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    MOTS PLURIELS: The Martinican concept of Creoleness : A Multi-Racial re-definition of Culture.
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      MOTS PLURIELS:

      The Martinican concept of "Creoleness":
      A Multi-Racial re-definition of Culture.

      ---by Beverley Ormerod, 1998 © (no 7)
      University of Western Australia


      In the 1930s, Black and Coloured intellectuals
      from the French Caribbean colonies of
      Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guyane
      sought for the first time to define their
      cultural "identity" in terms of their historical
      and racial affiliations with Africa, rather than
      their political and educational ties with France.

      During centuries of colonial rule, class barriers
      had effectively separated darker-skinned
      from lighter-skinned West Indians;
      the school system had reinforced
      European aesthetic norms, and had
      demanded the repudiation of Creole,
      the language associated with
      Black slaves, in favour of French.

      The `Negritude Movement', inaugurated with
      L.-G. Damas' Pigments (1937) and Aimé Césaire's
      Cahier d'un retour au pays natal
      (Return to my Native Land, 1939)
      -- rejected this cultural predominance
      of France –and- emphasized the writers'
      membership of the African diaspora.

      To the Martinican Césaire is attributed
      the neologistic term, `Négritude' --
      which stressed the vital importance 
      to the poet's ideology of his
      "adherence to the Black race".

      He and Damas brandished
      the terms "Negro", "Africa",
      "instinct" and even "savage"
      in their verse, delineating a
      new Caribbean cultural profile
      in truculent defiance of the
      prejudices of their likely public.

      For their message was addressed not only to
      French readers, but (and perhaps primarily)
      to the Francophile Coloured and Black
      bourgeoisie in the West Indies which had
      acquiesced in Europe's dismissal of Africa
      as a site of racial and Cultural inferiority.

      For the Caribbean inventors of Negritude,
      Africa was more than simply an
      emblem of Ethnic authenticity.

      Their invocation of this distant, unknown continent
      was intended to heal psychological wounds passed
      down from the first Black West Indians,
      those generations of Africans exiled from their native
      lands and forced into captivity in a White-dominated
      society on the far side of an un-crossable ocean.

      In "praising African-ness", early
      twentieth-century Caribbean writers
      were `rejecting European stereotypes'
      of race, colour, mental and physical attributes.

      Their belief in a cosmic connection with
      Africa expressed the hope of future
      acceptance in a spiritual homeland.

      Their "blackness" of skin,
      traditionally devalued by the White race,
      became `the passport to kinship' with a
      newly valorized African world of cultural difference.

      Where did this leave the …
      part of the … population that,

      after centuries of African-European
      [interactions] and the 19th-century
      importation of Indian and Chinese labour
      -- was neither White nor Black?

      Césaire, whose demands for social justice were as
      eloquent in his literary as in his later political career,
      claims in his Cahier an affinity with all victims
      of racial oppression, asserting his solidarity
      with ... the worldwide victims of prejudice,
      verbal abuse, famine, torture...[1]

      But, speaking from the viewpoint of a Black
      West Indian, Césaire holds up African culture as
      `the single great alternative' to European culture,
      'the sovereign remedy for the alienation'
      provoked by European colonialism.

      The founders of "Negritude"
      make an unspoken assumption that
      the Caribbean non-White individual
      will opt to be assimilated into
      the African cultural sphere…

      It is noticeable that French Creole,
      the linguistic link between the diverse
      elements of the French Caribbean population,
      is given no role in `Negritude'.

      Even standard French, for that matter,
      has an ambiguous status in the Cahier:
      linguistically it is a showcase for Césaire's
      verbal subtlety and erudition, but thematically
      it is rejected as Césaire ostentatiously turns
      away from the French rationalist tradition ...


      African culture is equally embraced by Damas:
      it is symbolized by the banjo that his … mother
      vainly attempts to make him replace
      by the more socially acceptable violin
      ("Mulattos don't do that/leave that to Blacks");
      this imposition is angrily refused by the poet,
      just as he refuses "identification"
      with the White side of his ancestry …".[3]

      Only a rare voice, like that of
      the Mulatto poet Gilbert Gratiant,
      expresses a divergent view at this time -
      choosing to celebrate the double-fusion
      (cultural and biological) of Africa and France
      in his veins, and at the same time making
      Creole his literary language of choice.
      [4]

      However, "Negritude's" `African solution'
      was to be questioned in later decades.

