By Ardain Isma
CSMS Magazine staff writerIt was with consternation that I received the news of Paul Laraque’s death Thursday night. One of the most brilliant figures of the Haitian literature, Paul Laraque, walked into the sunset on Women International Day (March 8th ), the man who always said that our women must always be nurtured, honored, cherished and forever be honored for they are and will always be the backbones of our society. Paul Laraque, whose death seems to have marked the beginning of the end of an official end of an era, was a man with a puckish wit and progressive ideas grounded in social justice. He was 86. Renowned poet and brilliant intellectual, for sure, but Paul was first and foremost the quintessential revolutionary whose used poetry as a daily weapon in the struggle to change mind. It was this credo that inspired him to publish one of his best collections of poetry titled Les armes quotidiennes, Poésies quotidiennes (Daily weapons, Daily Poetry) for which he won the prestigious Cuba’s Casa De Las Americas’ prize for literature in 1979. It was the first time a French work had won such prize. Paul Laraque was born in Jérémie, a once beautiful city on Haiti’s southern peninsula in 1920. Jérémie was itself well known throughout the nineteen century as a bastion of Haitian poetry. The late Felix Morisseau Leroy, himself considered to be as one of Haiti’s best poets, told me one day that Paul Laraque was born with poetry in his veins. Paul had a modest childhood while growing up in a mulatto family. In 1939, he joined the military academy and graduated in 1941 as an officer of the Haitian army. In 1945, Paul was part of the delegation that received André Breton in Port-au-Prince. According to Gérald Bloncourt in his book Le regard engagé (The profound gaze), Breton’s stay in Haiti had a profound impact on the Haitian youth movement at that time. In the 1940s, Paul Laraque, as young army officer, was sent to various parts of the countryside, where he had the chance to see first hands the deplorable conditions in which the Haitians peasants lived. He was deeply saddened by this experience as he later wrote in many of his works. As poetry was the weapon of choice for Paul, he could not confine himself to writing in French only. He also was a great Creole writer and poet, and along with Morisseau-Leroy, Frank Fouché, and Claude Innocent, he represented the first true generation of Haitians Creole poets. While in the army, Paul Laraque grew increasingly wary of his position as a politically engaged poet in an institution of which its philosophy was clearly at odds with his revolutionary convictions. In 1961, following the crackdown by the Papa Doc regime on university students, Paul Laraque, fearing for his life fled into exile. After a short stay in Spain, he joined his younger brother Frank in New York in the late 1961, where Frank had already been living. Paul Laraque, who had a brilliant professional career, lived in New York since 1961 until his death last week.
Revolutionary to the end
If Paul was famous for poetry, it was his revolutionary activisms that crafted him as a Marxist bon tin and a frantic existentialist. His political and literary activities took him to various capitals of the world, noticeably Paris, Havana, Panama, Mexico City etc… A close friend of Jacques Stephen Alexis, Paul, as co-founder of Haitian Writers in exile, engineered the famous Literary/Political festival in 1982 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of JSA’s disappearance. Paul Laraque also organized in 1985 the grand commemoration of the Charlemagne Peralte’s one-hundredth birthday. Peralte was the legendary leader who died in 1919 in the middle of an arm struggle against American occupation in Haiti. Paul Laraque was also an internationalist who forged great friendships with important personalities like Langston Hughes, Nicolas Guillen, R L C James etc…Jacques Roumain’s works influenced Paul greatly. Torn between existentialism and Marxism, Paul became a pragmatic revolutionary with an acute understanding of the Haitian reality. He became an avid proponent of the compromised version of the Haitian Unified Communist Party program grounded on a realization that a socialist revolution was out of question and therefore the best option was a struggle for a democratic, national, sovereign and popular revolution. This was in line with the national liberation struggle professed by most revolutionary movements in Latin America and the decolonization movement of Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. “My poetry tends to be an explosive mixture of love and liberty, dream and revolution, the cruelty of the present and the hope of the future. I believe that culture cannot be dissociated from history. Since the Spanish conquest with the cross and the sword, our hemisphere has been marked by native resistance against colonialism and genocide, by Black heroism against slavery, by peoples’ struggles against imperialism, by masses’ revolt for economic equality and social, political and cultural freedom,” said Paul during a speech he presented on Jan. 19, 2003 at a public meeting of the Haitian People’s Support Project in Woodstock, NY. Paul Laraque stuck to his revolutionary principles until the very last moments of his life. He had always believed that populism would never bring about the desired change in Haiti. For that, he cautioned his colleagues against Jean Bertrand Aristide when he became president in 1989. Paul’s death has definitely left an emptiness that will prove difficult to fill. A true revolutionary and a true Haitian, Paul Laraque will forever shine in the firmament. Also see The Language Delimma for Caribbean Writers Creolophone