Dr. Matt Robertshaw explains how Haitians travelled through the French Empire and their impact on Africa.
Gary: Today’s special episode is by Matt Robertshaw. Matt is a PhD candidate in History at York University in Toronto. He is studying the relationship between Haiti and the later French colonial empire in Africa. He is also a video essayist, sharing original research on sport, language and popular culture in the colonial and post-colonial world via Sleeper Hit History on YouTube.
The 19th-20th century colonial world was defined by complexity. There was no uniform system of imperial control for all colonized peoples, even within one empire. Add to this complexity the fact that some countries were already post-colonial societies. While the great powers of France, Britain and the United States have strong-armed Haiti for over two-hundred years, Haiti has been an independent nation since roughly 1804. This island nation of former black slaves who defied and defeated France’s earliest empire had an important role in black identity over the next two centuries, particularly for African countries colonized by France. In this episode Matt looks at the fascinating interlinkages of peoples and ideas from Haiti to imperial French Africa.
Matt: In April 1966, as most of the continent was finding its way to independence, Haiti took centre stage in Africa. Quite literally so. That month Aimé Césaire’s play about the early Haitian leader Henry Christophe was staged in Dakar, Senegal. This was a red-letter event in the History of Black Internationalism, and it highlights the historical connection between the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804 and the decolonization of Africa over 150 years later. In a sense, the collapse of the first French colonial empire came face-to-face with the collapse of the second. Here was a play about the Haitian Revolution and its aftermath, written by one of the fathers of Négritude, staged in the former capital of French West Africa on the invitation of one of the other fathers of Négritude, featuring a cast of Haitians and Africans, and performed in front of towering Black artists and intellectuals from across the planet. The audience was veritable who’s who Black cosmopolitans. It included Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, James Baldwin, Léon Gontron Damas, Alioune Diop, Haile Selassie, Katherine Dunham, Langston Hughes and Léopold Sédar Senghor and many others.
The performance was part of a weeks-long festival, the first Festival Mondial des Arts Nègres, which Senghor’s government had organized in collaboration with UNESCO. The intention was to celebrate the contributions of Black people to global art and culture and to establish links between the young state and the international community. For 24 days in April, Black luminaries in music, literature, dance, filmmaking, philosophy, visual art and theatre convened in Dakar for a marathon of exhibitions, lectures, performances and pageantry. Here, at the Daniel Sorano National Theatre, La tragédie du roi Christophe made its African debut.
The play invokes Haitian history to issue a warning to Africa. The plot revolves around Henry Christophe as the leader of a newly independent nation, built on the notion of Black dignity and equality for all, who nevertheless betrays the promise of liberty in the pursuit of national and personal grandeur. Christophe attempts to build an imposing Citadel, a monument to Haiti’s historical significance, and ends up essentially re-enslaving his subjects in order to carry out this grandiose scheme. Ultimately, Christophe meets a tragic end. The play is considered one of Césaire’s finest literary achievements, and many commentators have noted the author’s apparent motivation of issuing a warning for the nascent African states and their leaders. Césaire understood the neocolonial potential of new African leaders and used his play to depict what could happen if the interests of the African masses were subordinated to state-building schemes or the personal aspirations of presidents.
If the dramatic events of Haiti’s history contained a warning, so too did its contemporary situation. For the past six years, Haiti had been under the control of President François Duvalier. Two years earlier, Duvalier had declared himself President for Life, and his grip on Haitian society had grown more and more destructive. He targeted opponents to his regime and crippled independent institutions like the legislature, the Catholic Church and the military. Duvalier’s oppressive program triggered a mass exodus, which included a considerable portion of the country’s professionals and intelligentsia, and many more desperate peasants. Hundreds of thousands of Haitians escaped Duvalier’s Haiti and settled in cities like New York, Montreal, Miami and Paris. Some also took root in Africa, where they hoped to find a more settled existence and to contribute to the development of newly independent nations in the Haitian people’s ancestral homeland.
