Writer, political activist
Paul Laraque was a Haitian poet and activist known for his surrealist, political poetry on such topics as foreign domination and class struggle in society. Laraque fled to the United States in the early 1960s for political reasons and became an outspoken critic of François Duvalier's dictatorship in Haiti. The author of numerous poems in French and Creole, Laraque was also trained in Latin and the Romance languages and served as an educator at Fordham University in New York City. He died in 2007 and is survived by three children and his brother, City College of New York professor Franck Laraque.
Paul Laraque was born in Jérémie, a city on the southern peninsula of Haiti, on September 21, 1920. His father, Franck H., worked as a merchant, while his mother, Clarisse, remained in the home to care for Paul and his siblings. Paul attended school in Jérémie and later traveled to Port-au-Prince. At the age of nineteen Laraque enlisted in the Haitian army and trained to become an officer, graduating in 1941.
It was during his time in the military that Laraque began traveling across Haiti and had the opportunity to see firsthand the suffering of the Haitian people. The Haitian government was in a state of chaos, as a power struggle between Élie Lescot and Dumarsais Estimé placed a hold on government aid, and large portions of the population languished in poverty.
While serving as an officer, Laraque began writing poetry that explored his experiences and sadness at witnessing the plight of the populace. Laraque took part in student and public demonstrations across the country, and his poetry became a revolutionary tool, used to stir crowds and spread the sentiment of political uprising through the populace. Laraque met French surrealist writer and poet André Breton, when Breton fled to the Caribbean to escape the Vichy French government in 1945. Their brief association helped to inspire Laraque's poetry and his interest in political activism. In 1951 Laraque married Marcelle Pierre-Louis after an extended romance. She was a source of support throughout his life, and he told Contemporary Authors in 2003, "My inspiration comes, first of all, from my desire to share my feelings and ideas with others, especially my wife, who symbolized love in my life."
Though still an officer, Laraque wrote poetry that was increasingly critical of the government. He would later refer to his poetry as a "fighting weapon," which he used in an effort to inspire change. Wanting his writing to speak directly to the people, Laraque composed his poetry not only in French, the language of the government, but also in Creole, the language of the peasants. After the 1957 election of Duvalier, who was known as Papa Doc, the government descended into a repressive regime. In 1960, when Duvalier's police conducted a major campaign against political dissidents, Laraque was forced to flee Haiti and, after a short stay in Spain, settled in the United States in 1961; he was joined a year later by his wife.
Laraque's younger brother, Franck, was already living in the United States and helped his brother find a home in New York City after his arrival. Laraque enrolled in Fordham University, where he obtained a master's degree in Latin languages while he worked as a manager for a car parking service to support himself and his wife. Still hoping to have a political impact in his native country, Laraque joined and helped to establish a number of Haitian organizations in opposition to the Duvalier regime. For his involvement in anti-Duvalier groups, Laraque's Haitian citizenship was revoked from 1964 until 1986.
In New York Laraque found a new audience for his poetry. His work found its way to publication beginning in the 1970s, with many of his poems focusing on political themes. Though he was sometimes criticized for his steadfast adherence to Marxism, Laraque's motivation was concern for the well-being of the citizens and a desire to see class exploitation abolished. Laraque was a supporter of the Haitian Unified Communist Party and saw the party's program as a potential solution to the repression and political persecution perpetrated by the Duvalier regime.
Laraque's growing prominence as a writer brought him into a unique circle of like-minded intellectuals, and he formed friendships with other political/literary figures, including African-American poet and author Langston Hughes. In 1979 Laraque received the Casa de las Américas award for poetry—one of the highest honors given for Creole literature—for his work Les armes quotidiennes [and] Poésie quotidienne, which means "Everyday Weapons, Everyday Poetry." Laraque was one of the cofounders of the Association of Haitian Writers in Exile, and in 1982 he engineered a literary and political festival to celebrate friend and fellow poet/revolutionary Jacques Stephen Alexis, who disappeared in 1961.
