Monday, July 20, 2015
Jacques Roumain, Jean Price-Mars, and The Crisis of Haitian Intellectuals in the Era of the American Occupation in Haiti (Part 3)
Jacques Roumain, Jean Price-Mars, and The Crisis of Haitian Intellectuals in the Era of the American Occupation in Haiti (Part 3)
by Celucien L. Joseph
* I dedicate this post to two friends (1) Jean Price-Mars scholar Dr. Jhon Byron, and (2) Jacques Stephen Alexis scholar Dr. Schallum E-Pierre.
Jean Price-Mars was a towering figure in the discipline known today as Africana study, and a passionate proponent of the revalorization of African retentions in the black diaspora, especially on Haitian soil. Scholars have identified him as the Francophone counterpart of W.E.B. Du Bois for his activism, scholarly rigor, leadership efficiency, and his efforts in the rehabilitation of the black race. In Haitian thought, he is regarded as the most important Haitian intellectual in the twentieth-century, having exercised an enduring intellectual influence on the generation of the American Occupation in Haiti (1915-1934) and the post-Occupation culture from the 1930s to 1970s. He is especially known for launching a cultural nationalism and an anti-imperial movement against the brutal American military forces in Haiti; his work was instrumental in the process of fostering national unity among Haitians of all social classes and against their American oppressor, and in the process of embracing Afro-Haitian popular religious culture.
Price-Mars was a transdisciplinary scholar, boundary-crosser, and cross-cultural
theorist; in an unorthodox way, he had brought in conversation various disciplines including
anthropology, ethnography, sociology, history, religion, philosophy, race theory, and literature to analyze and reevaluate African traditions and popular beliefs in Haiti, which resulted in the trilogy: La Vocation de l’élite (1919), Ainsi parla l’Oncle: essai d'ethnographie (1928), and Une étape de l'évolution haïtienne (1929). Price-Mars had played an enormous influence on the intellectual development of Jacques Roumain both as a public intellectual and a novelist of Haitian peasant literature. Roumain’s peasant novels and his preoccupation with the life-worlds and life-experiences of the Haitian peasant population have deep roots in Price-Mars’s work.
Roumain and Price-Mars share intellectual proximity in the way both have voiced fierce criticisms towards the members of the Haitian intelligentsia and the ruling elite—as reflected in Price-Mars’ powerful reflections on La vocation de l ’élite, a book he published in 1919, only four years after the American military invasion of his country. Both Price-Mars and Roumain witnessed the moral failure of national leadership in the period of the American occupation. Both have demonstrated the dysfunctional relationship between the Haitian elite and the peasant population, and the ensuing deep structural class and economic division, as well as social distancing between the two groups. As Price-Mars declares:
How do we explain that distance which separates the elite from the masses, so much so that even the least observant can immediately recognize that our nation to be divided into distinct segments, like so many watertight compartments? How do we explain that we are so divided socially that our elite seem to be a foreign organism superimposed on the rest of the nation, living in an ambiguous parasitical relationship with the masses?
Price-Mars provides the answer to his own rhetorical questions that the Haitian elite and the black-brown masses are sharply separated on two different levels: one economic, the other psychological. He also suggests that the fundamental separation should be understood as a form of perpetual domination and organizational subjugation. Price-Mars explains further that “while a certain social solidarity more intuitive than intentional softened the antagonisms between social groups, economic and psychological factors hardened, revealing a deepening division.” He continues by declaring that “the distressing separation of the elite and the masses” generated the two classes that “form two nations within a nation, each with its own interests and objectives.” In other words, there exist two Haitis: the Haiti of the poor and oppressed, and the Haiti of the ruling class; that the Haitian intelligentsia and members of the privileged class had not been successful to act as moral “agents for change through example,” said Price-Mars. Price-Mars’ idea of two existing nations within one Haiti is akin to Roumain’s concept of two Haitian nationalisms within the Haitian society.
