Haiti and the Psychology of Freedom


By Guerda Nicolas
CJ Contributor

I recently made a trip to Cape Town, South Africa to give a talk, and so many incidents there reminded me of Haiti and other countries in the Caribbean region.

Many folks are aware of the history of South Africa and the end of Apartheid eighteen years ago.  However, my recent visit demonstrated that, while some countries might gain their freedom, independence is not the natural outcome.

During our tour of the local towns, our tour guide, Richard, told us that “even though we have gained our freedom to move around the county, it is going to take us years to heal from the psychological trauma that we just went through.”

As a psychologist, I was stunned by his recognition of the mental health effects of apartheid on the nation and its people.

Throughout the world, we have seen the devastating long-term psychological impact that colonization, slavery, and apartheid can have.

This is especially true for Haiti, whose freedom was gained 208 years ago, but has not be able to gain the level of independence necessary to thrive, as Haitian scholars such as M Rolph Trouillot, Patrick Bellegarde Smith, Roger Gaillard and emerging scholar Yveline Alexis have demonstrated.

Simply put, freedom and independence do not have the same meaning.

According to the Webster’s dictionary, freedom means either “the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint” or the “Absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government.”

Freedom also means “the state or quality of being independent” or “freedom from the control, influence, support, aid, or the like, of others.”

So while such support would be helpful, the nation should not be under the control of others and therefore should have education, economic, and psychological independence.

A nation without these central developments maintains the same level of domination that existed prior to the “freedom.”

The psychological impact of fighting for freedom is enormous and can have a significant impact on the psychic of the individual and the nation, which is not easily eradicated by time.  Haiti is a shining example of this idea. Given the significant impact of colonization, healing is not only needed but is central to the advancement of the nation and its people. John Wood provides the following perspective of psychological freedom:

“Psychological freedom is possible and essential if we are to live life from the deeper reality of love, peace, wisdom and common sense… the human manifestation of our true spiritual nature; rather than from the blindness of our dead yesterdays… fear, hatred, jealousy, envy and greed. The antidote to the paralysis of fearful thinking lies in understanding the root cause… memory. In understanding the true nature of memory we experience life free of the crippling affect of all frightening or traumatic past events. With this understanding comes a life of psychological freedom.”

This was the call by authors like Franz Fanon, who raised the world’s awareness about the similarities between slavery and colonization and the overall psychological impact they can have on our mind.

Singers such as Bob Marley sang songs like “Redemption Song,” with words consistent with a call to action to heal ourselves from the psychological impact of slavery and colonization:

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
‘Cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look? Ooh!
Some say it’s just a part of it:
We’ve got to fulfill the book.”

The call for understanding the psychological impact of our past experiences and the need to heal from such trauma was being made early on by writers, poets, and singers, and new leaders breathe the possibility of new hope for Haiti and her people.

While Haiti seeks to develop economically, let us not forget that healing is central to maintain such efforts.

So while freedom may lead to a level of surviving at some basic level, it is time for Haiti and her people to move from surviving, to coping, to thriving.

Dr Guerda Nicolas, a Caribbean Journal contributor, is the chair and associate professor in the University of Miami’s Department of Educational and Psychological Studies.


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