The Martinican concept of “creoleness”: A multiracial redefinition of culture.

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Caribbean/Latin America, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2013-11-24 03:44Z by Steven

The Martinican concept of “creoleness”: A multiracial redefinition of culture.

Mots Pluriels
Number 7, (July 1998): Third Space and Cross-Cultural Identities—Mestissage – Tiers Espace – Identite

Beverley Ormerod, Associate Professor of French
University of Western Australia

In the 1930s, black and coloured intellectuals from the French Caribbean colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guyane sought for the first time to define their cultural identity in terms of their historical and racial affiliations with Africa, rather than their political and educational ties with France. During centuries of colonial rule, class barriers had effectively separated darker-skinned from lighter-skinned West Indians; the school system had reinforced European aesthetic norms, and had demanded the repudiation of Creole, the language associated with black slaves, in favour of French. The Négritude movement, inaugurated with L.-G. Damas’ Pigments (1937) and Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Return to my Native Land, 1939), rejected this cultural predominance of France and emphasized the writers’ membership of the African diaspora. To the Martinican Césaire is attributed the neologistic term, Négritude, which stressed the vital importance to the poet’s ideology of his adherence to the black race. He and Damas brandished the terms “Negro”, “Africa”, “instinct” and even “savage” in their verse, delineating a new Caribbean cultural profile in truculent defiance of the prejudices of their likely public. For their message was addressed not only to French readers, but (and perhaps primarily) to the Francophile coloured and black bourgeoisie in the West Indies which had acquiesced in Europe’s dismissal of Africa as a site of racial and cultural inferiority.

For the Caribbean inventors of Negritude, Africa was more than simply an emblem of ethnic authenticity. Their invocation of this distant, unknown continent was intended to heal psychological wounds passed down from the first black West Indians, those generations of Africans exiled from their native lands and forced into captivity in a white-dominated society on the far side of an uncrossable ocean. In praising Africanness, early twentieth-century Caribbean writers were rejecting European stereotypes of race, colour, mental and physical attributes. Their belief in a cosmic connection with Africa expressed the hope of future acceptance in a spiritual homeland. Their blackness of skin, traditionally devalued by the white race, became the passport to kinship with a newly valorized African world of cultural difference.

Where did this leave the substantial part of the Caribbean population that, after centuries of African-European sexual relations and the 19th-century importation of Indian and Chinese labour, was neither white nor black? Césaire, whose demands for social justice were as eloquent in his literary as in his later political career, claims in his Cahier an affinity with all victims of racial oppression, asserting his solidarity with “the Jew-man, the Kaffir-man, the Hindu-man in Calcutta, the Harlem-man who doesn’t vote” – the worldwide victims of prejudice, verbal abuse, famine, torture and pogroms. But, speaking from the viewpoint of a black West Indian, Césaire holds up African culture as the single great alternative to European culture, the sovereign remedy for the alienation provoked by European colonialism. The founders of Negritude make an unspoken assumption that the Caribbean non-white individual will opt to be assimilated into the African cultural sphere. While invoking the Hindu in Calcutta, for example, Césaire does not consider the different cultural position of the large number of West Indians descended from coulis or “East Indian” indented labourers, whose syncretic life-style may combine Eastern religious practices with West Indian social elements. It is noticeable that French Creole, the linguistic link between the diverse elements of the French Caribbean population, is given no role in Negritude. Even standard French, for that matter, has an ambiguous status in the Cahier: linguistically it is a showcase for Césaire’s verbal subtlety and erudition, but thematically it is rejected as Césaire ostentatiously turns away from the French rationalist tradition towards the kinetic energy of African sorcery. African culture is equally embraced by Damas: it is symbolized by the banjo that his Guyanese mother vainly attempts to make him replace by the more socially acceptable violin (“mulattos don’t do that/leave that to blacks“); this imposition is angrily refused by the poet, just as he refuses identification with the white side of his ancestry: “How can they possibly dare/to call me “whitened”/when everything in me/aspires only to be Negro/as black as my Africa/that they stole from me”. Only a rare voice, like that of the mulatto poet Gilbert Gratiant, expresses a divergent view at this time—choosing to celebrate the double fusion (cultural and biological) of Africa and France in his veins, and at the same time making Creole his literary language of choice…

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