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Re-Imagining the Guyanas

 | 
Lawrence Aje
, 
Thomas Lacroix
, 
Judith Misrahi-Barak

Emancipating Memory

World War II in Guianese and Caribbean Poetry: Martin Carter, Leon Damas, Kamau Brathwaite

Kathleen Gyssels

Texte intégral

1A cavalcade of events celebrating the centenary of the First World War and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2014 was followed, in 2016, with the commemoration of the battles of Verdun and the Somme. While much attention has justifiably been focused on European literature paying tribute to the many soldiers lost in battle, African and Caribbean voices have, unfortunately, largely been ignored. Not a single African country was invited to participate in the official 2014 programme of commemorative events in Europe. This is quite disturbing, and arguably an insult to the memory of the brave African and West Indian soldiers who fought alongside their European counterparts to defend the freedoms we enjoy today.

  • 1 Khumalo, Fred. Dancing the Death Drill. Johannesburg: Random House, 2017. Fred Khumalo’s novel cen (...)
  • 2 Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translation: Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, (...)
  • 3 Halloran, Nun. Exhibiting Slavery. The Caribbean Postmodern Novel as Museum. Charlottesville: Virg (...)

2While several West Indian poets have dedicated some of their poetry to coloured troops, in order to fill in a void created by the lack of a monument or other outlet for expressing collective grief for the deceased, anthologies on the first and the second World War barely include poets from the colonies, with the notable exception of Senghor. This does in fact wrong to the French-Guianese poet, Leon Damas (Cayenne 1912-Washington 1978), who launched a poetic tradition in French-speaking Africa and the Caribbean: the ‘tirailleur sénégalais’. He was the first one to address not only the important contribution to the wars, but also to call through poetry to desert the armies, as the colonizers should rather fight against their colonizer, a statement rejected by Senghor. In what follows I will shed light on this largely ignored poet in relationship to two younger contemporaries from the same region, Martin Carter (1927-1997) and Kamau Brathwaite (1930). Despite the strong impact of his anti-war poetry, Damas is absent from specific, as well as general studies of the region. The West Indian canon, as well as from seminal studies on West Indian poetry, such as Ramazani’s Hybrid Muse: Postcolonial Poetry in English and Transnational Poetics, don’t include him, and tend to deal exclusively with voices from the British Empire. This is regrettable, as the inclusion of French overseas territories would highlight an aspect of both World Wars hitherto neglected in studies of poetic resonance across linguistic borders in the Caribbean and Commonwealth. Indeed, when the participation of France's overseas territories is touched upon at all, critics tend to focus exclusively on troops from the Maghreb. Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and movies such as Indigènes remind us of the coloured troops and the Bataillon Créole (title of Confiant’s 2013 novel written especially for the centennial commemoration of World War I), which was composed of soldiers from the French Antilles, French Guiana and La Réunion. These soldiers were integrated into the French army as regular soldiers, rather than volunteer detachments, and pressed into service on the Front and in some of the biggest massacres (the Dardanelles) during the dreadful war. On the Allies’ side soldiers of African descent were sent as Commonwealth allies to fight the enemy. In general, less is known of the Black experience during WWII in literature, although some new books unravel forgotten stories, such as Alice Kaplan’s The Interpreter or South-African Fred Khumalo’s Dancing the Death Drill1 It needs to be stressed that the three poets selected are oblique witnesses: none of them has taken arms and fought, in contrast with Damas’ friend Fanon, who directly experienced the discrimination and racism enrolled in the French army.2 All three grieve for the victims of their, as well as other nations. Damas déboires’ (trials and difficulties) with the Gestapo, as well as the experience of war witnessed from a distance, left him profoundly traumatized and poetry was a way to cure this wound. They lament the losses and call to remember beyond lines of ethnicity, religion and do so by knotting the traumatic events to other collective wounds and wrongs brought upon mankind. Their take is therefore to instill their lyrics with the ‘knot of memory as Rothberg understands it. Anticipating on the need to have memorials and museum space in the postcolonial zones and specifically in the Caribbean,3 and to develop ‘thanatourism’, Damas’ poetry makes a bold statement to commemorate WWII from a cross-cultural and transnational perspective, in order to prevent new wars with even more deadly weapons.

  • 4 Smith, Robert. 'The Multicultural First World War: Memories of the West Indian Contribution in Con (...)
  • 5 Kaplan, Alice. The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach. Chicago: Chicago UP (...)

3Haunted by the terrible losses of World War I’s multicultural army,4 the French-Guianese co-founder of Negritude warned of the wars to come in poems such as ‘Save our Souls’ (‘S.O.S.’) written in full title in the original edition and ‘Et Caetera’, the final poem of Pigments (1937). In his first collection, introduced by Desnos,5 the young, passionate revolutionary protested against the treatment of soldiers from France’s ex-colonies. He violated France’s ‘safety’ with Pigments’ compassionate poems, urging soldiers to disobey orders to fight the Germans and suggesting that Senegalese and other Africans ‘ejaculate’ (sic) the French from Africa instead. Such unpalatable messages were anathema to the colonizers. Damas' Parisian publisher, G.L.M., a Jewish Greek homosexual, however, took the risk of launching the rebel from overseas, even before the Vichy régime came to power. Damas challenged the devastation and imminent destruction that he felt was in the air and rightly thought that the Nazis would treat ‘Negroes and Jews’ alike:

  • 6 Lillahei, Alexandra. ‘Pigments’ in Translation. Wesleyan University 2011; 43.

