December 1, 2022 by
Transparency Item: Howard Jean-Denis is an assistant professor of Strategic Management at Pepperdine. The Graphic allows guest contributors to submit their work. This is an opinion piece and the writer is sharing their perspective on the topic.
One of the key insights both “Black Panther” moves revealed was that marginalized communities must come together to overcome oppression. I truly believe this core message is also closely connected to the legendary rise and fall of the Kingdom of Haiti.
Reminiscing on the first 10 times I watched the first “Black Panther” movie, I became deeply emotional during each and every experience. The jubilant African sounds, vibrant African prints, richness of our culture and intense battles were invigorating. Although my emotions were released throughout the film, they overflowed during one specific scene — the scene after T’challa defeated M’baku and he ascends to the ancestral plane to see his recently deceased father, King T’chaka.
As soon as T’challa sees his father, he drops to one knee in deep reverence. He later states to the king “I am not ready to be without you.”
This scene was fascinating due to its visualization of the African concept of ancestral worship. Concomitantly, it was endearing as my own father had previously transitioned to be with the ancestors and I missed his counsel while navigating new identities as a father, husband and Haitian-American professor.
Elucidating the origins of my visceral reactions, I reflect back to a cold winter day in Boston around 2005. I still remember laying in a cold, leather chair of a tattoo parlor. That day, a tattoo artist embedded a 2-part piece of artwork into my skin as a means of expressing my identity as a Haitian-American.
One part of the body art was a phrase that read ‘Le Sang D’esclave’ and the second part was a large letter ‘H’ with a heart and a crown drawn inside of it. These two tattoos symbolize ‘Blood of a slave, Heart of a King,’ which were also the lyrics of my favorite rapper, Nas’s, intro song to his Stillmatic CD. Hip hop music for me was at the nexus of artistic expression and cultural identity.
This tattoo was empowering as I was enamored with the stories impressed upon me of the legend of a king who ruled Haiti. His name was King Henri Christophe.
An artwork of King Henri Christophe by Johann Gottfried Eiffe. “Black Panther” had many scenes that connected to Haitians globally. Photo courtesy of Howard Jean-Denis
In November, the motion picture “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” was recently released as the highly awaited sequel. There are multiple scenes in the movie where actors are speaking Haitian Kreyol and a depiction of Cap-Haïtien, a northern city that was formerly known as ‘Cap Henri’ for the king. These scenes are immensely empowering to Haitians globally, as it symbolizes the only successful revolution of a group of enslaved people against their oppressors.
The Haitian revolution is relatively understudied, yet the discussion of the Kingdom of Haiti is almost absent. What follows next is the legend of the revolutionary who would become a king during the rise and fall of the Haitian monarchy.
The Kingdom of Haiti
More than 200 years ago, during the year 1791, a ceremony occurred in the ancient colony of Saint Domingue.
A mix of people consisting of enslaved people from West Africa and the indigenous Taino Indians populated Saint Domingue. This group of people were proud, hardworking and resilient with a desire to be free from captivity by the French.
As legend has it, the ceremony took place at a location known as ‘Bwa Kayiman’ where Haitians came together to unite to fight for our freedom. This ceremony started a long, violent revolution against our oppressors which culminated with the independence of the nation currently called Haiti in 1804. Our victory sent shock waves throughout the world with hope brought by the fact that a group of black people could defeat a vicious oppressor.
Toussaint L’ouverture was one of those enslaved men who became a general and is considered to be the father of Haiti because of his many battles against France. Toussaint was valiant in his efforts yet he was sadly captured before the end of the revolution. His lieutenant general Jean-Jacques Dessalines officially declared victory in 1804.
Haitians were finally emancipated through our successful resistance to imperialism. Unfortunately for Dessalines, he was only in power for two years before he was assassinated by his countrymen in 1806. Haitians were still left reconciling their freedom and focused on survival amid political isolation and a desire to create the structure for their new nation.
Henri Christophe was a key leader in the successful revolution and rose through the military ranks in subsequent years due to his ambition and vision. In March 1811, Henri declared the northern part of Haiti a monarchy and he would be our first king. The Kingdom of Haiti existed from 1811 to 1820 in the first black republic where the king built six chateaus, 8 palaces and the massive Citadelle Lafrerrière where Haitians defeated the French.
King Christophe’s palace was immaculate and called “San-Souci,” which translates to “without worry.” Within the northern part of Haiti, the massive fortress was built by the king and called Citadelle Lafrerrière situated where Haitians claimed victory over Napoleon Bonaparte. This beautiful area where the Citadelle, Palace San-Souci, and buildings of Ramiers are listed globally as a UNESCO heritage site.
Citadelle Laferrière sits in Nord, Haiti. This site is listed globally as a UNESCO heritage site. Photo courtesy of Howard Jean-Denis
For Haitians to survive in the aftermath of the revolution, Lakous were created as small communities of families situated around a courtyard. These communities prayed, worked, and shared resources as a form of resistance to external oppression. “Nan menm lakou nou ye, lakou sa demanbre, fo n respekte” translates to “We are all part of the same Lakou, this Lakou was passed from the ancestors, we must respect it.” Lakous act as a communal space for collectively experiencing spirituality, challenges, and triumphs. Lwas (or spirits) inhabit the Lakous and are believed to be intermediaries between God and humans.
