The Same Mountaintop

By  |  March 13, 2018
“Kochon sa yo kon danse / These Pigs know how to dance” (2017), by Didier William, from the series Swarm “Kochon sa yo kon danse / These Pigs know how to dance” (2017), by Didier William, from the series Swarm

On a hot, late-summer morning in New Orleans last year, I found Barbara Trevigne lying face down in the St. Jude Shrine at Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Catholic church on the edge of the French Quarter. The size of a large walk-in closet, the shrine was washed in a blurred glow from candles crowding floor-to-ceiling shelves along the walls. Bathed in this light, Trevigne whispered prayers into the floor, unconcerned with dirtying her spotless, all-white ensemble. I took a seat in the nave, a few rows from the shrine, and watched as she finished, rose, and walked over to join me in the pew. “I am Creole,” she said. “My culture is Creole, and I maintain all the rituals of my ancestors.” 

This wasn’t the first time I’d met Trevigne. I produce a history podcast for New Orleans Public Radio called TriPod, a show created in 2015 in anticipation of the city’s tricentennial celebration this year. I had previously been reporting on Louisiana’s disappearing coastline for WWNO when my boss asked me to refocus from the uncomfortable reality of the city’s precarious future to the uncomfortable reality of its palliated past. My charge was to build a space for local experts—New Orleans natives, elders, students, academics, archaeologists, organizers, spiritual leaders—intent on challenging the dominant public narratives about the city to evoke a more honest self-representation. I’d interviewed Trevigne, a historian, author, and expert on free women of color in antebellum New Orleans, for an episode about the misunderstood “quadroon” balls of that era. 

A native New Orleanian, Trevigne can trace her family back to precolonial Louisiana. Once you know her, she’s easy to spot; Trevigne is one of the few remaining people who won’t leave the house without tying her dyed red hair beneath a colonial-era head wrap called a tignon. Her Francophone heritage is part of her identity (she signs her emails “Amitiés, Madame”), and in our initial conversation she mentioned that she has Haitian roots. “Most people I spend time with in New Orleans do,” she added. 

It was a connection I had already discovered in my ongoing research at The Historic New Orleans Collection. In the preface to Common Routes, a large-format book featuring essays alongside images drawn from the archive, THNOC Executive Director Priscilla Lawrence writes, “Perhaps no group contributed more to the cultural development of Louisiana in the decades following the purchase than émigrés from the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue.” When I asked Trevigne if we could talk again about this part of her identity, she suggested meeting at the St. Jude shrine; it’s one of the spots in New Orleans where she feels most connected to Haiti. There, she explained, “because of the candles, because of the saints—it feels right.” 

New Orleans is often referred to, especially by locals, as the northernmost Caribbean city. And Haiti is at the core of the claim. “Nowhere else in the U.S. has a longer, deeper relationship with Haiti than New Orleans,” wrote Beverly Bell, associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, in the aftermath of Hurricane Isaac in 2012. “Today, the populations share gene pools and names via the same French, Spanish, and African ancestors.” To understand this is to understand the parallel courses of two New World colonies that fatefully crossed paths, resulting in the expulsion of French rule in each territory and a new connective tissue built through diasporic migration patterns. But before that point of intersection—the Haitian Revolution and its repercussions—New Orleans was still La Nouvelle-Orléans, and Haiti was Saint-Domingue, the wealthiest colony in the Americas. 

In the mid-eighteenth century, French planters enjoyed enormous profits from Saint- Domingue’s sugar and coffee industries at the expense of brutal, often fatal labor endured by enslaved Africans who were considered nothing more than human machines. The Haitian Revolution started in August of 1791 in the northern part of the island, where runaways and free blacks had organized in the mountains. The rebellion spread under the direction of revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture, as the enslaved and maroon populations—who outnumbered whites on the island ten to one—set fire to one plantation after the next, torching the colonial slave system. Napoleon’s army surrendered on November 30, 1803, and Haiti declared independence on January 1. This victory remains the largest and most successful slave uprising in history. 

