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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: July 2020

Epilogue - Land and Seas of Migration and Refuge, Past and Present


… Ces nègres polychromes avaient décrété que tout individu persécuté à cause de son ethnie ou de sa foi peut trouver refuge sur le territoire sacré de la nation. Et il devient ipso facto haïtien, c’est-à-dire placé sous la protection des esprits vaudou. Une promesse que les générations successives prendraient très au sérieux.

Louis-Philippe Dalembert, Avant que les ombres s’effacent, 12

In the prologue to Dalembert's Avant que les ombres s’effacent, a historical novel that retraces the migration of a European Jewish refugee to Haiti during the Second World War, the narrator recalls Article 14 of Dessalines's Constitution of 1805. Along with Articles 12 and 13, it inaugurated a radical reconception of race and citizenship in the Atlantic world: “All distinctions of color will by necessity disappear among the children of one and the same family, where the Head of State is the father; Haitians will henceforth be known by the generic denomination of blacks.” Sibylle Fischer has underscored the many tensions that held together the early Haitian constitutions, among others, between universal and particular claims, between provisions for asylum and declarations of non-intervention in the affairs of other states, and between their national and transnational aspirations. Dalembert's narrator is less interested in historiographical nuance than in the legacy of freedom on Haitian soil passed down since the country's founding. As the narrator puts it, “Premier pays de l’Histoire contemporaine à avoir aboli les armes à la main l’esclavage sur son sol, le tout jeune État avait décidé lors, pour en finir une bonne fois avec la notion ridicule de race, que les êtres humains étaient tous des nègres, foutre!” (Avant que les ombres s’effacent, 11). It might very well have been a “foundational fiction,” more dream than reality, but the narrator does not give a damn. These constitutions were radical because they abolished slavery and established racial equality. For the narrator, this is the promise that future generations would take seriously.

The novel's prologue is meant to provide context for the remarkable, transnational journey of its protagonist, Dr. Ruben Schwarzberg, who is born in Lödz, Poland, flees with his family to Berlin, survives temporary internment in Buchenwald, is welcomed by the Haitian community in Paris, and eventually finds safe haven in Port-au-Prince in the fall of 1939.