don't carry parcels; langston hughes in haiti -- 8/10/21

Today's selection -- from I Wonder as I Wander by Langston Hughes. While Langston Hughes was traveling through Haiti with his friend Zell Ingram, his hotel manager commanded, "Don't carry parcels":

"At our water-front hotel the food served, although well-cooked, was monotonous in its lack of variety. Fish, rice, beans and boiled plantains over and over. Since we were paying only twenty-five dollars a month for room and board, and since all the other guests ate the same menu and enjoyed it, we had no grounds for complaint. But, tired of this Haitian fare, Zell and I occasionally went to the large general store on Cap Haitien's main street and loaded up with tins of sardines, salmon, baked beans, corn and other supplies of our own, which the cook would prepare for us. 

"The manager of the hotel did not object to this. He even dined with us at times. But he did object violently to our carrying groceries in our own hands down the street. One day he and the Revolutionary Exile sat down at the table with me in the bar and carefully explained that no gentleman should be seen carrying even so much as a loaf of bread in Haiti. Indeed, I had noticed that those persons who wore shoes -- a mark of the upper classes -- always had trailing behind in the street and adult servant, or a small black boy or girl, to bear their parcels, usually on the head. Even a bar of soap -- when persons of the best Haitian society bought soap -- the clerk handed, not to the customer, but to a waiting servant. The servant put the soap on his noggin and trotted along barefooted behind his empty-handed master or mistress. The hotel manager seemed shocked to observe that two American gentlemen -- evidently young men of means, since we possessed both coats and shoes -- should be seen in the public streets with packages in our arms. He had long wanted to warn us about it, he said earnestly. It was something we must stop. 

"'Don't carry parcels.'

Mr. Langston Hughes, 1942

"While he was engaged in correcting my manners, since I took his admonition amiably, he went on to say that furthermore he had noticed both Mr. Ingram and myself sitting in the grassy open space in front of the hotel on the ground talking with market women and fishermen, and even playing with their children -- or worse, engaged in dominoes with the barefooted wharf workers who hung out on the sea wall! These things, the hotel manager explained, simply were not done in Haiti by persons of our standing. He, the manager, who was also a lawyer, would be glad to introduce us to his friends with whom, he was sure, we would have much more in common.

"I was pleased to accept the manager's offer, I said politely. But at the same time, I argued with him that I did not see why, since I was interested in the folk life of the Haitian people, should I not associate with whom I pleased -- especially since the better-class Haitians neither knew how to play drums nor dance the conga. The parties at the homes of his friends, I was sure, were very much like the parties of educated people everywhere. I tried to tell the hotel manager that one can drink champagne and talk about Proust or Gide in New York. But one cannot see a conga dance there or attend a wake with tables set in the yard for games of cards. But he got up and went away shaking his head. 

"I did meet some of his friends, however, and found them pleasant fellows a few of whom had studied English and read American Negro newspapers and magazines. I was afraid then that someone might recognize my name or know my poetry, for I did not want to be lionized in Haiti, nor have my days filled with invitations to dine with people who could not play drums. I wanted to be lazy, lie on the beach as long as I liked, talk with whom I pleased, go to cockfights on Sundays, sail with the fishermen, and never wear a coat. 

"Coats and shoes in Haiti! With the mercury at a hundred in the shade, our hotel manager went around all day with his coat on. For an educated Haitian to dress otherwise was unheard of at the Cap. If you possessed a coat and a pair of shoes, you always wore them -- for fear people would think you had none, and thus class you with the peasants whose incomes never encompassed such finery.

"Another thing which disturbed me and made me shy away from formal Haitian society was the color line between the mulattoes and the blacks. In this, and in the aloofness with which the 'best people' held themselves away from the workers, I was reminded strongly of my years in Washington where Negro society, too, was stratified -- the government workers, college professors and school teachers considering themselves much better than the usually darker (although not always poorer) people who work with their hands. I hated this attitude. And, in Haiti of all places -- with its thrilling history of the slaves who drove the French into the ocean and freed themselves -- to find people divided by the lightness or darkness of one's skin, and whether or not one was able to afford shoes -- well, I personally preferred the people without shoes."



Langston Hughes


I Wonder as I Wander


Hill and Wang


Copyright 1956 by Langston Hughes


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