Léon-Gontran Damas Essay - Critical Essays

Damas, Léon-Gontran


Léon-Gontran Damas 1912–1978

French Guianese poet, nonfiction writer, essayist, editor, and short story writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Damas's career.

Best known for his poetry—particularly the collection Pigments (1937)—Damas was a co-founder of Negritude, a literary and philosophical movement begun in Paris during the early 1930s, which attacked European colonialism and racism and affirmed African traditions and Black identity. Damas's poetry features rhythms drawn from blues music, jazz, and the African drumbeat, and often addresses themes of alienation, loss, and racial persecution. In summarizing Damas's career, O. R. Dathorne stated that Damas "was a poet who fiercely believed in a cause, but he did not allow that cause to blunt his vision…. His poetry stresses not the collision of worlds but the manner in which humanity can triumph and overcome manmade obstacles."

Biographical Information

Damas was born in Cayenne, French Guiana, a French territory in South America. Raised in a middle-class, mulatto family, he was pressured by parents and teachers throughout his youth to accept French culture and customs. His antipathy toward assimilation emerged later as a major theme in his poetry, particularly Black-Label (1956). He attended elementary and secondary schools in Cayenne and in Fort-de-France, Martinique, before traveling to Paris in the early 1930s. There, he attended the Université de Paris, studying literature, oriental languages, history, law, economics, and ethnology. While in Paris, he associated himself with the Surrealist movement, publishing poems as early as 1934 in such prestigious French literary journals as Esprit; he also met Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor, with whom he founded Negritude and the short-lived journal L'étudiant noir. Damas published his first book, Pigments, in 1937. His second book, Retour de Guyane (1938), a nonfiction critique of French colonialism, developed out of an ethnographic study Damas conducted in 1934 on the Bush Negroes of French Guiana. After World War II, during which he was active in the French Resistance, Damas continued his research into African culture in the Caribbean and South America. From 1948 to 1951, Damas represented French Guiana in the French National Assembly, and beginning in 1966, he served as a representative for the Société Africaine de Culture in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). He also taught modern and African literature at Federal City College and Howard University, both in Washington, D.C. At the time of his death in 1978, he was a Distinguished Professor of African Literature at Howard University.

Major Works

The chief concerns of Damas's poetry are racism, the problems of self-identity caused by the French colonial policy of assimilation, and the weaknesses of Western culture and society. Narrated in the first person by a character who assumes the role of a victim, the poems in Pigments constitute Damas's most vehement and direct treatment of his major themes. In such poems as "Ils sont venus ce soir" ("They Came That Night"), with its image of slave traders interrupting an African dance, Damas constructs a dichotomy between blacks and whites, maintaining that blacks are an exploited people and that whites are the exploiters who wish to rob blacks of their African identity. "Solde" ("Sell Out") addresses the discomfort and alienation Damas feels as a member of Western society, while "Hoquet" ("Hiccups") laments his bourgeois upbringing and "Réalité" ("Reality") expresses his shame for feeling culturally white. In "S.O.S." he suggests that the relationship between colonized blacks and colonizing whites is similar to that between the Jews and Nazis during the years surrounding World War II. In other poems Damas attacks Western religion as hypocritical and ridicules the double standard of French society, arguing that even though a black may act white, he is always considered a second-class citizen. In "Contre notre amour qui ne voulait rien d'autre," for instance, he comments on the use of Noah's curse of Ham in the Old Testament as a justification for the subjugation of blacks. Black-Label, Damas's only book-length poem, documents the musings and reminiscences of an exiled black during an evening spent drinking Black-Label. Concerned with self-contempt and "negro lackeyism," the poem addresses what J. M. Ita calls "the crippling effects of being brought up to despise what one is, and cannot help but be." Damas's love poems, collected in Graffiti (1952) and Névralgies (1966), focus on loss and lack of fulfillment. His book-length prose works include Retour de Guyane and Veillées noires (1943), a collection of folktales that combine elements from African, Amerindian, and European storytelling traditions. These tales treat such themes as the ability of the powerless to survive and the injustice of social orders based on race.

