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Edwidge Dadicant’s Description of the Historical Events in Haiti as Explained in A Wall of Fire Rising

Dye mon, gen mon means beyond the mountain is another mountain. This phrase is a popular Haitian Creole proverb which Haitian people use to describe life in Haiti (Wilentz 7). It might be hard to believe but Haiti was once known for its immense wealth of natural resources. Haiti was originally known as the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Explorers dubbed the colony The Pearl of the Antilles’ because of the vast resources available, such as sugar cane and coffee. In 1791, African slaves rebelled against the white slave owners of the island. The results of this rebellion gave Saint-Domingue credit for being the first country to abolish slavery (Coupeau 12). Fourteen years later, Haiti was established as an independent country. It’s unfortunate that even though Haiti gained its’ freedom, the country has continuously struggled to become prosperous and maintain an identity of its own. Edwidge Danticat is the author of the short story “A Wall of Fire Rising”. Her story connects readers to Haitian history in a way that would most likely be overlooked if the reader did not possess any knowledge of Haiti’s intriguing past. In “A Wall of Fire Rising”, references to Haiti’s history are necessary to provide relevance to the story, characters, and their motivations in the era in which they live.

The story begins in the home of the Guy family, where both Guy and Little Guy have big news. Little Guy has been given the lead role in a school play and his mother is very excited and proud. She is so proud of her son because he will be playing the role of Dutty Boukman who was the leader of the 1791 slave revolution. Dutty Boukman was a runaway slave and a voodoo high priest. Expert on Haitian history Steeve Coupeau describes the events based on his research.

The revolution began on the night of August 22, 1791 after a voodoo ceremony. The slaves began slaughtering every white man, woman, and child they encountered. Leaders of the slave gangs could be seen carrying a wooden spear complete with a skeleton of an impaled white baby on its top (Coupeau 187).

Little Guy recites his lines from the play for his parents, and it creates a hope inside of them that always had been there but never had manifested. He begins with a single word: “’Freedom!’ shouted the boy” (Danticat 368). The mere utterance of this word resonates deep for Guy and Lili. He continues with his speech:

A wall of fire is rising and in the ashes, I see the bones of my people. Not only those people whose dark hollow faces I see daily in the fields, but all those souls who have gone ahead to haunt my dreams. At night I relive once more the last caresses from the hand of a loving father, a valiant love, a beloved friend. (Danticat 368)

Once little Guy finishes, the narrator describes that “The experience left them both with a strange feeling that they could not explain” (Danticat 368). Danticat highlights that these aren’t Boukman’s real words, but a merely a European take on the events that occurred: “It was obvious that this was a speech written by a European man, who gave to the slave revolutionary Boukman the kind of European phrasing that might have sent the real Boukman turning in his grave” (Danticat 368). Lili tells her son that the voodoo priest was a “great rebel leader” (Danticat 368). Dutty Boukman could be noted a great leader, considering that after a week-long rampage more than 2,000 whites were murdered. It appeared that the former slaves accomplished what they had planned for. In The History of Haiti author Steeve Coupeau writes: “After the initial surge of attacks surviving white colonists revolted and turned their guns on the newly liberated slaves, leaving more than 10,000 dead (Coupeau 127). It is noted in the book as well that at least three hundred sugar plantations and fields were burned during the rampage and destroyed the island’s farming industry. Political advisor for the SACS (Secretariat of the Association of Caribbean States) Watson Dennis describes that the slave rebellion in Saint Domingue “sounded the bell heralding the end of slavery and the slave trade.” According to him, “the immediate and long-term repercussions of the slave rebellion of 1791 have made August 23 an unforgettable date in history” (News).

Freedom can mean a lot of things to different people. Haitians were living free during the 1950s, but they were slaves to their own poverty and unable to immigrate to another country where their circumstances could change (Brooke 1+). The economy was suffering from a so-called “brain drain” due to a large wave of well-educated professionals immigrating to the United States to escape the brutal dictatorship of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier (Gail 259). With many of Haiti’s more educated men out of the country, the world view of Haitian men was not good. It is reported that 80 percent of Haitians were illiterate (Brooke). To further the assumption that Guy fit into the mold of the uneducated Haitian man, we see him struggling over Boukman’s name written in the play, and stating “I see some very hard words here, son” (Danticat 368). Guy feels responsible for his family’s plight, yet feels unable to change their situation. He seems to be desperate for freedom from his financial status and depression. Guy tries to find work when he can but is not able to provide consistently. He also mentions he would like to fly the balloon to “somewhere and keep floating until I got to a really nice place with a nice plot of land where I could be something new” (Danticat 375).

In the end of the story, Guy meets his demise by jumping out of the balloons’ basket while it is in the air. The hot air balloon can symbolize different ideas such as hope, freedom, and escape. The reader can pick up on those ideas without any historical knowledge of Haiti. Before Guy ever climbs in into the basket or reveals to Lili that he is “intelligent enough to do it” (Danticat 373), he stands at the barbed wire fence, staring at the balloon. He goes so far as to push his hand through the fence to try touch the balloon and sharpens his pocket knife on the metal surface, but he puts the knife back before Lili and Little Guy get close enough to see.

