"Dessalines" (1893): A Play by William Edgar Easton

Preface by William Edgar Easton


It is with much diffidence I submit to the crucial test of public criticism a work which is apt to be provocative of the harshest strictures, but I will feel fully repaid should Dessalines have accomplished the author's purpose of attracting the attention of the literati of the race to the rich fields of dramatic and narrative art, which by every right are distinctly the property of the Negro.

A nation or race have other legal possessions aside from those whose geographic limitations are its boundaries of rivers, lakes and mountains. Dearer than all else should be its tradition, history, literature and music, for upon the proper education of the masses in these requisites depends durability of that race or nation's fame and its guarantee of future greatness. It is only on these solid bedrocks we can hope to build up a healthy and substantial race pride.

The Mongolian has his art, music and literature; the Semitic race likewise. The Caucasian boy at his mother's feet learns, with pride, of the deeds of his race and, through the spirit of emulation, raises the standard of the living above the ashes of the dead. The Negro alone fails to immortalize his distinguished dead, and leaves to the prejudiced pen of other races, the office, which, by a proper conception of duty to posterity, very properly becomes his duty. What religious pen of the race has written of Benedict, the Moor; of the sainted Africans, Monica and Augustine; or sang in stately verse the deeds of the heroic Haitians; or sought to turn the light of truth on the historic greatness of ancient Ethiope?

How many of our children and their children will know that the Dumas were of their race and Russia's greatest poet had the blood of the down-trodden in his veins? It is true we have had our biographers and able writers on politico-economics; but we have signally failed to produce one genius gifted writer of Negro fiction; one writer of Negro drama; one poet whose lyre plays the sweetest airs in the land of his Afric sires.

Especially with us has the art of drama writing been neglected. This fact is more deplorable when we pause to consider the potent influence the drama wields in the reformation or vitiation of public opinion. In ancient Rome the drama was made the reformer of private vices and public morals. On the mimic stage were portrayed the direful results of the abuse of power, and kings were made acquainted with the needs of their subjects. The stage in those days, as it is today, was a mirror for despots to view their own iniquity.

It is true we have our sketch artists, whose business it has been to supply our burnt-cork “artists” with ideas. Indeed, we have had excellent caricaturists of the Negro, in his only recognized school of legitimate drama, i. e., buffoonery.

But the author of this work hopes to see a happier era inaugurated by the constant production of legitimate drama, written exclusively for Negro players and meeting, he hopes, with the full endorsement of the brother in white. Othello, once the pride of the ambitious colored histrionic, has sadly metamorphosed his once singularly dark complexion and now holds the boards, the victim of a very mild case of sunburn.

How we have degenerated! Poor old Uncle Tom may yet play the banjo and “pat time” for the now thoroughly civilized Topsey, who, when last heard from, was "spouting poetry” and “giving” the skirt dance.

The Negro jubilee singer meets, the brother-in-white's approval; but a black Romeo, a black Melnotte! Ye gods, protect the black Proteans from the weight of popular white disapproval. Voice and gesture, they declare, are not all the proprieties.

For the reasons, as above enumerated, has the author presumed to lay on the altar of race pride the dramatic tale of the heroic Dessalines. Let the critic with a charitable hand separate its history from romance and give the author the credit, at least, of seeking, in the way he knows best, to teach the truth, that “minds are not made captive by slavery's chains, nor were men's souls made for barter and trade.”

To the many talented histrionics of the race: Dessalines is only a “pointer” to the literati. To my brothers of the press: Treat your erring brother kindly. 


Yours, for the race, 


William E. EASTON. 

Galveston, Tex., Jan. 20, 1893.


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