But these weren’t the first Haitians to travel to Africa. Haitians had been visiting Africa for a variety of reasons since at least 1896. Today I’m going to introduce you to some of individuals and sketch a narrative from the first known Haitian to travel to Africa in the 1890s to visit the emperor of Ethiopia, to the community of Haitians who laid down roots in Dakar in the 1960s and contributed directly to the nation-building project there.
I have divided my analysis of Haitian migrations to Africa into three categories. First, I look at Haitians who travelled to Africa in the colonial period, and whom I refer to as the Pioneers. I use this term conscientiously: on the one hand, they certainly laid a trail that later Haitians followed. On the other, like the pioneers of the United States frontier, they were in some ways complicit with the colonialist system. The second group I want to look at are the Haitians who were involved with African decolonization from above. I refer to these as the Supranationals. Essentially, I’m referring to the Haitians who were directly involved in supranational policymaking and who led UN missions to Africa. Finally, I will focus in on representatives of the Haitian community in Dakar and examine how they contributed to decolonization and nation-building from below. I’m referring to this group as the Expatriates.
But first, The Pioneers.
In a 1989 study of Haiti culture, the eminent scholar of Haitian literature, Léon François Hoffmann wrote that as far as he could determine, only three Haitians had any first-hand experience of Africa between 1804 and 1935. Of course, in the colonial period, Saint-Domingue was still importing large numbers of enslaved people from Africa right up to the time of the Revolution, so many of Haiti’s earliest citizens were undoubtedly born in Africa. Yet, Hoffmann was unable to find more than three Haitians who set foot on the African continent in this period. Although much of Haitian culture is certainly derived from African antecedents, Haiti was isolated from Africa for much of its early existence.
The three people Hoffmann identifies are Félix Darfour, Benito Sylvain and Desaix Baker. Darfour is believed to have been born in the Sudan region (hence his name) in the mid 18th century. He somehow made his way to France for an education, and from there to Haiti, where he worked as a journalist. In the 1820s he criticized the Haitian government for its marginalization of dark-skinned Haitians. For this supposed ‘sedition’ Darfour was tried in a military court (although he wasn’t a soldier) and he was executed in 1822. This is undoubtedly and interesting event in Haitian-French-African transnational history, but since Darfour was not a Haitian in Africa, we need not dwell on his story more here.
Hoffmann’s second and third cases, however, are extremely relevant for the current study. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to find out much about Desaix Baker. It seems he was a Catholic missionary in French West Africa in the 1930s. In 1935, Baker published a book entitled Dans les brousses africaines. According to Hoffmann, the book “gives no indication, besides the photo of its author, of his national or ethnic origin,” and that in the book “one can find the mixture of irony and condescension characteristic of accounts of travels in Africa.” Evidently, he was a pioneer in the colonialist sense, contributing to rather than challenging European activities in Africa, despite his Haitian identity.
The third individual that Hoffmann notes is better known and his relationship with Africa is more complex. Benito Sylvain was a Haitian naval officer and lawyer who in the 1890s had taken up residence in Paris and established himself as a newspaper publisher. His paper, La Fraternité, was “dedicated to Haitian and African interests,” and he earned a reputation as spokesman for the city’s growing Black population. He served as president of the Black Youth organization and the Ethnographical Society’s Oriental and African Committee and helped establish a Foreign Students association. He gave public lectures condemning slavery in Africa, condemning social Darwinism and the excesses of European colonialism. But for our purposes, he is most significant as the first known Haitian to travel to Africa.
In the 1890s Ethiopia stood out as one of the last uncolonized regions of the continent. In 1896 the Italians attempted to conquer the territory but were famously defeated at the Battle of Adwa. European powers then sought to establish informal ties with Ethiopia. In spring 1897, Benito Sylvain travelled to the region under the auspices of the French Alliance. In Addis Ababa he met with Emperor Menelik II, who according to Sylvain’s account, welcomed him as a representative of Black civilization in the Americas and gave him the honorary title of aide-de-camp. By June, Sylvain was back in Paris where he gave seminars describing his experience and his impressions of Africa. He returned to Ethiopia three times between 1897 and 1906.
