I came to Martinique to learn more about the history and culture that produced the women I am studying, through my experiences of the land- and city- and seascapes as well as my reading.  But how does one come to “know” anything about a society and geography that seems so far removed from one’s own?

I had lunch the other day with a young woman I shall call “Lucie.”  I had never met her before, but she had a summer position in the office of someone I know in Colorado.  When she heard that I was going to Martinique, she composed for me a very detailed “to do” and “to eat” list~ the kind of list that only someone who knows and loves a place can produce. Born in the Hexagon (mainland France), Lucie is the daughter of metropolitans who came to do their tours of duty in Martinique 22 years ago.  Unlike the majority of metropolitan government workers who do their “outre-mer” duty to accumulate the bonus points and return to the mainland after 2 or three years, Lucie’s parents decided to form their careers in Martinique.  Thus, Lucie was raised and received all of her education in Martinique, though she is now pursuing graduate studies in the United States.  She was inspired to learn English through listening to American music, though she received all of her primary and secondary school education at the most exclusive school in Martinique.

One of the first questions I had for Lucie was whether “békés” still exist, and if “béké” ~ a word I have usually heard spoken with contempt~ is a word still used to describe the descendents of planters who established their multi-generational wealth through the slave trade, sugar cane, and rum.  Oh, yes, she told me.  They still exist, are still called “békés,” and still control all of the wealth on the island.  There are around 5000 of these families, but they are very insular.  They own all of the grocery store chains, car dealerships, rum distilleries (all of them family businesses several hundreds of years old), and major real estate.  They all go to Lucie’s school, even if it involves a 4-hour round-trip daily commute. They go to France or Miami for their university degrees, and return to run the family businesses. They only marry each other~ even to marry a French white person would be unthinkable.  According to Lucie, they are deeply racist.

A couple of days later, I meet my first béké, in the parking lot of a friend’s apartment building.  A few days after that, while waiting for my husband to arrive at the Aimé Césaire Airport, I see a family I am sure are békés.  The man and woman, perhaps in their late sixties, have the faces of French aristocrats from 17th-century paintings, and they have the self-contained air of the wealthy.  They, like me, are waiting for someone to arrive.  As I watch them, I try to imagine they are something else:  an haute-bourgeois French couple who has bought a retirement home in Martinique, and are waiting for their children and grandchildren to arrive for their annual visit from the Hexagon.  A deposed prince and princess from a kingdom that no longer exists, in exile in Martinique. A retired French businessman and his wife.  A petit blanc with a government post.  But no, they must be békés, with that air of familiarity with the airport waiting room and stolid assurance.  They don’t seem to register the presence of anyone else in the room.

I have an unhealthy curiosity about the békés.  What would it be like to know that your fortune and status, preserved throughout centuries, was built on the exploitation of suffering of enslaved human beings~ and not to care?  To still have contempt for the descendants of those who made your fortune? To depend upon people for whom you have no respect to continue to build your wealth?

When I expressed shock to Lucie about the prices in the food stores, even for local produce, and speculated that it had something to do with an island economy, she laughed.  “It’s because the békés own all the chain stores, and between them, they set the prices.  It got so bad there was a strike against the grocery stores, but people can’t not use grocery stores, so the strike ended.”  The taxi driver who brought me to the airport on Sunday told me that it would be cheaper for a Martinican who wants a French car to fly to France, buy it there, and ship it back, then to buy it at a Martinican dealership.  Yet that’s not what Martinicans do.

I’m curious whom the cool, quietly but expensively dressed older couple is meeting. And soon I see:  a young man, perhaps fourteen or fifteen, with golden curls and very expensive luggage.  He, too, has that ease, that obliviousness, of the privileged.  The elderly couple~ they must be grandparents, are happy and relieved to see him, but the embraces are perfunctory.  I half-expect a valet to materialize to collect the young man’s Louis Vuitton matched set.  The three wait by the exit for something or someone, but there’s my José! I forget those people, who because their descendents lived in Martinique and not Guadeloupe, didn’t lose their heads in the French Revolution, when one of the revolutionaries sailed to Martinique with a portable guillotine to do the revolution’s work “outré-mer.”


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Color, Caste, and Class in Martinque: Then and…?


