is the color of Liberty
interview with Haitian attorney Ezili Dantò by
San Francisco Bayview, June 3, 2004
Ezili Dantò has a visual presence that is
just as striking as her written one, which is how I met her initially.
Born in Haiti, her family moved to New York in 1968 when her dad couldn't
keep steady employment under the Duvalier regime. Proud of her heritage,
more specifically a cultural and religious legacy vilified by colonists
and their henchmen in her homeland, the fiery sister has taken on the
task of rectifying this slander through her poetry, dance and legal
A founding member of the Haitian Lawyers
Leadership (1994), Dantò, who studied law at the University of Connecticut
and also has a graduate degree in dance from the Hartford Conservatory,
was all ready to spend her time touring
with her dance-theatre company in celebration of Haiti's bicentennial
- this included a kickoff at Carnegie
Hall in January, [to be] followed by a gig on the Bwa
Kayiman History tour this August - when the coup foiled all
of her plans.
Back in riot gear, Dantò is armed with her literary tools, shooting
off multiple articles
a week as she keeps her index finger of the pulse of her homeland. In
town for the recent Haiti
forum at Pro Arts Gallery Sunday, May 2,
sponsored by PEN Oakland and the Haiti
Action Committee, I was able to speak to the busy woman the following
morning at length about Haitian history, her work with the Haitian
Lawyers Leadership Network (HLLN) and the spirit of
Ezili Dantò, her patron goddess.
Quite dramatic even on the phone, the sister held me spellbound as she
shared her life story, which is the story of an African nation, the
first pan-African nation, Ayiti or Haiti. Dantò credits her parents
for her consciousness.
Ezili Dantò: "My father
always had a saying - he was a Maroon, his lineage are all 'Neg
Mawon,' those runaway captives who were never slaves. There's a
very strong pride in [claiming] 'm se neg mawon.'
It's like Dessalines said, that 'if that's a civilized nation (referring
to the Europeans), I'll gladly be a savage African.' My father said,
'we'll always be Neg
Mawon,' which meant the same thing as Dessalines' - 'if the
blood of the European tribe is how they get their sort of civilization,
then I'd rather be a savage African.'" Here was a father whose
father was a Vodun priest.
I'm kind of blown away … for a moment.
Ezili Dantò: "Really,
every Haitian has this history, but they don't want to talk about it
because they've been colonized by the priests and the captors who tell
them that what they're representing is satanic. Meanwhile, (the Europeans)
are out there studying it and getting Ph.D.s in it, while Black people
say it's not important. The suppression of [the Vodun] religion in Haiti
is one of the crimes of the European powers, while they advocate freedom
of religion in their own countries."
Wanda Sabir: Your poem
that you read Sunday at Pro
Arts spoke to the colonial influence on Haitian culture.
Ezili Dantò: "This
is how I became who I am. If you go to windowsonhaiti.com,
go under contributors and click on that, you'll see Red,
Black and Moonlight [Memoir of a Poet (Special Edition),
A Burnt Offering to the Ancestors] - this is an older version of this.[from
the Red, Black & Moonlight series.] It's a piece I wrote when I
went to Haiti in 1995.
One of the U.S. ambassadors to Haiti and USAID,
when they saw a group of Haitian American lawyers [not working for the
State Department or any of USAID's approved NGOs] who wanted to help
Haiti, they saw depleted funding sources, and their obsolescence if
HLLN succeeded in breaking US/USAID’s impoverishment cycle, helped
Haiti become self-reliant. They saw us as a threat. And so they spent
a lot of time trying to throw us out of Haiti, and eventually they did."
Wanda Sabir: You're not welcome in Haiti?
Ezili Dantò: "HLLN is
diametrically opposed to USAID's
ideals. We want to develop Haiti; they want to keep it dependent. That's
the fight that we fight. That's the struggle that we try to expose to
the world, that Haitians for years and decades and centuries have tried
to become independent and that it is, of course, the imperialist drama
to keep you dependent.