According to Sylvain’s own testimony he was in Africa as an agent of French colonialism. In a newspaper article he said: “I believed I could be of service to the French cause in Ethiopia and I solicited a delegation for the great African empire, whose friendship Europeans are currently fighting for.” He believed colonialism could benefit both colonizer and colonized. Despite the racism he no doubt faced daily as a Black Parisian, he believed in the ideal of an anti-racist France. He was a devoted supporter of Western Civilization and believed it had much to offer Africa. As such, he did not object to European colonialism outright.
It would be inaccurate, however, to think of Sylvain as a simple agent of French colonialism. His views were affected by his attachment to Western civilization, on the one hand, and his Haitian identity on the other. Moreover, his views evolved over the course of his life. He was fiercely opposed to European excesses in the colonies, and speculated on the eventual possibility of a sovereign, united Africa. After his first trip to Africa, he went on to organize the first Pan-African conference in London in 1900.
In 1901 he completed a doctorate in law, defending a thesis entitled De la sort des indigènes dans les colonies d’exploitation. In this work, Sylvain explores the past, present and future of colonialism. He looks at the past of places like Haiti and Cuba and notes that “nations that base their colonial systems on violence and oppression” are doomed to lose their colonies. He exposes and denounces the contemporary abuses on the part of European colonists. Finally, he looks at the future of colonialism. Here, he lays out a view of what he sees as the best-case scenario for colonialism in Africa. Essentially, he believes that European colonialism has the capacity to be a productive force, bringing resources to Europe and civilization to Africa. As such, Sylvain reveals himself to be fundamentally in favour of colonialism. Yet, again, it would be too simplistic to call him a blind apostle of European imperialism. In theory, there was little to differentiate him from his white European contemporaries who called for the civilization of Africa through benevolent imperialism. Yet his concerted efforts to oppose the abuses of colonialism and to build connections within Africa and between Africa and its diaspora certainly distinguished him as someone who truly sympathized with the African people.
A third individual who can be placed in the Pioneers category is Benito Sylvain’s niece, Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain. Born in 1898, Comhaire-Sylvain was an anthropologist who trained under Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Métraux. She made numerous trips to Africa for fieldwork, beginning in 1943 and ending with her untimely death in Nigeria in 1975 at the age of 76. As such, she is one of the few Haitians who truly knew colonial and post-colonial Africa. Given her discipline and the span of time encompassing her travels, Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain represents a transition in the history of Haitian experiences in Africa.
Edward Said reminds us that the production of knowledge is a function of colonialism. Colonizing nations produce and claim a monopoly on knowledge about colonized nations which reinforces domination. Emmanuelle Sibeud has described how the field of anthropology, in particular, served as a tool for colonialism by demonstrating supposed racial differences between the civilized colonist and the “backward” colonial subject. The relationship was mutual, as anthropologists also relied on the colonial system to obtain artifacts and human bones for their research. As a researcher affiliated with Western universities, Comhaire-Sylvain can certainly be considered part of the colonialist system. Colonialism gave Comhaire-Sylvain the occasion and the impetus to carry out her fieldwork in the Belgian Congo in the 1940s. She studied at the Sorbonne, and it is unsurprising that her early writings betray a bias in favour of a European standard.
However, as Emmanuelle Sibeud also explains, the field of anthropology was itself in flux in the first half of the twentieth century. After the First World War, anthropologists grew more skeptical of the concept of biological race and began to cast doubt on the idea of inherent differences between people groups—an assumption that formed part of the justification of imperialism.
Furthermore, developments in Haiti over the first half of the twentieth century must also have impacted Comhaire-Sylvain’s view of imperialism, race and culture, and by extension her view of her own work. Between 1915 and 1934 Haiti was occupied by the United States. The occupation revitalized anti-colonialism in Haiti. Several members of Comhaire-Sylvain’s own family were outspoken critics of the occupation, in particular her famous father, Georges Sylvain, and her brother Normil Sylvain. Normil also became a leading figure in a literary and intellectual movement that emerged in Haiti in response to the U.S. Occupation. The indigèniste movement opposed the “civilizing” agenda of the occupation by devoting new interest to and placing great value on African aspects of Haitian culture. Indigènistes studied Haitian folklore, the Vodou religion, the Kreyòl language and Haitian cultural practices and worked to promote Haiti’s African heritage. Indigénisme had a major impact on Haitian views of Africa generally, and also had direct reverberations in Africa, as Haitian indigènisme was one of the major influences of négritude.
