A multiracial redefinition of culture.

mardi 12 juillet 2011
 la rédaction de Montray Kreyol

Professor Beverley Ormerod, born in Jamaica, introduced French Caribbean literature courses at the University of the West Indies where she lectured in the 1960s. She is now Associate Professor of French at the University of Western Australia, specializing in Francophone literature (Caribbean and African) and French Renaissance poetry. She is the author of An Introduction to the French Caribbean Novel (London : Heinemann, 1985) and co-author, with Jean-Marie Volet, of Romancières africaines d’expression française (Paris : L’Harmattan, 1994.)

In the 1930s, black and coloured intellectuals from the French Caribbean colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guyane sought

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 Negritude 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.[1] 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.[2] 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".[3] 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.[4]

However, Negritude's African solution was to be questioned in later decades. As more West Indian intellectuals had the opportunity of actually visiting Africa, some began to express doubts about the practical feasibility of Caribbean integration with African society: according to them, Africans tended to consider West Indians as foreigners, judging them on their national origin, religion and customs, rather than their skin colour.[5] As a cultural prescription, too, post-Negritude generations were to find Césaire's vision too restricted. To Edouard Glissant, the most influential Martinican writer since Césaire, it seemed that Caribbean consciousness needed to change direction: ceasing its vain attempts to plunge downward towards African roots that in reality had become too remote to recover (an idealized African tree of purification had been a key symbol in the Cahier), it should instead imitate the rhizome or tuber, spreading sideways and outward in a movement signifying its relationship and interaction with other multiracial New World cultures.[6] Glissant pointed out that Latin America and the southern United States had also experienced the meetings of indigenous peoples, European colonialists, imported African slaves and labourers from Asia. Thus, although retracing folk memories of past generations of slaves is an important theme in Glissant's fiction, racial affiliation with Africa is not a major issue in his cultural concept of Antillanité ("Caribbeanness"). Indeed, race itself is a notion almost incidental to the writer's preoccupation with the political question of France's quasi-colonial economic and cultural dominance in Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guyane, which in 1946 exchanged the official status of colonies for that of overseas departments of France. Glissant sees this continuing French dominance as the major factor in the Francophone West Indian's inability to achieve a sense of his true cultural identity.

Influenced by Glissant's doctrine of Caribbeanness, a more recent group of writers, led by the Martinicans Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant, has spearheaded a literary movement known as Créolité or "Creoleness". In their essays and fiction, they pay homage to Glissant's vision of Caribbean reality. However, they are more specifically concerned with promoting the importance of racial diversity and the literary value of the Creole language. These ideas are implicit in Glissant's work, but they are not central to his theory, which is above all committed to defending the individuality and complexity of Caribbean culture against the invasive political and media presence of France in her overseas departments.

Present-day racial diversity in the Caribbean illustrates the continuous reshaping of the society in the century and a half since slavery ended, not only with the arrival of indentured labourers from India and from China, but also with the coming of other ethnic groups such as the Lebanese, in search of freedom from poverty or intolerance elsewhere. Chamoiseau, Confiant and their Guadeloupean collaborator Jean Bernabé were not the first to focus on the heterogeneous nature of West Indian society, whose differences of ethnic origin had been extended by the many mixtures between racial groups. Already in 1964 a contemporary of Césaire's, René Ménil, had defined French Caribbean culture as "neither African, nor Chinese, nor Indian, nor even French, but ultimately West Indian".[7] Glissant had begun to introduce characters of Indian descent alongside the black Martinican working class in his novels from the mid-1970s.

However, the Eloge de la Créolité ("In Praise of Creoleness") published by Bernabé, Chamoiseau and Confiant in 1989 is not only the most recent, but also the most explicit attempt to redefine Caribbean culture through the language and folkways that are the common denominators of this diverse population.

This slim manifesto sets aside Negritude as an "African illusion" that encouraged, no less than did French colonialism, the West Indian's mistaken tendency to seek his identity outside his island and through a foreign culture. It praises Caribbeanness allusively through some of its chosen terminology ("we were the anticipation of the relations of cultures"), but considers Glissant's vision of a Caribbean linked to the Americas to be too vast in its framework. Creoleness focuses sharply on Martinique and small countries resembling it, describing itself as "the interactional or transactional aggregate of Caribbean, European, African, Asian, and Levantine cultural elements, united on the same soil by the yoke of history".[8] Creole culture is seen as the result of a process of adaptation that started with plantation days: a mixed culture that arose from the forced, nonharmonious confrontation of different languages, customs and world-views. Its manifestations are perceived beyond the Caribbean and American regions: the authors claim to have Creole affinities with the Seychelles, Mauritius, Reunion, and other African, Asian and Polynesian peoples. On the other hand (and unlike Glissant) they recognize only a limited, geopolitical solidarity with the Caribbean archipelago as a whole, since they consider the process of creolization not to have taken place in certain regions like Andalusian-influenced northern Cuba or the Hindu-dominated canecutting areas of Trinidad.

