Langston Hughes, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, The Nation, 1926

 

 

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.

But let us look at the immediate background of this young poet. His family is of what I suppose one would call the Negro middle class: people who are by no means rich yet never uncomfortable nor hungry–smug, contented, respectable folk, members of the Baptist church. The father goes to work every morning. He is a chief steward at a large white club. The mother sometimes does fancy sewing or supervises parties for the rich families of the town. The children go to a mixed school. In the home they read white papers and magazines. And the mother often says “Don’t be like niggers” when the children are bad. A frequent phrase from the father is, “Look how well a white man does things.” And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtues. It holds for the children beauty, morality, and money. The whisper of “I want to be white” runs silently through their minds. This young poet’s home is, I believe, a fairly typical home of the colored middle class. One sees immediately how difficult it would be for an artist born in such a home to interest himself in interpreting the beauty of his own people. He is never taught to see that beauty. He is taught rather not to see it, or if he does, to be ashamed of it when it is not according to Caucasian patterns.

For racial culture the home of a self-styled “high-class” Negro has nothing better to offer. Instead there will perhaps be more aping of things white than in a less cultured or less wealthy home. The father is perhaps a doctor, lawyer, landowner, or politician. The mother may be a social worker, or a teacher, or she may do nothing and have a maid. Father is often dark but he has usually married the lightest woman he could find. The family attend a fashionable church where few really colored faces are to be found. And they themselves draw a color line. In the North they go to white theaters and white movies. And in the South they have at least two cars and house “like white folks.” Nordic manners, Nordic faces, Nordic hair, Nordic art (if any), and an Episcopal heaven. A very high mountain indeed for the would-be racial artist to climb in order to discover himself and his people.

But then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority—may the Lord be praised! The people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round. They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their
religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. 0, let’s dance! These
common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They
furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of
American standardizations. And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself. Whereas the better-class Negro would tell the artist what to do, the people at least let him alone when he does appear. And they are not ashamed of him–if they know he exists at all. And they accept what beauty is their own without question.

Certainly there is, for the American Negro artist who can escape the restrictions the more advanced among his own group would put upon him, a great field of unused material ready for his art. Without going outside his race, and even among the better classes with their “white” culture and conscious American manners, but still Negro enough to be different, there is sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work. And when he chooses to touch on the relations between Negroes and whites in this country, with their innumerable overtones and undertones surely, and especially for literature and the drama, there is an inexhaustible supply of themes at hand. To these the Negro artist can give his racial individuality, his heritage of rhythm and warmth, and his incongruous humor that so often, as in the Blues, becomes ironic laughter mixed with tears. But let us look again at the mountain.

A prominent Negro clubwoman in Philadelphia paid eleven dollars to hear Raquel Meller sing Andalusian popular songs.
But she told me a few weeks before she would not think of going to hear “that woman,” Clara Smith, a great black artist, sing
Negro folksongs. And many an upper -class Negro church, even now, would not dream of employing a spiritual in its
services. The drab melodies in white folks’ hymnbooks are much to be preferred. “We want to worship the Lord correctly
and quietly. We don’t believe in ‘shouting.’ Let’s be dull like the Nordics,” they say, in effect.

The road for the serious black artist, then, who would produce a racial art is most certainly rocky and the mountain is high. Until recently he received almost no encouragement for his work from either white or colored people. The fine novels of
Chesnutt’ go out of print with neither race noticing their passing. The quaint charm and humor of Dunbar’s’ dialect verse
brought to him, in his day, largely the same kind of encouragement one would give a sideshow freak (A colored man writing
poetry! How odd!) or a clown (How amusing!).

The present vogue in things Negro, although it may do as much harm as good for the budding artist, has at least done this: it has brought him forcibly to the attention of his own people among whom for so long, unless the other race had noticed him beforehand, he was a prophet with little honor.

The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism and misunderstanding from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. “Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,” say the Negroes. “Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously. We will pay you,” say the whites. Both would have told Jean Toomer not to write Cane. The colored people did not praise it. The white people did not buy it. Most of the colored people who did read Cane hate it. They are afraid of it. Although the critics gave it good reviews the public remained indifferent. Yet (excepting the work of Du Bois) Cane contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America. And like the singing of Robeson, it is truly racial.

But in spite of the Nordicized Negro intelligentsia and the desires of some white editors we have an honest American Negro literature already with us. Now I await the rise of the Negro theater. Our folk music, having achieved world-wide fame, offers itself to the genius of the great individual American composer who is to come. And within the next decade I expect to see the work of a growing school of colored artists who paint and model the beauty of dark faces and create with new technique the expressions of their own soul-world. And the Negro dancers who will dance like flame and the singers who will continue to carry our songs to all who listen-they will be with us in even greater numbers tomorrow.

Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz. I am as sincere as I know how to be in these poems and yet after every reading I answer questions like these from my own people: Do you think Negroes should always write about Negroes? I wish you wouldn’t read some of your poems to white folks. How do you find anything interesting in a place like a cabaret? Why do you write about black people? You aren’t black. What makes you do so many jazz poems?

But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile. Yet the Philadelphia clubwoman is ashamed to say that her race created it and she does not like me to write about it, The old subconscious “white is best” runs through her mind. Years of study under white teachers, a lifetime of white books, pictures, and papers, and white manners, morals, and Puritan standards made her dislike the spirituals. And now she turns up her nose at jazz and all its manifestations–likewise almost everything else distinctly racial. She doesn’t care for the Winold Reiss’ portraits of Negroes because they are “too Negro.” She does not want a true
picture of herself from anybody. She wants the artist to flatter her, to make the white world believe that all negroes are as smug and as near white in soul as she wants to be. But, to my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro–and beautiful”?

So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing “Water Boy,” and Rudolph Fisher
writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas’s drawing
strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to
catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.


Aimé Césaire (1913-2008)

Original text here.

Martinican poet, playwright, and politician, one of the most influential authors from the French-speaking Caribbean. Aimé Césaire formulated with Léopold Senghor and Léon Gontian Damas the concept and movement of négritude, defined as “affirmation that one is black and proud of it”. Césaire’s thoughts about restoring the cultural identity of black Africans were first fully expressed in Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Return to My Native Land), a mixture of poetry and poetic prose. The work celebrated the ancestral homelands of Africa and the Caribbean. It was completed in 1939 but not published in full form until 1947.

my negritude is not a stone
nor a deafness flung against the clamor of the day
my negritude is not a white speck of dead water
on the dead eye of the earth
my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral

it plunges into the red flesh of the soil
it plunges into the blaxing flesh of the sky
my negritude riddles with holes
the dense affliction of its worthy patience.

Aimé Césaire was born in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, in the French Caribbean. His father, Fernand Elphège, was educated as teacher, but later worked as a manager of a sugar estate. Eléonore, Césaire’s mother, was a seamstress. In Cahier Césaire described his childhood in a harsh light: “And the bed of planks from which my race has risen, all my race from this bed of planks on its feet of kerosene cases, as if the old bed had elephantiasis, covered with a goat skin, and its dried banana leaves and its rags, the ghost of a mattress that is my grandmother’s bed (above the bed in a pot full of oil a candle-end whose flame looks like a fat turnip, and on the side of the pot, in letters of gold: MERCI).” Césaire’s family was poor, but his parents invested in the education of their children. To faciliate the studies of their talented son, they moved Basse Pointe to Fort-de-France, the capital. Amog Césaire’s classmate at the Lycee Schoelcher in Fort-de-France was Léon Damas, who later contributed to négritude.

Césaire had excellent grades in school. At the age of 18 he went to Paris on a scholarship to continue his education. He attended the Lycée Louis-le Grand, the École Normale Supérieure, and ultimately the Sorbonne, where he studied Latin, Greek, and French literature. In 1935 he went to Yugoslavia with Peter Guberina,

During his years in Paris Césaire met other Caribbean, West African, and African American students, but the most important acquaintance was Léopold Senghor, a poet and later the first president of independent Senegal. Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache (1948) became an important landmark of modern black writing in French.

In 1937 Césaire married Suzanne Roussi; they had four sons and two daughters. Two years later Césaire moved with his family back to Martinique, where he started to work as a teacher at the Lycee Schoelcher. Among his students were Frantz Fanon and Édouard Glissant. In Haiti, where the Provisional French government sent him as a cultural ambassador, Césaire lectured on French poetry. His first play, La tragédie du roi Christophe (1963, The Tragedy of King Christophe), drew on one of Haiti’s earliest leaders, Henri Christophe.

During World War II Césaire was close with André Breton, who spent the war years in the United States and West Indies. Breton encouraged Césaire to use surrealism as a political weapon. These poems were collected in Les Armes miraculeuses (1946), Soliel cou coupe (1948, Beheaded Sun), and Corps perdu (1950, Disembodied / Lost Body). Cahier d’un retour au pays natal was described by Breton “the greatest lyrical monument of our time”.

Since the end of the war Césaire divided his time between Paris and Martinique. A member of the Communist Party, Césaire participated in political action and supported the decolonization of the French colonies of Africa. He co-founded with his wife Suzanne and other Martinican intellectuals the cultural journal Tropiques, in which he published his early poetry. In 1945 Césaire was elected mayor of Fort-de-France and he was one of the island’s deputies in the French National Assembly. Césaire resigned from the Communist Party in 1956 and depicted this decision in Lettre à Maurice Thorez (1956, Letter to Maurize Thorez). In 1958 he founded the Martinican Progressive Party.

