Liberated Zones Within the Borders of Empire


Slaves of Palmares

In 1663 in the mountains of northeastern Brazil, black slaves fled to Palmares.  The governor general of Brazil sent expeditions to route the dissenters, to no avail.  The Portuguese sent twenty-three expeditions against Palmares and failed to crush them.  It is in Palmares that the many “petals” of language and custom become a “a single rose.”

Palmares remained dangerous memory, the place of resistance and new culture, black culture, the culture of the Quilombos, those escaped blacks who formed settlements in the mountains and jungles of Brazil.  The culture which they made was mix of many different languages, cultures, and national identities.

As a precursor to the slave revolts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Palmares symbolizes the formation of an autonomous “state” within empire.  Only one slave revolt, however, became a sovereign national power.  The Haitian revolution, led by Touissant l’Ouverture and Dessalines, embodied the struggle for freedom and rights epitomized in the French revolution.  But the Haitian revolution added a historical depth lacking in the French revolution. It was led by slaves. Such a fire threatened to spread.

The tragic counterrevolution which followed reduced the island to isolation, savage poverty, and rule by brutal dictators.  Yet the spirit of resistance rises from the ashes of history.   A new leader, devoted to the impoverished majority, has given the people hope.  On his presidential inauguration day Jean Betran Aristide invited the masses into the palace for a banquet.  President Aristide, a Catholic priest who the people called “our Liberator,” moved throughout the courtyard offering the Haitian poor an inaugural meal as a sign of his desire to serve the people.

Aristide’s uncompromising defense of the poor masses so angered the elites and military that he was captured and exiled in October 1991.  The generals soon learned that they country might be ungovernable.  Resistance remains clandestine, wily, and massive.  The people do not forget the revolutionary priest who believed in them, who believed that the poor of Haiti are its future.  So they wait as their ancestors waited for the tight moment.  They will fill the years with sabotage, defiance, underground organizations, secret cods, and memory.  They will remember Aristide as they remember l’Ouverture.  Poet Ntosake Shage calls on leaders’ l’Overture, Petion, and Dessalines to observe the suffering of the people:

can you satand it Dessalines?
can you stand it Petion\l’Ouverent?
can you stand these children
with the red eyes and Dacron brassieres for sale…..
will you come again\some of you
sweep through the alleys and the stink\come here
with yr visions
l’liberte l’egalite l’fraternite.
come visit among us that we might know
again/some hope.
-Ntosake Shange, “A Black Night in Haiti, Palais National, Port au Prince,” A Daughter’s Geography, 33-34


L’Ouverture, Petion, Dessalines can never, of course, return.  But the spirit of their resistance can.  It is the memory of that spirit that Shange calls upon.  This book has sought to remember the l’Ouverents’ of history.  But the book’s dedication is to those anonymous masses that make such liberators possible.  Those nameless peasant, slaves and workers are the spiritual and material forces that drive history.  Shange calls upon the spirit of Haitian revolutionaries to return.  But it is, and it was, the peoples’ spirit of resistance which will determine the struggle for justice, not an individual leader.  L’Ouverture cannot return.  Aristide can.  The people say he’ll come again.  They’ll see to it.


Additional sources:


They plucked our fruit, they cut our branches, they burned our trunk, but they could not kill our roots.

-Committee of United Campesinos, Guatemala


Let us summon the petals

of all the accents sometimes fratricide 

to a single rose called

Amerindian America, Afroamerica,

Creole America….

-Pedro Casaldaliga

Mass of the Quilombos

We are coming from the depths of the earth,
We are coming from the bosom of night,
Of the flesh under the lash we are made
We have come to remember.
We are coming from death out at sea,
We are coming from the packed holds of ships;
We are heirs of melancholy
We have come to weep….
We are coming from the old slave quarters,
We are coming from the new favelas;
We are the outcasts of the world
We have come to dance.
We are coming from the land of the 
We are coming to the beating of drums; 
We are the new Palmares
We have come to struggle.

-Pedro Casaldaliga, In Pursuit of the Kingdom, 67-68


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So That You May Not Forget

Dedicated to Miguel, a Baptist minister killed with three others in El Salvador on November 15, 1989.

You tried to rip out the roots of my life.
One time, ten times, a thousand times, a 
million times.
To erase me from the earth
so as not to leave traces of my existence.
But today I am more alive than when you 
killed me.
I give you back your death
so that you will always carry it like a 
that does not allow you to forget—
that the bread you raise to your mouth 
is the bread that was paid for with the 
sweat of our workers;
the coffee that delight you
you took from campesinos blood;
the latest fashion that you wear
you robbed from women who worked long
Because of your luxury, billions of my
brothers and sisters
were left without food, without sleep,
without rest, without schools.
When you sleep, may you draw in your
the faces to be disappeared
the pain of their children
the bodies you mutilated
and the tortures you designed.
I give you back your death.
Because today I am more alive than when 
you killed me.
-Salvadorean refugee, Secudino Ramirez
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