“Clear Word and Third Sight itself offers clarity and vision in a new and insightful reading of African diaspora literatures. Catherine A. John offers a necessary revisiting of negritude, a confidence in her examination of coloniality and gendered identity, and an embrace of magic and spirit and poetry.”—Carole Boyce Davies, Florida International University
Clear Word and Third Sight: Folk Groundings and Diasporic Consciousness in African Caribbean Writingby Catherine John, Donald E. Pease
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Clear Word and Third Sight examines the strands of a collective African diasporic consciousness represented in the work of a number of Black Caribbean writers. Catherine A. John shows how a shared consciousness, or “third sight,” is rooted in both pre- and postcolonial cultural practices and disseminated through a rich oral tradition. This consciousness has served diasporic communities by creating an alternate philosophical “worldsense” linking those of African descent across space and time.
Contesting popular discourses about what constitutes culture and maintaining that neglected strains in negritude discourse provide a crucial philosophical perspective on the connections between folk practices, cultural memory, and collective consciousness, John examines the diasporic principles in the work of the negritude writers Léon Damas, Aimé Césaire, and Léopold Senghor. She traces the manifestations and reworkings of their ideas in Afro-Caribbean writing from the eastern and French Caribbean, as well as the Caribbean diaspora in the United States. The authors she discusses include Jamaica Kincaid, Earl Lovelace, Simone Schwarz-Bart, Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, and Edouard Glissant, among others. John argues that by incorporating what she calls folk groundings—such as poems, folktales, proverbs, and songs—into their work, Afro-Caribbean writers invoke a psychospiritual consciousness which combines old and new strategies for addressing the ongoing postcolonial struggle.
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Clear word and third sightFolk groundings and diasporic consciousness in Africa Caribbean Writing
By Catherine A. John
Duke University Press
Chapter OneParis in 1956
NEGRITUDE AND CULTURAL DISCOURSE
Le chant n'etait pas epuise.-AIME CESAIRE
Two earlier literary quarrels between Black French writers set the stage for the issues explored at the First International Conference of Negro Artists and Writers, held at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1956. The first was a 1930s dispute between two Black student journals, both published in Paris: L'Etudiant Noir (cofounded by Aime Cesaire, Leopold Senghor, and Leon Damas) and Legitime Defense (cofounded by Rene Menil, Etienne Lero, and Jules Monnerot). The second was a 1955 disagreement between Aime Cesaire and Rene Depestre. These literary quarrels were, in effect, early struggles over what was later described as negritude.
In the years following the conference, the reactions to negritude as a discourse included some that were highly critical. An example is Rene Menil's Tracees (1981), a relentless critique of negritude as a "political doctrine." Menil claims that negritude exults in an "anti-intellectualisme ... philosophique," is dominated by Sartre's existentialism, is ahistorical, and against "progress" (64). In a final moment of unchecked hysteria, Menil argues that similarities exist between Joseph-Arthur de Gobineau's racist text,Essai sur l'inegalite des races humaines and Senghor's "The Spirit of Civilisation, or the Laws of African Negro Culture" (in Presence Africaine Conference Committee, Presence Africaine).
On the other hand, Aime Cesaire's views of negritude are quite diverent. In an interview of Cesaire by Rene Depestre, included in Depestre's 1980 book Bonjour et adieu a la negritude, Cesaire systematically articulated the position he had consistently held on the conception and purpose of negritude as he saw it. He described negritude as, first and foremost, a concrete coming-to-consciousness, premised on pride in a collective Black identity, and forged from the relationship between the individual and the community. This consciousness is initially a result of the experienced alienation caused by the refoulements (psychological repression) of a European colonial order that denied the humanity of the Black subject. Second, in a move that unites rather than separates him from Senghor, Cesaire stressed that negritude takes the position that the African diaspora subject "n'etait pas tombe de la derniere pluie" (did not drop from the sky with the last rainfall) but has a past that predates and survives slavery. He argued that negritude asserts that there is an African civilizational legacy and that we see it alive in the diaspora; negritude is, in fact, the basis for the solidarity of all Blacks in their political struggles throughout the world (Depestre, Bonjour et adieu, 78-79):
I would say that negritude is, first in my opinion, a concrete rather than abstract coming-to-consciousness; it meant having a concrete consciousness of oneself, to first understand that one is "negre," that we are "negres," that we had a past and that this past brought with it cultural elements that have been very valuable, and "negres," as you say, did not drop from the sky with the last rainfall.... At this particular era and historical moment, there are people who can take it upon themselves to write a universal history of civilization without consecrating a [single] chapter to Africa, as if Africa did not contribute anything to the world.... In the final instance, [negritude] was the idea that the "negre" past was worthy of respect, it was the idea that this "negre" past was not simply in the past; that "negre" values still have something important to contribute to the world. It is also an affirmation of solidarity. I have always thought that what happens to blacks in Algeria and the United States has a [profound] effect on me. I thought that I was not able to be indifferent to Haiti. I could not be indifferent to Africa. So, to put it another way, we have almost arrived at the idea of a sort of black civilization dispersed throughout the entire world (78-79).