Like Roumain, Price-Mars explains that the deep class divide in contemporary Haitian society has its origin in various historical factors and agents including the plantation economic inequality, colonial class structure, the labor management system of the colonialism, and the wage system. For example, Price-Mars pronounces, “management and labor not only imposed on each other a habit of routine inimical to progress and modernization of framing techniques, but also engendered ills that our society suffers from this day.” For Price-Mars, it was shameful that the Haitian State has failed to protect the working class and peasant majority from the exploitation of the ruling class and the bourgeoisie. As already remarked, the Haitian State has become the instrumental tool of the ruling class, through which it executes its objectives and goals. Retrospectively, the ruling class has become a vehicle of the State to oppress and subjugate the poor and the working class.
Price-Mars traces the state sponsored-oppression of the working class and the peasant population to the founding of the Haitian state. As he observes, “The State, as you know, took possession of most of the land by right of conquest and distributed it in in large holdings or in small plots to its favorites, either as state gifts or as farms from which it collected land taxes sporadically. It therefore created a new privileged class that built on the debris of the remnants of the ruling class which survived the upheaval of the revolution…In this way was formed this class of mountain peasants that continued to our time.” Price-Mars goes in length to describe in vivid details the multidimensional aspect of the separation between the Haitian masses and the ruling class in contemporary Haitian society; this striking gulf bears cultural, ideological, political, and socio-economic imports:
They lived [live] in scattered enclaves in the isolation of very areas or on slopes and in the hollows of valleys, in conditions of isolation sometimes made spectacular by a very tortured landscape. Many of them, indeed a large majority of them, once were and still are sharecroppers like those of the plains, but whereas the plain dwellers enjoyed a network of fairly developed roads, practiced industrial farming and remained in contact with the urban middle class, deriving from all these conditions and irrefutable benefit of refinement which made them resourceful, the former, two-thirds of the country’s population, were left to themselves, unaware of the tragic misery inherent in the way of life that they had accepted as their lot. The rhythmic thud of their hoes striking the earth, alternating with the click of their cutlasses, recalls the same ancestral motions that bind them to the land, making them a community different and distinct from the rest of the population through language, dress, customs and a crude, primitive mental development. In short, a mere rough sketch, like a distant, very ill-defined outline, a caricature of the elite, that other component of Haitian society.
Moreover, like Roumain, Price-Mars laments over the internal forces that had led to
national degeneration and alienate Haitians from one another:
Consider the various factors dividing our people into mistrustful, hostile groups opposing each other and you will agree with me that together, all those factors turn our social environment into an arena very ripe for the seeds of disorder and destruction. You will also agree with me that of necessity, such an environment exerts an extremely destructive force on the morale of our country, making any attempt at sustained progress impossible. You will agree in short that together, these factors continue to make us responsible for the state of affairs through which an outside dared raise his flag on the moral ruins of our country.
Finally, while Roumain blames the Haitian ruling class and intelligentsia for their lack
of patriotic zeal, the leadership shortcoming, and their unwillingness to serve and protect the masses, Price-Mars complements Roumain’s thesis by suggesting two central reasons accounted for the incapacity and indisposition of the Haitian ruling class:
The first and the most decisive reason, as I have sought to demonstrate, is primarily their development as an entity from the rest of the nation. A second very decisive reason for the inability to act is that while a few great men came out of that class, in each generation they were too few in number and were too far above the rest of the general population not to entertain the superior individual’s petty hatred of the lowly, a kind of ransom that talent pays for the jealously of the helpless and the unworthy. Furthermore, these great men have never achieved the genius of action of a Toussaint Louverture…so as to have the might which could make them mold the clay of greatness, so to speak, producing a new kind of Haitian.