Thus, the former colony of Saint-Domingue became the first black nation—called Haiti, from the indigenous language of the island’s native Taíno people. It means “land of high mountains.” (Duke University historian Laurent Dubois writes that the indigenous name was chosen to signify not just the rejection of slavery, “but also the rejection of the full spectrum of brutalities carried out by Europeans in the Americas.”) The loss of Saint-Domingue was a massive blow to France’s wealth, prompting Napoleon to sell a huge tract of land to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Over the course of the revolution, thousands of Saint-Domingue émigrés—white, free black, and enslaved, fleeing from one colony to the next—arrived in Louisiana (which was under Spanish sovereignty from 1763 to 1802). As New Orleans was designated an American city, it was simultaneously flooded with Haitian refugees. 

The influx continued in the years following the revolution. In 1809 alone, nearly ten thousand refugees from the former Saint- Domingue arrived in New Orleans, doubling the city’s population. “They had a profound impact upon New Orleans’s development,” notes Louisiana historian Carl A. Brasseaux. “Not only were these immigrants largely responsible for the establishment and success of the state’s sugar industry, but they also gave New Orleans many of its most notable early institutions—the French opera, newspapers, schools, and colleges—and ultimately its antebellum French flavor.” Demographers point to this second wave of refugees as having consolidated the city’s tripartite racial makeup; the 1810 census records document the city’s population as roughly one-third white and one-quarter free people of color, with enslaved Africans making up the remainder. 

Barbara Trevigne believes her forebears arrived in New Orleans during this period. Part of Trevigne’s ancestry descends from the Morisseaus, a French family who owned a plantation in St. Marc, on Haiti’s western coast. Trevigne postulates that her family fled during the first uprisings in the early 1790s, first to Jamaica, and then Cuba. In 1809, the Spanish expelled all Haitian refugees from Cuba; many went to New Orleans. “They knew people who had fled here in previous years. And they had heard the climate was the same,” she said. “So they came.” 

Haiti gives Trevigne a sense of identity, just like her ancestors had given one to New Orleans two centuries before. “We’re more Haitian than anything,” she said of her fellow native New Orleanians. And then, to prove her point, Barbara turned to a woman sitting a few pews behind us in the church, and asked, “You have ancestors from Haiti?” 

The woman replied that she does not, but she has friends that do. “You know the Burnses? Or the Dumases?” 

Trevigne does. “Same Tribe,” she said, smiling at us, with a slow, satisfied nod of her head. “Same Tribe.” 

 

Two years after I encountered Common Routes at THNOC, I landed at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, to hear what Haitians had to say about New Orleans. My first stop was the office of fifty-one-year-old businessman Vladimir Laborde, whom I found pacing around the room, entangling, detangling, and re-entangling himself in the cord of his landline and yelling into the receiver in order to be heard over an electric generator that buzzed somewhere nearby, running as backup power for the building. A transformer in the neighborhood had blown up and the office was without power for the third time that week. “I’m burning up here,” he said to me, pulling the collar of his white shirt away from his neck. He extended his index finger to indicate he was almost done with the call. 

Laborde wore designer glasses and jeans that day (by the time I arrived he had abandoned his dress shoes and greeted me in socks), but he is not unfamiliar with tailored suits. He’s formerly the chief of staff of Haiti’s Center for the Facilitation of Investments, as well as special advisor to the secretary-general of the Presidential Advisory Board on Economic Growth and Investment, and a member of the cabinet of the Ministry of Interior. He’s currently the CEO of a Haitian telecommunications company, as well as the co-chairman of the Haiti New Orleans Heritage Task Force, a group of organizations from both places that serves as a facilitator for efforts aimed at promoting social and economic prosperity in Haiti. 

Laborde’s relationship with New Orleans started in the mid-1980s, when he was attending a Catholic high school in Port-au-Prince and Haiti’s economy was suffering. “My family is an entrepreneurial family,” he told me, “so for one reason or another, my mom and dad thought that New Orleans had a lot of potential for business.” The Labordes emigrated and then opened an art shop on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. “It did really well. Haitian art was selling like nobody’s business,” he recalled. So his parents opened another shop, on Bourbon Street, and, soon after that, a restaurant around the corner. 

