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POPULATION: 6.6 million

LANGUAGE: Haitian Creole; French

RELIGION: Voudou (Voodoo); Roman Catholicism; Protestantism


Sharing the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, Haiti occupies a rich, lush land in a strategic location. Much of its history has been shaped by three foreign powers: Spain, France, and the United States.

When Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Hispaniola on December 6, 1492, he was greeted by the native people (Taino/Arawak Indians). By 1550, however, this native population had been almost entirely wiped out due to mistreatment, violent uprisings, and disease. The Spanish used the island as a shipping point to send riches to Europe.

The French began to settle on Tortuga, an island off the northwest coast of Hispaniola, in 1659. The first French residents, joined by runaway slaves from Hispaniola, survived by pirating Spanish ships, tanning hides, and curing meats. They were known as buccaneers from the Arawak word for smoking or curing meats. In 1697, the French took over the western part of the island, San Domingue, and turned it into one of its richest colonies. Coffee, sugar, cotton, and indigo (a blue dye) from Haiti accounted for nearly one-half of France's foreign trade.

In the mid-1700s, the number of runaway slaves, known as maroons, grew. From the mountains and forests, guerilla bands of maroons attacked the French colonists. When the mulattoes (persons of mixed African-European heritage) were denied the right to vote even though they owned land and paid taxes, they also began to revolt.

The Haitians won their independence early in the nineteenth century. The fight for independence began in 1791 when Toussaint L'Ouverture, an ex-slave, led a rebellion. On January 1, 1804, Haiti declared independence with Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a former slave, as the leader of the new nation. The only method of organization he knew was the military, so he used it to govern and began a tradition of military rule. Haiti was the second independent nation in the Americas (the first was the United States) and was the first free black republic in the world.

From its beginning as an independent nation, Haiti developed two distinct societies. The minority elite lived in towns and controlled the government, military, and trade. They imitated a European lifestyle and used the French language for government, commerce, and education. The peasants, the majority of the population, were excluded from the formal political, educational, and economic structure.

From the middle of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century, a series of dictators ruled Haiti. The American military occupied Haiti from 1915 until 1934. When the United States withdrew, they left behind a legacy of anti-American feeling and a well-trained national military.

After a very disorganized period, François Duvalier, known as "Papa Doc," was elected president in 1957. Using brutal tactics Duvalier created a rural militia to intimidate the population. In 1964 he declared himself president for life, and passed that office down to his nineteen-year-old son Jean-Claude, known as "Baby Doc," when he died in 1971.

Haitians angered by the poverty and suffering in their country began antigovernment protests. Jean-Claude Duvalier fled to exile in France in 1986. In 1990, a Roman Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected president of Haiti. It was the country's first free democratic election, and Aristide was elected with almost 70 percent of the popular vote. In September 1991 the army under General Raoul Cédras, seized power and forced Aristide into exile. After Aristide's departure, some 50,000 Haitians fled by sea.

After refusing to honor his agreement to step down and allow Aristide to return to the presidency, Cédras was forced from power by the United States and the United Nations. On October 15, 1994, Aristide returned to power and began the difficult task of rebuilding Haiti. UN troops led by the United States were sent to Haiti as a peacekeeping force. In December 1995, former Prime Minister of Haiti, René G. Préval, was elected president. Haiti's first peaceful transfer of power between two civilian presidents took place on February 7, 1996.


The name "Haiti" comes from the native Taino/Arawak word ayiti or hayti, meaning "mountainous" or "high land." The Republic of Haiti occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea. The Republic of Haiti includes several small islands and covers 10,714 square miles (17,239 square kilometers), making it slightly larger than the U.S. state of Maryland. Two mountain ranges cover fully two-thirds of the interior. The fertile plains that lie between the two ranges are used for agriculture. The coastline is irregular and the country is composed of two peninsulas. The climate is tropical, hot and humid. Due to deforestation and soil erosion, only 11 percent of Haiti's land is now arable (able to be farmed).

The population of Haiti was estimated to be more than 6.5 million in 1995. Over two-thirds of Haiti's inhabitants live in rural areas. Port-au-Prince, the capital, has a population of well over 1 million. Almost all Haitians are descendants of the 500,000 enslaved West Africans who won their freedom from France in 1804.

There are more than 800,000 Haitians living in the United States, with about 75 percent of them residing either in New York or Florida. Miami's "Little Haiti" is now an established community.


The two main languages of Haiti are Haitian Creole and French. All Haitians speak Haitian Creole, while only about 20 percent of the population speaks French. It was only in 1987 that the Constitution granted official status to Haitian Creole. Fluency in French carries high social status in Haiti, and those who cannot read, write, and speak French may have limited opportunity in business and government.

The Haitian Creole language evolved from a mixture of African dialect, the native Amerindian language, the Norman French spoken by pirates, and colonial French. Haitian Creole words show a variety of linguistic influences, including African (houngan, or Voudou priest and zombi, or ghost); Spanish (ablado, or talker); English (bokit, or bucket); and Caribbean (kannari, or earthen jar). Words borrowed from French (and their Creole meanings) include kriye, to weep; boutik, a family-operated store; and kabare, cafeteria tray.

