History sometimes gets turned on its head, as it did last week when Dany Laferrière was inducted into the Académie Française. Laferrière was elected to this odd but august institution in December, 2013, so the induction was not a surprise, but still: amazing.
Consider the incredible, astounding, inhuman cruelty of the French masters during slavery; consider the long, drawn-out, bloody battle with France, and the eventual success of the slaves’ revolution against the colonial power. Consider, too, the repugnant racism of France and the U.S. toward Haiti for centuries, as well as the reparations France demanded of the infant Haitian state virtually from its inception onward. Remember, too, the refusal of France in the modern era to repay Haiti those ill-gotten monies, and don’t forget either the collusion of France with the United States in removing duly elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from his post in 2004.
I mean, it doesn’t end.
Or does it?
The Académie was founded in 1645 by Cardinal Richelieu. By the time of its establishment, France had held Haiti for a decade, and was beginning its vast importation of Africans who were doomed to work as slaves on the territory’s sugar plantations.
On the upside, the presence of Africans on the island led, some three hundred years later, to the birth in Haiti of Laferrière, in 1953.
You can be sure that not a French person living in Haiti in the early days of the slave colony, or in the centuries after, imagined that a true son of Haiti would ever be elected and inducted into Richelieu’s exclusive bastion of elite, supereducated, well spoken (no: perfectly spoken) Francophones. But there you are.
At the end of the 1700s, Napoleon, intent on putting down the uprising against French rule in Haiti, called men like Toussaint l’Ouverture and the other great leaders and geniuses of the Haitian revolution “gilded Africans.” Picking up where the French left off, American authorities too were astonished that black people should permit themselves the accoutrements and attainments of Western culture. Infamously, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who ran U.S. foreign policy in 1915 when the decision was being made to invade and occupy Haiti, wondered somewhat earlier where exactly Haiti was and who its people were. When briefed on the country by an American banker who (yes it’s true) was a manager of the Banque Nationale d’Haiti, Bryan is supposed to have exclaimed, “Dear me! Think of it! Niggers speaking French!”
This has ever been the mentality of the French and the Americans toward Haitians. This attitude combines disdain for the African race with shock over the language Haitians speak, a language that, especially in the eyes of Americans, is the rarified language of the most effete and aristocratic and snobbish people in the world, the French. Of course, Haitians will tell you that, actually, they speak Creole, or Kreyol, as it is written in Kreyol.
For years now, since the end of the Duvalier regime in 1986, there has been an ongoing battle and discussion in Haiti about the language of Haiti. Overriding tradition, the post-Duvalier Haitian constitution of 1987 elevated Kreyol to the same status as French (Franse, in Kreyol): now both were official languages of the country. But in reality, 95 percent of Haitians speak only Kreyol.
Indeed, since the early days, and even under slavery, and even now, only the most advantaged Haitians have spoken and speak French (or English, these days). French is a mark of one’s social status in Haiti.
Just two years ago, an upper-class matron in Port-au-Prince called one of her proteges over and made him talk with me to prove to me how well he could speak French, thanks to her insistence on his being taught.
It was a painful moment, since the adoption of Kreyol supposedly was intended to make Haitians proud of their unFrenchness and their independence and impregnable sovereignty. President Aristide, too, always talked about how he had shocked the Haitian ruling class when, as a priest, he gave sermons laced with French — because his French was perfect, even though he had grown up a barefoot kid from the provinces.
Interestingly, although he was one of its most eloquent speakers, Aristide couldn’t really read the (to him) strange orthography of written Kreyol; for him, as for most Haitians, it was strictly a spoken language and in fact, foreigners who speak Kreyol are often more comfortable with written Kreyol than are Haitians.
Language is a vexed subject in the imperial world’s former colonies, as anyone knows who has followed African literature from the colonial tongue into the various African languages. One of Haiti’s greatest literary figures today, the playwright and novelist Franckétienne, has written in both French and Kreyol, sometimes simultaneously. But in some ways, Kreyol has left this great figure a little bit isolated.
Should a writer write in Kreyol, and confine herself or himself to a national readership most of whom don’t actually read Kreyol? Or, instead, write in French for an international readership, thus essentially agreeing to the colonization of the mind by the imperial language?
Fortunately for Laferrière, he was never really faced with this conundrum. The Duvalier regime made him a man of the world: when one of his journalist colleagues was assassinated, Laferrière fled to Montreal. It was there, in a region that fought for French in order to proclaim its difference and separation from the English speaking colony, that Laferrière, in his 20s, became a writer of literature, and quite naturally, since he is Quebecois and Canadian, as well as Haitian, he writes in French. (The only other black man inducted into the academy, the Senegalese man of letters and politician Léopold Sédar Senghor, was the first person of African descent ever to teach French students — in French, in France. He was elected by the academy in 1983.)
The language debate in Haiti now is about education. For years, schoolchildren there have been taught their lessons in French, from a young age. The problem with this is that most of the kids in the average classroom in Haiti don’t speak French, and neither, often do the teachers — not fluently and often not at all proficiently. So the kids don’t just not learn French, they don’t really learn anything.
One argument now is that all lessons should be taught in Kreyol, using Kreyol orthography for written work — and then secondary languages should be taught as languages are taught elsewhere: you could take French or English or Spanish. This is beginning to be the case on the ground in Haiti today.
I’m not sure, though, that a nascent Laferrière today would end up writing brilliant novels in French if he or she were taught in this way. Laferrière, I am confident, spoke French from an early age: his father was mayor of Port-au-Prince before Duvalier père became president, and his father had also been involved in commerce.
So perhaps a new Haitian educational system organized around Kreyol will not produce French académiciens by the score. But it would produce much better educated students who wouldn’t start their intellectual lives feeling from the day they set foot in class that they were inferior.
In any case, Laferrière’s election and induction have been cause for celebrating among Haitians — and with just cause. They see it as a vindication of their country’s right to stand with the illuminés of any land. Dear me, to paraphrase Bryan. Just think of it: A Haitian’s now a guardian of the French language!
It’s a dizzying turnabout. As they say in Kreyol, chapoba. Or in French, chapeaux bas. Hats off.