Disappointed to government’s promises of socioeconomic improvements in Martinique, Césaire ceased to speak after 1950s in parliament and did not publish poetry for several years. However, he was active in international forums for the liberation of the Third World.

Between the years 1939 and 1955, Césaire mainly focused on poetry. His poems usually concerned with slavery, freedom, and paradise, language is distorted in opposution to the colonial French. “I am talking of millions of men who have been skillfully injected with fear, inferiority complexes, trepidation, servility, despair, abasement.” (from Discours sur le colonialisme, 1955) Césaire’s comrades in the French Communist Party attacked his linguistically difficult works for obscurity. In the 1950s he began to write more accessibly, but his international reputation was not established until towards the end of the fifties.

Césaire criticism of European civilization and colonial racism in Discours sur le colonialisme (1955) influenced deeply Frantz Fanon‘s revolutionary manifesto Black Skin, White Masks (1967), an examination of psychic, cultural and social damages inflicted by colonialism. Césaire paralles the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized with the relationship between Nazis and their victims. “People are astounded, they are angry. They say: “How strange that is. But then it is only Nazism, it wont last.” And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves: It is savagery, the supreme savagery, it crowns, it epitomizes the day-to-day savageries; yes, it is Nazism, but before they became its victims, they were its accomplices; that Nazism they tolerated before they succumbed to it, they exonerated it, they closed their eyes to it, they legitimated it because until then it had been employed only against non-European peoples; that Nazism they encouraged, they were responsible for it, and it drips, it seeps, it wells fro every crack in western Christian civilization until it engulfs that civilization in a bloody sea.”

Et les chiens se taisaient (1956, And the Dogs Kept Quiet), a story about the blacks and their humiliation, marked Césaire’s transition from poetry to drama. La tragédie du roi Christophe, the first part of his trilogy, was about an early-19th-century Haitian ruler, Henri Christophe, who faced the task of building a state after independence. In Une saison au Congo (1966, A Season in the Congo), the second part of the trilogy, Césaire dealt with the tragedy of Patrice Lumumba and his assassination. In the play Lumumba is a poet-leader who inflames the African conscience, but fails to unify his own country. The trilogy was finished by Une Tempète (1968), a radical rewriting of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Césaire portrayed Prospero, the white man, as a decadent colonizer; Caliban, the man of instinct, has a black cultural heritage, he rebels for his freedom, but fails and accuses Prospero: “Prospero, you are the master of illusion. / Lying is your trademark.” Ariel, a mulatto slave, is pressed between these opposite forces of Caliban and Prospero. Une Tempète was first published in the journal Présence africaine in 1968. Caliban’s first word is “Uhuru”, which is Swahili for “freedom”. “Call me X”, says Caliban in the 1969 text, echoing the radical voice of Malcolm X.

In 1993 Césaire retired from politics, but he remained a fervent anticolonialist, and in 2005 he refused to meet with Nicolas Sarkozy, the minister of the interior at that time. Césaire died on April 17, 2008, in Fort-de-France.

For further reading: Aimé Césaire by Gregson Davies, Abiola Irele (1997); Critical Perspectives on Aimé Césaire, ed. by Thomas Hale (1992); Aimé Césaire by Janis L. Pallister (1991); Modernism and Negritude: the Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire by A. James Arnold (1981); Aimé Césaire by Susan Frutkin (1973); Aimé Césaire by L. Kesteloot (1962) – For further information: Césaire BibliographyAimé CésaireCésaire’s Discourse on ColonialismAimé Césaire

Selected works:

  • Les Armes miraculeuses, 1946
  • Et les chiens se taisaient, 1946
  • Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, 1947 – Memorandum on my Martinique (trans. by Ivan Goll and Lionel Abel) / Return to My Native Land (trans. by Emil Snyder) / Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (trans. by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith)
  • Soliel cou coupe, 1948 – Beheaded Sun
  • Corps perdu, 1950 – Disembodied / Lost Body
  • Discours sur le colonialisme, 1955 – Discourse on Colonialism
  • Cahier díun retour au pays natal, 1956
  • Et les chiens se taisaient, 1956
  • Lettre à Maurice Thorez, 1956 – Letter to Maurize Thorez
  • Ferrements, 1960
  • Cadastre, 1961 (rev. version of Soleil cou coupé and Corps perdu)
  • Toussaint Louverture: La révolution française et le problème colonial, 1962
  • La Tragedie du roi Christophe, 1963 – The Tragedy of King Christophe
  • Une Saison au Congo, 1966 – A Season in Congo
  • Une Tempete, 1968 (first version, based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest)
  • Une Saison au Congo, 1973
  • Une Tempète, 1974
  • Euvres Completes, 1976 ( 3 vols.)
  • Moi, laminaire, 1982
  • Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry, 1983 (trans. by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith)
  • Non-vicious circle: twenty poems of Aime Cesaire, 1984
  • Lost body / Corps perdu, 1986 (illustrations by Pablo Picasso)
  • Lyric and dramatic poetry, 1946-82, 1990 (trans. by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith)
  • La Poesie, 1994

