Haïti: an island of light in the dark of the night

By Daniel Maximin. Previously unpublished text

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 Guadalupean poet, Daniel Maximin, shares his views on Haiti’s literature, in light of Haiti’s political construction.

The Haitian revolution culminated in the creation of the first independent black state in 1804, as a result of the rebellion against Napoleonic France, which had wanted to reinstate slavery. For the first time in modern history, a liberated nation was created according to the principles of equality and freedom and the political and legal structures of the French Revolution. These principles were carried though from King Christopher to the first president Dessalines, ignoring the African ancestral model of political or ethnic organisation. The development of a national conscience was actually more a consequence of liberation than its genesis, being born of a Negro uprising against slavery and the seizing of economic power by the coloured Bourgeoisie that rose out of the community of free mulattos.
From the beginning, or rather due to its beginnings, Haitian politics and culture did not function as the creative product of a collective identity but rather more as a distorted representation of this identity as a result of its concern with mirroring Europe and « white men ». The problem with this is that, at that time, « Europe » and « white men » were merely a more or less subconscious mask for the relationship between political control and the intellectual power of colonisation.
Having conquered their white master by attacking the most visible signs of his mastership, that is, the power of the State and cultural knowledge, the Haitians built models of mastership drawn from an abstract vision of Europe based on the figure of the coloniser, as did many later Third-World intellectuals. However, Haiti did not have the benefit of the economic, social, political and cultural structures that ensure that, rather than a kind of paradise of mastership, European countries (as everywhere else) are a place where the contradictions inherent to all civil societies faced with the question of political representation can be addressed and resolved. For a very long time, Europe was only represented in its colonies by the interrelated figures of the missionary, the settler, the schoolmaster and the soldier, with the result that many colonised peoples’ fight for freedom became a fight against these four foreign institutions, whose power they would subsequently take over for themselves, having interiorised them. They had neither the time nor the space to find an appropriate form of legitimate constitution to create their very own state of law.
In short, it is not even the real Other that is mirrored in the Other’s eyes, or that we see, and sometimes even seek out. The mirror itself has served to legitimise illegitimate quests for power, void of the need to represent the oppressed accurately. It is also used to misappropriate power in the name of representing the voiceless masses who have been oppressed symbolically. And, the less legitimate the person who holds the power is, the more they-like Duvalier-set themselves up as a representative of a given race (black) or social condition (slavery). Race and history blacken the face of mastership. Political power is identified with the role of the settler and black soldier. Cultural power is associated with the missionary and black schoolmaster. In one short century, almost 10 elected presidents have instated themselves as president for life and three former slaves have proclaimed themselves emperor of Haiti. Each time they have done so with intellectual, racial or national legitimacy as Haiti’s dictatorships have always started out as a form of enlightened despotism and « skin privilege ».
Thus, the failure of the emancipation project, which had nevertheless started out with genuine intentions. As Césaire has King Christopher say, « It is time to make these Negroes see reason. They think that revolution consists in continuing to take the place of the White man and behave like him at the expense of the Negroes. » Aimé Césaire, The Tragedy of King Christophe)
This lead to François Duvalier’s dictatorial project, for example. By misappropriating a strategy for representing an oppressed portion of society, in the interests of black supremacy. « With him as Head of State, the essence of the Haitian intellectual or politician would be realised, that is, to offer the « white » stranger the spectacle of the Negro who has at last become the absolute master. He presents himself as the proprietor and producer of the Haitian nation, with the « omnipotence » and « omniscience » with which the master crowned himself to stand above the slaves. However, in one movement, it so happens that the barbaric imaginary that the master nurtured and used to clothe the slave became real. » (Laënnec Hurbon, Le Barbare Imaginaire)
Writing for the Other, writing for « Us »
The tragic thing about Haitian literature is that the act of writing-a cultural act-has played the same role as the act of governing in the political world.
