WHEN THE TOM-TOM BEATS: SELECTED PROSE AND POETRY

by Jacques Roumain
Translated by Joanne Fungaroli and Ronald Sauer
Introduction by Paul Laraque
Azul Editions, Washington, DC, 1995
ISBN: 0-9632363-8-5

Reviewed by Bob Corbett
December, 1996

Jacques Roumain is certainly one of the most important figures in Haitian literature. Noirist, communist, political activist, diplomat, political exile, co-founder of La Revue Indigene: Les Arts et la Vie, in 1927 and founder of the Bureau d'Ethnologie in 1941, yet a man who died young at only 37. His career points to an energetic activist and artist, a focal point of Haitian intellectual life and resistance in the occupation and post-occupation period. While Roumain is probably most famous for his novel, THE MASTERS OF THE DEW, which was translated in 1947, until now little else of Roumain's work is available to the English reader.

The small book under review offers a selection of Roumain's work to the English speaking world, and while that in itself is a blessing, this particular collection is quite mixed in power and quality.

We are first offered several individual poems from his earlier and middle periods. These include three famous and often printed poems, "Langston Hughes," "Madrid" and the poem which gives this book it's title: "When The Tom-Tom Beats." The poems of this section are on facing pages of French and English.

Next there is an entire short work of Roumain's, The Prey And The Shadow, a collection of four short stories.

Following the short stories we are given the entire short poetry book of Roumain's, "Ebony Wood." And lastly there is a polemical essay, "Poetry As A Weapon." which, while it is listed as a work of 1944 is virtually identical to a paper Roumain read at a 1940 symposium in the United States.

This book was simply not a uniform treat for me. I make no pretensions at being a literary critic, but I love to read and be delighted, surprised, challenged and even puzzled by a wide variety of literature and non-fiction. I do resent it when an author is deliberately obscure, speaking more to him or her self than the audience, or to the select group in the inner circle. I have this strong feeling about some of the works of Roumain offered in this book, especially most of the poems in "Ebony Wood," and even the famous "Madrid" poem.

The esotericism of the poems is one thing. But boredom is worse. I worked through the four short stories with as much care as I could muster, but three of the four bored me so badly it was hard work. But the fourth was worth waiting for it was a gems. The last of the short stories which makes up "The Prey And The Shadow," called "The Making Of A Bureaucrat" was a powerful but sad tale of a person with hopes, dreams, even talent to make something of his life, but watches his hopeful future drain away into mediocrity. Michael Rey not only wastes a life, but cannot even fully face it that he has made this choice and plays games with himself trying to lay the blame on others. I was deeply moved and saddened by this tale.

There is a great deal of anger, even rage in the writing of Jacques Roumain. For me a lot of it loses it's potential power in the doctrinaire Marxism and the preachy quality of his Leninism, which sounds even more ludicrous now that the cold war is over. Yet the pure rage and the power that goes with it comes through in his poem "Filthy Negroes" despite the preaching. The opening section is especially powerful:

Well, it's like this:
we others
negroes
filthy negroes
we won't take anymore
that's right
we're through
being in Africa
in America
your negroes
your niggers
your filthy negroes
we won't take anymore
that surprises you
to say: yessuh
while polishing your boots
oui mon pe
to the white missionaries
or master
while harvesting your
sugar cane
coffee
cotton
peanuts
in Africa
in America
poor negroes
filthy negroes
that we were
that we won't be anymore
We're finished you'll see
our Yes Sir
our oui blanc
our si Senor
and
attention, sharpshooter
oui, mon Commandant
when they order us
to machine gun our Arab brothers
in Syria
in Tunisia
in Morocco
and our white comrades on strike
starving to death
oppressed
plundered
despised like us
negroes
niggers
filthy negoes
Surprise
when the rhumba and blues bands
in your clubs
start playing another rhythm
to accompany the blasť whoring
of your pimps and your diamond-studded sluts
for whom a negroe
is but an instrument
for singing, n'est-ce pas,
for dancing, of course,
for fornicating, naturlich
no more than a commodity
to be bought and sold
on the pleasure market
no more than a negroe
a nigger
a filthy negroe

There follows a series of other "surprise" stanzas; descriptions of the coming changes and movement toward revolution and uprising. Then the powerful concluding stanza.

