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Max Gallo and National Language Education in Haiti

—by Aidan Rooney

Une façade de l’ambassade française à Port-au-Prince, Haïti, octobre 2018. Photo Tanbou.

Une façade de l’ambassade française à Port-au-Prince, Haïti, octobre 2018. —photo Tanbou

The following paper was given at the 30th Annual Haitian Studies Association International Conference at Université Quisqueya in Port-au-Prince, 8–10 November, 2018. The conference theme—Haitian Studies at the Crossroads: Integrating the Humanities, Arts, Religions, Technology, and Sciences—accented a call to rasanblaj/rassemblage, gathering. In her keynote address, author Edwige Danticat, pictured below with panelist Aidan Rooney, Thayer Academy and Kathleen Chant InnovEd-UniQ called the Haitian academic community to the task of integration. Rooney’s panel, moderated by Sarah Davies Cordova, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, examined the keys to greater integration in educational development, one responsive to the linguistic particularities of the community served. Joining him were: Claire Michele Rice (Nova Southeastern University), Lamia Makkar (Swarthmore College), and Joëlle Vitiello (Macalester College). In his paper, Rooney draws on the thinking of Max Gallo, architect of contemporary French political nationalism, to make the case for the implementation of the Haitian Kreyòl as an official language in Haiti, not just of instruction in schools but also of access to instruments and institutions of governance.

It is a privilege to be among you in Port-au-Prince for this conference. We hear talk much, recently and ubiquitously, of nationalism on the march, and whatever sense we had of global belonging losing ground, whether in the Middle East, Europe, or North America where, before the United Nations General Assembly in September, Donald Trump declared: “We reject the ideology of globalism, and embrace patriotism.” Just last week, before his admirers, Trump made coils of razor and barbed wire the object of his admiration, just the latest, and hardly the last, cause for concern. To cast a cold, indifferent eye on xenophobia’s rising tide should be problematic. The moment has perhaps come to signal, as did Socrates, that we are neither Athenians nor Greeks, but citizens of the world; let me signal here, so, that I am neither American nor anglophone, neither French nor francophone, but global citizen a priori, l’homme qui te ressemble, human, to echo Réné Philombe’s 1977 plea for fraternity, and citizen moreover, of a little country just like yours, Ireland, my birthplace, a small presque-île, nearly-island, for a long time (800 years or so) subjugated by a colonial power. Haiti’s France is Ireland’s England. In 2013, notably, the Irish government launched an important initiative called “The Gathering” (rasanblaj in Kreyòl) whose goal it was to assemble and mobilise on Irish soil the vast diaspora with which Ireland, like Haiti, is endowed. I salute, thus, this conference in situ in Port-au-Prince, under the auspices of a distinguished secular university, and under the umbrella (or parasol, rather, on this beautiful, sunny day) of rasanblaj, our gathering here. So, to the Haitian in all of you, no matter your provenance, I whisper: onè, honor.

Let’s get right to it. I am here to advocate for a key element of nationhood: birth language, the language that teaches us family and community values early in life. I am here too to advocate for other languages, acquired later, that carry us through and help us walk in multiple lives. By extension, I am here to appeal for education through the mother-tongue language of a nation. The impetus for this address came to me as I was preparing a French class on Max Gallo for young Americans in their high school senior year, là-bas where I teach. One of the 40 immortels of the Académie Française, whose remit it is to oversee the evolution of the French language, Max Gallo, who died in 2017, was the son of Italian immigrants. Historian sans pareil of Napoleon, Gallo carried the almost 400-year mission of the French Academy to his own time, one marked by the presidency of François Mitterrand. In 2009, in the magazine La Vie, Max Gallo noted a movement—“widespread demographic flux, ineluctable globalisation”—sweeping the world. “To ensure that the mixed humanity born of this movement,” he maintains, “be a step forward, not back, we have to establish our values.” Gallo goes on to list ten elements key to national identity. The first is crucial: droit du sol, birthright citizenship, jus soli, belonging to land, in contrast to droit du sang, blood right, jus sanguinis, belonging by blood. Gallo also champions equality, especially between women and men, just as he makes the case for secularism, separation of church and state, as essential to the protection of diversity.

