Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Haitian Studies Association Plenary Address: 22nd Annual Conference, Brown University, November 13, 2010

Academic journal article Journal of Haitian Studies

Haitian Studies Association Plenary Address: 22nd Annual Conference, Brown University, November 13, 2010

Article excerpt

Mesye Damn la sosyete: Honè ak Respè!

Please allow me to invoke an Ancestor. I invoke the name of Rose Elisabeth Marie-Noëlle Boisson, (1858-1952): a girl, a daughter, a grand daughter; a woman, a mother, a grandmother, my great grandmother "Nanne." Born in poverty, never a wife, the mother of two sons brought up with the help of her older sister, Louise Hortense Iphigénie Boisson, "Ninninne." Illiterate, creolophone, a seamstress, Nanne was "couturière de son état," the mother of a nation, and - to use an African-American construct - the mother of her "generations": her sons, Ie petit Dantès et le petit Clément; and her great-grandson, le gros Patrick. Marie Boisson was the granddaughter of Jacques-Ignace Fresnel, a man who fought for Haitian Independence. His sons' grandfather, Jean-Louis Bellegarde, also fought for Independence. We are still fighting for Independence. Our work isn't done. I invoke her spirit today!


I am tempted to title my remarks, "Testimony and Testament: Forty Years in Academia; Years of Struggles." Then again, another title seems a tad more appropriate, "Haiti: The Long Gestation," with all the ambiguities attached to that phrase. The body politic has indeed suffered from a long gestation, and so has the culture, the history - both beautiful and horrific - ofthat land we call ours.

Once the confusion dissipates, thirty-five seconds can be ample time to give one clarity - this is what the Goudougoudou of January 12, 2010 did for me. As the structures of my life crumbled - the Palais National, the Basilique Notre Dame de l'Assomption, the Petit Séminaire Collège Saint-Martial, the store were I bought my Cola Séjourné and my Cola Couronne - I tried to hold to some shred of evidence that all was not lost. The nine palmistes fronting the Palace held on. One block away, the 150 year-old Bellegarde residence, the family homestead where all were born and most died, held on. The Citadelle Laferrière, the symbol of a defiant nationality, was not breached. I bled with millions of compatriots, but we were kept alive to fight another day.

But why not join the two titles, "Testimony and Testament," and "The Long Gestation?" In my lifetime, I have experienced some of Haiti's defining moments, seen a number of national events. I have met some kokenshenn pye bwa, influential men and women who have forged my personality and my persona. We carry inside us elements passed on by long-gone stories that live through us and that create us again and again. A proverb says, "a river that doesn't know its source soon dries up." I continue, a river and a life, must end in surrounding seas, a ready strength and the source of all life, the reposoir for troubled ancestral souls.

As a student, I took courses in political science, sociology, cultural anthropology, and cultural geography, but majored in history. Why history? I blame my great-grandmother Marie Boisson - we called her Nanne. Her withered hand in mine taught how fleeting and immediate were the generations. Nanne's hand had held those of her parents - Auguste Boisson and Thélisma Fresnel. Her mother's parents, Jacques-Ignace Fresnel and Anne-Marie Petit-Bois, were born in the 18th century. My small hand and theirs had joined across time. Though Nanne died in 1952, she continues to shepherd my existence, as a "nannan" (the core, the meat, the kernel, in Haitian). Her niece, Luce Boisson, was the family manbo until she discovered Evangelical Protestantism late in life. Nanne played a key role in my initiation as a priest in 1986.

These are Haitian stories, one lakou at a time. The fragments of bone, shards of flesh and marrow found in the Bellegardes of Arcahaie, the familial cradle, in the Plateau Central, and in villages surrounding Les Cayes, in Port-au-Prince, tell us our story: it is the story of Haiti. La petite histoire, sinon la grande histoire des livres scolaires.

The discipline of history is a beginning but not nearly sufficient in explaining the modern and contemporary periods, in defining the interactions between worlds, the minutiae of existence, and the international system. …

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