Haitian Heritage Month
May 16, 2023 | DEI Department
May is Haitian Heritage Month. We invite you to take this opportunity to learn about Haitian culture, heritage, and resilience.
Haiti, a Caribbean country just a little over 10,000 square miles in size (about the area of New Jersey), is located on the eastern side of the island known as Hispaniola. Haiti includes 11 states, each with its own cultural context, and shares Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.
Almost the entire current population of Haiti is of African or African-European descent. Haiti’s official languages include Haitian Creole and French, though Spanish and many other languages co-exist within the country.
Haiti had history before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. Hispaniola was home to the Taino and Ciboney people before its decimation by generations of European settlers. The colonizers used the labor of enslaved Africans to mine gold and to farm coffee and sugarcane until the late 18th century.
In 1804, Haiti defeated the French in the Haitian Revolution, which comprised 12 years of conflicts between enslaved Haitians, colonists, and British, Spanish, and French colonial armies. This triumph resulted in Haiti being the first Black republic to gain its independence from colonizers.
In the 19th century, Haiti was known as a safe harbor for revolutionaries and formerly enslaved Africans. The country supported rebellions and intercepted ships to free the enslaved people they carried. For Haiti, colonialism and slavery anywhere posed a threat to the republic’s own independence and humanity.
Haitian Heritage Month celebration is an expansion of Haitian Flag Day, a major patriotic celebration in Haiti and the Diaspora. Haitian President Dumarsais Estimé started the Flag Day celebration with parades and cultural and athletic events in many cities in Haiti in the 1930s. Estimé wanted to commemorate the creation of the Haitian flag annually on May 18 to encourage the development of patriotic sentiments among Haitian youth. Haitian Flag Day was also created as an official commemoration to the fallen soldiers who helped the United States and many other Western-colonized countries gain their freedom and independence.
Beside the Flag Day celebration, the month of May carries a number of significant historical and cultural traditions that Haitians are proud to pass on to future generations. Tele Kreyol, a Boston Haitian public access TV program, hosted one of the first month-long celebrations in the United States in 1998. Its recognition of Haitian Heritage Month included a series of programs on Haitian history, culture, and contributions to the world. Boston’s celebration continues yearly, with activities such as parades, flag raisings, and exhibits organized by Haitian Americans United for Progress, Inc. in collaboration with several Haitian organizations in the New England area and across the country.
Symbols of Recognition
As Haiti’s politics and leadership changed, so did its flag, which has a long history of revisions. Haiti was originally represented by the French flag, as Haiti was under French control in the 17th century. Consequently, one of the most significant changes to the Haitian flag was the dropping of the white stripe in 1803, symbolizing the division of Haiti from the French. The remaining stripes represent the alliance of the Black (blue stripe) and biracial (historically referred to as “mulatto,” represented by the red stripe) communities in their fight for freedom.
Between 1804 and 1986, the Haitian flag would experience eight more changes, including the 1806 additions of the inscription “L’union fait la force” (“Strength in unity”) at the center and the coat of arms of the Republic, adorned with the Phrygian hat (liberty cap) on a white background. This version of the flag was adopted in February 1986 and ratified by the official adoption of the March 29, 1987, Constitution.
Haiti’s flag has another significant unique aspect. Because of Haiti’s support of the liberation of many other countries, many countries have historically either adopted the Haitian flag or used it as a model to create their own.
A Call for Action
Haitians have emigrated throughout the United States since 1790, contributing to the development and economic growth of this country as well as bringing and sharing their various talents in arts, music, dance, and multiple languages (Spanish, Haitian Creole, French, and more). As various individuals and groups make efforts to uplift and acknowledge Haitians’ contributions to US society and culture, it is important to recognize that despite many historical and ongoing efforts, Haitian Heritage Month is still not an official celebration in the United States. However, the fight for visibility and opportunities continues within the Haitian community in the US.
As folks sit with these and many other complexities, we invite you to continue to learn about ways we can individually and collectively show up in spaces that help promote and preserve the history and great accomplishments of Haitian communities.
Ways To Honor and Celebrate Haitian Heritage Month