“I think New Orleans really was an extension of Haiti for us,” Laborde said, looking past me at the tops of mango trees swaying outside his window. “Because the culture was so close to ours, I think it was easier for us to find our way. You go into the phone book in New Orleans, and it’s like you’re looking in the phone book in Haiti. There’s still that direct link.” He paused to finish the water in his glass, as if to help complete his thought. “It’s an American version of Haiti. I have the advantage of looking at it from both perspectives.” 

Laborde eventually resettled in Port-au- Prince, but he still visits New Orleans, where one of his brothers lives. Each time, he brings Haitian people with him. “Everybody I’ve known from Haiti who has gone to New Orleans, it’s like a second home. Especially the older generation—they find themselves back in their town.” I noted that New Orleanians feel their own version of this kinship, and Laborde agreed. New Orleanians claim consanguinity, he said, whether they’ve actually visited Haiti or not. “I have a new term I use called ‘affinity diaspora.’ They don’t know how they’re related to Haitians; they really can’t put their finger on it. They just feel a connection.” 

Loyola University sociologist Angel Adams Parham has noticed this trend. For a historical analysis of the migration and integration of refugees from Saint-Domingue/Haiti to Louisiana, Parham interviewed forty descendants, asking them questions about how they became interested in their family history, how the Haitian Revolution affected the history and culture of New Orleans, and if they’d ever traveled to Haiti. “I do not recall anyone making a trip to Haiti,” she told me, adding that many of the people she interviewed feel a nostalgic affinity toward the Haiti they have in their minds. “People may be interested in talking about it, but how interested are they in actually traveling to Haiti?” 

New Orleans loves to celebrate and romanticize its French and Spanish influences. But so much of the city’s culture—the food, the music, the dance, Mardi Gras itself—is indebted to the Caribbean. New Orleans has reaped the benefits of an exported culture, while leaving Haiti behind. “It’s one thing to kind of claim this Caribbean heritage and memory,” Parham said, “but then to not be supportive of it, I think is problematic.” A geographer I met in Haiti, Jean Marie Theodat, echoed this reproach, referring to the influx of refugees from Saint-Domingue as a “one-way trip.” This begins to explain how the places have grown separately, and apart. A link that was so strong at the beginning of the nineteenth century has weakened. According to the 2010 U.S. census, Louisiana is not even among the top ten states with the largest Haitian populations. 

Carla Bluntschli, a white American citizen, left Colorado for the mountains south of Port-au-Prince over thirty years ago. She and her husband, Ron, along with residents of the mountainous, rural Gwo Jan village, run a foundation called N a Sonje (a Haitian phrase meaning “We Will Remember”) dedicated to “the process of remembrance, healing, and transformation.” The foundation hosts western students, church groups, and nonprofit organizations in Gwo Jan to learn Haitian history, politics, and culture from the local perspective. As we surveyed the view of lush farmland stretching out from her balcony, she spoke of the area’s previous inhabitants— escaped slaves and, before them, native Taíno people. “I want to show you this chain,” she said, lifting a thick, rust-clad iron ring with a foot-long link for a tail that a farmer dug up in a nearby field. “We think about people trying to escape the cruelty of the labor of slavery.” She pointed out how the hinge would fit snugly around a human neck. “It gives you the idea of what that would have entailed for someone to run away into a place like this.” 

Bluntschli recounted the tale of Toussaint Louverture, and how the French couldn’t accept their defeat by former slaves. “Napoleon almost had a stroke!” she said, embellishing. But it is no exaggeration to say that Haiti has suffered a long legacy of gratuitous debt stemming from its independence. In 1825, France demanded reparations for its losses and refused to recognize Haiti as a sovereign state until a bill of one hundred and fifty million francs was paid, to compensate former plantation owners for lost property. “They won the war and they were supposed to pay France,” Bluntschli exclaimed. In 1838, more than thirty years after the revolution, Haiti set out to compensate France by paying the modern equivalent of twenty-one billion dollars. It took America another twenty-four years to recognize Haiti’s independence. 

In Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Michel-Rolph Trouillot argues that the independent black republic was ostracized for the better part of the nineteenth century, contributing to its economic and political deterioration. He cites, for instance, how Penguin’s A Dictionary of Modern History, a mass circulation pocket encyclopedia covering the period 1789–1945, has neither Saint- Domingue nor Haiti in its entries. “What we are observing here is archival power at its strongest,” he writes. “The power to define what is and what is not a serious object of research and, therefore, of mention.” 

This marginalization has endured ever since Haiti dared to free itself. On top of factors such as its debt, a generation-long U.S. occupation, and the uninviting global trade industry, the country battles media-fueled stigmas of poverty, violence, disease, and corruption. New Orleanians don’t go to Haiti for the same reason that most white people in the Western world don’t go to Haiti as tourists. We don’t hear about Haiti’s beaches, or rum sours, or the revolution. We hear about cholera and starvation and natural disasters. In the 1980s, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control listed four “high-risk” groups for AIDS, which became known as the notorious “4H Club”: homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. Haitians were the only ethnic group ever to be labeled as inherently susceptible to this infection. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump, in a meeting about whether to restore protections for immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries, reportedly said to a group of lawmakers, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” 

As I was leaving the Bluntschlis’ compound in Gwo Jan, a drummer in Ron’s band asked to hitch a ride toward Port-au-Prince. Welele Raymond-Noël lives in Petionville, a well-to-do suburb near the capital. On the way, I told him about the upcoming New Orleans tricentennial, and how I found myself wondering, after my visit to N a Sonje, how Haiti was going to be acknowledged in the three-hundredth anniversary commemorations. I recounted all that I was noticing in Haiti that reminded me of New Orleans, like the potholes, and the fast, heavy rains. And the cultural similarities—mixed drinks to-go, Creole cottages that mirror the architecture in New Orleans’s oldest neighborhoods, voodoo ceremonies, funeral brass bands that march through the streets. Raymond-Noël nodded knowingly and revealed that he had visited New Orleans once, to play Jazz Fest after a massive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010. 

“The rhythm of jazz is a rhythm that comes from Vodou, called Mayi, around here,” he said. “They have the same tempo, they’re the same thing, in the same family.” He tapped the rhythm with the palm of his hand against his thigh. “We dance to the same rhythm. If we dance the same rhythm, we have the same cadence. That means we are on the same mountaintop. If we are on the same mountaintop, we are looking at the plain the same way.” 

 

I arrived back in New Orleans shortly after the city removed four of its Confederate monuments, including one of Jefferson Davis in Mid-City, where I live. I went for a walk and passed by the site, what is now an empty stump in the neutral ground of what is still the Jefferson Davis Parkway, which residents refer to as “Jeff Davis.” It was a Sunday afternoon, and I saw a group of people surrounding a man sitting on the bare pedestal, speaking into a microphone. Nic Aziz was sharing his visions of a replacement statue. “I think, moving forward, we need to have monuments that reflect the true identity of the city,” he said. “For me, I think that identity is Haiti.” 

Aziz is twenty-six. He’s a first-generation New Orleanian, and his mother was born in Haiti. His grandfather, Jean Brierre, came to the U.S. to do a medical residency at Yale in the 1950s, bringing his wife and toddler, Aziz’s mom, with him. He began collecting Haitian art “as his way to stay connected to Haiti,” according to Aziz. After his residency, the family moved to New Orleans, where, like all black doctors, Aziz’s grandfather could only practice at one hospital: Flint-Goodridge, which served African Americans. Restricted from practicing as the trained surgeon that he was, Brierre was forced to find greater opportunity elsewhere, which he did in Monroe, Louisiana, about five hours north. He visited New Orleans often, to buy Haitian art, see friends, and later visit his daughter, who had moved there as an adult. In 2011, Jean Brierre died and willed his entire Haitian art collection, more than four hundred works, to his grandson. This inheritance inspired Aziz to visit Haiti for the first time, while attending Morehouse College, on a school work trip. “As soon as I got there, I felt something,” he told me. “It was one of the most unique feelings of my life.” 