Critical Reception

Critics generally concur that Pigments is Damas's most enduring and engaging work; none of his subsequent writings, they argue, equal its intensity and urgency. Most commentators tend to focus on the stylistics of Damas's poetry, particularly his use of humor, musical rhythms, repetition, and unorthodox typography. Poems such as "Bientôt," for example, are wholly structured on a repetitive form which invokes a sense of circularity, completeness, and musical rhythm. Such techniques sometimes give his poetry the appearance of extreme simplicity, which, many critics argue, demonstrates Damas's skill in manipulating language to achieve complex effects. Regarding the humor in his verse, commentators note Damas's reversal of stereotypes and frequent use of puns. The title of "Nuit blanche" ("Sleepless Night"), for instance, is an untranslatable pun for "sleepless night" and "night spent with whites." Critics disagree, however, about the ultimate significance of Damas's poetry. While some contend that Damas is simply a poet of Negritude, others claim that his poetry transcends its immediate context and that his love poems in particular are racially anonymous.

Principal Works

Pigments (poetry) 1937
Retour de Guyane (nonfiction) 1938
Veillées noires (short stories) 1943
Poètes d'expression française: 1900–1945 [editor] (poetry) 1947
Poèmes nègres sur des airs africains [African Songs of Love, War, Grief and Abuse] (poetry) 1948
Graffiti (poetry) 1952
Black-Label (poetry) 1956
Névralgies (poetry) 1966
Nouvelle somme de poésie du monde noir [editor] (poetry) 1966
Hommage à Jean Price-Mars [editor] (nonfiction) 1969
Pigments, Névralgies (poetry) 1972

∗A revised edition of this work was published in 1962.

†An enlarged version of this volume was published in 1972.


Merle Hodge (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Beyond Négritude: The Love Poems," Critical Perspectives on Léon-Gontran Damas, edited by Keith Q. Warner, Three Continents Press, 1988, pp. 119-45.

[Hodge is a Trinidadian educator, novelist, and critic. The following excerpt was drawn from her unpublished thesis, "The Writings of Léon Damas and Their Connection with the Négritude Movement in Literature," completed in 1967 at the University of London. Below, she examines the themes and tone of Damas's poetry, focusing on his work in Graffiti, Black-Label, and Névralgies, and remarks on the similarities between Damas and the French poet Jacques Prévert.]

[Graffiti] at first...

(The entire section is 4457 words.)

J. M. Ita (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "On Black Label," in Critical Perspectives on Léon-Gontran Damas, edited by Keith Q. Warner, Three Continents Press, 1988, pp. 111-14.

[Ita is a Nigerian educator and critic. In the following essay, which was originally published in the journal African Arts/Arts d'Afrique in 1970, he remarks on the themes of Black-Label and asserts that the poem has been largely misunderstood in the English-speaking world.]

Black Label has, in the English-speaking world, the reputation of being a crude glorification of blackness, and a rather unintelligent example of black racialism. This undeservedly bad reputation is based on the fact, that of the...

(The entire section is 1083 words.)

Léon-Gontran Damas with Keith Warner (interview date July 1972)

SOURCE: An interview in Critical Perspectives on Léon-Gontran Damas, edited by Keith Q. Warner, Three Continents Press, 1988, pp. 23-8.

[Warner is a Trinidadian educator and critic. In the following interview, which was conducted in July 1972 and originally published in the journal Manna in 1973, Damas remarks on his career and the Négritude movement.]

[Warner]: Do you think that when you started writing you did so mainly out of the urge to be productive from a literary point of view, or rather out of the urge to convey a particular message? If message there was, did you think that poetry was the vehicle to convey it?

[Damas]: There...

(The entire section is 2276 words.)

