ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



In Molokai, as in Port-au-Prince, the streets are “crowded [with] abominable deformations

of our common [humanity] . . . butt-ends of human beings lying

there almost unrecognisable but still breathing, still thinking, still remembering

. . . a pitiful place to visit, a hell to dwell in



Books by Rose Ure Mezu


Women in Chains: Abandonment in Love Relationships in the Fiction of Selected West African Writers (1994) / Songs of the Hearth (1993) /

Homage to My People (2004) / A History of Africana Women’s Literature (2004)

 Black Nationalists: Reconsidering Du Bois, Garvey, Booker T. & Nkrumah (1999) Chinua Achebe: The Man and His Works (2006)

*   *   *   *   *

Haiti: The Land Where Negritude First Stood on Its Feet

By  Rose Ure Mezu, Ph.D.


1. . . . crowded with abominable deformations of our common manhood . . . a population as only now and then surrounds us in the horror of a nightmare . . . the butt-ends of human beings lying there almost unrecognisable but still breathing, still thinking, still remembering . . . a pitiful place to visit, a hell to dwell in.—Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of the lepers at Molokai, Honolulu

2.   Injured bodies strewn around, bleeding raw / Mouths open in loud screams of unutterable pain / Wounds gape open and flies buzz busily around / Roaming aimlessly like zombies, dazed look in their wide eyes / Vacant eyes, dead eyes, staring, peering, looking without seeing. . .  .—Rose Ure Mezu, “The Lament of a Crushed People: in Port-au-Prince”

3. To see the infinite pity of this place, / The mangled limb, the devastated face, / The innocent sufferers smiling at the rod, / A fool were tempted to deny his God. / He sees, and shrinks; but if he look again,/ Lo, beauty springing from the breasts of pain. . . . —R.L.Stevenson, To Mother Maryanne”

4. The earth remains unsteady under / pancaked concrete floors with flesh, limbs, / bruised /broken . . . Beneath exploding bombs,/ they will cross that river dividing peace from war. / That healing plant so green and so sweet / will bring fresh sunshine, that Haiti of our dreams. —Rudolph Lewis, “Take Me to the River: Poem on Haiti”

Haiti has recently occupied the central consciousness of the world because of the 7.0 earthquake that devastated its capital city, Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010, leaving almost the entire city in ruins.  Before this time, Haiti was only known as the “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” —an epithet that should serve as an indictment to those countries of the Western Hemisphere who got very rich on Haitian produce while leaving Haiti poor and barren. The world’s limited knowledge about Haiti has up to now been distorted and hidden behind a veil of silence. Now, hopefully, because of present global attention on this Island in the Sun, the truth will be told of Haiti’s authentic history and importance as well as the factors and confluence of events that promoted the extreme poverty of this country of over nine-million people, viz:

  1. Haiti’s slave history, with France as the European colonizing force (1665-1804) that exploited the island’s rich produce and annually imported up to 40,000 slaves to replace dead plantation workers;
  2. Haiti’s unprecedented achievement as the first-ever and only slave country that waged a fierce twelve-year war of freedom (1792 -1804); in fact, Haiti’s feat ranks as the first successful national liberation struggle in modern times,
  3.  Haiti’s inspiration as an authentic model to other slave populations for the reclamation of human rights and dignity; Nathaniel Turner would be inspired to lead his slave revolt;
  4. Haiti’s place as a refuge (from 1815) and the inspirational moral, material and infantry support rendered under President Alexandre Sabès Pétion to Simón Bolivar (1783-1830), the Venezuelan Creole philosopher / freedom fighter and liberator of Latin America countries from Spanish domination;
  5. the punitive treatment as a pariah state meted out to Haiti by Europe and the United States, and subsequent crippling economic and trade embargoes enacted by these countries against Haiti that retarded its fledgling sugar exports and growth1;
  6. the exploitative and vengeful extortion placed on Haiti by its erstwhile colonial master France whereby during the presidency of the mulatto Jean-Pierre Boyer, the threat of 14 French warships in Port-au-Prince harbor, (supported by about 500 guns), forced Haiti on July 11, 1825 to agree to pay as reparation to France150 million francs in gold (an amount equivalent to 90 per cent of the entire Haitian budget) within five years; this forced Haiti to borrow from private French banks, and when Haiti could not pay the exorbitant sums, the new country was forced into a lower-interest, longer-term “debt exchange” contract with CitiBank of New York with this debt being paid off only in1947;
  7. The nearly twenty-year invasion and occupation of Haiti by the United States of America2 ordered in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson following the brutal murder of President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam3 – until President Roosevelt ended the occupation in August 1934, and thereafter, the never-ending meddling in the economic and electoral affairs of Haiti by different countries especially the United States of America although the US did not even recognize Haiti’s 1804 independence until 1862;
  8. the exploitative role of Western hegemonic financial structures such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF);
  9. the confusion created by ongoing political instability and the many successive corrupt Haitian political dictators who lacked the leadership skills and patriotism needed to bring Haiti out of its quagmire of illiteracy and poverty before the 5 pm., Tuesday, January 12, 2010 final insult that is the unprecedented, crushingly devastating earthquake from “Mother nature gone wild.”