Chamoiseau and Confiant are novelists as well as essayists, and their manifesto is partly concerned with recommendations for expressing Creoleness in literature. They view the Creole language as the great unifying force which has arisen from racial diversity and resisted centuries of imposed education, despite the official policy of "assimilation" to France. Logically, this language should be the unique literary vehicle of Creole culture. But the reformers have had to concede that there is a practical obstacle here: namely, the very small public able to read, or willing to buy, works in Creole. Confiant's first novels were all published in Creole, but he was obliged to start writing in French, and he is now also publishing some of his Creole novels in French translation. However, he and Chamoiseau have displayed a dazzling ability to circumvent the linguistic problem by combining French with a continuous undercurrent of Creole speech rhythms, figurative expressions, and even some direct lexical borrowings, in order to preserve the flavour of Martinican popular culture in their novels. This "creolized" style may not yet have won general acceptance from a wide reading public, but both authors have achieved considerable critical success and won distinguished literary prizes in France.

The theory of Creoleness also concerns the content of literary works, maintaining that Creole fiction should express the true experience and the collective voice of the Martinican working class in all its diversity: multiracial and interracial. Here the greatest challenge has perhaps been to avoid existing stereotypes when depicting racially mixed individuals or members of minority groups. In giving greater prominence to the diversity in Martinican society, the Créolité school has undertaken a certain revaluation of the character of the métis, the person of mixed race. The ambivalence with which this figure has often been presented in Caribbean writing dates back to the hierarchies of plantation life, which accorded a position of uneasy privilege to the child of mixed race (often, in early days, the product of a union forced upon the female African slave by a white male on the slave ship or the plantation). In European eyes the métis was racially superior to the pure African slave, an attitude which is still visible in the work of those early 20th-century coloured Caribbean novelists who gave their heroines black skin, but the long curly hair and Europeanized nose of the more "acceptable" mulatto beauty.[9] Thus the mulatto (just one of a large number of Caribbean terms revealing the colonialists' obsession with precise degrees of mixed blood), struggling to survive in a white-dominated society, often became the enemy of the black person: lighter skin colour offered the hope of personal advancement, but also the likelihood of black resentment, as well as white ridicule.[10] This ambiguous social situation is reflected in colonial writing through stock figures such as the mulatto master who mistreats his black slaves, the brown-skinned beauty on the look-out for a rich white lover, or the coloured nouveaux riches clumsily imitating European social manners. 20th-century writers who have avoided such stereotypes have still tended to portray the métis negatively, as an individual doomed to social alienation, incapable of finding personal happiness because of her or his physical deviation from a white aesthetic norm which was historically identified, in the West Indies, with the highest good.[11] The only positive alternative presented in recent fiction is rather like the solution of Negritude: the mulatto decides to cleave to an African identity, as is the case with Maryse Condé's slave heroine in Moi, Tituba, sorcière...noire de Salem (1986) who defies white society by practising witchcraft and attempting to foster a revolt of plantation slaves.

Chamoiseau and Confiant have revalorized racial diversity in French Caribbean literature in order to illustrate their conviction that modern "Creole society" cannot be encompassed by a simple black-white definition. They themselves are not always innocent of stereotyping. A standard Confiant female protagonist, for instance, is a métisse, who may not be as venal as convention would have it, but who unmistakably incarnates sensuality. Her smooth brown skin, big breasts, long legs and provocative air are always seen through the external gaze of multiracial males enthusiastically united in lust. When writing autobiographically, however, Confiant offers unique insights into the figure of the West Indian chabin, the mixed-race person with light, freckled skin and crinkly fairish hair, sometimes also with green eyes. The female chabine is traditionally considered a sexual prize in the French Caribbean - a blonde chabine is the stereotypical reward of the upwardly mobile black police inspector in Chamoiseau's satirical novel Solibo Magnifique (1988) - but her male counterpart is regarded in a less flattering light. Confiant's physical appearance - the result of a mixture of black, white and Chinese blood - places him in this category. His serio-comic memoir, Ravines du devant-jour (1993), tells of his early childhood years spent with his mulatto grandparents in a country district, with playmates mainly of African or Indian descent. At the age of five or six, he becomes confusedly aware that his appearance sets him apart: "Black and not black, at the same time white and not white. However, you haven't yet become aware of the huge distance that the colour of your skin and hair creates between ordinary people and yourself".[12] The Creole insults of irritated adults give him his first glimpse into the abyss of colour and class resentment: Mové chaben! Sakré vyé chaben! Chaben tikté kon an fig mi! (Wicked chabin! Damned ugly chabin! Chabin spotty-faced like an overripe banana!), but on the other hand his playfellows' acceptance of his bullying is a heady lesson in the persistence of Caribbean skin hierarchies. Through the child's precocious gaze, moving from initial incomprehension to the development of a lively sense of self-preservation, Confiant shows us the Creole milieu of rural Martinique, with its blend of four races, its intersecting religions and beliefs, and its complex and often divisive social structure. And ever present in the narrative, whether indirectly through the transformation of French turns of phrase, or in direct snatches of reported speech, is the Creole language that holds together this multi-faceted society.