Examples of Haitian Creole proverbs are:

Yon sel dwèt pa manje kalalou.
(You cannot eat okra with one finger)we must all cooperate.

Gras a diri, ti wòch goute gres.
(Thanks to the rice, the pebble tastes of grease)good things rub off.


Haitian culture reflects a profound reverence for one's ancestors. Ancestors' Day is a national holiday, celebrated on January second, the day after the celebration of Independence Day on January first. Folktales are popular in Haiti. Stories are introduced by an invitation to hear a story. For instance, the person wanting to tell the story shouts out: "Krik!" If people want to hear the tale, and they almost always do, they answer in chorus: "Krak!" The most popular folktales are about the smart but mischievous Ti Malis and his slow-witted friend Bouki. Here is one example:

Ti Malis paid Bouki a visit one day. To his amazement, when he got to Bouki's lakou (yard), there was Bouki playing dominoes with his dog. "What a brilliant dog you have!" exclaimed Ti Malis. "He can play dominoes." "Ha!" said Bouki, "he's not as smart as you think. I've just won three out of five games!"

Another popular form of humor and amusement are riddles. (See 17-Recreation.)


Religion is an integral part of Haitian life and culture. The two main religions are Roman Catholicism and Voudou, or Voodoo, a mixture of African animism (belief in spirits and nature) and Christianity. Many Haitians practice both these religions at the same time. There are also Protestants of various denominations. The Haitian government does not impose any restrictions on religion or missionary activities.

Unlike the "black magic" reputation it has in books or movies, Voudou is in fact a religion based on ancestral spirits, tribal deities, and mythic figures such as the goddess of the sea. It keeps alive old African beliefs while borrowing freely from Christianity. At funerals, it is not uncommon for Voudou ceremonies and rituals to be performed for family members first, followed by a traditional Roman Catholic ceremony presided over by a priest.


Haitian holidays include Independence Day (January 1); the Anniversary of revolutionary hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines' death (October 17); the Anniversary of the Battle of Vertières (November 18); and the landing of Columbus on Hispaniola in 1492, commemorated on December 5. Other holidays include Ancestors' Day (January 2), Carnival (the three days before Ash Wednesday, in February), Pan American Day (April 14), Labor Day (May 1), Flag Day (May 18), and New Year's Eve (December 31).

Haitians also observe traditional Roman Catholic holidays, including Good Friday, Easter Sunday (in March or April), the Feast of the Assumption (August 15), All Saints' Day (November 1), All Souls' Day (November 2), Immaculate Conception (December 8), Christmas Eve (December 24), and Christmas Day (December 25).


Major life transitions, such as birth, marriage, and death, are marked by religious ceremonies, often including both Voudou and Christian rites.


Many Haitian values are traditional and conservative. Manners are very important in Haitian society. Greetings are exchanged when entering a public place, such as an office or a store, or when boarding public transportation. When greeting friends, men generally shake hands. Women will exchange two kisses, the same as men do with female friends. Children are taught early to respect their elders and to formally greet visitors to their home.

It is not unusual for men to refer to each other by their last names. Individuals are often called nicknames, for example, the firstborn male in a family is often given the nickname Fanfan. A woman named Dominique may be called Dodo by her friends and family.


The poverty of Haiti, one of the thirty poorest countries in the world, is reflected in the health statistics of its population. The infant mortality rate is the highest in the Americas, and life expectancy, at approximately fifty-six years, is the lowest in the Caribbean. Malnutrition is widespread, especially among the young and the poor. About 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas, although this has been changing in recent years.

In 1984 less than 20 percent of the population had toilets. Poor sanitation and lack of medical services contribute to a number of infectious diseases that afflict Haitian people. These include tuberculosis, parasitic infections, and malaria.


In rural areas, the extended family has traditionally been the social unit. As peasants came to the cities in search of work, the nuclear family replaced the extended family. Men and women generally share household and financial responsibilities. Officially, there is no discrimination against women in Haiti, and a Ministry for Women's Affairs was established in 1995. In the coffee industry, those who transport coffee beans to markets are almost all female and are known as "Madam Saras." Women do not have to share income from nonfarm activities with their husbands. These women can be economically independent.

The most common form of marriage among poorer Haitians is known as plasaj, a kind of common-law marriage. Although not recognized by the government as legitimate, plasaj is considered normal and proper among the poor. A man or woman may have a number of plasaj relationships in a lifetime. Children born to the same parent from different plasaj relationships regard each other as brothers and sisters, and often live in the same household. If parents separate, a child may take either the father or the mother's last name. Children are considered a gift from God. Haitians also make sure that each child receives an equal inheritance.


Comfortable, lightweight Western-style clothes, often made of cotton and linen fabrics, are typically worn in Haiti. School children all wear uniforms. Men often wear a loose-fitting shirt called a guayabera, similar to other countries in the region and in Latin America. While it is acceptable for women to wear pants, most women, especially in rural areas, continue to wear skirts or dresses.

