Léon-Gontran Damas

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Merle Hodge (essay date 1967)

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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 The following excerpt was drawn from her unpublished thesis, "The Writings of Léon Damas and Their Connection with the Négritude Movement in Literature," completed in 1967 at the University of London.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 disconcerts because it is all but racially anonymous—the burning preoccupations of Pigments are totally absent. A few years later in Black-Label, which had been in preparation all the while, the theme of race returns, but much of the work is strongly personal. His latest work, Névralgies, is also composed of personal poetry.

If we take the works Pigments, Black-Label and Névralgies (which incorporates Graffiti) as a trilogy, the three works show the poet progressively recoiling into himself. Although the poems of Pigments are intensely 'first hand' and are therefore poetry rather than standard-bearing, yet the angry 'moi' of these poems is often meant as a collective voice, a cry from the poet assuming the fate of his whole race. A few of the poems of Pigments which are outside the field of race are hermetic poems. Some of the personal poetry of Black-Label is also quite private. A large proportion of Névralgies, which is entirely personal, remains in a tantalizing half-light.

The progression towards completely personal poetry reminds one of Sartre's prediction that the racial revolt and self-assertiveness of the Negritude movement would be but a necessary stage in the development of modern literature in the French ex-colonies. Damas, having vented his racial rage and asserted his identity (the latter being as much for his own benefit as in a gesture of revolt), moves towards poetry which has a wider human reference for delving deeper into the experience and feelings of one man. So that paradoxically his poetry opens out by becoming more egocentric. In Pigments he is vehemently black, proclaiming with all his might his racial identification and solidarity; in Black-Label, considerably mellowed, he takes up his narrower identity of a West Indian. In his love-poetry he is first and foremost a man.

The note of personal affliction which in Pigments remains a part of his racial awareness merges in his later works with a more general sadness and disillusionment with life….

His love-poetry reveals a cause of his unhappiness. Damas is a poet of loss, deprivation, unfulfilment. His lament for his lost self, the loss of his 'black dolls', gives way to a lament on the loss of love. The happier aspects of love are totally absent from his love-poetry. It is almost in its entirety on the death or the absence of love. A poem in Graffiti is perhaps meant to explain the title of the volume, and might be the title-poem for all of Damas' love-poetry:

      Tandis qu'il agonise
      sans peur
      sans prêtre
      plus blanc que drap
      plus essoufflé qu'un train qui entre en gare
      d'un fabuleux parcours
      l'amour râle un poème
      comme d'autres
      confient un dernier acte

      les vers
      au fronton du mausolée marmoréen
      debout à l'image agrandi
      de ce qui fut
      au rythme d'une nuit

      (On its very death-bed
      without fear
      without priest
      whiter than a sheet
      more breathless than a train coming in
      from a fabulous run
      love rattles...

(This entire section contains 4457 words.)

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a poem
      as others
      commit a final act

      of themselves
      the lines
      are inscribed
      on the fronton of the marmoreal mausoleum
      erect in the enlarged image
      of that which was
      to the rhythm of
      an Afro-Cuban night)

The incident of the 'Afro-Cuban night' is presumably what is described in the beautiful third section of Black-Label. In the refrain repeated twice in this passage, an ominous note is sounded:

       LA LIGNE


In fact, the theme of the sexual taboo between the races does not loom very large in Damas' love-poetry….

In Pigments there is a handful of poems in [a] … tender strain, revealing a side of his nature perhaps more fundamental than the intransigent anger which characterizes the book as a whole….

This streak of tenderness comes into its own in Damas' love-poetry, where the grim combatant gives way to the quite gentle and sensitive man. Harshness, violent flashing anger subside into quiet sadness. In Pigments the effect of these few poems is heightened by the surrounding ones—they are pools of shade in a merciless light. And in the same way one perhaps appreciates Damas' love-poetry all the more when it is seen against his militant poetry. Against the fierce defiance of some of the poems of Pigments, a poem such as this has an even greater appeal—it is as though, divested of his armour and of his thunderbolts, he were left naked and vulnerable:

        Désir d'enfant malade
        d'avoir été
        trop tôt sevré du lait pur
        de la seule vraie tendresse
        j'aurais donné
        une pleine vie d'homme
        pour te sentir
        te sentir près
        près de moi
        de moi
        seul …

        (Longing of a sick child
        for having been
        too soon weaned from the pure milk
        of the only true tenderness
        I would have given
        a whole life-time
        to feel you
        feel you near
        near to me
        to me

But the spirit of the combatant never leaves him to fall, like the 'bâton qui soutient les vieux corps' (stick that holds up old bodies). Damas' poetry drifts into a claustrophobic nightmare of loneliness, regret, insomnia—'névralgies', yet a certain stoicism remains to bolster up the tone. Never does he slip into self-pity. Much of the beauty of these poems lies in their restraint, the wistfulness born of resignation in sadness. Over-sentimentality finds no place in even the most melancholy of poems. It is outraged stoicism which accounts for the irritation of poems such as this:

       Je ne sais rien en vérité
       rien de plus triste
       de plus odieux
       de plus affreux
       de plus lugubre au monde
       que d'entendre l'amour
       à longueur de journée
       se répétant à messe basse …
       (I know of nothing in truth
       nothing more dreary
       more hateful
       more hideous
       more lugubrious in the world
       than to hear love
       the live long day
       repeating itself
       in low mass …)

But in this poem and many others in the same strain Damas' irritation could well be directed at himself. His stoicism is by no means facile. It is achieved at the cost of constant effort and sometimes even betrays a hint of bravado. But his poems would be less moving if they betrayed a superman riding above his griefs, and in that case they would probably never have been written—many of these poems are his effort at rallying:

      Il n'est pas de midi qui tienne
      et parce qu'il n'a plus vingt ans
      mon coeur
      ni la dent dure
      de petite vieille
pas de midi qui tienne
      je l'ouvrirai
pas de midi qui tienne
      je l'ouvrirai
pas de midi qui tienne
pas de midi qui tienne
      j'ouvrirai la fenêtre
pas de midi qui tienne
      j'ouvrirai la fenêtre au printemps
pas de midi qui tienne
      j'ouvrirai la fenêtre au printemps que je veux éternel
pas de midi qui tienne
      (Noon can never keep
      and because it's no longer twenty
      my heart
      nor sharp-toothed
      like a little granny
noon can never keep
      I will open it
noon can never keep
      I will open it
noon can never keep
      I will open
noon can never keep
      I will open the window
noon can never keep
      I will open the window to the spring
noon can never keep
      I will open the window to the spring that I want eternal
noon can never keep)

There are other poems [like 'Il n'est pas de midi qui tienne' (quoted above)] where 'midday' and 'midnight' represent an elusive, precariously beautiful fulfilment. It is an image which often strikes his imagination, the noon of his childhood when the sun would hover for a moment at the highest point in the sky and all but abolish shadow….

It is only in a handful of poems … that Damas approaches anything in the nature of overt moralizing. What emerges by way of a philosophy is a kind of protective near-pessimism which, far from leading to despair, favours acceptance and recovery. He debunks love as inherently precarious, and ends the book Névralgies on a note of resignation:

       citez-m'en un
       citez-m'en un
       un seul de rêve
       qui soit allé
       qui soit allé
       jusqu'au bout du sien propre

       (Tell me then
       tell me then of one
       tell me then of one
       one single dream
       that went
       that went
       right to the end of its very own)

But the tendency in Damas' love-poetry is not towards generalizing. His poems are wrung out of a very particular experience, and if the woman addressed is not presented in very great physical detail, largely effaced into an absent 'ELLE' often thus written in capitals, she is not idealized into an abstraction of Woman. Some of the poems are made up of details and allusions which shut us out, but for the most part the fact that the décor of a poem is a very specific one makes for a quality of familiarity and intimacy whose appeal is quite the opposite of that of the more abstract forms of love-poetry, where a couple are sublimated into Eternal Man and Eternal Woman floating free of particularities. This poetry has its own attraction, lifting us out of the circumstantial into the vaguer realms of the Ideal (occasionally leaving us mere wondering spectators, staring up at figures who, in the process of sublimation, have become lamentably disembodied).

There is on the other hand love-poetry in which we are permitted to eavesdrop on the relationship of two individuals who are decidedly corporeal, firmly grounded in time and space and in the details of their experience, but who in their very particularity share in the nature of Eternal Man and Woman. Because they are palpably alive with their own particular life, they are part of the stuff out of which Eternal Man and Woman are fashioned. Damas applies no capital letters to his experience and delivers no homilies on Love. His poems remain intimate and untheatrical, never inflated by rhetoric or by conscious generality. In one or two cases he may be said to have fallen into the opposite sin, of insignificance, where he fails to call forth a response because the poem remains tied down by the smallness of its details. But usually the effect is the exact opposite. The reader may participate because the details are on such a scale as to fall within the scope of his own possible experience—they are recognizable. And so Damas' love-poetry assumes wider dimensions by proceeding from the un-pretentious small end of the telescope. He captures transitoriness—a mood, a reflection, a touch of frivolity—so intimate and so familiar that his poems of themselves rise out of the personal and private into the human:

      Je te vois
      je te sens
      je te veux en tailleur gris
      et non plus marron comme tes yeux qui semblaient
      parfois invoquer dieu
      parfois le diable
      jusqu'à ce qu'ils eussent enfin
      soumis les miens que tu m'auras souvent dit
      toi qui incarnes le diable en diable
      être à la fois et ceux de dieu
      et ceux du diable.

      (I see you
      I feel you
      I want you in tailored grey
      and why the devil my god in tailored grey
      and no longer brown like your eyes that seemed
      sometimes to be invoking god
      sometimes the devil
      until at last
      they had subjected mine that you so often said
      you who incarnate the devil's own person
      were all at once god's
      and the devil's)

The sad smile in this poem is characteristic of much of his love-poetry. Throughout his personal poetry, joyless as the tale might be, his sense of humour does not desert him, and this is another factor contributing to keeping his poetry from being submerged in wearying complaint, in the same way that humour in Pigments makes bitterness palatable by tempering it into superb irony. There are still flashes of this familiar irony, but Damas' humour in his later personal poetry is, in general, not of the cutting type. It is considerably softened, subdued—it is a wry shrug rather than a whiplash. But in Pigments, from the detachment of irony he yet plunges into the occasional fit of rage. Névralgies, on the other hand, is the work of a collected man—it is on the whole consistent in its restraint, and the more bitter poems are among those reproduced from the earlier Graffiti. The overall impression of his personal poetry and of Névralgies in particular is a wry, dogged buoyancy:

       Pas d'ombres
       surtout chinoises
       j'entends rester seul et
       de la rade
       seul maître du navire en rade
       qui tangue et tangue et tangue
       qui danse et danse et danse au lazaret de mon coeur en quarantaine …

       (No shadows
       above all shadow-theatre
       I mean
       I mean to stay alone and
       of the ship's course
       sole master of the laid-up ship
       that bounces bounces bounces
       that dances dances dances in the lazaret of my heart in quarantine …)

Not only does Damas withdraw into the isolation of self-reliance, but as we have noted, his tendency towards hermetic poetry grows. Damas is a believer in metempsychosis…. The theme of metempsychosis would seem to shed light on a number of his decidedly esoteric poems, although it does not by any means provide crystal clarity. On the contrary, Damas maintains an intriguing half-light of equivocality over many of these poems, like the 'clair obscur' (dim brightness) which he evokes in one poem ['Parce que la Comédie'], a light reminiscent of that grey glare which is the setting of dreams—as in this poem for example:

       Tant de vies
       Tant de vies en une seule
       Tant d'assiettes
       tant d'assiettes
       sous l'évier du drame
       que l'homme fut seul à porter
       à l'origine de toutes choses
       dans le faux jour
       dans le faux jour de la dernière invite.

       (So many lives
       so many lives in one

       So many plates
       so many plates
       under the sink of the story
       that the man carried all alone
       at the very beginning of all things
       in the false light
       in the false light of the last round)

There are other similar allusions to a point lost in the mists of time, or simply a previous age—'la nuit des temps perdus proches' (the night of the lost ages nigh); 'de temps immémoriaux' (from time immemorial); 'à l'âge amérindien du monde' (in the Amerindian age of the world); 'une vie antérieure' (a former life). Reference to a 'dream recreated' might be interpreted in the context of metempsychosis or might be taken as allusions to what seems to be an actual dream which he relates in a passage of Black-Label and certain details of which recall ['Captation' in] Pigments. There is only one overt mention of reincarnation—this poem is addressed to his twin-sister who died in babyhood:

       Qui pourrait dire
       si ce n'est mort-né
       l'autre moi-même

       Qui pourrait dire
       qu'en ce jour anniversaire
       j'eusse à célébrer l'absence
       de toi mon double

       Qui pourrait dire
       si ce n'est toi
       autre moi-même
       réincarné mon double
       mort-né …

       (Who could say
       if not my still-born
       other self

       Who could say
       that on this anniversary day
       I would have your absence to celebrate
       my double

       Who could say
       if not you
       my other self
       reincarnated my double
       still-born …)

There are other poems where the idea is expressed of a mystical correspondence between himself and a woman. This is the suggestion throughout the passage from the third section of Black-Label….

The theme of metempsychosis, or the repeated reincarnation of a soul until it has completed its term of transmigration, can be placed in the context of a theme which pervades all of Damas' poetry, that of fulfilment, or, more often than not, unfulfilment. His poems are full of metaphors and images of desire, of satisfaction out of reach—'Accoudés au désir de la veille insatisfait' (Brooding on yesterday's unfulfilled wanting—Pigments); there is the refrain of the section in Black-Label where he recalls the longing of his constricted childhood: 'Désirs comprimés' (Hankerings repressed); in Névralgies the theme of unfulfilment returns to dominate the book—the first poem is entitled 'Pour que tout soit en tout' ('That all be in all'), and the last poem declares this fulfilment to be unattainable (the poem 'Citez-m'en'), while the whole book abounds in images such as 'carrefour' (crossroads), 'midi' (midday), 'minuit' (midnight), 'mangue mûre' (ripe mango), 'fruit mûr' (ripe fruit) and other images of crisis of ripeness, of eating and drinking, hunger and thirst—'marron qui mange à sa faim' (marroon eating his fill), and there is also the longing for an end, an overdue climax or completion: 'le plaisir d'en finir avec un dilemme' (the satisfaction. of having done with a dilemma), 'l'autobus pressé d'en finir au passage' (the bus in a hurry to have done with the trip), and in more than one poem the termination or fulfilment he longs for is no less than death: 'la mort dont je rêve' (the death I dream of).

But this his private mysticism, the belief in metempsychosis, does make him amenable to the mysteries of religion. The Church which in Pigments receives only the merest of amused sarcasm—in a poem about his upbringing—is suddenly the object of intermittent attacks in Graffiti and thereafter. The attention which the Church receives in his more personal works is perhaps not to be explained in the light of his bourgeois upbringing alone. Some poems suggest that he had had a more recent contact with the Church to which he was now reacting:

      Il me souvient encore
      de l'année foutue
      où j'eusse
      tout aussi bien sucer
      et le pouce
      et l'index
      du sorcier en soutane
      au lieu de l'avaler l'hostie
      ma foi mon dieu
      mains jointes

      (I still recall
      the rotten year
      when I
      just as well suck
      both the thumb
      and the forefinger
      of the cassocked sorcerer
      instead of swallowing it the host
      oh faith my god
      hands joined)

He reduces the Church to a set of lugubrious and hypocritical forms and prohibitions, and in contrast to its 'Dieu unique et triple, implacable comme un grand prêtre due Temple de Jérusalem, et imbécilement bon comme un vieux sacristain de "La Croix"' (God who is single and triple, implacable as a High Priest of the Temple of Jerusalem, and as imbecilically good-natured as an old sexton of "The Cross"), [Retour de Guyane], invokes some animistic god of his ancestors, whom his ancestors worshipped with joy and self-abandon….

