We Owe Haiti a Debt We Can’t Repay

Here is a guest essay by Annette Gordon-Reed, professor of law and of history at Harvard University (and author of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family). Read full essay at The New York Times.

When assassins killed President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti on July 7, pushing the country to the brink of chaos, it may have struck many Americans as the latest in a string of political upheavals and destabilizing disasters in an unfortunate country with which the United States should have little to do. But the revelation that two of the suspects were American citizens was a reminder of the complicated history of our relations with Haiti — a needlessly tragic history, driven by self-interest and the politics of racism. As the United States now offers to help Haiti restore political order, it should be kept squarely in mind that Haiti is more than just a troubled neighbor. It is a nation whose revolutionary fight for freedom helped make the United States the country that it is today.

In 1791 the enslaved people of Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue, engineered the first and only successful slave revolt in modern history. Saint-Domingue was France’s richest colony, made so by the worldwide demand for sugar and the slavery-based economy that fulfilled it. Led by Toussaint Louverture, Africans on the island violently threw off their enslavers, whose countrymen themselves had only recently overthrown a monarchy that had oppressed people for generations. For reasons both strategic and principled, in early 1794, the French government accepted the declaration of the end of slavery in Saint-Domingue made by the rebels in August of 1793. Some in France saw abolition as in keeping with their own revolutionary ideals.

This period is popularly known as the “Age of Revolution.” First came the Americans, aided by the French, in 1776. The French followed with the fall of the Bastille in 1789. Thomas Jefferson, an ardent supporter of the French Revolution and still under its spell, wrote to his daughter Martha in 1793 as if the events in Saint-Domingue were part of an unstoppable wave sweeping the globe. “St. Domingo has expelled all it’s (sic) whites, has given freedom to all it’s (sic) blacks, has established a regular government of the blacks and coloured people, and seems now to have taken it’s (sic) ultimate form, and that to which all of the West India islands must come.”

Americans watched these proceedings closely. As refugees from Saint-Domingue arrived in the United States, bringing news of the successful revolt, white Southerners were alarmed, fearing replication of the events on the island. Apparently, when whites fought and killed for their freedom, as the Americans and French had, it was noble and heroic. But when Blacks killed whites, who had used force to enslave them and would not be talked out of the practice, they were simply murderers.

Many Black Southerners, however, were inspired. In 1800, a man named Gabriel planned, with some other Blacks in Richmond, Va., to strike against slavery. The plot was foiled, and white Virginians put in place new restrictions on the enslaved and on free Blacks in the state, hoping to prevent other revolts. President Jefferson, mindful of the desires of his Southern political base, adopted a hostile stance toward Saint-Domingue. The stage was set for isolation of the tiny island nation, a choice that had enormous consequences for its development.

Napoleon brought a new challenge to Saint-Domingue when he decided in 1802 to reassert control over French colonies in the Americas. He sent a fleet to the island to accomplish the task. The residents fought back and, with the help of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that carries yellow fever, repelled the invaders. This victory was fateful not only for the residents of Saint-Domingue, who went on to form an independent republic that they renamed Haiti, but also for the course of American history.

Napoleon, as part of his plan to re-establish the French empire in the Caribbean, was hoping to use the territory of Louisiana as a supply station for the island colonies. Once the Haitians had shattered his dream, Napoleon saw no reason to hold on to the territory. He was eager to sell it, and President Jefferson was equally eager to buy. The purchase doubled the size of the United States, which obtained 530 million acres for $15 million. If not for the French defeat at the hands of the Haitians, the sale may not have come off, leaving the United States possibly forever divided by a huge swath of French-controlled land or forced into armed conflict with the French over it. Of course, what the United States really bought from France was the right to contend with the various Indigenous people who had their own claims to the land.

Instead of welcoming and supporting the fledgling republic, the United States refused to recognize Haiti until 1862, after the Southern states seceded from the Union. Despite this formal recognition, after the assassination of President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam in 1915, the United States occupied the island until 1934. Think of how different its prospects would have been had Haiti been fully embraced from the very beginning, instead of reviled, and if Haitians hadn’t been forced in 1825, in one of the most disgraceful details in the history of the oppression of Haiti, to pay reparations to their enslavers and their heirs in exchange for official recognition. The reparations created a crushing debt that blighted the country’s future.