Chamoiseau's fiction seeks to do justice to characters of humble social origin, the sort that used to be largely background material in the works of middle-class West Indian novelists. His matter-of-fact inclusion of a mixture of races and skin shades is an aspect of his fidelity to Creoleness, with its commitment to portray Martinican society as fully and truthfully as possible. His wry, poignant Solibo Magnifique, which is essentially about the life and symbolic death of a black teller of folktales, surrounds the protagonist with a group representative of the multiracial diversity of the Martinican working classes. Mainly black, the gathering also includes a farm labourer who is depicted tongue-in-cheek as being "at the interface of fourteen race mixtures and uncharacteristic of them all". Another ethnicity is that of the "Syrian bastard" shopkeeper: the implicit allusion here to an absentee father evokes the generally wealthy Lebanese merchant class, widespread in the Caribbean, that may set up its half-black sons in business but prefers to marry within its own race. The "red chabin" who has twelve children, works in a factory and complains all the time is a humorous exaggeration of the chabin stereotype, as is his female equivalent, the cosseted blonde chabine who has married the rising black police inspector. Creoleness is the domain of the antihero, and an unromantic figure is that of the terrified couli market porter who goes to pieces in the police interrogation room. But the world of Indian Martinique is not present merely in this character: images such as the one of the black drummer resting between takes, his "arms dangling like coolie's hair", indicate the constant multiracial range of reference in Chamoiseau's handling of metaphor. And while the major action of the novel is sustained by traditional black West Indian characters (policemen and itinerant peddlars), these other figures emblematic of difference - each foregrounded at a particular moment in the narrative - serve as reminders that Caribbean society, ethnically mixed, is perpetually in a state of cultural interaction.

While Creoleness, which exalts interrelation, deplores the single-minded African focus of Negritude, it is evident that without Negritude there might have been no escape from the cultural hegemony of European colonialism. The end of slavery in the French Caribbean in 1848 did not mean liberation from black servitude, nor from oppressive white-imposed moral and aesthetic values. Negritude was a necessary stage in the long political and psychological struggle of black West Indians to gain mental freedom and personal dignity. In forcing recognition of African culture, in insisting on the validation of racial difference, it created a moral space that would later enable Caribbean writers to take stock of their increasingly multiracial society, and to take for granted their right to depict it.[13] It is this space that has now been exploited by Césaire's distant heirs to formulate the theory of Creoleness, a particular language and life-style unexpectedly born of the reluctant proximity of several non-indigenous peoples, in order to affirm and celebrate the present cultural diversity of Martinique.


[1]Aimé Césaire. Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. [1939] Présence Africaine, 1956, p.39. All translations in this paper are my own unless otherwise stated.

[2]The later Créolité movement was to criticize Césaire for this apparent neglect of the West Indian of Indian origin: see Raphaël Confiant's Aimé Césaire: Une traversée paradoxale du siècle.Paris: Stock, 1993, pp.69-72.

[3]L.-G. Damas. Pigments. [1937] Paris: Présence Africaine, 1962, p.36, p.57.

[4]Jack Corzani assesses the status that Gratiant accords to racial and cultural mixing, as opposed to Africa-orientated Negritude, in La Littérature des Antilles-Guyane françaises. Paris: Désormeaux, 1978, vol.3, pp.222-35.

[5]Ti Jean L'horizon. Paris: Seuil, 1979, and Maryse Condé's Une saison à Rihata. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1981.

[6]The notion of a multiplicity of relations and the rhizome analogy, developed in Edouard Glissant's Poétique de la Relation. 1990, are discussed by J. Michael Dash in Edouard Glissant. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp.179-181, and by Richard D.E. Burton in "The Idea of Difference in contemporary French West Indian Thought." In Burton and Reno (ed.). French and West Indian. London: Macmillan, 1995, pp.147-9.

[7]Ménil, in an article "Problèmes d'une culture antillaise" discussed in Burton, p.146. It is interesting to note that Ménil, who shared Césaire's ability to consider his society with a more equitable vision than that of colonialism, was (like Césaire until 1956) a member of the Communist Party.

[8]In Praise of Creoleness. Mohamed B. Taleb Khyar (trans.). In Callaloo 13, 1990, pp.891-92.

[9]See, for example, the discussion of Haitian male novelists in Guerda Romain's "Before Black was Beautiful: The Representation of Women in the Haitian National Novel" French Review 71, 1997, pp.55-65.

[10]Some of the tensions surrounding mixed-race characters in poetry and fiction are illustrated in G.R. Coulthard's pioneering study Race and Colour in Caribbean Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962. Chapters 7 and 8.

[11]See, for example, the novels of Michèle Lacrosil, particularly Cajou.1961 and Demain Jab-Herma. 1967.

[12]Raphaël Confiant. Ravines du devant-jour. Paris: Gallimard, 1993, p.35.

[13]While the theory of Creoleness is particularly associated with Chamoiseau and Confiant, other contemporary Caribbean novelists have in practice recognized and depicted the plurality of their society; this is reflected, for example, in the Guadeloupean novels of Maryse Condé and Gisèle Pineau.


The Martinican concept of "creoleness" : A multiracial redefinition of culture.