[Damas rejects] the god of Christianity as being part and parcel of Western civilization in its loss of contact with the life of the earth, its loss of humanity. His most frequent attack on the Church is the charge of hypocrisy, the accusation that worship has become largely formulae and regulation behaviour lacking in sincerity and meaningfulness. The third stanza here is obviously inspired by Etienne Léro's words in Légitime Défense:

Langston Hughes et Claude McKay, les deux poètes révolutionnaires, nous ont apporté, marinés dans l'alcool rouge, l'amour africain de la vie, la joie africaine de l'amour, le rêve africain de la mort.

(Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, the two revolutionary poets, have brought us, soaked in red alcohol, the African love of life, the African joy of love, the African dream of death.)

Damas evokes 'African' worship as being more vital and sincere than the ossified religion of Western civilization. One however hesitates to attribute to him a 'personal religion' on the strength of passages such as this. His allegiance to this god of his, one suspects, is a purely intellectual identification by reaction to Christianity, rather than a declaration of faith….

Damas' deliberately coarse irreverence is only one characteristic which recalls the work of Jacques Prévert. In a mock prayer [from Black-Label], for instance, he enquires after the state of God's hearing, and offers a possible cause of His deafness, which seems to be his own very original and blasphemous interpretation of one of the 'Madonna and Child' poses:

      … SEIGNEUR
      à moins de les avoir bien sales
      pour n'avoir plus à vos côtes Marie-l'Unique
      à la fois Vierge et Mère
      qui avait l'oeil à votre oreille
      comme au jour le jour veille
      l'homme à la ruche …

      unless they've got really dirty
      for no longer having at your side Mary-the-Unbeatable
      all at once Virgin and Mother
      who kept an eye on your ear
      like the day-to-day watch
      of the bee-keeper …)

The book Black-Label is introduced as the work of 'un Prévert africain' (an African Prévert). Damas does not acknowledge Prévert as a master—he considers that he has been influenced, among modern French poets, above all by Desnos. Damas has known Prévert, and shows an unmistakeable enthusiasm for his work, where he discovers a kindred spirit; he was acquainted with Prévert's poems, published in reviews, sometimes in reviews with which Damas was associated, before Prévert collected them into Paroles, his first book of poetry, in 1945. Damas' first book of poetry had however already been published, nine years before, so that the question of influence can certainly be overdone, and the affinities to be established in the work of the two poets are perhaps for the most part to be traced to a confluence of aims and attitudes.

In the work of both men one finds the same impudence, the same sense of humour delighting in underlining accepted incongruities, the same rebelliousness and resentment of authority and restraint. As Prévert speaks contemptuously of 'le bon Dieu des flics' (the Heavenly Father of cops) so the uniformed defender of the established order [the police officer] figures more than once in Damas' work as the object of irritation or aversion….

Prévert's attacks on the tedium and repression of school find an echo in Damas' evocations of his own school life, with lessons (in his case even more dry and devoid of relevance from the child's point of view) contrary to his inclination. Like Prévert's school children, the boy Damas longed for freedom from the prison of the classroom and its unpalatable fare….

       … CHARLEMAGNE en pied pendu a l'un des quatre murs
       de la classe un Enfer …

       (CHARLEMAGNE in full-length hanging on one of the four walls
       of the class; a Hell)

       … tes nuits qu'agitaient
       des leçons anonnées en dodine….

       (your nights tossed about
       with lessons mumbled in a trance)

Damas by reaction to his upbringing shares Prévert's antibourgeois attitude, his aversion for 'le Beau Monde'. The members of the social class in which Damas grew up did not differ substantially from the bourgeois caricatures which abound in Prévert's work. One particularly delightful passage in Black-Label on Damas' childhood recalls a poem of Prévert's ['Le beau langage', in La Pluie et le beau temps, 1955] in which a misdemeanour on the part of a child scandalizes the propriety of its elders and produces painful results:

       … Les cris de joie feinte
         d'autres diraient de rage
         que tu poussais à perdre haleine
         à la toute dernière fessée recue pour t'être
         sous le regard acerbe de ta mère offusquée
         et à la gêne polie de tous
         farfouillé le nez
         d'un doigt preste et chanceux
         au goûter de Madame-La-Directrice-de-

       (The cries of feigned joy
       others might call it rage
       that you kept up fit to make you breathless
       at the very last spanking you got because
       before the reproving eyes of your scandalized mother
       and to the polite embarrassment of all
       you rummaged in your nose
       with a nimble daring finger
       at the tea-party of Missus-Headmistress-of-the-Girls'-School)

Prévert's sympathy for the poor is matched by Damas' preoccupation in his writings with the poverty of his people. And in a passage [from Black-Label] where Damas evokes the peasant misery of the French Caribbean, he almost certainly has in mind a section of Prévert's 'Dîner de têtes'….

One critic sums up Damas' work as 'resounding racism ending in an emotional cul-de-sac' [W. Feuser, 'Négritude—The Third Phase', The New African (April 1966)]. Despite this resounding inaccuracy, Damas' inspiration is at no point bounded by race, and far less by racism. His purely racial writing is as necessary and as justifiable as the whole Negritude movement, but his work follows a pattern which is the best direction that Negritude, in literary terms, could take. There is a limited number of successful works that can be written around the affirmation that one is black. Damas continues to engage himself actively in the cultural rehabilitation which has been an important aim of the Negritude movement, after his political involvement, which was another corollary of Negritude. His poetry does not end at the defense and exaltation of his 'Negritude'. It is his common humanity above all which is revealed in his love-poetry, and it is a strange racism which moves a man to declare to one of the race which is the object of his racism:

        … nous ne sommes
           qu'une même somme
           qu'un seul et même sang …

           (We are but
           one same sum
           one same and single blood …)

J. M. Ita (essay date 1970)

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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 whole poem sequence, the only part generally known to the English-speaking public are the following lines:

       The White will never be negro
       for beauty is negro
       and negro is wisdom
       for endurance is negro
       and negro is courage
       for patience is negro
       and negro is irony
       for charm is negro
       and negro is magic
       for love is negro
       and negro is loose walking
       for the dance is negro
       and negro is rhythm
       for laughter is negro
       for joy is negro
       for peace is negro
       for life is negro

These lines are, in fact, quoted by Mr. Gerald Moore in his introduction to Seven African Writers, where he prefaces them with the words: "The chief danger carried by Negritude is that of degenerating into a racialism as intolerant and arrogant as any other. At its fiercest, it can lead to the writing of defiant, if invigorating, nonsense like this: 'The White will never be negro …'"

By isolating Damas' lines, Mr. Moore has endowed them with a crudity which is not theirs when read in context. The lines are not, of course, intended to be an entirely self-contained poem, but constitute part of a sequence, representing the musings, reminiscences and vituperations of a negro in exile during a night spent drinking Black Label. This exile had begun, not in Paris, but in the colonies with the birth of a child deprived a maternal love, "that no maternal bosom will ever fail to nurse for lack of tenderness."

[In a footnote, the critic states that the phrase "that no maternal bosom will ever fail to nurse" is "a mistranslation. It should read 'which no maternal breast will ever nourish.'"] It was a child whose pram a stiffly uniformed nurse pushed endlessly from avenue to boulevard, and from park to square—a child perpetually drilled in the false gentility of a colonial bourgeoisie, in the hushed conversational tones and the fingers crooked over the teacup:

       At tea, the two pointed fingers stabbing, pointing
       Exactly at the bourgeois sense of conventions.

It is the Negro-ness of the child which nurse and parents, teachers and clergy all try to eradicate. Thus, the child's experiences force upon it (and temporarily upon the reader) an identification of negro-ness with all that is natural and spontaneous in its nature.

The lines "The White will never be negro …" are, in part, a summing up of identifications forced upon, and beaten into, the poet by his childhood experience. But the lines do not occur in the immediate context of the poet's convention-ridden childhood; they are a tirade provoked by the memory of fashionable Parisians in a metropolitan jazz dive aping what they suppose to be the natural spontaneity of the African.

       The CUBAN CABIN
       The liveried page with the red parasol
       the stairs which gave sheer on to the giddying darkness
       and threw you straight into the fevered rhythm
       the harshness of the blues
       the stomp …

Their immediate context is:

       The White at the Negro's school
       at the same time
       well behaved
       submissive and a mimic
       The White will never be negro …

The lines

       and negro is loose walking
       for the dance is negro
       and negro is rhythm

probably refer not so much to "loose walking" in general, but to an actual attempt of Parisians (seen or remembered by the poet) to imitate negro dance movements. For the Parisians search for the spontaneity of "Africa" through jazz and blues—that is to say, through the music and dance forms of the already exiled negro world. There is a fairly obvious irony in the situation: while the "fashionable" coloured colonial bourgeoisie cripple themselves in an attempt to adopt the norms of the white metropolis, the metropolis is struggling to imitate "African" spontaneity. But what the poet sees here is not merely another form of falsity and artificiality, but artificiality intensified to the highest degree; for surely no artificiality can be more artificial, and more of a mockery of all authenticity, than that which apes spontaneity. Besides this, the decision of Parisians to patronise Africa is doubly insulting. First, Paris has stunted and thwarted the development of the negro poet. Now its interests in "Africa" seem like an attempt to take over such crumbs of personality and vitality as had been left to him. The lines "The White will never be negro …" represent the forceful, if one likes, crude, outburst of the poet faced with phony Parisian Afrophilia.

There is a sharp contrast between the style of his passage, which is, superficially at least, straight forward and almost pompous in tone, and Damas' usual poetic style which is highly elliptical and shot through with double entendre. The passage in the framework of a more mannered sequence constitutes not only a denunciation, but a jeer at the folly of artificiality aping spontaneity.

Within the framework of Black Label genuineness and spontaneous life have become identified with the negro (that is, with the pre-exile negro) and artificiality with the white. But the poem cycle as a whole is not concerned with stating baldly the merits of the blacks and the demerits of the whites, or at least, not in the crude way which critics like Mr. Moore might be prone to suppose. It is little concerned with the whites. It is concerned with negro lackeyism, and the crippling effects of being brought up to despise what one is, and cannot help but be. Far from being crude, Black Label is a work of considerable complexity. Sprung from the negro experience, it burns that experience into its readers; but its treatment of negro self-contempt is relevant to all self-contempt, just as its treatment of the speciousness of the patrons of the Cabane Cubaine is relevant to all speciousness. It is a poem sequence whose complexity and scope entitle it to more serious and more sustained critical attention than it has so far received.

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

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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 was definitely a message. A cultural one first of all, and a political one. We cannot separate culture from politics. Nobody can do that. All the revolutions on the world succeed chiefly by the message of the poets.

You say by the message of the poets

Poets and writers.

It is noticeable that most of the early négritude writing was by poets.

Yes, and thanks to négritude you had the end of French colonialism and the independence of Africa—thanks to négritude and to people who were not African, that's Césaire and myself.

I have found that in most of the talk of négritude, mention is made of the big three: Senghor, Césaire, and Damas, but I think you rank about the least known. Does this arouse any sort of feeling in you? How do you react to this?

There is no particular feeling. In Vermont at the Conference on Black Francophone Literature, they asked me, "Who is the father of négritude?" I said, "I'm fed up of all that. I don't understand why négritude needs so many fathers." Anyway I recalled an African proverb. I said that in Africa we don't know our fathers, we know our mothers. Now, the man who coined the word "Négritude" was Aimé Césaire, and Senghor has been obliged to admit this. But, for many reasons, Senghor is first now, the father of négritude. In Vermont they asked me who I was among the three. I said, "Perhaps I'm the Holy Spirit." But I can't be bothered by the attitude of some critics towards me. Why? Because I have the conviction that my work constitutes an important message, and Pigments has been not only the first book of its generation, Pigments has been the manifesto of the négritude movement.

More so than Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal?

Well, all the poets who came after Pigments were obliged to use material from the poems that comprise it. All the themes of Pigments, all the ideas in it have been taken, and from that period till now I see nothing new.

In other words you were way ahead of your time.

Yes. And at any rate, Pigments has been and still is a very big movement. I'm waiting for the new poets, the new writers and I'm waiting for what they can bring us that is new.

Can you point to a specific example of how Pigments has become a movement?

From Pigments you have a new movement in the United States—Soul Poetry. I'm not afraid to say that in my poetry you find rhythm. My poems can be danced. They can be sung. And what are they doing now? They sing poetry, soul music, soul literature, even soul food. At any rate you have a new generation in the states. I talk about the States because there are millions of black people living here.

I wonder though, whether bringing song and dance back into poetry, the new generation as you call them is not just going back to poetry in its true form. I am reminded of Paul Valéry calling a volume of poems Charmes, using the word in its etymological sense, that is songs or poems from the Latin "carmen". Anyway, since you started to talk about American blacks, let me ask another question along that line. Do you see some more connections between your works and those of American blacks?

Négritude has been the French expression of the New Negro movement and soul poetry is now the American expression of the négritude movement.

Now, the big three négritude poets all went into politics at a particular time. Two are still there, while you have quit the political scene. What is the reason for this? Did you become disenchanted with politics or are you waiting for le coup final?

First of all we belong to different countries. I'm not an islander. I'm a man of the forest. I'm from a continent. We don't belong to the same social background. I'm from French Guyana and the problems there are not the same as the problems in Martinique or Guadeloupe or even Africa. Similarly, the problems of Africa are not the problems of the French West Indies. You see, I'm a man like my land—they accept me or reject me. And I accept or reject. I never vary in my position.

Is this why since Pigments you have not published anything quite as forceful? Have you said it all in Pigments?

No, I think my best book is Black-Label. Pigments was a manifesto of the movement, but the plain explanation of Pigments can be found in Black-Label and in Retour de Guyane.

Do you find that critics have misjudged what you were trying to say?

All the critics of négritude know nothing of the work of Senghor, nothing of the entire work of Césaire, nothing of my entire work. They just talk about négritude and about our works from pieces they read in anthologies. For example, they talk mainly about Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, ignoring Corps Perdu, Ferrements, Cadastre, Discours sur le colonialisme, etc. Now thanks to Senghor, Césaire and myself, we stayed the way we were in the beginning and all our books, after the first, were explanations of the first. And that's why, for many reasons, for political ones especially, Senghor has a big market now, Césaire is well known in Europe and elsewhere. As for myself, I'm as well known as Césaire and Senghor because we are the big three of négritude. They can't talk about Césaire and Senghor, and I'm fed up about that, without talking about Damas. At any rate, Senghor always pays us tribute, Césaire too, I suppose.

Speaking of Césaire, what can somebody like him do as a writer in a small country since he is fighting a world problem? Writing books cannot really help the situation in Martinique.

But Césaire's books are not read in Martinique.

Do you think they should be read in Martinique?

They refused.

Who refused?

His own people. First of all, the people who should read Césaire are illiterate, and that's why Césaire is obliged now to talk in créole. There is a cultural movement now, that's in créole. All the speeches are done in créole in Guadeloupe and Martinique. I don't know for French Guyana.

Do you see this as evidence of the fact that authors are finally realizing that they were above the level of the people? Are the writers finally coming down to the people?

No, that's another problem. It's the problem of education which obliged the people to read French authors, not native ones, and there is another problem—these people are not published in Martinique or Guadeloupe, they are published in France. Also the best readers of Césaire and myself are white French people.