"If you're educated in your own
liberty and in self-reliance, self-reliance begins with understanding
heritage and your own
culture. But if you're dependent on their god, their sort
of democracy, their military to take you out of chaos into order - their
sort of order - then you are dependent, and that is the colonial blueprint
for debt, dependency and foreign domination.
"That's the cycle that we try to break, and Haitians have been
trying to break that cycle for 200 years. Our commitment, as Dessalines
said, is to live free (and) independent or die. And many of us have
been dying, but because of our culture
and what we believe about death: the corporal body, the spirit never
dies because spirit triumphs over temporality.
"That's why Haitians were able to walk into European canons -
men, women and children. The song that they sang while they were doing
it was 'Bullets are dust. Bullets are dust.' The spirit overcomes. The
irreducible essence will live on forever.
"Even as we deal today with the occupiers - the two greatest Western
[Hemispheric] superpowers are on our land - Canada and the United States,
and they brought with them our old colonizer, France, something our
founding fathers said would never happen - and they're there in 2004
to say 'Yes, we can.'
"But they always come through the economic route, through Black
opportunists. They always come through them because they
hate being African and so they project that hate upon (the masses) …
they do the work of the colonizers, people like André
Apaid and the
Mafia families in Haiti who have exploited
the Haitian people.
"What people don't understand is that there is a certain level
of propaganda in trying to create certain realities to project this
reality. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. What
they don't tell you is not only do we have (poverty, but we also have
and) the most millionaires in the entire Caribbean. They won't advertise
that. Naturally people would wonder, well, why aren't [the super wealthy]
developing the country? They prefer to project all that on Aristide
and say, why is he a millionaire? [He's not allowed resources if he's
defending the poor, not elite interests.]"
Ezili says that her point is, if "the American Dream is to
'pull yourself up by your bootstraps,' to rise from humble beginnings,
why is it that the first time it's done by a poor Haitian that for some
reason, he's corrupt?" This was in response to a question raised
by Ishmael Reed the previous day at the Haiti Forum, a question he had
received via email.
Why is the U.S. so interested in Haiti,
is a question many people ask. One answer is unskilled and cheap labor.
Another reason is that when there is no democracy and people are being
oppressed, there is no time off, overtime, or benefits … then
poverty is systemic.
Ezili Dantò: "At the
height of the [1991-1994] coup..., Disney made (according to the National
Labor Committee) $1.1 billion in profit in
Haiti. This is when you had 70,000 fleeing Haiti. [Tens of thousands
incarcerated in horrible detention at various points of time from 1991-1994
at the US base on Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.]
People do not leave Haiti because they are poor; they leave because
their lives are in danger. If one looks at the period when Lavalas was
governing Haiti, the people were not trying to escape."
I ask Ezili about Disney's divestment.
"I can't speak to that, but one way [US and other foreign] corporations
keep from paying taxes [and being accountable to the Haitian worker]
is they get a Haitian organization, such as Apaid, whose sweatshop
is a subcontractor.
It's a Haitian
business front, which means, as a Haitian business, it's
not subject to certain laws," she said.
"Apaid and the (economic) elite in Haiti are so used to exploiting
people blind, they don't want to lose that, which is why they want to
be in control of the government in Haiti. When they're not in control,
you have the people in control for the first time in 200 years in Parliament
asking the local representatives, 'Listen, I worked 70 hours and they
only paid me for 20.' Now there's no one to go to."
"There's another thing I have to say. Wal-Mart made $2.8 billion
in profit in 1994. When they try to give you this idea that Haiti is
poor, that Haiti has nothing to give, they don't let you know that those
in the know have been leeching that country dry. This is what they're
defending in Haiti now, the right to greed and profit and exploitation
and labor, almost slave-like."
"There's no safety. Apaid had a
factory where they were making some product that had chemicals in it
that ate people's skin off. The people - there's so many Haitians -
and people are trying to find jobs, so they'll work under the coldest
circumstances. And that's why the Haitian Lawyers Leadership is here.
One of our campaigns is to confront
these companies. HLLN wants to tell Americans what their companies are
"They're always asking," says Ezili, "why are you
complaining when all of these people are coming to America? If Haitians
in America work, at least there are laws that protect them. They will
get paid every week in the United States, but in Haiti they could decide
that 'the local situation is too bad, so I'm not paying you.' I always
say Haitians would stay in Haiti if American companies down there would
treat them the way they treat American (workers) in America.