Valentine de Saint-Point , Futurist Manifesto of Lust

Futurist Manifesto of Lust


Valentine de Saint-Point

A reply to those dishonest journalists who twist phrases to make the Idea seem ridiculous;
to those women who only think what I have dared to say;
to those for whom Lust is still nothing but a sin;
to all those who in Lust can only see Vice, just as in Pride they see only vanity.

Lust, when viewed without moral preconceptions and as an essential part of life’s dynamism, is a force.

Lust is not, any more than pride, a mortal sin for the race that is strong. Lust, like pride, is a virtue that urges one on, a powerful source of energy.

Lust is the expression of a being projected beyond itself. It is the painful joy of wounded flesh, the joyous pain of a flowering. And whatever secrets unite these beings, it is a union of flesh. It is the sensory and sensual synthesis that leads to the greatest liberation of spirit. It is the communion of a particle of humanity with all the sensuality of the earth.

Lust is the quest of the flesh for the unknown, just as Celebration is the spirit’s quest for the unknown. Lust is the act of creating, it is Creation.

Flesh creates in the way that the spirit creates. In the eyes of the Universe their creation is equal. One is not superior to the other and creation of the spirit depends on that of the flesh.

We possess body and spirit. To curb one and develop the other shows weakness and is wrong. A strong man must realize his full carnal and spiritual potentiality. The satisfaction of their lust is the conquerors’ due. After a battle in which men have died, it is normal for the victors, proven in war, to turn to rape in the conquered land, so that life may be re-created.

When they have fought their battles, soldiers seek sensual pleasures, in which their constantly battling energies can be unwound and renewed. The modern hero, the hero in any field, experiences the same desire and the same pleasure. The artist, that great universal medium, has the same need. And the exaltation of the initiates of those religions still sufficiently new to contain a tempting element of the unknown, is no more than sensuality diverted spiritually towards a sacred female image.

Art and war are the great manifestations of sensuality; lust is their flower. A people exclusively spiritual or a people exclusively carnal would be condemned to the same decadence—sterility.

Lust excites energy and releases strength. Pitilessly it drove primitive man to victory, for the pride of bearing back a woman the spoils of the defeated. Today it drives the great men of business who run the banks, the press and international trade to increase their wealth by creating centers, harnessing energies and exalting the crowds, to worship and glorify with it the object of their lust. These men, tired but strong, find time for lust, the principal motive force of their action and of the reactions caused by their actions affecting multitudes and worlds.

Even among the new peoples where sensuality has not yet been released or acknowledged, and who are neither primitive brutes nor the sophisticated representatives of the old civilizations, woman is equally the great galvanizing principle to which all is offered. The secret cult that man has for her is only the unconscious drive of a lust as yet barely woken. Amongst these peoples as amongst the peoples of the north, but for different reasons, lust is almost exclusively concerned with procreation. But lust, under whatever aspects it shows itself, whether they are considered normal or abnormal, is always the supreme spur.

The animal life, the life of energy, the life of the spirit, sometimes demand a respite. And effort for effort’s sake calls inevitably for effort for pleasure’s sake. These efforts are not mutually harmful but complementary, and realize fully the total being.

For heroes, for those who create with the spirit, for dominators of all fields, lust is the magnificent exaltation of their strength. For every being it is a motive to surpass oneself with the simple aim of self-selection, of being noticed, chosen, picked out.

Christian morality alone, following on from pagan morality, was fatally drawn to consider lust as a weakness. Out of the healthy joy which is the flowering of the flesh in all its power it has made something shameful and to be hidden, a vice to be denied. It has covered it with hypocrisy, and this has made a sin of it.

We must stop despising Desire, this attraction at once delicate and brutal between two bodies, of whatever sex, two bodies that want each other, striving for unity. We must stop despising Desire, disguising it in the pitiful clothes of old and sterile sentimentality.

It is not lust that disunites, dissolves and annihilates. It is rather the mesmerizing complications of sentimentality, artificial jealousies, words that inebriate and deceive, the rhetoric of parting and eternal fidelities, literary nostalgia—all the histrionics of love.