As writers were you aware of this, that you were publishing for whites mainly?

You see, it's not the same situation as in the United States. You do not have as many readers in Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guyana. You do not have a public, a mass of readers. You just have an elite, and you have people who can buy some of the books, and these books are very expensive.

What I want to find out is whether in writing for a white audience you did not subconsciously change what you were saying, whereas if you were writing for a black audience it would be quite different.

No, there was no conscious change.

Where do you find your readers?

You have some people who read Césaire and myself in French Guyana and in Martinique, but I suppose we are read by West Indians who live abroad in France or elsewhere but not in Martinique. And we shall be read now because in France at the Sorbonne they will organize a course on Négritude from next year. Perhaps the programme will be obliged to include the works of Césaire and other African writers. But in Martinique they are afraid to be confused with Africans. They criticize those writers for being too African.

The African writers?

No. They criticize Césaire and myself for our Africanness, our race consciousness because they tell you they are not Africans. They are créoles, they are French before being black, they are Martiniquans, they are Guadeloupeans, with nothing to do with Africa. And they say that if Césaire writes so many things about Africa, it's because he wants one day to be president of Martinique. Anyway, I suppose he's fed up with politics now and with the attitude of his brothers and sisters of Martinique.

And what about you? How do you stand in relation to the struggle?

I have to fight and will continue to fight. I help and continue to help. But I never published what I have to publish and what I shall publish now.

Is this more literary material? More essays?

More essays and poems. I now have to write the true history of the négritude movement. All those people who published, and chiefly Lilyan Kesteloot, recognise that they've been helped to publish what they did.

When you say that you are ready to tell the truth about the movement, it sounds as if we've been told a lot of lies. Is this so?

Yes. So many people have published books, theses and articles without knowing anything. They try to oppose me to Senghor and Césaire, but I can tell you that this will never happen. I know Senghor and Césaire. I know their foibles, their faults and they know my qualities and defects. But, as we began together, we have to stay together. They know that the historian of the movement will be Damas.

They know this?

Yes, and they are waiting.

I was about to ask whether we could expect the same type of revelation from Senghor and Césaire as well.

No. I suppose that they continue to work by themselves, but without doing what I am doing now—researching and studying our attitude, our way of life, but in a specific way. We can't talk of négritude if we don't take care of our psychological and sociological problems, our anthropological problem, our geographical problem.

Speaking of our geographical problem, what role does the West Indian play as a West Indian as opposed to as a black man?

He has to put out front chiefly West Indian problems, not African ones or problems of the négritude movement.

In other words we get back to the whole question of commitment.

Yes. The West Indian has to create something new based on the West Indian background. This he can do thanks to the race consciousness the awareness he received from us. We did not succeed on the political scene with the West Indian federation, but in the cultural field you will see many West Indians creating a new writing, and from this perhaps Africa will take something, the same way Africa received something from the French West Indies by way of the négritude movement.

Are you implying that Africa has more to learn from the West Indies than vice versa?

But even Senghor recognises that he discovered his Africanness through the West Indian Césaire and through me! He is not afraid to tell the truth.

Don't you think that the West Indian's race consciousness stems from the fact that he had undergone what the African had not, namely being taken away from his country?

Our experience has indeed been very great and the contribution of the West Indian to the liberation of the minds of black people has been very important.

Do you have a final word for your readers?

All I can ask is for people not to be in a hurry to see my publications.

Your works are there waiting to be published?

Yes, and there are many publishers waiting for my works. They don't understand why I'm not more published. But I don't publish merely to see my name on a book. I publish when I feel the need to say something.

Is this what motivated you in former publications?

I'm convinced that I contributed something by my studies in the literary field, in the political field. I'm not bothered about not being Député for French Guyana. There is plenty of time for that. That was a profession for others, not for me. It was just an occupation for me. I'm a writer, and when I decide, a teacher, like I am now.

So your message is now expounded in the classroom?

Teaching in the States is one way for me to help—to help today as I helped yesterday, and as I'm ready to help tomorrow.

Keith Q. Warner (essay date 1973)

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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 Negritude poets. The tendency seems to have been to study the various aspects of Césaire and Senghor while restricting analysis of Damas' works to his poems of protest in Pigments. This is not to imply that Pigments does not warrant analysis because of its great political and cultural impact, but those who examine Damas' poems solely for the Negritude manifesto they contain cut themselves off from some very refreshing aspects of the poems. Damas the fighter, the hater, the protester is well-documented, as are the reasons for the poet's wanting to fight, hate and protest. However, what about Damas the juggler of language, the subtle humorist, the singer of the blues, even the poet of love? It is thus interesting to examine these aspects of Damas along with the techniques and devices he used to achieve his aims.

In the years after the Second World War, and particularly in the theater in France, it became popular to show how writers were actually playing with the very language they were using. In this way, these authors showed how artificial language had become and also how modern man had ceased to fully appreciate the true impact of his language. Admittedly, the dramatists' use of language did vary from the poets', since, for the most part, their aim was not the same. The dramatists had other avenues open to them within the play, whereas the poets had to use the one poetic form, with only slight variations and innovations, whose very existence is its language. In the light of this, Damas must be credited with having had the foresight to re-direct our attention to the impact of language well-handled and to the vast potential of the "word". When of Damas, Senghor said that his poetry was unsophisticated, direct and brutal, it was a recognition of the fact that there was indeed power and vitality behind the apparently simple, everyday style of the poems.

In an interview that he accorded the present author in June 1972, Damas admitted that when he started writing poetry, it was out of a sense of commitment. The aspiring poet had a cultural and political message to convey, for, as he says, one cannot separate politics from culture. Thus, it is with justice that his admirers and critics have quoted passages like:

       je leur dis merde
       et d'autres choses encore

       I say to them shit
       and other things as well


       je vous mettrai les pieds dans le plat
       ou bien tout simplement
       la main au collet
       de tout ce qui m'emmerde en gros caractères
       et la suite

       I'll stick my foot in it
       or quite simply
       grab by the throat
       everything that shits me up in capital letters
       and the rest

in support of their claim that Damas was full of fire and hatred in his dealings with white Europe, which had forced him to feel utterly ridiculous

       dans leurs souliers
       dans leur smoking
       dans leur plastron
       dans leur faux-col
       dans leur monocle
       dans leur melon

       in their shoes
       in their dinner jacket
       in their shirt-front
       in their collar
       in their monocle
       in their bowler hat

while having his hands horribly red with the blood of their "ci-vi-li-sa-tion". Those who have ever seen Damas read his poems are immediately struck by the permanent smile on his face as he reads. There is certainly no visible venom, no loud denunciations, no table-banging or chest-pounding, only a slight frown and a mischievous smile. This outward appearance of the poet may indeed be misleading, and may not in fact truly represent what the young colonial felt at the time he was writing. It does, however, cause one to see in these poems another facet to which only sparse attention has been paid hitherto in the enthusiastic response to the written venom. One realizes how much the poet is playing with the language he is using.

Unlike the poetry of Senghor, with its long, flowing verset, full of images and explanations, Damas' poetry is almost abrupt, with frequent repetition, very short lines and numerous typographical variations. Damas' use of repetition goes beyond the normal desire for insistance or effect. He uses it as a potent linguistic weapon, elevating it to the level of a musical art form. The repetitions are of several types—of one word, of several words, of types of adverbs, adjectives, of whole stanzas, of nearly everything that catches the fancy of the poet at the moment of writing. Here, for example, is one of the simpler instances of repetition:

       Mes amis j'ai valsé
       valsé toute mon enfance
       vagabondant sur
       quelque Danube bleu
       Danube blanc
       Danube rouge
       Danube vert
       Danube rose
       Danube blanc
       au choix

       Mes amis j'ai valsé
       follement valsé

       My friends I have waltzed
       waltzed throughout my childhood
       wandering along
       some blue Danube
       white Danube
       red Danube
       green Danube
       pink Danube
       white Danube
       as you wish
       My friends I have waltzed
       madly waltzed

Apart from what one could term the normal repetitive process, there seems to be a sort of charm exerted by the words on the poet, so that he continues to explore every possibility open to him while he is using them. He seems, too, to enjoy the elements of surprise that he is introducing, in this case with respect to the Danube, as we can see from his re-introduction of the adjectives used to describe the river and his invitation to his readers to take their pick "au choix". We find this process of re-introduction of elements already used in another poem, "Bientôt":

      je n'aurai pas que dansé
      je n'aurai pas que chanté
      je n'aurai pas que frotté
      je n'aurais pas que trempé
      je n'aurai pas que dansé

      I'll not only have danced
      I'll not only have sung
      I'll not only have rubbed
      I'll not only have soaked
      I'll not only have danced

As can be seen, the entire poem is built on the repetitive form, which in turn gives it its circular movement, hence a feeling of completeness. For all this, the poem is extremely simple in form and once more manifests Damas' ability to juggle with the language he is using.

Repetition of key words and phrases sometimes leads to a dizzying complexity of terms which just fall short of being tongue-twisters. How else can one describe the beginning of "Ils ont"?

       Ils ont si bien su faire
       si bien su faire les choses
       les choses
       qu'un jour nous avons tout
       nous avons tout foutu de nous-mêmes
       tout foutu de nous-mêmes en l'air

       They did so well
       did their thing so well
       their thing that one day we completely
       we completely destroyed what we had
       just blew our thing sky high

It would be in fact difficult to read such lines very quickly and the slower reading that is forced upon us actually makes us aware of how much the poet succeeded in manipulating his language in order to achieve particular effects. It is obvious that when a poet begins eleven consecutive lines of verse with the same noun, as Damas does in the poem from the Névralgies collection, "Sang satisfait du sens ancien du dit", he is doing so for more than a casual attempt at directing our attention to that particular word—"sang" in this instance. The poet seems to be prey to a quasi-obsession with extracting the fullest potential from the words on the page. This desire to extract to the fullest all that words are capable of at times leads Damas to the creation of unusual lines of verse, such as these from "Pour toi et moi":

      Dos à dos je ne
      Dos à dos tu ne
      Dos à dos je ne sais
      Dos à dos tu ne sais
      je ne
      tu ne
      nous ne savons l'un autre
      plus rien de l'un
      plus rien de l'autre

      Back to back I do not
      back to back you do not
      back to back I do not know
      back to back you do not know
      I do not
      you do not
      we know not you and I
      anything further about the one
      anything further about the other

In this case, one finds Damas using lines like "je ne" and "tu ne" which are definitely unusual and contrary to the expectations of popular usage in French.

An extension of the technique of repetition is the lengthy listings that the poet uses, especially when he is showing the faults of the oppressors or the attributes of his black brothers. In Black Label, Damas combines the two processes to come up with:

       car la beauté est nègre
       est nègre la sagesse
       car l'endurance est nègre
       est nègre le courage
       car la patience est nègre
       est nègre l'ironie
       car le charme est nègre
       est nègre la magie
       car l'amour est nègre
       est nègre le déhanchement
       car la danse est nègre
       est nègre le rhythme
       car l'art est nègre
       est nègre le mouvement
       car le rire est nègre
       car la joie est nègre
       car la paix est nègre
       car la vie est nègre

       for beauty is black
       and wisdom black
       for endurance is black
       and courage black
       for patience is black
       and irony black
       for charm is black
       and magic black
       for charm is black
       and hip swinging black
       for dance is black
       and rhythm black
       for art is black
       and movement black
       for laughter is black
       for joy is black
       for peace is black
       for life is black

There is a force in such listings that takes the ordinary statement and weaves it into poetic beauty. The same effect is noticeable in his poem "Limbé", appropriately "Blues", where Damas lists all that "they" have stolen from him, some twenty different things, each in its own line just the one noun: customs / days / song / rhythm / effort, etc. It is in poems such as these that one can readily perceive the difference between Damas and, say, someone like Césaire, or even Senghor. Whereas the uninitiated may often find it difficult wading through the wealth of complex images in Césaire and in Senghor, Damas does not waste words, that is assuming that one does not qualify deliberate repetition as waste. The poet goes directly to the point, driving home his "message" with a minimum of fuss.

If we have dealt at such length with Damas' use of repetition in the language of his poems, it is mainly because this process far surpasses the rest throughout Damas' poetry. But, as can be easily seen, there are in fact others—alliteration and pun among them. These all combine to produce a strain of humor which at times surprises the reader unfamiliar with Damas' techniques. One cannot escape the impression that in many of the poems, beneath all the suffering and pain, there still remains a sly dig at the enemy through more than a hint of a smile. This would indeed explain the surprising twist to so many of the poems. This is not to say that Damas takes his problems lightly, but he allows himself a degree of humor that the white enemy could not possibly attain or understand. In this he closely parallels the humor of early American blacks who for many years were forced, in the terms of Langston Hughes, a great personal friend of Damas, to laugh in order to keep from crying. His is therefore a personal humor and one that fellow blacks can understand and share. The colonizer, for example, would see nothing humorous in the last line of the following:

     Terrain privé
     Domaine reservé
     Defense d'entrer
     Ni chiens ni nègre sur le gazon

     Private grounds
     Guarded estate
     No entry
     No dogs or niggers on the grass

One has to be a part of the whole experience to fully appreciate how one could indeed view such (the lines actually represent warning signs) as something else beside insulting and tragic.

Perhaps the finest example of Damas' humor occurs in the poem "Hoquet" ("Hiccups") which the poet says is his favorite. Here, all the techniques already mentioned blend to produce a neat indictment of the artificial upbringing that the Damas family strived for. There is repetition of the refrain "Désastre / parlez-moi du désastre / parlezm'en" (Disaster / talk about disaster / tell me about it), a refrain in which the poet definitely has his tongue in his cheek as he breaks off from describing his mother's hypocritical admonitions. Damas resorts to some novel type lines as he pictures the mother extremely put out at the fact that her son should want to channel her precious music lessons into learning the banjo and guitar instead of the violin:

       Ma mère voulant d'un fils très do
       très ré
       très mi
       très fa
       très sol
       très la
       très si
       très do

       Il m'est revenu que vous n'étiez encore pas
       à votre leçon de vi-o-lon
       vous dites un banjo
       comment dites-vous
       un banjo
       vous dites bien
       un banjo
       Non monsieur
       vous saurez qu'on ne souffre chez nous
       ni ban
       ni jo
       ni gui
       ni tare
       les mulâtres ne font pas ça
       laissez donc ça aux nègres
       My mother wanting a son very do
       very re
       very mi
       very fa
       very so
       very la
       very ti
       very do

       I understand that once again
       you missed your vi-o-lin lesson
       a banjo
       you said
       a banjo
       what did you say
       a banjo
       No sir
       you must know that we do not allow in this house
       neither ban
       nor jo
       nor gui
       nor tar
mulattos don't do that
       leave that for black people

This is Damas at his very best, using all that was dear to him as he moved along to the climax of the distinction between mulattos and blacks.

Naturally, it would be false to give the impression that Damas sees himself as a humorist. The main claim here has been that the poet's humor is an integral part of the whole make-up of the poems, especially those in Pigments. Even in those poems in which Damas is being admittedly hard on those who were responsible for his condition and that of his fellow blacks, the poet often slips in a line or two showing that he is still able to smile under the suffering. The poem "S.O.S." clearly demonstrates how Damas achieves this combination of pathos and humor simply by inserting the unexpected into his stanza:

        A ce moment-là seul
        comprendrez-vous donc tous
        quand leur viendra l'idée
        bientôt cette idée leur viendra
        de vouloir vous en bouffer du nègre
        à la manière d'Hitler
        bouffant du juif
        sept jours fascistes

        Then only then
        will you all understand
        when they get the idea
        soon they'll be getting the idea
        to want to stuff themselves with niggers
        just like Hitler
        stuffing himself with Jews
        seven fascist days
        out of

It is not too difficult to imagine the poet silently smiling to himself as he wrote about this bizarre idea of "their" wanting to "bouffer du nègre" or, as he wrote later on in the same poem, to "couper leur sexe aux nègres pour en faire des bougies pour leurs églises" (to cut off black men's genitals to make candles for their churches). There are many other instances similar to this one, though they may not always be readily perceived unless the reader is willing to take a fresh look at Damas' poems.

