Prof. James Small and Bayiinah Bello (131333)

Bayyinah Bello, professor of history at the State University of Haiti, turned an auditorium upside down and inside out when she keynoted the Women’s History Month celebration here at the Stanley Eugene Clark Elementary School March 29.

Sponsored by the Children of Dessalines, nine men bought a live $400 goat, killed it and cooked it, along with making other Creole cuisine, and served the women, according to Dahoud Andre, one of the organizers for the event.

“Men need to challenge male privilege and exploitation of women. My father told me it’s going to take time. It won’t happen overnight, but we as men must learn” to respect who women are and what they naturally do to carry life, he said to the crowd in Creole, as did all of the speakers. The Haitian Creole was translated for this writer by Yanique “Niki” Joseph.

Bello, who was flown in from Haiti for the event, spoke about the roles women played in the making of Haiti. She began by explaining how Arawak Indians ran the island when the Spanish “invaded.” She also discussed the wives of Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who are hardly spoken of in “his-story” but are remembered in ours, she said in words.

At the end of her presentation, the professor asked how many children in the audience had abandoned Creole to speak English only. A few raised their hands. Bello, commonly referred to as “Bayyinah,” spoke to those few in fluent English for a while, explaining how important it is for all children to understand history.

Fatima, she explained, was a 16-year-old who organized other young girls, 10 to 18 years old, to stage the event that ushered in the Haitian revolution. She managed to tell the stories with hard edges, humorous curves and a mastery of delivery that held the overflow crowd spellbound.

Queen Anacaona, she began, was the indigenous Arawak Indian who sat on the ruling council when the Spanish invaded the island. There was no such thing as the men making all decisions without the input of a woman. Within three years, the four men she shared power with were dead. They had been savagely killed by the Spanish. She survived until she refused to convert to Christianity and warned her people that they “have a right” to defend themselves against the Spanish invasion. They fought for 11 years after the men on the council were killed. When Anacaona finally signed a peace treaty with the Spanish but refused to convert, they killed all of the people and the animals in her village, and dragged her and 20 people in her entourage from Haiti to Santo Domingo, tried her for treason, hung her and burnt her body for refusing to convert. Subsequently, they established the slave trade.

Suzanne Louverture, the wife of the general, she said, never attended any of his political events. “That was his business,” she quoted her as saying. Suzanne Louverture was a farmer and had a special relationship with the soil. She could smell the earth and determine what should grow there. When the French abducted Toussaint, they took his whole family. They allowed him to die in a cold prison in Northern France and tortured her. No one knows where she died, possibly Jamaica, she said.

Feliate Dessalines, she continued, was a slave who convinced Dessalines to purchase her and her family from their owner. He did and he married her. She also suffered after he was murdered, his head sitting on a spike to frighten the other rebellious enslaved Haitians, but she survived and lived to be 110 years old.

When Bello returned to Fatima, she included the fact that the young girls attended a nun’s school in Cap-Haitien. They performed their schoolwork and other chores during the day, but at night, she explained, they performed voodoo prayers and songs for the freedom of their people. When the nuns discovered their activities, she said, they decided to increase their workload, including physical labor during the day , such as mopping and washing, so that they might be too tired to pray at night. In the end, however, the girls dressed in appropriate clothing for the voodoo prayers, which were conducted in 18 districts around the country, and led the fight for the revolution. “We have a country to build,” was their charge. Fatima lived to be 112 years old, Bello said.

The moving talk ended with a reference to Dessalines’ wife. “Nothing is impossible,” Bello said. The woman was born a slave, learned to read and write, taught others, convinced Dessalines to buy her freedom, and when he declared himself emperor, she became an empress. “Nothing is impossible,” she concluded. The crowd erupted in applause.