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Self-Determining Haiti by James Weldon Johnson

The Haitian country people are kind hearted


In

the lower city, along the water's edge, around the market and in the Rue Republicaine, is the "local color." The long rows of wooden shanties, the curious little booths around the market, filled with jabbering venders and with scantily clad children, magnificent in body, running in and out, are no less picturesque and no more primitive, no humbler, yet cleaner, than similar quarters in Naples, in Lisbon, in Marseilles, and more justifiable than the great slums of civilization's centers--London and New York, which are totally without aesthetic redemption. But it is only the modernists in history who are willing to look at the masses as factors in the life and development of the country, and in its history. For Haitian history, like history the world over, has for the last century been that of cultured and educated groups. To know Haitian life one must have the privilege of being received as a guest in the houses of these latter, and they live in beautiful houses. The majority have been educated in France; they are cultured, brilliant conversationally, and thoroughly enjoy their social life. The women dress well. Many are beautiful and all vivacious and chic. Cultivated people from any part of the world would feel at home in the best Haitian society. If our guest were to enter to the Cercle Bellevue, the leading club of Port-au-Prince, he would find the courteous, friendly atmosphere of a men's club; he would hear varying shades of opinion on public questions, and could scarcely
fail to be impressed by the thorough knowledge of world affairs possessed by the intelligent Haitian. Nor would his encounters be only with people who have culture and savoir vivre; he would meet the Haitian intellectuals--poets, essayists, novelists, historians, critics. Take for example such a writer as Fernand Hibbert. An English authority says of him, "His essays are worthy of the pen of Anatole France or Pierre Loti." And there is Georges Sylvaine, poet and essayist, conferencier at the Sorbonne, where his address was received with acclaim, author of books crowned by the French Academy, and an Officer of the Legion d'Honneur. Hibbert and Sylvaine are only two among a dozen or more contemporary Haitian men of letters whose work may be measured by world standards. Two names that stand out preeminently in Haitian literature are Oswald Durand, the national poet, who died a few years ago, and Damocles Vieux. These people, educated, cultured, and intellectual, are not accidental and sporadic offshoots of the Haitian people; they _are_ the Haitian people and they are a demonstration of its inherent potentialities.

However, Port-au-Prince is not all of Haiti. Other cities are smaller replicas, and fully as interesting are the people of the country districts. Perhaps the deepest impression on the observant visitor is made by the country women. Magnificent as they file along the country roads by scores and by hundreds on their way to the town markets, with white or colored turbaned heads, gold-looped-ringed ears, they stride along straight and lithe, almost haughtily, carrying themselves like so many Queens of Sheba. The Haitian country people are kind-hearted, hospitable, and polite, seldom stupid but rather, quick-witted and imaginative. Fond of music, with a profound sense of beauty and harmony, they live simply but wholesomely. Their cabins rarely consist of only one room, the humblest having two or three, with a little shed front and back, a front and rear entrance, and plenty of windows. An aesthetic touch is never lacking--a flowering hedge or an arbor with trained vines bearing gorgeous colored blossoms. There is no comparison between the neat plastered-wall, thatched-roof cabin of the Haitian peasant and the traditional log hut of the South or the shanty of the more wretched American suburbs. The most notable feature about the Haitian cabin is its invariable cleanliness. At daylight the country people are up and about, the women begin their sweeping till the earthen or pebble-paved floor of the cabin is clean as can be. Then the yards around the cabin are vigorously attacked. In fact, nowhere in the country districts of Haiti does one find the filth and squalor which may be seen in any backwoods town in our own South. Cleanliness is a habit and a dirty Haitian is a rare exception. The garments even of the men who work on the wharves, mended and patched until little of the original cloth is visible, give evidence of periodical washing. The writer recalls a remark made by Mr. E. P. Pawley, an American, who conducts one of the largest business enterprises in Haiti. He said that the Haitians were an exceptionally clean people, that statistics showed that Haiti imported more soap per capita than any country in the world, and added, "They use it, too." Three of the largest soap manufactories in the United States maintain headquarters at Port-au-Prince.


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