In 1931, American poet Langston Hughes was on his way to Haiti from Cuba. While he possessed formal letters of introduction given to him by people such as James Weldon Johnson, who had himself visited the Caribbean island a bit more than a decade before in hopes of conducting an investigation for the NAACP, Hughes chose to enjoy his time in Haiti by avoiding most of the “polite élite” (Renda 2001, 261). Similarly to most Americans of his day, Hughes viewed Haiti as this exotic location few miles away from Miami and sought out adventures. He was particularly interested in the infamous “Vodou dances” that many American Marines had popularize with autobiographies relating to their experiences in Haiti (Renda 2001, 262). After two months of amusement in the country and while on his way back to the United States, he meet with Jacques Roumain, the great Haitian poet who had already established himself in his country as one of the most important literary and political figures of his day (Fowler 1981, 85). While their meeting was brief, and Roumain regretted that such a central black poet had not been given a proper reception for his visit (given that few knew that he was in Haiti), the two men still managed to form a lasting friendship.
The particular affinity between Langston Hughes and Jacques Roumain is noteworthy. While they were both known for their talents as writers, they came from vastly distinctive circumstances. Born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes had a difficult upbringing. Following his parents’ separation, he lived with his grandmother, and then travelled different cities in and out of the United States where he took up a series of odd jobs. In the midst of those exertions, by the 1920s, he made a name for himself as a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance (Fowler 1981, 85). His work was featured in various periodicals and magazines and his influence reaching out internationally.
For his part, Roumain was born in 1907 in Port-au-Prince. Part of a family of wealthy landed mulattoes (his own grand father was former President Tancrède Auguste), Roumain enjoyed an education from the city’s best schools before travelling to Europe to complete his studies like most young men of his class (Fowler 1981, 85). Despite the ostensible luxury in which he lived, Roumain could never reconcile himself with the injustice so apparent in Haitian society. While he could have moved pass his life quietly, influenced and perturbed by the United States Marine Occupation of Haiti, he instead choose the road of radicalism and by the 1930s became a Marxist.
It was perhaps Roumain’s activism that helped shape his friendship with Hughes. Like many Americans before him, Hughes recounted his experience in Haiti in the written form. In the August edition of the New York Amsterdam News, he strongly criticized the Haitian elite for being a “delightful but futile handful of intellectuals” (Cited from Fowler 1981, 85). While children of the élites indeed enjoyed the benefits of the best schools in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere, few were eager to apply their knowledge in practical ways that could impact the fate of what Hughes called the “people without shoes.” This criticism of the Haitian élite, at this time, must have injured many. Only three years before (1928), Jean-Price Mars, one of the most influential scholars of the country, published Ainsi Parla l’Oncle (So Spoke the Uncle) in which he criticized the Haitian élite for its lack of social usefulness. In Jacques Roumain however, Hughes saw one of the few individuals of the more privileged classes who had a real interest in the faith of poorer Haitians. Not only had Roumain espoused the Indigénisme movement, which sought to reclaim folk culture and Haiti’s African origins, his constant criticism of Haitian political administrations made him the target of repression and he was sent to jail on many occasions (where his health greatly deteriorated).
Although Langston Hughes’ ties to the American Communist Party remain convoluted and he, himself, claimed not to have been a member, Jacques Roumain for his part, was more open in his political positioning. In 1934, with a group of likeminded Haitians, he founded the Parti Communiste Haïtien (Haitian Communist Party). This gestured worsened any state attempts to appease young radicals like Roumain. At a time when most Haitians coming of age politically were increasingly drawn either to Marxism and Communism or Noirisme – a radicalized and essentialist form on the Indigénisme – Sténio Vincent’s government could afford little patience, especially with left-wing groups which were viewed as a more immediate threats to power. Roumain was eventually sent to jail. While in the United States, Hugh closely watched the situation and the same year, along with other important figures of the black American press lunched a “Committee for the Release of Jacques Roumain” (Smith 2009, 21). His appeals were republished in the New Republic and the New Masses (Patterson 2008, 120).
Hughes and Roumain meet at least two more times after their gathering in Haiti. In June of 1937, they were together in Paris. Both men spoke at the Second International Writers’ Congress held the same year (Fowler 1981, 86). The following year, Roumain communist activities materialized in yet another conviction, this time in Paris, but thanks friends he had made there, he was able to avoid jail. By September 1938, he was in New York (Fowler 1981, 86). In November 1939, Hughes and Roumain meet at banquet given in Roumain’s honour by the WYCM of Harlem (Fowler 1981, 86).
While the exact influence of each writer’s in the other’s work is difficult to completely attest to, their apparent closeness might have gone beyond literary prose. In the words of Carolyn Fowler, “the essential bond between Langston Hughes and Jacques Roumain is…in their shared vision of the writer as humanist, as the conscience and the voice of his people. Both men spoke in characteristic fashion, Roumain as the systemic intellectual and avowed Communist and Hughes as the deceptively simple and unpretentious observer.”
In 1944, with his health greatly weakened by his numerous imprisonments, Jacques Roumain died in Port-au-Prince. He was thirty-seven. While his death sent shock waves to many young Haitian radicals who felt they had lost an important leader, his passing also moved intellectuals and artists in and out of Haiti. Before his passing, Roumain had completed the manuscript for his seminal work Gouverneurs de la rosée (Masters of the Dew). With help from Roumain’s widow and in cooperation with Mercer Cook from Howard University, Langston Hughes worked on the first English translation of the novel.
While Hughes and Roumain untimely came from vastly different background and each evolved with its own particular artistic considerations, as stated by Fowler they “shared a vision of the function of art as the articulation of a people’s condition, as a reflection of the culture which that people develops to cope creatively and to express their hope for the fulfillment of universal human aspirations” (Fowler 1981, 86).
This last poem was written by Langston Hughes to pay tribute to the Haitian author following his death:
You will be
Finding out about
The ever bigger world
Always you will be
Hand that links
Erzulie to the Pope
Damballa to Lenin,
Haiti to the universe
Bread and fish
(Quoted from Patterson 2008, 128-129)
Fowler, Carolyn. “The Shared Vision of Langston Hughes and Jacques Roumain.” Black American Literature Forum 15, no. 3 (October 1, 1981): 84–88.
Patterson, Anita. Race, American Literature and Transnational Modernisms. Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Renda, Mary A. Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism, 1915-1940. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Smith, Matthew J. Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change, 1934-1957. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.