This essay looks at two significant periods in Haitian aesthetic and literary history—Haiti’s pre-Negritude writings, and its writers of the Negritude period. In the 19th century, there was a ferment of ideas and a burst of creative literary output by Haiti’s writers and artists which helped to shape the character of their country and incline it towards modernism. The revolutionary feats of its leaders—such as the organizational genius Toussaint L’Ouverture (c.1743? – 1803), François Dominique, (c. 1744–1803), generals Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, and Boukman—are now part of slave history. But little known is the fact that in the African diaspora as in the Western hemisphere, Haiti occupies a singular position as the repository of authentic African values outside of Africa.  Haiti served as the inspirational model for the inception of the Negritude ideology. Also, in the 1940s and 1950s, Haitian writers were at the forefront of literary movements, philosophical ideologies, and new trends in art.  In Le Discours Sur Le Colonialism  (1955 – Discourse on Colonialism: A Poetics of Anticolonialism), Martiniquan radical intellectual Aimé Césaire proclaims that the history of Haiti concretizes the prehistory of the Negritude ideology. Césaire had begun to make connections between Africa and the Antilles or West Indies and concluded that Haiti is the most African of all the Antilles (Caribbean countries).  Césaire confesses,

I love Martinique, but it is an alienated (assimilated) land while Haiti represented for me the heroic Antilles, the African Antilles . . . a country with a marvelous history: the first Negro epic of the New World was written by Haitians like Toussaint L’Ouverture, Henri Christophe, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, et cetera.  (Discourse on Colonialism90).


The now legendary Toussaint had distrusted and refused to work with Haiti’s elite colonists and mulattoes, believing Haiti should be an autonomous state under black rule. At independence in 1804, Haiti would be the only state in the world to have a leader of African descent, Jean-Jacques Dessalines4. Thus, it can safely be said that Haiti’s national history with its violent struggles for independence is the first demonstration in historical action of the Negritude ideology.  Haiti is the land where Negritude first stood on its feet because according to Leopold Sédar Senghor, the Negritude ideology represents ”the cultural patrimony, the values and especially the spirit of Negro-African civilization, the sum total of the cultural values of the black world.“ (Liberté 1: Negritude et humanisme 9).


Earlier in its literary history during the 19th Century, Haiti produced authors with race pride such as Hannibal Price and Louis-Joseph Janvier who raised awareness about the need to reclaim black aesthetic and cultural values while firmly committed to shaping a new and freer world. Such an ideal was also articulated in the work published in Paris by Joseph-Anténor Firmin (1850-1911) on “De l’égalité des races humaines – 1885” (The Equality of the Human Races: Positivist Anthropology) which Firmin used to re-valuate African culture in Haiti and to challenge the assimilationist, abstract literature devoid of any black cultural content written by Black Haitians of the period. Firmin was a lawyer and diplomat but based his writings on critical anthropology at an era when Anthropology was just an emerging discipline.


His The Equality of the Human Races: Positivist Anthropology set out to counter and disprove theories contained in Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (1853-1855 – Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races), a work of scientific racism written by Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (1816-1882).  De Gobineau distinguishes three major groupings of the human species—white (superior), yellow (mediocre) and black (stupid but emotive)—and concludes that history and superior achievement spring only from contact with the white race.  Among the white race, he selects the Aryan (Teuton) race as representing the pinnacle of human development and which forms the basis of all European aristocracies. Gobineau’s racist ideas would find easy acceptance in the United States of America, and among German-speaking communities.  This race ideology ultimately led to the inception of Nazi ideology.  It is this work that Firmin challenged, positively and effectively by re-evaluating and highlighting the contributions of black people to the world and their potential growth and access to the highest global position especially in the United States of America. In the chapter titled, The Role of the Black Race in the History of Civilization, Anténor Firmin wrote about the day when a black man would occupy the Presidency of the United of America:


Appearances to the contrary, this big country is destined to strike the first blow against the theory of the inequality of the human races.  Indeed, at this very moment, Blacks in the great federal republic have begun to play a prominent role in the politics of the various states of the American union. . . . It seems quite possible that, in less than a century from now, a Black man might be called to head the government of Washington and manage the affairs of the most progressive country on earth, a country which will inevitably become, thanks to its agricultural and industrial production, the richest and most powerful in the world. These are not utopian musings. We only have to consider the increasing participation of Blacks in American society to cast aside our skepticism. Besides, we must remember that slavery in the United States was abolished only twenty years ago. Haitian Internet.

