March 13, 2006

Happy Birthday, Félix Morisseau-Leroy!

The first time I met Morisseau-Leroy was at the Miami International Book Fair (1980). I had just graduated from the University of Miami, and I had been invited to give a lecture on the Negritude Movement. I spent days researching the topic and several more days writing the paper.

When I got to the Koubek Center, I was ushered on the stage by Mervyn Solomon and as I was getting ready for the program to begin, I glanced up at the stage and saw this old man with a crown of white hair. Who’s this old guy? I thought.

I gave what I thought was a brilliant lecture and as I stepped off the stage, I looked over at the old guy as if to say, “Top that!”

The moderator brought the microphone over to Morisseau-Leroy (his eyesight had been failing) and he began, “When I was in Paris. I met "Leopold [Senghor] and Cesaire..." Morisseau-Leroy then proceeded to give an intimate portrait of the luminaries of the Negritude Movement. Many of the people that I had researched, he had known and met during his exile in France courtesy of “Papa Doc” Duvalier. So much for youthful hubris.

After the lecture, I introduced myself to Morisseau-Leroy and over the years, he and I had some wonderful conversations. I learned how he met his wife in Jacmel and how he ended up in France.

Morisseau-Leroy was one of the first Haitian writers to write a play, Antigone, in Kreyol. The night after the play (as Morisseau-Leroy told me), he was awakened by the sound of loud knocking on his door. He went to the door and saw armed soldiers at the door.

After a few minutes of going back and forth behind the closed door, Morisseau-Leroy opened the door and the soldiers informed him that they had come to escort him to the airport.

“But I don’t have a visa and my passport has expired,” Morisseau-Leroy protested.
“All that has been taken care of, Monsieur Leroy,” the sergeant informed him

The futile protestations went back and forth until Morisseau-Leroy finally put on his jacket over his pajamas and went to the airport. Morisseau-Leroy later learned that it had only been his friendship (?) with “Papa Doc” (they had been classmates) that had saved him from an even worse fate.

Over the years, Morisseau-Leroy and I gave many readings in South Florida. The one that I remember the most was after the capsizing of the cargo vessel, Neptune, off the coast of Haiti. The radio announcer had casually passed it off a “just another Haitian boat sinking” and in my mind, I had agreed. I looked over at Morisseau-Leroy and saw tears in his eyes. What a sweet little old man I thought as he fumbled with the dials on the radio. Maybe he wants me to turn up the radio. I was wrong, again. They were tears of anger, and Morisseau-Leroy was trying to turn off the radio.

“Every life is precious,” Morisseau-Leroy said and then said something in Kreyol.

And that was when it hit me. I had become so wrapped up in the North American media that I couldn’t see the tragedy of my Haitian brothers and sisters still drowning on the waterways of the Middle Passage. It was not “just another Haitian boat capsizing.”

It was through Morisseau-Leroy that I began to see Haiti and the Caribbean in a whole new way. His allegiance to Haiti and the Caribbean was inspirational, and rather than the kindly old man as I was trying to frame him, I saw a revolutionary who was committed to the aspirations of his people. This commitment took the form of plays and poems, and as he said in the poem, “New Testament”:

In 1954
I wrote my will
I said I don’t want any priest
To speak Latin over my head

I don’t have that problem today
Because priests
Don’t speak latin anymore

Even God
Had to learn Creole
Like any other white man
Coming here
To do business with us

From Haitiad & Oddities

Morisseau-Leroy re-affirmed for me what Brathwaite had been saying about “nation language” or Jamaican or patwa or whatever you want to call it. He respected the dignity of his people to speak in a language that was as natural as their breath. This didn’t mean that they were stuck in one language. People from the Caribbean speak in many tongues just to stay alive.

Morisseau-Leroy was a brave man and he had a sense of artistic integrity that I always admired. He made me see the Caribbean in a new way and the poem “Neptune” from Florida Bound (1998) was livicated to honor him. In fact, the opening poems of xango music contain many poems that evoke the memory of Morisseau-Leroy.

It was a pleasure and an honor to have known Morisseau-Leroy, and for this, I give thanks.

Google Search for Felix Morisseau-Leroy

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Richard said...

Morisseau-Leroy is an amazing writer, everything you say about him and more. I got to know him and his work through Jeffrey Knapp in the early 1980s. At the time I was commissioned by Coda: Poets & Writers Newsletter, the predecessor of Poets and Writers Magazine to write a report on literary activities in Florida, and I devoted a good part of it to Morriseau-Leroy's work.

I can remember at least two supposed literary people chastising me for mentioning "a foreign writer" in the article. Hopefully people have become more enlightened. If not, they should start by reading Morriseau-Leroy's work.

Geoffrey Philp said...

Good to hear from you, Richard!
Yes, Morisseau-Leroy was one of my teachers.