Too late
deep into the heart of infernal jungles
will throb the terrible telegraphic beating
of the tom-toms tirelessly beating beating
beating
that the negroes
won't take anymore
won't take anymore
being your niggers
your filthy negroes
too late
for we will have risen
from the thieves' dens from the gold mines in the Congo
and South Africa
too late it will be too late
on the cotton plantations of Louisiana
in the sugar cane fields of the Antilles
to halt the harvest of vengeance
of the negroes
the niggers
the filthy negoes
it will be too late I tell you
for even the tom-toms will have learned the language
of the Internationale
for we will have chosen our day
day of the filthy negroes
filthy Indians
filthy Hindus
filthy Indo-Chinese
filthy Arabs
filthy Malays
filthy Jews
filthy proletarians.
And here we are arisen
All the wretched of the earth
all the upholders of justice
marching to attack your barracks
your banks
like a forest of funeral torches
to be done
once
   and
      for
        all
with this world
of negroes
niggers
filthy negoes

Paul Laraque provides an introduction to this volume which gives a useful short sketch of Roumain's life and battles, though the melodramatic ending of the introduction is laughable as Laraque wants to bring back the world revolution via modern day Haiti. Despite the ideological tone (which I suspect is a primary motivating source in offering these works of Roumain in the first place), there was a nugget in Laraque's introduction that fascinated me.

Roumain had been exiled from Haiti. But with the defeat of Stenio Vincent by Elie Lescot in 1941 Roumain was allowed to return to Haiti. In 1942 the Roman Catholic church launched its notorious anti-superstition campaign against Voodoo. Many thinking people opposed this campaign, and Roumain was among them. However, both then and now, the primary defense that people offer to attacks on Voodoo from the religious right are attacks that defend the right of Voodoo as a legitimate religion and celebrate it as the religion of Haiti. I've done that myself more than once!

Roumain's attack on the anti-superstition campaign, especially in his essay "Autour de la campagne anti-superstitieuse" and in some newspaper articles of the time, was quite different. He recognized the important place of Voodoo in Haitian culture, but like the Catholic Church, he was opposed to Voodoo. However, his grounds were quite different. Voodoo was, on his view, a superstitious religion, though one which the Haitian people had to go through as they followed the inexorable laws of HISTORY. Laraque offers this passage from Roumain's essay of 1942:

"The essential thing is not to make the peasant renounce his belief in Ogoun. It is rather a question of completely changing his conception of the world...The element of moral coercion used in this campaign is fear. But fear of hell fire has not radically changed their religious views of the world. They have not renounced their beliefs in the "loas" only their serving of these gods.....If one really wishes to change the archaic religious mentality of our peasants, we must educate them. And they cannot be educated unless their material conditions are transformed. Until we have developed a system of rural clinics, the peasant will continue to consult his "bocor" (priest). What we must have in Haiti is not an "anti-superstition campaign" but an "anti-misery campaign.""

Perhaps in this paragraph is contained the root of my mixed feelings about much of Roumain's work in his Marxist years. In the paragraph above is the power and wisdom of Marx's historical analyses. In the very last lines of the poem "Filthy Negroes" was the dreaming dogmatism and totalitarianism of Lenin's revolution. The hard issue is how to succeed in bringing about "anti-misery campaigns" all over the world, without lapsing into the world of Stalin.

Roumain won't much help with that problem. But when he isn't preaching the revolution, he does unveil the historical reality with power, sensitivity and rage. The 109 pages of Jacques Roumain offered in this book, much of it never before available in English, offers bits of both. I have a hard time taking the preaching of the revolution seriously, but the power of his descriptive prose and poetry, while only a portion of this volume, make the whole thing worth it for me.


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu