The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: November 21, 2003
Reviewed by Diana Hayes
The little that is known about Pierre Toussaint seems to many a fanciful story. Toussaints selfless life and charitable activities seem somehow incredible, too much for someone simply human.
In a smooth and lucid anecdotal style, Arthur Jones, editor at large for NCR, has written an interesting and detailed biography of the black man and former slave of Haiti and New York City. In so doing, he also provides an enlightening historical overview of a critical period in the history of both the soon-to-be-independent Haitian nation and of New York, at a time when the Americas were changing swiftly.
Born a slave on the LArtibonite plantation in 1781, Pierre Toussaint was the son of slaves who lived a slightly better life than their fellow slaves. His father was probably a skilled craftsman, while his mother had the privileged position of chambermaid to the lady of the house, Madame Bérard du Pithon. Toussaint was exposed at an early age to a life of refinement and intellect, unlike those slaves who worked backbreaking jobs in the fields. His grandmother Zénobie Julien, who served as combination housekeeper and manager for the Bérard family, was a great influence in his upbringing. As housekeeper, she was responsible for the smooth running of the household and also traveled regularly to France to enroll the Bérard children in their schools. The author presents us with an in-depth account of the working of the plantation system and the lives of the wealthy French planters whiling away the time until they could turn over their lands to their eldest sons and return to a life of luxury in Paris.
Pierre grew up, therefore, in an atmosphere that allowed him to speak French fluently and to become acquainted with the literary and philosophical masters of the time. (Years later, when he worked as a hairdresser for select customers in New York City, many would be astounded at the breadth and depth of his knowledge.)
The domestic peace of the plantation was shattered in 1791 when the slaves revolted, a revolt that was bloody and long, lasting until 1803, when the first black nation in the Caribbean was established. Faced with inevitable defeat, Jean-Jacques Bérard, his wife and other family members left for New York in 1797, taking five slaves, including Pierre, with them. He was never to see his mother or grandmother again.
Jones brings the revolution and its bloody impact to vivid life. It is in this period, as the child grew into a man, that we begin to see the true Pierre Toussaint. Although a slave, he was a man of refinement and dignity, slow to anger and free with his possessions, few though they might be. During the Bérards permanent exile in New York, he revealed himself as a man of honesty and integrity. He chose to remain a slave until his mistress Aurore Bérard, who had been named his godmother when she was 5, gave him his freedom on her deathbed. He remained a slave even though he knew the risks and hardships awaiting a black man in New York, where slave-hunters would attack any black, free or slave, and hustle them off to be sold down South.
The man who emerges from this well-researched book is one who went above and beyond the duties incumbent upon him as a slave. Acting, for the most part, as a free agent, Pierre Toussaint became an adept businessman who was able to maintain both his own family and the Bérard family -- as well as many others -- with his hairdressing business. He also maintained his Catholic faith in the face of prejudice and often trying circumstances.
Arthur Jones book gives the reader an entry into the life of the man behind the stories that surround him. He presents us with the human face of this man of spirit, who devoted his life to serving others while seeking neither reward nor recognition for his many charitable acts. The question of why he did not seek his own freedom while continuing to serve is not fully answered here. Perhaps it was simply because, in all ways meaningful, he was already free, so felt no need of an official document. In any case, what this work clearly reveals is that Pierre Toussaint, slave and free man, simple hairdresser and benefactor of many, is more than deserving of the cause for which many are now directing their energies. With the support of the late Cardinal John OConnor, he has been put forward for beatification and sainthood, a status that in many ways he had already attained during his incomparable life. He was the personification of a saint, one who spent his life selflessly in behalf of others, regardless of skin color or religious faith.
Diana Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University in Washington.
National Catholic Reporter, November 21, 2003
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