"But they don't. If
you look at the statistics, Haitians do not leave Haiti for poverty.
They don't leave just because they're poor, (which is) one of the reasons
the United States gives, that they are 'economic refugees not political
refugees.' Our (American) laws provide refugee status for political
"It's only when the government is killing them (as it is now) and
they have no choice and they are trying to save their lives that they
run away from Haiti. For instance, during the 10 years that you had
Lavalas leading Haiti from 1990 to 2004, the only time you had Haitians
leaving in droves was during the 32nd coup d'état, 1991-94. There
was no one leaving in droves from 1995 to 2004. But there are people
leaving Haiti in droves right now even though the U.S. has circled Haiti
and is turning back those who are making it through. It's survival.
"If the world would stop and let Haiti live, this migration would
stop. It would also stop if Haitians were able to develop Haiti. If
(only) these greedy corporations could see Haitian workers in the same
manner they see American workers with the same human rights. We have
a minimum wage - it's the lowest minimum wage in the Western Hemisphere,
perhaps the world, okay? - yet the corporations feel deprived that they
have to pay that money.
The minimum wage is $1.60 a day. Before, it was 60 cents. But people
like Apaid feel it's highway robbery, that people don't deserve to get
paid that much, Ezili says. The workers have absolutely no benefits,
and if they work overtime, they have no compensation.
"Of course the unions get help. Just recently in the free trade
zone (visit haitisupportgroup.com or her site for favorite
links), the workers had unionized, (but) the Guy
Philippe people sent death squads to come in and beat up
the workers so that they would renounce the union. This is the work
of the mercenaries the United States are paying."
Wanda Sabir: Is this recent?
Ezili Dantò: "Yes. In Ouanaminthe, a border town to the Dominican
Republic, is a corporation (Groupo M) out of the Dominican Republic
that subcontracts for Wal-Mart, Tommy Hilfiger, to these indigenous
corporations who are doing the work. These workers had unionized."
The HLLN formed when Aristide was in exile to help get back Constitutional
rule. Then, once he returned, they wanted to "institutionalize
the rule of law. At that time, earlier that year or the end of 1993,
the Haitian Minister of Justice Guy Malary was killed by one of the
FRAPH people, the same people running Haiti now."
"Malary was killed because he was President Aristide's justice
minister and he was working to bring back democracy to Haiti, obviously,
as a lawyer, and as someone who worked very hard all his life to create
democracy for Haiti defending the 1987 Constitution. We took up, we
wanted to honor Malary, so we wanted to pick up his work and not let
it to have been in vain. One of his primary things was the Constitution
rewritten by the occupiers, like Roosevelt in 1915."
She laughs at my bafflement. I hadn't realized that the Haitian Constitution
had been rewritten by this government. It was of course to benefit those
white men who wanted to own land, something Dessalines
disallowed when Haiti was liberated in 1804.
Ezili Dantò: "One of
the things Dessalines
and the Haitian revolutionaries put in the Constitution was that if
you were not Haitian, you could not own
land. And of course that was something to protect (the people) because
we had nothing. We had that little territory, and we bled for it for
300 years. There were a lot of ways Europeans tried to own land - they
married Haitian women, all sorts of things. But up to (the time of)
the illegal Constitution, there was a prohibition against it. You had
to become a Haitian citizen and there were certain rules to protect
Haitians. It was the only place in the entire Caribbean and in the world,
because the rest of the world was colonized, where all you had to do
was step on it and, if you were a captive, you became free.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines paid ship captains $40 per head who commandeered
slave ships going to the Carolinas or anywhere in the Caribbean and
brought the enslaved person to Haitian soil. Any enslaved person in
the world who could reach Haiti automatically became a free person upon
setting foot on Haitian soil. In this way tiny, war-torn and besieged
Haiti extended the fruits of its revolution to other Blacks and even
whites, securing the emancipation of countless enslaved and oppressed
human beings on planet earth.