At that moment only
will you all understand
when they get the idea
soon they will get that idea
to want to gobble themselves up some nègre
like Hitler
gobbling up Jews
seven fascist days
out of
seven6

  • 7 Benjamin, Walter. ‘On the Concept of History’ (Translation: Harry Zohn) in Selected Writings Volum (...)

4At the same time exiled philosopher, Walter Benjamin, wrote his famous ninth thesis on history, examining Paul Klee’s painting, ‘The Angel of History’.7 Both felt intuitively that some of Damas’ closest Surrealist-linked friends (G.L.M., Desnos, Max Jacob) were deported, while his mentor Paul Rivet, a disciple of Marcel Mauss, had to flee to escape Nazism and focused in Mexico and Colombia on the indigenous populations and the ‘afrodescendentes’.

  • 8 Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifyin(g) Monkey. A Theory of African American Literature and Criti (...)
  • 9 See Parent, Sabrina,.'L. S. Senghor’s Thiaroye: The Prototype of Sacrifice' in Parent, Sabrina, Cu (...)

5His next book, Retour de Guyane, a blatant criticism of the French presence in Guiana, boosted Damas’ reputation as an insolent poet too strongly involved in the politics of the time. The third co-founder of Négritude also denounced assimilation politics, as he had witnessed Guianese and French Caribbean citizens being insulted with names like ‘négraille’ (niggertrash), ‘racaille’ (riffraff) and ‘poux’ (lice), which Damas more than once misspells ‘pous’. Behind the mistake, one could sense the trickster poet who signifies (Gates, Jr),8 mocking the French grammar, spelling rules, orthography. But most of all, his firm belief that Blacks throughout the world should demobilize created a rift between him and Senghor, whose loyalty to the former colonizer was too strong in Damas’ opinion. The latter’s hesitation to denounce the discrimination suffered by Black soldiers in the French army, as in the uprising of Thiaroye soldiers,9 irritated Damas. Other influential French-Guianese and Antillean politicians such as Félix Eboué, the future governor of Chad, whose daughter married Senghor in a first marriage, were too loyal to the ex-colonial power in the eyes of the radical anti-war poet Damas.

  • 10 Senghor, L. Sédar. 'Aux tirailleurs morts pour la France' in Hosties noires (1948). Black Hosts in (...)
  • 11 See Gyssels, Kathleen and Pela Cristina, 'Les blessures d’un poète rebelle : Marc-Vincent Howlett (...)
  • 12 Here we touch on language politics: Commonwealth vs Francophonie. See Gyssels, Kathleen in Traject (...)

6During his two years’ imprisonment in a Stalag (with Guadeloupian poet Guy Tirolien), Senghor had written several poems inspired by the war and the ‘Schwarze Schande’. Black soldiers were looked upon with fear and mistrust both by the civilians and by their fellow comrades. Yet when he published Hosties noires (Black Hosts, 1948), the Senegalese poet opened the collection of poetry in response to Damas’ strong call for withdrawal from the colonizer’s army, on the one hand, and the lack of recognition for those dead in action, on the other. By dedicating its first poem, ‘Poème liminaire’, to Leon Damas, Senghor attempted to contradict Damas’ pessimism. Senghor believed that millions of Black soldiers had not died in vain, and corrected the latter’s pessimistic view of the sacrifices made and casualties suffered.10 The Allies, indeed, would not have won the war without Black troops. But Damas stuck with his divergent opinion and continued his resistance towards assimilation politics in a lyrical mode that persistently mocked idolatry of the French language and French values.11 Whereas the first Senegalese president and cofounder of Francophonie12 swore loyalty to them, Damas urged to cut the umbilical cord and go for a radical decolonization.

  • 13 See Gyssels, Kathleen. Black-Label ou les déboires de Léon-G. Damas. Paris: Ed. Passage(s), 2016.
  • 14 Lane, Jeremy. Jazz and Machine-Age Imperialism. Music, Race and Intellectuals in France, 1918–1945(...)

7Nonetheless, the war, paradoxically, had a positive effect on the African Diaspora. Senghor's ‘Aux Tirailleurs Sénégalais morts pour la France’ and ‘Aux soldats noirs américains’ closed the gap between Africans from the continent and African Americans, some of whom befriended Damas (Langston Hughes, Claude McKay and, to a lesser degree, Richard Wright).13 In other words, the war brought about an unexpected diasporic awareness, especially to Damas, who spoke English more fluently and adapted jazz’s syncopated style.14 He would not let go of the theme of subaltern Black troops being used as ‘chair à canon’ (cannon fodder) and ‘cobaye’ (guinea pigs) for the first chemical weapons in the post-war poetry. In his third collection in particular, this exploitation resurges constantly in Black-Label:

NEGROES WENT AWAY
On a tour
a small tour
a very small tour into the white Sky
of the war before last
within their pockets
tons of yperite
and
with their
blasphemous
or
pious
hands
they sprayed Rome
in devout memory
of Aksoum
the Holy City (BL: 52)

  • 15 Wilder, Gary. The Empire Nation State. Negritude and Colonial Humanism Between the Two Wars. Chica (...)