      As more West Indian intellectuals had the
      opportunity of actually visiting Africa ,
      some began to express doubts about
      the practical feasibility of …
      integration with African society:

      according to them, Africans tended
      to consider [them]as foreigners,
      judging them on their national
      origin, religion and customs,
      rather than their skin colour.[5]

      As a cultural prescription, too,
      post-Negritude generations were
      to find Césaire's vision `too restricted'.

      To Edouard Glissant, the most influential
      Martinican writer since Césaire,
      it seemed that Caribbean consciousness
      needed to change direction:
      ceasing its vain attempts to
      plunge downward towards African roots
      that in reality had become too remote to recover
      (an idealized African "tree of purification"
      had been a key symbol in the Cahier),
      it should instead imitate the rhizome or tuber,
      spreading sideways and outward in a movement
      signifying its relationship and interaction
      with other Multi-Racial New World cultures.[6]

      Glissant pointed out that Latin America
      and the … United States had also
      experienced the meetings of Indigenous
      peoples, European colonialists, imported
      African slaves and labourers from Asia .

      Thus, although retracing folk memories
      of past generations of slaves is an
      important theme in Glissant's fiction,
      racial affiliation with Africa is not
      a major issue in his cultural concept
      of Antillanité ("Caribbeanness").

      Indeed, race itself is a notion almost incidental to
      the writer's preoccupation with the political question
      of France 's quasi-colonial economic and cultural
      dominance in Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guyane,
      which in 1946 exchanged the official status of
      colonies for that of overseas departments of France .

      Glissant sees this continuing French dominance
      as the major factor in the Francophone West Indian's
      inability to achieve a sense of his true cultural identity.

      Influenced by Glissant's doctrine of Caribbeanness,
      a more recent group of writers, led by the Martinicans
      Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant,
      has spearheaded a literary movement
      known as `Créolité' or "Creoleness".

      In their essays and fiction, they pay homage
      to Glissant's vision of Caribbean reality.

      However, they are more specifically concerned
      with promoting the importance of [the]
      racial diversity and the literary value
      of the Creole language.

      These ideas are implicit in Glissant's work,
      but they are not central to his theory,
      which is above all committed to defending
      the individuality and complexity of
      Caribbean culture against the invasive
      political and media presence of
      France in her overseas departments.

      Present-day racial diversity in the Caribbean
      illustrates the continuous reshaping of the society
      in the century and a half since slavery ended,
      not only with the arrival of indentured
      labourers from India and from China,
      but also with the coming of other Ethnic groups
      such as the Lebanese, in search of freedom
      from poverty or intolerance elsewhere.

      Chamoiseau, Confiant and their Guadeloupean
      collaborator Jean Bernabé were not the first to focus
      on the heterogeneous nature of West Indian society,
      whose differences of Ethnic origin had been extended
      by the many mixtures between racial groups.

      Already in 1964 a contemporary
      of Césaire's, René Ménil,
      had defined French Caribbean culture as
      "neither African, nor Chinese, nor Indian,
      nor even French, but ultimately West Indian".[7]

      Glissant had begun to introduce
      characters of Indian descent alongside
      the Black Martinican working class
      in his novels from the mid-1970s.

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

      This slim manifesto
      sets aside "Negritude"
      as an "African illusion" that encouraged,
      no less than did French colonialism,
      the West Indian's mistaken tendency
      to seek his "identity" outside his island
      and through a foreign culture.

      It praises Caribbeanness allusively
      through some of its chosen terminology
      ("we were the anticipation of the relations of cultures"),
      but considers Glissant's vision of a Caribbean linked
      to the Americas to be too vast in its framework.

      Creoleness focuses sharply on Martinique
      and small countries resembling it,
      describing itself as "the interactional
      or transactional aggregate
      of
      Caribbean , European, African, Asian,
      and Levantine cultural elements,
      united on the same soil by the yoke of history".[8]

      Creole culture is seen as the result of a process
      of adaptation that started with plantation days:
      a Mixed-Culture that arose from the forced,
      non-harmonious confrontation of different
      languages, customs and world-views.

