Remembering Haiti’s Revolutionary Hero

I'll cut you, Frenchies

Sometimes I feel guilty when all my pop culture and culture scribblings are so detached from reality. And they are, pretty much, but sometimes that’s okay: l’art pour l’art, right? However, I have felt the need to post something about Haiti for a while. My earliest encounters with thrilling scholarly literature may very well be my encounters with the writers of La Négritude. These Négritude writers were black Francophone men from the Caribbean and Africa.

Unfortunately, I realized that the one Haitian poet I thought I’d read, Aimé Césaire, isn’t even Haitian. He is Martiniquan. Before you call me racist, and say you are ashamed that I have conflated these two African-influenced Francophone Caribbean islands, let me remind you that Aimé Césaire’s most fucking awesome prose poem spends a good deal of time dealing with colonialism in the Caribbean en générale, and that Césaire devoted much of his scholarly career to writing about Haiti’s revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture. In the anti-colonial spirit of L’Ouverture, Césaire and the Négritude writers desired brotherly solidarity among African-influenced Francophone Caribbean islands.

Accordingly, you should all read Césaire’s extraordinary prose poem from1939, “Cahiers d’un Retour au Pays Natal.” This is not a well-known work of 20th century poetry, but it should be. The prose poem is at times hypnotic, exhilarating, and horrifying; it charts the history of Martinique and the storms and disasters that have quaked it; it demands revolte and revolution; it expresses the longing of an exile who is searching for a voice for his small, ignored French colony of a homeland; and it is strikingly poignant to read after an event like Haiti’s recent earthquake.

But all is not disaster in the Caribbean, and it would be a shame to only think of the islands in that context. FOR INSTANCE, Haiti abolished slavery in 1804, and was the first place to do so in the Americas. Abolition didn’t come about by a bunch of white liberal do-gooders and their pamphlets. It came at the hands of former slaves who organized armies and waged war with the occupying French. Toussaint L’Ouverture led the rebellion; he was captured in 1803; Haiti declared their independence from the French in 1804.  L’Ouverture died in captivity in France, but he is often called a martyr.

Here is a rather inspiring, if highly Romantic and pathetic-fallacy-rife poem by Wordsworth; it’s ending is perhaps something we can keep in mind while the efforts of rebuilding Haiti are on-going. This poem simply called “To Toussaint L’Ouverture,” and it was written while L’Ouverture was in jail:

By William Wordsworth

(1770–1850)

Toussaint, the most unhappy man of men

Whether the whistling Rustic tend his plough

Within thy hearing, or thy head be now

Pillowed in some deep dungeon’s earless den;

O Miserable Chieftain! Where and when

Wilt thou find Patience? Yet die not; do thou

Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:

Though fallen thyself, never to rise again,

Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind

Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;

There’s not a breathing of the common wind

That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;

Thy friends are exultations, agonies,

And love, and man’s unconquerable mind.

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