8The use of poisonous gas and the 'Lining up’ of the enemy’s territory led to the poet's lifelong obsession with frontiers, margins, the Line or ‘ligne indigo’ (BL: 76) and the ‘machine infernale / les bombes à retardement’ (infernal machine / ticking time bombs) (BL: 28). The 'phantoms' of the past―the many sick and injured survivors of war, the absurdity of human losses, chemical weapons, economic disaster, the havoc of displaced populations―haunted his imagination and impacted on his work. According to Ojo-Ade, Damas is critical of the complicity of the church in the War efforts, the ‘Christian hypocrisy and avarice’ (Ojo-Ade 1993: 106), which further intensified his aversion for Catholicism and its institutions. After only three years, Damas exited political life in the French Assembly (1948-1951),15 and the fact that he published less prolifically than Césaire and Senghor, and has still not been translated because the ‘ayant-droit’ will not allow it, has contributed to Damas’ neglect (Ojo-Ade 2004: 183).

9Damas’ poetry resonates with that of two other West Indian poets―Martin Carter from Georgetown, and Kamau Brathwaite (1930–) from Barbados. In Poems of Resistance Carter's anti-war and pro-independence poetry erects a 'Monument for an Anonymous Soldier' in and through poetry:

  • 16 Carter, Martin. The University of Hunger, Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Gemma Robinson, ed. (...)

Wherever you fall comrade I shall arise
Wherever and whenever the sun vanishes into an arctic night there’ will I come.
I am no soldier with a gun on my shoulder
No hunter of men, no human dog of death
I am my poem, I come to you in particular gladness
In this hopeful dawn of earth I rise with you dear friend16

10Carter’s first stanza stresses the poet’s grief, melancholy and sadness, as well as the ‘miraculous weapon’ (to use Aimé Césaire’s title) at his disposal to fight an enemy that refuses to reward the loyalty of West Indian, Commonwealth, and colonial forces. Another poem, ‘In the shadow of a soldier’, also expressing unrelenting sadness and grief for the many that lost their lives, shares Damas’ relatively accessible poetic art and his commitment to the needs and sorrows of the people. First published in Thunder in 1955, it deals with the ‘long months’ of waiting for loved ones to come home safely from the war overseas:

Two long years
In the shadow of a soldier
Those long months have left us like a tree
In naked growth above its buried roots.
We never danced when cold wind made us shutter
And ocean was our road and hope our pain
In ships and fields where time was like a shroud.
But even that was cleaned sometimes with fire
In other years by other men than we
And all of us would seem them all about.
They stand and cast a shadow on our life.
Our land goes dark with stain and from a blight.
We do not even tremble in the gloom
For all our flesh is burning into ash.
Two long years
In the shadow of a soldier,
These long months are ashes of our pain
Heaped on the roots we cannot grow without. (Carter 2006: 182)

  • 17 Robinson, Gemma. ‘if freedom writes no happier alphabet: Martin Carter and Poetic Silence’. Small (...)
  • 18 Gyssels, Kathleen. '’The University of Hunger’ in the Guianas: Martin Carter and Leon Damas, in Au (...)

11Carter and Damas wrote anti-colonial and anti-war poetry about past international wars and present armed conflicts, as well as poems warning of the threat posed by future wars. During the Cold War crisis and the independence wars in Africa, they called for solidarity among Black and coloured veterans across all boundaries of Empire and colonies. In 1954, Carter followed in anguish the conflict in the British colony of Kenya. Again, in verse that might appear less vehement than Damas’, Carter draws attention to universalize war, drawing attention to the relentless appearance of new global armed conflicts and the use of soldiers of colour to fight oppressed people in countries on the other side of the Atlantic. When the British army sent Caribbean and African soldiers to fight the Mau Mau in Kenya in 1954, for instance, Carter staged a prison hunger strike. His collection, The Kind Eagle: Poems of Prison (1952) resonates with Graffiti, Damas’ ‘plaquette’ published by Pierre Seghers, himself a poet of the Resistance and editor of most of the anti-fascist French and Francophone voices of the immediate pre- and post-war period. This series of 15 poems was inserted in the final augmented edition of Pigments (1937 and 1966) and in Névralgies (1966). Like Damas, Carter wrote few texts and published slowly. However he released five poems that made a considerable impression in a small local magazine, New World Fortnightly,17 that same year. The Korean War (1950-53), pitting the communist North (supported by China and the Soviet Union) against the capitalist South (aided by the US, Britain, the UN and Commonwealth countries), prompted him to recall that the enemy to be eradicated was crushed by the same ‘season of oppression’ that his comrades back home had challenged. Both, however, were intimidated to such a degree that they began to censor their work, ultimately giving up writing poetry altogether in the ‘60s.18 Since Damas and Carter share a number of time lags between events and their poetry, it is safe to assume that both poets withdrew from writing militant poetry about current polemic issues. They have thus disappeared from literary histories and the West Indian canon, even if Carter’s reputation is stronger in the English-speaking Caribbean world of literature, criticism and education. Yet both poets suffer from not being translated into the other major languages, hence further weakening their respective celebrity.

  • 19 Huggan, Graham. ‘Is the “Post” in Postsecular the “Post” in Postcolonial', MFS 56.4 (Winter 2010): (...)

12It goes without saying that Kamau Brathwaite is the most daring of the three lyrical voices and that his vast oeuvre, now spanning more than half a century, inspires generations of younger poets in and beyond the African diaspora. One of the most prominent and prolific voices of the West Indies, Brathwaite repeatedly expresses his preoccupation with violence, war, and terrorism. Like his ‘aînés’ Damas and Carter, he treats racism as a global and therefore transnational phenomenon. Directly intervening after the terrorist attack of 9/11, he read 'To the American Soldiers' in Battery Park to pay tribute to the innocent victims of what should become the major trademark for the 21st century: religious war and terrorism as a way to eliminate the ‘infidels’. Like Damas and Carter, Brathwaite addresses postcolonial poetry as a way to engage critically with the post-secular, as Huggan has it.19 He believes that those whose lives were damaged or suddenly ended by violence (known as malemort in the French Antilles), must be remembered in subliminal ways, such as the recitation of elegies.