      Its manifestations are perceived beyond
      the Caribbean and American regions:
      the authors claim to have Creole affinities with
      the Seychelles , Mauritius , Reunion , and other
      African, Asian and Polynesian peoples.

      On the other hand (and unlike Glissant) they
      recognize only a limited, geopolitical solidarity
      with the Caribbean archipelago as a whole,
      since they consider the process of "Creolization"
      not to have taken place in certain regions like
      Andalusian-influenced northern Cuba or the
      Hindu-dominated canecutting areas of Trinidad.

      Chamoiseau and Confiant are
      novelists as well as essayists,
      and their manifesto is partly concerned with
      recommendations for expressing
      Creoleness in literature.

      They view the Creole language as
      the great unifying force which has arisen
      from racial diversity and resisted centuries
      of imposed education, despite the
      official policy of "assimilation" to France .

      Logically, this language should be the
      unique literary vehicle of Creole culture.

      But the reformers have had to concede
      that there is a practical obstacle here:
      namely, the very small public able to
      read, or willing to buy, works in Creole.

      Confiant's first novels were all published in Creole,
      but he was obliged to start writing in French, and
      he is now also publishing some of his
      Creole novels in French translation.

      However, he and Chamoiseau have displayed a
      dazzling ability to circumvent the linguistic problem
      by combining French with a continuous undercurrent
      of Creole speech rhythms, figurative expressions,
      and even some direct lexical borrowings,
      in order to preserve the flavour of
      Martinican popular culture in their novels.

      This "Creolized" style may not yet have won
      general acceptance from a wide reading public,
      but both authors have achieved considerable critical
      success and won distinguished literary prizes in France .

      The theory of Creoleness also concerns
      the content of literary works,
      maintaining that Creole fiction
      should express the true experience and
      the collective voice of the Martinican
      working class in all its diversity:
      Multi-Racial and Inter-Racial.

      Here the greatest challenge has perhaps been
      to avoid existing stereotypes when depicting
      Racially-Mixed individuals or
      members of minority groups.

      In giving greater prominence to the diversity
      in Martinican society, the Créolité school
      has undertaken a certain revaluation of the
      character of the Métis, the person of Mixed-Race.

      The ambivalence with which this figure has
      often been presented in Caribbean writing
      dates back to the hierarchies of plantation life,
      which accorded a position of uneasy
      "privilege" to the child of Mixed-Race
      (often, in early days, the product of a union
      forced upon the female African slave by a
      White male on the slave ship or the plantation).

      … an attitude which is still visible in the work
      of those early 20th-century … Caribbean novelists
      who gave their heroines black skin, but the
      long curly hair and Europeanized nose
      of the more "acceptable" Mulatto beauty.[9]

      Thus the Mulatto (just one of a large number
      of Caribbean terms revealing the colonialists'
      obsession with precise "degrees" of Mixed-Blood),
      struggling to survive in a White-dominated society,
      often became the enemy of the Black person:
      lighter skin color offered the hope
      of personal advancement, but also
      the likelihood of Black resentment,
      as well as White ridicule.[10]

      This ambiguous social situation is reflected in
      colonial writing through stock figures such as
      … the Coloured nouveaux riches clumsily
      imitating European social manners.

      20th-century writers who have avoided
      such stereotypes have still tended
      to portray the Métis negatively,
      as an individual doomed to social alienation,
      incapable of finding personal happiness
      because of her or his physical deviation
      from a White aesthetic norm which was
      historically identified, in the West Indies ,
      with the highest good.[11]

      The only "positive" alternative presented in recent
      fiction is rather like the solution of "Negritude":
      the Mulatto decides to cleave to an African "identity" ….


      Chamoiseau and Confiant have revalorized
      racial diversity in French Caribbean literature
      in order to illustrate their conviction that
      modern "Creole society" cannot be encompassed
      by a simple Black-White definition.

      They themselves are not always
      innocent of stereotyping.