"Haiti is the only place, I'm glad to say as a lawyer, where a
Black man could testify against a white man. Up until the Civil Rights
Movement, it had hardly happened in America. For all of those reasons
the HLLN wanted the people to know our legal heritage as well as our
Wanda Sabir: Which Constitution is Haiti operating
Ezili Dantò: "They are trying to destroy the 1987
Constitution, which is the Constitution that was written, and a lot
of blood was spilled for Haiti to have that Constitution. One of the
things that happened before that Constitution, every time a military
government would come into power they would amend the Constitution to
extend the length of their tenure. One of the things the people who
wrote the 1987 Constitution (did) was to [make it harder to] amend the
Constitution. You had to have two different parliaments. One parliament
could do the amendment, the another would have to ratify it."
That's what happened with regards to getting rid of the military. It
was (being) amended, and this parliament, prior to Aristide's "coup-napping,"
would have had the opportunity to ratify it.
Ezili Dantò: "The same
thing happened with
dual citizenship. As lawyers, we saw
that 1%-2% percent of the Haitian population in Haiti were millionaires,
and they refused to pay taxes and they refused to have any social responsibility,
and we felt that all those Haitians who left Haiti from 1957 to now,
they have a right to participate in Haitian development."
"One of the things we stood for and still*
stand for is to try to have dual citizenship so Haitians living abroad
could participate. So we were working towards that (before the 2004
coup d'etat), and we did get (laws) that passed - (giving Haitians abroad,
more rights similar to) the dual citizenship law. We needed to have
the new parliament ratify (Constitutional changes). We're talking about
10 years of work here.
"Those who we struggle against definitely do not want anyone except
their puppets to lead Haiti. For them it was horrible to think that
with one more [non-putchist] parliament Haitians (abroad) would have
had dual citizenship in Haiti.
"There are almost 3 million Haitians outside of Haiti, 8.5 million
(inside), definitely more. Our detractors know - she references the
Ottawa Initiative - at the end of it,
it says that by 2019 if nothing is done, there will be 20 million Haitians.
is scary to those
who are authors of the Initiative.
Tend the herd, put them in prison - there's no reproduction. Look at
America's population control."
Look at Palestine, Rwanda, I add.
Ezili Dantò: "Look
at how the repackaged-Duvaliers and the U.S., (along with other) ex-Lavalas
people (more recently) who for one reason or another didn't get the
job they wanted or were disappointed with Aristide, who made certain
deals with the devil, such as agreeing to privatize certain state-owned
assets - all of those things we had to do to have a voice to see the
light of day.
"A lot of people who live in the United States, or who are very
well off, blame President Aristide, as they sit in front of their TVs
and think that 200 years of corruption and exploitation, somehow this
one man (Aristide) is going to change it in the term he didn't have
the first time (because of the coup in 1991), and now the second time."
When one adds the U.S. embargo against the people that prevented humanitarian
aid, fresh water, food, and much needed services to reach them, it's
amazing that Aristide was able to accomplish as much as he did - all
this while a media campaign of disinformation and the (phony) civil
society (front), or Group 184 (funded in part by the U.S.), did everything
to stop him.
"Haiti was paying
interest on this loan it didn't get, while the International Monetary
Fund was making the Haitian government pay $30 million on loans Duvalier
took out. Those are the abuses and the crimes the Haitian people have
had to face in the last three to four years. But those are not the things
you hear about on CNN.
"The Haitian Lawyers Leadership in the last 10 years is pushing
for dual citizenship*.
We are also trying to put together (the ability) for Haitians who live
abroad who maintain their Haitian citizenship to vote. Most major countries
allow their citizens living abroad to have a procedure to vote. We've
been pushing for that also.
"Our work was to enfranchise, build-up Haitian capacity, empower
the people, allow them to participate in the process. Part of our work
was also to study, promote and educate the people about our
culture - how beautiful the Haitian language is, how colorful,
and how it has these wonderful adages and life wisdom embedded in it.
Just the proverbs alone are a rich resource of wisdom.