Like her brother Normil, Suzanne is also associated with indigènisme. For nearly four decades, she studied languages, folklore and cultural practices in Haiti and Africa and worked to find connections between the two. She did fieldwork in Haiti, and in the city of Léopoldville in the Belgian Congo in the 1930s and 1940s. And then after independence came, she went back to the city that was now called Kinshasa in what was now the Democratic Republic of Congo. She wrote a monograph on this research the year she turned 70. She ultimately settled in Nigeria, where she continued to do research and work at the university of Nsukka, and where she died unexpectedly in a car crash at the age of 76.
Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain thus represents a shift in the story of Haiti and Africa. Whereas earlier individuals like Benito Sylvain understood Africa through the lens of a French cultural worldview, by the middle of the twentieth century some Haitians were starting to think about Africa on its own terms.
This leads us to my second category of Haitians in Africa: the Supranationals. Literally thousands of Haitians travelled to Africa with various UN agencies, but today I’m going to focus on two individuals who very clearly engaged with African decolonization “from above,” both under the auspices of the United Nations.
The first is Emile Saint-Lôt. Saint-Lôt had been a senator and a cabinet minister in the relatively progressive government of Dumarsais Estimé in the aftermath of the so-called “Revolution of 1946” in Haiti. He was part of the noiriste faction, a form of Black Power that was gaining popularity in Haiti in the 1940s. It was essentially a populist, race-based movement that promoted the Black petit bourgeoisie in opposition to the traditional light-skinned elites in Haiti. He was a member of the body that drafted the Haitian constitution of 1946.
Haiti was one of the founding member states of the United Nations, and Emile Saint-Lôt was appointed Haiti’s first ambassador to the organization. In 1947 he travelled to New York City to take part in the UN’s earliest activities. One of his first duties was to participate in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In August 1948 the drafting sub-committee submitted a version of the Declaration to the United Nations Third Committee, the Committee on social, humanitarian and cultural issues. In the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, representatives of the 51 member states convened for 81 meetings between 30 September and 7 December to discuss and debate over the document.
Saint-Lôt and his colleagues on the Third Committee understood Haiti’s significance in the global development of human rights, and he was accorded a degree of esteem in the chamber. Over the course of the meetings, he served rapporteur and occasionally as chairperson. He was an active member of the debates, and he conscientiously took up the cause of colonial peoples.
In his first statement, he said that “Haiti wished to lend its support to all those who fought for freedom equality and justice, and would do its utmost to make the Declaration not an abstract document but an instrument of practical value to the oppressed everywhere.” Early on he urged the committee to draft an international covenant that would bind nations to implement human rights guarantees, lest “states and people would come to the conclusion that the United Nations was merely formulating principles which were meaningless, as no provisions had been made for their implementation.”
He later opposed the stipulation that elections should take place “by secret ballot,” saying that “illiterate people would thus be excluded from voting and the suffrage would no longer be universal.” He went on to allude to the Haitian Revolution, saying that “hundreds of thousands on inhabitants of his country who had been unable to read and write had still had the courage to fight for their independence.” He then subtly criticized colonialism, saying that “illiteracy was usually the result of oppression of the masses by the minority in control and was no reason to deprive human beings of civil rights.” Ultimately, he called for a vote to remove “by secret ballot” from the article and instead simply called for “genuine universal suffrage” for fear that “the ‘secret’ nature of the ballot might serve as a pretext for any restriction the non-democratic countries might wish to impose.” His proposal was struck down in a vote of 38 to 2.