Another aspect of the poems that could well be reexamined is that of their music. It has often been pointed out that Damas' poetry is full of rhythm and that it evokes the world of jazz. One could add that many of the poems are reminiscent of the blues songs of the American blacks, as they do have many of the elements common to the blues—the nostalgic first person recollection of things past, suffering, problems with the loved one, the constant yearning for better things to come. Just as the blues singer finds some solace in singing about his plight, so too does Damas lighten his internal burdens by writing about them in words that have only to be set to music. One has only to go back to the discussion of the poet's constant use of repetition to realize that some of these have an air of a lament about them, as if the poet were slowly singing to the strumming of a guitar or to the beat of a drum. The poem "Bientôt", already quoted, would be a good example of this, as is the poem "Limbé" ("Blues"), with its repetitive insistence "Rendez-les moi mes poupées noires" ("Give me back my black dolls"). There are poems in which the sound of the words have a definite melodious air:

      Nuits sans nom
      nuits sans lune


      sans nom
      sans lune
      sans lune
      sans nom
      nuits sans lune
      sans nom sans nom

      Nights with no name
      nights with no moon
      no name
      no moon
      no moon
      no name
      nights with no moon
      no name no name

It is apparent that Damas is here exploiting the musical aspect of the French to the fullest. Fortunately, on this occasion the English version does manage to re-capture some of the same musicality. Whether Damas would have been as musical had he been writing in another language is not really important. The fact remains that he had to use the only language he knew, and this he did with dexterity, exploring the full potential of a language that lends itself to musical interpretation.

Nowhere does Damas indicate, like Senghor, whether he meant his poems to be accompanied by particular instruments. There is, however, frequent mention in the poems of a variety of dances and musical instruments: bolero, swing, tango, banjo, guitar, trumpet and, of course, the tom-tom, whose rhythm and beat are captured typographically in the poem "Ils sont venus ce soir":

        Ils sont venus ce soir où le
          roulait de

        They came that evening when the
          rolled from

This typographical variation, already popular among the French Surrealist poets, was another device that Damas exploited whenever he felt it could be of help to him, as in the case in the poem cited where it helps turn the spoken word into song. Therefore, when Damas said, in the interview already mentioned, "my poems can be danced, they can be sung," it was no idle boast made from a lack of modesty. The poet must have known how he had constructed his poetry to be able to make such a statement. There remains one final aspect of Damas' poetry that is hardly mentioned in most analyses—namely his variations on the theme of love, contained mainly in his collection Névralgies. Damas' poems of love show no trace of the poet's race, unlike those of Senghor which nearly always extol the virtues of the black woman. If, however, there is no trace of racial hatred or racial love, there is, nonetheless, the same technique that we have seen throughout the now typical Damas poem. This he uses to portray the universal lover in all his moods, happy when the loved one is near, sad when she is absent, jealous when he thinks that she is with someone else. The following lines may surprise those who have always thought of Damas as a poet of hate, those who have not looked beyond the Négritude manifesto of some of his poems, but should be easily recognizable as being from the type of lines that Damas would produce, with their repetition, juggling with words, typographical variations and their musicality:

        Quoique tu fasses
        ou que tu sois
        quoique tu veuilles
        et surtout
        quoique l'on dise
        quoique l'on fasse
        quoique l'on veuille
        et dise
        et fasse
        et veuille
        tu seras ma chose
        Whatever you do
        wherever you are
        whatever you wish
        and above all
        whatever they say
        whatever they do
        whatever they wish
        and say
        and do
        and wish
        you'll be my thing

Damas' poetry, therefore, should not be seen merely as an incitement to black consciousness, though this remains a very important part of it. If one were to return for a while to the old argument over the separation of form and function, one would find that, in Damas' poems, the function is effective mainly because of the form; there can be no separation of the one from the other. As such, it is doing the poet a disservice to continue to look exclusively at what he achieved without also examining the way in which he set out to achieve it.

E. A. Hurley (essay date 1974)

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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 color and race, assimilation and colonization, as well as his expressed support of the ideals of Négritude lend weight to such a claim. It is true, too, that, like Césaire and Senghor, he demonstrated that his commitment to the principle of black liberation was not restricted to mere writing, however effective and important this may be, by engaging actively in politics in French Guyana. However, it would not be unfair to say of him that he lacks the poetic vision of Césaire and the cultural self-confidence of Senghor, or that, in the political sphere, he lacks the charismatic appeal of both of his colleagues. The simple fact is that he is not, either in politics or in literature, a leader.

As the present study will demonstrate, even though Pigments may be regarded as the first political statement in poetry by a French Caribbean writer, basically Damas is not speaking here on behalf of or to the particular racial group with which he identifies; he is really speaking for and to himself. Pigments, in fact, emerges as essentially a personal, if not private statement, which involves a conversation that the poet holds with himself. In order to understand this more clearly, we need to consider the components of the personality and sensibility of Damas which lead him to produce such poetry; we need to see Damas as an extremely sensitive individual, whose attitude to himself and to life in general was complicated by certain experiential factors: for example, his sickliness as a child, the assimilated bourgeois environment in which he was brought up, his experience of racial prejudice and ridicule in Paris, as well as, of course, his association with Césaire, Senghor and other black students in the metropolis. This list of factors, though obviously not comprehensive, is sufficient to suggest that racial consciousness should not be the sole or even major framework within which the poetry of Damas should be approached. His early physical fragility and his evident general psychological insecurity, strongly suggest repression and introversion as well as the constantly suppressed desire to react violently, and certainly predispose him to oversensitive responses to the stimuli provided by social contacts. This internal tension with which he has to cope can be observed throughout Pigments and in fact acts as the motive force behind his poetry. Whatever balance Damas is able to maintain depends on his self-control, on his exploitation of poetry itself as a kind of safety-valve, as is illustrated by his use of understatement and ellipsis, and ironic self-directed humor. It would therefore be a mistake to regard Pigments simply as committed "black" literature, created directly and deliberately out of the author's sense of responsibility towards his people. It would be fairer to Damas to consider it as a means of maintaining equilibrium, and as a dialogue between the poet and his inner self.

Pigments demonstrated Damas' concern over the two major problems which he is trying to resolve: on the one hand, the problem of defining his identity; on the other, that of examining the choices of response to his situation that are open to him. In other words, it is as if he continually asks himself both "who am I?" and "what am I to do?" Because there is no simple or straightforward answer to either question he is forced to enter into a kind of poetic dialogue with himself in order to clarify the issues involved.

As far as the first question is concerned, Damas' approach is to consider himself in relation to others, to base his identity on the recognition of a difference that exists between himself and a "they" that he not only does not have to qualify but also about whom he is rarely explicit. His answer to this question, therefore, is obviously "I am not 'they'". This accounts for the frequency with which this "moi"/"ils" ("I"/"they") distinction occurs throughout Pigments. In the first poem of the collection, "Ils sont venus ce soir," the undefined "they" exist only in opposition to an "I" whose African identity is not stated, but merely suggested by the dedication of the poem to Senghor, by the reference to tom-toms, as well as by the implied historical fact of slavery:

        Ils sont venus ce soir où le
            roulait de
                    la frénésie
        des yeux


        combien de MOI MOI MOI
        sont morts

        They came that night when the
            rolled out from
                    the frenzy
        of eyes


        SINCE THEN
        how many I I I
        have died

In this case the "they", which he is not, are evidently the original European exploiters of the African continent. He makes the same distinction, between himself as African and exploited and Europeans as exploiters, in "Limbé," as he expresses strong nostalgic longing for his "black dolls", the equally vague "they" being presented as thieves and robbers: "A l'oeil de ma méfiance ouvert trop tard / Ils ont cambriolé l'espace que était mien" (Before the eyes of my mistrust open too late / they have looted the space that was mine). The inner dialogue, therefore, enables him to define himself not only as being different from these "others" but also as having been exploited by them. As he pursues the conversation, he establishes a clear line of continuity between the original exploiters and contemporary "theys" (obviously white Europeans) who seek to rob him of a meaningful identity:

      Se peut-il donc qu'ils osent
      me traiter de blanchi
      alors que tout en moi
      aspire à n'être que nègre
      autant que mon Afrique
      qu'ils on cambriolée

      Is it then possible that they dare
      treat me as near-white
      when everything in me
      aspires to be only black
      as black as my Africa
      that they have looted

To the factor of the exploited/exploiter distinction is added that of a color, i.e. black/white, distinction and implicitly also an Africa/Europe distinction. This means that he further defines himself as African and as black. So far the conversational line is dependent mainly on Damas' historical perspective. What is of pre-eminent importance to him, however, is his relation to the world in which he is living. He has, therefore, to direct the topic to a discussion of his present situation, which is characterized for him by a feeling of acute discomfort, arising out of the fact of his assimilation into a society that he regards as alien, as his continued use of the "I/they" distinction illustrates:

       J'ai l'impression d'être ridicule
       dans leurs souliers
       dans leur smoking
       dans leur plastron
       dans leur faux-col
       dans leur monocle
       dans leur melon

       I feel ridiculous
       in their shoes
       in their dinner-jacket
       in their shirt-front
       in their collar
       in their monocle
       in their bowler-hat

Within the same contemporary context, the essentially existential discomfort he experiences within the alien society (which we know to be European, although he has not defined it expressly as such) is paralleled by a similar discomfort in the sphere of European political and racial chauvinism, as he realizes and implies that the relationship between colonized blacks and white colonizers (presumably French) is no different from that between Jews and Nazis:

      A ce moment-là seul
      comprendrez-vous donc tous
      quand leur viendra l'idée
      bientôt cette idée leur viendra
      de vouloir vous en bouffer du nègre
      à la manière d'Hitler
      bouffant du juif
      sept jours fascistes

      Then and only then
      will you all understand
      when it occurs to them
      and it will soon occur to them
      to want to stuff themselves with niggers
      just like Hitler
      stuffing himself with jews
      seven fascist days
      out of

He makes the further point to himself, therefore, that there exists a direct connection between the original enslavement and exploitation of his black African ancestors and the more recent colonization and assimilation and potential extermination of blacks like himself. As he attempts to clarify the issues involved, to establish a separate identity, he suggests another difference between the self he wants to isolate and preserve and a civilization which he can reject as having been and as still being degenerate and decaying:

        et mon rêve qui se nourrit du bruit de leur
        est plus fort que leurs gourdins d'immondices

        and my dreams that feed on the noise of their
        is stronger than their cudgels of filth

This first part of the dialogue, in which he attempts to resolve the problem of his identity, is the only one which results in a definite conclusion; he is completely sure that he (exploited, black and African) is not "they" (exploiters, whites and Europeans); this is the only fact of the reality of his existence about which he has no doubt. As we shall see shortly, the other possible answers he suggests to the question "whom am I?" reveal a profound uncertainty, in the sense that in each case he seems to qualify whatever response he gives by saying to himself "yes, but I don't want to be". Every other aspect of his identity is affected by environmental factors which he has to concede grudgingly but which he should like to reject as alien. The poem "Hoquet", for example, admirably illustrates his unwillingness to accept the fact that he is as well the product of an early bourgeois upbringing which he despises and regards as one of the great tragedies of his life:

      Et j'ai beau avaler sept gorgées d'eau
      trois à quatre fois par vingt-quatre heures
      me revient mon enfance
      dans un hoquet secouant
      mon instinct
      tel le flic le voyou
      parlez-moi du désastre

      And in vain I swallow seven mouthfuls of water
      three or four times in every twenty-four hours
      my childhood returns to me
      in a hiccup shaking
      my instinct
      like a cop shaking a hooligan

      tell me about disaster
      tell me about it

He realizes his impotence to escape the "disaster" of his early life, he is, as he is forced to admit, inevitably and involuntarily (as the "hiccup" image indicates) what particularly his assimilated, class-conscious mother made him. Similarly, despite his claims of being different from the "they" we discussed above, he has to face the bitter truth that he is assimilated into "their" civilization. What goes through his mind is that whilst he is not basically like "them", he has nevertheless become like "them", even though he does not want to be:

      J'ai l'impression d'être ridicule
      parmi eux complice
      parmi eux souteneur
      parmi eux égorgeur
      les mains effroyablement rouges
      du sang de leur ci-vi-li-sa-tion

      I feel ridiculous
      an accomplice among them
      a pimp among them
      a murderer among them
      my hands horribly red
      with the blood of their

The discomfort which he experiences helps him to understand more clearly his own complicity. He has the courage, however, to face up to this aspect of his identity, which is brought out mainly through the honesty and lucidity with which the inner dialogue is conducted. Ironically, both his discomfort and his awareness of complicity help him to realize that he is, additionally, an exile in the alien environment of Paris; it is precisely because he has no desire to be that he conjures up visions of his own black women:

      Rendez-les moi mes poupées noires
      qu'elles dissipent
      l'image des catin blêmes
      marchands d'amour qui s'en vont viennent
      sur le boulevard de mon ennui

      Give them back to me my black dolls
      to erase
      the image of the pale sluts
      dealers in love who walk up and down
      on the boulevard of my boredom

The fact is that Damas' integrity and frankness with himself continually reveal to him and to us aspects of his identity which, literally, he can hardly stomach. It is for this reason that there are several references in Pigments to his experiencing sensations of nausea. [In a footnote, Hurley states that this is particularly evident in the poems "Obsession", "Il est des nuits", and "Rappel".] This is related, too, to the fact that one of the most pervasive emotions felt by Damas when he looks clear-sightedly at himself is a feeling of shame, which finds its most direct expression in "Réalité":

        De n'avoir jusqu'ici rien fait
        à la maniére
        du Juif
        du Jaune
        pour l'évasion organisée en masse
        de l'infériorité

        C'est en vain que je cherche
        le creux d'une épaule
        où cacher mon visage
        ma honte

        Having so far done nothing
        destroyed nothing
        built nothing
        dared nothing
        like Jews
        and the Yellow races
        for the organized mass escape
        from inferiority

        In vain I seek
        the hollow of a shoulder
        to hide my face
        my shame

Evidently, in talking to himself, Damas is struck forcefully by the tragic futility of his existence. His analysis of his identity in Pigments may be regarded as both the result and the expression not only of a deep-rooted feeling of impotence, as far as revolutionary action is concerned, but also of, as he admits, an inability finally to move outside himself, to be anything but egocentric—a basic personality trait which he would like to reject:

        Trêve un instant
        d'une vie de bon enfant
        et de désirs
        et de besoins
        et d'égoismes

        Enough for a while
        of a good boy life
        and of private
        and selfishness

This indicates clearly Damas' recognition of the essentially personal motives that lie at the root of most of his actions. The identity about which he is most concerned is not that of the mass of exploited black people but simply his own.

