There I was, riding in the rear of the tap-tap, this Caribbean country’s colorfully painted version of a jitney. [. . .] I am on my way to the nearby Citadelle LaFerrierre, the largest fortress in the Americas.
The black American poet Langston Hughes had come here in the late spring of 1932, where he reveled in communing with the “people without shoes.” If he could survive three weeks of torrential rains, a washed-out road and a cold night sleeping on the ground to make the trek up, I could endure 12 miles of breathing in dust. It would be worth it — adding another pin-point in my informal pilgrimage of traveling the globe in the footsteps of the poet. So far, I’ve been to Tokyo, Dakar, Cleveland, Harlem and, closer to home — McKeesport, where his mother and stepfather once lived and where a youthful Hughes once brought them back a monkey from The Congo.
Now, I was in Haiti. I had ventured through the teeming Port-au-Prince capital city, where Hughes had once wandered to the grand Champs de Mars and saw the U.S. Marines enforce the American occupation and encountered the cultured elite dancing in suits and ties in the sun. He wanted no part of it. He’d rather spend his time getting to know the barefooted Haitian. This decision fueled his desire to journey to the more remote Cap-Haitien, the valley of the Citadelle on the northern coast of Haiti. Now, my moment had come, too. It was time to figure out how to transcend the mountain and get to this treasured place, recognized as a cultural jewel and World Heritage Site by UNESCO. It’s as impressive as the pyramids of Giza and the Acropolis of Athens.
It is worth the climb.
When the Citadelle first comes into view, it takes away your breath. It is a handsome, imposing brick and mortar fortress that reigns high atop a green throne of a mountain, with the blue sky its crown. It’s a revered and majestic symbol: representing freedom and independence and honoring the slave revolt that chased away Napoleon and made Haiti the Western Hemisphere’s first free black nation in 1804.
[. . .] I see what Hughes saw: blue ocean and rolling emerald hills; hidden communities of small huts and thatched villages; white clouds and people midnight black. Children naked as nature. [. . .] The Citadelle, with its mammoth stone doorways, voodoo chambers and dungeons, is “lusty” — as Hughes called it.
Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the principal leader of the Haitian revolution who is known as the founding father of Haiti, appointed one of his generals, Henry Christophe, to begin constructing the Citadelle fortress in 1804. When Dessalines was killed two years later in a revolt, the country was divided into north and south states, with Christophe proclaiming himself the King of the North. The Citadelle was completed in 1820. As breathtaking as the views of the Atlantic Ocean are from the top of the Citadelle, Christophe wanted to go higher. To protect Haiti from intruders, he wanted it to rise another 13 stories to see all the way to Port-au-Prince, roughly 80 miles to the south. Christophe loved the Citadelle, Chevrolire said. He killed himself at 57 in October 1820, and his body is said to be buried at the Citadelle.
As I stand on a rampart, sky and rolling mountains greet me. It’s like touching heaven; sacred. So it’s sad to hear the rumors (and see the non-Haitian workers): that the country is renovating some quarters of the Citadelle, spinning them into hotel rooms and dining spaces to bring more elite in and have them board for the night.
What would Langston Hughes say?