Independence or Death: An Oath Worth Revisiting

This is my favorite time of the year. I have a thing for endings. It is the time when the lesson is learned, the cord is cut. And somehow, it is where one realizes that nothing ever ends, as much as nothing lasts forever. Once the choice has been made, you’re condemned to remake it everyday. Though, the beauty in humanity is that you have the option to make a different choice, each time. Freedom.

My family wasn’t big on Christmas. Our traditions on 31 Desanm, New Year’s Eve were really what marked me. The preparation of the Soup Joumou; to be consumed, swallowed, bathed in, even put into IV bags. The fix. Weeks before, we would get a couple of birds that we would feed until sundown of 31 Desanm. Then, my mother, armed with a manchèt, (machete), and large kivèt (basine), would end its short life.

The rest of the night was spent plucking, gutting, cutting, steaming, and seasoning it. The memories of the divine scents emanating from the kitchen downstairs, the playful conversations of the ladies, the disinterested snoring of our dog Benji, the benevolent shadow of the giant mango tree and the melodic breeze through its leaves enveloping the lakou (backyard), all still haunt me today.

The origins of the Soup tradition is told through varying narratives. According to Fondasyon Felicitee, founded by Prof. Bayyinah Bello, “this soup became popular when, on January 1, 1804, Marie Claire Heureuse Dessalines invited all those who had the means to prepare it in huge wooden barrels placed at the crossroads of the highways, to serve all those who would like, from the appearance and disappearance of the light of day, from the 1st to the 7th of January.”

In contrast to many other traditions, Haitians have not forgotten about the Soup. My phone is blinking right now due to a text from my mother asking if I prepared any. Arrangements for Soup stops are made well in advance, BYOT (bring your own tupperware). Soup is just one of those traditions we’ll never let go of. This year, however, I was compelled to revive another one.

What is Independence?

And you, a people so long without good fortune, witness to the oath we take, remember that I counted on your constancy and courage when I threw myself into the career of liberty to fight the despotism and tyranny you had struggled against for 14 years[…]  Vow before me to live free and independent, and to prefer death to anything that will try to place you back in chains. Swear, finally, to pursue forever the traitors and enemies of your independence.”

  • Jean-Jacques Dessalines, General in Chief, Haitian Declaration of Independence

I set fire to my house this year. I raised hell. It was intentional, relentless, cathartic even. I screamed, at the top of my lungs, I stomped, and roared, like a beast caught in flames. Bull in a China shop. I broke free.

Remember that time when you realized you was grown? Like, you did not know everything, but you knew enough to figure it out, like so many before you. The time where you decided to take over the reins, to raise yourself from that point on. To at once divorce yourself from other people’s definition of reality, from their plans for your life.

Isn’t it weird that people would create this idea of who you should be in their minds, embellish it as they want, with no prompting from you. Then for some reason they expect you to live exactly according to that image that they’ve produced? And use little subtle ways to try to get you to conform, or guilt you with disappointment, or love. Almost as if the only way to express love is by controlling, and to allow love is to allow yourself to be controlled.

But there comes a time when you also realize that you owe no loyalty to those depictions of your destiny. That people’s obscured visions did not delineate your horizons, nor did they erect your borders. A time when it becomes clear, that from here on out, you had to have your back, rested assured in the evidence of experience.

Passing this crossroads is not without risk, or fears. Of losing, getting lost, being lost.  It involves making choices and accepting to live with any potential repercussions, even and especially of being wrong. But they’re yours, above all. And that’s all that matters.

It’s about telling the truth. To yourself, first. Then with your words, your actions, your decisions. It’s vomiting the anguish up, admitting we’re all figuring it out. It’s being willing to brave it out on our own, being our own compass and guide. Living our light. Independence.

Libète Ou Lanmò

Independence or death, as the Emperor proclaimed it, was not only a formidable cri de guerre, but a statement of facts. You’re either free, or you’re dead. There is no alternative. It’s no wonder we believe in zombies, we see the walking dead everyday, most often on reflective surfaces.

Chains are everywhere, some are gilded, some aren’t. Fruit rotting still attached to the tree, as dead as rocks, too afraid of the fall. Who are we? Distorting the Oath into choosing to live to die and resurrect sometime, someday, instead of fighting to live free, and dying only if necessary? Let’s reconsider.

Today, let’s spend some time and remember. Not simple old facts, but old feelings, old beliefs, ancient ones, even. Read the Proclamation. Watch a movie. Light a candle.

Tough choices were made then, to get us here. And if here is not where we wish to dwell, it is up to us take the lead. They’ve acted, and now their bones may rest.

215 years later, here we are, still seeking Independence. Will we still answer the call? How free are we? Was it in vain?

“Independence or death… let these sacred words unite us and be the signal of battle and of our reunion.”

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