President John F. Kennedy Meets with the Ambassador of Haiti, Dr. Louis Mars (26 October 1961), son of Price-Mars
Retrospectively, both Price-Mars and Roumain, holding to the classical utopian idea of heroic societies, assumed somewhat that some “distinguished members” of the Haitian society had specific roles to fulfill in order for them to achieve the heroic status and make their societies heroic. Interestingly, both Roumain and Price-Mars construed the public function of Haitian intellectuals and members of the elite and ruling class in a conservative sense. They also saw these individuals as elusive frontrunners who possessed the potentiality to redeem the country and save the Haitian people—both from internal disaster and foreign threat and domination. As Alasdair MacIntyre has commented on the classical tradition of Homeric society and of the Homeric man in After Virtue, “A man in heroic society is what he does. A man and his actions become identical, and he makes himself completely and adequately comprehended in them; he has no hidden depths… In [the epics] factual report of what men do and say, everything that men are, is expressed, because they are no more than what they do and say and suffer.” MacIntyre explains further:
A man who tried to withdraw himself from his given position in heroic society would be engaged in the enterprise of trying to make himself disappear. Identity in heroic society involves particularity and accountability. I am answerable for doing or failing to do what anyone who occupies my role owes to others and this accountability terminates only with death. I have until death to do what I have to do. Moreover this accountability is particular. It is to, for and with specific individuals, members of the same local community, that I am accountable. The heroic self does not itself aspire to universality even although in retrospect we may recognize universal worth in the achievements of that self.
It is reasonable to move from the “I,” the individual, to focus on the “we,” the community, so that we may appropriate this Greek tradition to the Haitian reality. Our effort here is to establish and contextualize the sense of the collective and the community, which the Haitian intelligentsia and bourgeoisie class symbolized for Price-Mars and Roumain, but they were unsuccessful to fulfill the much-anticipated public function and civic responsibility. Hence, to judge the Haitian elite and bourgeois as men [and women] therefore is to judge their actions. As noted, “By performing actions of a particular kind in a particular situation a man gives warrant for judgment upon his virtues and vices; for the virtues just are those qualities which sustain a free man in his role and which manifests themselves in those actions which his role requires.” Members of the Haitian intelligentsia and bourgeoisie class had not achieved public recognition as they should because they failed to create an adequate social structure, sustain a productive public order, and add to a quality of “life as the standard of value.” They were not accountable to the Haitian people nor did the people hold them accountable to their role or position in the public life. They had become dishonorable (less virtuous) and strangers in their own land, and ultimately they had brought shame upon themselves, their own people, and the Haitian society, which they should have upheld in the highest esteem.
MacIntyre has informed us that “The exercise of the heroic virtues thus requires both a particular kind of human being and a particular kind of social structure…which enables an individual to do what his or her role requires.” The Haitian elite had failed in both ends—both in civic participation and constructive public activism. For Roumain, the tragic experience of the dominant class and possessing class in Haitian society is that both
have no social project, except the day-to-day struggle keeping themselves in positions of power, wealth, and prestige. Having neither a national vision nor a coherent ideology, their time horizon never goes beyond the immediate short term. Ruling and possessing classes are not always in alliance; whatever unity they achieve is rooted in an opportunistic convergence of interest. They form an uneasy partnership in which each day its own sphere of concerns, but this partnership tends to coalesce when faced by a challenge from below.
In addition, the members of the Haitian intelligentsia, bourgeoisie, and the ruling class
forged strong alliance with the Catholic Church and the American authorities to attain position of leadership and power, even as their country were under imperial assault and fighting to reclaim its sovereignty. The final post will address the intimate relationship between the American imperial power, Haitian intelligentsia, and the Haitian Catholic Church to subdue the Haitian population.
President Louis Borno and Family
 JPrice-Mars, The Vocation of the Elite, 14.
 Ibid., 16.
 Ibid., 14-5.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 26.
 Ibid., 20.
 MacIntyre, After Virtues, 122.
 Ibid., 126.
 Ibid., 124.
 Ibid., 126, 128.
 Fatton Jr., Haiti’s Predatory Republic, 37-8.