"When do you need it by?" he asks.
"I can't say that right now, but you say you could have one ready in three days?"
"Um-hmm." He nods.
"I'm not actually sure whether a girl or boy would work better," you, the doubting consumer, say. A slave is a serious purchase. Best to acquire the right one the first time. "I'll decide that later. Do you want to ask me any other questions about what I want?"
"What age?" Benavil asks.
"Younger better," you say. "Probably somewhere between nine and eleven."
"What kind of salary would you offer?"
Unlike the sex question, this surprises you. But you figure it's just Benavil doing his humanitarian shtick again. "I could give food and I could give a place to stay, and I might be able to pay for school. But in terms of salary, even though I'm American, I'm a poor writer. But perhaps school and food."
"Perhaps when you leave the country, would you take the person with you?"
"I think I could probably do that. It depends on visa issues, but I think I could probably work it out. Any more questions?"
Benavil tells you that he can "arrange" the papers to make it look as if you've adopted the child. That will make it easier to take your purchase home. He offers you a thirteen-year-old girl.
"That's a little bit old," you say.
"I know of another girl who's twelve. Then ones that are ten, eleven, and twelve," he responds.
You say you'd like to see what's on offer in the countryside. But then you tell him not to make any moves without further word from you.
Here, 600 miles from the United States, and five hours from the desk of the UN Secretary-General, you have successfully bargained a human being down to the price of the cab fare to JFK.
I didn't make up these descriptions and conversations, though they read like a perverted travel tale. They were recorded in October 2005 in Haiti, and like slavery itself, they can only be absorbed if you think of them at a distance. But in Haiti as elsewhere, a slave is no metaphor.
And conjured literary irony cannot compare to the cruel irony of Haiti's history. The French colony of Saint-Domingue was once "the pearl of the Antilles," the richest colony in the hemisphere, with a GDP greater than that of the United States. Today, Haiti is the poorest nation in the Americas. Haitian blacks, who then comprised over 90 percent of the colony's population, forged the region's second free republic by staging, in 1791, the modern world's first, and only, successful slave revolt.
Now Haiti has more slaves than any nation outside of Asia, and more than toiled on the entire island of Hispaniola (including Haiti and the Dominican Republic) when the revolution began.
In 1685, the king of France laid the groundwork for a system of child slavery that mutated but continued for 330 years. One hundred and seventy years after black slaves first were taken to the island, Louis XIV, the absolutist "Sun King," declared black children in Saint-Domingue to be property of their mother's master. Masters were free to sell the offspring or give them to other family members. From age eight, the slaves minded the master's children. At age twelve, they joined their parents in the field.
A century later, in the midst of Haiti's bloody and protracted revolution, revolt leader Toussaint L'Ouverture drafted a new constitution abolishing slavery. His new nation became the first in the western hemisphere, and second in the world, to make abolition the law of the land. But L'Ouverture worried that a rising trend would allow slavery to survive. Rural parents, he noted with concern, were sending "their boys and girls to the city on the pretext of gaining the education which they will never attain in the cities." Already, the restavèk phenomenon was simmering. Article 68 of the 1801 Constitution called for schools throughout the countryside.
Copyright © 2008 by E. Benjamin Skinner
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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