  • 20 Rothberg, Michael. ‘From Memory to Memory: from “Lieux de mémoire” to “Nœuds de mémoire”’. YFS, 11 (...)
  • 21 Brathwaite, Kamau. Born to Slow Horses. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2005; 101.
  • 22 Otten, Melanie. A Creole Experiment. Utopian Space in K. Brathwaite’s Video-Style Works. Trenton: (...)
  • 23 Savory, Elaine. 'Kamau Brathwaite: Grounded in the Past, Revisioning the Present', in The Routledg (...)
  • 24 Read by Kamau Brathwaite. Griffin Poetry Prize. ‘In what may well be the first enduring poem on th (...)

13While acting as a witness to violent death runs the risk of exploiting and/or sentimentalizing the dead, or reducing poems to political statements, Brathwaite avoids all of these. Alliteration, repletion and the division of words into syllables produce antagonistic pulls. The beauty of coherent words, juxtaposed with their tearing apart, makes us understand that the horrific deaths of 9/11 must not be disconnected from other mass killings. Kamau knots traumatic memories and emphasizes the need to forge a collective memory beyond racial and ethnic boundaries by applying the salutary ‘knot of memory’ in post-Holocaust times.20 Delicately, he interweaves catastrophes separated by time and space―including disease and major health hazards―with others caused by human error or carelessness (Guernica, Amritsar, Bosnia, Bhopal, Sudan, Chernobyl, Aids).21 Through his ‘Sycorax video style’ he deals with a ‘creole cosmos’ likely to be destroyed at any moment, and how a global ‘collision of cultures’ can be faced.22 Brathwaite’s more utopian vision, however, sees the Caribbean as a model: his work engages with current debates about the global dimensions of creoleness and creolization while simultaneously critiquing them. For Elaine Savory,23 Brathwaite elaborates a kind of palimpsest by inducing the reader to see analogies between the bitter life on sugar estates, the evil conditions of slaves in the Caribbean archipelago and the unforgettable, more recent disasters wrought upon mankind by terror. This is illustrated, for instance, in Ark: A 9/11 Continuation Poem,24 The nounbody’ is repeated, signifyin(g) its disappearance through a process of repetition. While 9/11 is generally remembered as the instant death of over 4000 innocent New Yorkers of different descent, the poet mourns the unnamed Africans who perished on the same spot many centuries ago:

  • 25 Brathwaite, Kamau. 'rc: 9/11 Remembrance Poem' in Born to Slow Horses. Wesleyan: Wesleyan Poetry S (...)

the graveyards of the negroes.
The body body bod-.ies pour/ing from this dark
Manhattan strom-/boli
into dim catactombs of dis-/appearing
love & grace &pain &pain &
smouldering wound25

  • 26 Hirsh, Marianne. Generation of Postmemory. Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. New Yor (...)
  • 27 Dalien, Timothy and Boyd, Stephen. 'Heritage Tourism in the 21st Century: Valued Traditions and Ne (...)

14The image of the ‘Manhattan Stromboli’ testifies to the strong visual impact of television and video news we have today to acknowledge and never forget, but Brathwaite claims through this recent image the sediments and layers over layers of buried his/tories: slave trade, slave revolt, slave massacres on that same infidel ground which would become the strongest capitalist power in the New World. The three poets had the feeling of what Hirsch aptly calls ‘postmemory’.26 A forerunner of dark tourism,27 Damas’ more recent poems also tackle the phantoms of a centuries-old past which, although invisible and immaterial, reminds him of his duty towards those who are closer to him―his brothers―whom he cautions with respect to new battlefields. In Mine de riens, Damas' eight-page long poem, 'Puisque', urging readers to disobey mobilization orders, continuously repeats the key word, ‘mobilization’, before dismantling it. Each syllable is pulled apart, so that instead of becoming ‘mobilized’, one is gripped by immobility. The order to enlist is clear, but as he slowly articulates the word and pulls it to pieces, its meaning is transformed―to a different, nay opposite, meaning: a call to NOT obey. On the contrary, he urges group resistance (striking, marching) and desertion. In the process of disarticulation, a call to military action becomes its opposite; a call to desert. The obligation for soldiers to take up arms switches to one of collective insurrection. Instead of troops becoming prepared and ‘mobile’ for the next war, different meanings of the noun ‘mobilization’ come to mind. Depending upon the subject of the one in charge (the White officer, or the Black leader bringing his people out to the ‘promised land’ of social and racial equality – think of Martin Luther King’s March on Washington), the noun takes another, even opposite, meaning, the poet stressing the différance (Derrida). Damas draws a parallel between the treatment of coloured soldiers in the army and navy and the treatment of their ancestors in times of slavery. He arguably uses ‘mobilization’ to suggest collective disobedience and resistance to obeying orders from one's superiors, as Blacks wait endlessly for change:

Not yet
not yet war
not yet war to be
not yet war to be waged
not yet war to be waged against
not yet war to be waged against the En
not yet war to be waged against the En-emy
the
he-
re-
di-
tary
heredo-di-tary
heredi-dotary
enemy
not yet war to be waged against him
him
who tomorrow as yesterday
tomorrow we will defeat
we the Generals dodging behind the lines
we will be victorious with you on the Line
you whose blades will blend
the victorious steel
of cannons
of shells
of bullets
of buckshots
et cetera
down with the Line
clear the Line
storm the Line
where you’ll go singing
all of you where you’re gonna hang your washing
where your washing is gonna hang
then all of you can
shout
down with Berlin
down with bears and bugbears
down with Berlin
a bastille to be stormed
not for laughs
but for real
besieged city
fallen
open
open
to the flowers in the barrels of your guns
offering armistice honoring
ever vanquished victors (…)

(‘Puisque’, DE: 93-95, translation: C. Pagnoulle)

  • 28 Gyssels, Kathleen. ‘À la rubrique des chiens crevés: Léon-Gontran Damas facing memory wars in post (...)