This may seem insignificant to most readers, but by knowing more information about voodoo ceremony that took place just before Boukman led the slaves in the Haitian Revolution, one would know that a knife was an important part. An excerpt from the article “The History of Haiti” details the events of the ceremony.

This meeting took the form of a Voodoo ceremony in the Bois Caiman in the northern mountains of the island. It was raining and the sky was raging with clouds; the slaves then started confessing their resentment of their condition. A woman started dancing languorously in the crowd, taken by the spirits of the loas. With a knife in her hand, she cut the throat of a pig and distributed the blood to all the participants of the meeting who swore to kill all the whites on the island. (Wilentz 167)

The knife represented in the voodoo ceremony was to perform the sacrifice of the pig, but also serves as a gesture of offering to the spirit Eruzile Dantor. Journalist Patrick Jordan points out in his article “The State of Haiti” that even though Voodoo was banned in Haiti until 2012, some form of voodoo has been practiced since the very first slaves came from Africa. (Jordan). Jordan interviewed a Catholic missionary that stated the following: “Haiti is 80 percent Catholic, 20 percent Protestant, and 100 percent Voodoo” (Jordan).

This is significant to the story not only because of the belief of the spirits’ involvement in the Haitian Revolution, but also how Guy’s knife has a subdued link to voodoo in the story. Eruzile Dantor is known as the mother of Haiti and the patron goddess of New Orleans (Coupeau). Visitors to Port Au Prince and other areas of Haiti, will see images of this particular loa all around depictured as a Black Madonna. Believers of voodoo describe a loa as a spirit or a god (Wilentz).

Eruzile Dantor is the goddess of love, jealousy, passion, and sex. She is also the patron goddess of women betrayed by their lovers, single mothers, and business women. She loves women and protects them at all costs. Some of the items placed at an altar when summoning this loa are sharpened knives, perfumes, and items with many colors. Bold colors are her favorites. A voodoo believer will leave these items at the altar for the loa they want to summon, and in return the spirit will bless them by granting what they desire (Wilentz 109).

It is very possible that Guy had already planned his own fate long ago. His obsession with the area where the balloon was kept was most likely because he had created an altar nearby in secret where he would bring the loa gifts. The image of Guy sharpening his knife on the fence is to represent the offering to Eruzile Dantor to secure protection for his wife and child. He can also request that this loa will provide him the confidence necessary to end his life and that she makes his passage to heaven easier (Wilentz 109).

Guy told Lili “you’re really good with that boy”, and that she can “take things as they come” (Danticat 375). Guy is convincing Lili that she is a strong and independent woman. He is also reassuring her that she does not need him to survive. Guy’s decision to end his life was final.

Haiti has a history for corruption in their government. The Duvalier era provided a dismal world view of their leaders (Brooke). Further showing the violent tendencies of Haitian residents, opportunities for uprisings were brought on by rigged elections and the unequal distribution of wealth. In the story, the residents walk from their homes in the shantytown to a central location near the sugar mill where the government has placed a television for the people to view a nightly state sponsored news broadcast. It would be safe to assume that this was created by the government to curb any ideas of uprisings by the people. A coercion network called the National Unity Party was created by Francois Duvalier under the ruse of Unity, they claimed more than 40,000 human lives. “The N.U.P. was made up of the Macoutes (Duvalier’s personal army), the Haitian Army, right wing paramilitary groups, and rural magistrates or prevent civilian resistance, and eliminate any political competition” (Coupeau 210). Residents of the shantytown in “A Wall of Fire Rising” would go a central location to watch the nightly news. “On most nights, the people stayed at the site long after this gendarme had gone and told stories to one another beneath the big blank screen. They made bonfires with dried sticks, corn husks, and paper, cursing authorities under their breath” (Danticat). The corn husks thrown into the fire could be a poppett doll, or voodoo doll representing someone in power. (Wilentz 201-260). This also is a reference to voodoo and the “wall of fire” Boukman and his army created in the 1791 slave rebellion. By Danticat referencing that they were staying at the location very late after the authorities left and they would say things under their breath about those in power, the villagers who stayed at the site were likely were holding secret voodoo ceremonies and planning an uprising. The rebel slaves from the slave revolution of 1791 met in secret and planned their revenge on the slave owners. Journalist James Brooke acknowledges that during the 1950s Haitians would meet secretly to discuss plans to overthrow Duvalier and the National Unity Party (Brooke).

Daily Haitian life is an uphill battle. Haitians today continue to struggle with disease, poverty, and natural disasters. Though these things are difficult to overcome they remain proud of their heritage and willing to face life’s challenges. Throughout this essay, specific examples have been given that proves historical relevance of the story “A Wall of Fire Rising”. Little Guy’s role in the school play links the reader to the Haitian Revolution and voodoo ceremonies that took place beforehand. Knowing more about the average Haitian man during the time the story was set allows the reader to understand more about why Guy was a slave to depression and felt the need to summon Eruzile Dantor. In the story, the reader is given some insight into the 1950s where citizens planned uprisings against the National Unity Party and Duvalier leadership by knowing about the villagers staying late into the night after the news broadcast is over. Guy and Lili are great examples of how the Haitian proverb Dye mon, Gen mon applies to daily Haitian life. Lili continued to climb the mountains before her, and Guy simply decided to go above the mountains where beyond them was only the unknown.

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