      A standard Confiant female protagonist,
      for instance, is a Métisse, who may not be
      as venal as convention would have it, but
      who unmistakably incarnates sensuality.

      Her smooth brown skin, big breasts, long
      legs and provocative air are always seen
      through the external gaze of Multi-Racial
      males enthusiastically united in lust.

      When writing autobiographically, however,
      Confiant offers unique insights into
      the figure of the West Indian Chabin,
      the Mixed-Race person with light,
      freckled skin and crinkly fairish hair,
      sometimes also with green eyes.

      The female Chabine is traditionally considered
      a sexual prize in the French Caribbean
      - a blonde Chabine is the stereotypical reward
      of the upwardly mobile Black police inspector
      in Chamoiseau's satirical novel Solibo Magnifique
      (1988) - but her male counterpart
      is regarded in a less flattering light.

      Confiant's physical appearance -
      the result of a mixture of Black,
      White and Chinese blood -
      places him in this category.

      His serio-comic memoir, Ravines du devant-jour
      (1993), tells of his early childhood years
      spent with his Mulatto grandparents in a country district,
      with playmates mainly of African or Indian descent.

      At the age of five or six, he
      becomes confusedly aware that
      his appearance sets him apart:
      "Black and not-Black,
      at the same time
      White and not-White.

      However, you haven't yet
      become aware of the huge distance
      that the color of your skin and hair creates
      between ordinary people and yourself".[12]

      The Creole insults of irritated adults
      give him his first glimpse into the
      abyss of color and class resentment:
      Mové chaben! Sakré vyé chaben!
      Chaben tikté kon an fig mi!
       
      (Wicked Chabin! Damned ugly Chabin!
      Chabin spotty-faced like an overripe banana!),
      but on the other hand his playfellows' acceptance
      of his bullying is a heady lesson in the
      persistence of Caribbean skin hierarchies.

      Through the child's precocious gaze,
      moving from initial incomprehension
      to the development of a lively sense of
      self-preservation, Confiant shows us the
      Creole milieu of rural Martinique , with
      its blend of four races, its intersecting
      religions and beliefs, and its complex
      and often divisive social structure.

      And ever present in the narrative,
      whether indirectly through the
      transformation of French turns
      of phrase, or in direct snatches of
      reported speech, is the Creole language
      that holds together this multi-faceted society.

      Chamoiseau's fiction seeks to do justice
      to characters of humble social origin,
      the sort that used to be largely
      background material in the works
      of middle-class West Indian novelists.

      His matter-of-fact inclusion of a
      mixture of races and skin shades
      is an aspect of his fidelity to Creoleness,
      with its commitment to portray
      Martinican society as fully
      and truthfully as possible.

      His wry, poignant Solibo Magnifique,
      which is essentially about the life and
      symbolic death of a Black teller of folktales,
      surrounds the protagonist with a group
      representative of the Multi-Racial diversity
      of the Martinican working classes.

      Mainly Black, the gathering also
      includes a farm laborer who is
      depicted tongue-in-cheek as being
      "at the interface of fourteen race mixtures
      and uncharacteristic of them all"…

      The "red Chabin" who has twelve children,
      works in a factory and complains all the
      time is a humorous exaggeration of the
      Chabin stereotype, as is his female equivalent,
      the cosseted blonde Chabine who has
      married the rising Black police inspector.

      Creoleness is the domain of the antihero,
      and an unromantic figure is that of the
      terrified Couli market porter who goes to
      pieces in the police interrogation room.

      But the world of Indian Martinique is
      not present merely in this character:
      images such as the one of the Black
      drummer resting between takes,
      his "arms dangling like coolie's hair",
      indicate the constant Multi-Racial range of
      reference in Chamoiseau's handling of metaphor.

      And while the major action of the novel is
      sustained by traditional Black West Indian
      characters (policemen and itinerant peddlars),
      these other figures emblematic of
      difference - each foregrounded at a
      particular moment in the narrative -
      serve as reminders that Caribbean society,
      Ethnically-Mixed, is perpetually
      in a state of cultural interaction.