15Both Damas and Kamau Brathwaite draw attention to the orders given by superiors and the limited freedom of the Self. They are further linked through their common wish to disregard ‘nation’ and its powerful symbols (‘la tricolore’ flag, Marianne, . . .), ‘nationality’, language, and other borders separating people of different ethnic, cultural backgrounds when it comes to mourning the dead. In Mine de riens, not only does Damas’ style change considerably compared to Pigments and Névralgies, but he entwines Jewish and Black memories in provocative, elaborate poems such as 'À la rubrique des chiens crevés'. Their polemic nature dissuaded the two times censored poet from publishing them.28

16Years before the ‘war on memory’, Damas raises the question of the ghettoization of remembrance practices; the tendency for each group to pay tribute to the disappeared according to its own needs. In the third poem, 'From the dead dog column', he explores the possibility of a common ground for remembrance practices and contrasts the attention given Jewish victims with the invisibility of Black victims. Clearly, Damas is urging us to trespass; to cross the divide in the commemorative and museum space. Lines (national, ethnic and linguistic) between the victims of World War II, which become blurred during the terrible years, are reshaped as soon as the War is over, with the result that shared traumas and celebrations designed to heal wounds, make reparations and offer ‘repentance’, are compromised. Mine de riens also exposes the many false promises of the French Republic and its ally, the Church. Despite the latter's secular (laïque’) constitution, soldiers are sent ‘on a mission for God’. Promises of racial equality languish, unfulfilled: dichotomies remain unresolved. Following the war, Black soldiers began to claim the Equality, Liberty and Fraternity inscribed in the Republic’s motto and repeated here (DE: 61-62):

  • 29 Pagnoulle, Christine, Ojo-ade Femi and Gyssels, Kathleen. Unpublished translation of Damas, Leon-G (...)

But
finita la commedia
message heard
message remembered
so true it is that ever
there was one
there was one to rise
from the anonymous crowd
spineless cowering timorous
a voice that only listens
to that from its guts
before letting its crescendo loose
a bomb now irresistibly lobbed
between Heaven and its firebolts
to drop
thick mustard
on fields
on meadows
on the stakes of the open city
to the bleating of those so bleakly content
with staring at the passing train of living death29

17In the above stanza, Damas alludes to the atomic weapon, which Brathwaite’s apocalyptic poem also addresses. After the killing with ypérite and other chemical weapons, after the use of even stronger and better manufactured automatic rifles, Damas fears the nuclear bomb. One only has to recall he was witnessing how De Gaulle’s defense policy implied several nuclear tests in the colonial peripheries: the Algerian desert and French Pacific were used as playgrounds, so to speak, for the ‘60s experiments with the ‘H-bomb’ which the founder of the Vth Republic wanted to develop at all costs, in order to be as strong as Great Britain and become independent from the United States. Impatient to see the thermonuclear weapon developed, he even negotiated membership of the UK in exchange for their ‘savoir-faire’ in/on the field! To understand fully Damas’ fear and warning, his bitterness regarding the global nuclear war, one must be reminded that the material to make the bomb (uranium, plutonium) comes from French Guiana, the Congo, Ghana . . . all countries whose resources have been scandalously plundered by the (ex-)colonial powers. Pointing to a wide range of disasters and the cyclical return of genocidal violence, the poet hints at the bitter irony of History in his unpublished poems. Particularly, he draws attention to the use of manpower from the former colonies, and to the mines in the (three) Guianas that were used for the fabrication of the deadly weapons. Mine de riens’s direct reference to mining incorporates the Amerindian population and the ‘genocide by substitution’) to today, thousands of work forces being enslaved into the mining, bauxite and nickel extraction. French-Guiana’s contribution to the fabrication of weaponry thus, inevitably, becomes a sad historical irony.

18Brathwaite also evokes the apocalyptic scenery of nuclear fallout:

Staining the wide widening whitening sides.walk(s)
slow waken.ing nuclear midnight hush (Born to Slow Horses: 99)

  • 30 Williams, Paul. Race, Ethnicity and Nuclear War. Representations of Nuclear Weapons and Post-Apoca (...)
  • 31 Jauvert, Vincent. ‘L’espion qui a livré la bombe H à la France’, Nouvel Obs’, 2701, (11 août 2016)  (...)
  • 32 Although François Mitterrand halted nuclear testing in 1992, his successor, Jacques Chirac, announ (...)

