Leon-Gontran Damas: Reclaiming Identity
Myra Sklarew

Leon-Gontran Damas was born in 1912 in Cayenne, French Guyana. He was educated in Martinique, where he first encountered Aime Cesaire, and at the University of Paris. He served in the French army during World War II and as part of the anti-fascist Resistance. Along with Leopold Senghor, later to become the president of Senegal, and Aime Cesaire who coined the term Negritude, he was a founder of the journal, L’etudiant noir, whose purpose was to promote Black cultural awareness. Damas served as Guyanese deputy to the French National Assembly, worked for UNESCO as representative for the Societe Africaine de Culture, and was overseas editor at Radio France. Damas was a member of the editorial board of the journal, Presence Africaine. It is difficult to put into a few words the importance of this publication, born in the aftermath of the defeat of fascism and with the hope for sovereignty for African peoples. Those who were engaged with the journal and the movement it inscribed included Senghor, Cesaire, Damas, Richard Wright, Alioune Diop from Senegal as its first editor, the support of Andre Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, and African American writers among many others. American poet Samuel Allen (pen name Paul Vesey) was asked by Wright, who had to return to America for the filming of Native Son, to take over his role as editor of the English language material. The first issue included works by American poet Gwendolyn Brooks and Richard Wright. In 1970 Leon Damas came to Washington, DC where he taught briefly at Georgetown University and Federal City College, and at Howard University where he was acting director of the African Studies Program and Distinguished Professor of African Literature until his death in 1978.

Washington poet Jean Nordhaus, describes a meeting with Damas (in the Washington Review, April-May 1978): "I don’t remember anymore why I went to visit him. I was teaching at Federal City College at the time and had been assigned some obscure committee project which involved my collecting papers and information from M. Damas. He was the English department’s most venerable luminary, and to us white Ph.D. peasants laboring in the fields of Freshman English, seemed a distant, luminous orb on the departmental horizon. Well above the aspirations of our station. M. Damas greeted me graciously, plied me with refreshments, flooded me with copies of whatever documents I was looking to xerox..., and then led me through his scrapbooks and around the modest SW apartment on a tour of artifacts—artifacts of a rich, creative life of which I knew next to nothing. Mme. Damas watched protectively from the kitchen door...ready to pounce should he over-extend himself emotionally (as he was wont to do) or tire physically.... We were separated by innumerable barriers of language, race, and culture...but it was clear from the beam of light in his eye and the grace of his bearing and gesture, that I was in the presence of rare aristocracy, and that a light of some sort was burning through this man whose spare, translucent frame seemed...a kind of physical correlative of the fire and wit that informed his work."

One of the stunning achievements of the poetry of Leon Damas was his transformation of the colonizer’s language into a language of his own. Like the poet Paul Celan whose mother tongue was German, yet the defamation of the German language contained the murders of his mother and father, Damas needed to use French as his native tongue but somehow to rid it of the rhythms and signs of those in control, to make it his own. Celan did it by using bits and pieces of other languages, by using an archaic German that preceded—and therefore could not contain—the Holocaust, and by altering syntax until German itself became unfamiliar. Celan descended into a kind of ur sprache, an elemental language of the kind that Walter Benjamin describes as a form of bedrock of all language. Damas’s method was more dramatic, far more external and a call to arms for those who could understand what he was about. He danced on the French until it yielded a music that it hadn’t contained previously.

As in the case of Aime Cesaire, as Ellen Kennedy tells us in The Negritude Poets, Damas left behind the "meters, rhythms, and metaphors of classical French verse" in which he was educated, and invented a verse that contained the African roots of Caribbean language and rhythm, and addressed the situation of a man and a people with multiple roots. Those roots had been suppressed, but the hunger for their expression was alive and well. And Damas had the courage and the power to turn that hunger into works that would enlist others, a powerful message to all those in like positions in the world. His was a dramatic moment in the struggle for freedom."