And today, Joseph-Anténor Firmin is recognized as an early PanAfricanist writer.

Other Haitian writers of the middle of the 19th Century include Justin Lhéisson, Frédéric Marcelin, Fernand Hibbett and Antoine Innocent5 called “Nationalist novelists” who discovered  that Haitians had an African past and that their pre-slavery African history was no tabula rasa, or “one wasteland of non-achievement” as Ngugi wa Thiong’O quaintly puts it in Decolonizing the Mind. (“Introduction” 2)   These Nationalist novelists (will be treated in more detail later) also began to see the great importance of Voudon6—a religion that arose from the mixture of three cultures, viz:  African religion brought to the Caribbean in the 1700s by  blacks imported from West African, the religion of the Taino Indians who were also persecuted by European occupiers, and the Catholic religion.  This mix of religions—Voudon—will play a great role in Haitian liberation effort from the repressive rule of France which started in 1759 led by a slave François Mackandal who himself organized other slaves to raid sugar and coffee plantations. Possessing knowledge of different poisons, Mackandal organized a widespread, terror plot to poison slave owners, their water supplies and animals. They killed hundreds before the rebellion was crushed and Mackandal brutally put to death by being burnt at the stake. But the rebellion later continued with Georges Biassou as leader. Toussaint would serve Biassou as aide-de-camp and later defeated him.  

Another Haitian writer Jean Price-Mars, born in Grande Rivière du Nord (a physician and diplomat), distinguished himself in the period 1927-1944 in which Haitian art flourished. Price-Mars championed the Negritude ideology and associated with the Negritude male trinity—Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), Léopold Sédar Senghor (from Sénégal – 1906-2001) and Léon-Gontran Damas (Cayenne, French Guyana -1912-1978).  The three Negritude founders would give credits to both Nicholas Guillen’s Cuban Pan-Negrismo, an (African-Creole politico-social movement), as well as to Jean Price-Mars’s Indigenisme. The Indigenist movement dubbed “La Révolté Indigéniste” – Indigenist Revolt (1927-28) was a pro-Haitian nationalist movement that promoted active resistance by farm peasant workers to the American occupation of Haiti between 1915-1934.

photo Jean Price-Mars

  At the same time, Jean Price-Mars was attacking the Haitian elite7 (mostly people with mixed ancestry) for neglecting the masses and for trying to be more white than the Whites because they identified with the colonizers who were exploiting both them and the land. Because the elite embraced their mulatto “whiteness” with pride, Price-Mars accused them of “collective Bovarysm”—a term coined from French writer Gustave Flaubert’s literary masterpiece Madame Bovary (1856-7)—a story about the conflicted heroine Emma Bovary.

However, it was Anténor Firmin’s Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races (1885) affirming the abilities of peoples of color that laid the foundation for Jean Price-Mars’ Indigénisme. In the development of Haitian painting, credit would equally be given to two significant literary events of which Jean Price-Mars was a participant: the publication of Revue Indigène (1927) and his 1928 work Ainsi parla l’oncle—Thus Spoke the Uncle in which he glorified Haitian folklore (built on remnants of African folk culture), peoples of African descent, the Haitian countryside, its fauna as well as the peasants who constitute the salt of the land.  Price-Mars was also a foremost defender of Voudou, stressing in his writings the importance of this popular religion to the people of Haiti. Price-Mars also gave much attention to educational programs, while criticizing the ruling elite who failed to promote the progress of the illiterate masses of the land. His other writings include La République d’Haïti et la République Dominicaine – Dominican Republic (1953), and De Saint-Domingue à Haïti – From Saint Domingo to Haiti (1957).