We must get rid of all the ill-omened debris of romanticism, counting daisy petals, moonlight duets, heavy endearments, false hypocritical modesty. When beings are drawn together by a physical attraction, let them—instead of talking only of the fragility of their hearts—dare to express their desires, the inclinations of their bodies, and to anticipate the possibilities of joy and disappointment in their future carnal union.

Physical modesty, which varies according to time and place, has only the ephemeral value of a social virtue.

We must face up to lust in full conciousness. We must make of it what a sophisticated and intelligent being makes of himself and of his life; we must make lust into a work of art. To allege unwariness or bewilderment in order to explain an act of love is hypocrisy, weakness and stupidity.

We should desire a body consciously, like any other thing.

Love at first sight, passion or failure to think, must not prompt us to be constantly giving ourselves, nor to take beings, as we are usually inclined to do so due to our inability to see into the future. We must choose intelligently. Directed by our intuition and will, we should compare the feelings and desires of the two partners and avoid uniting and satisfying any that are unable to complement and exalt each other.

Equally conciously and with the same guiding will, the joys of this coupling should lead to the climax, should develop its full potential, and should permit to flower all the seeds sown by the merging of two bodies. Lust should be made into a work of art, formed like every work of art, both instinctively and consciously.

We must strip lust of all the sentimental veils that disfigure it. These veils were thrown over it out of mere cowardice, because smug sentimentality is so satisfying. Sentimentality is comfortable and therefore demeaning.

In one who is young and healthy, when lust clashes with sentimentality, lust is victorious. Sentiment is a creature of fashion, lust is eternal. Lust triumphs, because it is the joyous exaltation that drives one beyond oneself, the delight in possession and domination, the perpetual victory from which the perpetual battle is born anew, the headiest and surest intoxication of conquest. And as this certain conquest is temporary, it must be constantly won anew.

Lust is a force, in that it refines the spirit by bringing to white heat the excitement of the flesh. The spirit burns bright and clear from a healthy, strong flesh, purified in the embrace. Only the weak and sick sink into the mire and are diminished. And lust is a force in that it kills the weak and exalts the strong, aiding natural selection.

Lust is a force, finally, in that it never leads to the insipidity of the definite and the secure, doled out by soothing sentimentality. Lust is the eternal battle, never finally won. After the fleeting triumph, even during the ephemeral triumph itself, reawakening dissatisfaction spurs a human being, driven by an orgiastic will, to expand and surpass himself.

Lust is for the body what an ideal is for the spirit—the magnificent Chimaera, that one ever clutches at but never captures, and which the young and the avid, intoxicated with the vision, pursue without rest.

Lust is a force.

Entartete Kunst

Rene Depestres, an interview of Aime Cesaire at the Cultural Congress of Havana, 1967

A.C.: I don’t deny French influences myself. Whether I want to or not, as a poet I express myself in French, and clearly French literature has influenced me. But I want to emphasize very strongly that—while using as a point of departure the elements that French literature gave me—at the same time I have always strived to create a new language, one capable of communicating the African heritage. In other words, for me French was a tool that I wanted to use in developing a new means of expression. I wanted to create an Antillean French, a black French that, while still being French, had a black character.

R.D.: Has surrealism been instrumental in your effort to discover this new French language?

A.C.: I was ready to accept surrealism because I already had advanced on my own, using as my starting points the same authors that had influenced the surrealist poets. Their thinking and mine had common reference points. Surrealism provided me with what I had been confusedly searching for. I have accepted it joyfully because in it I have found more of a confirmation than a revelation. It was a weapon that exploded the French language. It shook up absolutely everything. This was very important because the traditional forms—burdensome, overused forms—were crushing me.

R.D.: This was what interested you in the surrealist movement…

A.C.: Surrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor.

R.D.: So you were very sensitive to the concept of liberation that surrealism contained. Surrealism called forth deep and unconscious forces.

A.C.: Exactly. And my thinking followed these lines: Well then, if I apply the surrealist approach to my particular situation, I can summon up these unconscious forces. This, for me, was a call to Africa. I said to myself: it’s true that superficially we are French, we bear the marks of French customs; we have been branded by Cartesian philosophy, by French rhetoric; but if we break with all that, if we plumb the depths, then what we will find is fundamentally black.

R.D.: In other words, it was a process of disalienation.

A.C.: Yes, a process of disalienation; that’s how I interpreted surrealism.

R.D.: That’s how surrealism has manifested itself in your work: as an effort to reclaim your authentic character, and in a way as an effort to reclaim the African heritage.

A.C.: Absolutely.

