Haiti, the Haitian people and Black History Month

Excerpts of a speech given at the Lycée Philippe Guerrier of Cap-Haitian of which he was the Director, by Louis Mercier, for the dedication of the portrait of Lincoln offered by the great friend of Haiti, the American Ernst Schwarz.

Also of note: Louis Mercier was my maternal grandfather.

The most impressive monument I ever had the opportunity to contemplate, in fact, one of the most beautiful in the world, is located in the United States’ capital, so rich in grandiose monuments and in superb constructions. It is the one erected to the memory of Abraham Lincoln thanks to the love, admiration and gratitude of the American people whose journey is illuminated by the principles that the country’s founders have laid down and by the glories of their past and who practice with an admirable dedication the cult of Remembrance. A sober marble construction, it stands in its immaculate whiteness at the far end of a marvelous site perfumed by endless rows of Japanese cherry trees reflecting in the waters of the Potomac river and of a long artificial basin that reflect, like a mirror, the extraordinary column of the Washington monument.

First, a monumental staircase leads to a peristyle where 48 marble columns, gifts of the 48 States that constitute the spangled Republic, support a majestic wall. Then, a vast square room where, on the two opposite sides, the text of the Gettysburg address is engraved in the marble. There, his body emaciated, his face radiant under the perpetual light, his lips illuminated by a beautiful smile, Lincoln, dressed in his long coat, is seated, his eyes lost in the distance, his thinned hands resting on the arms of the armchair. What a moving sight is that of this man with the ascetic face, the luminous forehead, the angelic smile, the fascinating and persuasive kindness, seated on the marble throne carved by a very talented artist! Who can visit this monument without bringing back the most powerful, most imperishable, most evocative memory? When you leave the room, you are seized by I don’t know what immense dream and you feel that you have acquired a heart of pioneer, apostle, fighter, benefactor, of a man ready for all sacrifices . . . the example, the model to be offered to those who want to devote themselves to the service of the beautiful, the good, the truth, the Motherland.

Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in an isolated hut in the woods of Kentucky. His father, Thomas Lincoln, was a traveling carpenter and an unsuccessful farmer. His mother’s name was Nancy Hawk. She died in 1818, a short time after the family emigrated to Indiana. His father married Sarah Johnston who was affectionate towards the poor young orphan. Lincoln grew up in Indiana, where he lived the harsh and painful life of a child who had to earn a living, not having the leisure to attend school regularly and having practically no traditional knowledge.

His first sight of the world was in 1828 during a trip on an open barge that took him to New-Orleans. In 1830, he settled in the county of Mason, Illinois. Then, alone, without assistance, he began his career of free man and resided in New Salem, not far from Springfield. He remained there from 1831 to 1837. He toiled in a commercial firm that went bankrupt, then studied land surveying that he practiced during some time. Meanwhile, he studied law and improved his education. He was called to serve as captain of a Corps of Volunteers in the Black Hawk 1832 conflict between the United States and Native Americans. In 1834, thanks to the confidence of its fellow-citizens, he earned a seat in the House of Representatives of the State of Indiana. He was reelected several times until 1841.

In 1848, he married the woman who was to be his life partner, Mary Todd. In 1856, he gave up the party of the Whigs to register in the Republican Party. In 1858, they designated him as a candidate in the senatorial elections opposing him to the famous Stephen Douglas. Lincoln publicly challenged his competitor . . .They had raised the thorny question of slavery and Lincoln had risen up against this abominable institution. He became a possible candidate for the Presidency of the United States and was selected at the Convention held in Chicago in May 1860. On November 6 of the same year, he was elected President.

The history of the great Spangled Republic was opening a new page. The small peasant from Kentucky had made the extraordinary rise . . .Would he have the courage to carry out the will of the party that had elected him? He had to extirpate slavery from his country and fight strong, powerful and rich enemies. The North was rising up against the South whose States had withdrawn from the Union after the election of the new leader.