The traditional folk costume for men is a hand-embroidered shirt made of cotton, linen, or denim fabric. Women traditionally wear an embroidered short-sleeved blouse, a colorful skirt, and a scarf wrapped around their hair.


Haitians grow corn, rice, bananas, mangoes, avocados, and other tropical fruits and vegetables. A typical meal usually includes one or two varieties of rice prepared with either red or black beans. Almost all meals feature plantains (very similar to bananas), which are usually parboiled, sliced, and deep fried. Those who can afford it eat deep-fried chicken. Other meats include goat, beef, and pork. Pork is often fried and barbecued (grio) and is very popular. Haitians especially favor seafoods, including barbecued lobster, shrimp, and many varieties of fish.

Vegetables include green beans, potatoes, squash, okra, cabbage, and eggplant. Salads are served with generous slices of avocado. Most Haitians love a spicy, very hot sauce called pikles to enhance their dishes. Desserts include cakes or tarts, often with a pineapple garnish.


The first schools in Haiti were established shortly after 1805, but an accessible school system never developed. Despite education reforms in the 1970s and 1980s, dropout rates remain high: 50 percent in urban areas and 80 percent in rural ones. Education is highly valued, but the majority of Haitians do not have access to it. Technically, education is free in Haiti, but most cannot afford the supplemental fees, school supplies, and required uniforms.

The Haitian curriculum calls for many subjects to be learned in great detail, usually by memorizing. Grading and testing are very strict. It is much more difficult to achieve a grade of B in Haiti than it is in the United States. The teacher calls all students by their last names and has total authority over the class. A student speaks only when asked a question, and does not look the teacher in the eye but keeps his or her head down as a sign of respect. There are no parent-teacher organizations and if a parent is called to school it usually means that the student is in serious trouble.

Today the majority of Haitians receive no formal education. Only a small minority are educated beyond primary school.


The uniqueness of Haiti is reflected in the originality of its paintings, music, and literature. Works by the better-known Haitian artists have been exhibited in galleries and museums in the United States and France.

Haitian music is an original blend of African drum rhythms and European dance music. Haitian kompa and the Voudou-influenced rasin are the most popular musical styles in Haiti today. Each year during Carnival, bands compete for the best song. Recent entries incorporate reggae and rap styles.

Haiti has produced writers, poets, and essayists of international reputation. Attempts to write in Haitian Creole date to the eighteenth century, but because of its low status, Haitian literature has been written almost exclusively in French. With the recognition of Creole as an official language, more and more novels, poems, and plays are being written in Creole. In 1975, the first novel to be written entirely in Haitian Creole was published. It is titled Dezafi and was written by Franketienne. It describes a poetic picture of Haitian life.


Riz et Pois Rouges
(Rice and Red Beans)


  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 to 4 cloves of garlic, chopped
  • 1 medium green pepper, chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons cooking oil
  • 1 cup white rice, uncooked
  • 2 15-ounce cans of kidney beans, drained
  • ¼ pound ham, chopped
  • ½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼ teapoon dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 2½ cups boiling water


  1. Heat oil in a large saucepan. Add onion, garlic, and green pepper, and fry until onion and green pepper soften, about 3 minutes.
  2. Combine with remaining ingredients in a 2-quart casserole.
  3. Preheat oven to 350°f.
  4. Cover casserole and bake until all the liquid is absorbed and rice is cooked, about 55 minutes.

Adapted from Betty Crocker's International Cookbook. New York: Random House, 1980, p. 217.


About two-thirds of the labor force in Haiti still works in agriculture. The main cash crops are coffee and sugarcane. Deforestation, land erosion, and a declining economy have prompted many farm workers to migrate to the cities or abroad. A large number of Haitians work in the Dominican Republic as braceros (migrant workers) under grueling conditions. Migrant farm workers are hired temporarily, usually for a harvest. Harvesting sugarcane is still done by hand with a machete.

There are estimates that more than one hundred thousand children in Haiti are held in forced domestic labor, which is called restevek in Haitian Creole. Young children from rural families are "adopted" by wealthy city dwellers to work as unpaid domestics. These children often work long hours, and are underfed and mistreated.


Soccer is the national sport. During World Cup competition, held every four years, practically the entire country roots for the Brazilian national team. In rural areas cock-fighting is also popular, but only as an informal weekend sport. For men, a typical social game is dominoes or cards. For the more affluent, tennis as a sport is increasing in popularity.

Children play hide-and-seek, hopscotch (marelle), round dances, and marbles. Organized sports in school or local leagues include basketball for girls and soccer for boys.


Storytelling in Haiti is a performance art. The storyteller uses a different voice for each character in the story and may sing songs as part of the narrative. Telling stories, proverbs, riddles, and singing songs exemplify the rich spoken tradition of the Haitian people.

Perhaps the most popular form of humor and amusement is riddles. There is a definite form for the riddles. The person "throwing" the riddle or tire pwen says: "Tim-tim," and those who want to hear it reply: "Bwa sèch." Then the riddle is given. If they get it, they announce it. If they give up, they say "Bwa sèch," which means they eat dry wood, the penalty for not getting the riddle. The riddles themselves are very difficult. Here are several popular riddles:


  1. They serve it food, it stands on four feet, but it cannot eat.
  2. I enter white, I come out mulatto.
  3. Three very large men are standing under a single little umbrella, but not one of them gets wet. Why?
  4. When I sit, I am taller than when I stand.
  5. How many coconuts can you put into an empty sack?


