All posts by Sandie Blaise

Author of the pages on Bois Caïman and Music

From Dessalines to Laferrière and Martelly: Past & Present in Haitian Diaspora Literature and Public Discourse in Haiti

The presence of the past in present times is an aspect of Black Atlantic Studies that interests me – and probably many others – a lot. I guess that it’s also one of the reasons why I am so interested in writers of the Haitian diaspora. With the Haitian Revolution that occured from 1791 to 1804, the creation of the first black independent country, and then the various regimes that followed, with the historical influence of France and the US, the way Haitian writers construct their identity, and writers of the diaspora negotiate it as exiles, reveals to be fascinating.

One of the writers of the Haitian diaspora that I read and studied the most is Dany Laferrière, now member of the French Academy since December 2013. Born in Port-au-Prince in 1953, raised by his grandmother in Petit-Goâve, he left Haiti for Montreal, Canada, in 1976, just after one of his best friends and colleague Gasner Raymond was killed by the Haitian milice – Jean-Claude Duvalier’s “tontons macoutes.” Intellectuals and opponents to the Duvalier regime did not have much of a choice at that time; Laferrière’s real first name, Windsor Kléber, was changed to “Dany” in the public and private sphere because his father, former mayor of Port-au-Prince who left when Laferrière was only a child because of his political ideas, was on the black list of the Duvalier militia and was also forced into exile to escape it.

Dany Laferrière

Dany Laferrière has spent more than 25 years in Montreal, 12 in Miami, and the series of 10 autobiographical novels formed what he called his “American autobiography.” One of them, entitled Pays sans chapeau (1996) – translated as Down Among the Dead Men in the English version, or, more literally; “Country with no hat” – focuses on the narrator’s return to Haiti after spending 20 years abroad. Laferrière splits his narrative in two: chapters alternate between “pays réel” and “pays rêvé” (“real country” and “dream country”). In chapters on the “dream country,” the narrator is warned that while Haiti belongs to the living during daytime, an army of zombies occupies it at night.

When I read Laurent Dubois’s Avengers of the New World (2004) in which he cites what Dessalines is believed to have said:

“Dessalines had convinced the ‘Congos’ who fought for him that it would be a blessing if they were killed by the French, for they would ‘immediately be transported to Guinea, where they would once again see Papa Toussaint, who was waiting for them to complete his army, which was destined to reconquer Saint Domingue’” (275)

I couldn’t help drawing some kind of parallel with Pays sans chapeau. I clearly do not know enough about vodun to have a really informed argument about this, but from what I understand, Laferrière’s army of zombies strangely reminded me of Dessalines’s army.


“L’au-delà. Est-ce ici ou là-bas?” (Laferrière, 63)

Moreover, a second connection between Dessalines and Laferrière is to be found in the title of the book. Indeed, as Laferrière says it, the title of the book, Pays sans chapeau, refers to Heaven (“ce curieux pays où personne ne porte de chapeau” p. 222). However, in writing a narrative specifically about Haiti and wondering where the hereafter is, the author links Heaven with Haiti, hereby echoing Dessalines’s promise that all dead slaves would find Toussaint in Africa in order to ultimately go back to Saint-Domingue. Haiti was seen as a reward for fallen slave soldiers, like Heaven. Therefore, the presence of this past in contemporary diaspora literature is clear, and I am sure that many more links than the few I have just mentioned could be drawn.


“Le jour à l’Occident. La nuit à l’Afrique” (Laferrière, 58-59)

My last point focuses on the narrator’s Haiti as a two-face country: both turned towards the Western world and the US with its fast red cars and the evolution of its society, and turned towards Africa and its culture through art, the reign of vodun and zombies at night. Can we read something in the time of the day allotted to the two worlds? Western during the day, African at night – is Laferrière writing about himself, contemporary Haiti, or only his narrator’s Haiti? This division of time seems quite revealing. If we associate day and night with our state of consciousness, and the way Laferrière refers to them also shows us the way, the African Haiti is the “dreamed” country, or in other words, corresponds to the world of dreams: the unconscious. The Western/American Haiti is what the narrator sees during the day, that is to say, in the world of “reality,” when he is conscious. I cannot go into to many details here, but as many of us have already read or heard, Freud referred to the conscious state as the tip of the iceberg, the public world, and the unconscious as what is beneath the water; the “repressed,” the private world, the one of desires and fantasies. As much as African culture is part of contemporary Haitian culture, Laferrière here associates it with the unconscious, the “repressed.” It’s almost as if the narrator’s Haiti was wearing a mask – a western mask – but was hiding its true self and roots. This idea of masks actually makes me think of Frantz Fanon’s Peau noire, masques blancs (1952) – Black Skin, White Masks in English…


“On parle français [en Haïti]” (Michel Martelly, TV5 Monde)

Finally, another telling anecdote about this division in present times happened recently. While current Haitian President Michel Martelly was being interviewed by a French journalist on TV5 Monde in February of this year, he said that Haitians spoke French in Haiti, but « forgot » to mention Creole as the other official language (the only one that all Haitians speak, compared to French which is actually spoken by only about 10%). When Martelly said that Haitians spoke French in Haiti, the French journalist added “and Creole!” and Martelly nodded, only to state again a few seconds later than French is the official language – instead of saying it’s one of the two official languages, “forgetting” Creole again. But is it really an oversight? This goes back to the idea of masks and the dichotomy between public and private: on the one hand, French as a western language is what Haitians speak in the public world, it is used in the government, administration, is seen as one of the language of culture, and is the language Haitians speak, according to Martelly. But on the other hand, Creole, which is the language used in the private sphere and the only language all Haitians speak, has roots in both French and African languages, and seems to be, as a result, publicly repressed.


