Liberated Zones within the Borders of Empire
In 1663 in the mountains of northeastern Brazil, black slaves fled to Palmares. The governor general of Brazil sent expeditions to route the dissenters, to no avail. The Portuguese sent twenty-three expeditions against Palmares and failed to crush them. It is in Palmares that the many “petals” of language and custom become a “a single rose.”
Palmares remained dangerous memory, the place of resistance and new culture, black culture, the culture of the Quilombos, those escaped blacks who formed settlements in the mountains and jungles of Brazil. The culture which they made was mix of many different languages, cultures, and national identities.
As a precursor to the slave revolts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Palmares symbolizes the formation of an autonomous “state” within empire. Only one slave revolt, however, became a sovereign national power. The Haitian revolution, led by Touissant l’Ouverture and Dessalines, embodied the struggle for freedom and rights epitomized in the French revolution. But the Haitian revolution added a historical depth lacking in the French revolution. It was led by slaves. Such a fire threatened to spread.
The tragic counterrevolution which followed reduced the island to isolation, savage poverty, and rule by brutal dictators. Yet the spirit of resistance rises from the ashes of history. A new leader, devoted to the impoverished majority, has given the people hope. On his presidential inauguration day Jean Betran Aristide invited the masses into the palace for a banquet. President Aristide, a Catholic priest who the people called “our Liberator,” moved throughout the courtyard offering the Haitian poor an inaugural meal as a sign of his desire to serve the people.
Aristide’s uncompromising defense of the poor masses so angered the elites and military that he was captured and exiled in October 1991. The generals soon learned that they country might be ungovernable. Resistance remains clandestine, wily, and massive. The people do not forget the revolutionary priest who believed in them, who believed that the poor of Haiti are its future. So they wait as their ancestors waited for the tight moment. They will fill the years with sabotage, defiance, underground organizations, secret cods, and memory. They will remember Aristide as they remember l’Ouverture. Poet Ntosake Shage calls on leaders’ l’Overture, Petion, and Dessalines to observe the suffering of the people:
can you satand it Dessalines?
can you stand it Petion\l’Ouverent?
can you stand these children
with the red eyes and Dacron brassieres for sale…..
will you come again\some of you
sweep through the alleys and the stink\come here
with yr visions
l’liberte l’egalite l’fraternite.
come visit among us that we might know
Ntosake Shange, “A Black Night in Haiti, Palais National, Port au Prince,” A Daughter’s Geography, 33-34
L’Ouverture, Petion, Dessalines can never, of course, return. But the spirit of their resistance can. It is the memory of that spirit that Shange calls upon. This book has sought to remember the l’Ouverents’ of history. But the book’s dedication is to those anonymous masses that make such liberators possible. Those nameless peasant, slaves and workers are the spiritual and material forces that drive history. Shange calls upon the spirit of Haitian revolutionaries to return. But it is, and it was, the peoples’ spirit of resistance which will determine the struggle for justice, not an individual leader. L’Ouverture cannot return. Aristide can. The people say he’ll come again. They’ll see to it.