Kathleen Chant of InnovEd-UniQ, author Edwidge Danticat and Aidan Rooney of Thayer Academy.

From the left: Kathleen Chant of InnovEd-UniQ, author Edwidge Danticat and Aidan Rooney of Thayer Academy.

Which brings us to two elements central here to our concern: language and education. For Gallo, language is cement. Our diverse origins call for a unifying language which, for France, is French, a common language, a language common also to the francophone world, wide-flung, largely postcolonial. It follows naturally that education, schooling, is “an element crucial to the transmission of our values, bedrock of our unity,” and that “one of the fundamental tasks of schooling is to teach language.”

It is not easy to imagine a cogent argument against Gallo’s conviction. Ardent advocates, however, of the French language as a vehicle in Haiti not just for education but for the future elevation of this beautiful country among the nations of the world, never cease to amaze. They have been at that argument, moreover, for a very long time—over 200 years—and to what end? Also surprising is the deaf ear such partisans turn to psychologists, sociologists and learning specialists in favour of mother-tongue language as the instrument of instruction in a community’s schools. What we can say now with some conviction, however, is that this matter has moved largely beyond debate, agreement consolidated among those working hard on behalf of mother-tongue language instruction. The national language of Haiti is Haitian Kreyòl. Therefore, if we are to follow the logic of Max Gallo, and I can’t help but think that he would smile on us, Haitian Kreyòl should be de rigueur as the language of instruction in all Haitian schools.

Consensus has emerged on how Haitian Kreyòl is conceived, more than a few conceptions already rejected. That of Ferguson in 1959, the famous diglossia according to which two versions of a language (in this case, French) coexist, was largely misconstrued. Kreyòl is not the result of a slow evolution in the language of 17th century French immigrants, such as Québecois, for example, can be considered; nor is it anything like the French spoken in the Canadian maritime province of Nova Scotia. The same can be said for Swiss German or modern Greek. Whether Greek or Swiss, one’s shared language is a national or regional trait, no matter the dialect. Not so for Haiti, unless one speaks Kreyòl.

Of greater currency more recently, even hip and trendy, is the notion that Haiti is bilingual. With 95% of Haitians self-identified as monolingual, Haiti is neither diglossic nor bilingual; only the elite are. If Haiti is to be considered bilingual, it is only because it is governed by the elite. Let’s cut to chase: the agenda to de-Kreyòlize this country (Ferguson, then Orjala in 1970, followed by Valdman in 1978; all finally taken to task by Yves Dejean in 1983), did little more than roll out coils of barbed wire between the elite and the masses, as well as consolidate the Machiavellian conviction not only that Kreyòl is not up the task of expressing complex, convoluted thought, but that Kreyòl furthers Haiti’s isolation in the world.

Fortunately, we are more enlightened now, and efforts to shake things up gain traction. The contribution of the Haitian government, progressive initiatives at the Ministry of Education, will be essential. To be applauded also, the Confederation of Creole Languages in the Antilles be they would-be francophone, anglophone, hispanophone or other. Numerous are the advances in Creolophony. Education through vernacular language—what you speak chez vous, in your kay, in your community—is catching on. In September, in Curaçao, Minister of Education Dr. Marilyn Alcala-Wallé declared that the movement is “at a point of no-return.” Here in Haiti, countless initiatives gather around Haitian Kreyòl, whether it’s the International Summit on Creolistics (Coloque International de Créolistique) at Université d’État just a couple of weeks back, or the recent conferring of Higher Diplomas in Education through Haitian Kreyòl on 270 teachers in the Summits Education network, or the efforts of InnovEd here at Quisqueya to elevate the quality of education. Salutary too is the work of linguistics professors in American universities, in particular Michel Anne DeGraff at MIT and Marie Marcelle Racine at Columbia. Learning through mother-tongue language—first language, birth language, the one one homes to in one’s community—should be at the core of education in all schools.