R.D.: And as a process of detoxification.

A.C.: A plunge into the depths. It was a plunge into Africa for me.

R.D.: It was a way of emancipating your consciousness.

A.C.: Yes, I felt that beneath the social being would be found a profound being, over whom all sorts of ancestral layers and alluviums had been deposited.

Anita Patterson, “And bid him translate: Langston Hughes’s translations of poetry from French,” by Alfred Guillaume.(Forgotten Manuscripts)(Critical essay)

African American Review
September 22, 2007
Author: Patterson, Anita

Translation, in recent years, seems to have suffered a decline in its reputation within scholarly debates. Once revered as a mark of high intellect and transcultural communication, it is now being considered in light of its broader, far more negative ramifications as a cultural practice burdened by the fraught legacy of ethnocentric nationalism and empire (Venuti 61). Recent work on translation by Susan Bassnett and others has shown that this domesticating standard can destroy the cherished uniqueness of local cultures, reminding us that nationalist pressures towards linguistic conformity in the United States, the Caribbean, and elsewhere have threatened to sap emergent writers of their individuality. At the same time, however, we should recognize the many ways that translation has also proven to be historically essential for the development of modern and modernist poetics; and that as a boundary-crossing encounter, translation is, at best, a stimulus to refreshing, new influences. A successful translation need not be an exact reproduction, or equivalence, of the text being translated; it may also involve a reinterpretation, or even invention, of other literatures for the translator’s own society and generation.

Although comparatively little has been published about Langston Hughes’s practice of translation, it is clear that it played an important role in his formation as a poet, and leads us to some surprising findings about the constellation and character of his influences. Looking closely at Hughes’s forgotten translations of poems in French–one by Louis Aragon, three by Leon Damas, and two by Jacques Roumain–we enhance our understanding of Hughes’s transnationalism, his contribution to the rise of Pan-Africanism, the volatile interplay of influences among writers of the Harlem Renaissance and other avant-garde movements in the US, Europe, and the Caribbean, and Hughes’s own emerging self-conception as a New World poet.

Our first selection, Hughes’s translation of a revolutionary poem, “Magnitogorsk,” by Aragon, raises the possibility that Hughes was influenced by French Surrealism as well as by the late Symbolist, Guadeloupean Creole poet St.-John Perse, a possibility that was once remarked by Leopold Sedar Senghor, one of the principal theorists of Negritude (Gates x). If through the practice of translation, Hughes absorbed the influence of Aragon, he would also have taken on the influences of Surrealists as well as Perse. Aragon was, after all, one of the founding members of the Surrealist group and, like other Surrealists, his poetics derived, in part, from the influence of Perse’s Eloges (“Car c’est de l’homme” 576-77). In 1933, Hughes first met Aragon and his wife in Moscow and, hearing Aragon recite his revolutionary poem “Magnitogorsk,” Hughes was inspired to translate it. Litterature internationale published the translation, Hughes’s first from French, later that year.

Aragon’s connections with Surrealism were politically fraught by the time he wrote “Magnitogorsk.” It is telling and apt that Hughes selects for translation a poem published after Aragon’s break with the Surrealist movement: Aragon joined the French Communist Party in 1927, and turned increasingly toward Marxism and socialist realism shortly after a trip to the USSR in 1931. Still, to say that Hughes’s stylistic relationship to Aragon’s Surrealism is indirect does not mean we should deny its historical role in the development of his transnational modernism. The 1930s were a time when Hughes, Aragon, and other avant-gardists were forging ties across national, racial, and cultural boundaries in a common front against the growing threat of Fascism. Furthermore, there are many reasons, in addition to the eloquent simplicity of Aragon’s style, that Hughes would have been drawn to this poem. The substitution of human for divine agency in the story of creation, Aragon’s reference to the conquest of masters, his ardent celebration of people who till the earth, and his poem’s figurative questioning of racial distinctions are all in keeping with Hughes’s worldview. Perhaps most important, Aragon’s poem shows the influence of Baudelaire, a poet to whom Hughes was, like Aragon, profoundly indebted. Baudelaire wrote numerous poems about love and dusk or “les tenebres,” as a trope that suggests the erotic beauty of blackness; and, as Hughes himself observed in a January 1926 essay published in Crisis, the image of dusk purpling to night outside his windows in Montmartre summoned up associations with Baudelaire (Essays 31).

Although Hughes’s translation is literal, for the most part, he has also made meaningful formal changes by selecting and reordering Aragon’s original. Aragon’s poem is composed of eight sections, but Hughes selected only two of these for translation. In Aragon, these two parts are titled, respectively, “Hymne” and “1930,” but in Hughes the lyrics are untitled and merged–and this conjoined form has the effect of drawing our attention to Aragon’s elaboration, and careful revision, of a quintessentially Baudelairean trope: the metaphor of blackness, the color of dusk in the village, as an evocation, not of race, but rather of the hope, ability to survive, and latent power of downtrodden working people.