Having closely examined himself in an attempt to define who and what he is, Damas still has to explore the choices of action and reaction that are available to him. The second part of the dialogue, therefore, centers around discussion of the question which he poses to himself: "what am I to do?" Note that, as I am suggesting, Pigments is fundamentally a dialogue, so that whatever responses Damas makes are not intended to be stimuli to action that may be taken either by Damas himself or by others but simply as possibilities which he considers but which may finally be rejected. What emerges clearly from his examination of the question of his identity is his acute dissatisfaction with his condition as an exploited black man vis-à-vis European whites. It is to be expected, therefore, that he should want to change such a condition, even to react, and violently, against the unacceptable and unbearable situation in which he finds himself. There is, undoubtedly, running through Pigments, a strong suggestion of almost uncontrollable hatred and violent emotion. It is significant, however, in support of the contention that Pigments is really a dialogue, rather than an incitement to revolutionary action to be taken by blacks or even the expression of a commitment to the ideal of black liberation, that only once in the entire collection of poems, in "Si Souvent", does Damas suggest directly the necessity for violent revolt as a solution to his present problems:

        Et rien
        rien ne saurait autant calmer ma haine
        qu'une belle mare
        de sang
        de ces coutelas tranchants
        qui mettent à nu
        les mornes à rhum

        And nothing
        nothing could still my hatred
        as much as a fine pool
        of blood
        by those sharp cutlasses
        which lay bare
        the hills of rum

Even here, it must be noted, Damas' concern is purely personal; he is interested in the therapeutic value which violence, significantly performed by somebody else, may hold for him. In other poems, although Damas considers violent action, it is not regarded as a viable possibility in the present, but, as the tense he favors in this context indicates, as a possibility that belongs to the future:

      mais quelle bonne dynamite
      fera sauter la nuit
      les monuments comme champignons
      qui poussent aussi
      chez moi
                   ("Sur une carte postale")

      But what good dynamite
      will blow up at night
      the monuments like mushrooms
      that grow too
      in my country

There are two points of interest here: firstly, the future tense and, secondly, the interrogative form used by Damas. They indicate not only that violence is not proposed as the form of action that he himself is prepared to undertake at the present time, but also simply that the whole idea is an almost random thought that crosses his mind in the course of his self-interrogation: Damas has not reached and will not reach the point of direct violent action; he is, and remains throughout Pigments, at the stage of reflection, of communing with himself. He suggests, nevertheless, that his own revolt is inevitable, but typically and significantly relegates this possibility to the future:

      Pour sûr j'en aurai
      sans même attendre
      qu'elles prennent
      les choses
      d'un camembert bien fait
      je vous mettrai les pieds dans le plat
      ou bien tout simplement
      la main au collet
      de tout ce qui m'emmerde en gros caractères
      et la suite

      Sure enough I'll get
      fed up
      and not even wait
      for things
      to reach
      the state
      of a ripe camembert
      I'll put my foot in it
      or else simply
      my hand around the neck
      of everything that shits me up in capital letters
      and all the rest.

Once again, what stands out strongly is Damas' inner exasperation; the violence is all in his language and in his mind. Sometimes, characteristically, the frustration that seeks an outlet in violence is not even translated directly into the language, but is only suggested, taking the comparatively mild form of an implicit, unspecific threat: "Bientôt / je n'aurai pas que dansé / bientôt" (Soon / I'll not only have danced / soon) ("Bientôt"). At other times, when the internal dialogue is centered on the notion of changing his situation as an alienated individual, revolt and violence are veiled to the point where they become little more than a vague hope, a possibility which, on the surface, appears to be the product of his optimism, but which deep down is merely the transposition of his despair for the present:

        Il ne faudrait pourtant pas grand'chose
        pourtant pas grand'chose
        pour qu'en un jour enfin tout aille
        tout aille
        dans le sens de notre race à nous
                                     ("Ils ont")

        And yet it wouldn't take much
        yet not much
        for one day finally everything to go
        everything to go
        to go
        in the direction of our own race

He is painfully aware of the hopelessness of the situation in which he finds himself and equally aware of his own selfishness and egocentricity (cf. "Trêve" quoted above), which prevent him both from moving outside himself and from taking effective retaliatory action. The doubts he has of himself inhibit him further, but he cannot repress the obsessive thought that he has to escape from this unbearable situation:

        nuits sans nom
        nuits sans lune
        où j'aurais voulu
        pouvoir ne plus douter
        tant m'obsède d'écoeurement
        un besoin d'évasion
                                ("Il est des nuits")

        Nights with no name
        nights with no moon
        when I would have liked
        to be able to doubt no more
        so disgustingly obsessed am I
        by a need to escape

It seems as if Damas, in this dialogue with himself, reaches the conclusion that there is nothing to be done, since in the present all action is either futile or impossible. He is left, therefore, simply either expressing the anguish that results from this realization or shaking in impotent rage:

        Abominable injure
        quand mon Afrique
        qu'ils ont cambriolée
        voudra la paix la paix rien que
        la paix
        Ma haine grossit en marge
        de leur scélératesse
         Abominable insult
         that they will pay me for very dearly
         when my Africa
         that they have looted
         wants peace nothing but
         My hatred grows along
         with their villainy

It is clear that Damas' violent hatred, his feelings of frustration and impotence need to find some outlet. It is because of this that humor operates in Pigments as a kind of safety-valve. Damas' use of humor in language has already been commented on [by Keith Warner in "New Perspective on Léon-Gontran Damas", Black Images (1973)], but it can be argued additionally that what is important to an understanding of his intentions in this collection is not simply, although this is true, that Damas likes playing with words or that he laughs so as not to cry, but that, within the context of the dialogue which he has with himself, self-directed, ironic laughter is one of the logical responses to the question "what am I to do?" He cannot revolt, he cannot escape, he cannot move outside himself, he cannot even do nothing, he can only suffer, though not in silence, and laugh bitterly at himself. It is for this reason that he concludes the poem "Pour sûr", quoted above, with anti-climactic self-derision: "En attandant / vous m'entendrez souvent / claquer la porte" (Meanwhile / you'll hear me often / slamming the door), since he fully realizes his impotence to do more than act symbolically.

It is important to note that the problems of identity and action are not resolved by Damas in Pigments, as they are by Césaire in his Return to my native land. Damas reaches only two definite conclusions in this collection: firstly that he is an exploited black man of African heritage and not a European, and secondly that something ought to be done about the unacceptable conditions of his existence which he shares with others like himself. Important as these conclusions doubtlessly are, they cannot however be regarded as firm statements of Damas' commitment to the ideal of black liberation which is one of the primary concerns of Négritude. The poems of Pigments are in their essence the product of an inner dialogue conducted between Damas the pseudo-European and Damas the newly-conscious black man, who in fact finds it necessary to hold this dialogue in order to be able to cope with the almost unbearable tensions that threaten to tear him apart. While it is true that he articulated in poetry, before either Césaire or Senghor, the feelings of the Négritude group, it is equally true that his sensitivity, affected by his unfortunate experiences as a student in Paris, played a larger part than for either of the others in determining his attachment to the ideals of Négritude. It is evident that his poetic vision is directed inwards rather than outwards. Pigments is the concrete expression of emotions that have been internalized; in this collection commitment is subordinated to emotionalism; the poems represent Damas' use of language as a personal means of escape and as a safety-valve rather than reflect his concern with awakening consciousness-in others. He is concerned less with laying the foundation for the liberation of oppressed black peoples than in achieving and maintaining a personal, inner harmony.

Bridget Jones (essay date 1975)

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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 international black consciousness. However, the complex personality of Damas cannot be reduced to the simplified image of Négritude's poet of hate, and there is much to celebrate both in his writing and in a teaching and publishing career devoted to promoting the liberation of black poets from the constraints of 'segregation, a slavishly imitative culture, colonization, spiritual assimilation' [introduction to Nouvelle somme de poésie du monde noir].

Born in Cayenne, French Guyana, in 1912, he shared philosophy classes with Aimé Césaire at the Lycée Schoelcher in Martinique, and moved on to Paris to study law in accordance with the ambitions of his middle-class family. He concentrates in his fragile person a racial sample of the Caribbean: there was Negro and Amerindian blood on his mother's side, and his father was a mulatto of partly European origin. He has expressed very forcibly his pain at being moulded into an assimilé by his upbringing as a child; the constant pressure from home and school to speak, behave and if possible think like a white Frenchman. Once a student he rebelled and affirmed himself a 'poète nègre', trying also by contacts and studies in ethnology to develop understanding of the African within him. It is later in life that he writes more calmly of the three rivers that run in his veins and stands 'upright in the triple pride of my mixed blood' [Névralgies], though never embracing Senghor's comfortable gospel of cultural synthesis.

Damas's first group of writings—the poems of Pigments, the French Guyanese folklore retold under the title Veillées noires (1935–43), and the report on his Retour de Guyane (1938)—combine to chart the same passionate self-discovery and rediscovery of the native land that we find in Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. However, even a brief comparison highlights some of Damas's specific quality. He burst into print more quickly and fiercely; the poems 'Solde' and 'La complainte du nègre' for example, appeared in Esprit in 1934. Putting great emphasis on communicating his message, Damas prefers to use lucidly sarcastic prose to expose the failures of French colonialism and the assimilation policy. His deceptively naïve animal tales present a local folk culture in which African values triumphantly survive. The directness of his poetry is far closer in spirit and technique to an oral tradition than Césaire's subtle and erudite codes. His is an analytical intelligence gifted with a wickedly destructive wit, but unsuited to the sustained effort of will and imagination demanded by an epic poem. His work betrays the more radical self-doubt of the privileged colonial of mixed racial background and that indelible rancune he sees as specific to French Guyana.

Among a number of other factors, two influences seem especially strong in shaping Damas's attitudes and techniques. Firstly, he figures as the main heir to the spirit of Légitime Défense, an ephemeral little magazine produced in the margins of Surrealism in 1932 by Etienne Léro and other Martiniquan students. Their manner follows the Surrealist fashion for uninhibited abuse of the older generation, but their comments on the cultural situation are solidly founded on a Marxist analysis of their society. The pallidly imitative literature of the assimilated bourgeoisie is seen as a symptom of alienation. The Creole-speaking masses have no real access to education, and authentic local culture cannot flourish in a divided and exploited colonial society. René Ménil in particular uses the Surrealist conception of poetry for a very lucid critique of the 'écrivain antillais'. Damas responded deeply to these fighting words, re-using a number of the images and even syntactical tricks. However, he was not prepared to follow Léro and company in composing poetic exercises in the style of Breton or Dali.

A second major influence was Negro America. Légitime Défense had cited admiringly Afro-American poets, and included a key discussion from Banjo. As the researches of Michel Fabre have corroborated, Damas extended his knowledge of the New Negro movement through the Revue du Monde Noir (1929–32) and took advantage of personal contacts. With astute literary judgment he looked to Langston Hughes (later a personal friend) for a renewal based on the popular negro modes: blues, spirituals and the wealth of ballad and work songs. In McKay's novels he could find a heightened folk speech which caught something of the triumph of jazz rhythms in a sad white world. Hughes belonged to a loose fraternity of left-wing poets, Roumain, Guillén etc., often compulsive travellers, who were developing a new simplified rhetoric of black awareness, sharing key images and emotive proper names across language barriers. Damas responded to this outlook, adopting something of the footloose lifestyle of Hughes and McKay as well as the poetic conventions. The Afro-American writers and musicians also served him as a valuable argument against assimilation.

The themes of Pigments have become so much part of the Négritude heritage that most of them are now taken for granted and more interest attaches to Damas's poetic technique. It is a deliberately organized and militant collection, 'the manifesto of the negritude movement' as he called it in a 1972 interview [with Keith Warner that was published in Manna (1973)]. It begins where the old order of African life was shattered by the arrival of the oppressor: 'Ils sont venus …' and ends on a call to armed revolt. The theme of the black man's stolen African homeland is there: 'mon Afrique qu'ils ont cambriolée' ('Blanchi'), a secure ancestral community mapped out by the enumeration in 'Limbé' and still precariously surviving in the 'ancestrale foi conique' ('Shine') which shapes his hut roof in the New World. We notice how Damas dramatizes the traumatic experience directly, speaking in the first person role of the victim and inciting the audience to identify with him against THEM. The image of Africa remains tenuous enough to mark very clearly his distance from it, but since the oppressors are rarely specified Damas can canalize very powerfully a collective anguish of persecution by the white man.

This 'tribal' voice draws with more detail and immediacy on the experience of plantation slavery in the New World. The 'cargaisons fétides' of the Middle Passage, the whip and the red-hot iron, the hounds tracking the runaway, these memories seem to well up compulsively as the movement of a poem generates emotional intensity. Damas is particularly concerned with the persistence of psychic shock, the morbidly reduced vitality of a race whose blood has drained away to fertilize the cane-crop. The sluggish impotence of the present, hinted at in many spleen poems, is explicitly ascribed to the brutality and tortures of the slave master in 'La complainte du nègre'. 'En file indienne' comments obsessively on the strange resignation of the peasant women bearing burdens. In 'Rappel' Damas features ironically 'the good nigger (who) stretches out ten or fifteen hours in the sugar factory on his hard bed' and he returns to this theme more extensively in the first movement of Black-Label. It is the docility of his compatriots 'Morts pour la France' or the 'indéfectible attachment' of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais which provoke the infuriated call to arms in the last two Pigments, but he would not react with such violence if he did not recognize this same debilitated inertia within himself (cf. 'Réalité'). When he does envisage revolt it is in dreams of cathartic violence, like the image of the cane-cutter's cutlass raised in bloody revenge ('Si souvent', developed also in Black-Label).

Damas identifies the slave with the slavish cult of French culture. Most of his best poems evoke his own divided self, lifting the mask of exquisite Parisian manners to reveal the rebellious urges of natural Caribbean man underneath, or to expose the 'credibility gap' in French civilization itself. For Pigments has the self-awareness of Damas in France, giving voice to the loneliness and alienation of the colonial betrayed by the hollow théories on which he had been nurtured. It is this 'wind' no doubt which comes hiccuping up in 'Hoquet', just as he spits back 'Blanchi', or suffers 'l'indigestion / de tout morceau d'histoire de France'. He has been drilled to speak only 'le français de France'. His education has been French, including the favourite preposterous example of reciting 'mes ancêtres les Gaulois' ('Nuit blanche'). The poet ridicules the white behavioural model by using the trivial niceties of table manners or the high civility of taking tea in a Parisian salon, though he cunningly confuses distinctions of body language which relate to class as well as race. The image of European culture is similarly satirical: the Viennese waltz, a piano tinkling out 'un clair de lune à soupirs / tout format'.

Christianity is also placed among the irrelevant manifestations of the colonizer's culture. Several poems which begin with deceptive flippancy grow harsher in tone, as in 'Solde' which culminates in a hysterical feeling of complicity in a vicious and bloodthirsty 'ci-vi-li-sa-tion'. Though he has been compelled to assimilate French culture, the eyes of the Frenchman will brand him irretrievably as other, as nègre (cf. 'Un clochard m'a demandé dix sous'). He feels it his duty to warn of the link between mild racist mockery and violent persecution. His waltz conjures up as partners 'tonton Gobineau' and 'cousin Hitler', while 'S.O.S.' warns of the fascist threat in terms designed to shock high-minded Francophiles.

The shared language and culture make more bitter the exclusion. Damas in blues mood paints sound pictures of night and darkness using physical malaise, especially cold, to convey inner solitude (see the rueful 'Pareille à la légende' or sobbing melodies of 'Il est des nuits'). His body remembers the warm mornes, his spirit is numbed by the chill boulevards.

One final theme has a specially close link with the Harlembased protests against the artificial role that the white public imposes on the black artist: the musician, boxer, etc. allowed to perform but not develop independence. The image of the muted trumpet expresses this stifling in a minor key, but Damas also protests forcibly in 'Trêve' and threatens in 'Bientôt' some stronger action. Apart from a few earlier poems, Pigments has great internal coherence, allowing Damas to charge an individual pronoun or Creole term with the accumulated emotion of a whole racial experience.