The first cannon shot came from Fort Sumter in 1861. Lincoln bravely accepted the fight. He had to overcome extraordinary difficulties. Often without money, he was betrayed by his people. Yet, on the battlefields covered with corpses, in the campaigns devastated by fire, he remained unshakable throughout this terrible civil war. On January 1, 1863, he proclaimed the general Freedom of the American slaves. In 1864, he was re-elected president of the United States. He had the joy of seeing the end of the tragedy and of collecting the laurels of victory but not that of working at the national reconstruction. On the evening of April 14, 1865, he was at the Ford Theatre when John Boot, a half-crazy actor, fatally shot him. He died the next morning.

On January 1, 1863, he proclaimed the general Freedom of the American slaves. In 1864, he was re-elected president of the United States. He had the joy of seeing the end of the tragedy and of collecting the laurels of victory but not that of working at the national reconstruction. On the evening of April 14, 1865, he was at the Ford Theatre when John Boot, a half-crazy actor, fatally shot him. He died the next morning.

Here is, in a few words, the biography of the person whose memory we honor today. Among all those heroes to whom other parts of our continent gave birth, there are none that our country cherish more and who has fulfilled the most our social, racial and national ideal. Like our great icons Toussaint Louverture, Dessalines, and Christophe, he started from the very bottom. Like them, he had an extraordinary ascension, and, like them, he died a martyr. True, he wasn’t born in a slave hut or of slave parents and he didn’t suffer the horrors of slavery. But he was born in a humble cabin, the son of parents who earned their living painfully in the woods of Kentucky. He was a self-made man who went through adversity, poverty, continuous struggles, difficulties that would have seemed overwhelming to someone of a lesser character. Like these Haitian gods I named above, he climbed the ladder that led him to the summit of power through painful vicissitudes.

The American soul is completely impregnated with the splendid lesson that Lincoln’s life gives. No Ame-rican measures his value by what his ancestors or his father were but by what he himself has accomplished. It doesn’t matter to him that he is the son of a king or of a millionaire; he despises these vain advantages that are due to pure hazard . . . The American feels proud when he can admit that he is the son of a herdsman or of a janitor, that he owes his success only to his personal efforts. Often, he even has a strong tendency to exaggerate how humble his background was in comparison to his accomplishments. He firmly believes in the sanctity of work and in the vanity of titles.

A man should only take pride in his accomplishments and not in those of his father. Besides, the wealthy American uses the major part of his fortune to create philanthropic organizations. The story of the rich in the United States is closely linked to that of Social Justice. The American doesn’t worry too much about leaving a large inheritance to children who, like him, must be pioneers, builders, not pleasure seekers. I like that Christian spirit that made the Son of Man come into the world in a manger and made Him the helper of a Carpenter.

We who are sons of slaves and had a more modest origin, we let ourselves be won over and corrupted by false and disastrous ideas that, perhaps, a culture and a civilization badly adapted to our origin, our environment and our century inculcate to us. Instead of continuing the sublime work of these poor creatures who were our ancestors, we stupidly and blissfully take pleasure in exalting their exploits that we do not want to imitate, believing that their glory suffices to our happiness. We pretend to ignore that we will be the worthy sons of Toussaint Louverture, of Dessalines, of Christophe only by taking, like them, hoes, machetes, hammers, trowels, swords, to become, like them, settlers, sowers, doers. Dessalines could only disavow conceited, lazy, ungrateful, unrepentant theorists who speak about aristocracy, draw up family trees, form caste systems and are only his antithesis. And yet, no history can offer, like ours, more illustrious examples of what pioneers achieve, that is, men who count only on their courage, their endurance, their intelligence, their faith, their will to open broad avenues through the dark forests, the undergrowth, the deep valleys, the impetuous torrents, the insurmountable mountains, to help those less fortunate, to fight evil, to serve the cause of the Motherland and of Humankind. What a sublime mission the pioneer fulfills! Let’s say, to the glory of the American people, that, over there, they all think of themselves as sons of Lincoln, that is, people called upon to continue the experiment of the small farmer of Kentucky.