Cultural expressions, and most significantly, literature and philosophy, took on the role of celebrating the Haitian model from outside. Being a product of what Hannibal Price called « the Mecca, the Judea of the black race », the Haitian writer has taken the role of the prophet of Negro dignity, testifying for voiceless Negro communities and forcing Europe into a debate on human rights. However, this has taken forms, and is played out on terrain that Europe is already familiar with, that is, the witness’ right to freedom of speech and the judge’s right to freedom of judgement, as according to the laws of foreign courts.
There is not a single apology for racism in Europe that does not find its immediate antonym in a Haitian work. For example, in 1880, The Equality of the Human Races by Anténor Firmin or, in 1900, Réhabilitation de la race noire by Hannibal Price, written in response to the theories of Gobineau, Houston Chamberlain and Vacher de Lapouge. There is not a single Parisian school of literature from Romanticism to Surrealism without an amplified echo in literary circles in Port-au-Prince, which is probably the place in the world where French verse is most frequently recited by heart.
The passage from an extraverted expression of culture perceived through the Other’s gaze to an inward gaze in both form and content was brutally accelerated by a political phenomena that catapulted Haiti back into a colonial-type situation: the US occupation from 1919 to 1934.
This time, the second fight for freedom could only succeed by affirming the legitimacy of the « Haitian nation« , in the name of an identity recognised by all. For decades culture was dominated by the celebration of the historical saga, the persistent quest for a Messiah, and later, contrastingly, by political withdrawal from fashionable Parnassian formalism and dandy impassiveness. Now, Haitian intellectuals are rediscovering that glorification of the past and its reflection in foreign mirrors had distanced them from a narcissistic quest of the collective « we » in the here and now.
Jean Price-Mars wrote, So Spoke the Uncle, a work symbolic of this new awareness, in 1927. The Uncle speaks the language of Negro tales, peasant songs, Voodoo religion and Creole. He says in the Preface, « By continuing to think of ourselves as coloured Frenchmen, we are unlearning to be Haitians entirely. We will only have a chance to be ourselves if we don’t reject any part of our ancestral heritage. Well! This heritage is 80% a gift from Africa. »
The power and purity of the writer’s commitment can only be expressed within the condition of exile. It is an interior exile that denies the political and cultural power of the country’s capital to celebrate the indigenist quest of peasant traditions, songs, Negro dances, African mementoes and the magical power of Voodoo. It is an exterior exile experienced through the journey towards the multicoloured proletariats, that awakens the « Negro who foments revolt, who has seen the world, from the Congo-Ocean railroad to Georgian cypress plantations. From miners in the Asturias to Indian pariahs and Abyssinian shepherds », as described in Jacques Roumain’s poem « Ebony Wood ».
Thus, Haiti is the country from the black Third World to have produced within 100 years of its inception the greatest number of writers at the forefront of the international fight against dictatorship. Since 1804, in almost every resistance and abolition movement from New York to Madrid, from Prague to Cuba, Dakar and Rio there has been a Haitian writer on the witness stand as hawkers of stories of revolt, or « Colporteurs de révoltes« , testifying against all forms of fascism and slavery.
Because major Haitian works of literature (as lucid as Haitin art is naïve) have always succeeded in restoring the power of fiction against the real power of those in power.
Beyond testimonies, pleas and accusations, they are representative of the imagination at work, that is, a space for the freedom and the hope for equality described by Jacques Roumain:

« It is this space that is threatened by destiny…
here where dawn tears strips of night,
where in the horrific parturition and humble,
anonymous blood of the peasant and labourer
the world in which the bitter withering of the sole equality of despair is born ».

Daniel Maximin was born in Guadeloupe. He is a poet, novelist and essayist, and has published a collection of poems, L’Invention des désidérades (Présence africaine, 2000) and three novels (L’Isolé Soleil (Le Seuil, 1981,) Soufrières (Le Seuil, 1987), and L’île et une nuit, (Le Seuil, 1996). In April 2004, Sinon l’enfance, will be published in Gallimard’s « Haute enfance » collection.
Daniel Maximin has lectured in literature and anthropology. He formerly director of literature for Présence africaine publishers and producer of the French cultural programme, Antipodes, broadcast by the French radio station, France-Culture. He was also director of Cultural affairs in Guadeloupe from 1989 to 1997 and in 1998 presided over the inter-ministerial mission for the national celebration of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 1848. He is currently advisor for the French Ministry of Education’s taskforce for artistic education and cultural aid.///Article N° : 5716


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