“The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the colour-line” –W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk
By Henry A. Onwubiko
In the Christmas month of December 2010, when most Africans were homeward bound, I met Louise in the sprawling township of Ajegunle after searching without luck for a cousin who was no longer sending money home and, for ten years, failed to make the annual return trip back East to Umuahia.
At 29, Louise had the clairvoyance of a 75-year-old sage, having experienced the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January of the same year which killed over 200,000 people with several hundred thousands injured, and leaving more than one million people homeless for a small water-locked peninsula of the Americas crammed with 12 million black people.
Haitians were among those rebellious Black people whose mutinous challenges and resistance in the slave ships forced the European slave dealers to abandon them in various Island and Peninsulas, to enable them to continue the long voyage to the lucrative North American colonies, slave markets and cotton plantations. In San Domingo Island, these cantankerous Black people were forced by the most brutal means to feed France, as its most profitable colony, from its coffee, cotton and sugarcane plantations, generating the resources for over two-thirds of its world trade under the occasional envious incursion of the British and Spanish empires.
But with a burning desire for their freedom, these Black people revolted against their white slave masters and organized a successful insurrection against the white supremacist, slave-owners which lasted from 1794 to 1804 when they secured their independence and renamed San Domingo Haiti. Led by the great General, Toussaint LOuverture, a self-liberated black man, up from slavery, the Haitian people lit the candle of liberty that not only added its hue to the raging bourgeois-led French Revolution of the time, but has continued to illuminate the path to freedom for black, oppressed and all the colored people of the world.
Yet, despite its greatness in History, Haiti has witnessed immeasurable catastrophes from natural disasters. A people who once fed the European Empires of France, Britain and Spain from commodities generated from their sweat, have been forced by adversity to migrate to different countries, including the guarded frontiers of the United States, manned by cowboys and clansmen and dismissed as undocumented aliens. In 1751 and 1770 there were heavy earthquakes in Haiti with epicentres near its Capital of Port-au-Prince, followed by another earthquake in Capitatien in 1842. Haiti has also been visited by costly hurricanes – Allen in 1980, Gilbert in 1988, Hamsa and Ike in 2008, which claimed more than 800 lives, and more recently Hurricane Henri accompanying the latest devastating earthquake in August 2021.
Despite the effect on human life, the eco-catastrophic consequences of these natural disasters include deforestation and the elimination of wildlife, the reduction of fertile farmlands in the plains and its occupation by Haitians fleeing from the towns to the Bourges or villages. Besides the massive migration of Haitians to other countries, the economic impact included the loss of jobs and increasing unemployment; net importation of food due to over-cultivation of fertile lands and insufficient yield of crops from agriculture and poor roads due to increased erosion in various parts of the country.
One irony of history is the forceful turning away of Haitians by the government of the United States in sending white state troopers and clansmen on horseback, faithful descendants of slave owners to storm and lash at the struggling Haitian men, women and children in danger of drowning in the Rio Grande river, in their desperate stampede to reach the Mexican – US border and the border town of Del Rio, Texas. The U.S. government had forgotten that as migrants from Britain who formed the 13 original colonies, they did not present any documents to the native Indigenous Indians, but confronted them at that time with swords and firearms; that between 1915 and 1934 these descendants of slave owners, clansmen and White Nationalists from the United States occupied Haiti under the subterfuge of civilizing them as Mormons, Presbyterians and Seven Days Adventist. Which documents did they use to invade and live in Haiti?
Like many other Haitians in Lagos, Accra, Monrovia, Necocli, Panama, Mexico and more recently Del Rio Texas, Louise has jumped boats, trekked through jungles and shores; trekked across the national, intercontinental and intra-continental boundaries and their forest grooves; ghettoes, deserts, highlands and plains for self preservation in search again for freedom and the right to settle and pursue happiness that was denied to him in the slave ships and the cotton and sugarcane plantations of San Domingo liberated by his Black ancestors to become Haiti. To him, the clansmen with their Homeland Security colleagues and state troopers were not different from the brutal but defeated slave drivers of San Domingo, regardless of their new modern implements of torture and did not scare him.
The state troopers and ex-slave owners on horseback equally expressed greater hostility reflecting their awareness of the past defeat meted out to their fathers by these bellicose black people. The first deportation of Haitians and subsequent ones with several flights from the US to Port-au-Prince did not move Louise and did not prevent him once more in boarding another ship across the Atlantic to find his way to Guinea. Louise is determined and knows no cage and fence; and no boundary has stood between him and his ancestors in their quest for freedom and right to pursue happiness. In his first ten months in Lagos, Louise regularly sent money to Haiti sometimes with an accompanying small parcel for his Port-au-Prince relatives, except the first two months when he had to settle on the job of loading and unloading bags of Dangote cement at the Lagos Harbour, and save enough for his present taxi an old Peugeot Station wagon — that tilted to one side as it waded through the potholes of Ajengule and other Lagos roads.