For full article, see https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/21/opinion/haiti-us-history.html (also see https://repeatingislands.com/2021/07/27/we-owe-haiti-a-debt-we-cant-repay/)

Le grand retour de Balenciaga à la haute couture

Mercredi 7 juillet 2021, la maison Balenciaga présentait sa première collection de haute couture depuis que son fondateur, Cristobal Balenciaga, fermait les portes de son studio de création, en 1968. C’est dans les anciens studios du couturier espagnol, situés au 10 avenue George V à Paris, que Demna Gvasalia, directeur artistique depuis 6 ans, a renoué avec la tradition et l’héritage de la maison.

En 1968, quand Cristóbal Balenciaga ferme les portes de son studio de création situé au 10 avenue George V, bien que le prêt-à-porter n’en soit qu’à ses balbutiements, ce nouveau mode de consommation gagne rapidement en popularité auprès des clientes. Et le couturier espagnol, adepte de la haute couture, ne se sent plus en phase avec l’époque. Avec 49 collections parisiennes conçues entre 1937, date où il s’est installé à Paris, et cette année fatidique, Cristóbal Balenciaga, marquera pour toujours l’histoire de la mode et du costume. Considéré comme “le couturier des couturiers” par ses pairs – Coco Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet et Christian Dior inclus -, il continuera d’influencer et inspirer les générations suivantes. Ainsi Azzedine Alaïa achète les archives du couturier après la fermeture de son studio, tandis que Nicolas Ghesquière, directeur artistique qui relance la maison en 1997, perpétue sa quête de radicalité. D’autres créateurs à l’instar de Phoebe Philo chez Céline, Rei Kawakubo ou encore Proenza Schouler ont fait plusieurs fois référence à son travail au sein de leurs collections. Grâce à sa technique et sa rigueur incomparables, ainsi qu’à son sens remarquable de la coupe (il a commencé comme tailleur à l’âge de 12 ans), il compose des robes et manteaux aux lignes pures et aux volumes architecturaux. Encore aujourd’hui, les créations de Cristóbal Balenciaga n’ont rien perdu de leur grandeur et de leur majestuosité, comme si le temps et les modes n’avaient eu aucun effet sur elles.

Cinquante-trois ans plus tard, ce mercredi 7 juillet 2021, Demna Gvasalia, directeur artistique de la maison depuis 2015, renouait avec la tradition haute couture chère au fondateur de la maison, allant même, par mimétisme, jusqu’à défiler en silence, au sein de la mythique adresse de l’avenue George V. C’est dans l’ambiance calfeutré des salons de couture, entièrement restaurés, et empreints de ce charme suranné propre à l’époque, que vont se succéder les 63 silhouettes homme et femme qui composent cette collection, repoussée d’un an à cause de la pandémie. Un décor à mille lieux de l’univers de celui qui s’est imposé avec le subversif label Vêtements, a relooké les boutiques Balenciaga façon usines de confection ou a présenté sa collection fall 2020 via un jeu vidéo, mais pas non plus surprenant. Non seulement, Demna Gvasalia aime être là où ne l’attend pas mais il a plusieurs fois témoigné son appétence pour des scénographies en adéquation avec ses collections. En mémoire, les silhouettes Vêtements printemps-été 2017 composées de plusieurs collaborations avec d’autres labels et présentées dans les Galeries Lafayette ou son défilé Balenciaga homme printemps-été 2018 au Bois de Boulogne avec ces pères accompagnés de leurs enfants. 

Bien que durant ces six années chez Balenciaga, le créateur géorgien a largement prouvé son talent et sa légitimité, ses détracteurs aiment limiter son succès à la vente de ses imposantes baskets Triple S et de ses cabas multicolore Bazar, plutôt qu’à son aptitude à faire perdurer l’héritage avant-gardiste de son fondateur. Autres temps, autres mœurs, et en 2021, le succès des maisons de luxe s’évalue davantage à leur capacité à vendre des sacs à mains et souliers plutôt qu’à une activité consacrée au sur-mesure, désuète et exclusive. Aujourd’hui bien que Demna Gvasalia n’a plus à prouver son influence, il va donner une véritable leçon de mode et de couture, à contre-courant du tout-digital qui a émergé ces derniers mois. [. . .]

À lire (et voir 63 photos): https://www.numero.com/fr/fashion-week/defile-balenciaga-couture-50-demna-gvasalia-hommage