Hughes’s affinities with modern French poetics are also evident in the next selections, his translation of three lyrics by Leon-Gontran Damas, a poet from French Guyana and another founding figure in the Negritude movement. Damas had close ties with Surrealism, in part through his friendship with Etienne Lero, whom he first met while they were together at the Lycee in Martinique, and who founded the Caribbean Surrealist Group at the Sorbonne. Brent Edwards and Michel Fabre have rigorously studied the rise of black internationalism in Paris during the 1920s, and Daniel Racine has described how Damas joined Hughes, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and other figures from the Harlem Renaissance in a weekly salon hosted by Pauline Nardal and her sisters in a suburb of Paris (Racine 3; Fabre 63-75; Edwards 69-185).

Hughes’s translations–“Really I Know,” “Trite Without Doubt,” and “She Left Herself One Evening”–were collected in The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949, an anthology that Hughes co-edited in 1949 with Area Bontemps. According to Alfred Guillaume, what makes these selections from Damas particularly difficult to render in English is that Damas’s lyric imagery is too idiosyncratic and clouded by personal emotion; as a result, he contends, Hughes’s renderings “bear little resemblance to the original” (5). But this assessment is a misleading overstatement since the first translation, “Really I Know,” departs only slightly from the exact wording of the original. Furthermore, when we consider this translation alongside the second selection, “Trite without Doubt,” we can see how Hughes’s English versions disclose and clarify–through the lens of Hughes’s own language and sensibility–an insight into his condition as a New World poet, which he shared with Damas. For both Hughes and Damas, the degradation and inexorable loss of ritual continuity in the New World threatened to deprive poetry, as well as religion and love, of any ritual significance or linguistic power. Taken together, the first two selections from Damas skeptically (and humorously) question the possibility of certain knowledge–knowledge that god or love exists, for example; or whether we can ever arrive at certain knowledge of another gender or an exotic culture. Both poems question whether passion and adoration have any place in the modern world. To questions such as these, the third and final selection–“She Left Herself One Evening”–provides a definitive answer. There may be no space or possibility of rituals such as courtship, but, despite or even in light of this there will most certainly be drama. Guillaume is right to say that Hughes’s translations should be considered poems that stand on their own artistic merits–but we should note how, taken together, the three poems Hughes selected for translation could be read as a unified lyric sequence.

The last two examples are Hughes’s translations of “When the Tom-Tom Beats” and “Guinea,” by Jacques Roumain, a Haitian poet and novelist whom Hughes first met briefly in 1931, and a close associate of Damas, whom Roumain met while he was at the Institute of Ethnology in Paris. Critics such as Naomi Garrett, Martha Cobb, and Carolyn Fowler have pointed out stylistic similarities between Hughes and Roumain, but we have yet to ascertain the full extent and impact of Hughes’s work, not just on Roumain but, more generally, in Francophone Caribbean regions. The points of intersection among Roumain, the Surrealist group, and Perse and his circle are numerous and varied. We know, for example, that Roumain was associated with Commune, a revue whose editorial staff included Aragon, a mutual friend of Roumain and Hughes who was instrumental in the publication of Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la rosee.

Roumain’s ardent anti-US-colonial nationalism and committed Marxist politics made his connections with Surrealism even less straightforward than those of Aragon. Gouverneurs de la rosee, the other, well-known Surrealist work that Hughes translated with Mercer Cook in 1945 and published two years later, and that was collected in 2003 in a volume of Hughes’s translations edited by Dellita Martin-Ogunsola, is virtually an anthem of Caribbean left-nationalism. In 1938, seven years after his first meeting with Hughes, Roumain would firmly reject the modernist ideal of la poesie pure, calling it an escapist “fanaticism for pure sound” that tragically isolated the poet from the people (Roumain 772-23). But there is overwhelming historical evidence that, early on in his career, Roumain creatively adapted lyric practices established by Aragon, Tzara, Breton, Apollinaire, and other avant-garde contemporaries in France. It is a testament to Roumain’s powers as a poet that he resisted assimilation and arrived at a unique, and singularly local, politically engaged lyric standpoint, while drawing on modernist forms that worked, in remarkably various and unique ways, to evoke the experience of transnational mobility and diasporic estrangement.

