Negritude

The literary movement, Negritude, was born out of the Paris intellectual environment of 1930s and 1940s. It is a product of black writers joining together through the French language to assert their cultural identity.

Aimé Césaire was the first to coin the word in his epic poem, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, declaring “my negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against the clamor of the day” but instead, his negritude “takes root in the ardent flesh of the soil.” Together with Césaire, Léon Damas and Léopold Sédar Senghor created poetry that would make a definition for Negritude. The best-known Negritude works from these poets were Damas’ Pigments, Senghor’s Hosties noire and Chants d’ombre, and Césaire’s Cahier. These poets were brought together in the creation of the journal, L’Etudiant noire.

L’Etudiant noire responded to similar black journals in Paris at the time. Césaire and Senghor thought the West-Indian journal, Légitime défense, was too assimilationist and they found the Nardal sisters’ journal, Revue du monde noir, too bourgeois to truly represent the French-speaking black experience. Despite being a separate tract from these journals, L’Etudiant noire would not have been possible if the Nardal sisters and Légitime défense hadn’t created an environment in Paris for black intellectualism.

The Harlem Renaissance inspired Negritude. Authors such as Claude McKay and Langston Hughes laid groundwork for black expression. Senghor, Damas and Césaire together drew influence from their work. Other artistic influences were jazz and earlier fin-de-siècle poets such as Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Baudelaire.

Negritude responded to the alienated position of blacks in history. The movement asserted an identity for black people around the world that was their own. For Césaire and Damas, from Martinique and French Guiana, the rupture from Africa through the Atlantic Slave Trade was a great part of their cultural understanding. Their work told of the frustration and loss of their motherland. For Senegalese Senghor, his works focused more on African traditionalism. In ways the assertion of each poet diverges from each other, but the combination of different perspectives is also what fueled and fed Negritude.

From a political standpoint, Negritude was an important aspect to the rejection of colonialism. Emerging at the cusp of African independence movements, Negritude made an impact on how the colonized viewed themselves. It also sparked and fed off of subsequent literary movements that were responding to global politics. Aimé Césaire and his wife, Suzanne, would become prominent Caribbean Surrealist writers, respected by the Surrealist leader, Andre Breton. One of Senghor’s books, Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie négre et malgache, included an introduction by existentialist writer, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre’s introduction, Orphée Noir (Black Orpheus), discussed Negritude as the “anti-racist racism.”

There is no clear end date to the movement, and some literary critics say that it still continues today, in any artistic expression asserting black identity.

Sources:
Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, Aimé Césaire: Collected Poetry, Trans. by Eshleman and Smith (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Lilyan Kesteloot, Black Writers in French: A Literary History of Negritude, Trans. by Ellen Conroy Kennedy (Washington D.C.: Howard University Press, 1991).

 

Contributor(s):
Micklin, Anna T.
The Evergreen State College

 

– See more at: http://www.blackpast.org/gah/negritude-movement#sthash.xpKPsCfU.dpuf

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George Schuyler, The Negro-Art Hokum

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Negro art “made in America” is as non-existent as the widely advertised profundity of Cal Coolidge, the “seven years of progress” of Mayor Hylan, or the reported sophistication of New Yorkers. Negro art there has been, is, and will be among the numerous black nations of Africa; but to suggest the possibility of any such development among the ten million colored people in this republic is self-evident foolishness. Eager apostles from Greenwich Village, Harlem, and environs proclaimed a great renaissance of Negro art just around the corner waiting to be ushered on the scene by those whose hobby is taking races, nations, peoples, and movements under their wing. New art forms expressing the “peculiar” psychology of the Negro were about to flood the market. In short, the art of Homo Africanus was about to electrify the waiting world. Skeptics patiently waited. They still wait.