So when Aziz watched the monuments come down in the spring of 2017, he wondered what would replace those symbols as new representations of New Orleans. He believes Haiti should be memorialized into the city’s identity. “Haiti plays to a different side of New Orleans’s heritage, and obviously a much more inclusive and righteous part of our heritage,” Aziz said. He cited one of the pillars of New Orleans life: the second line, the city’s signature parading tradition, which is similar to Haitian Rara. In her book Rara!, Elizabeth McAlister defines that tradition as “at once a season, a festival, a genre of music, a religious ritual, a form of dance, and sometimes a technique of political protest.” Both are rooted in the customs and rhythms of West Africa. 

“If you’re shedding light and commemorating foundations of our culture like that,” Aziz said in a matter-of-fact tone, “I think you can do no wrong simply showing people the root of those.” He is thinking of the more than thirteen million tourists the city hopes to welcome during this tricentennial year. (In January, the New York Times named New Orleans the top destination in the world.) He’s also thinking about the projected sixty thousand Haitians whose temporary protected status in the United States will expire next year. 

The tricentennial presents New Orleans with the opportunity to pay tribute to the island nation that offered it a distinct (and profitable) sense of self. In this vein, scholar Freddi Williams Evans collaborated with the Ashé Cultural Arts Center to create an exhibition, Exploring the Diaspora, featuring four temporary street pavillions throughout the city presenting the music, dance, food, and material cultures of Senegal, Haiti, Cuba, and Ghana. And this year’s Mardi Gras celebration featured a new marching organization, or krewe, launched by the transplant rock band Arcade Fire in collaboration with New Orleans’s own Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Their Krewe du Kanaval (named for the Haitian word for Carnival) paraded through the French Quarter one week before Fat Tuesday, to coincide with the major Carnival festivities that take place in the Haitian city of Jacmel. The krewe’s website declares: 

Kanaval is the rhythm of Africa 
The spirit of Haiti 
The song of the Caribbean 
The heart of New Orleans 

This new krewe received mixed reviews from the local population; some viewed the move as cultural appropriation (Arcade Fire’s Régine Chassagne and Win Butler are not from New Orleans, or Haiti, although Chassagne was raised by Haitian immigrant parents), others criticized the steep krewe membership fee (although proceeds go to organizations in Haiti and New Orleans), while others saw it as an exciting, spiritual way to celebrate Mardi Gras. Nevertheless, neither Krewe du Kanaval nor Evans’s diaspora project (both efforts to pay tribute to the city’s Afro-Caribbean heritage) are city-sponsored programming. 

Scott Hutcheson serves as senior advisor to the mayor for the office of cultural economy. He told me that the Haiti–New Orleans connection will be recognized throughout 2018 “because that’s a big part of how we became who we are.” Hutcheson refrained from divulging details, to keep the city’s plans a surprise, but he said the link will be highlighted during International Weekend in April, the mayor’s official welcome celebration. He hopes to host the Haitian ambassador and other Haitian dignitaries at a dinner for international guests at the historic Gallier Hall building on St. Charles Avenue. According to Hutcheson, “The way Haiti influenced the way New Orleans has expressed itself, and defined itself, that’s what you’re gonna see.” 

This winter, in the first months of its tricentennial year, the city hosted Prospect New Orleans, a contemporary art triennial established in 2008, and Nic Aziz showcased forty works from his grandfather’s Haitian art collection. Held at the Dryades Public Market on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City, the show was called Lavi Dous, Creole for “Sweet Life.” During the installation, Aziz struck up a friendship with a security guard who watched him hang painting after painting in the weeks leading up to the exhibition. Aziz told me he received a lot of great feedback on opening night—about how the art activated the space, how he was carrying on his cultural legacy, how his grandfather would be proud. But what stayed with him most came from his new friend. “He walked up to me, and to my parents,” Aziz recalled, “and he looked at us and said, ‘I’ve never seen black people in paintings this elaborate, and this beautiful.’” 


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Laine Kaplan-Levenson is the host of WWNO’s history podcast TriPod: New Orleans at 300. Laine also runs a live storytelling series called Bring Your Own and is a freelance journalist for NPR.