Saint-Lôt also fought for the Declaration to make specifically state that it should fully apply to the people of “Non-Self-Governing Territories.” He lent strong support to a Yugoslavian amendment that stated, “the rights proclaimed in this Declaration also apply to any person belonging to the population of a Trust and Non-Self-Governing Territory.” To objections that the “universal” character of the Declaration would make such a clause redundant, Saint-Lôt replied that “A colonial application clause appeared in all international conventions signed by Members of the United Nations under the pretext that signatories could not impose their will upon their colonies. That had, however, never prevented such Powers from imposing their will when they had so desired.” He again took on the role of spokesman for colonized people, saying that most of those present “had little idea of the feeling of exasperation and despair generated in peoples living under a colonial regime,” and that “the peoples of the Non-Self-Governing Territories […] all should be assured that they had the goodwill of the United Nations directed toward them” (741). Again, in response to the French representative’s insistence that the Declaration applied equally to all people without drawing specific attention to colonial people, Saint-Lôt said that it was “surprising that countries which had had no experience of colonial conditions should attempt to lay down the law to those which had.” He added that Haiti, “as representing a number of similar States, had received many petitions asking that such an article should be included into the declaration,” and he took another liberty in criticizing the colonial powers, saying, “it was strange to find the cry of freedom taken up in the Committee by countries which had not had a good record in their dealings with Non-Self-Governing Territories” (742-743). Ultimately, the Yugoslavian proposal passed 16 votes to 14 with 7 abstentions.
Finally, after months of debate in the Third Committee, the UN General Assembly came together on 9 December, and Emile Saint-Lôt was tasked with presenting the Declaration to the plenary session. In his opening remarks, he alluded to Haiti’s connection to the progress of human rights: “he thanked the delegations for having appointed him to bring before the Assembly the text of a declaration of human rights which, for the first time, was to be universal in scope and for having thus associated his country with that historic act” (853).
Thus, in full awareness of his country’s significance in the history of human rights, a Haitian played a significant role in crafting the document that has served as a point of reference for decolonization and self-determination over the subsequent decades.
As a representative on the UN General Assembly, Saint-Lôt also cast votes on the recognition of several new states. Most famously, he played a key role in the defeat of the Bevin-Sforza plan which would have broken Libya up into three trusteeships administered by France, Britain and Italy.
Another Haitian who worked for the United Nations and was instrumental in the organization’s activities dealings with the decolonization of African was Max H. Dorsinville. Like Saint-Lôt, Dorsinville was a representative to the UN in its early days, and also served as rapporteur and chairperson on one of its main committees. Dorsinville was the Haitian representative to the Fourth Committee, the committee dealing with decolonization and trusteeships. Here, he was involved in the oversight of the administration of territories including Somalia, Togo, the Cameroons, Ruanda-Urundi, Tanginika and South West Africa (now Namibia) as well as a number of Pacific Islands. Generally, he was the only representative from a majority Black nation in these meetings.
In the 1950s and 1960s Dorsinville led numerous UN missions to Africa. In these roles, he was directly involved with the process of decolonization in several African nations. The representatives of African countries constantly expressed their appreciation that a Black man from Haiti was in such an important role. For example, in 1958 Dorsinville was the UN representative for the supervision of election in French Togoland, which was a UN trust territory under French administration. Dorsinville was lauded for his work organizing the election that brought Sylvanus Olympio to power, which was a major step in Togo’s movement toward independence. In a subsequent UN General Assembly session, the representative from Ghana commented that “it was a source of pride to his country that it had been a representative of Haiti who had presided over one of the most significant episodes in Africa’s history”
At other times, however, Dorsinville was less successful at representing the interests of Africans. In 1955 he led a Visiting Mission of the UN Trusteeship Council to Cameroon, which was also a Trust territory under French administration. This mission met harsh criticism from the Union des populations du Cameroun, a left-wing, anti-colonial political party that was being repressed by the French administration. In a letter to the UN General-Assembly, they explicitly criticized Dorsinville for his failure to hear their grievances. He was judged particularly harshly in view of his Haitianness. The letter reads: “It is astounding and shameful that Mr. Dorsinville, the Chairman of the mission, can back statements of the French Government and ignore the sufferings of his Cameroonian brothers by supporting the dissolution of the UPC through his refusal to hear anyone from that party. […] It is also regrettable that Mr. Dorsinville—in whose ability to carry out a serious investigation […] the whole population of the Cameroons had full confidence because his skin is black like ours, because he is our brother and because he is the representative of a former French colony, the Republic of Haiti, which had to endure the trials of colonization— [it is regrettable that he] should be the man to betray our confidence, the confidences of his own Government and that he should have been unable to carry out properly the task entrusted to him.”Again, these serious accusations were all the more pointed because of the expectation that a Haitian would truly have an interest in the conditions of Africans, especially Africans living under French administration.