True, from dark-skinned sources have come those slave songs based on Protestant hymns and Biblical texts known as the spirituals, work songs and secular songs of sorrow and tough luck known as the blues, that outgrowth of ragtime known as jazz (in the development of which whites have assisted), and the Charleston, an eccentric dance invented by the gamins around the public market-place in Charleston, S. C. No one can or does deny this. But these are contributions of a caste in a certain section of the country. They are foreign to Northern Negroes, West Indian Negroes, and African Negroes. They are no more expressive or characteristic of the Negro race than the music and dancing of the Appalachian highlanders or the Dalmatian peasantry are expressive or characteristic of the Caucasian race. If one wishes to speak of the musical contributions of the peasantry of the south, very well. Any group under similar circumstances would have produced something similar. It is merely a coincidence that this peasant class happens to be of a darker hue than the other inhabitants of the land. One recalls the remarkable likeness of the minor strains of the Russian mujiks to those of the Southern Negro.

As for the literature, painting, and sculpture of Aframericans—such as there is—it is identical in kind with the literature, painting, and sculpture of white Americans: that is, it shows more or less evidence of European influence. In the field of drama little of any merit has been written by and about Negroes that could not have been written by whites. The dean of the Aframerican literati written by and about Negroes that could not have been written by whites. The dean of the Aframerican literati is W. E. B. Du Bois, a product of Harvard and German universities; the foremost Aframerican sculptor is Meta Warwick Fuller, a graduate of leading American art schools and former student of Rodin; while the most noted Aframerican painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner, is dean of American painters in Paris and has been decorated by the French Government. Now the work of these artists is no more “expressive of the Negro soul”—as the gushers put it—than are the scribblings of Octavus Cohen or Hugh Wiley.

This, of course, is easily understood if one stops to realize that the Aframerican is merely a lampblacked Anglo-Saxon. If the European immigrant after two or three generations of exposure to our schools, politics, advertising, moral crusades, and restaurants becomes indistinguishable from the mass of Americans of the older stock (despite the influence of the foreign-language press), how much truer must it be of the sons of Ham who have been subjected to what the uplifters call Americanism for the last three hundred years. Aside from his color, which ranges from very dark brown to pink, your American Negro is just plain American. Negroes and whites from the same localities in this country talk, think, and act about the same. Because a few writers with a paucity of themes have seized upon imbecilities of the Negro rustics and clowns and palmed them off as authentic and characteristic Aframerican behavior, the common notion that the black American is so “different” from his white neighbor has gained wide currency. The mere mention of the word “Negro” conjures up in the average white American’s mind a composite stereotype of Bert Williams, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, Jack Johnson, Florian Slappey, and the various monstrosities scrawled by the cartoonists. Your average Aframerican no more resembles this stereotype than the average American resembles a composite of Andy Gump, Jim Jeffries, and a cartoon by Rube Goldberg.

Again, the Aframerican is subject to the same economic and social forces that mold the actions and thoughts of the white Americans. He is not living in a different world as some whites and a few Negroes would have me believe. When the jangling of his Connecticut alarm clock gets him out of his Grand Rapids bed to a breakfast similar to that eaten by his white brother across the street; when he toils at the same or similar work in mills, mines, factories, and commerce alongside the descendants of Spartacus, Robin Hood, and Erik the Red; when he wears similar clothing and speaks the same language with the same degree of perfection; when he reads the same Bible and belongs to the Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, or Catholic church; when his fraternal affiliations also include the Elks, Masons, and Knights of Pythias; when he gets the same or similar schooling, lives in the same kind of houses, owns the same Hollywood version of life on the screen; when he smokes the same brands of tobacco and avidly peruses the same puerile periodicals; in short, when he responds to the same political, social, moral, and economic stimuli in precisely the same manner as his white neighbor, it is sheer nonsense to talk about “racial differences” as between the American black man and the American white man. Glance over a Negro newspaper (it is printed in good Americanese) and you will find the usual quota or crime news, scandal, personals, and uplift to be found in the average white newspaper—which, by the way, is more widely read by the Negroes than is the Negro press. In order to satisfy the cravings of an inferiority complex engendered by the colorphobia of the mob, the readers of the Negro newspapers are given a slight dash of racialistic seasoning. In the homes of the black and white Americans of the same cultural and economic level one finds similar furniture, literature, and conversation. How, then, can the black American be expected to produce art and literature dissimilar to that of the white American?

