Day 4: Happy Black History Month from Jacques Stephen Alexis (Haiti)
“Jacques Stéphen Alexis’s Letter to François Duvalier” (1960)
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor.
Translator’s note: Jacques Stéphen Alexis (1922-1961) was the son of a Haitian writer and diplomat, educated in France when his father was posted there. Imprisoned for his membership in the Haitian Communist Party in the 1940’s, he returned to France where he completed his medical studies as a neurologist. Author of a number of books, most notably Compère Général Soleil (1955), he participated in numerous writers conferences as well as congresses of the Communist movement. Faithful to that movement, he attempted to preserve its unity at the time of the split between the Soviet Union and China. A faithful party member, he met Mao in China in 1961 as well as Ho Chi Minh that same year. Inspired by Cuba, he landed on the Haitian coast in an attempt to start an uprising against Papa Doc Duvalier. Immediately captured, he was tortured and killed. The following letter was written in responses to the Duvalier regime’s campaign of harassment against him.
Pétion Ville, June 2, 1960
To His Excellency
Doctor François Duvalier
President of the Republic
I feel safe in saying that I would be welcomed with open arms in whatever country I would care to live: this is a secret to no one. But my dead sleep in this land; the soil is red with the blood of generations of men who bear my name. I descend directly by two lines from the man who founded this country, and so I decided to live and perhaps die here. In my class of twenty-two doctors nineteen live in other countries. I, however, remain, despite offers that were made me in the past and which continue to be made. In many countries more agreeable than this one, in many countries where I’d be more esteemed and honored than I am in Haiti, I would be offered golden bridges if I agreed to reside in them. And yet I remain here.
It is certainly not through boastfulness that I begin my letter in this way. Mr. President, I want to know if I am or am not an undesirable in my country. Thank God, I have never paid attention to the petty inconveniences of life in Haiti: being too obviously followed, countless harassments, the frivolous snubbings current in underdeveloped countries… It is nevertheless natural that I want things to be clear concerning what is essential.
And so, Mr. President, I come to the heart of the matter. May 31, that is, the evening before yesterday, to the full knowledge of all, I moved from my home on the ruelle Rivière in Bourdon to settle in Pétion Ville. Imagine my shock when I learned that the day after my departure, that is yesterday evening, my former home was surrounded by policemen searching for me, causing an uproar in the quarter. I have no knowledge of having any problems with the police, and I peacefully awaited them at my new domicile. I am still waiting for them, after having carried out my normal occupations this morning, June 2.
If these facts turn out to be true then I know enough about police methods to know that this is called intimidation. In fact, in Pétion Ville I live near the home of the prefect, M. Chauvet, so if there was a real need to do so they know where to find me. So if this intimidation – since I call things by their real names – was the act only of the subaltern police it is of some use that you be informed of certain of its proceedings. It is taught at Svorolovak University, in the course on anti-police techniques, that when the police of bourgeois countries are overwhelmed or worried they strike out wildly while at ordinary times they select the objectives of their blows. Perhaps this classic principle applies in this affair, but worried police or not, overwhelmed police or not, I must seek to understand the true objective of this attempt at intimidation.
At first I wondered if the goal wasn’t to make me leave the country by creating an atmosphere of insecurity around me. I didn’t accept this interpretation, for they perhaps know that until now I haven’t been accessible to the sentiment called fear, having several times looked death in the eye without blinking. I also didn’t credit the hypothesis that the motive for the police maneuver in question was to get me to go into hiding, for I have also learned under what conditions taking to the maquis is a worthwhile endeavor for those who do so and for those who force them to do so. The only explanation remaining was the intimidation aimed at leading me to restrict my own freedom of movement. But in this case as well, this means they did not know me at all.
Everyone knows that for a plant to be fully productive it needs the sap of its native soil. A novelist who respects his art can’t be a man without a country, nor can a true creation be conceived in an office, but rather by diving into the depths of the life of his people. The authentic writer can’t do without daily contact with the people with calloused hands, the only ones worth our efforts. It is from this universe that great works proceed, a universe perhaps sordid but so luminous and so human that it alone allows us to transcend ordinary humanity. This intimate knowledge of the pulsations of the daily life of our people con only be obtained by diving directly into the deepest layers of the masses. This is the main lesson of the life and works of Frédéric Marcelin, Hibbert, Lhérisson, and Roumain. Simple people had access to them at all times as if they were friends, just as these true sustainers of Haïtianité were at home in the poorest shack in the neighborhoods of the plebe. Though my many friends around the vast world worry about the working conditions I must suffer under in Haiti I can’t renounce this land.
In addition, as a healer of suffering I can’t renounce my popular clientele, that of the working class neighborhoods and the countryside, the sole profitable one in this country abandoned by almost all of our good specialists. Finally, as a man and as a citizen it is indispensable that I feel the inexorable march of the terrible malady, the slow death that every day leads our people to the cemetery of nations like wounded pachyderms to the elephant’s graveyard. I know my duty towards the young of my country and our working people. Here too I will not abdicate. Goering once said that when he heard the word “culture” he took out his revolver. We know where this led Germany, and the memorable exodus of the mass of the men of culture from the country of the Niebelungen. But we are in the second half of the twentieth century which, whatever might be done, is the century of the people as king. I can’t help but recall the famous words of the great patriot named Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Youssef, a phrase that illuminated the liberating combats of this century of unhappy nationalities: “We are the children of the future,” he said upon his return from exile while lifting his pitiful enemy, the pasha of Marakesh who had collapsed at his feet. I think I have proved that I am a child of the future.
The limitations on my movements, on my work, my occupations, my actions and my relations in the city and the countryside is not acceptable. I had to say this, and that is the reason for this letter. In it I take my stand, for if they want to the police can see that the politics of candidates does not interest me. The desolating and pitiful political life that maintains this country in backwardness and has led it to bankruptcy for 150 years is not for me. I have the greatest disgust for it, as I wrote three years ago.
If by chance as happened last December the customs office refuses to deliver me a package – a projector for art slides that the Union of Chinese Writers sent me and which one of the new gentlemen probably took for his personal use – I would smile. If I remark the too-recognizable face of a guardian angel watching over my door I would again smile; if one of these new gentlemen smashed into my car and I had to thank him I would again smile. Nevertheless, Mr. President, I want to know: yes or no; do they refuse me the right to live in my country as I wish? I am sure that after this letter I will be able to have an idea about this. In that case I will be better able to make the decisions imposed on me as a creator and an artist, as man and a citizen.
Jacques Stéphen Alexis.”