Keith Q. Warner (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "New Perspective on Léon-Gontran Damas," in Critical Perspectives on Léon-Gontran Damas, edited by Keith Q. Warner, Three Continents Press, 1988, pp. 87-98.

[In the following essay, which was originally published in the journal Black Images in 1973, Warner examines Damas's poetic techniques, particularly the poet's use of repetition, humor, and musical rhythm.]

It is perhaps unfortunate that the name of Léon Damas is so often linked with those of Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor. The result is nearly always to the disadvantage of the French Guyanese poet, whose output is, to be candid, not as voluminous as that of the other two illustrious...

(The entire section is 3613 words.)

E. A. Hurley (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Pigments—A Dialogue with Self," in Critical Perspectives on Léon-Gontran Damas, edited by Keith Q. Warner, Three Continents Press, 1988, pp. 99-110.

[Hurley is a Barbadian educator and critic. In the following essay, which was originally published in the journal Black Images in 1974, he interprets Pigments as an internal dialogue.]

It is understandable that it has been the practice to identify Léon Damas, the author of Pigments, as one of the leaders, along with Césaire and Senghor, of the Négritude movement. It is beyond question that the orientation of his first collection of poetry, published in 1937, around the themes of...

(The entire section is 3959 words.)

Bridget Jones (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "Léon Damas," in A Celebration of Black and African Writing, edited by Bruce King and Kolawole Ogungbesan, Ahmadu Bello University Press, 1975, pp. 60-73.

[Jones is an English-born Jamaican educator and critic. In the following essay, she provides an overview of Damas's career and works.]

Léon Damas has received less attention than Senghor and Césaire. Out of a less abundant literary output, a few protest poems from Pigments (1937) are too often all that he is known by. Since his brief parliamentary career which ended in 1951, he has avoided the controversies of active politics and remained an exile whose main commitment is to the cause of...

(The entire section is 5397 words.)

Daniel L. Racine (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "The Aesthetics of Léon-Gontran Damas," in Présence Africaine, Nos. 121 and 122, 1982, pp. 154-65.

[Racine is a Guadeloupean-born educator and critic. In the essay below, he discusses the style of Damas's poetry.]

What is meant by the "aesthetics of Léon-Gontran Damas" is, as one may guess, his art as a writer. This art is discernible in both his prose and his verse. Within the limits of this presentation, it is not possible to describe the talent of the brilliant essayist of Retour de Guyane, "Misère Noire" [Esprit (June 1, 1939)] or "89 et nous les Noirs" [Europe (May-August 1939)] nor to demonstrate the art of the griot-like...

(The entire section is 3043 words.)

Thomas H. Brown (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Filling in Reader Gaps in Poems by Léon-Gontran Damas," in French Literature Series, Vol. XIX, 1992, pp. 47-56.

[In the essay below, Brown analyzes two of Damas's poems: "Ils sont venus ce soir" and "Contre notre amour qui ne voulait rien d'autre."]

Black francophone writer, Léon-Gontran Damas, portrays in his poetry the sad results of black/white confrontations in his native French Guiana. Leaving spaces for reflection, gaps to be filled by a creative reader, Damas has developed an art of nonspecificity, a writing technique rich and provocative in powers of suggestion. Although Sartre identifies the intended reader of black francophone poetry as a black...

(The entire section is 3119 words.)

Further Reading


Cook, Mercer. "The Poetry of Leon Damas." African Forum 2, No. 4 (Spring 1967): 129-32.

Reviews Névralgies, noting its continuities with Damas's earlier works and its implicit treatment of race.

Kennedy, Ellen Conroy. "Léon Damas." In The Negritude Poets: An Anthology of Translations from the French, edited by Ellen Conroy Kennedy, pp. 39-61. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1989.

Presents a brief biographical and critical introduction to Damas along with fifteen poems from Pigments.

Kesteloot, Lilyan. "Léon...

(The entire section is 230 words.)