"Haitian Kreyol is
a language of proverbs as ancient, more ancient than Hebrew. It's a
language made out of an amalgamation of the (languages of the Africans
who settled in Haiti). It's a language that teaches. Our language is
like our value. Kreyòl reflects the values of an ancient people.
"My father spoke in proverbs. Every time we did something wrong,
he recited a proverb. Even in the Bible, a lesson is not taught directly.
The details can always bury you.
"Pierre Labossiere and I were talking about certain things. While
I was in Jamaica, for the first time in 200 years the Foreign Minister
from France went to Haiti and I saw a picture of her with this interim
person, Latortue, in the Jamaican papers. I hope someone from the Leadership,
I hope someone from the Aristide community is responding to this. Part
of our Campaign
No. 7 is to continue to pursue the $21.8 billion (and counting)
owes Haiti, for them using our grand-grands as property.
After the meeting with the French Foreign Minister, Latortue came out
and denounced the request for that money back.
"I said to Pierre Labossiere, 'What gives him the legal
competence to denounce the people's right to justice? He
quoted the proverb, 'The dew's going to go wild until the sun rises.
They will do everything until the sun of truth comes out.' (La rouze
fè banda toutan soley pa leve.) In one little proverb, we
have (multiple) meanings. That's what Haitian Kreyòl is about."
She speaks of Boukman
and Cecil Fatiman, a sister who is one of the biggest Vodun priestesses
and a champion for human rights. The two met in a secret place in a
wood clearing called Bwa
Kayiman, Aug. 14, 1791, along with 200 delegations from various
plantations who agreed to begin the Haitian revolution.
They called on Ezili
Dantò, the goddess whose vèvè
(cosmogram) is a heart with a dagger through it. Because Vodun was outlawed,
the African people had to meet in secret, Ezili said.
Ezili Dantò: "What's
so great about Haiti is the women,
in terms of their spiritual powers, sometimes are even greater in their
connection to the universe than men. It was a woman who led that secret
ceremony that started the Haitian revolution. And it was a woman's spirit
that inhabited that woman - and that woman's spirit was Ezili Dantò,
the Haitian love and warrior goddess. Her symbol is a heart with the
dagger going through it."
"She is the irreducible spirit, irreducible essence of the mother/goddess.
She is a warrior. She chose Boukman. She told Boukman through Cecil
Fatiman. I don't know if you've ever seen possession? The body is the
only mechanism to communicate with the Ancestors. The body is the sacred
"Which is why (our enslaved African
parents) could never understand how the Europeans could defile the body
[enslave, rape and torture] and make it work to produce profit, because
the body is sacred. It's the realm of the spirit, where the irreducible
element will push out all of this small personality, so the small personality
of Cecil Fatiman was pushed out and the great goddess
came through. But you have to have some sort of discipline for that
to happen. You can't be just anybody.
"That's why in my lineage, my grandfather was the Vodun priest
of that era or that arena [in our Lakou's house of spirit - powerful
demanbreman, or sacred plot of land.] Most Haitians have that
in their families - a place where the family portal is. In my family,
it's the place where that first original African went. A lot of the
Africans, after they fought in the revolution, wanted to go back to
Africa. There is a lot of folklore about these Africans. A lot of them
didn't want to live in the Western Hemisphere.
"The African warrior general within our family found a place in
Fond Des Blancs (Southern Haiti) where he placed a clay pot filled with
water. That portal connects us to our 'line
going back to the beginning of time.' [Family legend has
it that after Haiti had won against the enslavers, this patriarch of
our family disappeared, some say he entered our Lakou’s demanbre
- sacred portal - to reach back to Africa or Anba
Dlo Lan Ginen, others say he vanished by simply walking straight
into the ocean to go home.]"
"In Haitian cosmology we are descendants of God [Lè
Marasa, lè mò, e lè mistè
]. We have everlasting life [through lè mistè.]
As human beings we are sacred vessels of living spirit."
She compared this to the Christian notion
of kinship with Jesus the son of God.
