This is Haitian soupe joumou (pumpkin soup). This is history: history of the Americas, Black history, history of freedom struggle. This is a dish of the Haitian Revolution, of Haitian independence. It is Haitian history in a bowl.
As the first successful slave rebellion, and the creation of the first Black republic of the so-called ‘modern’ world, it’s also important history. You can’t understand the history of Blackness, slavery, and revolution without understanding the role of the Haitian Revolution.
Why? In the ordering of Western thinking, personhood – and the freedom and equality built on these through Western philosophy (you had to be seen as a person to desire and deserve freedom…) – was seen as impossible for African slaves (this follows Truillot, Wynter & other’s articulations) and the Haitian Revolution disrupted this ontology. As the eminent Caribbean scholar Sylvia Wynter writes, building on Price-Mars in her unpublished Black Metamorphosis, the Haitian Revolution was “the breach which we made in the process of historical events to snatch our place among men.”
The Haitian Revolution was a disruption of the colonial order of knowing, an order that deemed Black people as non-persons worthy only of slavery. It was a foundational crack in the whole system of slavery in the America, with deep, long lasting ripple effects. It inspired slave revolts in the United States (and elsewhere in the Americas) and was the model for anticolonial revolutions around the world. It instilled fear in the slave-holding white world that eventually led to the abolition of slavery. It kept freedom dreams alive and birthed new ones.
But its success also led to repercussions for Haiti. What was once the most prosperous of all the colonies in the world, bankrolling the entire French empire, became known as the poorest nation in the Americas. This is not by chance or some natural cause; as Wynter reminds us: this poverty is produced and reproduced over and over again. It’s intentional.
France and the United States blockaded Haiti, forcing them to pay reparations for the independence they had already won, paying billions to landowners that had enslaved them. They were ostracized, undermined and not recognized by other colonial powers afraid that Haiti would inspire slaves within their own borders to revolt. France undermined Haiti’s rule any chance it got, seeking to maintain control through banking and aid, continuing to funnel money out of the country while forcing Haiti into predatory lending relationships to pay the debt they imposed. Haiti could not be seen as a success. In 1915, the United States invaded and occupied Haiti, further undermining self-rule and destabilizing the country. All of this led to overwhelming international debt and, this combined with natural disasters and corrupt leaders propped up by foreign countries, has led to Haiti being seen as perpetually impoverished. Despite the independence won, colonialism continued to impoverish Haiti.
Pathologizing Haiti as ‘failed’ and ‘impoverished’ has led to calls for Haiti to “relinquish its sovereignty” (Boston Globe, 2017) and, in practice, has led to aid-giving nations having control over the economy and political spheres under the guise of ‘helping’. Canada being chief among them, going so far as to aid a coup against a democratically elected leader. Haiti continues to play an important role in Canada’s foreign policy and aid work, a role in which Canada is comfortable continuing the pathologization of Haiti for its own gains. Which is why narratives that remind us of the importance of Haiti are needed. We need to be reminded of the importance of Haiti, of the importance of Black revolution, of the importance of freedom and the need to destroy systems of oppression that limit freedom, systems that privilege some at the expense of others. Haiti and its history are both reminders of the power of the oppressed to free themselves but also of the lengths other people will go to limit that freedom for their own gains. As Frederick Douglass reminds us, those in power do not concede their power without demands, without a struggle, without revolutionary struggle.
So, I made Haitian pumpkin soup for New Years Day. The recipe comes from the most recent issue of Comestible journal where Haitian author Cindy Similien-Johnson writes of why it is a Haitian tradition to eat pumpkin soup on January 1st:
Pumpkin was a luxury during the times of slavery in Haiti. It signified opulence and wealth, and the slave masters were the only ones who were allowed to consume pumpkin soup.
Haiti obtained its independence from French colonial rule on January 1, 1804. To celebrate, the freed Haitians made pumpkin soup – something that for so long had been denied to them. In essence, whenever I had a spoonful of pumpkin soup on New Year’s Day, I was swallowing independence. I was not only reaffirming my independence but also celebrating the independence of my ancestors, who were courageous, fearless, and resilient.
Haiti’s history is an important one, an often forgotten one among world leaders and people more intent on designating it a ‘shithole’ for their own personal and political gains. Theirs is a history of freedom and revolution that many people don’t know, obscured by the West’s production and reproduction of impoverishment, sickness, and corruption.
This is an important reminder for Canadians, as our government continues to undermine Haitian activism and freedom. It also is grappling with how we will welcome (or not) Haitian refugees, displaced by our own colonial endeavours. We must remember as part of an educational process that can support Haitian grassroots movements for freedom today. We can advocate and educate to ensure that Canada does not continue to undermine Haitian sovereignty. As Jemima Pierre writes, colonialism in Haiti is ongoing and “it seems as if the entire world is colluding to undermine the sovereignty of the world’s first Black nation”.
On this New Year’s Day, I’m choosing to remember this Haitian history. This Black history. This history of the Americas. This history of freedom. It is a good way to begin the year.
As Similien-Johnson writes in her book, Let’s Speak Haitian Food, a Haitian proverb is “Sa ou plante se li ou rekolte” (what you sow is what you will harvest).
The question, then, is: What do we need to sow to be able to reap revolution and freedom in the coming year?
Below is Cindy Similien-Johnson’s recipe for Haitian soupe joumou, republished with permission. It has a vegetarian alternative and, when I made it, I omitted the dumplings to save time, adding a few more vermicelli noodles to fill it out.
Soupe Joumou (Pumpkin Soup)
This savoury soup is served to commemorate not only the new year but also Haiti's Independence Day on January 1st, 1804, when it became the first independent Black republic. This soup is also served during Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it can be enjoyed every day of the year. If you are looking for a vegetarian version, this recipe can also be made without the beef, and by swapping out the chicken bouillon cube for a vegetable alternative.
- 1 pound beef, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
- 2 pounds pumpkin, peeled/seeded and cut into big chunks
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 chicken bouillon cube, crushed
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 5 medium potatoes, cubed
- 3 cups green cabbage, shredded
- 4 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
- 2 scallions, sliced
- 2 celery stalks, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
- 1 large yellow onion, diced
- 3 teaspoons chopped parsley
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
- 1/4 teaspoon fresh thyme
- 1 Scotch bonnet pepper, whole
- 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
- 1/2 cup broken-up vermicelli noodles
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
In a bowl, sprinkle the beef all over with salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a blender, combine the raw pumpkin with 1 cup water and puree until smooth, adding more water if needed. Set aside.
In a large pot over medium heat, warm the oil. Add the beef, chicken bouillon cube, and tomato paste. Cook for 10 minutes, until the beef is browned.
Add 6 cups of water to the pot and bring to a boil. Stir in the pureed pumpkin, potatoes, cabbage, carrots, scallions, celery, onion, parsley, salt, pepper, and thyme. Top with the Scotch bonnet pepper (including the stem). Bring to a boil again.
Lower the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the bottom doesn't burn.
Remove the Scotch bonnet pepper, taking care to not let it burst; if it does, the soup will be very spicy. Stir in the lime juice and vermicelli. Cook for another ten minutes.
To make the dumplings, in a bowl, mix together the flour, water, oil, salt, and pepper. Take 1 tablespoon of dough, and with the palms of your hands, roll the dough into elongated shapes. Add the dumplings to the soup and cook the soup for 15 minutes more (Add more water to make the soup less thick if necessary).
Ladle the soup into bowls and serve right away.