Sunday, October 05, 2014

Lambi Fund Reflects on the Death of Baby Doc Duvalier

Jean Claude “Bébé Doc” Duvalier died Saturday at the age of 63. His passing leaves millions of Haitians, and others as well, pondering his life and his legacy for the people of Haiti. Marie Marthe, Lambi Fund of Haiti’s Executive Director, had this poignant response to his passing:

“Is this the only way we will ever see justice in Haiti? For the women who lost their husbands among the disappeared? The street killings, the jailings without limit, silenced by men with guns? Where is our justice? Will be ever heal? Will Haiti ever be free again?” 
Former President Bill Clinton shakes hands with Baby Doc Duvalier

I am not Haitian and so, perhaps, Baby Doc’s death provoked less painful thoughts for me. I thought of my father, who passed away on May 1, 2013. His memorial service last June was, New Orleans style, a celebratory affair as tales from my father’s rather storied life were told in rapid succession by 100 or more mourners/guests. After a momentary loss of words, the following tumbled from my lips, the perfect metaphor for my father’s life. 

It was a beautiful spring afternoon, May 2, 1972. I was shucking afternoon papers along Laurel Avenue in Charlotte, NC.  The headlines boldly pronounced the sudden death of J. Edgar Hoover who’d died that morning, after the morning papers had gone to bed. Suddenly, I heard a cacophonous honking as my father’s purple Valiant careened around the corner, and I heard my father’s loud and joyous cry, “Hoover’s Dead, Hoover’s Dead.” 

Thirteen years previously, my father had been offered a history professorship with George Washington University. Before he’d taught a day, my father, who had been secretary of the Communist Party at Harvard University in the late 1940s, was dismissed from George Washington and subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. My father took the 5th Amendment, refusing to testify. He later sued George Washington and received a year’s salary. Two years later, as the Anti-Red Crusade lost its grip on the soul of American politics, my father landed a position at a small liberal arts college, Cornell, in Mt. Vernon, IA. Life went on. 

As it turned out, J. Edgar Hoover, a George Washington Law School alumnus, served on GW’s board of directors. A background check was performed routinely on all prospective employees, which is how they’d turned up evidence of my father’s past affiliation with CP-USA.  

My father was not a vengeful man, but I was raised on a steady diet of anti-Hoover/anti-FBI rhetoric. And true to his rhetoric, in reading his heavily redacted FBI file years later, there was an almost Keystone Cop quality to their behavior as they tailed my father’s political activities for the next twenty years.

Hoover was no Baby Doc. Tens, not tens of thousands, died at Hoover’s hands. Certainly Fred Hampton comes to mind. And one cannot dismiss the possibility that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by the FBI as well. But Hoover’s legacy is with us today, just as the legacy of the Duvaliers lives on in Haiti. 

So I can only imagine the emotions Haitians must be feeling in the wake of his death. Was it something akin to the joy my father felt that beautiful spring day? Or was it something more complex, more nuanced. 

Max Blanchet, current Lambi Fund Board member, and past president, put it quite succinctly: “May his pestilent soul rest forever in hell.” 

How has the death of Baby Doc affected you? Let us know. 

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