Although his catholic leanings were signified by a plastic doll of Mary with the baby Jesus and a pealing silver colored cross that were suspended with a time-corroded rope he had manufactured from the torn clothing that belonged to his mother which dangled by the rear view mirror of the car, he was ready to turn protestant or Anglican and had often had the fleeting thoughts of entering a mosque if that would win for him more passengers, luck or more money. It was only the tattoo on his chest, cut there and infused with gun-powder to stop the bleeding by an old Leogane woman for protection which he had carried since childhood and has also observed on many of his West African comrades, that gave him an unshakable assurance over many of his life encounters. But the August 2021 catastrophic earthquake had changed all that, and since demolished any link in him between whatever type of faith and any form of protection. He now believed he could only count on his black colour, broad nostrils, kinky hair and his other racial characteristics despised by the world but which he shared with other blacks for protection, the way the Arabs of Libya have protected Arabs from other countries who also were migrants to Libya and have offered them tranquility and protection but rejected him, Louise, and other black migrants, displaying them to the world as they squatted as undocumented aliens. With the white man in America, Malcom X had observed this phenomenon, when he said that it hardly took the white man from European countries any time at all and effort with or without document to integrate and be accepted as an American, compared to Black people from the African continent or elsewhere visiting America who it took ages to be integrated to share in the American dream, and in most cases were never welcomed at all.
Louise wondered why black people do not do the same, by integrating black migrants into their various countries in record time without documents. Where were the Black Lives Matter Movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Black American Churches, Blacks in the Democratic Party, Blacks in strategic positions in the United Nations, and the many Black organizations in the United States, when those clansmen on horseback, and faithful descendants of slave-owners posing as Texas state troopers, or their colleagues and officials of Homeland security attacked the desperate black migrants of Haiti?
And where were the Black Movements in America when the Haitians were forcefully deported back to Haiti with several government sponsored flights to perish under the catastrophic mess brought by the August earthquake, without adequate aid to rebuild their infrastructure, reconstruct their poor agriculturally-based economy, equip their hospitals or to effectively assist the millions of injured people, and rebuild their crumbled homes? It cannot be forgotten how the present incumbent president of the United States, Joseph Biden knelt before the black masses of the Black Lives Matter Movement to secure their decisive and significant votes that made him the current president.
For his protection and the protection of documented and undocumented black people all over the world, it has now become a necessity for the recognition of a single black nation existing in the spirit of every black person, despite the many countries in Africa and worldwide which we share individually with other colors? How can black people use their collective black colour to protect themselves in this Diasporas and in their African homeland? If the Arab countries were retarded by inertia, where were the black countries in Africa who constituted the majority of members of the African Union in expressing their solidarity with Haiti and through their human and material capacity assist the black people of Haiti devastated from the earthquake of the August? Something is definitely wrong with an African Union in which nations, and even the Zionist State of Israel sit as observers to their proceedings, yet has no significant active black representation from the diverse countries of the African Diasporas.
The great insight, scholarship and passionate concern for the protection of his oppressed people and humanity, after the American civil war when black people were victims of pogroms and lynchings by white people, led W.E.B. DuBios to the conclusion in his book The Souls of Black Folk, that the problem of the 20th century was the problem of the colour-line. Had DuBois further witnessed the genocide and the continued victimization of Black people by the Apartheid regime in South Africa or the racist foundation of the police in America and Europe in the selective killings of black men such as George Floyd or the present flogging of black migrants from earthquake-stricken Haiti by Texas state troopers, clansmen, white nationalist and descendants of former slave-owners in his own country, he would have extended his conclusion, that the problem of racism or the colour-line is not only to be confined to the 20th century but has become a central problem threatening the survival of humanity, and the need to find how black lives can be protected by black people.
Black people must develop the imperative of perceiving themselves as members of a single black nation, protecting each other, as Marcus Garvey had instructed in the motto of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) with one aim and destiny, despite our diverse citizenship from different countries from where our collective and nationally distilled resolve becomes the guide to our actions in our diverse countries or localities.
•Onwubiko, PhD, is a Professor and Head, Department of Biochemistry, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
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“The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the colour-line” –W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls…
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