Thulani Davis (in the Washington Review, April-May 1978) writes of Damas that "what was given in the European tongue, it became clear, was the heart of an exile, a descendant of African slaves, who struggled to maintain a connection to the nourishing homeland. Colonialism and slavery threatened the integrity of many African cultures and the hybrid cultures of Africans in the New World. We could readily recognize a brother in Damas and a champion of the concept that we are all part of the African Diaspora. He used language to confront us with the eyes of Africa one meets in the ports of the Caribbean, on corners in Paris and streets in New York." The reciprocity between African American writers and writers of the Negritude movement is given clear expression in a single example, that of the writing of Claude McKay. "Artists of the French Negritude School such as Leon Damas, Aime Cesaire, and Leopold Senghor avowed that McKay’s 1929 novel Banjo, set in France, was the inspiration behind their movement. Reading about black men from the United States, the West Indies, and Africa coming together on the docks of Marseilles, united by a common bond of political, economic and social concerns... awakened in them a sense of black pride"—these words from "The Last Word: Claude McKay’s Unpublished ‘Cycle Manuscript’"by Barbara Jackson Griffin. Though McKay’s influence is well known, as much because of the style and language of his writing, African American music and literature played a significant role in this movement.

Daniel Racine in his "Tribute to the Poet Leon-Gontran Damas" speaks of "his dynamic, fiery poetry... by no means butterflies, birds, clouds, landscapes, or sunsets, or any such aspects of nature. He could not afford this luxury. He was committed to an urgent and definite cause. His concern was human beings with their flesh, their blood, their skin, their pigments, their labels—particularly the black one—their ‘neuvralgies,’ their suffering in general, their ‘graffiti,’ their quest for identity, their claim for recognition, their craving for dignity." Here, then, a poem narrated by the adult remembering the struggle of the child he was, caught in the expectation to take on the identity of the colonizer and his will not to. But a small caution: one must hear the poetry of Leon Damas to fully receive the power of his message. At the least, to read it aloud.

HICCUPS
For Vashti and Mercer Cook

I gulp down seven drinks of water
several times a day
and all in vain
instinctively
like the criminal to the crime
my childhood returns
in a rousing fit of hiccups

Talk about calamity
talk about disasters
I’ll tell you

My mother wanted her son to have good manners at the table:
.............
keep your hands on the table
.............
we don’t cut bread
.............
we break it
.............
we don’t gobble it down
.............
the bread your father sweats for
.............
our daily bread
.............
eat the bones carefully and neatly
.............
a stomach has to have good manners too
.............
and a well-bred stomach never
.............
burps
.............
a fork is not a tooth-pick
.............
don’t pick your nose
.............
in front of the whole world
.............
and sit up straight
.............
a well-bred nose
.............
doesn’t sweep the plate

And then
and then
and then in the name of the Father
......................................and the Son
......................................and the Holy Ghost
at the end of every meal

And then and then
talk about calamity
talk about disasters
I’ll tell you

My mother wanted her son to have the very best marks
.............
if you don’t know your history
.............
you won’t go to mass
.............
tomorrow
.............
in your Sunday suit

This child will disgrace our family name
This child will be our...in the name of God
.............
be quiet
.............
have I or have I not
.............
told you to speak French
.............
the French of France
.............
the French that Frenchmen speak
.............
French French

Talk about calamity
talk about disasters
I’ll tell you

My mother wanted her son to be a mama’s boy:
.............
you didn’t say good evening to our neighbor
.............
what—dirty shoes again
.............
and don’t let me catch you any more
.............
playing in the street or on the grass or in the park
.............
underneath the War Memorial
.............
playing
.............
or picking a fight with what’s-his-name
.............
what’s-his-name who isn’t even baptized

Talk about calamity
talk about disasters
I’ll tell you

My mother wanted her son to be
......................................very do
......................................very re
......................................very mi
......................................very fa
......................................very sol
......................................very la
......................................very ti
......................................very do-re-mi
......................................fa-sol-la-ti
.....................................................do


I see you haven’t been to your vi-o-lin lesson
.............
a banjo
.............
did you say a banjo
.............
what do you mean
.............
a banjo
.............
you really mean
.............
a banjo
.............
no indeed young man
......................................you know there won’t be any
......................................ban-or
...........................................jo
...............................................or
...................................................gui-or
........................................................tar
..............................................................in our house
They are not for colored people
Leave them to the black folks!

(from The Negritude Poets, edited by Ellen Conroy Kennedy)

And the first and final stanzas of "Sell Out" dedicated to Aime Cesaire:


SELL OUT
For Aime Cesaire

I feel ridiculous
in their shoes
their dinner jackets
their starched shirts
and detachable collars
their monocles and
their bowler hats

...