The focus of my research is on the early decades of the last century, but I am very curious how much has changed in Martinique on the racial front since then, and what insights a comparison between the evolution of racial relations in the United States and the French Antilles might yield.


According to the Caribbean historian Christian Filostrat, French Antillean colonial society was divided into several levels, according to caste and class. At the top were the grands blancs, or békés, the white Créoles who had made their fortunes as planters, with their wealth from sugar cane and slavery continuing through generations.  Next were the metropolitans, colonial administrators and their families who circulated between the hexagon (mainland France) and its periphery. At the bottom of the scale in white society were the petits blancs, the mostly uneducated descendants of indentured servants who worked first as overseers and other functionaries of the great plantation owners; they later became small farmers and artisans as well.  Lacking capital and status, their only asset lay in the color of their skin. (Left, a French West Indian Sugar Plantation, 1762)


Martinique imported more slaves in total than the United States did, if we don’t count slaves imported to Louisiana before the purchase. Nearly all non-white Martinicans are descended from slaves.  However, as early as the 16th century, a class emerged of mixed-race gens de couleur. It was comprised of slaves and a small number of free people who had either bought or been granted their freedom. Artisans, entrepreneurs, small landholders, or low-level bureaucrats, families in this class, after abolition, became the bedrock of the black bourgeoisie. At different points in France’s history, the gens de couleur, with their education and aspirations, either served as a useful buffer to the white French colonialists, or posed the most potent threat to the social order.  Left is a picture of Cyrille Charles Auguste Bissette, a free man of color who was elected to represent Martinique in the National Assembly, but was charged with sedition for his support of emancipation and civil rights for African-descended people, convicted, and sentenced to banishment.  Other gens de couleur were eager to keep their distance from “les noirs,” whom they considered inferior.  The largest and most powerless color/caste group on the island has always been the noirs, the black people who performed unskilled or low-skilled labor. After the abolition of slavery, the békés enticed over 25,000 Asians~ mostly from China and India ~ to work as “coolies” on the plantations alongside the “noirs.”

Keeping all this straight was a challenge, especially since whiteness had so many privileges that must be preserved for the economic and social system of the island to function.  The purity of white “blood” was an obsession with the minority white population (in 1741, over 80% of the island population was enslaved) as well as mainland France.  Things were complicated even further when after the French Revolutionaries, declaring “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité”, abolished slavery in 1794, Napoleon reinstated it in 1802 (with the full approval of his wife Josephine, who was born in the town I’m staying in now). The French economy depended on the vast pool of unpaid labor in its Antillean colonies. So starting in 1685 and continuing through several revisions until 1848, when slavery was abolished for the second and final time, French relations with African-descended people in its colonies and territories was legally structured by the Code Noir. Covering every aspect of every possible contact between whites and blacks (both slave and free)~ from religious instruction to commercial and sexual relations~ it outlined with French attention to detail that makes American Jim Crow laws look like student council rules, all black-white interracial responsibilities, duties, constraints and privileges.

The Martinican gens de couleur produced most of the Négritude writers, the surrealists, the first black writer to win the Prix Goncourt (like the Mann-Booker or Pulitzer for fiction), and the psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary, Frantz Fanon.  Though historically the gens de couleur were anxious, especially through times of French social upheaval, about being thrown back into the pit of slavery or losing their few privileges and status to be lumped in with the “blacks,” the interwar generation was the first to both interrogate and affirm their connections to Africa and combat colonialism on a global scale.


I started my day at the small but richly curated Musée Régionale de l’Histoire et l’Ethnographie.  Situated in a charming and well-preserved Créole mansion set back from the Boulevard Charles de Gaulle, the permanent exhibit is centered on a recreation of daily life in the household of a Créole de couleur family at the end of the 19th century.

As I emerged from the stairwell I was confronted by the meticulous recreation of a family in a drawing room.  It’s almost embarrassing to admit, but I had that bougie moment of satisfaction that seeing a historical representation of black people tastefully dressed in a well-appointed environment inspires. Good quality furniture, a few pieces of modest but original art, open books lying about; the mother reclining gracefully in her chair, the father comfortably paternal in his three-piece suit and mustache. For another moment, I tried to imagine what it would have been like to live in that house and its illusions of security.  But the next minute I was thinking, they are barely two generations from slavery, and the békés and metropolitans still run everything as if slavery still existed for the majority of African-descended people on the island. You could not possibly be as comfortable as you look.


