The Voice of Haiti

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

"Paul told me they were offering him the job of playing Henry Christophe, the Haitian king of the north, in a movie called Black Majesty. They came with one million in their pocket!" Morisseau recounts. "They said, 'Mr. Robeson, we want to ask your advice on one problem. It will be difficult for us to make a movie for the American public in which black men are pushing white men into the sea like they did to the colonists in Haiti.' So Paul says to them, 'Well, you asked my advice, I'm going to give it you. My advice is to forget about that movie because that's the only thing to show about Haiti. After that, there's nothing to say about Haiti.'"

Morisseau rocks in his chair, giggling like a mischievous child.
Many of the grand houses in Jacmel are now shuttered and abandoned. Others, long ago divided into apartments, are simply faded remnants of the town's former splendor. At the time of the American invasion, businesses began moving to the capital. After Franaois Duvalier was elected in 1957, he shut down the provincial ports altogether to protect himself against insurgent attacks by sea. Today Jacmel is a slow-moving city where every day seems like Sunday and passersby greet strangers on the street. At night its citizens sit on their balconies or walk laps around the town. A crowd gathers in front of a television set placed in the window of a bar.

At city hall, an airy colonial building that overlooks the sea, farmers in straw hats sit lethargically on a bench outside the mayor's office. Guy Masse, the 35-year-old mayor, comes out to shake their hands. An Aristide supporter who went into hiding after the 1991 coup, Masse wears the sort of chunky gold jewelry favored by rappers in this country. He has big plans for the renaissance of Jacmel.

"Jacmel is a civilized town, different from the other towns in this country," he boasts. "People are proud to say they're from Jacmel."

Outside the public library is a multicolored sign that reads in French "Jacmel Cultural Capital." Inside a large room where the books are kept in polished wood cabinets under lock and key, one lone student sits at a table. He is organizing a poetry reading. On his list are several poems by Felix Morisseau-Leroy.

He's 26 years old, the young man says, and a high school student at Lycee Pinchinat, where Morisseau studied and later returned to teach. Over at the school, on the main street of town, the principal, a man of about 30, is entering grades in a book. He asks visitors whether they have come to see the archives, then apologizes because the archives were destroyed in a fire.

A few blocks from city hall stands the southeastern headquarters of the Haitian Red Cross, a once-elegant two-story structure accented with neoclassical columns, whose faaade is now scrawled with graffiti and plastered with political flyers. The building had another life as the Excelsior, a social club for the wealthier, mulatto members of the town's bourgeoisie. Mayor Masse says the club was so exclusive that its only dark-skinned member, a very wealthy but very black man, was required to wear a white suit while on the premises so he would look lighter.

As a boy Morisseau would stand outside the Excelsior and watch costumed partygoers file through the arched doorways to attend extravagant masked balls. He was invited to the club before he was twenty, as president of the strike committee against the Americans. As a 23-year-old teacher at the Lycee, he was asked to give a lecture there.

"I said, 'If you don't invite my friends I won't come,'" he remembers, delighted with the spirit of his younger self. "I said, 'Forget it, I'm not coming if you don't let them all in.' You see, most people of my age wanted to go there, but I didn't care. I always said that I was going to do anything that the rich people could do, plus what they could not: I would write verse.

"And I not only said it, I did it," he cries, pounding the armrest of his chair, and, for a second, sounding surprised.

"I did it!"
Morisseau's seminal work, a milestone in Haitian literature, is Antigone. He reset Sophocles's classic text in Haiti and replaced the Greek chorus with the voices of Congo spirits summoned on-stage by a Vodou priest. The play was performed at the venerable Rex Theatre in the center of Port-au-Prince. The actors spoke in Creole.

Article Five of the 1987 constitution of the Republic of Haiti states: "All Haitians are united by a common language: Creole."

This new charter declares Creole and French as the nation's two official languages. Before it was drafted, Haiti's official language was French, which is spoken fluently by only ten percent of the population. French has traditionally been, since colonial times, the language of business, the language of learning, the exclusionary language of the elite. Today French is still the choice of polite society, but English is employed increasingly in business. Creole is now taught in schools, a change that acknowledges it as the language of the people but one that presents new problems for the rickety educational system of a nation where at least 85 percent of the citizens are illiterate. Texts required for many academic subjects do not yet exist in Creole. Because of its low status in Haitian society, Creole has until now remained primarily a spoken language for which a widely accepted, phonetically based writing system did not even exist until the 1940s.

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