19In Race, Ethnicity and Nuclear War, Paul Williams claims that writers and filmmakers see nuclear weapons as 'White' weapons.30 Similarly, mustard gas, a white invention, is mentioned in Black-Label as one of the terrible weapons (napalm bombs, nuclear bombs) responsible for the wounding and killing of massive killing and ethnical cleansing. As radical pacifists, Kamau and Damas denounce the race for the nuclear weapons by the leaders of the world. Damas especially became anti-Gaullist following the French president's nuclear tests in the Algerian desert and French Pacific (the first test on August 24, 1966 in Mururoa was applauded as ‘un magnifique succès scientifique (. . .) pour l’indépendance et la sécurité de la France’.31 France conducted atmospheric tests in Algeria prior to its Independence in 1962, switching subsequently to underground and underwater testing in French Polynesia. Up to 1992, it had carried out a total of 41 atmospheric and 138 underground nuclear tests.32

  • 33 After his famous discourse, ‘Jouer le jeu’, in which he encouraged Guadeloupian youth to resist fa (...)

20The poet's criticism bites deeply as he places De Gaulle on the same level as Pétain: both betray their ‘blood’ (‘sang gaulois’ ou ‘sang franc’) by putting ‘septante et dix (eighty) millions’ in chains (‘au piquet’): ‘putain de gaule aux flancs de piqués de piqueurs au piquet’ (damned De Gaulle on the pockmarked flanks of workers in chains) (DE: 108). The pun on the misspelling of ‘gaulle’ (‘gaule’), and the phonetic association of ‘Maréchal Pétain’ with ‘putain’ (whore), is a reference to the President’s military policy, which considered colonies to be 'experimental zones'. Both ‘le Maréchal Pétain’ and De Gaulle, two giants of French history, are toppled (déboulonnés’) together with French symbols (the flag, Marianne, the Eiffel Tower). Barthes similarly identified these patriotic signs as both designed to rule the masses and dismissive of the 'Outsider’s contribution'. By ridiculing its symbols, Damas, more than any other French Caribbean poet, destroys the oripeaux’ (outmoded rags) of the Third and Fourth Republic. The ‘macaron de Marianne à la francisque’ (sticker of Marianne with an axe of war), wearing a ‘bonnet phrygien’ (Phrygian hat) (DE: 109) makes him ‘f***’; ‘chier’ (shit). The verb, banned from polite speech and ‘français de France’ is suggested via evocations of the ‘stinking finger of the Bible in [his] nostrils’ (BL: 25-26, translation Ojo-Ade 2004: 190). De Gaulle’s fame as the legendary 'hero of Free France' explains Damas’ anti-Gaullist stance and his efforts to discredit one of France’s most prominent politicians. Despite leading one of Europe’s largest countries, De Gaulle would not have won the war, however, without the help of France’s 'children of the colonies' and Eboué’s loyal asistance.33

  • 34 Samuel, Peter. 'Ee Cassé: Virtuality and Remembrance in Caribbean Poetry'. Academic paper. https:/ (...)
  • 35 A poem in Europe 612 (April 1981): 57–59. Damas is not mentioned in this special issue except in t (...)
  • 36 Curwen, Best. Roots to Popular Culture. Barbadian Aesthetics: Kamau Brathwaite to Hardcore Styles.(...)
  • 37 Radzik, Vanda. 'Tribute to Martin Carter'. Guyana Chronicle 'In Tribute of Martin Carter'. http:// (...)

21Ramazani’s Transnational Poetics canonized Brathwaite, Walcott and other lesser known Anglophone (post)colonial voices, such as Louise Bennett and even African American, Langston Hughes. Yet two other Caribbean voices would not have been out of place in his 'Nationalism, Transnationalism and the Poetic of Mourning'. The threat of armed conflicts radically opposing West and East, and the Americas/Europe and Russia, led Damas, who was less experimental34 in his lyric art, to dismantle his ‘Christian name’35 to call for peace. He and Carter bridge the microcosmic and macrocosmic, and raise transatlantic and transnational issues through their poetry on World War II. Since the third French overseas department remains, understandably, the most neglected in Caribbean thought (Glissant, Chamoiseau), Damas remains a minor poet, less well-known than both the ‘Barbadian nation-voice’36 and the ‘collective consciousness of Guiana’37 (Lamming).

  • 38 Phillips, Caryl. Color Me English: Thoughts about Migrations and Belonging Before and After 9/11. (...)

22Damas’ battlefields, however, have been posthumously rediscovered and gained respect thanks to Christiane Taubira. France’s ex-Minister of Justice passed the Memory Laws, protecting Amerindian populations and French Guiana’s natural wealth and treasures. Like Damas, Taubira has had to deal with questions of national, religious, and gender-identity in a globalized world where transnational and intercultural issues still divide Americans and Europeans of different backgrounds and origins. Damas was a forerunner on many issues that still puzzle essayists and novelists from the Caribbean today, such as Phillips in Color Me English.38 He addressed existential complexities at a time when the ‘Color line’ (Du Bois) was the biggest barrier between individuals. He was also preoccupied with the many ambiguities of the politics of colour, which seem less important in times of war when coloured troops are defending the Other’s values and properties on the frontline. His anti-war poetry directly impacted upon his fame but, without a political mandate, he could not implement the laws and rules that would prevent the ostracization of coloured men and women.

23Fighting for peace and democratic values with his own ‘miraculous weapons’ (after Césaire), Damas is nevertheless much more committed and authentic than, to take but one example, Raphaël Confiant, who seized the opportunity that the year 2014 presented to publish Le Bataillon créole. Like all of his serial novels motivated by a commemorative event (another, Nuée ardente, commemorated the 1902 eruption of Mont Pelée), it is a simplistic and, at times, problematic take on the tirailleur sénégalais in French Caribbean poetry. His confession of a Martiniquan infantryman would have us believe that, on the battlefield, the nicknames ‘Snowwhite’ or ‘Chocolat’ assuage centuries of vengeance. His proud hero reflects guiltily on the underlying motives for his bravery:

  • 39 Confiant, Raphaël. Le Bataillon créole (Guerre de 1914-1918). Paris : Mercure, 2013; 284, translat (...)