I feel ridiculous
among them
like an accomplice
like a pimp
like a murderer among them
my hands hideously red
with the blood of their
ci-vi-li-za-tion

(from The Negritude Poets, edited by Ellen Conroy Kennedy)

It is one thing to read Damas after the end of apartheid, after the Civil rights movement, after the end of colonization (though it is plain to see how the effects of colonization and the reshaping of national boundaries in arbitrary ways continue to do their damage), and quite another to think of Damas making the claims he did in his work for autonomy and independence from such forces at a time when doing so carried with it the gravest danger. But let Damas tell us in his own words. In a paper delivered at the PEN American Center conference on literary translation in 1970, he speaks of his gratitude to his compatriot Rene Maran. "For the first time, thanks to Rene Maran, Africa was seen from the inside...although this was at no small cost at a time when colonialism was in full swing." Maran, in the course of his return to Africa, "rediscovered his human dignity, heretofore alienated, depersonalized, assimilated, and gallicized. His French life had, indeed, been but a shadow, a negation....By returning to the essence of drumbeat language, he detected and understood its soul, which he had to interpret to himself before he could bring it to light and translate it into another language (French) which he had made his and which was his, although at the same time it was not. But he paid dearly for his intelligence, courage, and unfailing honesty, until the day when such writers as Andre Gide, Denise Maurand, and Victor Organieur bore witness, in their turn, to his foresight and lucidity." What Damas tells us here can be equally applied to himself and to his contribution to universal humanity, his own definition of the purpose of the Negritude movement.



Bibliography
Cook, Mercer. "The Poetry of Leon Damas." African Forum 2, No.4 (Spring 1967): 129-32.
Cook, Mercer and Stephen E. Henderson. The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States.
.......Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.
Damas, Pigments, 1937. Presence Africaine, 1962.
____ Poemes negres sur des airs Africains. Guy Levis Mano, 1948
____ Graffiti. Seghers, 1952.
____ Black-Label, Gallimard, 1956.
____ African Songs of Love, War, Grief and Abuse. Mbari Publications, 1961.
____ Nevralgies. Presence Africaine, 1966.
____ "On the Poetry of Negritude," The World of Translation. Pen American Center, 1971, p. 162.
____ Black Box audio recording.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1969.
Griffin, Barbara Jackson. "The Last Word: Claude McKay’s Unpublished ‘Cycle Manuscript." Melus,
.......
Vol. 21, No. 1. Poetry and Poetics , Spring, 1996. p. 50
Herdeck, Donald, ed., Carribean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical-Critical Encyclopedia. Three
....... Continents Press, 1979.
Kennedy, Ellen Conroy. "Leon Damas." The Negritude Poets: An Anthology of Translations from the
....... French. New York: Viking Press, 1975.
Kesteloot, Lilyan. "Leon Damas: Pigments." Black Writers in French: A Literary History of Negritude.
....... Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974.
____ , translated and edited by Ellen Conroy Kennedy, Black Writers in French: A Literary History of
....... Negritude, Howard University Press, 1991.
Mphalele, Ezekiel. The African Image. New York: Praeger, 1962.
Racine, Daniel L., ed., Leon-Gontran Damas, 1912-1978: founder of Negritude, A Memorial Casebook.
....... University Press of America, 1979.
____ "Tribute to the Poet Leon-Gontran Damas," Research in African Literatures, Vol 10, No.1, Spring .......1979.
Tucker, Martin, ed., Literary Exile in the Twentieth Century. Greenwood, 1991.
Warner, Keith Z., ed., Critical Perspectives on Leon-Gontran Damas. Three Continents Press, 1988.

Links
Post-Colonial Studies at Emory University: http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Damas.html
Biography (in French), sponsored by Orange: http://pagesperso-orange.fr/redris/HTML/lg_damas1.html

 

Myra Sklarew is the author of nine books of poetry, one book of short fiction, and a collection of essays. She is currently at work on a nonfiction study, Holocaust and the Construction of Memory, a study of the impact of trauma on the encoding, consolidation, and retrieval of memory, and writes that she "hopes to complete it before her own memory gives out!"

 

Published in Volume 9, Number 3, Summer 2008.

credits

To read more by this author:
Myra Sklarew
Sklarew's Tribute to May Miller: The Memorial Issue
Myra Sklarew: Whitman Issue