They utterly refuse to proclaim that they are issued from Jupiter’s thighs. The tree must be judged by its fruits. True glory consists in climbing higher, still higher, always higher. Let’s become proud again of being descendants of slaves, sons of peasants, and let’s try to continue their work and to become, like them, makers of miracles. No people on earth is in better position than the Haitian people to caress the dream and nurture the ambition of being made of pioneers.

But what must make Lincoln’s memory even dearer to us is that this great American walked in the path traced by the founders of our country and sowed in the trails that they drilled. He had the same ideal, pursued the same work, that of the liberation of the black race. The battle that began in our country, that England and France continued with success, had tragic and bloody episodes in the United States because of the formidable opposition of powerful and numerous supporters of slavery. The great glory of Lincoln was to have been able to make such a generous idea triumph in such a hostile environment, so unfavorable to the flourishing of such a sentiment in those days. “Let’s abandon,” he said on October 1, in Alton, Illinois, “these discussions about this man and that man, this race or that one considered inferior and who must be placed in an inferior position. Let’s put aside these reasonings and let’s unite throughout the country to declare, once again, that all men were created equal. Any house divided against itself will be destroyed. We cannot remain half-free and half-slaves.”

To reach that goal, he undertook the longest, bloodiest war that ever afflicted the United States soil. . . It lasted four years, swallowed fortunes and destroyed thousands of human lives. Lincoln, fanaticized by the idea of Freedom, inherited from the pilgrims of the Mayflower, fought, struggled, suffered until his last breath for the cause of our race. And he lived to see his triumph. The encouragements and the applauses of the whole world reached him without intoxicating his aching heart. InHaiti, especially, we watched with an intense and anguishing interest the twists of the great battle whose echoes were reaching us and Lincoln’s victory made us scream of joy and of gratitude. It was assuring our Freedom and our independence that theUnited States had not yet recognized. And Lincoln set out to work to tend to the wounds, rebuild the ruins, repair the destructions, and educate his black children, those he protected. On the night of April 14, 1865, destiny stopped his momentum. But the curtain could fall; he had played his role well.

Since then, despite the opposition that didn’t cool down — opponents becoming even more numerous – the American Blacks do all they can to prove to their benefactor that his sacrifice was not in vain. They made an immense progress of which we are unaware. It is true that, in general, they have excellent and devoted educators who built numerous schools, universities, theaters, hospitals for them and dedicate themselves entirely to their welfare. It is said that one of these white educators, having opened a university whose staff was at first entirely white, assembled the young blacks and told them: “We come here, not to stay but to teach you and to make it possible for you to take our place quickly. We feel responsible for your sad situation. Our fathers kept your fathers in slavery without giving them the means to develop materially, intellectually, morally. We want to repair that great injustice.” In that university, there is no longer a single white person. They were all replace by Blacks who learned and made quick progress. This is how the successors and true disciples of that great master, Lincoln, act. This is what they do for the advancement of a race who had remained in the background only because of man’s wickedness.

This is the occasion for me, since I am in a school, among educators, to remind them of their essential duties. They should know that their mission is noble, delicate, and difficult! They must prepare young Haitians especially, that is, young impressionable individuals still bruised by painful memories, victims of the stupid hostility of those who, here as elsewhere, say offensive words and display a laughable superiority. Our susceptibility is legitimate and our reactions, as violent as they may be, are quite understandable. One must be completely deprived of psychology not to grasp the difference.

Let us fight and discredit this sinister thesis of the inferiority of our race and let us reject the odious theory that claim that our intellectual and moral progress will be slow and will take centuries. There is no superior race; there is no inferior race. There are people who are placed in different environments, are treated differently and evolve accordingly to environment and education. We were all created equal according to the proud declaration contained in the American Constitution and for which Lincoln gave his life. Let’s not break those generous impulses or despoil them with perfidious and malicious insinuations. Let’s not extinguish the stars that shine in the hearts if we do not want God’s curse to strike us terribly and humiliate us! The current events in Europe are a hard lesson that all must learn.

