Friday, January 10, 2014

An Interview with Dr. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith

Besides being a highly respected professor at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and the author of several involved volumes such as the Humanities Press publication In the Shadow of Powers: Dantѐs Bellegarde in Haitian Social Thought, Dr. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith has yet another mark to distinguish him. He is the grandson of noted intellectual, author, diplomat, Haitian militant Dantes Bellegarde and the grand nephew of Argentine Bellegarde, one of Haiti’s most influential educators of the nineteenth century.
Bellegarde-Smith is a sought-after lecturer and expert, in addition to being regarded as one of the foremost experts in the field of African diasporic social thought, religion, and philosophy (he is the editor of the bookFragments of Bone: Neo-African Religions in a New World).
Born in Haiti, Bellegarde-Smith lives and teaches in the United States, but it’s almost as if he never left. The bulk of his published books center on Haiti, and his titleHaiti: The Breached Citadel, which the professor and thought tank reissued in the early 1990s, is one of the most referred-to books written about Haiti.
Q & A
At which point did you leave Haiti?
I left my country right before my 17th birthday in 1964. I would return twice a year, then once a year. As my grandparents died, then as my aunts and uncle died in succession, my visits became more rare and intermittent.
What do you remember about it?
Everything! The Port-au-Prince I knew in the late 1940s into the 1950s was a splendid city of green gardens and bountiful water. There were fountains in the Champs de Mars, and the Bicentenaire [Haiti's Bicentennial Plaza] the latter in front of the Palais Legislatif, was a “singing” fountain with multicolored jets. It seemed odd that the music was European classical. There were working telephones. And moments of unparalleled fear and shear agony as a young student at Petit-Seminaire College Saint-Martial, when I was sent to the blackboard to solve algebraic problems. My regular trips to Radio Haiti, participating in youthful programming, gave me a taste for journalism. I remember the cool oasis of my family lakou in central Port-au-Prince, at the junction of Lalue and Poste Marchand.
The home of the patriarch, which is now about 150 years-old, was surrounded by “new” constructions as daughters got married and built their homes in that same lakou, in the style of a provincial and rural lakou prominent throughout Haiti. I have vivid memories of the slow disintegration of life under the dynastic Duvalier dictatorships, the disappearances of early teen classmates, their torture, their deaths and that of their older brothers and cousins. I remember the increasing poverty of the Bellegarde family, a slow descent, though as children, we were shielded from some of that knowledge. My grandfather and his brood were surviving on less than $100 US, his pension for more than 50 years of service to the Haitian state. I remember the “exile” when my immediate family left in 1964 for Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, in the footsteps of glorious Haitian statesmen, such as Antenor Firmin to the same shores, then the Danish Virgin Islands. The difficult trips back to the capital, as my family descended into despair and further impoverishment.
On each of my trips back, my cousins kept saying that my Kreyol was getting better, and that I was even more Haitian than when I left? Little that they knew that nan domi, my dreams were oftentimes of times past, and that the language I “spoke” was our national language, Kreyol. I prefer to call the language “Haitian,” now that it has transcended its origins as a “creole.” My grammar and syntax were good, but I had not kept up with new vocabulary which often came from the United States, and from the English language. Some of the words I use, date from the mid-1960s. So my français was becoming “surette,” and my kreyol was “pa fin yes.” In a way, I am pleased that this interview is not conducted in French or in Haitian! I could do it, but it would be painful to reveal an antiquated vocabulary though the grammar would be stellar, if I may say so myself!
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