Born in Grand Gosier in 1912, Felix Morisseau-Leroy was a true man of the people. Through his poems, plays, and articles, he helped to raise the profile of the Creole dialect, heavily contributing to its recognition as an official language in 1991.
Felix Morisseau-Leroy was undoubtedly a brilliant man. One of Haiti’s most celebrated figures, he was born in 1912 in Grand Gosier, close to the ancient port of Jacmel. His family were well-to-do mulattoes, and his education and learning were extensive.
Growing up, Morisseau-Leroy learned to speak two languages: both French and English. Perfectly equipping him for the social circles he moved in, he nonetheless developed a fascination with Creole whilst teaching in Port-au-Prince in the 1940s.
This interest in the street dialect would prove to be momentous. Rarely written down, Creole was seen to be vastly inferior to the French taught in schools, notably disadvantaging those who spoke it.
Fortunately, Morisseau-Leroy was able to embrace a rare period of freedom of expression within the country at this time. Combining his natural creativity with his love of Creole, he re-wrote the Greek tragedy Antigone in 1953, setting it in a rural Haitian village, with King Creon depicted as a powerful voodoo priest.
Such a move was not only unprecedented, but incredibly important to how the language was viewed. Suddenly, it seemed capable of nuance, analysis, profundity… it had become more than just the language of the ‘lower orders’.
Fear of the Duvaliers
Unfortunately, the ascension of the Duvalier family curtailed the impact of Morisseau-Leroy’s efforts. So afraid was he of what might happen to him in Haiti, that he seized upon the opportunity to stage Antigone in Paris and stayed there, fearing arrest if he went back.
Although he wouldn’t return to Haiti, the home of his birth and dreams, for many years, Morisseau-Leroy did eventually settle in Miami. Moving in 1981, he became a pillar of the exile community who lived there. Creating a lively culture of their own in defiance against the tyranny that reigned in their homeland, he was perhaps their most notable leading light.
Importance of Language: Creole an Official Language
Throughout this period, Morisseau-Leroy continued to fight and write for his beliefs: that people could only understand and find a resolution for their problems if they were taught in their own language, not a language that they didn’t understand.
Because of him, because of his poems, plays, and articles, this finally became a reality. Consequent to the fall of the Duvaliers in 1986, President Aristide was inaugurated in 1991. It was he who would host the ceremony that made Creole an official language, with guest of honour Morisseau-Leroy beside him, as he deserved to be.
Morisseau Leroy’s literay legacy: ”Les Djons d’Haiti”
Sadly, Morisseau-Leroy could never fully settle in Haiti again. Although he made short trips to and from the home of his birth right up until his death in September 1998, he poured his love of his country into the pages of the book he was proudest of, preferring his memories to the reality.
An epic novel, “Les Djons d’Haiti Tonma” told the story of his people – the residents of Jacmel, from the US invasion of 1915 to the final ousting , by military coup, of President Aristide in 1991. Celebrating a country filled with men and women imbued with courage, it was the perfect tribute to the resilience and fortitude of the homeland Morisseau-Leroy had spent so much of his life aiding.