Readers will be less familiar with Hughes’s translations of Roumain’s poems, which were first published in a 1942 Anthology of Contemporary Latin-American Poetry, edited by Dudley Fitts, and subsequently reprinted in The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949. One likely reason Hughes singled out these poems for translation is that both show, in very different ways, Roumain’s stylistic debt to Hughes’s transnational poetics. In “When the Tom-Tom Beats,” for example, Roumain conjoins elements from Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” with the revisionist primitivism of Hughes’s “Danse Africaine,” a poem that first appeared in Crisis in August 1922, and that Rene Piquion translated into French for publication in a Haitian revue, La Releve, 11 years later. Roumain’s beating tom-tom is figuratively compared to the panting breast of a young black girl, recalling Hughes’s “night-veiled girl” who dances to the tom-tom’s low, slow rhythm; and the speaker’s assertions about knowledge of rivers, the river’s capacity to restore continuities with remote African ancestors and cultural practices, and the river’s reflection of soul, all bring to mind Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” In “Guinea,” Roumain refers to the Haitian myth of the sub-Atlantic passage to Africa, a passage that, in Hughes’s sensitive rendering, also mythologizes an exilic New World poet’s experience he shared with Hughes, namely, “the long road to Guinea,” a search for cultural origins and an ancestral African resting place that is, like death, yearned for as a home that is waiting “there,” around the very next bend of the river.

The bonds of solidarity among Hughes, Roumain, and Damas, and the cultural politics that Hughes’s acts of translation entailed, are Pan-Africanist, insofar as all three poets ardently rejected the perceptual and political constraints associated with ethnocentric nationalism and empire. But Hughes’s vast network of connections with the European avant-gardes and his lifelong concern with the poetic consequences of translation also bring to light suggestive parallels among Hughes and his high modernist contemporaries. Like Eliot and Pound, Hughes was influenced by modern French poetry at a formative, early phase of his career; like them, he was committed to transnationalism and understood the necessity of translation as a means of creating poetry that would acknowledge, and preserve, cherished, distinctively local traditions. Hughes spent a lifetime fostering intercultural dialogue, despite his knowledge of the limitations that the very nature and conditions of any given translation impose. We have him to thank for this enrichment of our self-awareness, both as translators and critics.

Works Cited

Aragon, Louis. “Car c’est de l’homme qu’il s’agit.” 1960. Honneur a Saint-John Perse. Paris: Gallimard, 1965. 576-77.

–. “Magnitogorsk.” Hourra l’Oural. Paris: Denoel et Steele, 1934.

Bassnett, Susan, and Harish Trivedi, eds. Post-colonial Translation: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Cobb, Martha. Harlem, Haiti, and Havana: A Comparative Critical Study of Langston Hughes, Jacques Roumain, and Nicolas Guillen. Washington, DC: Three Continents, 1979.

Edwards, Brent. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2003.

Fabre, Michel. From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France, 1840-1980. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993.

Fitts, Dudley, ed. Anthology of Contemporary Latin-American Poetry. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1942.

Fowler, Carolyn. “The Shared Vision of Langston Hughes and Jacques Roumain.” Black American Literature Forum 15.3 (Autumn 1981): 84-88.

Garrett, Naomi. The Renaissance of Haitian Poetry. Paris: Presence Africaine, 1963.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Preface.” Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993. ix-xii.

Guillaume, Alfred. “And Bid Him Translate: Langston Hughes’ Translations of Poetry from French.” The Langston Hughes Review 4.2 (Fall 1985): 1-23.

Hughes, Langston. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Vol. 9. Essays on Art, Race, Politics, and World Affairs. Ed. Christopher De Santis. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2002.

–. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Vol. 16. The Translations: Federico Garcia Lorca, Nicolas Guillen, and Jacques Roumain. Ed. D. Martin-Ogunsola. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2003.

–, trans. “Magnitogorsk.” By Louis Aragon. Litterature internationale 4 (1933-34): 82-83.

–, and Arna Bontemps, eds. The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1949.

Racine, Daniel, ed. Leon-Gontran Damas: Founder of Negritude. Washington, DC: UP of America, 1979.

Roumain, Jacques. Oeuvres completes. Ed. Leon-Francois Hoffmann. Paris: Collection Archivos, 2003.

Venuti, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Anita Patterson is Associate Professor of English and Director of the American Studies program at Boston University. She is author of From Emerson to King: Democracy, Race, and the Politics of Protest (Oxford UP, 1997) and Race, American Literature and Transnational Modernisms (Cambridge UP, 2008), and is currently writing a book about modernist Japonisme in the Americas.

Patterson, Anita. “”And bid him translate: Langston Hughes’s translations of poetry from French,” by Alfred Guillaume.(Forgotten Manuscripts)(Critical essay).” African American Review. African American Review. 2007. HighBeam Research. 9 Feb. 2011

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