Beat Diaspora: Beats, Buses, Bricks

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Neg Fondamental


The death of Aimé Césaire back in April passed through with minimal fanfare in the U.S., whereas the French broadcast his funeral live on television. As a poet, politician, and philosopher, he stands immensely tall in 20th century discourse yet hails from a comparatively small place: the island of Martinique. A former French colony and now fully-fledged department (formerly DOM, département d’outre-mer or overseas department, and now a DFA, départment française d’Amérique), Martinique has produced a remarkable number of noteworthy French writers in the last 60 years. Start with Frantz Fanon, then Césaire, then more contemporary authors Edouard Glissant, Patrick Chamoiseau, Raphael Confiant, and Suzanne Dracius. It’s an impressive litany of forceful francophone writers from the colonial and post-colonial eras who have dredged their island’s history and its subordinate status to France to make powerful statements about the legacy of slavery, the effects of colonialism, the cultural bonds of the Caribbean, and the global black experience.

Césaire is, as he called himself, “nègre fondamental” (black at the core). The translation is tricky on both fronts. “Nègre” is a stronger term than “noir,” and has carried a derogatory connotation dating back to plantation slavery. It can still be used as an insult, but it isn’t nearly as ugly as English’s own six-letter word. While the hip-hop world has reclaimed that term to the Nth degree, I couldn’t imagine MLK or Malcolm X getting behind it. “Nègre” is something both rappers and writers use. “Fondamental” can be fundamental or foundational, both of which are applicable here. Rather than pick one and exclude the other, I like the notion of “at the core” as covering both the essence quality of “fundamental” and the building block notion of “foundational.”

In Martinique, where he was mayor of the capital, Fort-de-France, for an astonishing 56 years (1945-2001) and deputy to the French national assembly for another 48 (1945-1993), Césaire was the grand homme of the island. While his early days, especially his break with the French communist party in order to found the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais, made for contentious politics, he simply became more revered the more he aged. Supposedly he held court in a square near city hall up until even a year or two ago. It was my surprise to learn he was still alive when I first discovered him back in high school, by which time he was already in his 80s.

While his voice was assured as early as 1939 with the publication of his epic poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a return to my native land), he lived long enough to be criticized. A younger generation of French Caribbean writers saw Négritude and its emphasis on Africa as undermining the uniqueness of Caribbean heritage, which they lauded as créolité (Creoleness). It was a healthy debate, though, and especially upon his death there was universal reverence. Patrick Chamoiseau, himself a founder of the créolité movement, wrote a stirring memoriam (Fr only). Politically, a half-century can surely get corrupt, and the night clerk at my hotel told me he was accused of letting henchmen run the show as he got increasingly old and incapable of managing all the details of mayoralty by himself.

But the signs -- literal billboards, posters, and public displays across the island -- of appreciation for Césaire were ubiquitous across Martinique, beginning the moment you stepped into the airport, even before passport control. The airport, I should add, is incongruously named after Césaire, something he wasn't exactly in favor of. Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior, pushed it through -- two years after Césaire refused to meet him in Fort-de-France for his support of a bill acknowledging the "positive effects" of colonialism.

My stay in Martinique was short, just long enough to give the island a quick pass, stock up on some Antillean books (including teach yourself Creole!) and CDs (francophone dancehall and zouk galore) although I hope to return one day for a longer research effort. But it was enough to recognize the richness -- cultural, intellectual, literary -- of this particular corner of the francophone Caribbean.

I'm currently reading Chamoiseau's Texaco, which tells the story of a shantytown on the outskirts of Fort-de-France (built on the remnants of a Texaco facility) as it faces demolition at the hands of the city's urban reform efforts. In this neighborhood founded by rural exodus, Creole is at its strongest, yet it is here that I found the "Merci Aimé Césaire" graffiti, the largest I saw on the island, written in French but signed with a Creole name. Here that Chamoiseau eulogizes 200 years of Martinique history as they have resulted in the establishment of Texaco but thanks Serge Letchimy, urbanist and now mayor of Fort-de-France, who led the effort to raze the shantytown. The novel won the Prix Goncourt, France's equivalent of a Pulitzer, catapaulting Chamoiseau, Martinique, and Texaco to fame.

Even après-Césaire, Martinique -- and by extension the French Caribbean (most notably Guadeloupe) -- are poised to remain a hotbed of literary and intellectual activity. If anything, the outpouring from Martinique's younger luminaries simply confirms the multi-generational strain is alive and well.

[My own merci to Mylène Priam for her wonderful teaching on francophone literature in the Caribbean. She spoke about her work here, which garnered a bit of blog press in the Caribbean-academico-sphere.]

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