The Duvalier regime—consisting of Papa Doc and later his son—was ousted in 1986, after the death of more than thirty thousand political opponents and nearly thirty years of political chaos. When it became clear that Jean-Paul Aristide, a Roman Catholic priest whose policies concerned Laraque, would be the next president, Laraque led a campaign to support the Communist Party against Aristide. Within a year of his election, Aristide was overthrown in a bloody coup that nearly led to civil war, and a military regime took control of Haiti. The United States intervened and Aristide was returned to power in the mid-1990s, but Laraque never approved of Aristide and remained convinced that a Marxist system would be best for the Haitian people.
Laraque continued publishing poetry, and he worked as an instructor at Fordham University until 1986, as well as teaching French and analysis of French literature at a number of other schools in New York. Along with Jack Hirschman, renowned former poet laureate from San Francisco, Laraque was the editor of 2001's Open Gate: An Anthology of Haitian Creole Poetry, which more than any other previous work helped to introduce the unique poetry of the Haitian Creole people to an international audience. Working with his brother, Laraque in 2004 wrote Haiti: Entre la lutte et l'espoir, an account of the Haitian struggle for independence from oppressive regimes.
After the death of his wife in 1998, Laraque lived alone in New York City and continued writing poetry until his death on March 8, 2007. Through the course of his life, Laraque remained a passionate intellectual whose writing was, to him, a weapon of change and his only effective method to challenge the inequities he found in the world. Speaking about his work at a January 19, 2003, meeting of the Haitian People's Support Project, Laraque said: "My poetry tends to be an explosive mixture of love and liberty, dream and revolution, the cruelty of the present and the hope of the future. I believe that culture cannot be dissociated from history. Since the Spanish conquest with the cross and the sword, our hemisphere has been marked by native resistance against colonialism and genocide, by Black heroism against slavery, by peoples' struggles against imperialism, by masses' revolt for economic equality and social, political and cultural freedom."
At a Glance …
Born on September 21, 1920, in Jérémie, Haiti; came to the United States, 1961; died March 8, 2007, in New York, NY; son of Franck H. (a merchant) and Clarisse (a homemaker; maiden name, Leger) Laraque; married Marcelle Pierre-Louis, 1951 (died, 1998); children: Max, Serge, Danielle. Politics: Marxist. Education: Earned bachelor's degree in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; attended military academy in Port-au-Prince, 1939-41; Fordham University, MA, 196(?).
Career: Haitian National Army, career military officer, 1941-60; manager of a car-parking service in New York City, 1961-65; Fordham Preparatory School, teacher of French, 1966-86; taught at other schools in New York.
Memberships: Association of Haitian Writers Abroad, secretary-general, 1979-86.
Awards: Casa de las Américas Prize for poetry, 1979, for Les armes quotidiennes [and] Poésie quotidienne.
Ce qui demeure (poetry), Éditions Nouvelle Optique (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 1973.
Fistibal (poetry) Éditions Nouvelle Optique, 1974.
Les armes quotidiennes [and] Poésie quotidienne (poetry), Casa de las Américas (Havana, Cuba), 1979.
Sòlda mawon, Haitian Book Center (Flushing, NY), 1987.
Le vieux nègre el l'exil, Silex (Paris), 1988.
Liberty Drum: Selected Poems, Azul Editions (Washington, DC), 1995.
(Editor, with Jack Hirschman) Open Gate: An Anthology of Haitian Creole Poetry, Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 2001.
Lespwa (poetry), Editions Mémoire (Port-au-Prince, Haiti), 2001.
(With Franck Laraque) Haiti: Entre la lutte et l'espoir, CIDIHCA (Montreal), 2004.
Girard, Philippe, Paradise Lost: Haiti's Tumultuous Journey from Pearl of the Caribbean to Third-World Hotspot, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Gale, 2008, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (accessed February 21, 2008).
Isma, Ardain, "Paul Laraque, Internationally Renowned Haitian Poet and Militant, Has Died," Panacea, March 12, 2007, http://panacea.cc/ (accessed February 21, 2008).
Laraque, Paul, "Of Dream and Revolution" (excerpt from January 19, 2003, speech), CounterPunch, February 10, 2003, http://www.counterpunch.org/laraque02102003.html (accessed February 21, 2008).
Tontongi, "The Death of Paul Laraque / Lanmò Pòl Larak," Teledjol News Network, March 14, 2007, http://www.teledjol.com/index.php/1564 (accessed February 21, 2008).
—Micah L. Issitt
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