The bayonet that is thrust into the white body erases, in a single stroke, centuries of prostration and of humiliation. The Teuton in front of you becomes the Béké, the white creole, before whom you and yours have never been able to do anything but bow the head and stammer ‘yessuh’. At the exact moment when you buried your bayonet in the balls of the man facing you, it wasn't his nationality, or his religion, or his language that you were trying to destroy, but his very being. His race. Or, more precisely, his colour.39

  • 40 Gyssels, Kathleen. ’”K/nots of Memory”: a Martiniquan Requiem in Glissant’s Tout-Monde’ in Literar (...)

24Staging soldiers in the battle of Gallipoli, Confiant’s persistent use of ‘Teuton’ in this context is a racist term, and not at all innocent in this respect. Volkisch theorists believed that Germany's Teutonic ancestors had spread out from Germany throughout Europe but Confiant uses the word to hint at the racial theory which would during WWII obsess the Nazis. Here and elsewhere, as I have shown, prominent Martinicans resort to opacity or to anachronic wording when it comes to putting the Black suffering next to the Jewish one during WWII. By contrast, Glissant’s ‘Parabole’ in his travelogue, Tout-monde (1993),40 suffers from the deliberate erasure of the Jews in a chapter on the deportation of war prisoners to the ‘camps d’extermination’.

25In conclusion, World Wars I and II left a deep imprint on several West Indian poets, famous and infamous. While Damas initiated the tradition of the tirailleur sénégalais, his Anglo-Caribbean counterparts―Carter, and particularly Kamau Brathwaite―have joined him in warning of a race towards globally disastrous armed conflicts. All three express the need for people of colour to be paid equal posthumous respect and to be commemorated equally during remembrance ceremonies, beyond the competition of memory. At a time when the wounds of WWI were barely healed and the struggle for decolonization was holding a lot of colonies in its grip, these poets were the first to write poetry that compensated for the erasure of coloured people from the public space, and to alert their readers to the dangers of global wars with ever more destructive weaponry.

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Notes

1 Khumalo, Fred. Dancing the Death Drill. Johannesburg: Random House, 2017. Fred Khumalo’s novel centres on the sinking of the SS Mendi in the English Channel in 1917, a wartime catastrophe that led to the deaths of almost 650 men, mostly blacks, members of the South African Native Labour Corps, were on their way to France to assist in the allied war effort.

2 Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Translation: Charles Lam Markmann. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

3 Halloran, Nun. Exhibiting Slavery. The Caribbean Postmodern Novel as Museum. Charlottesville: Virginia University Press, 2008.

4 Smith, Robert. 'The Multicultural First World War: Memories of the West Indian Contribution in Contemporary Britain'. Journal of European Studies 45 (December 2015): 347-363. First published November 24, 2015.

5 Kaplan, Alice. The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2014; 91.

6 Lillahei, Alexandra. ‘Pigments’ in Translation. Wesleyan University 2011; 43.

7 Benjamin, Walter. ‘On the Concept of History’ (Translation: Harry Zohn) in Selected Writings Volume 4. Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003; 389–400.

8 Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifyin(g) Monkey. A Theory of African American Literature and Criticism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

9 See Parent, Sabrina,.'L. S. Senghor’s Thiaroye: The Prototype of Sacrifice' in Parent, Sabrina, Cultural Representation of Massacre. New York/London: Palgrave, 2014; 31–45.

10 Senghor, L. Sédar. 'Aux tirailleurs morts pour la France' in Hosties noires (1948). Black Hosts in The Collected Poetry. Translation: Melvin DIXON. Virginia: Virginia University Press, 1998.

11 See Gyssels, Kathleen and Pela Cristina, 'Les blessures d’un poète rebelle : Marc-Vincent Howlett revient sur son entretien de 1970 avec Léon-Gontran Damas'. Continents Manuscrits 17 (2016). http://coma.revues.org/706. Accessed December 17, 2016.

12 Here we touch on language politics: Commonwealth vs Francophonie. See Gyssels, Kathleen in Trajectoires et dérives de la Littérature-monde, Roger Viau and Cécilia W. Francis, eds. Amsterdam : Rodopi, 2014; 110–132.

13 See Gyssels, Kathleen. Black-Label ou les déboires de Léon-G. Damas. Paris: Ed. Passage(s), 2016.

14 Lane, Jeremy. Jazz and Machine-Age Imperialism. Music, Race and Intellectuals in France, 1918–1945. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2013.

15 Wilder, Gary. The Empire Nation State. Negritude and Colonial Humanism Between the Two Wars. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005.

16 Carter, Martin. The University of Hunger, Collected Poems and Selected Prose. Gemma Robinson, ed. Northumberland: Bloodaxe, 2006; 86.

17 Robinson, Gemma. ‘if freedom writes no happier alphabet: Martin Carter and Poetic Silence’. Small Axe 15 (March 2004): 43–62.

18 Gyssels, Kathleen. '’The University of Hunger’ in the Guianas: Martin Carter and Leon Damas, in Authority and Displacement, Florence Demeule, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholarly Press, 2015; 120–145.