Damas's poetic technique can be most positively assessed in terms of his own remarks on African poetry with its essentially sung nature and use of everyday language:

(The African) does not compose for scholars. He composes so that the people can listen to him. This explains the jests, the puns, the word-play, the simplicity of expression.

It is poetry where rhyme and syllable counts have no necessary role to play. Poetry which relies wholly on cadence and melody. On repetition which creates the rhythm. On effects of antithesis and parallelism in the ideas and images.

[Introductory note to Poèmes nègres sur des airs africains]

Thus, unlike the more scholarly poets, Damas chose a medium to fit his message of solidarity with the black community. 'Et caetera' was chanted in Baoulé as a call to rebellion in 1939, and there is an immediate audience response to Damas even across a degree of language unfamiliarity. Coming from a speech community where standard French was the language of the colonizers, and associated with formal and official situations, Damas is exceptionally sensitive to the choice of register. His slangy conversational idiom is a prise de position similar to the choice of Creole by contemporary Caribbean poets, but has the notable advantage of international currency. Damas was able to draw also on the poetic experiments with metropolitan spoken French being undertaken by Prévert, Queneau and others. In all his writing that 'décalage léger et constant' which Sartre mentions in Orphée noir is perceptible in the juggling with a range of spoken and written styles.

Most of what can be said about the techniques of Pigments holds good for all of Damas's poetry. Apart from Black Label, he works exclusively with the short or medium length poem, at its best often a succint dramatic monologue or expression of mood. He has the two indispensable virtues which allow protest poetry to endure: a sense of humour and knowing when to stop.

His best poems are very skilfully constructed with a musical sense of the balance of pace and tone. Characteristically they have a forceful opening and end on a calculated dramatic shock ('S.O.S.', 'Hoquet') or occasional diminuendo ('Pour sûr', 'Position'). His use of repetition, one of the structural features which govern folk literature, is very marked and would repay precise linguistic description. Typical protest poems are organised on an anaphora 'Trêve de….' 'Passe pour….' or a repeated plain assertion of the central idea:

     J'ai l'impression d'être ridicule
     Rendez-les moi mes poupées noires
     Ma mère voulant d'un fils….

followed by a set of variations or paradigmatic substitutions which are often in a subordinate relation. 'Solde', despite its air of a folk-song stringing together improvised items by call and response (shoes on toes to bowler hat on top), shows a careful blend of easily understood phrases with more complex puns and metaphors (verses 2-3, 5-6), while developing the series: 'dans leurs (twice) / de leurs / parmi eux' essential to the meaning and rhythm (the pronoun allowing greater vocal emphasis than the possessive adjective). Repetition and refrains in a live speech event invite audience participation and are less quickly monotonous where the voice can add new units of meaning by ironical pauses, a higher pitch, etc. and vary pace and volume. The lulling repetition of past participles in 'Et caetera' prepares the dramatic surprise of the bold expletive. The three printed versions of 'Un clochard m'a demandé dix sous' offer a useful illustration of Damas at work: after the 1934 version he found 'hardes' to echo the stressed vowel of the key word 'clochard', then for the definitive version added three further emphatic 'Moi aussi' as well as a repetition to point the change in intonation contour from beggarly whine 'les yeux / le ventre / creux' to indignant revival of black pride. Many revisions also show increasing use of the rest for prosodic effects (typographical spacing and lines broken into shorter units), and heightened dramatization, especially of the climax to a poem; a last noires on 'Limbé', for example. Everything points to a poet progressively more conscious of constructing patterns for the spoken voice.

When using rhythm, password of the New Negro art, Damas delights in extravagant effects, preferring two feet for the 'poème à danser' to the twelve of the Alexandrine, as he jokes in Black-Label. In defiant poems his repetitions often suggest a strong 'drum-beat' by the use of duple time with frequent syncopation. An apparently slight piece like 'Bientôt' (revised version) shows very dexterous stresses and patterning of oral ᵓ [o] and nasal vowels with rapid consonants to give the key word onomatopoeic force as an urgent warning drum. The suspended high note of the unfinished sentence, and even the hint of the Creole: '(mó) pa ké dãsé', reinforce the message. Pigments suggested to Senghor 'un rythme de tam-tam instinctivement retrouvé' [1937 lecture collected in Négritude et Humanisme, 1964] and this point could well be explored systematically in terms of the persistence of African speech rhythms in Creolized French and the analysis of Damas readings by modern experimental phonetics.

Though he writes in a relaxed standard French, Damas often seems as close to Creole as to Mallarmé when he uses the concision of a predicate without copula or allows the voice to punctuate the ambiguities of his syntax. Details like the high frequency of foutre, play on an opposition between moi (Creole ) and ils ont (malicious echo of Creole zòt?), with the carefully selected lexical allusions, give Damas the flavour of a local entertainer, even though the firm simplicity of construction allows a wide appeal. Damas's masterpiece 'Hoquet' has attracted many commentaries, but a less remarked feature is the scope it offers for an ironical play on Creole interferences in the mother's speech: the nasal vowels of pain, and [dž] of banjo, an expressive high note on the typical African reduplication of français français, etc.

Humour in Damas is an art of self-defence. He has the satirical imagination to reverse the stereotypes, and cast Hitler as cannibal, the European as trophy-hunting barbarian, the Christian God as an unfortunate who missed out on polygamy, and in 'Et caetera' turn round the European's nightmare image of the Tirailleur raping white women to send him to attack colonialism in Senegal itself. In Pigments whimsical fancies often turn out to be serious weapons, like the Blue Danube motif in 'Nuit blanche'. Disintegrating clichés and idioms, playing with satisfying sound patterns, and with a neat taste in puns, Damas seldom relaxes into verbosity, as if the underlying tension of his whole approach to things French kept his wit taut and short-winded.

Damas as poet dramatizing archetypal roles (the bogey man of 'Bouclez-la' or the stern mother of 'Hoquet') and calling on so many of the techniques by which the storyteller holds his audience: jokes, sung interludes, rhythms and repetitions, prepares us for the conteur of Veillées noires. Even if folklore did not figure extensively in his own Cayenne childhood, Damas was doubtless keen to rediscover the oral sources which Dr. Price-Mars prized as the authentic voice of the Caribbean masses, and to add his own contribution to making known African survivals in the New World. These are enriched in the Guyanas by the presence of the reconstituted tribal groups of early escaped slaves ('Bush Negroes'). Damas is still promising to publish an enlarged collection of Afro-Amerindian tales, La Moisson des Trois Domaines.

The bulk of the material retold in Veillées noires demonstrates the resilience of African folk-tales in their New World setting. We find the range of animal characters, irrepressible Rabbit, Deer and Monkey, fierce but stupid Tiger, gossiping Bird and devious Turtle, common to so many areas of the black diaspora. (Anansi the spider-man was apparently reserved for a later collection.) They often express the art of survival of the powerless, in trickery, flattery and a hard-won humorous wisdom. The plots too are familiar, blending with African story or creation myth, elements of European devil tale, or Amerindian legend. They mirror the cultural diversity of a plural society, but one which has coexisted for centuries in the same natural habitat. Damas builds up a portrait of the local life-style with its particular ways of cooking, fishing, cultivating, practising magic. This is a land of rivers (Turtle and Alligator figure more frequently than in the Islands), where the deep forest, the Yan-Man, is a constant point of reference. This rural milieu has changed little since M. de Préfontaine wrote his manual for settlers in 1763.

Thus Damas offers a critique of assimilation policies simply by showing the richness of the native local culture they threaten. He is also more specific. A few stories deal explicitly with an unjust social order based on race: 'Aux premiers âges', the old story of the magic fountain combining with a bitter parable of the talents in 'Les trois frères'. More often a sharp aside brings a story into focus: the wicked mother offers her prettiest daughter to a Devil who apart from a slight limp might be any plantation owner ('Grain de sel'). Such indications are sufficient to allow a second level of interpretation of all the stories satirizing the abuse of power. When Damas shows Little Pig learning class consciousness in the farmyard, or Monkey dressing up to pass for man, the parallels with Pigments are inescapable and direct us to decode in racial terms.

Naturally the extensive use of Creole songs and dolos (proverbs), stock jokes and riddles, underlines Damas's intention. Often the central figure of the tale is a musician, gifted like Ravet-Guitar with a subversive power to awaken the African vitality of the people in defiance of the landowner or ruler. The narrative incorporates these elements, usually without strain (though 'Echec et mât' almost gets out of hand). Damas relishes playing off the Creole elements and apparently naïve content against a literary level of formal French, gracefully archaic in flavour (e.g. 'Papa Mouton eut le vin fort gai', etc.). The result is a seductive little book, with all the wit of the best of Pigments at the service of a more richly human and guyanais version of the same project.

The third pre-war volume, Retour de Guyane, originated in a 1934 ethnographic mission to study the Bush Negroes which exploded with passionate indignation into a full-scale critique of French policy and mismanagement. Damas fills in the background by a brief history of exploration and settlement, then looks at the contemporary situation. The long history of failed projects, the 'gangrene' of the penal settlements, so much potential frustrated by obtuse direct rule from Paris and corrupt or lazy officials, such factors have created a specific local mentality despite the internal divisions of race and class. This book is essential reading both for Damas's own commitment to his homeland, and for a partisan view of French colonialism from a writer unusually well-placed to evaluate assimilation. Most often he allows a damning series of facts to speak for themselves, but we recognize his flair for the telling detail: 'un vrai budget colonial' which spends 7,000 Fr. on a uniform for the governor's chauffeur and 4,000 Fr. on the Public Library, or so much convict labour expended on road-building, to achieve communication with the interior by the dug-out canoes of the Boni tribesmen. Damas disentangles the various issues involved in assimilation: political status as a French department (in fact achieved in 1946), social equality with white Frenchmen (a mirage), cultural uniformity (neither desirable nor possible). With a firm 'no' he concludes that the colonial is and can be an equal but remains other. He rejects a change in political status as no more of a cure for the ills of French Guyana than suppressing the bagne, indeed such measures might serve to distract from vitally-needed economic development. An expert in the weight of words, he distrusts all the grandiose rhetoric, and warns against exchanging one set of labels for another on an equally empty package, or, to use his own image, 'pinning this légion d'honneur on a naked and starving breast'. Not surprisingly this book made Damas very unpopular both in official quarters and among some of his compatriots, though time has alas justified too many of his lucid commentaries on French policy in the Caribbean. The factual approach and well-argued position of Retour de Guyane is a valuable companion to the emotional rejection expressed in Pigments, and usefully relates the folklore of Veillées noires to the territory as a whole.

In the stimulating atmosphere of the pre-war black community Damas felt the pressure to contribute his message. Nothing he has published since shows quite the same urgent power. Indeed from 1947 on, a variety of enticing titles have been announced but not actually reached publication. Immediately after the war he worked on the first of the anthologies which collected the work of Poètes d'expression française not to the greater glory of French civilization but to promote awareness of a shared colonial experience. Damas makes his position clear by featuring Léro in his preface and work by the militant younger generation, Georges Desportes, Lucien Attuly, Guy Tirolien, etc. together with his own compagnons de route, Césaire and Senghor. However in compiling a manual on historical lines, 1900–1945, he also included too much mediocre and imitative versifying, and the resultant volume has been inevitably overshadowed by Senghor's excellent Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache, published the following year.

During this, the heroic period of Présence Africaine, Damas expressed solidarity by a little collection of African songs [Poèmes nègres sur des airs africains] adapted from originals in indigenous languages. Though the themes are often close to his own songs of love, war or abuse, the tone is more confidently prosaic. Several tiny love-poems ('Idylle', 'Sérénade', 'Prière') charmingly suggest an underlying order of stable human relations. Poems like the satirical 'Cocu et content', 'Parti-pris' or 'La Maîtresse Servante' illuminate the links between Damas's own poetic technique and folk-song originals with their well-defined social functions. However, the collection does not altogether avoid the quaintly stilted air of translation. In 1952 appeared Damas's own first collection of love-poems [Graffití]. These nine lyrics modulating the pangs of 'mon coeur malade' with often a hinted context of exile or hostility, reappear in slightly revised form in Névralgies.

However, 1948–51 saw Damas engaged in the purposeful parallel activity of representing French Guyana, now an overseas Department, in the Chambre des Députés. His record is a workmanlike though not outstanding one of sensible proposals to develop the territory: tax relief, agricultural credit, electoral and judicial reforms, setting up of various bodies to promote forestry, agriculture and an 'Institut Français d'Amérique tropicale'. Damas took an active part in attacking the delay in extending French Social Security benefits to the D. O. M., and finally displayed his intransigence over the official enquiry into the troubles in the Ivory Coast. He held to his views and did not seek re-election. Although brief, this career offsets the picture of Damas as hysterical racist composing 'hate-filled diatribes' (Coulthard). For a period at least he made an attempt to work the system, and cooperate both with the socialist group in parliament and other bodies concerned with French Guyana. The poetic image is of the victim of persecution and censorship, having the courage to say merde instead of keeping meekly silent. The full picture is more complex and shows unexpected patience with the compromises of concerted action and the prose of officialdom.

Since the immediate post-war phase Damas has worked towards the cultural liberation of the black man in a more international sphere. He has written tributes to Dr. Price-Mars and René Maran for Présence Africaine, and edited a second anthology, La nouvelle somme de poésie du monde noir, which charts the enormous vitality of the poetic resurgence and also the expansion of Damas's own horizons. Though based now in the United States at Howard University, he has been a regular participant in cultural missions and congresses round the globe, looking back in addresses and especially public readings on the Négritude experience.

Damas's poetry since Pigments lacks that initial verve, though offering much to reward the reader or listener. Extracts from Black-Label appeared in the 1947–48 anthologies, and this sustained poem in four movements elaborates without significantly advancing Damas's long debate with himself and the world. It has a confessional quality, as if under the influence of alcohol the exiled poet yields up 'le film du rêve recréé', a long fluid series of flashbacks into his past. The first section develops from tears of exile by the waters of the Seine, to a long apostrophizing of all those who challenge him, men of the Caribbean who betray their own dignity, men of Africa who betrayed their brothers, then blames with humorous blasphemy the Christian God and bitterly reiterates his stance against all the forces of repression. The second canto concentrates more on the sentimental memories of the lonely heart: a pastoral vision symbolizing the distant Caribbean, a fiasco with the blonde Ketty, voices calling long distance. The round of partners quickens into the consoling rhythms of the Cabane Cubaine, the blues singer, and then the Afro-Brazilian beat triumphantly bombards. Paris with the black man's revenge. Damas next develops one encounter into a sustained conversation, a dédoublement which allows him to give another self-addressed account of his childhood, the experience of 'Hoquet' amplified and set in the real and ideal landscape of home. He ends in his favourite role as rebel, shouting 'Down with school' on behalf of all the underdogs and outcasts. In Section IV he pulls together many strands of experience to link his own poetic method to the kamougué folk-dance, trace his gift of language to the figure of Tètèche (the old woman storyteller presiding over Veillées noires) and invoke the heritage of the Maskililis, the little men, free spirits of the woods, Amerindian or African. He takes care to dispel the Christian overtones of this testament; to the last he defies the system, glass in hand.

The form of Black-Label is hauntingly obsessive, patterns sustained beyond the point of saturation, refrains used to structure an elusive flux of mental experience. Critics point to the essentially musical nature of the construction. The notorious war-chant 'Jamais le Blanc ne sera nègre' achieves a very exciting beat by its double accent on the Creole syllable nèg, and the ambiguity of est/et finds a triumphant climax in the absolute statements of the last four lines. The context shows Damas ruefully conscious that this explosion of black power and joy is sited in a tiny Parisian dance floor. However, without the support of a musical accompaniment this poem flags. The absorption with his childhood and with protest for its own sake needs a less self-indulgent expression at this stage in the poet's career, though this is Damas's own favourite work.

