Haiti's Influence On U.S. Over The Years, And Now

Haiti is merely 600 miles from Florida and has had a strong influence over its culture. It occupies a profound place in the American psyche. Over the years, the U.S. has had a vexed relationship with the country — but now it is linked by sorrow.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Americans have been moved by the devastation in Haiti, but in Florida, where essayist Diane Roberts lives, the quake has had a particular effect.

DIANE ROBERTS: It's impossible to turn away from the images and just as impossible to bear them. The concrete houses smashed back into dust, the cathedral reduced to rubble, the bodies covered pitifully with sheets and laid in the streets, the raw-eyed survivors sitting amidst the ruins of their nation.

For Florida, this is not some distant disaster. More than 350,000 people of Haitian descent live here. Haitian music, Haitian art and Haitian food are all ingredients in our culture. You hear Creole in Fort Lauderdale and South Beach - even up here in Tallahassee.

I have students from Port-au-Prince, Petionville and Gonaives. They've spent the last few days trying to get through to their families, staring all the while at screens full of death.

Haiti is 600 miles from Florida - not as close as Cuba, but close enough for thousands to risk the voyage. But while Cuba, that defiant socialist outlier is a noisy obsession, Haiti occupies a quieter but still profound place in the American psyche. Once it was the richest of France's colonies, awash in sugar and coffee money. But in 1791, the slaves of Haiti took to heart the cry of liberte, egalite, fraternite, from their masters over the water and started their own revolution.

You'd think the young United States would've welcomed the establishment of a sister republic. We too had fought to liberate ourselves from a colonial power. But Haiti was more threat than inspiration - the plantation south's worst nightmare. What if our slaves overthrew the white government and burned the big house down?

We didn't officially recognize Haiti's government until 1862 in the middle of our own war over slavery. During the next century and a half, we had a vexed relationship with Haiti - sometimes occupying it, sometimes supporting dictators, sometimes providing money and other aid.

Last spring, one of my Haitian students was telling me his country and the Deep South - that includes Florida - have always been intertwined. Look at Key West, he said, New Orleans and now Miami. You're like us - France and Africa in the mix.

He's right. We are linked by history far closer than 600 miles - and now by sorrow.

HANSEN: Diane Roberts teaches at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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