  1. A table.
  2. Bread.
  3. It is not raining.
  4. A dog.
  5. Only one. After that the sack is not empty.


Haitian craftspeople are particularly skilled in woodcarving, weaving, and embroidery. Wooden sculptures, plaques, and furniture (especially chairs with caned backs and seats) are popular crafts. So are embroidered women's dresses, skirts, and blouses, and men's shirts. Wrought iron items are also part of Haitian folk art, including candle holders, coffee tables, lamps, and animal figures.

Every year before Christmas, artisans use white cardboard and tissue paper to make elaborate works of art called fanal, in which lighted candles are carefully placed.


Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. A very small percentage of the population earns more than 60 percent of the national income. Unemployment is estimated to be as high as 70 percent. Peasants have traditionally depended on the extended family and cooperative labor to survive. Families living in urban slums do not have even these supports.

Wood as a fuel accounts for 75 percent of the country's energy consumption. Deforestation of Haiti's once green, tree-covered land is now critical. This destruction of trees has caused erosion of the soil, which in turn has made most of the land unsuitable for farming. Fluctuations in the price of coffee and sugar on the world market impact agricultural production and planning in Haiti.


Portions of this article were adapted from The Haitians: Their History and Culture. Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Linguistics, 1994.

Abbott, Elizabeth. Haïti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy. New York: Touchstone, Simon and Schuster, 1991.

Betty Crocker's International Cookbook. New York: Random House, 1980.

Haggerty, Richard A. (ed.) Dominican Republic and Haiti: Country Studies. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1991.

Laguerre, Michel. The Military and Society in Haïti. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1993.

Leyburn, James G. The Haitian People. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966.


Embassy of Haiti. Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide, Haiti. [Online] Available, 1998.

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ETHNONYMS: Ayisyens, Haïtiens, Haytians


Identification. The Republic of Haiti is the second-oldest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, and it is the only one with a French-Creole background and an overwhelmingly African culture. Large communities of Haitians exist outside Haiti, especially in the Dominican Republic, on other Caribbean islands, in Central America and northern South America, and in North America. The second-largest Haitian community, after Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, is in New York City, with about 500,000 members.

Location. Occupying 27,750 square kilometers on the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic, Haiti lies between 18° and 20° N and 72° and 74° W. It is 90 kilometers southeast of Cuba, 187 kilometers northeast of Jamaica, and about 1,000 kilometers from Florida. Its topography ranges from flat, semiarid valleys to densely forested mountains; about one-third of its area lies 200 to 500 meters above sea level, and the remaining two-thirds is covered by three mountain ranges. The highest point of elevation is La Selle Peak (2,680 meters). The mean temperature is somewhere between 24° C and 27° C; averages for the hottest and coolest months differ by perhaps 5° C, although temperature variations on any given day may be as great as 12° C. Temperature decreases three-quarters of a degree per 100 meters of elevation. Port-au-Prince, with an elevation of 40 meters, has a mean temperature of 26.3° C, but Pétionville, at 400 meters, records 24.7° C, and Kenscoff, at 1,450 meters, enjoys 18.5° C.

Demography. Demographic information is at once scarce and unreliable. According to educated estimates, the total population of Haiti is about 6.5 million. Port-au-Prince has a population of about 740,000, and the second-largest city, Cap Haïtien, has about 70,000 inhabitants. Regional cities that can boast populations of 10,000 to 50,000 are Les Cayes, Gonaïves, Port-de-Paix, Jacmel, Jérémie, Saint Marc, and Hinche. The single recent census for which information is generally available was conducted only in urban centers in 1971; a 10 percent sample survey was used to estimate the population in rural areas. The total population calculated from that census was 4,314,628, 79.6 percent of it rural.

Linguistic Affiliation. The language spoken by all Haitians is usually referred to as Haitian Creole. For most of modern history, however, the official language of government, business, and education has been French. At best, only about 8 percent of the population, the educated elite, speaks French welland then only as a second language. Another 2 to 7 percent uses French with a lesser degree of competence. Traditionally, the elite has used the requirement of fluency in French to exclude the general population from competing for positions in government and business. Haitian Creole, which has often been seen as a nonlanguage in which sophisticated thoughts cannot be expressed or, at best, as a poor imitation of French, is coming into its own, and the prestige of French is rapidly declining in Haiti. In the early 1990s both Creole and French were the country's official languages.


At the time of European contact, anywhere from 60,000 to 4 million Indians inhabited the island of Hispaniola. The indigenous population rapidly succumbed to the ravages of disease, slavery, and brutality, and the Europeans soon had to look to Africa for the labor they needed to work their plantations. In the colonial period (14921804) sugarcane plantations were established and slavery instituted in Saint Domingue, as the French called their territory on Hispaniola.

