The Voice of Haiti

Paris, Ghana, Senegal, Miami. Poet Felix Morisseau-Leroy spent half his life in exile, but his heart never left home.

Morisseau waits in his easy chair. He often sits here and listens to local Haitian programs on the radio installed on a shelf behind his head. He thinks up ideas for his weekly political column in Hač#ti en Marche, a French- and Creole-language newspaper published in Miami and distributed in Port-au-Prince as well as in other major cities of the Haitian diaspora (New York, Montreal, Boston, Washington, Chicago). He remembers Haiti.

Morisseau's father was a general in the army of Haiti, created to defend the republic that in 1804 had become the first autonomous nation in the Caribbean, and the first free black nation in the world. The poet was born in 1912 in Grand Gosier, a rural village east of Jacmel. Shortly thereafter his father left for a tour in the north and stayed there. His son saw him only occasionally.

When Morisseau's mother was pregnant, she spoke French during the day when she taught school, and Creole at night at home. The writer likes to say he was born bilingual. Umirene Leroy kept her son at home and gave him his lessons in French. There was no reason to send him to the village school; he already spoke French better than the principal. His mother made sure he had a balanced education. She coddled him, singing him the latest songs from Paris, but she was strict and made him do chores. She sent him with the other village children to fetch water, which he carried home in a container balanced on his head. No one ever used his Christian name, Felix. He was always known only as Morisseau.

When he was seven, the family house burned down. The boy managed to salvage a big box that had belonged to an uncle in Port-au-Prince that contained the basic classic works of literature. Morisseau says he read Homer at age eight (in French; he didn't read Greek -- yet). By the time he was ten, he had finished all the books in the box.

"That was when I vaguely decided that I wanted to be a writer," he muses. "By age thirteen, I thought I should start writing."

By then Morisseau was in Jacmel, where his mother had sent him to live with maternal cousins while he attended secondary school at the prestigious Lycee Pinchinat, a private school for boys. He immediately took to what seemed to him like big-city living.

"I was a very spoiled young man since the age of thirteen," he recalls. "I wrote my school papers on a typewriter -- there were only seven typewriters in Jacmel. I would not say I was from a wealthy family. I will allow that I was from an educated family, and a family with a certain prestige."

When Morisseau arrived in Jacmel, it was no longer an insular, quasi-European enclave. U.S. Marines, protecting American economic interests, had invaded Haiti in 1915 and begun what would be a nineteen-year occupation of the island. The people of Jacmel, as in the rest of Haiti, were thus displaced in their own country. "The man who was in charge of the town is not the authority any more," explains Morisseau, describing the surreal situation that serves as the setting for the opening of his novel. "He doesn't speak English, and the American captain doesn't speak Creole. From time to time they shake hands."

Characteristically, the headstrong Jacmelians actively opposed the occupation, and Jacmel became known as a center of organized resistance to the American presence. The young Morisseau staged his own campaign against les blancs -- the word means both white and foreigner in Haiti. "I refused to be vaccinated," he recalls with a laugh. "I said, 'I refuse to let an American touch me.'" At age seventeen he organized the city's first public demonstration against the occupation, a march he called "the peace walk." By then his militant activities could not escape the notice of the U.S. enforcers.

"I will not say I was arrested," he says, beaming up at the ceiling. "I was invited to come to the police station 30 times in a month and a half. It started in November. In that month I acquired the sense of a young man who is not afraid of dying."

Morisseau's experiences in Jacmel formed the ideology to which he would subscribe thereafter. In his career as a teacher, journalist, and writer, he has been a lifelong militant, defending the principles of freedom upon which Haiti was founded when the African slaves rose up against their white oppressors.

"My first concern is the problem of the freedom of the people of Haiti," Morisseau told WLRN-FM producer Steve Malagodi in an interview the station broadcast in the mid-Eighties. "But I write of anybody who would be in the situation of the people of Haiti. I feel a solidarity with the poor people of the world. Wherever they are suffering, I am ready to defend them."

When he was 28 years old, in 1941, Morisseau left Haiti for the first time and went to New York on a scholarship to earn a master's degree in education from Columbia University. He also took courses at City College and at the New School for Social Research. The young writer met "all kinds of leftists in Greenwich Village" A artists and intellectuals who shared his radical viewpoints regarding issues of race and class. One of these was the poet Langston Hughes, whose bluesy ballads of the black American experience were an enduring influence on Morisseau's street-smart poems about the everyday trials of the Haitian masses. He also met the great singer/actor Paul Robeson, the son of a former slave with whom he discussed popular theater, African languages, and politics. He remembers one conversation:

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