      While Creoleness, which exalts interrelation, deplores
      the single-minded African focus of "Negritude",
      it is evident that without "Negritude"
      there might have been no escape from the
      cultural hegemony of European colonialism.

      The end of slavery in the French Caribbean
      in 1848 did not mean liberation from
      Black servitude, nor from oppressive
      White-imposed moral and aesthetic values.

      "Negritude" was a necessary stage in the long political
      and psychological struggle of Black West Indians
      to gain mental freedom and personal dignity.

      In forcing recognition of African culture,
      in insisting on the validation of racial difference,
      it created a moral space
      that would later enable Caribbean writers
      to take stock of their … Multi-Racial society,
      and to take for granted their right to depict it.[13]

      It is this space that has
      now been exploited by Césaire's distant heirs
      to formulate the theory of 'Creoleness',
      a particular language and life-style
      unexpectedly born of the reluctant proximity
      of several non-indigenous peoples,
      in order to affirm and celebrate the
      present cultural diversity of Martinique.


      Notes

      [1]Aimé Césaire.
      Cahier d'un retour au pays natal.
      [1939] Présence Africaine, 1956, p.39.
      All translations in this paper are
      my own unless otherwise stated.
      [2]The later Créolité movement was to criticize
      Césaire for this apparent neglect of the West Indian of
      Indian origin: see Raphaël Confiant's Aimé Césaire:
      Une traversée paradoxale du siècle. /
      Paris : Stock, 1993, pp.69-72.
      [3]L.-G.Damas./ Pigments. / [1937] Paris :
      Présence Africaine, 1962, p.36, p.57.
      [4]Jack Corzani assesses the status that
      Gratiant accords to racial and cultural Mixing,
      as opposed to Africa-orientated Negritude, in
      La Littérature des Antilles-Guyane françaises. /
      Paris : Désormeaux, 1978, vol.3, pp.222-35.
      [5]Ti Jean L'horizon. / Paris : Seuil, 1979,
      and Maryse Condé's Une saison à Rihata. /
      Paris : Robert Laffont, 1981.
      [6]The notion of a multiplicity of relations and the
      rhizome analogy, developed in Edouard Glissant's
      Poétique de la Relation.1990, are discussed
      by J. Michael Dash in Edouard Glissant. /
      Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1995,
      pp.179-181, and by Richard D.E. Burton in
      "The Idea of Difference in contemporary French
      West Indian Thought." / In Burton and Reno
      (ed.). / French and West Indian. /
      London : Macmillan, 1995, pp.147-9.
      [7]Ménil, in an article "Problèmes d'une culture
      antillaise" discussed in Burton , p.146. /
      It is interesting to note that Ménil, who shared
      Césaire's ability to consider his society with a
      more equitable vision than that of colonialism,
      was (like Césaire until 1956) a member
      of the Communist Party.
      [8]In Praise of Creoleness. / Mohamed B.Taleb
      Khyar (trans.). / In Callaloo 13, 1990, pp.891-92.
      [9]See, for example, the discussion of
      Haitian male novelists in Guerda Romain's
      "Before Black was Beautiful:
      The Representation of Women in the Haitian
      National Novel" French Review 71, 1997, pp.55-65.
      [10]Some of the tensions surrounding mixed-race
      characters in poetry and fiction are illustrated
      in G. R. Coulthard's pioneering study Race
      and Colour in Caribbean Literature. /
      Oxford : Oxford University Press,
      1962. / Chapters 7 and 8.
      [11]See, for example, the novels of
      Michèle Lacrosil, particularly Cajou. /
      1961 and Demain Jab-Herma. / 1967.
      [12]Raphaël Confiant. / Ravines du devant-jour. 
      /
      Paris : Gallimard, 1993, p.35.
      [13]While the theory of Creoleness is particularly
      associated with Chamoiseau and Confiant, other
      contemporary Caribbean novelists have in practice
      recognized and depicted the plurality of their society;
      this is reflected, for example, in the Guadeloupean
      novels of Maryse Condé and Gisèle Pineau.

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

      SOURCE: http://motspluriels.arts.uwa.edu.au/MP798bo.html / http://www.arts.uwa.edu.au/MotsPluriels/MP798bo.html 

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