Burn houses! Cut off heads!
~ Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Commander-in-chief of Haiti’s revolution, a former slave who declared the country of Saint-Domingue independent from France on January 1, 1804, named it Haiti, and soon changed his name to Emperor Jacques I.
Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s epic novel of Haiti’s revolution (1791 through 1803, when Haiti declared independence) graphically depicts the racial and political tensions that have erupted repeatedly in the country, and also recently in the United States. Dance on the Volcano is almost as timely now in both countries, as it was when Vieux-Chauvet wrote it sixty years ago in her native Haiti.
Vieux-Chauvet’s novel exposes the complexities and contradictions inherent in Haiti’s culture that led to its revolution. The injustice of race and class, and the savagery of slavery and warfare are portrayed vividly and constantly amid the country’s lush beauty in Dance on the Volcano. The novel describes only the early chapters of the Caribbean nation’s volcanic political tumult, yet the book is crucial to a complete understanding of the violent conflict that overtook the country, and the revolution’s importance in world history.
Revolution, from the Latin revolutio, means a turn around, and in Haiti’s case, a decisive change in power and structure. Throughout its more than 200-year history, Haiti has been turning around and around turbulently and continuously. On January 1, 1804, after thirteen years of revolution culminating in the only successful slave revolt in history, Saint-Domingue became Haiti, the world’s first independent black nation. Head of state Jean-Jacques Dessalines, despite having been a key leader of the revolution, anointed himself Emperor Jacques I. He was assassinated in 1806, the first of more than two dozen Haitian leaders who were either killed or overthrown:
“Between 1911 and 1915, seven presidents were assassinated or overthrown in Haiti,” notes the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian. “In 1914, the Woodrow Wilson administration sent U.S. Marines into Haiti.”
That was the beginning of the United States’ deep involvement in Haiti that lasted for more than a century. With “successful manipulation” of Haiti’s 1915 elections (emphasis added), the U.S. occupied Haiti for two decades that included uprisings, revolts, and a massacre of Haitians. In 1934, due partially to a Congressional review of the occupation, and to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, the U.S. military departed.
After several more uprisings and coups, François “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected President in 1957. One of the bloodiest dictators in history, he proclaimed himself President for Life. When “Papa Doc” died in 1971, his nineteen-year-old son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier assumed the presidency. When “Baby Doc” was overthrown in 1986, he absconded with much of the impoverished country’s treasury. He fled to France in a U.S. government-provided C-141. (When twice-ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide left Haiti in 2004, he too flew in a U.S. plane to South Africa, but eventually returned to Haiti.)
And it all goes back to the revolution of 1791 through 1803, and to the author who wrote about it so passionately, Marie Vieux-Chauvet, due partly to her own dance on the volcano. Vieux-Chauvet was forced into exile after her 1968 novella trilogy, Love, Anger, and Madness, which detailed life under Duvalier’s regime of terror. She fled to New York City, where she lived until 1973, when she died of brain cancer at age fifty-seven, but not before she grieved the deaths of three of her family members, murdered by Papa Doc’s regime.
In Dance on the Volcano, the young hero Minette embodies the culture’s complexities and turmoil, and her evolution reflects the emerging revolution. Minette is a free mulatto teenager, whose soprano voice is as “prodigiously beautiful” as is her face. “Your voice is your weapon, and you’re going to use it,” her tutor, Joseph Ogé instructs. (Joseph is the fictional brother of the actual hero, Jacques Vincent Ogé, who led The Ogé Revolt of October, 1790 that sparked the country’s revolution.)
Joseph’s prophecy comes true for Minette, a character based on the actual Minette mentioned in Theater in Saint-Domingue by Haitian historian Jean Fouchard. (Vieux-Chauvet draws from history to create characters in her work.) Minette surmounts racial barriers, becoming the first non-white to appear at the prestigious theater. Her fierce dignity and courage are additional weapons that sustain her amid horrific anti-black violence and insults like “those creatures” and “that species”. Minette evolves from a teenager “who easily confuses revolt with pity” to a valiant hero who revolts against the slaveholding society, and even risks her life to protect a slave and her abolitionist friends.
However, despite her racial consciousness, Minette falls in love with a free black man, Jean-Baptiste Lapointe, who is so cruel to his slaves that he condemns one to be starved to death, and punishes another for giving him food. The punishment for that slave? “I was condemned to have a limb sawed off every day and then buried alive,” the elderly escaped slave tells Minette, who gives him her scarf to staunch blood from the stump of his hacked-off arm.
Minette embodies the society’s contradictions. Her passion against slavery is contradicted by her passion for the brutal slave-owner she loves. A “freedwoman of color”, she isn’t truly free. She isn’t a slave, but she doesn’t have full rights. She becomes a star, but is pseudo-enslaved by the “white Creole” theater owners who refuse to pay her.
Her spirited heroism, although conflicted, drives the book forward. Half-way through the novel, Minette realizes “…that the struggle was merciless and that at some point it was necessary to ignore one’s heart and one’s honor, to seize life with two hands and squeeze one’s fingers around it, like around the neck of an enemy one has vanquished.”
This courageous yet conflicted woman provides hope that balances the numerous macabre images that occasionally make the 492-page tome rough reading. But how to depict slavery without gruesome images, such as “the red-hot iron that had branded her right breast, the lashes of the whip…” And how to create characters instead of caricatures among the white ruling class, such as the white master who fathered Minette and her sister Lise through raping their mother, Jasmine, but finally freeing them.
However, images of sensuous beauty are interspersed among the disturbing ones. On the first page, readers see “The jewels adorning the toes of the mulatto women – whom a new law had banned from wearing proper shoes…” Their “diamond-shod feet” and jewel-encrusted madras head wraps flashed rebuke of the vicious white women, whose husbands had lavished the gems on their mixed-race mistresses.
These racial and political images of Haiti more than two centuries ago, written sixty years ago, remain timely today in that nation, and resonate in the United States. In both countries, “a state of perpetual tension … produce(s) a strange heaviness in the atmosphere.” That volcanic tension keeps erupting, here and in Haiti.