19 Huggan, Graham. ‘Is the “Post” in Postsecular the “Post” in Postcolonial', MFS 56.4 (Winter 2010): 751–768.

20 Rothberg, Michael. ‘From Memory to Memory: from “Lieux de mémoire” to “Nœuds de mémoire”’. YFS, 118–119 (November 2010): 3–12.

21 Brathwaite, Kamau. Born to Slow Horses. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2005; 101.

22 Otten, Melanie. A Creole Experiment. Utopian Space in K. Brathwaite’s Video-Style Works. Trenton: Africa World Press, 2009.

23 Savory, Elaine. 'Kamau Brathwaite: Grounded in the Past, Revisioning the Present', in The Routledge Companion to Caribbean Anglophone Literature, M.A. Bucknor and A. Donnell, eds. New York: Routledge, 2011; 15.

24 Read by Kamau Brathwaite. Griffin Poetry Prize. ‘In what may well be the first enduring poem on the disaster of 9/11, Manhattan becomes another island in the poet’s personal archipelago, as the sounds of Coleman Hawkins transform into the words and witnesses and survivors. Throughout Born to Slow Horses, as in his earlier books, Brathwaite has invented a new linguistic music for subject matter that is all his own’. http://www.griffinpoetry prize.com/awards-and-poets/shortlists/2006-shortlist/kamau-brathwaite. Accessed October 19, 2016.

25 Brathwaite, Kamau. 'rc: 9/11 Remembrance Poem' in Born to Slow Horses. Wesleyan: Wesleyan Poetry Series, 2005; 53.

26 Hirsh, Marianne. Generation of Postmemory. Writing and Visual Culture After the Holocaust. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

27 Dalien, Timothy and Boyd, Stephen. 'Heritage Tourism in the 21st Century: Valued Traditions and New Perspectives'. Journal of Heritage Tourism, 1.1 (2006): 1–16.

28 Gyssels, Kathleen. ‘À la rubrique des chiens crevés: Léon-Gontran Damas facing memory wars in posthumous poetry’, in Reshaping Glocal Dynamics of the Caribbean, Anja Bandau, Anick Bruske, et al., Heidelberg: HinUp, 2018; 457-470.

29 Pagnoulle, Christine, Ojo-ade Femi and Gyssels, Kathleen. Unpublished translation of Damas, Leon-Gontran, Black-Label. Paris: Gallimard, 1956.

30 Williams, Paul. Race, Ethnicity and Nuclear War. Representations of Nuclear Weapons and Post-Apocalyptic Worlds. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2015.

31 Jauvert, Vincent. ‘L’espion qui a livré la bombe H à la France’, Nouvel Obs’, 2701, (11 août 2016) : 47–49.

32 Although François Mitterrand halted nuclear testing in 1992, his successor, Jacques Chirac, announced on June 13, 1995 that France would break a three-year moratorium and conduct eight underground tests at Mururoa Atoll (a coral island near Tahiti).

33 After his famous discourse, ‘Jouer le jeu’, in which he encouraged Guadeloupian youth to resist fascism, Eboué enlisted a large number of African (and French Caribbean) soldiers to fight in the war. Senghor married Eboué's daughter (whom he later divorced, with the help of the Pope).

34 Samuel, Peter. 'Ee Cassé: Virtuality and Remembrance in Caribbean Poetry'. Academic paper. https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1011&context=uhf_2011&s. Accessed March 28, 2016.

35 A poem in Europe 612 (April 1981): 57–59. Damas is not mentioned in this special issue except in the interview by René Depestre with Aimé Césaire on the origin of Negritude ('Itinéraire d’un langage : de l’Afrique à la Caraïbe'; 8–19).

36 Curwen, Best. Roots to Popular Culture. Barbadian Aesthetics: Kamau Brathwaite to Hardcore Styles. London: MacMillan, 2001.

37 Radzik, Vanda. 'Tribute to Martin Carter'. Guyana Chronicle 'In Tribute of Martin Carter'. http://guyanachronicle.com/in-tribute-to-martin-carter. Accessed November 25, 2014.

38 Phillips, Caryl. Color Me English: Thoughts about Migrations and Belonging Before and After 9/11. London: Secker, 2012.

39 Confiant, Raphaël. Le Bataillon créole (Guerre de 1914-1918). Paris : Mercure, 2013; 284, translation Kathleen Gyssels.

40 Gyssels, Kathleen. ’”K/nots of Memory”: a Martiniquan Requiem in Glissant’s Tout-Monde’ in Literary Transnationalisms, Theo D'haen and Dagmar Vandenbosch, eds. Leyde: Brill, 2019; 245-263; Knots of Memory in French Caribbean Literature. Edouard Glissant’s ‘Nous ne mourions pas tous’ in Dagmar Vandebosch and Theo D’haen, eds.

Auteur

Kathleen Gyssels is Professor of Francophone Postcolonial Literature and Culture at Antwerp University, where she teaches classes on authors from the African and Jewish diasporas. Her publications are principally concerned with African American, Caribbean and Francophone authors and subjects from a broad, comparative perspective. Her current research has extended her reach to include conflictual issues, such as the Memory Laws and the Memory Wars in the French Republic and postcolonial countries. In recent publications, for example, she has tackled the resurgence of antisemitism in the Caribbean and its echoes in both literature and criticism. She is Coordinator of the Research Group for Postcolonial Literature at the University of Antwerp and an Associate Member of the Institute for Jewish Studies. More info on: https://www.uantwerpen.be/en/rg/postcolonial.

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