Author brings passion for Haitian hero to Arts and Letters Live

Source: Dallas News
12:00 AM CST on Wednesday, March 3, 2010

By KAREN M. THOMAS / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Karen M. Thomas is a freelance writer in Arlington.

When a massive earthquake physically devastated Haiti in January, one of the most searing images shown was its resilient people standing amid the rubble, singing.

While this latest chapter of despair in the tiny nation has riveted most of the world, Haiti has long fascinated author Madison Smartt Bell. Drawn first by Haiti’s religious practices, Bell came across Toussaint L’Ouverture, the complex, brilliant Haitian revolutionary credited for leading the only successful slave uprising in history.

“It was such a remarkable story that he existed and he accomplished everything that he did. I never heard about it, and I thought I’d write a book about this,” Bell says.

That book, All Souls’ Rising, a historical novel, became the first in a trilogy and years in the making. It was published in 1995 and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. In 2007, Bell published the critically acclaimed Toussaint Louverture: A Biography (Pantheon, $27).

Bell, along with artist and master printmaker Lou Stovall, will appear tonight as part of the Arts and Letters Live series at Dallas Museum of Art. The program is in celebration of the exhibition, “Jacob Lawrence: The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture,” now on display at the museum.

Bell calls L’Ouverture a great liberator. His biographical portrait of the leader of the decadelong revolution that began in 1791 shows a complicated, calculating, heroic man who was ahead of his time. Born into slavery, L’Ouverture clearly possessed diplomatic and political skills that placed him at the helm of the revolt in which African slaves used arms to win their freedom.

“The narrative that he came out of nothing and nowhere, that he was a member of the vast caste of slaves, wasn’t entirely true, but he got everybody to believe that,” Bell says about L’Ouverture.

At the core of L’Ouverture’s narrative is the notion of starting out at the bottom of the social order and working one’s way to the top. Although in America that is clearly now possible, based on the recent presidential election, Bell says, it is still a rare story.

L’Ouverture’s story remained little known for generations, although Bell’s work has helped pull it out of obscurity. Recent events have brought a new wave of attention to Haiti and its rich history.

While it’s easy to see Haiti’s poverty and its recent devastation, what shines through in Bell’s work and the singing amid the nation’s rubble is a country built upon its people’s hard-earned freedom, culture and strong religious values.

As the media spotlight diminishes and Haiti begins the hard work of rebuilding, no matter what the resilient, optimistic nation faces, Bell is certain of one thing.

“Haiti truly has a glorious history,” he says. “That can’t be taken away from them.”

Karen M. Thomas is a freelance writer in Arlington.

Plan your life Madison Smartt Bell and Lou Stovall appear at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St. $10-$20 at or 214-922-1818.


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