By Jacques Pierre
Jacques Pierre is a Haitian Creole and Creole Studies lecturer at Duke University.
Today marks the 211th anniversary of Haiti’s independence. In other words, 211 years since a bunch of slaves under Jean-Jacques Dessalines’ leadership fiercely defeated the French army whose core mission was to keep the masses in shackles forever. In recent years the last three French presidents, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, and the current president François Hollande have in one way or another shown amnesia or misunderstanding of the Haitian linguistic reality and of facts regarding the history between Haiti and France.
In October 2014, the French president, Hollande declared that the French language is what makes the identity of Haitians. Such a declaration proves that President Hollande has been viewing Haiti through a colonial lens, where only the minority educated in French — to reproduce the colonial cycle—have an identity. Then, the vast majority who has not had access to school is considered uncivilized, and therefore has no identity worth mentioning.
Worse yet, President Hollande declared that the French language should be the medium of instruction in the “Lycées” that are being built in Haiti. Moreover, French people will be the first ones to be recruited to teach the language when possible, and others from Francophone countries later.
In May 2011, on the National Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade, Slavery and their Abolitions, then- President Sarkozy gave a powerful speech in which he denounced how sinful was slavery. Nevertheless, he wrongly asserted Haiti’s independence came on July 1, 1804 when in fact it was January 1 of that year.
Five days later, I wrote to the office of the Sarkozy administration asking the government to edit that part of written speech on the government’s site. Three weeks later I received a stamped letter from the French presidency vaguely acknowledging that my request was received, but failed to correct the date until the end of President’s Sarkozy term.
Last but least, in March 2000, then- President Chirac, declared that Haiti has never been, strictly speaking, a French colony. We, Haitians, would have indeed been happier if our country was never a colony. However, we cannot ignore history, let alone, revise it as President Chirac was trying to do.
As far as Haitian identity is concerned, Creole is the language that unreservedly unites all Haitians. It is time to end a school system that has been forming Haitians to mimic French habits. Otherwise, educated Haitians will always be inclined to defend French language and habits while negating Creole.
As an example, in March 2014 the French journalist Mr. Xavier Lambrechts asked the Haitian President Martelly why Haiti does not speak English when it is so close to Florida. President Martelly might have been expected to lecture the journalist about the horrendous relationship that existed between the former colony (Haiti) and France, instead he answered, “Curiously in Haiti we speak French”. The French journalist got it right by telling the President that both Creole and French are spoken in Haiti. Ironically, President Martelly with a seeming smile agreed, but failed through the entire interview to acknowledge that Creole and French are the two official languages in Haiti.
On December 3, 2014, President Martelly unequivocally decided not to meet the first 33 members of the Creole Academy. It is clear that the President’s unwillingness to officially support the Creole Academy lies in his staunch commitment for French to be recognized as an official language in the CARICOM at Creole’s expense
At any rate, Haiti’s revolution will continue to be studied in relation with France because the two countries share a past, unfortunately, full of horrors. That said, French officials should make an effort to stop ignoring even the simplest facts about Haiti, rather than seeing it just a tentacle in the Caribbean to promote French language.