Consider Coleridge-Taylor, Edward Wilmot Blyden, and Claude McKay, the Englishmen; Pushkin, the Russian; Bridgewater, the Pole; Antar, the Arabian; Latino, the Spaniard; Dumas, père and fils,the Frenchmen; and Paul Laurence Dunbar, Charles W. Chestnut, and James Weldon Johnson, the Americans. All Negroes; yet their work shows the impress of nationality rather than race. They all reveal the psychology and culture of their environment—their color is incidental. Why should Negro artists of America vary from the national artistic norm when Negro artists in other countries have not done so? If we can foresee what kind of white citizens will inhabit this neck of the woods in the next generation by studying the sort of education and environment the children are exposed to now, it should not be difficult to reason that the adults of today are what they are because of the education and environment they were exposed to a generation ago. And that education and environment were about the same for blacks and whites. One contemplates the popularity of the Negro-art hokum and murmurs, “How-come?”

This nonsense is probably the last stand or the old myth palmed off by Negrophobists for all these many years, and recently rehashed by the sainted Harding, that there are “fundamental, eternal, and inescapable differences” between white and black Americans. That there are Negroes who will lend this myth a helping hand need occasion no surprise. It has been broadcast all over the world by the vociferous scions of slaveholders, “scientists” like Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard, and the patriots who flood the treasure of the Ku Klux Klan; and is believed, even today, by the majority of free, white citizens. On this baseless premise, so flattering to the white mob, that the blackamoor is inferior and fundamentally different, is erected the postulate that he must needs be peculiar; and when he attempts to portray life through the medium of art, it must of necessity be a peculiar art. While such reasoning may seem conclusive to the majority of Americans, it must be rejected with a loud guffaw by intelligent people.

[An opposing view on the subject of Negro art will be presented by Langston Hughes in next week’s issue.]

Source: George S. Schuyler, “The Negro-Art Hokum,” Nation 122 (June 16, 1926): 662–3.

The Black Manifesto

    Manifesto. The Black Manifes

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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

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

Picasso, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon

“The masks weren’t like other kinds of sculpture. Not at all. They were magical things. And why weren’t the Egyptian pieces or the Chaldean? We hadn’t realized it: those were primitive, not magical things. The Negroes’ sculptures were intercessors… Against everything, against the unknown, threatening spirits. I kept looking at the fetishes. I understood; I too am against everything. I too think that everything is unknown, is the enemy! I understood what the purpose of the sculpture was for the Negroes. Why sculpt like that and not some other way? After all, they weren’t Cubists! Since Cubism didn’t exist… all the fetishes were used for the same thing. They were weapons. To help people stop being dominated by spirits, to become independent. Tools. If we give form to the spirits, we become independent of them. The spirits, the unconscious, emotion, it’s the same thing. I understood why I was a painter… Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that day – not at all because of the forms, but because it was my first canvas of exorcism – yes, absolutely!”

These remarks were made to André Malraux in 1937. Jack Flam, in his essay, “A Continuing Presence: Western Artists/African Art” (New York: Museum of African Art, 1994; p. 62), makes the following important observation, “Equally important, he also seems to have understood that African art was meant to be used rather than merely looked at; and used not only by its audience, but by its creator. That is, the process of making the work was meant to be conceived as an integral part of its function – as with a ‘fetish.’ The physical act of working on the Demoiselles d’Avignon seems to have been an act of ‘exorcism’ for Picasso. In fact, the Demoiselles may be the first European painting that consciously fulfilled a function like that of African sculpture.”


Jacob Lawerence

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Amiri Baraka: Lunch Poems

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