denigration but our celebration—and our thanks. Haiti sits at the center of our history. In this krewe, it sits at the center of our present and our future, too. And as they’d say in Haiti: Kenbe la! Keep going.
- Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
Author of Island People: The Caribbean and the World .