A series of minor uprisings culminated in the slave revolt of August 1791. By 1796, White supremacy was at an end, and within the framework of the French Republic, Black rule was established under the leadership of a former slave, the charismatic Toussain Louverture. In 1800 Napoleon sent 28,000 troops under his brother-in-law, Gen. Charles Leclerc, to retake the colony and reenslave the Blacks. By 1803, however, Haitians had defeated Napoleon's troops, and on 1 January 1804 Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussain's successor, proclaimed the independence of Haiti.

In the postindependence period (1820-1915) Haiti became a focal point of debates about the effect of emancipation and the capacity of Blacks for self-government. Many slave insurrections in the southern United States were consciously modeled after the Haitian example.

The U.S. military occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 for pressing economic and strategic reasons. The major, though certainly unintended, results of the occupation were the increasing Black consciousness of the elite, the suppression of peasant movements, the training of the army, and the concentration of sociopolitical power in Port-au-Prince.

The postoccupation period (1934-1957) was characterized by a succession of undistinguished administrations, with one notable exception: the government led by President Dumarsais Estimé (1946-1950), which many view as a highly progressive era in Haitian politics that probably spelled the end of mulatto political domination. Important developments during his presidency were the entrance of Blacks into the civil service, increased pride in the African heritage, greater interaction with other Caribbean nations, the beginning of peasant integration into the national polity, and, especially, the rise of the new Black middle class.

François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, president from 1957 to 1971, established his power base largely among this middle class. Duvalier carried out a brutal campaign of oppression against his opponents, and Haiti was increasingly isolated from the international community. When Duvalier's 19year-old son, Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc"), became president in 1971, a new economic program guided by the U.S. government was put in place; U.S. private investment was wooed with such incentives as no customs taxes, a minimum wage kept very low, the suppression of labor unions, and the right of U.S. companies to repatriate their profits.

With little gain from fourteen years of rule by a second Duvalier, Haitians finally reached the end of their patience and overwhelming public protests led to the ouster of Jean-Claude on 7 February 1986. An interim government, the Conseil National de Gouvernement (CNG) headed by Lieut. Gen. Henri Namphy, took charge. Elections for president and for seats in the national assembly, set for 29 November 1987, were aborted by army-sponsored violence. In January 1988 the CNG held sham elections and announced that Leslie Manigat had won the presidency. About four months later, Manigat's attempt to play off one segment of the army against another led to his own ouster, and Namphy declared himself president. On 17 September 1988 Namphy was forced out of the National Palace and leadership was handed over to Lieut. Gen. Prosper Avril. Jean-Bertrand Aristide of the National Front for Change and Democracy (FNCD) was elected president on 16 December 1990 and assumed office on 7 February 1991 but was deposed on 30 September 1991. The military ousted him a little more than seven months later, but no state (except the Vatican) recognized the military government. After considerable vacillation, the administration of U.S. president Bill Clinton forced the military leaders to leave Haiti, and in October 1994 Aristide was reinstated under heavy U.S. military sponsorship.


With 75 to 85 percent of the population living in a rural setting, the majority of Haitians can be classified as peasants: they live in dispersed villages loosely connected by trade routes. Scattered within these villages are huts of wattle and daub surrounded by gardens, fields, and outbuildings. Regional centers once had considerable cultural and commercial importance, but since the first U.S. occupation, Port-au-Prince has become disproportionately dominant.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. About 65 percent of the labor force are small landowners engaged in agriculture (one of the highest proportions of peasants in any country); only about 7 percent are in manufacturing. One percent of workers are involved in construction and 27 percent in other sectors. Agriculture is precarious because the countryside is 95 percent deforested, and 25 percent of the soil is undergoing rapid erosion. Haiti's primary products are coffee, sugar, rice, and cocoa. Its light manufacturing enterprises produce shoes, soap, flour, cement, and domestic oils. Its export industries produce garments, toys, baseballs, and electronic goods for the U.S. market. Despite this small-scale industrialization, the annual per capita income is estimated at $380. The current instability of the government is having deleterious effects on the national economy.

Industrial Arts. Many people engage in part-time craft work, particularly in the manufacture of wood utensils, tools, and furniture. Formerly, many of these items were destined for the tourist trade.

Trade. Most commercial exchange is carried out in open-air markets. The market women are justly famous both for carrying heavy loads of merchandise and for bargaining with great skill. Haiti's economy is closely tied to that of the United States; a sizable portion of its exports go to North America, and it is dependent on governmental and nongovernmental U.S. aid.

Division of Labor. In rural areas, men generally handle agricultural production, and women take charge of the produce. The women depend on the men to provide a product to sell, and the men depend on the women for domestic labor.

Land Tenure. A crucial problem facing the newly independent Haiti was access to land. Having failed in its attempt to reinstate the plantation system of colonial Saint Domingue, the government distributed much of the land among the former slaves. Currently, from 60 to 80 percent of the farmers own their own land, although few have clear title, and the plots are fragmented and small. Fairly large plantations do exist but not nearly to the same extent as in Latin American countries. The state owns land, but the government has rarely shown a sustained interest in agriculture.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Marriage. The plantation system and the institution of slavery had a profound influence on domestic entities. Additionally, the laws of the early republic reinforced the tendency of the rural population to avoid legal and church marriages. The most recognizable kinship pattern in rural Haiti is the somewhat patrilineal extended family living in a cluster of households linked through legal, ritual, consanguineal, and affinal ties and headed by the oldest male member.