"Today you go where my parents are from, where my [great, great,
great] grandfather is from, you'll find that little house of spirits
- generations upon generations of Haitians have gone to touch or draw
through sounds or vèvè (cosmogram) those Gods or universal
spirits, whomever one wanted to call. So if you wanted to call on the
spirit of love Ezili Dantò, or the creative spirit Danbala/Ayida
"In Haitian cosmology, you have to have male and female to create
[Rada and Petwo; Lè
one plus one equals three is a cosmological
Haitian parable and allegory illustrating the irony, mystery and harmony
of our paradoxical nature and unity. We are both
bound in our physical form and boundless even in our bodies.] Out of
Adam's rib came creation? That doesn't make sense to African-Haitians."
Ezili says in answer to a question
about Vodun that "Haitians are 80 percent Catholic and 100 percent
Vodun." So even though her parents, once they came to America,
didn't practice the religion, all the stories and songs she learned
from her mother and her father were a wealth of information too.
"I'll ask her, Mom, what happened at this ceremony? And she'll
respond, 'I only went to eat the food.' We're been trained not to take
it seriously. But if a child got sick she would go to a Vodun priest,
when she was in Haiti, that is. For most Haitians, Vodun is a way of
life. It isn't just spirituality. It's about bad vibe makeovers. It's
a part of my play. Hold on, I'll read you a piece... I talk about my
parents and where they were from - 'Red,
Black and Moonlight.' Visit the website.
"Vodun is metaphysical and practical. It's also healing. [It's
herbal medicine.] It has a mythological aspect. I have a degree in [modern,
jazz, ballet] dance from the Hartford Conservatory. [But] I learned
[Haitian dances from my father and] those [Vodun] songs from my mother,
who said she didn't know any of this," Ezili says.
Clearly proud of Haitian history, Ezili
is a great storyteller, the time we have all too short.
"Not only did Haiti do away with
slavery, winning in combat against the greatest army of that time, Napoleon
Bonaparte, they also freed five Latin American countries: Columbia,
Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, (she can't recall the other ...)
"Bolivar was the founder of Bolivia. We gave him sanctuary. We
are the first Pan-Americans and the first Pan-Africans. We kept our
mother (Africa's) culture. That's revolutionary, (especially) at a point
in time when you had the Arabs conquering North Africa.
"Haiti is the first African country that didn't take its conqueror’s
religion or culture. It's the mother of African mother cultures. It's
something that is not analyzed enough. We are fighting a spiritual fight
with the sky god, whom we need to bring back to the earth again.
"We want to work to fulfill our revolutionary
legacy - a Pan African task for Haitians to live freely and
work in the Americas. That's our ultimate goal. We have freed many,
many nations, and it's because we started freeing many nations that
the world stands as it does and chattel slavery is gone. Yet, we have
been isolated and we can't get asylum anywhere in the world, and we
can't come out of Haiti, which is one of the reasons why we are contained
"In Haiti, Black is de-racialized
in terms of skin color giving the person superior substance but racialized
as a people bound together because of their shared experience, distinct
moral conscience vis-a-vis those they defeated, unique Kreyòl
language and African-based culture. This paradox is the amazing genius
of Dessalines' Haiti. He simultaneously empowered the Black "race"
to both be proud of self and their lineage under the socia-politically
constructed race paradigm and to transcend it. First, Haiti is racialized
because in creating Haiti in combat against the US/Euro enslavement
tribes, Jean Jacques Dessalines empowered the Black "race"
to carry the mantle of the African struggle for justice against racism,
colonialism, economic tyranny and imperialism. Second, Haiti is de-racialized
because by naming and defining, in Haiti's first Constitution, the white
settlers who fought on the side of the liberty, awarding them the appellation
"Black," Dessalines showed his profound understanding
that human nature goes deeper than skin color...Dessalines'
1805 Constitution stated that all Haitians "shall
hence forward be known only by the generic appellation of Blacks.
And Blacks included even the Polish and Germans who fought
with the African warriors on the side of liberty and equality, not slavery,
plunder and profit. Black people in Dessalines' Haiti are lovers-of-liberty
who are willing to live free or die…there is no modern philosophy
or ideal that has so directly provided the world with an an ALTERNATIVE
to the manufactured race game based on skin color as this Dessalines
ideal." Black is the color of liberty. [See Dessalines'