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Friday, February 23, 2024

When Langston Hughes Meets Haiti’s best thinker: Jacques Roumain

In the late spring of 1932 Langston Hughes, one of the pioneers of the Harlem Renaissance,  visited Haiti for his only visit there. He spent about three months in Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien. The Harlem Renaissance was over. Spent. A flash in the pan, lasting, at most from 1920 to 1930. Hughes himself announced it dead. “That spring [1929 or 30] for me (and, I guess, all of us) was the end of the Harlem Renaissance. We were no longer in vogue, anyway, we Negroes. Sophisticated New Yorkers turned to Noel Coward.” p. 334. THE BIG SEA.

    The Harlem Renaissance had made Harlem the rage of the jazz age and clubs flourished, writers and other artists were the darlings of New York, it was, indeed, a heady time.  With “Negroes no longer in fashion” Hughes went through a real funk. He had emerged in 1920 as a high school senior catapulted to fame with an early poem, and by the mid-20s in his early 20s, he was a superstar. By 1930 his fame and certainly his fortune had greatly diminished. He came to Haiti as part of a time in his life to find himself, figure out who he was going to be. It was the beginnings of a much more leftist and politicized Hughes.   When New Yorkers knew he was coming to Haiti they gave him letters of introduction to various important and famous Haitians. Such letters were needed in those days. The classes seem to have mixed even less than now, and certainly meetings with foreigners were much more formal affairs.   Some Haitian writers have said that Hughes’ social consciousness was such that he eschewed meeting the famous and rich Haitians because of their association with the exploitation and treatment of the poor. Ha! Wishful thinking. Hughes is quite up front about it. He was ashamed of his clothing. He had no coat, though he did have one decent pair of pants and a tie. But, he was quite poor for an American (still rich in Haiti). Thus he avoided using his letters of introduction out of shame, not class consciousness.   At the same time, he was developing a genuine interest in the underclasses, which he had experienced very little of in his growing up in wealthier circles in the U.S. In Cap Haitien he scandalized the hotel manager where he stayed by going out barefoot to meet and talk with fishermen along the water front in Okap. (Hughes had focused on shoelessness and the primary criterion of separating “the people” from the rest, and he wanted to talk with “the people” on their own terms, thus no shoes.)   However, on his way back out of Haiti, down to his very last money, he had to go through Port-au-Prince on a ship to Cuba. He did have one person he wanted to visit: Jacques Roumain, then a minister in the Haitian government, and already a famous author whom Hughes respected a great deal. The story of that visit and its follow up is one of the funnier stories I’ve ever read about foreigners visiting Haiti. I’ll let Hughes tell it in his own words:  From: Langston Hughes, I WONDER AS I WANDER. 1956.p. 29-32. “Jacques Roumain, the poet, was then one of the few cultured Haitians who appreciated native folklore, and who became a friend of the people without shoes. Walter White had given me a letter to Jacques Roumain for, since he was a writer, I wanted to meet him. (Years later I translated his MASTERS OF THE DEW.) Of an aristocratic Haitian family, Roumain held a post in the cabinet and was a friend to the President. So when I found myself again in Port au Prince, feeling that I had to dress up for the occasion, I put on my only coat to go and meet him and had my shoes shined.   “Zell [an art student with whom he was traveling] and I were returning from Cap Haitien to Cuba on a Dutch boat, traveling as deck passengers with no accommodations, neither food nor shelter, since our passage provided for nothing save space in the open air, where we might lie down on the hard iron deck. Usually none but sugar-cutters traveled in this way from port to port. To unload cargo, the boat stopped only a day in the Haitian capital, so I decided to present the letter Walter White had given me to Roumain. It was blazing hot; [July, 1932] nevertheless, besides my coat I put on a white shirt and tie. Zell, declaring it was too warm to go ashore, stayed aboard the ship stretched out on the afterdeck in nothing more than a pair of old trousers.   “On the way to Roumain’s house I stopped to see a girl I had met on my previous visit to Port au Prince [when he had landed 3 months earlier], and with whom I had spend a few days. She remembered me and seemed overjoyed to see me back, but melancholy to know that I was sailing at sunset. As I left her, she said she would be on the dock to see me off.   “When I got to Jacques Roumain’s house, he was not at home, but his charming and very pretty wife, Nicole, received me. Jacques, she said, was at the Palace, but she would telephone him to come at once. She did. And shortly he arrived, a handsome copper-brown young man with the deep fiery eyes of a picture-book poet. For an hour, in French—mine halting, and in English — his bad, we talked about poetry and people. Jacques showed me his excellent library in many languages with the cloth and board bindings of American and England mingling with the bright paper covers of France and Germany. From his hillside windows we look out on the town and harbor of Port au Prince, and the slums of the port were beautiful from so far away.   “My host wanted me to meet the President of the Republic and other officials of the government, as well as the various writers of the capital, so he was distressed to hear that I was sailing that very afternoon. That I had been in Haiti all summer and he had not known it disturbed him even more. He invited me to come again to the island and to accept the hospitality of himself and his friends. And he mad me a present of his poems. I descended the hill thinking that if the delightful Roumains were typical representatives of the Haitian elite, then I regretted not having met more of them.   “Down in the sweltering town again, I took off my coat and tie. I stopped at the market and bought a couple of loaves of French bread, a long greasy sausage, some cheese and some tinned sardines because, since Zell and I had only deck passage, we could not even purchase bread from the ship’s dining salon. We had to have enough to eat all the way to Cuba, and there was no telling how many ports a cargo ship might stop at en route, perhaps anchoring miles out in the water with no way of going ashore to buy food. I bought fruit, too, and a bottle of wine. Thus laden, back I started toward the wharf. The sun, heading west, was still blazing. Sweat poured from me. For cinq cob a street urchin offered to help me, so gratefully I let him put the bread and sausage under his sweaty arms, and the cheese on his head, and he trotted behind me toward the pier.   “As I went up the rickety gangplank, the winches were rattling and the cranes lifting the swinging crates of cargo through the air. I found Zell on deck aft, where I dumped my packages on a closed hatch and proceeded to undress, putting my clothes in my suitcase in exchange for the oldest and dirtiest pair of trousers I had — in preparation for a night on the bare deck. It was so hot that I removed both shirt and undershirt. If the iron deck had not seemed like a griddle, I would have taken off my shoes. As it was, I removed my socks and rolled up my pants legs.   “We were both hungry, so while I had stripped down to my ragged trousers, Zell spread on a newspaper our supper of cheese, sausage, bread and wine, with a bunch of bananas for dessert. He filled a couple of tin cups with tepid water from the tap, and we sat down on a shady corner of the deck to eat while cargo winches clanked and bales of sisal swung overhead. The sausage was good but greasy. We had neither forks nor napkins. Our hands were greasy and our bodies sweaty as we dined.   “In the midst of the meal a ship’s officer appeared and asked our names. “Hughes,” he queried. “I have been looking all over the cabin passenger lists for a Hughes. Which is he?”   I admitted to owning that name. “Why?”   “There’s a delegation here to see you,” said the officer. “I thought they were looking for a first-class passenger. But I’ll send them back here.”   Wending his way between swinging cargo and shouting stevedores, ducking and watching his head as hampers of coffee beans swung up and over and across the deck then down into an open hatch, the ship’s officer disappeared at the top of the steps to the main deck. In a few seconds he reappeared at the top of the steps pointing through a heat haze at Zell and me, half-naked on the afterdeck. Then to my amazement, descending those iron stairs to wend their way through stevedores and cargo, I saw approaching a long line of elegantly dressed gentlemen, some in tail coats and gloves, followed by a number of dark porters and barefoot boys bearing parcels and baskets. I had no idea who they were, but as they approached, I recognized among them Jacques Roumain. As a member of the Ministry of Education, he had assembled a group of Haitian writers and government officials to pay me honor at the last moment and to present me with bon voyage gifts. To receive these gentlemen, I had hardly time even to wipe my mouth, let alone put on a shirt or coat. I was caught greasy-handed, half-naked—soxless—by an official delegation of leading Haitians.    “I arose from my table on the cargo batch, wiped my hands on my trousers, and was introduced by Roumain as “the greatest Negro poet who had ever come to honor Haitian soil.” Each man bowed gravely. I bowed too. We shook hands, and I introduced all to Zell Ingram. Then from their package bearers, they took baskets of fruit, bottles of Babancourt rum, books of verse and gifts of Haitian handicraft, which were presented to me. In the midst of this ceremony another guest arrived, but she was not allowed aboard the ship. Instead my girl of the morning stood at dockside calling my name in a insistent feminine voice. I waved, blew a kiss at her, and asked Zell to go to the ship’s rail as my emissary—since I was at that moment engaged with an official delegation. The girl looked with astonishment at the elegant gentlemen surrounding me on deck and waited until later to present her gifts. Meanwhile, someone made a little speech in French, welcoming me to Haitian soil and, at the same time, bidding me good-bye, for by now the winches had stopped rattling, the last hatch was being closed, and the stevedores were going ashore. The boat was about to sail.   “Jacques Roumain and his friends in government and the arts withdrew to the pier. I went to the ship’s rail where, until the boat pulled out, I talked alternatively with them and with the Haitian girl whose presents of guava jelly and fruit I put on the hatch along with my other bon voyage gifts.  “As the boat lifted anchor to glide slowly out into the Caribbean, the sun was setting behind the hills. I stood on the poop deck over the churning rudder to wave farewell to the folks on the dock—Jacques Roumain, who was to become Haiti’s most famous writer, the elegant gentlemen in his delegation, and the girl of the town who had come to see me off.  “When the dock was quite out of sight, with Haiti and the sunset almost lost on the rim of the horizon, Zell and I went back to our supper on the hatch. The ship headed for the open sea.”

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