AFRICANGLOBE – When Brother Aggery Dechinea, associate director of grievances and legal services, asked me to address you on the impact of Caribbean Culture on North America, I really had to scratch my head for the simple reason that North America includes Canada and the United States and as much as we would like to cross boundaries I thought it best that we narrow our focus to “The Impact of Caribbean Culture on the United States.” This is certainly much more doable.
But even this is not as precise or narrow as I wanted it to be for the simple reason that one can interpret the question of culture in many ways. Culture also means different things to different people. Faced with such a conundrum, I thought it better to examine the realm of intellectual and popular culture, politics, and the arts to demonstrate how Caribbean Americans influenced the making of the United States in big ways and small ways and in ways of which we are not always conscious.
Thus it seemed to me, particularly in a month entitled National Caribbean-American Heritage Month, that I could take the thirty or forty minutes allotted to me to speak about the varied ways in which the activities of the Caribbean and its people-even though our number is small-impacted on the making of the United States especially when the president of the United States has proclaimed that Caribbean-Americans are part of a great national tradition. President Obama continued: “Caribbean Americans have contributed to every aspect of our society-from science and medicine to business and the arts. During National Caribbean-American Heritage Month we honor their history, culture, and essential role in the American narrative.” It is to the role that Caribbean Americans have played in the American narrative that I wish to address my remarks. I will look at three aspects of this relationship as it developed over the course of the last two hundred and fifty years or so. It’s a long sweep of time but I think it gives us a sense of how we fit into the picture.
As tiny as it is, the Caribbean has had a tremendous impact on the making of the United States and the modern world. I can demonstrate this point by asking you to go into your pockets or your wallets, take out a ten dollar note, and tell me what you see on it. On one side you will see a picture of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States; the U.S. Treasury Building is featured on the back.
Then, you might want to ask, why are these two pictures there? They are there because Alexander Hamilton was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a major author of the Federalist Papers, and, most relevant to our discussion, he was the first secretary of the U.S. Treasury.
Not satisfied with this answer, you may still want to ask why these facts should be important to Caribbean people. These facts are important to Caribbean people because Alexander Hamilton was born in Nevis, in the British West Indies in 1755. At the age of eleven he moved to St. Croix to work in an accounting firm before he moved to the U.S. to attend Columbia University (at that time it was called King’s College) after which he became embroiled on the Patriot side against the pro-British Loyalist forces. The path that Hamilton took is a path with which most of us here today are familiar. It is a path that most of us have taken.
For our purposes, the foregoing is the most relevant fact about Hamilton’s life and career. He fought for a strong federal or central government as opposed to Thomas Jefferson, another titan of American politics, who fought for states’ rights in the belief that the fewer powers one gave to the central government the better it was to preserve the union. Interestingly enough, this is a position that is still held in general by the Republican Party-that is, a belief that a respect of states’ rights as opposed to the power of a strong central government in an important ingredient in keeping the union strong. However, had Jefferson’s view prevailed we might still be living in a racially divided society and perhaps Barack Obama may not have been the president of these United States. We can argue that it is as a direct result of the position taken by Hamilton in those early days when the republic was being formed that we can now claim Obama as the first black president of the union. At any rate, this is what Ron Chernow, in his illuminating biography of Hamilton, had to say about Hamilton’s contribution to the making of America:
He had laid the groundwork for both liberal democracy and capitalism and helped to transform the role of the president from passive administrator to active policy maker, creating the institutional scaffolding for America’s future emergence as a great power. He had demonstrated the creative uses of government and helped to weld the states irreversibly into one nation. He had also defended Washington’s administration more brilliantly than anyone else, articulating its constitutional underpinnings and enunciating key tenets of foreign policy. “We look in vain for a man who, in equal space of time, has produced such direct and lasting effects upon our institutions and history,” Henry Cabot Lodge was to contend.
Chernow concludes: “If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.” If this is not the finest praise that one can thrust upon a West Indian and his impact upon the making of the United States, then surely none better can be given.
In those nascent days of the American republic, the Caribbean also contributed enormously to the making of the United States through the tremendous victory of the Haitian people over the French, the British, and the Spanish armies at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Sometimes we tend to pass over this world-shattering event without recognizing the important role it played in the making of the contemporary world in which we live. For one thing, the glorious victories of the Haitian people over these European powers proved that “white power was not invincible.” However it was Frederick Douglass, the great African American freedom fighter, who captured the essence of the Haitian Revolution and what it meant to the modern world when he said:
[Haiti] had grandly served the cause of universal human liberty. We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy today; that the freedom that eight hundred thousand colored people enjoy in the British West Indies; the freedom that has come to the colored race the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons of Haiti ninety years ago. When they struck for freedom, they built better than they knew. Their swords were not drawn and could not be drawn simply for themselves alone. They were linked and interlinked with their race, and striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world.
I regard her as the original pioneer emancipator of the nineteenth century. It was her one brave example that first of all started (sic) the Christian world into a sense of the Negro’s manhood. It was she who first awoke the Christian world to a sense of “the danger of goading too far the energy that slumbers in a black man’s arm.”Until Haiti struck for freedom, the conscience of the Christian world slept profoundly over slavery. It was scarcely troubled even by a dream of this crime against justice and liberty.
But the Haitian Revolution was important to the United States of America for one other reason. When the revolution began in France and the Paris masses stormed the Bastille, it opened up a space for the enslaved masses in the Caribbean to fight for their freedom, a process that C. L. R. James chronicled so well in his book, The Black Jacobins. Napoleon would have none of it. Haiti had made France one of the richest countries in the world. It had to keep the Haitian people in chains to maintain its economic advantage. Therefore to secure French interests in the Caribbean, Napoleon sent the might of the French army, under the command of General Charles Leclerc, his brother-in-law, to recapture Haiti and re-impose slavery in that island, a position that Thomas Jefferson, the president of the United States at the time, supported.