To be considered as a Negritude writer is also Jacques Roumain (1907 –1944), born in Port-au-Prince. He was considered a master-novelist and also a politician.  He had a significant following in Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America. African-American poet Langston Hughes translated into English some of Roumain’s greatest works, including Gouverneurs de la Rosée (Masters of the Dew). His grandfather Tancrède Auguste served as President of Haiti from 1912 to 1913. Educated in Catholic schools, he nevertheless founded the Haitian Communist Party.  He fought against President Stenio Vincent7 who was considered an agent of imperialist U.S.A. And so Roumain went in and out of prison. Sent to exile, he came to America and became affiliated to Columbia University from where he continued calling on the poor and the downthrodden of Haiti to rise up in revolt against oppression.  When Elie Lescot became President, Roumain was at last recalled and given the Office of Ethnology.                                                                                                                   photo of Jacques Roumain        

 In 1943, Lescot appointed Roumain chargé d’affaires in Mexico.  And so, having sufficient creative freedom, Roumain was able to complete two seminal works—a poetry collection, Bois d’ébène (Ebony Wood) and the novel, Gouverneurs de la Rosée (Masters of the Dew). An excerpt of this novel illustrates Roumain’s powerful commitment to the prideful glory of Haiti and also to the upliftment and education of his people:

What are we? Since that’s your question, I’m going to answer you. We’re this country, and it wouldn’t be a thing without us, nothing at all. Who does the planting? Who does the watering? Who does the harvesting? Coffee, cotton, rice, sugar cane, caco, corn, bananas, vegetables, and all the fruits, who’s going to grow them if we don’t? Yet with all that, we’re poor, that’s true. We’re out of luck, that’s true. We’re miserable, that’s true. But do you know why, brother? Because of our ignorance. We don’t know yet what a force we are, what a single force – all the peasants, all the Negroes of the plain and hill, all united. Some day, when we get wise to that, we’ll rise up from one end of the country to the other. Then we’ll call a General Assembly of the Masters of the Dew, a great big coumbite of farmers and we’ll clear out poverty and plant a new life.  (Gouverneurs de la Rosée – Masters of the Dew 106).

Roumain’s Pan-African legacy goes beyond Haiti to impact Latin America and other Caribbean countries.  His works continue to be relevant to the present modern age.

Another Haitian writer René Depestre was friends with Aimé Césaire. Like Césaire, Depestre became a communist in the European era following the end of World War II; several other Caribbean and Latin American writers and artists committed to radical social change also accepted communist ideology. So would some other friends of Césaire such as Jacques Roumain and Nicholas Guillen. These men dedicated themselves to a program of radical social change aimed at rebutting what they perceived as the West’s immense expenditures of psychic and intellectual energies towards the fabrication of whiteness so as to wipe out the cultural and intellectual contributions of Nubia and Egypt from European history.                                                                                                                                     photo of  René Depestre

The ethnological researches of [Leo] Frobenius and [Maurice] Delafosse had revealed ancient flourishing African cultures to the West.  In 1921, a collection of African legends edited by Blaise Cendrars was well-received in Europe and added to the African vogue. To overthrow European concept of the “barbaric Negro,” Cedric Robinson in Black Marxism: the Making of the Black Radical Tradition notes that this was no easy task. Thus, in this struggle, Negritude much later would also become a “miraculous weapon” in the hands of another radical writer Franz Fanon when he remarks, “The white man was wrong, I was not a primitive, not even a half-man. I belonged to a race that had already been working in silver and gold two thousand years ago” (Black Skin, White Masks 130).  

However, when in 1956 Aimé Césaire resigned from the Communist Party, it can be said that he truly anticipates Fanon by insisting that European working class had often joined forces with imperialism, colonialism and racism against Black people.  Consequently, René Depestre would consider Césaire’s “Discours sur le colonialisme” as an Afrocentric revision of Marxism which Césaire employed to fight the notion of a “superior race.”  Depestre points out that by drawing on surrealism and the spiritual values exhumed from Africa’s past, Césaire and the rest of them aimed to recover and validate the history of ancient Africa’s accomplishments. In this enterprise of revision and recovery, radical poet and militant Depestre remained at the forefront of promoting both Haiti and African civilization.  

photo of Aimé Césaire

To further this enterprise, Surrealism became a literary tool of choice for these black creative militants bent on resisting and breaking with French assimilationist brainwashing, and its attendant self-alienation. With this concept, they would plumb the depths of Black unconscious to discover the authentic self. Depestre calls it, “an effort to reclaim [one’s] authentic character . . . reclaim the African heritage. . . a process of detoxification emancipating your consciousness.” (Interview with Aimé Césaire. In Discourse 84).  Thus, for Depestre, Negritude was not, as is Marxism, a simple matter of emancipation from an oppressive class structure since both Depestre and Césaire in their writings openly confess their indebtedness to Senghor for the revelation of Africa, its traditions and a cultural heritage, millennia old, still vivid and alive to Senghor, but which has been lost to these New World Blacks because of slavery and the assimilationist administrative approach practiced by French colonizers.      