“It is rather for us to be here, dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Let’s understand the meaning of the word “equality.” Let’s recognize that, in our country, all the colonial prejudices prevail; that old freemen and newly freed clash; that a hardly disguised slavery exists in the form of the odious domesticity. Let’s confess that our rural masses have been stagnating for too long in ignorance, misery, superstition and vice and that many among us sincerely believe that our peasants have only what they deserve and even fear that they might make some progress that they judge dangerous. We do not practice the advice of Lincoln who said: “No malice against our neighbor. Charity towards all. Let’s do all we can to achieve an eternal peace among us and with all nations.”

Let’s never forget that the true fight for real democracy began in Haiti; that it is on our soil that slavery received a mortal blow and that Freedom opened its luminous wings. It had never existed before us and, every-where else, both in time and in space, whoever spoke about freedom, like the Americans before Lincoln, owned slaves, tarnishing that sacred word. And this is why Lincoln, the great apostle of Democracy, has a special place in our country. The most beautiful words, in favor of this political institution, fell from his lips in the famous speech he gave on November 19, 1863 in Gettysburg, a speech that is regarded as the most sublime that an American has ever written. Here is the end:

“It is rather for us to be here, dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

I can personally testify that the work of Lincoln did not perish. There is a superb rise of the black race in the United States. Our American brothers who, until 1863, were slaves, have made much progress in the way of civilization and have at least caught up with us in almost all the spheres of social activity. Let’s not stay here to judge them and voice an opinion on something we don’t know. Let’s go visit them and we will acknowledge our mistake about them. Therefore, we must honor the memory of Lincoln, the great philanthropist, benefactor of our race and get closer to our American brothers; we would gain much from that.

It is important, moreover, that we embrace this so simple, so elementary truth, that our island belongs to the American continent; that, on this continent, people whose rise is fabulous evolve; that we must develop our continental conscience since nowadays, everywhere in the world, they only speak of continental politics. We must know ourselves in order to love ourselves and to unite. The inauguration of the portrait of Lincoln in the gallery of the Lycée of Cape-Haitian is only a prelude. We will have portraits of all the American heroes and, on certain dates, we will devote to them a pious memorial. Thus, we will have done our duty towards our continent and towards our country by raising a generation who will have the cult of national and continental values.

We must do it. America is ours; she was, for the most part, shaped by us. It is we who instituted here the Current Order, based on Human Freedom. We contributed to the establishment of nineteen of its States. All that is left for us to do is to recognize the immense part that we played and to integrate our national glories into those of our entire continent. Such is the goal of this morning’s ceremony.

Honor, Respect to Abraham Lincoln.

This letter was originally published by Imprimerie Telhomme, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1941

Categorized as Haiti

By Marlène Rigaud Apollon

Marlène Rigaud Apollon was born in Cap-Haitien, grew up in Port-au-Prince, and emigrated to the U.S. in 1964. She graduated Magna Cum Laude, with a BA in Linguistics (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), and holds a MS degree in Professional Writing from Towson University, Maryland. She is the editor and translator of Louis Mercier, A la Reconquête de l’Idéal Haitien: Une voix d’hier pour aujour-d’hui et demain (Louis Mercier To Reconquer the Haitian Ideal: A Voice from Yesterday for Today and Tomorrow) presented at “Livres en Folie”, in Haiti in 2009 and of La Mystique de la Citadelle/The Mystique of the Citadelle. She has also given lectures and presentations to Haitian Students Associations (Rutgers and Syracuse University). Her writings have been highly praised, compared to that of eminent writers like Dany Laferrière and her poems “We were never young, Blood Sun, When they Write History” were part of Prof. E. Colwill’s Syllabus (Women’s Studies 604, Oct 2011, San Diego Univ) with Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously. Projecting a more positive and appealing image of Haiti through her writings in French, Creole and English is part of her ongoing projects.