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Posted March 13, 2003
Haitian Quest for Freedom
Charles Arthur and J. Michael Dash (eds), Libète: A Haiti Anthology
New Jersey: Markus Wiener Publisher.
1999. 352 pp. pb.
Reviewed by Maud Pierre-Charles

The intriguing and imaginative art work of Stevenson Magloire on its cover, the choice of the title “freedom” to encapsulate the experience of a country reputed for oppression and repression, the diversity of subjects and sources, the evident inclusiveness of readings on Haiti, all immediately suggest that the “petals” of the new Haiti anthology by Charles Arthur and J. Michael Dash were selected and assembled by knowledgeable but, also, friendly handswhich in the case of Haiti means informed, unprejudiced and compassionate.

This is perhaps why freedom is spelled “libète,” in the title, a Creole word which acknowledges Haiti’s official language since 1991, and suggests a keen insight into the irony, the uniqueness and complexity of the Haitian historical experience, understood here as a journey towards freedom. Freedom did reign once in the Republic of Haiti, if only for a moment, in such extraordinary historical circumstances to have forever marked the fate and character of that tormented Caribbean country. In 1791 freedom was deemed imperative to the disenfranchised population of the island colony then named Saint Domingue, and all Haitians-to-be fought for it in a remarkable show of unity. That was freedom from France, one of the most ruthless colonial powers of the time, and the first black republic emerged in 1804, the second sovereign nation in the Americas after the United States. “Colonialism and Revolution,” the opening section of Libète, speaks in the authentic voice of historical documents and ends appropriately with an excerpt from the very first Haitian national document, its declaration of independence: “Citizens. . .Independence or death. . .are the sacred words that unite us” wrote Boirond Tonnerre on January 1, 1804, proclaiming the birth of Haiti.

But Haiti was to be a republic only by name, for “libète” is relative, and even more elusive when intended apart from “egalité, fraternité.” Through their protracted armed struggle, the Haitians gained personal liberty for the enslaved and won freedom for the new nation to stand alone, independent. However, the cold and sobering reality of irreconcilable color and class contradictions between former slaves, black generals and mulatto elite eventually smothered national unity. It would never be rekindled, even when the sovereignty of the young state was violated by the United States in 1915. An army of peasants fought both the invaders and a disconcerted Haitian government. A special section entitled “Foreign Interventions” in Libète sheds the light on the enemies of Haitian independence exposed in their various guises: military occupation, CIA payroll, foreign support to local dictators, missionaries out to “save souls” from the indigenous religion, etc.

In Libète, the Haitian political and financial elite, backward and parasitic, are clearly depicted as the brutal enemy of reform. James Ridgeway introduces us to the dozen elite families who still control power, “The Powerful Few”; and a passage from Haitian novelist Jean Metellus’ “The Vortex Family” illustrates the prevalent atmosphere of plots and political intrigue among Haitian coup-mongers in 1946. Also of importance is a partial list of human rights violations in 1994 and President J. B. Aristide’s own account of the day of his overthrow.

Two centuries after their ancestors’ heroic uprising, the Haitian masses are still bravely seeking freedom. Two key sections entitled “Forces For Change” and “Refugees and Diaspora” are obviously crafted in the spirit of the title and are ideally juxtaposed to put the people on stage and take us through the uphill terrain of their struggle for justice, social change, land reform, etc. The focus is typically on Haiti’s political history, and considerable space is devoted to the “view from abroad” with works from foreign scholars, novelists, historians and journalists, including well-known names like Alfred Metraux, French veteran researcher and student of Vodun; Selden Rodman, associated with the origins of Centre D’Art of Port-au-Prince; Bernard Diederich, Amy Wilentz, etc.

But a notable effort is made, for a change, to accord ample and deserving space to the voice of native writers, offering over 40 samples of the best that has been sung and written in Haitian literature. The writing is as diverse as a 1795 letter by Toussaint L’Ouverture on military strategy and works composed in English by the first generation of young writers from the Haitian diaspora, like Edwidge Danticat or Danny Laferiere. The section “Culture and Language” is almost exclusively by Haitian writers and features samples of the best literary works to have come out of Haiti’s years of blood and tears.

One of Libète’s contributions is to give exposure to a less known period of Haitian literature, its nineteenth century nationalist writing which played a pioneering role in Caribbean writing, followed by the “Hispanic” nationalist literature circa 1898. The anthology draws also from the first published Haitian history written by Thomas Madiou. An important inclusion is also the works of writers from other Caribbean islands inspired by Haiti: C. L. R. James of Trinidad, surrealist poet Suzanne Césaire of Martinique, and Alejo Carpentier of Cuba. Libète’s sensible presentation of Haiti reveals both the obvious and the hidden, and therefore furnishes thought-provoking elements of contrast with other islands, a valuable material for comparative observation to the reader who ponders the state of freedom in the Caribbean or contemplates Caribbean unity. The islands of the archipelago adopted different paths towards freedom from colonizing powers and towards forging the unity necessary to build new societies. They charted individual courses to emancipation, won either through war in the nineteenth century (Cuba, Haiti) or granted by colonizers in the second half of the twentieth century, and finally, in the 21st century, still considered a status option for a few “autonomous” island dependencies. The contemporary Caribbean offers a rich tapestry of experiments in country building for the most part patterned after European models and, therefore, approached and evaluated as apprenticeships. The manner in which freedom from slavery is achieved certainly bears upon the state of unity within the freed population: In Haiti, freedom was delivered by war and it inevitably left a tradition of violence as well as deep, painful scars which make national reconciliation appear impossible. But Libète’s well-rounded presentation, through placement and connectedness of choice material, manages to draw a picture of Haiti less as a country in trouble than as a people pursuing a dream of freedom.

The editors, Charles Arthur and J. Michael Dash, appear well-acquainted with the Haitian historical and political reality. They are respectively the coordinator of the London-based Haiti Support Group and a professor of Francophone literature previously at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica and now at New York University. They have both authored books on Haiti and several of Libète’s French and Creole texts appear in their translations.

Maud Pierre-Charles

The Caribbean Writer University of the Virgin Islands RR 02, Box 10,000 Kingshill, St. Croix USVI 00850

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