Simultaneously, Depestre was involved with parallel literary movements happening in the era of in-between the two European wars, viz: the publication of ‘L’Étudiant noir – the Black Student (September 1934 -1936), and of La Revue indigène in Haiti. The Harlem Renaissance movement had acted as catalyst to this literary and philosophical ferment while also providing  impetus for Negrisimo in Cuba and Brazil.  All of these movements and literary publications happening in the African diaspora anchored their roots squarely in African antiquity, in a researched discovery that the African cultural patrimony stretched its ancientness to the beginning of the world, thus making Africa the source of all world cultures.

Furthermore, Negritude ideology ushered in a period of great brotherly solidarity amongst all Black people irrespective of geographical location. For instance, foremost Haitian writers like Jacques Roumain, Dr. Leo Sajous and Jean Price-Mars  (Ainsi parla l‘Oncle) collaborated together to publish the newspaper, Le Cri des nègres. – The Cry of Negroes  Equally, Haitians collaborated with René Maran, Claude McKay, the Achille Brothers, Leo Sajous, and others in editing six issues of La Revue du monde noir – the Review of the Black World. René Depestre would explain that although the Haitian self-emancipation was revolutionary, Haiti’s first post-Independence writers were culturally colonized since “they did not attack French cultural values with equal force.” Mostly mulatto, these early post-Independence writers aped French and European fashions, were scrupulously Catholic and spoke only French, denigrating the Creole language as a heritage of the masses.

And so, these earlier writers did not attempt “a decolonization of their own consciousness”—a tendency which in Haiti as has been said earlier came to be called bovarisme—Antilleans visibly ashamed of being black because Europe called Africa “barbaric.” Therefore, the Haitian ideological rebels of the Negritude era appropriated the term nègre – Negro and made it an act of defiance of an “enraged youth.” Thus, for Depestre, Haiti’s national history “is negritude in action” (Interview with CésaireCésaire would explain further that “Haiti is the country where Negro people stood up for the first time, affirming their determination to shape a new world, a free world.” (Ibid 90). Even without using the term “Negritude,” Depestre explains, the 19th century actually produced people like Hannibal Price and Louis-Joseph Janvier who were speaking of the need to reclaim black cultural and aesthetic values. Depestre names some Haitian writers—Justin Lhérisson (1873-1907), Frédéric Marcelin (1848-1917), Fernand Hibbet (1873-1928), and Antoine Innocent (1873-1960) who beginning with the second half of the nineteenth century began to discover   

the peculiarities of our country, the fact that we had an African past, that the slave was not born yesterday, that voodoo was an important element in the development of our national culture. . . between the two world wars, a movement you could call pre-Negritude, manifested itself in African art that could be seen among European painters. (Depestre, “Interview with Césaire”).


These European artists were Picasso, Vlaminck, Braque, Matisse, et cetera. The record shows that [Maurice de] Vlaminck had seen and was enraptured by a statuette from Congo that [André] Derain had bought for peanuts in the West Indies, and had shown it to Picasso. It was a revelation for Cezanne, Braque, and especially Picasso, influencing the subsequent direction of Picasso’s art, and leading directly to the flourishing of Cubism, Surrealism and modern Western art.  That African art piece spoke to these French artists of a living culture whose holistic essence is integrally connected to the spiritual / metaphysical, social / economic and artistic worldview of the Africans. Also, Paul Guillaume in France and Carl Einstein in Germany became impressed with the quality of African sculpture. Surrealism, Cubism, Lenin’s proletarian ideology, the awakening nationalism of peoples of color led by Mahatma Gandhi between 1930 and 1934, W.E.B.DuBois’8 Pan-African Congresses—all these events converged and encouraged the  revolutionary ideas of the black radical elites expressed in literary works and in painting / sculpture.


Consequently, the impact of African art on these European artists and collectors was explosive, setting off an obsessive mania for things African, a vogue that lasted into the 1920s, especially in Paris which at the time was the epicenter and the crucible of these movements in art, philosophy, and literature. The result was that African art ceased to be an exotic curiosity. Paul Guillaume himself described African sculpture as the “life-giving sperm of the twentieth century of the spirit.”  In Depestre’s own restated goal, “it is equally necessary to decolonize our minds, our inner life, at the same time that we decolonize society” (“Interview with Césaire“ 93). 