Such movements will drive your Haitian spring. There will of course be other fish to fry in all that, but language and education will be key instruments of transformation. Proud to have been the first country in the world to free itself from the shackles of slavery and colonisation, Haiti must feel the need to renounce the vestiges of that unrelenting subjugation. Max Gallo understood only too well that language cements national identity. Carrier of cultural values, instrument of inclusion, language has a profound effect on the quest for self, la quête de soi, identity. A shared Kreyòl language, raised in status to the official way to communicate and prosper in civic life, is a tool for solidarity that will inspire the consciousness of the Haitian people. These movements remind us of the négritude movement promulgated by Aimé Césaire during the 1930s, giving licence to Afro-Caribbeans to cultivate traditional black cultural identities. Moreover, these movements do no more than pursue the reasonable and ethical resolution adopted by Québec (René Lévesque’s 1977 Bill 101) in support of mother-tongue language instruction.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter. In Québec, kids learn in francophone schools, and French is the sole official language; otherwise, Canada is largely anglophone. By the same token that Québec is well-positioned for interculturality and plurilingualism, a Kreyòl Haiti should not just embrace its own sole common language and vision, but welcome a multiplicity of languages. Sociology distinguishes multiculturalism from pluriculturalism, but the difference is no more than one of attitude. France and Max Gallo, to whom I return here, seem to prefer the pluricultural approach to protecting diversity, with its accent on assuring harmonious interaction among groups of individuals with cultural identities that are mingled and interwoven, rather than the multicultural version one might associate more with the United States, with its exaltation of cultural differences with little insistence on connective tissue or equality among them. Which represents more the word and spirit of e pluribus unum is up for debate. The widespread and hardly a-polemical phenomenon of our time—nationalism on the march, the tendency for peoples and nations to turn in on themselves, what Max Gallo called le repli communautaire, communities looking inward, an infolding—is not surprising; hence the need to preserve and protect those ten elements essential to a nation’s well-being. It is the very diversity of our origins that requires values of solidarity and unity. At the end of the day, Gallo declares, “debate will help us determine if we prefer identitarian infolding (le repli communautaire) or la nation citoyenne, a citizen nation state.” He himself, however, admits to a preference for the latter.

I propose that we would do well, however optimistically, to prefer un monde citoyen, a citizen world, to reinvoke Socrates, and that Haiti would do well to choose a nation state with one language and a pluricultural attitude, a policy that will strengthen social unity and revitalise civic life. I see great merit in Haitians finding a way that enables you, on the one hand, to relish freely in your own national, mother-tongue language, and, on the other, to embrace other languages, a Haiti both monolingual and plurilingual, because foreign languages surround us, and because a pluricultural society insists on criteria of equality. So that later you may learn those other, supposedly more useful, languages, it is essential to learn and exalt your native tongue. We must accept this paradox. We are caught between the natural desire to speak just one language and the need, equally natural and social, to be plurilingual, celebrative and protective of the diversity of peoples. No one is pure autochthonous in this world. Our multiple lives, our hybridity, the multitudes we contain, the heterogeneity that constitutes our unity, will help us live together and live well. Haiti should call on its diaspora to assemble and to contribute, with trade not aid, to breaking the cycles of dependency, to narrowing the inequality gap between what Michel Foucault called “the two human natures”, the one that knows and wants to hold on to the power, and the one that accepts its state of subjugation. That a Haitian no longer loses citizenship upon emigration or naturalisation elsewhere (per article 13 of the 1987 constitution) strikes me as a good first step. Just as émigrés contribute much to their adoptive country, so too should they be invited to contribute to their country of birth.

It is safe to say that a sole, restored, official Haitian Kreyòl language could unite citizens in a Haiti liberated once and for all, for good, from the imperial yoke more than 200 years since it became the first independent, post-colonial, black nation, a big step not just for Haitian freedom but for all of humanity in which union makes us strong, où l’union fait la force.

—Aidan Rooney

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