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In the first part, a "little black boy" badgers his mother to let him go to school; in the second part, he comes to regret his wish. Some of the school's terrors—sadistic teachers, schoolyard bullies—seem overly familiar. What is fresh is this school's systematic effort to root the Creole—"po'-nigger talk" associated with poverty and subjection—out of the children and substitute pure French, the language of Martinique's imperial masters. The attempt results mainly in fostering shame and resentment as the students cling to their identity. The child's limited consciousness of this struggle ("his tongue soon seemed heavy to him . . . his accent hateful") is expertly blended with the adult's awareness of the larger cultural issues. Never a simpleminded ideologue (he ridicules a substitute teacher whose black pride prevented him from "tackl[ing] either the Universal or its world order"), the author sympathetically portrays the Francophile teacher's motives while condemning his actions; the preferred butt of the teacher's cruelty, Big Bellybutton, is also a memorable character. The irony of a memoir written in French about the evils of French language education is not evaded: The gift of letters is ultimately shown to be "an inky lifeline of survival" that allows the author to preserve Creole oral culture. That culture infuses his prose, vividly written in storyteller's rhythms and peppered with such Creole phrases as "ziggedy-devil." Though sometimes distracting, the use of a chorus of répondeurs and frequent shifting from third- person singular to first-person plural help transport the reader inside a foreign sensibility.
Sometimes reading like an archetypal narrative of cultural domination, sometimes like an intimate memory from one's own childhood, this memoir rewards the effort to learn its language.