Here is a link to the video in French. Go to 11:00 to watch the extract I am discussing above.


Works cited:

Laferrière, Dany. Pays sans chapeau, Outremont, Québec: Lanctôt Editeur, 1996.

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World, Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004.

12 Years a Slave and the (third) Middle Passage

By Sandie Blaise

I went to the movie theater on Wednesday and finally saw “12 Years a Slave.” For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, it is the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man working as a musician in the state of New York, who got kidnapped in Washington D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery in the southern states.  The movie is an adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoirs, 12 Years a Slave, written in 1853. You can see the trailer here:



Beyond the actors’ performances and the movie itself – I hope they will win Academy Awards for such achievements – I wanted to talk about one of the points touched upon in the movie; the free black men abduction, and the way it reiterates the Middle Passage experience with the Mississippi River as an echo of the Atlantic Ocean.

After the Middle Passage and its circular trans-Atlantic trajectory bringing slaves from the coast of Africa to Brazil, the Caribbean or the United States, before circling back to Europe with goods and then Africa to start over again, the Second Middle Passage refers to the domestic slave trade as a second forced migration within the United States.


The Middle Passage


Slave auction in Alabama


Out of the 12 millions of slaves taken from Africa, about 250,000 were transported to the U.S.. After the slave trade ended in 1808, the U.S. was the only slave society in which slavery continued to develop naturally; slaves’ children were automatically enslaved when they were born, which increased slave population to 4 millions. The growth of the cotton industry led to the internal migration of slaves from the upper South to the lower South; indeed, from 1.5 million pounds of cotton produced in 1790, the country jumped to 35 million in 1800, 331 million in 1830 and had reached 2,275 million before the Civil War (see Ronald Bailey, “The Other Side of Slavery: Black Labor, Cotton, and Textile Industrialization in Great Britain and the United States,” Agricultural History, vol. 68, No. 2. Spring 1994).

This domestic slave migration dictated by the growth of the cotton industry shows how slavery cannot be separated from capitalism. Indeed, since cotton was an incredibly wanted good in the world; the cotton tended by slaves allowed planters to make money, so the more cotton planters wanted to grow, and the more slaves they needed to hand-pick it. Slaves were used as commodities by planters, but were also part of the Northern industrialists’ desire for profit too since by planting, tending and harvesting cotton, they were the first link of the industrial chain. They were the labor used to fulfill both planters and industrialists’ desire for profit. By moving down from the upper to the lower south where goods produced by slaves were sent to the north, the slave trade trajectory of the second Middle Passage reveals to be almost circular, too.

In “12 Years a Slave,” the abduction of free black men turns into what I would call a third, or an additional Middle Passage experience. After the slave trade officially stopped, and with the industrial growth of the cotton industry, slaves became a valued commodity. Slaves who had escaped slavery or former slaves who had bought their freedom and their descendants in the Northern states, like Solomon Northup, were considered free as long as they could show proof of their freedom. However, in 1793, the Fugitive Slave Act that had given effect to the Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the right of a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave. Therefore, any black person unable to show free papers could be considered a fugitive, and the person supposedly bringing them in would receive money. In 1850, a second Fugitive Slave Law was enforced, stating that fugitives could not testify in their own behalf, and that no trial by jury was provided.  As an effect of capitalism serving personal profit, one can easily see why the abduction of free black people developed in the Northern states. Here is an example of a poster warning free “colored people” against kidnappers in Massachusetts:


“Effects of the Fugitive-Slave-Law.” New York : Publ. by Hoff & Bloede, 1850.



“Kidnapping a free negro to be sold into slavery”


There were several cases of African Americans who had escaped slavery and lived as free men before being kidnapped and sold back into slavery; Thomas Sims, Shadrach Minkins, the Garner families, Anthony Burns, among too many others. Even though Solomon Northup was born a free man and never had to work as a slave, his story identifies him as one of them.


In the movie,  one of the scenes that struck me – among many others – was when, after kidnapping Northup and other African Americans, they board a ship and sail on the Mississippi towards Louisiana. Their journey on the Mississippi River strongly reminded me of the trans-Atlantic one that their parents or ancestors had lived. Both generations experienced a brutal separation from their families and land and a manifold process of dehumanization. The presence of chains around their ankles and wrists, and sometimes even muzzles on their faces turned them into commodities, and changing their names – when sold into slavery, Solomon becomes “Platt” – denied them agency through identity, further turning them into the planters’ property.

Scene from 12 Years a Slave

The abducted free men also had to experience traumatic conditions on board, and the murder of one of them followed by the decision to drop him into the water while they kept sailing towards an unknown destination strongly reminded me of the trans-Atlantic journey. At their arrival, they were exhibited naked or showing their talent (playing an instrument for instance) to future buyers who could examine them like animals or objects, hence repeating the experience they or their parents had lived at their arrival in America. This “third” Middle Passage, however, was somewhat different from the trans-Atlantic one in that even though African Americans on board probably did not know exactly where they were going, they still knew what they were going to do there. They had no illusion that slavery was what awaited them.