Dorsinville continued sit on the Trusteeship council, and he led many other UN mission to Africa, some more successful than others. He is certainly a key figure in Haiti’s role in the decolonization of Africa. He is also, however, connected to the fraught history of supranational activities in the decolonizing and post-colonial world, activities that have often been criticized for their neglect of human rights and their collusion with colonial or neo-colonial interests.
As a founding member of the organization, and with a highly educated middle class and the added advantage of black skin, many Haitians served in important posts in the United Nations throughout the second half of the twentieth century. But many Haitians also found their way to Africa on their own terms, and many of these contributed to the development of African countries at the national and the grassroots level. The most well-documented of these are the numerous Haitians who settled in Dakar, Senegal around the time the country won its independence.
The late 1950s and early 1960s are a particular interesting juncture in the joint histories of Haiti and Africa. In Haiti, François Duvalier came to power in 1957 and gradually eroded civil liberties and opposition to his regime, which provoked a mass exodus of Haiti’s highly educated middle class. As opponents of Duvalier’s anti-democratic regime, many of these exiles were progressives. At the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, the continent of Africa was in the throes of decolonization. Many progressive Haitians, finding themselves in limbo, thought it only natural to make their way to Africa and get involved with the historic events taking place there.
I’m now going to look at four Haitians who spent many years living in Dakar and worked toward nation-building in newly independent Senegal. First, I’m going to describe how each of them came to Africa, and then I’m going to look at how, individually and collectively, they contributed.
The first to arrive was the poet and journalist Gérard Chenet. Chenet was born in Haiti in 1927 and by the age of 19 he already had a reputation as an agitator. He helped organize the student strike that ultimately toppled the Lescot regime and ushered in the Revolution of 1946. He came to Canada in 1955 to study architecture, but then relocated to Europe, where he studied political science and African history. In 1957, François Duvalier came to power, and Chenet, as a well-known dissident, became persona non grata in his country. In 1958, Guinea became the first African colony to win its independence from France. Its leader, Ahmed Sekou Touré called on the progressives of the world to flock to the country. Chenet obliged. For four years, he worked for the Institut français d’Afrique noire studying African cultures. By 1962, Sekou Touré had taken on a dictatorial style, and Chenet decided to leave the country. By then, Senegal had also won its independence and its president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, opened the country’s doors to the African Diaspora. So, in 1962 Chenet relocated to Dakar.
Two year later, another Haitian poet and radical journalist arrived in Dakar. This was Jean F. Brierre. Brierre was quite a bit older than Chenet. Born in 1909, he was a generation ahead. He had opposed the U.S. Occupation and was imprisoned for it. He later held diplomatic posts in the late 1940s and 1950s, but when Duvalier came to power in 1957, Brierre was once again jailed for criticizing the government. When he was released in 1961, he left the country, first for Jamaica, and then for Senegal in 1964.
Two years after Brierre arrived, another writer joined the growing Haitian community in Dakar. His name was Félix Morisseau-Leroy. He was a poet and playwright and was most famous for his pioneering work in Kreyòl-language literature. Born in 1912, his anti-authoritarian outlook was shaped by his early years under the Occupation. He worked as a teacher, newspaper editor and a civil servant, and established himself as a champion of Kreyòl-language education in Haiti. In the 1950s, aware of the desperate need to bridge the linguistic divide in Haiti, Morisseau wrote an adaptation of Sophocles’s Antigone in Kreyòl. The play was a success and had an impact on changing perceptions of Kreyòl as a fully sophisticated language and not simply a vulgar dialect of French.