In addition to conventional church weddings, longterm monogamous unions, and neolocal nuclear-family households, there are socially accepted unions without formal sanction, couples who do not coreside, fathers who do not participate actively in rearing their children, and households without a nuclear family at their core.

In writing about Haiti, anthropologists often avoid the word "family"; instead they use "household," which embraces the wide range of relativesdirect and collateral, on the sides of both parentsthat the Haitian "family" typically includes.

Inheritance. The complexity of the domestic unit and the varieties of household types do create inheritance problems. In general, all children from all the varieties of conjugal unions have equal rights of inheritance, but, in practice, residents, contacts, and personal feelings are important determinants of who inherits.

Socialization. Because both adults and children may change residential affiliation with relative ease and frequency and enjoy a variety of temporary residential rights, children often come into contact with a relatively large number of adults who may discipline and train them. In general, a great deal of emphasis is placed on respect for adults, and adults are quick to use corporal punishment to ensure that they receive it. Fewer than half of the rural children attend school, and only about 20 percent of those complete the primary grades.

Sociopolitical Organization

In 1995 Haiti was in the process of reestablishing its political and social institutions under a democratic administration. Agreements with the U.S. government and international finance agencies had created a difficult set of parameters within which a move toward more social equality and justice was being attempted.

Social Organization. One result of the land reform in the early 1800 was that the largely mulatto elite fled to the cities and, with no land of their own, made their living from taxing peasant markets and the nation's imports and exports. This elite also practiced the religion of the slave owners, Roman Catholicism. Driven by fear of a renewed French occupation, the bulk of the population retreated into the mountainous interior, inside a ring of magnificent forts. What emerged from these displacements was a nation with a very small European-oriented, Roman Catholic, mulatto elite residing in several coastal urban centers and a large, scattered Black population that farmed the interior and worshiped in the ancient African manner.

Political Organization.

The largely Black peasantry has always regarded the government as having little relevance to their lives. Haiti's regional political units, called départements, are further divided into several arrondissements, each with an administrative center. Arrondissements consist of several communes, which usually coincide with church parishes. Each commune is divided into sections rurales, each of which is headed by an appointed chef de section, who reports to the commandant of the commune, who in turn reports to the préfet of the arrondissement. The limited contact rural Haitians normally have with the government is, for the most part, with the chef de section.

Social Control. Criminality is rare, and, for the most part, the rural population, in deference to village elders, polices itself. The urban areas have police and courts, mainly modeled after the French system.

Conflict. Governments in Haiti have been run primarily by members of the elite, and despite the early and heroic independence of Haiti from France and the elimination of slavery, the attitude of the elite classes of Haiti has traditionally been a neocolonial one. Nativism, negritude, and the increasing use of Creole have made all Haitians more aware of their Haitianness, but tensions exist between the affluent city dwellers and the poor peasants and shantytown residents. Aside from a very small but moderately influential group of Middle Eastern merchants, the population of Haiti is exceptionally homogeneous, both culturally and linguistically.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Although the majority of the population is nominally Roman Catholic and although Protestant missionaries have won a number of converts in the poorer rural areas, the religion of Haiti is still Vodun, an ancient religion that focuses on contacting and appeasing ancestral spirits (lwa ), which include both distant, stereotyped ancestors and more immediate relatives, such as dead parents and grandparents.

Religious Practitioners. Vodun is a particularly egalitarian religion; both men and women serve as priests (ouganyo and manbo-yo, respectively; sing ougan and manbo ).

Ceremonies. As many of its rituals are performed in the context of sickness and death, Vodun is primarily a system of folk medicine that attributes illnesses to angry ancestors; it consists of appeasement ceremonies, including divination rites, which are used to find the cause of illnesses; healing rites, in which a Vodun priest interacts directly with sick people to cure them; propitiatory rites, in which food and drink are offered to specific spirits to make them stop their aggression; and preventive rites, in which ancestors are offered sacrifices to help head off any possible future trouble.

Arts. In the 1940s Haiti burst into the consciousness of the art world with an astonishing display of paintings, and its artists received worldwide attention for their so-called primitive or naive art. In 1944 the Centre d'Art was founded in Port-au-Prince.

Haiti is also renowned for its literature, despite its high rate of illiteracy (85 percent). Major themes include concepts of negritude, which foreshadowed the Black Power and post-World War II anticolonial movements, and Vodun. The most famous novel in Haitian Creole, Frankétinne's Dézafi, is about the revolt of a colony of zombies.

