MOTS PLURIELS (Article / Essay)
- 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...
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 ".
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.
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.
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.
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".
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".
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
Cahier d'un retour au pays natal.
 Présence Africaine, 1956, p.39.
All translations in this paper are
my own unless otherwise stated.
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.
L.-G.Damas./ Pigments. /  Paris :
Présence Africaine, 1962, p.36, p.57.
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.
Ti Jean L'horizon. / Paris : Seuil, 1979,
and Maryse Condé's Une saison à Rihata. /
Paris : Robert Laffont, 1981.
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.
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.
In Praise of Creoleness. / Mohamed B.Taleb
Khyar (trans.). / In Callaloo 13, 1990, pp.891-92.
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.
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.
See, for example, the novels of
Michèle Lacrosil, particularly Cajou. /
1961 and Demain Jab-Herma. / 1967.
Raphaël Confiant. / Ravines du devant-jour.
/ Paris : Gallimard, 1993, p.35.
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
RELATED LINK: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Generation-Mixed/message/2815