The beauty of the Haitian people is that spirituality, cooperative economics, and resistance to oppression are aspects of how we develop our communities. King Christophe’s ideas or ‘Henri’s code’ are principles that are documented in the archives detailing how he promoted resource sharing between proprietors and laborers and land ownership for members of the population. His palace, Sans-Souci, was beautifully designed with a domed cathedral, double staircases, and luxurious etchings of the fabled kingdom.
Implications from the Kingdom of Haiti
Chadwick Boseman was an exceptional actor with true “superpowers” that continue to inspire people all over the world. I believe there was a theme of redemption within both movies as T’challa strived to fulfill the legacy of his ancestors which in many ways gave him even more superpowers.
Today when I walk into a classroom, students address me as “Dr. Jean-Denis” and in these moments I subconsciously think of how Chadwick’s character inspired me to navigate redemption, identity and intergenerational issues within the Diaspora. Some students express genuine excitement in my research of indigenous business practices in Haiti and other economies. However, I recall many years after my family immigrated to America being ridiculed as a kid specifically because of my Haitian identity.
I have forgiven these former acts of bullying as it is unfortunately commonplace for young people. Nevertheless, what may be lost in translation are opportunities to educate people on important pieces of world history and successful resistance to oppression. Furthermore, developing identity is an enriching process that takes time but can be augmented through the stories we hear in music and film as well as through our studies.
The creation of a monarchy is not necessarily a solution to contemporary problems, yet we can learn from the vision, stability and order which led to the numerous, early accomplishments of the Haitian kingdom. King Christophe was not only a monarch, but he was simultaneously an activist, innovative builder, and an international collaborator like King T’challa. King Christophe negotiated a major international agreement with Britain to warn Haiti of French troops in the Caribbean. Due to a significant amount of bilateral trade at the time between Haiti and Britain, Christophe’s Kingdom became relatively wealthy and flourished. He built amazing architectural pieces which withstood the test of time.
Currently, African nations such as Rwanda, Ethiopia, Senegal and Ghana are thriving with some of the fastest rates of growth within the Diaspora. International trade and the rise of multinational corporations not only facilitate survival for emerging nations but ideally can be utilized for wealth creation. Collaborative leadership is a key solution for navigating nation-states towards prosperity, and a core ideal of indigenous African philosophies.
In 2022, there are a plethora of issues within Haiti that stem from internal and external forces. These issues include gang violence, economic woes, cholera, insecurity, corruption and persistent political instability as evidenced by the recent assassination of President Jovenel Moise. President Moise was a former entrepreneur who rose to the presidency and was killed in 2021. Economic, political, and humanitarian crises have become more commonplace. Many amazing visionaries exist in our country and are working very hard to develop the infrastructure so that Haiti can rise again.
When greeting someone in Haitian Kreyol we say, Sak Pase, with the most common response to that being N’ap boule. N’ap Boule means “We are hanging out”. However, the literal translation of it also is “We are burning” referring to the constantly high temperature in Haiti. Organizational scholars in my field often assume that a capitalistic view of management can help countries.
Despite previously being occupied by the French and Americans, Haiti has suffered more than it has profited from capitalistic endeavors culminating with the recent unsolved assassination of our president in 2021 for bribery. N’ap boule! Corruption is burning us from the inside, yet capitalism is burning us from the outside.
King Christophe was considered a visionary leader and arguably was part of the inspiration for the black panther movie. Regardless, there are several insights from the king’s actions which are thought provoking. In 1817, King Christophe ordered the capture of a ship carrying enslaved people and the release of the 145 captives. As the reigning king in Haiti, he wanted to send the message that we would not stand for this type of behavior. Secondly, King Christophe promoted collaborative policies and practices. The king created the Henry code which outlined the sharing of land ownership and inter-generational wealth creation. Finally, King Christophe built amazing monuments, a line of nobility, and held opulent dinners to commemorate the success of the monarchy.
During the second “Black Panther” movie, there were several instances when the plot pits different ethnic communities against each other with the leaders grappling with how they can collaborate against their oppressors. These tenuous situations are not uncommon and are opportunities to discuss how communities in the African diaspora can collaborate to overcome our challenges. Institutions such as the African Union have attempted to bring together different nation-states. Academics have also strived to provide more knowledge on the great legacies of the Kingdom of Kush, Carthage, Songhai and the Kingdom of Haiti in this essay.
King Christophe was considered a visionary leader. There are several insights from the king’s actions which are thought provoking. Despite building beautiful monuments, he was not able to maintain his position of power. Although the king was a visionary, he was criticized for being domineering in his desire to develop the northern part of Haiti. Ultimately, he committed suicide in the face of political isolation globally and threats of assassination domestically. Several years after the king’s death, Haiti was forced by the French to incur a back-breaking, multibillion-dollar debt under duress which took the nation 122 years to pay off. He achieved his desire to create a legacy of nobility yet he was not able to simultaneously create a sustainable kingdom to redeem his ancestors. Prayerfully, we can all learn from the legend of the king.
Rest in peace to Chadwick Boseman.
Chadwick Boseman poses in the movie “Black Panther.” Boseman passed away in August 2020. Photo courtesy of Howard Jean-Denis
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