—by Franck Laraque (translated from French by Jack Hirschman)
I grub through scraps to feed my family
—Benita Clermont (Haïti Liberé)
An economy without direction, a polluted environment whose vast stretches of bluffs are ground down, sordid markets where meager provisions and fruits are sold not far from stinks of excrement and urine, bidonvilles (slums) that rise to the sky to cry out their despair, the alimentary security of dumpsters and detritus for the poor. A starving people that refuses to die despite these inhuman, unacceptable conditions of life. It’s this permanence of an overriding poverty that’s evident to me on the occasion of my participation in the Jacques Roumain International Conference. I lived out an unforgettable human and cultural experience in the midst of a cruel reality. One can hardly imagine the cultural significance of such magnitude in a country completely degenerating, where all good faith without action seems futile. An International Conference actualized by a competent cadre (there are some cadres in the country though one might say it’s perhaps a rare phenomenon).
The staff at the University of Haiti, represented principally by James Darbouze, Fritz Deshomme and the invaluable vitality of Yaïssa Arnaud Bolívar organized for November 28–30, 2007 with care, discipline and a vigilant civility some 40 venues at different faculties, including at Fokal and the French Institute. An average audience of between 150–200 students and intellectuals of all ages participated in these gatherings and made them vibrant and interesting, thanks also to the resolve of the participant speakers to show the different aspects of the genius that was Jacques Roumain. The Conference contained two principle currents very much opposed, but not necessarily antagonistic to one another. The first was conservative and pro-capitalist, represented by those who emphasized the immense talent of Jacques Roumain as a writer, while altogether ignoring or trivializing his communist ideology, which remains the moving force of his works. The second current, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, represented by militants who, in the process of extolling the beauty of the form of his works, put the accent on the class-content of his writings, particularly in the novel, Masters of the Dew, a resolution to a juncture at the national level, and in the collection of his poems, Ebony Wood,, the solidarity and alliance with southern countries at the international level. An ideological battle confirmed itself as indispensable for opposing the victory of obscurantist powers.
But an even greater satisfaction came with my visit to Saint Marc. I was designated to go with Myrtha Gilbert, the eloquent militant for the liberation of the masses, in order to speak at Saint Marc. After two hours in a car on a dusty road full of pitfalls, we’re here at the Sténio Vincent Lycée where our host and admirable organizer of the session, Jean Eddy Menard, receives us. It’s a kind of shocking irony that the Sténio Vincent Lycée is named after the unalterable enemy of Jacques Roumain, who was condemned to two jail-terms and five years in exile while Vincent was the head of the country. The moderator for our session was Eddy Clesca of the University of Haiti and the United States, who’s returned to Saint Marc to dedicate himself to the education of Saint Marc’s youths. The hall was jammed, occupied by about 200 to 250 young people, aged 15–20, sitting and standing, squeezed together like sardines. As Myrtha Gilbert briskly observed, she felt intimidated. Facing a vibrant, welcoming, knowledge-thirst body of young people full of hope, one would be breathless asking himself whether he was outside the concrete reality of these youths sequestered in a little provincial town unknown to the political and economic leaders. The moderator relaxed the atmosphere by telling the audience that I wasn’t a White but native-born in Haiti, a product of Jeremie come from the diaspora expressly to celebrate Roumain with them.
After our well-received presentations and the questions and pertinent responses, Odette Fleurius, a petite dancer with her song “Return” had us all on our feet with endless applause. When I asked whether the poetry of Roumain was known to this student milieu, a lanky boy, August Yvonovitch, Jr., with warmth and conviction presented “Dirty Negroes”. I was dumbfounded. The two artists and other youths came to the podium,. They surrounded us with their warm affection, took photos with us that were developed in an hour. It was a communion of many generations in the spirit of Roumain. I’ve recommended those two artists to parents and friends, at the same time to James Darbouze and Dorius Wilson, leading representatives of the University, who’ve promised to continue after these fascinating reactions of the Saint Marc population. Happy and at the same time grieving, I feel myself outside the play and anxiously ask myself: even if those two artists come to break through, what will be for those youths who wait and hope? I keep a firm hope that the next Conference, perhaps less spectacular and even less costly, will be dedicated to agriculture and ecology with the participation of agronomists and peasants from the different Departments of the country, in order to take concrete and immediate action, and including those in the diaspora. Against this poverty and the status quo, individuals and groups are struggling on the ground under dangerous conditions in order to change the system of oppression and destruction that rules over the whole territory. We have to support them without reservation instead of contenting ourselves with negative criticisms. Everything is lost except the fighting spirit of the Haitian people.