Medicine. Although Western medicine has been available to the urban elite since the early 1960s, there were only 887 physicians in Haiti in 1988 (Wilke 1993, Table 804). In the rural areas, curing depends on a rich body of folk knowledge that includes herbal medicine and Vodun. The peasants nevertheless suffer from malnutrition and many diseases. Measles, diarrhea, and tetanus kill many children, and the daily per capita caloric intake for 1988 has been estimated at 2,011 (Wilke 1993, Table 824). Only about 38 percent of the population has access to potable water. Tuberculosis is the most devastating disease, followed closely by dysentery, influenza, malaria, measles, tetanus, and whooping cough. Eye problems are endemic in Haiti; the chief causes of blindness are cataracts, glaucoma, pterygium (a growth over the cornea), and scarring of the cornea.


Courlander, Harold (1960). The Drum and the Hoe: Life and Lore of the Haitian People. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Ferguson, James (1987). Papa Doc, Baby Doc: Haiti and the Duvaliers. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Laguerre, Michel S. (1982a). The Complete Haitiana: A Bibliographic Guide to the Scholarly Literature, 1 900-1980. 2 vols. Millwood, N.Y: Kraus.

Laguerre, Michel S. (1982b). Urban Life in the Caribbean: A Study of a Haitian Urban Community. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman.

Laguerre, Michel S. (1993). The Military and Society in Haiti. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Lawless, Robert (1986). "Haitian Migrants and Haitian-Americans: From Invisibility into the Spotlight." Journal of Ethnic Studies 14(2): 29-70.

Lawless, Robert (1988). "Creole Speaks, Creole Understands." The World and I 3(1): 474-483; 3(2): 510-521.

Mintz, Sidney W. (1995). "Can Haiti Change?" Foreign Affairs 74:73-86.

Nicholls, David (1979). From Dessalines to Duvalier: Race, Colour, and National Independence in Haiti. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weinstein, Brian, and Aaron Segal (1984). Haiti: Political Failures, Cultural Successes. New York: Praeger.

Wilkie, James, ed. (1993). Statistical Abstract of Latin America. Vol. 30, Part 1. Los Angeles: UCLA.


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Identification. Haitians are Blacks from the island of Haiti, which occupies one-third of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea. The other two-thirds of Hispaniola is occupied by the Dominican Republic. Contemporary Haitians are descendants of African slaves imported by the French colonists to work on the sugar plantations in the eighteenth Century. Haiti has been an independent nation since 1804 when a slave revolt overthrew the French government. Haitians in Haiti are a homogeneous group, with the major distinctions based on social class and urban-rural residence. Ninety percent of the population is rural, and the other 10 percent is mostly mulatto and forms the elite. In the United States, the Haitian population is composed of naturalized U.S. citizens, legal immigrants, legal nonimmigrants (students, government workers), children born in the United States, and undocumented aliens and refugees. The large number of Haitians who have come to North America since the mid-1970s has made the group highly visible and has resulted in their being the victims of economic, political, and residential racial discrimination. Haitians see themselves as distinctively Haitian, with the identities of West Indian or Black being of Secondary importance.

Location. In the United States, Haitians live primarily in New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, and Miami. Perhaps as many as one-half live in New York City. In Canada, Haitians live mainly in Montreal.

Demography. Estimates place the Haitian population in the United States at about 800,000 with perhaps as many as one-half that number classified as undocumented aliens or refugees. About a quarter are children born in the United States. In Canada, Haitians number about 25,000. In both countries, most Haitians have arrived in the last thirty years.

Linguistic Affiliation. Haitians speak Haitian Creole, which is a distinct language, not a dialect of French. About 8 percent, most of whom are the elite, also speak French. Because of regular contact with the United States, the use of English, especially in cities, is increasing. In North America, most recent immigrants speak Haitian Creole, while those who came earlier and their American-born children speak English.

History and Cultural Relations

Haiti is unique in a number of ways: it is the second oldest independent nation in the New World; it is the only nation in history to achieve independence through a slave revolt; it is the poorest nation in the hemisphere; and its culture is the most strongly African culture in the New World. Migration to North America went through four stages. During the period of French colonization in the 1700s some French and their slaves migrated to the southern colonies and settlements. The period of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1803) brought some 50,000 Whites and Blacks to North America, with most settling in cities in the East and the South. From 1915 to 1934 Haiti was occupied by the United States and thousands of middle-class Haitians immigrated to the United States. Most settled in cities, establishing businesses or obtaining professional employment, and eventually assimilated into mainstream society. From 1957 to 1986 Haiti was ruled by the Duvaliers, first François "Papa Doc" and then his son, Jean-Claude. The Duvaliers' repressive rule drove thousands of middle-class Haitians north from 1957 to 1971.

Beginning in the early 1970s, Haitian "boat people" began arriving in Florida. Unlike most of the earlier Immigrants, they were mainly rural, poor, uneducated, and male. After 1977 the number of these immigrants increased dramatically, making them highly visible and leading to often repressive government action including deportation or internment in detention camps. Although the courts put an end to most of these abuses, the public stereotyped Haitians as poor, illiterate, illegal aliens. Haitians were then identified as an at-risk group for contracting the AIDS virus, a classification that was later rescinded by the government. Not surpisingly, Haitians who have arrived since the 1970s and constitute the majority of those in North America, are subject to various forms of racial and cultural discrimination. Because of linguistic and cultural differences, they usually do not affiliate with the African-American community or with Black West Indians. The children born in the United States, however, adopt English as their primary language and associate with African-Americans.