It seems important to note that Cesaire's final definition of negritude ("the idea of a sort of black civilization dispersed throughout the entire world") is coterminous with the definition of "African diaspora," addressing both cultural differences among Black populations around the world and civilizational similarities. With his description of negritude as political solidarity, a shared civilization, and a conscious recognition of the past and present influences of Africa on the West, Cesaire participates in the reconstitution of an intellectual debate involving himself, Depestre, and Menil that had spanned fifty years.
Depestre had taken a different route to negritude. In 1955 in the pages of the journal Presence Africaine, we are told, "Depestre, then exiled in Brazil, had ... rallied ... to the French Communist party's emerging conservative line on poetic experimentation. In the wake of surrealism, Louis Aragon was pressing for a return to more traditional prosody, to simpler forms and messages, linking these with the interests of revolutionary workers" (quoted in Clivord, The Predicament of Culture, 180).
Cesaire's poetic response, published in Presence Africaine in the same year, anticipated his own break with the Communist P arty after Russia's invasion of Hungary. In a move that some critics interpret primarily at the level of its aesthetic and textual impact, Cesaire encouraged Depestre to withstand cooptation. Yet at its base, Cesaire's critique was a continuation of the 1930s dispute between his L'Etudiant Noir and Menil's Legitime Defense over what was referred to in Marxist circles as la question negre. For L'Etudiant Noir, desalienation (cultural decolonization) could not be achieved without a specific assertion of Black cultural identity. As Cesaire recounted in his interview with Depestre, negritude was resistance to assimilation from both the French political Right and the Left. At the same time, Cesaire emphasized L'Etudiant Noir's strategic investment in being aligned with the Left, since he never believed liberation would come from the Right (Depestre, Bonjour et adieu, 71).
As Sylvia Washington Ba notes in her book The Concept of Negritude in the Poetry of Leopold Sedar Senghor, "On June 1, 1932, appeared the first, and only, issue of Legitime Defense, a veritable manifesto voicing the discontent of the students from Martinique. By attacking the vapid imitations of Parnassian poetry then in vogue in the French West Indies, Legitime Defense condemned the entire system that had produced the mulatto bourgeois mentality and the 'neither-nor' status of its culture" (11). Ba then quotes Senghor's account, in a February 1960 letter to Lilyan Kesteloot, of the differences between this journal and L'Etudiant Noir: "If the two reviews had known the same influences, they differed nevertheless on several points. L'Etudiant Noir asserted the priority as well as the primacy of the cultural reality. For us ... politics was only one aspect of culture, whereas Legitime Defense maintained ... that political revolution had to precede cultural revolution, the latter becoming possible only in the wake of radical political change" (13).
Embracing Marxism but disagreeing with the stance that Aragon would take, Legitime Defense rejected the didactic social realism called for by Aragon in favor of a modernist surrealism, viewed as the only viable route to desalienation for the Black colonial subject. What the Legitime Defense and L'Etudiant Noir dispute and the subsequent 1955 quarrel had in common was that Senghor and Cesaire perceived as impossible that political struggle premised on (European) Marxist politics could ever seriously incorporate cultural perspectives specific to Black experience. Cesaire's subsequent resignation from the Communist Party can be seen within the context of a historically consistent disenchantment with Marxism on the part of Black intellectuals. At the end of his text The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon remained avidly invested in third world decolonization. Yet when he states, "It is a question of the Third World starting a new history of Man," he explicitly renounces approaches to this struggle that view European aesthetic and political theory as the point of departure for these new solutions (Wretched of the Earth, 315). Harold Cruse makes a similar argument in his chapter "Marxism and the Negro" in his 1968 book Rebellion or Revolution? By the time of the 1956 conference the terms of this debate were less explicitly framed around European Marxist revolutionary theory and more specifically concerned with defining the nature of the third world struggle against colonialism. The negritude invoked by Cesaire, while never actually named as such at the 1956 conference, lay at the heart of the controversial debates. While Senghor, Cesaire, and Damas in various interviews describe negritude as a movement they founded as young students in Paris, theories about what factors influenced these three, as well as theories about where the foundational roots of negritude lie, diver from critic to critic. Also controversial is whether negritude is viewed as an event with historically bounded dates or as a consciousness-in-action with systematic continuities and discontinuities over the course of time.