Some of the love poems in Névralgies, like Black-Label, set a personal relationship into the tormented context of black-white relations. The title itself implies a bashful confession of weakness nagging at the soul. Memorable lyrics here are often the brief fixing of a mood, for example 'Par la fenêtre ouverte à demi' with its unerring tense shift as the initial charm and consecrated attitudes of poet to the world and his muse give way to an avid urgency; 'Sur le sein' playing ironically on the poet 'in whiteface', uses the metre to give a woeful emphasis to 'flasque' and 'blême'. Among longer pieces, 'Toute à ce besoin d'évasion' constructs a lively pattern to ease the heartache: the woman totally absorbed in her holiday sunbathing, the poet just a key dangling in an empty pigeonhole. The verbal shrug of the final couplet is a typical play on an idiomatic nuance. Other pieces show in a more relaxed form the poet's sheer delight in language, whether punning on the European and Caribbean meaning of marron, composing nonsense proverbs and magic pass-words in the Surrealist manner ('Nul ne se rappelle avoir vu'), or building a collage on the sound waves ('Et maintenant'). Though a few poems stress race consciousness for lament or satire, over-all this collection deals more playfully with the intimate sense of loss and lack of fulfilment. The urgent passion of Pigments is not there to direct the games.

The verdict of the general public is thus right in giving a special place to Pigments, even if it is unrepresentative of Damas's range of interests and abilities. His original contribution to Négritude may not be extensive in terms of ideas, but his temperament and Guyanese background add a valuable and distinctive note. Above all he is an authentic artist with words, in that heightened popular vein of other poètes-gueux from Villon to Verlaine, like them gifted with a poetic ear of rare subtlety and a sure sense of form. We value his sense of humour, his wit and satire, his astringent refusal to be mystified. He transmits the pain and passion of blackness simply and clearly enough to reach his chosen people, and the audience for his work continues to grow.

Daniel L. Racine (essay date 1982)

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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 story-teller of Veillées Noires. I shall focus my remarks on the verse of the poet whose touch can be perceived anyhow in most of his prose works.

It is not difficult for a discriminating reader of Damas's poetry to detect some of his literary devices and techniques. But this can best be done in the light of what I would identify as Damas's manifesto of African poetry and which can actually be proved to be his own poetics. In his introduction to a small volume of verse entitled Poèmes Nègres sur des airs africains (later translated as African Songs of Love, War, Grief and Abuse), Damas had this to say about African poetry:

Traduits du rongué, du fanti, du bassouto, du toucouleur ou encore du bambara, les quelques textes que nous donnerons aujourd'hui, auront l'avantage de révéler les aspects multiples de la poésie nègre d'expression et d'inspiration. Poésie dont la caractéristique essentielle réside dans le fait qu'improvisée, elle n'est jamais déclamée ni dite, mais chantée.

Toute circonstance de la vie, tout événement qui excite l'attention du public est l'occasion d'un poème qui jamais ne différera du langage familier. C'est que l'Africain, qui est né poète et a vite fait d'improviser un chant, ne compose pas pour des savants. Il compose pour être écouté du peuple. Ce qui explique les moqueries, les calembours, les jeux de mots, la simplicité dans l'expression.

Poésie où la rime et le nombre de syllabes n'ont forcément aucun rôle à jouer. Poésie qui attend tout de la cadence et de la mélodie. Tout de la répétition qui engendre des idées et des images.

Poésie faite de subtilité, de délicatesse et de nuances, notait Gide dans son inoubliable Voyage au Congo.

One may summarize the chief articles of this profession of faith as follows:

a) Africain poetry is improvised and must be sung rather than recited;

b) the language of this poetry, which expresses everyday life, is colloquial; African poets do not improvise for scholars but for people; hence the use of mockeries, puns, plays upon words and simplicity in expression;

c) African poetry does not count on rhyme and meter but, rather, on tempo, melody and repetition that engender rhythm;

d) finally, antitheses and parallelisms of ideas are important parts of this poetry.

These features constitute for Damas the aesthetic cannons of black poetry and confer on it "subtlety", "delicacy" and "nuances". They are well illustrated in his own works.

In reviewing African Songs [in Black Orpheus (1962)], Professor Dathorne notes that "these poems were not translated from any African language into French by Damas, but are obviously inspired by African verse". If so, Damas's art had reached a point where it could be assimilated with its actual source of inspiration. Even if this were not so, Damas still proved to be an excellent interpreter since the adaptations given us do not sound like narrow translations. In fact, he had shown his talent as a translator on several occasions. Veillées Noires is a volume of collected Guyanese folk-stories remarkably translated from Creole into French. Professor Cook, reviewing Névralgies [in African Forum (Spring 1967)], observes:

For several years, Damas has been translating Langston Hughes's poetry; this reviewer has seen some of these translations in manuscript, and they are magnificent. This is not surprising not only because of Damas's talent, but also because they are kindred spirits.

A sample of these translations can be found in Retour de Guyane (1938) where Damas quotes and translates with savour "I'm Makin' A Road", a poem improvised by L. Hughes as a typical African piece. If Damas was first inspired by Hughes and other poets of the Harlem Renaissance, it was because, in their exile, they had been able to preserve traditional African poetry. By presenting himself as the translator of African songs rather than as a creator, he became the intermediary between oral and written cultures.

Of Damas's own creations, it is commonplace to say they follow African patterns. So much so, that some poems of Pigments were translated into Baoulé (an Ivory Coast language) and chanted by Africans as songs of revolt. This wonderful reward crowned his success in achieving in his own poetry the qualities and techniques he had long admired in the folk-poetry of Africa. There has been unanimous agreement among literary critics that, of all the poems born from the "Négritude" movement, Damas's are the most musical. Senghor refers to Damas's use of rhythm as "magic which, in the song-poems (…) as in the Blues, restores to words their life and strength".

In an interview given to Keith Warner in 1973, Damas declared about his work: "I am not afraid to say that in my poetry you find rhythm. My poems can be danced. They can be sung". The interviewer was so convinced that, in an article entitled "Léon Damas and the Calypso" [in CLA Journal (March 1976)], he was to observe that

Léon Damas, although he used other techniques from the French literary tradition, used elements in his poetry which could fit very neatly into the realm of the calypso, just as he used elements from jazz idiom.

The opening poem of Pigments ["Ils sont venus ce soir"] describes rhythmically how the slave-traders intruded into the middle of a dance which they had interrupted to capture their prey:

          Ils sont venus ce soir où le
              roulait de
                                rythme   la frénésie

        des yeux
        la frénésie des mains

        la frénésie
        des pieds de statues


        combien de MOI MOI MOI
        sont morts
        depuis qu'ils sont venus ce soir où le
              roulait de
                                rythme la frénésie

       des yeux
       la frénésie
       des mains
       la frénésie
       des pieds de statues

There is a dichotomy in this poem whose rhythm is suddenly broken in the middle with the word "DEPUIS", capitalized on purpose to stress repetitive disjunction and to force the mind to focus on a question that might be repeated indefinitely.

One of Damas's most lyrical poems closes with a lament on "le rythme, la cadence, la mesure" born in Africa. Their loss was among the privations wrought by the slavetrade.

Many of his poems have a drum-beat rhythm. This is the case, for instance, in the poem, "Bientôt", where one imagines a duet of drums—the refrain "Bientôt" taken up by an ominous deep-voiced drum and the other lines in higher-pitched, staccato notes:

           je n'aurai pas que dansé
           je n'aurai pas que chanté
           je n'aurai pas que frotté
           je n'aurai pas que trempé
           je n'aurai pas que dansé

While this poem ends abruptly with a defiant slap of the drum, the one entitled "Limbé" ("Love sickness") gradually fades out in the end:

          Rendez-les-moi mes poupées noires
          mes poupées noires
          poupées noires

The diminishing sounds reflect nostalgia for a past which has slipped away irretrievably. Nonetheless, through rhythm, Damas attempted to link past and present, Africa and Guinea, in a rite of passionate union with the Motherland as illustrated in Black Label:

          poème à danser que chantent
          Ceux dont je suis qui entendent être
          non pas les mots
          mais qui entendent
          être avec eux
           au gré du rythme des heures claires
           où dégainé le tambour-Ka
           où débandê le tambour-Ka
           enjambé le tambour-Ka
           entouré le tambour-Ka
           raisonné le tambour-Ka
           cajolé le tambour-Ka
           réchauffé le tambour-Ka
           résonné le tambour-Ka
           enivré le tambour-Ka
           éreinté le tambour-Ka
           essoufflé le tambour-Ka

It is easy to realize that a more direct, native rhythm, replaces an artificially elaborated meter. Damas did away with the restricting poetic conventions, with Alexandrine and Parnassian alike. His poetry relinquished metrical concerns and demands corporal, physical participation. Damas contended that he was happy with two feet and did not need the twelve of the Alexandrine:

       Il me suffit
       d'avoir deux pieds.

       J'en aurais beaucoup
       beaucoup trop de douze
       douze pieds comptés pesés
       scandés d'un doigt
       toujours le même
       tout prêt à tout
       bon à couper

This "pedestrian poetry" is clearly a reaction against learned stylization and literariness. Senghor has pointed out that "Damas's poetry is essentially unsophisticated". The latter's main concern seemed to be rhythm which he generated through many devices such as repetitions or parallelisms. For example, he would repeat the ending of each line at the beginning of the text:

       Ils ont si bien su faire
       si bien faire les choses
       les choses
       qu'un jour nous avons tout
       nous avons tout foutu de nous-mêmes
       tout foutu de nous-mêmes en l'air

or at the beginning of a line:

       Moi aussi un beau jour j'ai sorti
       mes hardes
       de clochard

       Moi aussi avec des yeux qui tendent
       la main
       j'ai soutenu la putain de misère (…)

       Moi aussi (…)

or a list of single lines, often with parallel rhythms, which begin with the same words, to achieve cumulative effect:

       ......la ligne
       qui mène encore
       aux Isles de l'Aventure
       aux Isles à la Dérive
       aux Isles de la Flibuste
       aux Isles de la Boucane
       aux Isles de la Tortue
       aux Isles à Nègreries
       aux Isles à sucreries
       aux Isles de la mort-vive (…)

Another device used by Damas to emphasize rhythm is typography. Lines, and sometimes words, are cut and displayed on the page in a cascading way to suggest semiotically the rhythmic effect the poet wishes to create as we have seen above in the opening poem of Pigments.

Words can also be juxtaposed paradigmatically, sometimes in an apparent nonsensical fashion, just for the sake of their sounds. They may be adjectives, like:

       roses effeuillées.
roses parfumées,
roses d'encens,

They may be verbs:

      Ceux qui se lèvent tôt
      Pour que se lèvent tard
      et se gavent
      se dandinent
      se pomadent
      se désodorisent
      se parfument
      se lotionnent
      se maquillent
      se gargarisent
      se jalousent
      se débinent
      d'autres (…)

In both examples, the paradigmatic arrangement creates a derogatory effect.

Damas took pleasure in juggling with words for their sound combinations. This is why his poems are often rich in alliterations. Consider, as a typical example, the reverberative echo in a line like "Le néant de mes nuits au néon à naître" or the search for sarcastic effect in "les deux doigts à thé pointus pointés et pointants".

Damas proved his mastery of the French language which he deliberately demystified by imposing upon words his own fanciful arrangements and meaning. This results most of the time in semantic shifts, amusing incongruities, grammatical deconstructions, syntactic disorders. He had a special gift for spoonerisms (the famous French "contrepetries") consisting of a transposition of unusual initial sounds of two or more words that generally creates a comic effect, as in the example "les bouches à mouches bées" instead of the expected "les mouches à bouches bées".

He tried all possible (even impossible) structures such as:

       Le jeu coulant du noeud
       le noeud coulant du jeu
       le jeu du noeud coulant (…)

By nature a practical joker, Damas excelled in puns created by phonetic distortions or ambiguous associations of words. Such is the case of the poem "Nuit blanche", untranslatable because one cannot find an expression meaning both a "sleepless night" and a "night spent among white people". The same difficulty occurs with the phrase "bon à rien" used in the same poem, and which can be "good for nothing" or "good Aryan". In both cases, the reader assumes the responsibility of transforming one interpretation into another.

This device may have been inspired by Claude McKay's Banjo but, here, the transformation is demanded by the writer. In a similar fashion, one of his characters transforms "United States" into "United Snakes".

Puns constitute one of the main elements of the humorous quality of this poetry which also consists of ellipses, allusions and unexpected associations. This aspect, which has been emphasized by many critics as one of the main characteristics of black poets in general and of Damas in particular, need not be insisted upon again here.

Finally, in his Introduction to African Songs, Damas referred to "simplicity of expression". He is quite at home with this principle. His poetry uses plain speech, colloquial words, those of everyday conversation, which gives the impression that the poet is actually talking directly to us without academic concern. Many poems can be read like sentences improvised on the spur of the moment, as for example:

       Grands dieux
       Pourquoi, pourquoi
       faut-il que tout chante
       à tout jamais soudain
       d'une pureté d'albâtre

If anything, the extreme simplicity which characterizes this poetry bears testimony to its authenticity and its pressing sincerity. What can be simpler and more sincere than this love poem?

       Quand bien même
       Je t'aimerais mal
       en est-ce bien sûr
       au point d'en avoir mal
       pour sûr
       tu sais que je t'aime
       c'est sûr
       au point d'en avoir mal
       en est-ce bien sûr
       toi qui m'aimes
       toi qui m'aimes mal
       c'est sûr

What a difference indeed with the elaborate, sophisticated, learned and sometimes hermetic poetry of his peers in Negritude—Césaire and Senghor. The latter humbly admitted the superiority of Damas as a black poet when he publicly declared in an American television interview in 1966:

To a certain extent, Damas is the most Negro among us all. In fact, I studied the rhythm of his verse; it is exactly negro rhythm and it resembles that of Langston Hughes.

Césaire has expressed the same view on many occasions.

The question has been asked why Damas, for more authenticity, did not use his native Creole (which is a mixture of French and African) to write his poetry. He answered this question several times in interviews and writings. His argument was the following:

We do not deny our native language while continuing to write in French, but our truth must be reflected in the European language that we had learn and whose radiance is larger and may help to serve a better knowledge of man.

He also explained that

Africans and West Indians have different languages complicated by countless dialects and a lack of a stable written literature. Thus, French like English for some and Portuguese or Spanish for others, offered itself as an excellent means for Negro expression. Like English, Portuguese and Spanish, French made it possible for all Negroes to communicate with some words and identifiable symbols.

Nevertheless, Damas was very often tempted to use Creole and one can find several passages where his native language will appear in his poetry even if he had to translate it into French such as in the following example:

        PIÈ PIÈ PIÈ
        PRIÈ Bondjé
        mon fi
        prié Bondjé
        Angou ka bouyi
        Angou ka bouyi

        Pierre Pierre
        Prie Dieu
        mon fiston
        prie Dieu
        mon fiston
        pour que soit fin prêt le maïs en crème
        à être savouré

He contended that Creole offers more rhythmic patterns, more affectivity and retains the linguistic memory of life on another continent at another time.

Damas is also said to have used surrealism as a means of access to identity. Because of his many connections with surrealist poets, one cannot deny some influences of this movement on his poetry, including a subrational layer of consciousness, dreams, fancies, snatches of incoherence and incongruous or gratuitous images. One may say, however, that Surrealism itself remains heavily endebted to Negro Art. What attracted Damas to this movement was precisely the possibility of aesthetic exchange between Blacks and Whites.

