Born into wealth and status but choosing a life of the people, Jacques Romain was one of Haiti’s most famous sons. But who was he, and what did his work stand for?

Born in 1907, Jacques Roumain was a leading intellectual, political activist, poet, and writer whose life was tethered to Haiti and its people. The eldest son of eleven children, Roumain chose a life of politicised writing rather than running his wealthy father’s sugar factory. Exiled and imprisoned, he passionately espoused the perceived virtues of socialism and used his work to give voice to the disenfranchised from all races; founding literary journals, youth organisations and the Haitian chapter of the communist party before his death in 1944.

Who influenced his work?

During his youth, Roumain received an amazing education that helped shape his political outlook. Schooling in Belgium, France, Germany and Spain, exposed him to ideas of the key thinkers of the time. Charles Darwin’s ‘Theory of Evolution’ prompted a distaste for organised religion while Nietzsche’s existentialist philosophy hammered home the importance of independent thought and individual responsibility. These findings were consolidated by the framework of socialism and the theories of Marx and Engels.

Roumain also spent time collaborating and meeting pan-African writers such as Langston Hughes and Nicolas Guillen. Guillen ended up becoming a close friend of Roumain, translating his opus ‘Masters of the Dew’ after his early death.

What was his driving force?

Roumain was a firm anti-colonialist, serving a three-year prison sentence in 1934 before being exiled from the country. For many who lived through the American occupation of Haiti, he was considered the voice of the people; fiercely opposing the displacement of local religion and the ‘White Tutelage’ of anti-Haitianism. Outside of the Caribbean, he was known as a passionate denouncer of fascism and produced commentary throughout the Spanish Civil War.

What was his style of writing?

Roumain was considered a master of voice and wrote in the language used by many of the poorer Haitians who he felt were disenfranchised and silenced. He viewed his writings as a way to empower his people, legitimise their identity and help dissolve the feelings of inferiority that inevitably accompany colonialism. His common themes include protest, power, pessimism, and unjust imprisonment; bringing lofty ideals into earthy language.

What was his most notable work?

Roumain’s most famous work is inarguably ‘Gouverneurs de la Rosée’ (Masters of the Dew) the manuscript which was found in his briefcase when he died suddenly at the age of thirty-seven. Covering religion, romance and politics, the book follows a peasant who returns to his village after travelling only to find it threatened by drought and a blood feud. Like most of his writing, the story is allegorical and examines the awakening of political, religious and social awareness amongst the poor. While philosophically complex, Roumain is careful to create an authentic world and believable characters; writing for the heart and the head as the story winds to a tragic conclusion.