By the time Duvalier came to power, Morisseau had a reputation as a progressive. Just weeks after the election, Morisseau left the country. He won a UNESCO Arts scholarship for a six-month lecture tour Europe. He convinced the organizers to arrange for him to visit Dahomey, now Benin, in West Africa. While he was away, friends told him he shouldn’t return, or he would be arrested. Nonetheless, Morisseau returned to the country in spring 1958. He stayed for a year. He wasn’t arrested, but he received regular threats as the administration made it clear that he was not safe. In 1959, his UNESCO connections helped him arrange to bring his theatre troupe to Paris to perform his Kreyòl version of Antigone. He didn’t return for 27 years.
In Paris, Morisseau met Léopold Sédar Senghor who was on the cusp of becoming Senegal’s first president. Morisseau decided to return to Africa. First, he took a job teaching French in Nigeria. After a few months, he was invited to give a lecture on popular theatre in Ghana. Kwame Nkrumah’s government then appointed him “National Organizer of Drama and Literature.” When Nkrumah fell in a coup d’état in 1966, Morisseau finally made his way to Dakar. He stayed in Senegal for fourteen years.
The fourth and final Haitian to settle in Dakar that I would like to mention was the actress Jacqueline Scott-Lemoine. Scott-Lemoine was born in 1923. She worked as a secretary and a TV and radio presenter in Haiti. In the late 1940s and early 1950s she started to make a living as a stage actor. Like Morisseau, she was part of a popular theatre troupe that performed Kreyòl language plays for lower class and rural Haitians. When Duvalier came to power, her troupe was persecuted, its administrator arrested. Finding the country unliveable, in her words, she left in 1962. She found a job in radio in Paris, but soon she was scouted by Aimé Césaire to star in his play about Haiti, La tragédie de roi Christophe. This was the role that brought her to Africa.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the first Festival des arts nègres took place in Dakar in 1966. Black luminaries from across the globe convened on the city for three weeks of lectures, film premieres, art exhibitions, and musical and theatrical performances. Aimé Césaire was asked to stage a play for the event, and he chose La tragédie du roi Christophe.
As I noted, the performance is something of a red-letter event in the history of Black Internationalism generally, and in the connection between Haiti and Africa in particular. In the play, much like Félix Morisseau-Leroy’s Antigòn, Césaire offered a warning about leaders who refuse to lead in the interests of their people. This was of course a timely warning both for Haiti under Duvalier and for the new African nations, many of which were heading toward kleptocratic and authoritarian regimes. In particular, Césaire was leveling a criticism against and a warning for his old friend, President Senghor, who he believed was become too pragmatic, abandoning his earlier idealism, and adopting modernizing projects from above without consultation with the masses.
The performance was also significant for Jacqueline Scott-Lemoine. In Dakar, she encountered the city’s Haitian community, and she decided to stay. She lived in Dakar until her death, 45 years later, in 2011.
So now we have our four socially engaged Haitians in Dakar. You’ll notice that each made their way to Africa along a different trajectory. But each story can be described in similar terms. They all left Haiti, or chose not to return to Haiti, because of François Duvalier, and they all ended up in Dakar because of its reputation as a hub for French-speaking, progressive members of the African Diaspora. They each contributed to the new country in a variety of ways.
Jean Brierre worked for the Ministry of Culture. He was in planning the 1966 Festival des arts nègres that put Dakar on the map and brought Jacqueline Scott-Lemoine and many others to the country. Brierre became one of the leading Haitian intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century, publishing poetry and scholarly articles, and continuing to serve in the Ministry of Culture in Senegal for many years. He returned to Haiti amid great fanfare after Jean-Claude Duvalier fell from power in 1986, and he died there three years later.
