Written by Ashley Johnson, '13
Writing Intern for the Office of Communications

One of the first of its kind in the nation, an eye-opening global studies and course at CSUSM exposes students to the deeply ingrained misconceptions surrounding Haitian history and how the country and its people continue to have a significant impact in today’s world. Though rich in culture and history, Haiti has been misunderstood by other countries for centuries. Many Americans are surprised to learn how U.S. diplomacy has stunted the nation’s development and how that knowledge has been overlooked and downplayed.

In 2010, Haiti drew global attention when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated the Caribbean nation. With a spotlight shining on the country, people suddenly were beginning to take notice of one of America’s smallest neighbors. Unaware of the true reasons as to why the country was in such a poor state, the media tried to pinpoint the reasons for the country’s poverty and turmoil on Haiti’s corrupt government and internal civil conflicts.

“It is important to learn about Haitian history because it provides evidence that any individual must examine the history from the side of the losers in addition to the ‘winners,’” said history undergraduate Mikaela Gilbert. “Once we learn this, we realize that colonization, an economy founded on slavery, foreign occupation and civil conflicts have kept Haiti in a state of perpetual devastation and poverty for over 200 years.”

CSUSM’s innovative Haiti and World History course is the first of its kind to be taught nationwide on the subject. Developed by Professor Alyssa Sepinwall, the course is anchored by the book Haitian History: New Perspectives, a collection of essays from leading scholars edited by Sepinwall.

“Most people simply view Haiti as a developing, poverty-stricken country, but what they don’t realize is that Haiti was one of the wealthiest colonies in the world in the 18th century, and shares a similar history to the U.S. Both were born out of revolutions against their mother countries at the end of the 18th century, and both fought for values of liberty and equality,” said Sepinwall.

Haitian History: New Perspectives offers powerful and insightful perspectives firmly grounded through extensive research. Haitian history and culture remains highly relevant today and classes inspired by the CSUSM course beginning to pop up nationwide in an effort to provide answers and illuminate the numerous misconceptions and stereotypes long held by the public.

One of the most frequently misconstrued aspects of Haitian culture stems from their religious practices of Vodou, commonly misspelled as ‘voodoo’ in westernized countries. Focused on debunking Vodou myths, students and the community are invited to attend the free “Haitian Vodou Myth & Reality” event on Tuesday, Oct. 16 at 6 p.m. at The Clarke. Sponsored by Arts & Lectures, the Global Studies and History departments and the Phi Alpha Theta History Honor Society, guest lecturer and renowned hougan (Vodou priest) Dr. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith will shed light on one of the world’s most misunderstood religions.

Students enrolled in the course have been surprised to learn that many of the stereotypes related to Haitian people have been greatly exaggerated and that our own history is closely linked with theirs.

“One of the most shocking things I learned about Haiti is how the US and France played a significant role in creating the poverty stricken country people see today,” said Gilbert, “More importantly, Haiti is a country that has been historically ignored.  The saying, ‘history is written by the winners’ is very evident when one examines the history of Haiti.”

The course helps students understand how the fundamental issues of globalization and development that have impacted Haiti have also affected other countries around the world. Students gain unique insight into the past and present struggles of the citizens and learn how important the influence of other countries has been in Haiti’s economic and political growth.

“Our own role in Haitian history is not widely known – but we played a vital part in it,” said Sepinwall. “They’re our neighbors, so close, but essentially Americans know very little about them.”

While the lecture event is free and open to the public, all attendees, including students, must reserve and bring a printed ticket for entry. Tickets are available online at http://www.csusm.edu/al/.
“Most people simply view Haiti as a developing, poverty-stricken country, but what they don’t realize is that Haiti was wealthy in the 18th century, and shares a similar history to the US in that their wealth and prosperity was born out of a revolution,” said Sepinwall.