The foregoing highlights pre-Negritude and Negritude writers and artists from Haiti who, influenced by writers of the Harlem Renaissance, collaborated with like-minded Black radical writers and artists from other parts of the Caribbean and Africa to bring about a change in the way Black people worldwide perceived and would perceive of themselves. Their  goal was achieved then, quite successfully; now in our time, it can be achieved even more with all the resources of a modern digital age.

Positive Role of the Media:   

Ultimately, the Haitian earthquake and its devastation provide a good example of how television and other news media outlets did, and can play a positive role in the dissemination of news about Haiti, influencing public opinion for good.  The world came running to help—people young and old are making sacrifices to help rebuild Haiti. The desired goal is to keep the financial, medical, and other forms of aid flowing into Haiti, to not stop halfway and have everyone run off once again (as did happen after Haiti’s hurricane devastation), and abandon this serious work of reconstruction that must be sustained.  Evidently, it will take time and space and money but Haiti still has artists and friends globally, and writers such as award-winning novelist Yanick Lahens9 (1953-) committed to eradicating illiteracy.  Singers such as Wyclef Jean has collaborated musically with other artists nationally and worldwide to highlight Haiti’s  endless and enduring spirit of survival.  

The atrocities caused by the earthquake have been well-documented by all branches of the media, by individuals in reports, poetry10, blogging, twitter, Facebook, et cetera. Arising out of the Haitian earthquake, the horrific descriptions of dismembered bodies, and mutilated living beings summon up echoes of Robert Louis Stevenson’s gruesome description of the lepers at Molokai, Honolulu. In Molokai, as in Port-au-Prince, the streets are “crowded [with] abominable deformations of our common [humanity] . . . butt-ends of human beings lying there almost unrecognisable but still breathing, still thinking, still remembering … a pitiful place to visit, a hell to dwell in.”  One indeed is transported beyond time and space to hear again Stevenson’s own lament: “To see the infinite pity of this place / the mangled limb, the devastated face / the innocent sufferers smiling at the rod.” 

But Robert Louis Stevenson insists that even in the face of so much misery worsened by the coming of the rains, only a fool would be tempted to deny God’s existence, or mercy, for “Lo, look again,” the seer would see “beauty springing from the breasts of pain. . . .”  In truth, Haiti will rise again from its bed of pain; its writers and artists who Yanick Lahens calls the “creators” must find one another again, must resolve their ideological disagreements and together rebirth a vibrant literature that would reclaim Haiti’s place in the world.Haiti will heal again into that land that Jacques Roumain celebrates as the Masters of the Dew who will clear out poverty, then go up to Rudy Lewis’ “River” to pick that green plant of living prosperity, and in Haiti’s “sweet, fresh sunshine plant a new life.” Toussaint’s and Depestre’s land will someday soon be known again as the land where, Césaire insists, Negritude first stood on its feet – the land where black beauty and pride, generous love for freedom and human dignity can once again recall the indomitable spirit of this people of tomorrow—a people that never will die—Haiti!


1.         Toussaint like Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe believed that the survival of his Haitian homeland depended on an export-oriented economy based on such produce as sugar, coffee, and other commodities needed to support economic progress.  He therefore reorganized the plantation system, employing non-slaves even if this was still essentially forced labor. As Head of State of Haiti, Dessalines’ constitution offered sanctuary to all escaped slaves irrespective of color – all were considered ‘black’ and therefore entitled to citizenship. In this Haiti, one could own land only if officially certified “black.”

2.         The mulatto President Elie Lescot (1941-45), partnered with the United States of America to  summarily expel “peasants from more than 100,000 hectares of land, razing their homes and destroying more than a million fruit trees in a vain effort to cultivate rubber on a large plantation scale. Also, under the pretext of the Rejete campaign, thousands of acres of peasant lands were cleared of sacred trees so that the US could take their lands for US agribusiness.”  Counterpunch.

3.         Regarding the refusal of the United States to withdraw the marines in 1930, President Stenio Vincent commented: “for a miserable $15,000.000 owed to a handful of American capitalists,” the United States continued an unwarranted intervention in Haitian affairs. (Edward O.Guerrant) Webster.

4.         When Napoleon in January 1802, sent his brother-in-law Charles Victor Emmanuel Leclerc with an army of nearly 20,000 to reconquer Haiti, Toussaint’s chief lieutenants, Dessalines and Christophe, recognizing their untenable situation, betrayed Toussaint by switching allegiance to the invaders. Recognizing his weak position, Toussaint surrendered to Leclerc on May 5, 1802. The French assured Toussaint that he would be allowed to retire quietly, but a month later, they seized him and transported him to France, where he died of neglect in the frigid dungeon of Fort de Joux in the Jura Mountains on April 7, 1803. The betrayal of Toussaint and Bonaparte’s restoration of slavery in Martinique undermined the collaboration of leaders such as Dessalines, Christophe. When LeClerc died of yellow fever in November 1802, his replacement General Donatien Rochambeau failed in his bloody battles and fled to Jamaica in November 1803, where he surrendered to British authorities rather than face the retribution of the rebel leadership. Thus ended the era of French colonial rule in Haiti. Mongabay.

5.         These writers are known as the National novelists for they started writing just when Haiti was celebrating its first 100 years of independence and sought to create a unique Haitian literature. Before “Black” became a beautiful concept, these national novelists sought to recuperate Haiti’s image by  proudly presenting portraits of Haitian womanhood  – mothers, wives, sisters – as tourist attractions in response to denigrators of Haiti. In Choses haïtiennes – Haitian Things, Marcelin offers up in praise to the tourist the Haitian landscape, fine weather and the Haitian woman as images of beauty “admirable de dévouement naïf et bon… – worthy of idealistic admiration” (86). Thus, these National novelists qualify as Haitian’s pre-feminist writers even if their standard of female beauty conformed to the same concept as European male writers – seen from a masculine lens.

6.         See Marguerite Laurent (EziliDanto): “Don’t expect to learn how a people with a Vodun culture that reveres nature and especially the Mapou (oak-like or ceiba pendantra/bombax) trees, and other such big trees as the abode of living entities and therefore as sacred things, were forced to watch the Catholic Church, during Rejete—the violent anti-Vodun crusade—gather whole communities at gun point into public squares, and forced them to watch their agents burn Haitian trees in order to teach Haitians their Vodun Gods were not in nature, that the trees were the “houses of Satan.”  (John Maxwell, “No, Mister, You Can’t Share My Pain.”)  Counterpunch.

7.         Conversely, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was more a man of the people and his turbulent political saga remains one of the historical tragedies of modern Haiti.  Apparently, to Haitians, he remains a beloved leader of African descent who sought to restore Haiti to her honorable place in world history.

8.         W.E.B.Du Bois has a genealogical connection to Haiti. Under the presidency of Jean-Pierre Boyer, his grandfather Alexander settled in Haiti, running a plantation as well as engaging in trade with the U.S.A.. W.E.B’s father Alfred was born in Haiti. Five years old Alfred and his father would leave Haiti and settle in New Haven.  WE.B. comments on the racial tensions of the period, “at a critical time,  David Walker had published his bitter Appeal to negroes against submission to slavery in 1829; Nat Turner led his bloody Virginia slave revolt in 1831; slavery was abolished in the British West Indies in 1833; the rebelling slaves of the ship Amistad landed in Connecticut in 1839 and their trials took place in New Haven . . . In New Haven, my grandfather settled. He opened a grocery store at 43 Washington Street. The color line was sharp in new Haven and abolitionists were stirring up dissension.” (The Autobiography of W.E,B.DuBois  66-67).

9.         Lahens’ writings focus on such themes as routine violence against women, the problems of today’s young people and life in the city. Her first novel translated as In the Father’s House deals with the problematic re-appropriation of Haiti’s Afro-Caribbean roots. The heroine, a sheltered daughter from Haiti’s bourgeosie, discovers a passion for traditional Voodoo dance, to the horror of her Western-oriented parents.  The storyline is a quest for identity and personal emancipation unfolding alongside a picturesque portrait of the country. Yanick Lahens was awarded the New Writer’s Prize of the Initiative Li Beraturpreis at the Leipzig Book Fair in 2002.

10.        See John Maxwell, “No, Mister, You Can’t Share My Pain.” Counterpunch  See also Rose Ure Mezu’s “The Lament of a Crushed People: in Port-au-Prince.”; and Rudolph Lewis, “Take Me to the River: Poem on Haiti.” .

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Works Cited

Aristide, Jean-Bertrand and Laura Flynn. The Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of  Globalization. Common Courage Press, 2000.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century. Canada: International Publishers Co., Inc., 1968.

Césaire, Aimé. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land). Paris: 1939.

Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. (Introduction by Robin D.G. Kelley). N.Y.: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Depestre, René, “An Interview with Aimé Césaire.” In Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism: a Poetics of  Anticolonialism. Trans. Joan Pinkham. N.Y.: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Fabre, Michel, Cherry, Randall, Eburne, Jonathan Paul. “Rene, Louis, and Leopold:  Senghorian Negritude as a Black Humanism.” In Modern Fiction Studies (MFS), Vol.  51,       No. 4. ed. John N. Duvall. MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press (Winter) 2005. 921-935.

Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952). N.Y.: Avalon Travel Publishing, 2000.

Firmin, Joseph-Anténor The Equality of the Human Races: Positivist Anthropology. (Trans. Asselin Charles). University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Lahens, Yanick. L’exil entre l’ancrage et la fuite: l’écrivain haïtien (trans: Exile between Mooring and Flight: The Haitian Writer).

. . . . . Dans la maison du père. France, 2000 (trans: In father’s House) Mass Market Paperback 2005.

. . . . . La folie était venue avec la pluie (trans: Madness Came with the Rain. 2006.

. . . . . Aunt Resia and the Spirits and Other Stories. University of Virginia Press, 2010.

Lewis, Rudolph. “Take Me to the River: Poem On Haiti.” (See the full poem below).

Maxwell, John.  “No, Mister, You Can’t Share My Pain.”

Mezu, Rose Ure. “The Lament of a Crushed People of Port-au-Prince.”

. . . . . A Negritude and Its Cross-Cultural Influences: The Case of Native African, Caribbean and African American Writers.@  In Middle Atlantic Writers Association Review (MAWA), vo1.15, no.1 (Fall) 2002.

Robinson, Cedric J. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Romain, Gerda, “Before Black Was Beautiful: The Representation of Women on the Haitian National Novel.” In French Review. U.S.A.: American Association of Teachers of French. Vol. 71, no. 1.(October) 1997.

Roumain, Jacques. Bois-d’ébène. Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Imp. H. Deschamps [c1945]

. . . . . Ebony wood. Bois-d’ébène. Poems. The French text with a translation by Sidney Shapiro. New York: Interworld Press [1972]

. . . . .Gouverneurs de la rosée, roman. [Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie de l’état, 1944]

Senghor, Léopold Sédar. Libert 1: Negritude et humanisme. Paris: Seuil, 1964.

Wa Thiong’O, Ngugi.  Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. London:  Heinemann, 1986.

Copyright by Dr. Rose  Ure Mezu / February, 2010

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Hi Rose,

When the earthquake in Haiti hit, friends on my Facebook page asked why Haiti had so much strife and why I referred to the “defiant spirit and resilience” of the Haitian people. Your essay thoroughly addresses both issues. I think the most profound line in your essay is “Before this time, Haiti was only known as the ‘poorest country in the Western Hemisphere’–an epithet that should serve as an indictment to those countries of the Western Hemisphere who got very rich on Haitian produce while leaving Haiti poor and barren.” That statement clearly gives perspective and understanding to readers seeking knowledge about modern day Haiti. Thanks for writing and publishing it!

Tulani Salahu-Din

Writing Specialist, M.A. English

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Take Me to the River

  —A mixed lyric medley

based on songs by philosopher of soul Al Green


Fruit trees in the yard are budding

in mid-winter, as a cold rain falls.


Two million are homeless, wandering

among the crushing earthquake without


food, water, shade, a pillow and bed

on which to cry in the peace of dreams.


Dead limbs lie by a tree trunk, a squirrel

here scampers across the yard and climbs


aloft. Haitian tragic street scenes burn

my eyes to tears, so heart-shaking


as I look in brown eyes of horror & loss,

as mountains of the dead burn. Their souls


like fire-flies mended fly to a we-can-call-on

God? Squeeze me, I can’t embrace this zombie.


Take me to the river. Let me walk in water.

We been loving Haiti’s people, forever—


in times of dance & Dessalines. Earth’s unsteady:

houses pancake: flesh, limbs, futures crushed.


Some drink from potholes in this dry season

while women cook patties of clay, oil, and salt


as breakfast and dinner. This diet gets down in

marrow of bones. Oh, baby! Pretty woman


walks impassable by-ways with blue burdens

of two centuries. Her eyes, her smile deceives.


Take me to the river. Let me walk and be washed

in a dunking of baptizing words. Let a new world


rise skyward for you and me. All our troubles

are not in dust. Forgive me, I dream tomorrow.

Rudolph Lewis, January 18, 2010

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posted 2 April 2010



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