New York University History Professor Ada Ferrer spoke Tuesday on the significance of the Haitian Revolution, both on its impact on the independence movements in the region and on Haiti’s policy that all black, former slaves were free upon setting foot on Haitian soil.
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Chair of the Department of African and African American Studies, introduced the talk and noted that students in the United States are rarely taught about Haiti’s influence on the independence movements in Latin and North America.
Ferrer cited the little known story of several Jamaican slaves who managed to escape from slavery to Haiti. When their previous owner came to Haiti in January of 1817 intending to reclaim his slaves, Haitian President Alexandre Pétion refused him and defended the freedom of the black men using the newly created Haitian Constitution which declared Haiti legally free soil. Haiti was the first country that provided a safe haven for all former slaves, she said.
To African and African American Studies Professor Doris Sommer, the tale of the escaped slaves is often overlooked, but is highly significant in the study of Haiti as a precursor to other Latin American independence movements and anti-slavery laws.
“The Haitian Constitution took free land as the space for encouraging slave peoples to become free peoples,” said Sommer, also a Romance Languages and Literatures professor.
Ferrer’s talk was the second in a five-part series called “Interrogating the Afro-Latin American Experience,” a series which Higginbotham said is intended to address the way current scholars learn about the African and Latin tradition in the Americas.
Many audience members—including graduate students, undergraduates, and visiting professors—said that the most striking aspect of the event was Ferrer’s redefinition of citizenship in early Haiti.
“I wasn’t aware that all Haitian citizens were considered black,” Elliot A. Wilson ’15 said of an idea that Ferrer discussed. “That changes our conception of race.”
Wilson added that race can no longer be considered as solely biological, an idea seconded by Fernando Gomez-Herrero, visiting scholar in Romance Languages and Literatures.
Gomez-Herrero also raised the question of whether Haiti intended total black liberty to expand beyond its borders.
Ferrer answered that Haiti engaged and addressed the world via its monumental anti-slavery laws, which would later influence other independence movements.
The content of Ferrer’s talk will be published in The American Historical Review in 2012 and in her upcoming book on the impact of the Haitian Revolution on Cuba and the Atlantic World.