As a poet of Negritude, Damas made it a point to find out and express the essence of African aesthetics. He seems to have discovered an important part of it through African songs in different languages which he could learn, translate, interpret and assimilate to a point of identifying his own poetic expression with them. It was after their spontaneity in improvisation, their simplicity, their jocularity and their rhythmical patterns built up on repetitive segments that he created his song-like verse. By so doing he reached a coveted platform where his poetics became part and parcel of African aesthetics.

Thomas H. Brown (essay date 1992)

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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 reader, this body of literature, including Damas' poems, has universal implications and is open to careful and imaginative scrutiny of readers everywhere.

In his poem, "Ils sont venus ce soir" [from Pigments, Névralgies], Damas evokes the tragic, lamentable moment in time when outsiders came and disrupted forever the serenity of his life:

"Ils sont venus ce soir"
          Pour Léopold-Sédar Senghor

        Ils sont venus ce soir où le
              roulait de
                                rythme   la frénésie

        des yeux
        la frénésie des mains
        la frénésie
        des pieds de statues


        combien de MOI MOI MOI
        sont morts
        depuis qu'ils sont venus ce soir où le
              roulait de
                                rythme   la frénésie
        des yeux
        la frénésie
        des mains
        la frénésie
        des pieds de statues

What is stated in the poem? Only that "they" came one night when a tam-tam's beat produced the frenzy of eyes, hands, and feet, and that since this moment, much that is in the poet is dead. Who came? What did they do? What is dead in the poet? Why? The text does not say. It only suggests. It is up to the reader to discover these and other meanings.

Damas does not identify "ils" in the first line of the poem. Awareness of Damas' role in defining the concept of négritude provides a clue and helps the reader discover that "they" as unwanted outsiders represent the white race, the oppressors of blacks. With simplicity and brevity, Damas depicts a scene with double meaning. The arrival of strangers interrupts a festive moment, a joyous and ecstatic village dance, the symbol of the value and beauty of black African culture. When "they" come, the dance of joy is transformed into a danse macabre. The frenzy of eyes, hands, and feet now becomes a reflection of fear, of amazement, of pain, of death. Dancing feet are now "pieds de statues" (repeated twice), feet no longer capable of moving, glued, nailed down, suddenly transfixed, inert, lifeless. Damas could have given clues in his poem in order to represent a precise experience in place and in time. He does not do it. Too much precision would have diminished and stunted the meaning and impact of his poem. The nonspecificity of the poet serves a larger design, expanding the portrayal of the coming of whites among blacks. With unnamed perpetrators and unidentified act, the poem finally encompasses all the suffering and degradation of Damas and his people under French rule in his native French Guiana, plus any humiliation, any injustice, any scandalous, outrageous racial attitude or crime in any place, at any time brought against the black race by whites.

The very form of the poem, shown on the page in short, choppy fragments, toppling over each other to the ground, suggests a race brought low, separated from others and itself. Isolation and alienation are the inevitable results of the whites' coming. The words on the page illustrate the fracturing, the splitting. Tam-tam, a metaphor for black ancestral values, is cut in half. Eyes separated from hands and hands pulled away from feet show the extent to which the self has lost touch with itself. This body, broken, isolated, separated, disjointed, mutilated, represents the entire black race and demonstrates the enormity of Damas' tragic metaphor.

The words "DEPUIS" and "MOI MOI MOI" appear in capital letters, the only ones in the poem with such distinction intended to highlight their importance. "DEPUIS" stands in the middle of the poem so that in time and space it marks a joyous "before" and a wretched "after," a "before" of elation and fulfillment, symbolized by the dance before the coming of the outsiders, an "after" of sadness, lamentation, alienation, the dance turned to horror when "they" came. "DEPUIS" in this poem is a point of demarcation, a rupture in time and place, a sign in capital letters at midpoint, a meridian of time, the supreme moment at white heat which altered irrevocably and forever the destiny of the race. "MOI" in capital letters and repeated three times demonstrates the extent to which the poet is affected personally by the situation he is describing. He seems to be dying perpetually. "MOI" in a trilogy may also suggest the notion of trinity, a trinity of union, a complete black soul in harmony with itself, split, torn asunder by the advent of whites among blacks. "MOI" occurs in a question. How many "MOI," how many selves in the poet, how many precious parts of existence and being are dead since "DEPUIS," the most critical, the most crucial of all moments? The three "MOI" in capital letters stress the extent and repetition of hurt and injury. Damas asks the question, preferring it to a statement, because the issue, like a question, is open-ended. Damas is clearly searching. He cannot fathom the vastness of his loss. Can any black, man or woman, cut off, severed from past, culture, family, and self, measure the part of self which is dead and lost forever?

In "Contre notre amour qui ne voulait rien d'autre" [from Pigments, Névralgies], Damas contrasts the black wish for a free and peaceful life with white interdictions against these aspirations. A reference to Old Testament Patriarchs forces the reader to fill in a huge reader space in the poem, a gap which spans centuries and raises tragic and far-reaching implications for the entire black race:

"Contre notre amour qui ne voulait rien d'autre"
        Contre notre amour qui ne voulait rien d'autre
        que d'être beau comme un croissant de lune au beau mitan du Ciel à minuit
        et pur comme le premier ris du nouveau-né
        et vrai comme le verbe être
        et fort comme la Mort d'où nous vient toute vie

        Contre notre amour
        qui rêvait de vivre à l'air libre
        qui rêvait de vivre sa vie
        de vivre une vie
        qui ne fut
        ni lépreuse
        ni truquée
        ni tronquée
        ni traquée
        ils ont invoqué NOE
        et NOE en appela à SEM
        et SEM en appela à JAPHET
        et JAPHET s'en remit à NOE
        et NOE en appela à MATHUSALEM
        alors MATHUSALEM ressortit de l'arsenal
        tous les oripeaux
        tous les tabous
        tous les interdits en fanal rouge

        Ici Danger
        Chasse gardée
        Terrain privé
        Domaine réservé
        Défense d'entrer
        Ni chiens ni nègre sur le gazon

"Contre," the very first word of the title and the poem, establishes a tension, the opposition of "them and us." "Notre amour," which is black love, marks a sharp line of demarcation with third person plural "ils," unwanted outsiders who represent whites in general and the Freneh in Guiana in particular, who have power, money, and privileges as ruling class.

Black hope is personified love with simple, reasonable desires; it wants to be, to be in the same sense that Erich Fromm describes being in preference to having or owning. A series of similes represents black love wanting to be "beau comme un croissant de lune au beau mitan du ciel à minuit (this love has intimate, tender contact with nature) / et pur comme le premier ris du nouveau-né (it recognizes the beauty and value of life) / et vrai comme le verbe être (it focuses on being, not possessing) / et fort comme la Mort d'où nous vient toute vie" (it finds strength and regeneration in death). Consistent with the cycle of birth, being, and death, black love moves in cadence with the archetypal rhythm of the seasons with death the necessary precursor of rebirth. Black love dreams, and the dream is to live in free air, to live its own life, an existence with its own uniqueness and at the same time in tender and natural harmony with the ebb and flow of all life forms. The grating repetitions of the consonant sounds in truquée, tronquée, traquée stand in contrast to the gentle, serene portrayal of black love and emphasize the harshness of whites' treatment of blacks.

Staunch, stern forces are marshalled against black wishes and dreams. "Ils," cold, methodical, impersonal "they," always as perpetrators, invoke a power higher than their own to secure divine sanction for white domination and cursing of blacks. "They" call on Biblical Patriarchs (Noah, Shem, Japheth, and Methuselah) and establish a collaboration with them. This is a long-standing alliance, and the scriptural authority of the Old Testament figures gives weight to their position and renders their strictures all the more imposing. The Patriarchs' names, the only words in the poem in capital letters, emphasize the farreaching importance of their interdictions. Nevertheless, there is a hesitancy, a reluctance on their part to take responsibility for what they are doing. Noah refers to Shem, who calls on Japheth, who, coming full circle, turns the issue back to Noah. Finally, Noah, still unwilling to take a stand, defers to Methuselah, the oldest, the most venerable of all the Patriarchs. Methuselah does not hesitate. He acts. He "ressortit de l'arsenal / tous les oripeaux / tous les tabous / tous les interdits en fanal rouge." The "re-" in the verb, "ressortit," shows clearly that Methuselah's action is a recurring outrage. The word "arsenal" implies a full range of weapons, puts Methuselah's machinations in a war context, and demonstrates the might of the oppressors. The term, "oripeaux," has many meanings. They are copper blades (weapons) which at a distance look like gold. They are also old, tawdry clothes, rags, fabric, or embroidery with fake silver or gold. "Oripeaux" are thus symbols of things which try to be beautiful or authentic, but which are not. They represent the unfounded, false nature of Methuselah's declarations. The taboos and prohibitions, displayed in glaring red lights, take on an eerie, repressive, threatening presence. "Tous," used with "oripeaux," "tabous," and "interdits" indicates that the Patriarchs' repression is total.

White interdictions, listed in a series of street-sign messages ("Attention / Ici danger / Déviation / Chasse gardée / Terrain priveé / Domaine réservé / Défense d'entrer / Ni chiens ni nègre sur le gazon") end the poem and at the same time bring closure to native hopes. The last sign, the most shameful of all, sums up the flagrant nature of the disgrace of white repression of blacks. These are French signs and French rules; blacks had no part in their formulation. They are not agreed upon; they are imposed. All together they represent every stricture, every regulation, every procedure, and pressure of a dominant class intent on keeping its favored status.

It is significant that Damas mentions only two of Noah's sons, Shem and Japheth, and omits the third, Ham. Traditionally, the world is shown divided among Noah's three sons: Shem received the Semitic nations, Japheth, the Indo-European lands, and Ham, Africa. In an ingenious and ironic reversal, Ham, traditionally portrayed as Noah's cursed son, does not participate in the nefarious activities of his brothers, his father, and Methuselah. Ham, the villain, is redeemed by his absence in the poem and finds himself aligned with the black race in Africa against all the other nations of the world assigned to Shem and Japheth.

How is it that Ham became Noah's cursed son, and what did this curse consist of? The tradition starts in the Bible. The Old Testament account of Noah and his sons describes two events. In the first (Genesis VI-VIII), Noah is the hero of the flood story, the great Patriarch chosen by God to perpetuate the human race after its extinction. Noah's sons are married at this time, enter the ark with Noah, and are saved. After the flood, God blesses Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth to "be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth" (Genesis IX, I).

The second narrative (Genesis IX, 18-27), which seems to be unaware of the flood story, deals with Noah's shameless drunkenness and Ham's apparent irreverent behavior toward his father. Ham sees his father's drunken state and nakedness and describes the experience to his brothers. Shem and Japheth show deference to their father's precarious predicament by approaching him backwards with averted eyes in order to cover his nakedness. Aware of Ham's unworthy conduct toward him, Noah curses Ham through Ham's son, Canaan. "And he (Noah) said, Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be to his brethren. And he said, Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant."

The traditional identification of Ham with Africa led to the notion that Noah's curse on Ham and his descendants was the mark of a black skin. But the geographical allocation to Ham stands on shaky ground. In Genesis X, XI, Ham's sons, Cush, Mizraim, Phut, and Canaan are also listed as lands belonging to Ham, and accordingly, Ham has four branches: Cush corresponds to Ethiopia, Mizraim to Egypt, Phut to Libya, and the fourth branch is Canaan. Eventually, as we noted, Ham is identified with all the south lands known to the Israelites. A discrepancy arises because of Canaan's location outside of Africa. Moreover, at the time of the stories about Noah in the Bible, Ethiopia was not Negroid; Egypt and Libya were not either and are not to this day. A part of Palestine, Canaan lay between the Jordan River and the Dead Sea on the east and the Mediterranean Sea on the west. Canaan, which was mostly Semitic, not Negroid, was eventually conquered and assimilated by Israel. It would seem that the curse of black skin on Canaan (the Biblical personage) sufficed to categorize Canaan (the land) as black, too. Eventually, since it was impossible to regard Canaan a representative land of Africa, Egypt took its place. Ham in this interpretation, becomes equivalent to Egypt, and thus, Egypt is referred to as the home of Ham in Psalms 78:51, 105:23, 27, and 106:22.

Jewish legends, beginning in the second century A.D., provide more information on Ham's curse. They assert that Canaan received it instead of Ham because God's blessing on Ham placed him beyond Noah's curse. The stories about Canaan, as with Ham, stress his perverse nature. Canaan's last will and testament to his children encouraged them to love one another, love robbery, love lewdness, hate their masters, and never speak the truth.

There are other attempts to explain Ham's curse. The Talmudists represent Ham, the dog, and the raven, as the only ones in the ark who had sexual intercourse with their partners, while all the other humans and animals abstained. It is for this immoral conduct that Ham is cursed to be black.

Another reason for Ham's curse derives from his behavior during Noah's drunkenness. The Bible states simply (Genesis IX, 20) that "Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard." The legends amplify this account, indicating that Satan became a collaborator with Noah in the work of cultivating the vine and making wine. The story of Noah's drunkenness is also expanded in the legends, so that Ham witnesses his father in the act of sexual intercourse. Ham mocks his father before his brothers and adds to his irreverence with a greater outrage. He attempts to mutilate Noah to prevent his father's procreation. When Noah awoke from his wine, he cursed Canaan:

Therefore he put the curse upon the last-born son of the son that had prevented him from begetting a younger son that the three he had. The descendants of Ham through Canaan therefore, have red eyes, because Ham looked upon the nakedness of his father; they have misshapen lips, because Ham spoke with his lips to his brothers about the unseemly condition of his father; they have twisted, curly hair, because Ham turned and twisted his head round to see the nakedness of his father, and they go about naked because Ham did not cover the nakedness of his father.

The belief in Ham as father of the Negro race became universal in early Christendom, and this tradition, passed on in church writings, stories, and folklore, persists to the present time. The Ham genealogy linking him and his descendants to the blacks of Africa exists in Muslim legends in which Noah damns Ham with a black skin, a concept which vindicated slavery of blacks by Muslims. The persistence of Noah's curse was particularly strong in the United States in the early nineteenth century where it served as justification for slavery, particularly in anti-abolitionist tracts and pamphlets. Several themes are repeated over and over in the pro-slavery literature: the natural and innate inferiority of blacks, their sexual depravity, states rights and constitutional sanction of slavery, and above all, scriptural justification for slavery because of Noah's curse on Canaan and its application to blacks.

In brief summary, the curse of Ham through Canaan starts with scanty information in the Bible. Jewish legends amplify and perpetuate the notion of a curse on the black race. The concept attains acceptance in Christianity and Islam and persists to out day in stories and folklore which have served as a basis for divine sanction of racism and subjection of blacks by whites. It is in this context that we must understand Damas' reference to the Biblical Patriarchs. The Methuselah, Noah, Shem, Japheth relationship, not a random listing by the poet, was the perfect metaphor to illustrate the everlasting, far-reaching influence and the overwhelming power of a white curse on the black race. Ham, the symbol of his race and the hero of the poem, is not even mentioned. This muted understatement by the poet intensifies and heightens the drama and impact of the poem. The reader has to discover Ham, conjure him up from a faraway past, imagine the unequal, ongoing, epic struggle between him and his children with an omnipotent white god and his prophets. It is the reader who must exorcise Ham of his curses, esteem his blackness, rehabilitate and ennoble him as the worthy father of the black race. In Damas' poems, less becomes more. Damas drives his message home simply and powerfully.


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