Damas's contribution to the history of negritude should not be underestimated. In his introduction to the collection Critical Perspectives: Leon Gontran Damas, Keith Q. Warner notes, "Most critics, in dealing with the movement, nearly always spoke of Cesaire, Senghor and Damas, dealing at length with the first two and barely treating the third, to the extent that one had the distinct impression that Damas became quite sensitive to this perpetual relegation to the third spot in the negritude triumvirate" (5). Warner observes that Kesteloot's Black Writers in French: A Literary History of Negritude (originally presented as a doctoral thesis in 1961), despite receiving its share of criticism, has remained an important work on the literary aspects of the movement, being one of the first to examine negritude in detail and treat Damas on a par with Senghor and Cesaire. Another testament to Damas's significance, as noted by Warner, is the Trinidadian writer Merle Hodge's unpublished master's thesis, "The Writings of Leon Damas and Their Connection with the Negritude Movement" (5). The influence of Damas on Hodge is significant since it helps to establish a climate of influence between Caribbean writers, intergenerationally and across linguistic and gendered lines. According to Warner, Hodge's thesis "had Damas's full support and approval" (5). This chain of influence seems significant in light of the substantial nature of the work that Merle Hodge was later to produce as both a writer and critic.
As Warner points out, Damas's Pigments (1937) predates Cesaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal by two years. Damas himself cites Pigments as "the manifesto of the Negritude movement" (Warner, Critical Perspectives, 24). He talks about Cesaire coming to his room early one morning to read him the as-yet unpublished Cahier and saying, "You'll tell me how much I have been influenced by you" (14). On the other hand, Damas describes Senghor as a great poet who always used "a very pure language" (since he was "an agrege in Latin Grammar") and who saw an Africa that he and Cesaire could only dream about (15). In terms of influences, Damas cites Etienne Lero's "Misere d'une poesie" in Legitime Defense and Claude McKay's Banjo (1929) as profound early influences on him (Warner, Critical Perspectives, 5, 16). Damas was also personally acquainted with Langston Hughes and Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Journal of Negro History. These various connections reveal the influence between these Black intellectuals from French colonies (seen as the initiators of the negritude movement) and Black intellectuals in the United States. After the publication of Pigments, Damas edited Poetes d'expression francaise: 1900-1945 (1947), apparently the first of its kind. However it was Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle poesie negre et malgache (1948), with Sartre's famous Orphee noir preface, that drew widespread recognition.
In more direct ways than the work of Senghor and Cesaire, Damas's writing was a sort of manifestation of negritude-in-action. In 1939 the French government retroactively censored Pigments after its translation into Baoule inspired the youth of the Ivory Coast to resist induction into the armed forces. In the early forties, the journal Vu et Lu commissioned Damas to write a story on French Guiana, eventually published under the title Retour de Guyane. Of the fifteen hundred published copies, the government of Guiana bought over one thousand and had them burnt (Warner, Critical Perspectives, 14).
Damas's legacy seems symbolic and important for any discussion of negritude, despite its critical marginalization and his seeming absence from the 1956 conference. In the preface to Pigments, French poet Robert Desnos calls attention to the fact that Damas in his celebrated first text draws attention to skin color in a way that the elite in his home country of French Guiana usually downplayed. He also embraced and appropriated the term negre with all its connotations, as opposed to the more conservative and respectable noir. As I demonstrate in chapter 4, his embrace of this term is an embrace of the "native" Black culture at odds with the official French culture that dominated his childhood and the lives of the colored elite in French Guiana. It makes sense, therefore, that what Senghor would later positively describe as the unsophisticated, direct, and sometimes brutal nature of Damas's poetry was in fact a cultivated Black aesthetic or "negrification." His aim was to textually recuperate a Black cultural reality that had frequently been defined exclusively in terms of negation, and which was imagined by the hegemonic order as having no interiority of its own.
Another important figure in the history of negritude was Leopold Sedar Senghor. Like Damas he was substantially influenced by Black writers from the United States. As the Senegalese scholar Sylvia Washington Ba writes, "In addition to the poets Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, James Weldon Johnson, Sterling Brown and Frank Marshall Davis, he read regularly Opportunity, the publication of the National Urban League, The Crisis, the Journal of Negro History, and especially The New Negro, the anthology-manifesto edited by Alain Locke" (The Concept of Negritude, 11). However, the negritudinal legacy of Senghor is described by Ba as first and foremost invested in establishing parallels between European and African civilization. Far from being an antagonistic investment, Senghor's aim is for "a civilization of cultural coexistence and complementarity" (The Concept of Negritude, 13). This was also the explicit aim of the Association of West African Students, founded in the early thirties by Senghor and Ousmane Soce Diop (12).
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author of West Indians in the West: Self Representations in a Migrant Community
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Catherine A. John is Assistant Professor of African Diasporic Literature at the University of Oklahoma.
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