Félix Morisseau-Leroy spent fourteen years in Senegal. As in Haiti, Morisseau worked tirelessly to promote popular theatre in local languages. He was made technical advisor for the Senegalese People’s Theatre. He continued writing plays and poetry in Kreyòl, and he even adapted Antigone once more into Wolof. In 1981, with failing eyesight, he retired in Miami, the home of another vibrant Haitian community. He returned to Haiti after Duvalier left the country in 1986. He continued to live in Miami but returned to Haiti many times. He died in 1998.
Jacqueline Scott-Lemoine was also involved in the cultivation of local theatre in Senegal. She was a pensionnaire of the national theatre for 18 years. She appeared in films. She wrote a novel and a play. She also worked in radio and television, hosting a radio program called “La Voix des Poètes” and presenting literary content on public television. She became a Senegalese citizen in 1976. When Duvalier fell from power in 1986, she chose to remain in Senegal, where she lived for the rest of her life. When she died in 2011, Senegalese obituaries hailed her as “leading lady in art and culture.”
Gérard Chenet worked for the History section of the Ministry of Scientific Research in Senegal. He too was involved in planning the Festival des arts nègres. Chenet served as a cultural advisor for the Senegalese government for 25 years. In 1976 he accompanied President Senghor on an official visit to Haiti. On his arrival, Jean-Claude Duvalier had Chenet arrested, but Senghor intervened to have him released. Chenet chose not to return to Haiti even after Duvalier fell from power in 1986. He lives to this day in a village south of Dakar. Here he opened a small hotel and artists’ retreat called Sobo-Badé. Today, now in his nineties, Chenet still lives at Sobo-Badé which continues to welcome visitors from around the world.
Haitians like Gérard Chenet, Emile Saint-Lôt and Suzanne Comhaire-Sylvain played a key role in the joint histories of Haiti and Africa. The perceived and real connections, the formal and informal links, between Haiti and Africa developed over the course of the twentieth century and shaped events and ideas on both sides of the Atlantic. Haitians have not always single-mindedly opposed the domination of African peoples, but the existence of Haiti helped frame colonialism and decolonization in a longer historical context and fuelled the light of dignity and self-determination across the continent. The presence of individual Haitians in various parts of Africa gave focus to these abstract ideas and served as living proof that African people could make their own way in the world.
In 1986, when Jean-Claude Duvalier fell from power, many Haitian exiles returned home. But the story of Haiti and Africa doesn’t’ end there. Some Haitians, like Gérard Chenet and Jacqueline Scott-Lemoine, remained in Africa, and still others went on to make the voyage later. To conclude, and to bring the story into the twenty-first century, I’m going to read a portion of a document produced in 2010. It was written by a committee of Senegalese political, military, religious and civil society leaders and published in a Dakar newspaper four days after the famous Haitian earthquake. It reads:
“We […] gathered today, for a broad consultation on the dramatic situation experienced by the Haitian people in the aftermath of the earthquake of Tuesday, January 12, 2010, recognized as the largest earthquake ever recorded in its history;
“After having listened with great interest to the historical reminder […] made by Professor Iba Der THIAM who highlighted the major role played by the Haitians in the fight of the Black Peoples for their liberation, the preservation of their dignity and the refusal of colonial domination headed by Toussaint Louverture, symbol of the Resistance and the Revolt of the Blacks […];
“Being convinced that Haiti constitutes a sublime reference for the Peoples of Africa and the Diaspora because of its fierce struggle against the slave trade and colonial domination, its rejection of all justifications of civilizing missions thus giving the first breath to the Pan-Africanist Movement, […];
“Being convinced that Africa, land of origin of Haitians transplanted by force and against their will outside the continent, cannot remain insensitive to the tragic fate that strikes the Haitian people today;
“We do decide to approve and carry everywhere in Senegal, Africa, and throughout the world the fraternal message and the generous proposal […] for a Right of Return for Haitians, and the creation, if they wish, of their own State on the land of Africa, land of their ancestors.”
Later that year, the Senegalese government brought 163 Haitian university students to Dakar to resume their education, which had been cut short by the earthquake. And so, the story goes on. The connections between Haiti and Africa continue to propose larger notions of pan-African identity, and generate new solutions for people living with the legacy of colonialism and slavery.