In the cities where they have settled, Haitians tend to live in the same neighborhoods and often on the same blocks and in the same buildings. In New York, the major Haitian communities are in Queens and Brooklyn, with Queens seen as the home for those who are more affluent and own their own homes. "Little Haiti" in Miami is probably the most distinctively Haitian community in North America, with numerous businesses operated by Haitians and with an almost exclusively Haitian clientele.


As mentioned above, Haitians who settled in North America before the 1970s often started small businesses or found skilled or professional employment. They either became part of mainstream economy or continued to serve the Haitian community. Those who have arrived since the 1970s include some with business experience in Haiti who have opened businesses in Haitian communities. But most of the recent immigrants have been poor and uneducated and work at lowlevel, low-paying jobs. Unskilled factory work and maintenance work are common for men, and many women work as domestics. Many Haitians live in poverty in slum neighborhoods, often sharing dwelling units and pooling resources to help pay the various legal and travel costs involved in bringing relatives to North America. In some cities, economic self-help organizations and church or government-backed programs have developed to provide economic and other assistance. For undocumented immigrants, who seek to avoid government contact, finding and holding regular employment is even more difficult. Among Haitians immigrating to Florida, some have become migrant farm workers, following the crops as they ripen up and down the eastern United States.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

The networks of kin ties and various family forms in rural Haiti have largely disappeared in urban North America. In fact, many Haitian families in North America are fragmented, with some having members still in Haiti, and others with members in two or more places in North America or elsewhere. Ties are regularly maintained among such kin, however, with the ultimate goal of family members settling near one another. Household composition in North America is often determined by the economic status of the household and its role in the chain migration process. In the North American context, male dominance in the family has disappeared and Haitian families are more egalitarian. In two-generation families, in which the children have been born in North America, conflict has emerged between parents who speak Haitian Creole and emphasize Haitian culture and children who speak English and identify with the African-American community. Education has been markedly difficult for Haitian children because of the language difference and because Haitian parents, while valuing education, Traditionally vest considerable authority in the schools and play a less active role than do White American parents.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Haitians identity themselves as such and generally do not identify with the African-American, Black West Indian, or other Caribbean communities in North America. They have also chosen not to seek political or economic representation through established African-American or Latino political channels. Whatever their self-identity, once Haitians enter public schools or the work force, they are identified by Whites as Blacks and treated as such. In Canada, Haitians were encouraged to settle in Quebec and Montreal because they were thought to be French-speaking. But rather than learn French, some have chosen to affiliate with English-speaking Canadians through their choice of churches and schools for their children.

There are clear distinctions in the Haitian-American community between those who arrived in the past and those who arrived recently and between the poor and the wealthy (bon moun). These distinctions are manifested in behavior, speech, place of residence, and degree of identification with the Haitian community. The wealthier, and more recently, the economically stable tend to live in suburbs, whereas the poor remain in the inner cities. In some communities there is a division between those who prefer to speak French and those who prefer Creole.

Political Organization. Haitian neighborhoods, including Little Haiti in Miami, are notable for the relatively few Haitian associations and organizations that have developed. In Miami, for example, the Haitian Chamber of Commerce is the only Haitian business association of any importance. Haitian neighborhoods are also notable for their peacefulness and the absence of conflict. Haitian politics center on Political developments in Haiti. From Duvalier's taking of power in 1957 until the present, the Haitian community in the United States has been active in opposing his regime and attempting to replace him. Haitians have also tried to become active Politically in the United States, with only limited success.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The major religion in Haiti is Voodoo, an ancient religion that combines elements of ancestor worship with the worship of the recently deceased. Voodoo rituals often take place at the time of illness or death and involve healing the sick and appeasing angry ancestors. In Haiti, some Haitians are Roman Catholics or Protestants. In North America, Haitians belong to or form their own Roman Catholic, Baptist, and other churches. Some are Jehovah's Witnesses. The existence of Voodoo in North America is poorly documented; when it is practiced it is evidently in private so as not to draw attention from the outside community, which sees it as a pagan cult rather than a legitimate religion.

As in other areas of life, Haitians in North America provide the Haitian community with its own music, dance, entertainment, social clubs, theater, and radio programs.

See also Black Creoles in Louisiana, Blacks in Canada


Laguerre, Michel S. (1984). American Odyssey: Haitians in New York City, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Lawless, Robert (1986). "Haitian Migrants and Haitian-Americans: From Invisibility into the Spotlight." Journal of Ethnic Studies 14:29-70.

Richman, Karen E. (1984). "From Peasant to Migratory Farmworker: Haitian Migrants in U.S. Agriculture." In Haitian Migration and the Haitian Economy, edited by Terry L. McCoy, 52-65. Gainesville: Center for Latin American Studies, University of Florida.

Stepick, Alex (1982). "Haitian Boat People: A Study in the Conflicting Forces Shaping U.S. Refugee Policy." Law and Contemporary Problems 45:163-196.

Woldemikael, Tekle M. (1988). Becoming Black American: Haitians and American Institutions in Evanston, Illinois. New York: AMS Press.

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