Haiti: The Early Years
Although Danticat had been living in the United States for fourteen years by the time ‘ ‘Children of the Sea” was first published, the story draws upon her experience of having spent her early years in Haiti. With generations of experience in poverty, dictatorship, and oppression, Haiti’s population knows hardship well. ‘ ‘Children of the Sea” takes place in the turbulent mid-1980s, when the longstanding Duvalier dictatorship was toppled, and people’s brief hopes for democracy were dashed by the military government which succeeded the dictator.
Haiti shares a large island in the Caribbean Sea with the Dominican Republic. In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed on this island, which he named Hispaniola, and found what he believed was an earthly paradise. In the seventeenth century, the French and the Spanish divided the island between them. Spain received the eastern half, which later became the Dominican Republic, and France took the western half. The French landowners used many Africans as slaves on their plantations, which produced sugar, indigo, coffee, and cotton. In the 1790s, a black ex-slave named Toussaint L’ouverture led a revolution, and by 1801 the country had gained its independence and was the world’s first black republic.
Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoutes
However, for the next two centuries the country suffered from extreme poverty and misrule, and it was even occupied by United States Marines for twenty years in the early twentieth century. In 1957 a man named Francois Duvalier took power and ruled for fourteen years. Duvalier was known as “Papa Doc” because he had practiced medicine before going into politics. He was a brutal ruler who jailed or killed his opponents and stole money from ordinary Haitians and from the international aid funds that gave money to the country. The United States government supported Duvalier because he was not a communist.
Papa Doc had his own private army called the Tonton Macoutes, whose responsibility was to keep an eye on dissenters. The name comes from the Creole term meaning “Uncle Knapsack.” Creole, a combination of French and African dialects, is the language spoken by the people of Haiti. “Uncle Knapsack” refers to a monster in Haitian folklore who steals children from their parents and hides them in his knapsack. The Tonton Macoutes wanted the people of Haiti to fear them, so they chose a name that would inspire horror in anyone familiar with the folk tale. There was good reason to fear the Tonton Macoutes, for they would often kill people or burn their houses for no reason other than to remind people that they were in charge.
Baby Doc and Revolution
After Papa Doc died in 1971, his son JeanClaude (known as Baby Doc) assumed power. Baby Doc maintained control over the country and continued to live the rich and lavish lifestyle to which his family and friends had been accustomed. While the people of Haiti starved, Jean-Claude and his wife entertained lavishly and spent much time out of the country on vacations in Europe or the United States. Those who protested the unequal distribution of wealth were killed by the Tonton Macoutes. As a result of Haiti’s poverty and violence, many Haitians began to leave the country and look for a better life in the Bahamas, Jamaica, or the United States.
In 1985, however, things began to fall apart for Duvalier. During a student demonstration in the impoverished city of Gonaives, the Tonton Macoutes shot into the crowd, killing four teenagers. This angered the people greatly, and demonstrations soon began all across the country. Radio stations, some affiliated with the Catholic Church and some illegal, broadcast anti-government programs. As Duvalier intensified the repression, the United States withdrew its support. Duvalier fled to France in January, 1986, and the army assumed power. The Haitian people were ecstatic.
The army officers who took over, though, were less than the embodiment of democracy. Many of them had been close to Duvalier and were more interested in assuming power themselves than in improving conditions in the country. The Tonton Macoutes were officially disbanded, but many of them continued to terrorize the country. Thousands of Haitians began to leave the country, fleeing to Miami on small boats. Many of these refugees died at sea.
Aristide and the Refugees
In 1990, the country was again racked by anti-government demonstrations, and the military government was forced to hold elections. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a priest who had worked extensively with Haiti’s poor, was elected president. However, he only served eight months before the military overthrew him and forced him to flee to the United States.
The Haitian exodus, temporarily stemmed by public enthusiasm for Aristide, returned in full force. The United States told Haiti that all refugees would be “repatriated,” or sent back to Haiti, but the desperate people continued to come. Many people felt that America’s refusal to accept Haitian refugees was hypocritical. They held that the United States welcomed refugees from Cuba because they were being saved from communism. Conditions in Haiti were just as bad or worse than in Cuba, the Haitians claimed, and they should be granted political amnesty as well, or they would surely die.
After much public pressure, President Clinton sent troops to Haiti in 1994 to restore President Aristide to office. The military leaders who ran Haiti left the country and Aristide returned in October. Although Haiti continues to be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, there is much hope among Haitians that real democracy will soon improve their lives. Outside of Haiti, too, the question of justice is raised. In addition to the repression in their country, Haitian refugees are not welcomed in any country. The United States, well-known as a haven for refuge-seekers, turns the Haitians back at sea while they welcome Cubans. In the Bahamas, a woman tells the first narrator in ‘ ‘Children of the Sea,” “they treat Haitians like dogs. To them, we are not human .. . even though we had the same African fathers who probably crossed these same seas together.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Edwidge Danticat, Published by Gale, 1997.