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."
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.
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.
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.