The museum curators presented that tension in a wonderful way, I discovered, as I turned around to examine the opposite wall.  There was a small but resonant collection of artifacts from slavery: an oil-on-wood portrait of a prosperous and bright-looking Age of Enlightenment white man~ a ship’s captain who had made his fortune sailing the Atlantic triangle. I examined pages from packing diagrams from his ships: Africans, sugar, rum.  Pages from the Code Noir.


One hallway was devoted to the traditional dress of “mûlatresses” and black women.  Several cabinets of dolls in regional and occupational varieties of dress illustrated the various codes and symbols the women employed.  The voluminous dresses, which often mix a cacophonous palate of patterns that somehow look just right together, evoke the skirts and blouses seen in many West African cultures.


One of the methods of keeping the races distinct, even after the abolition of slavery, was to require that African-descended women cover their hair in public.  Leave it to black women to take a sign of legal and social subjugation and turn it into art.  The turbans are still an expressive and vital part of Martinican women’s dress, especially for special occasions, as several websites attest. Bright materials are intricately woven around the head, employing an entire vocabulary of meanings that convey not only status and occupation, but also romantic availability. For example:

La façon dont était noué le foulard, le nombre de pointes qui dépassait donnait des indications sur l’état du coeur de la belle. Par exemple : une pointe qui dépassait signifiait : “coeur à prendre”; deux pointes : “déjà pris” ; trois pointes : “femme mariée”.”

(The way in which the headscarves were knotted, the number of points which jutted out, gave indications of the state of heart of the beauty. For example: one point jutting out signifies: “heart for the taking” two points: “already taken” three points: “married woman”)

Unfortunately, photography is forbidden in the museum, but I have tried to find some on-line pictures that convey the sort of thing I saw. The photos here, titled “Type Créole” and “Type Créole (femme de peuple)” are from the collection of the Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer, in Aix-en-Provence, where I did research during the summer of 2009.











I was intrigued by a portrait of Jenny Alpha, the Martinican singer and actress who floats in and out of the circles I’m studying, by the French surrealist Francis Picabia (I use a reproduction of his stationery to write put notes under my students’ doors in Paris.) titled “La mûlatresse.”  I later found her just-published autobiography (she passed away just last year at the age of 100) in a bookstore down the street. She was sent to Paris by her bourgeois parents to get a teaching certificate and find a husband among the Martinican young men studying in the professional schools at the universities there, but she decided that she wanted to be a comedienne. A Martiniquaise developing a career as a comedienne in interwar France was impossible, though.  I just started reading her book while refreshing myself with a citronnade at an outdoor café, and only reluctantly put it down when my lunch companion arrived.

After 90 minutes examining the historical treasures on the first floor, I went downstairs to the temporary exhibit, an amazing history of the forests and plant-life of the island and their economic and cultural impact.  I wish that an exhibition folio had been on offer, but the little museum doesn’t even have a gift shop. It took me almost three hours to go through the museum; I was the only visitor there during the whole time.

I emerged into the brilliant, humid air churning with questions: do the békés still exist? What was it like for them to live, wealthy and powerful, but with the penumbra of the black and deprived presence all around them, and essential to their continued success? What are the current distinctions of color and caste within Martinican society? Is there an independence movement in Martinique?  I had just enough time to dip into a bookstore to look for some answers to these questions before the next item on my day’s agenda: lunch with a young woman who was raised in Martinique and is attending graduate school in the United States.  I was hoping that she would be able to give me insight into the island’s racial dynamics from the perspective of the next generation of adults.  Tomorrow~ my very thought-provoking conversation with a student I will call “Lucie, ” who is uniquely posed to view both the black and white worlds of Martinique.

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In a French Archive

Though I was reluctant to leave the comfortable and immediately familiar confines of the Bibliothèque Schoelcher, with its singing librarians, student groups clattering through, historic atmosphere and lovely smell of library binding, I needed to go to the Archives.


There are few things scarier to me than the first visit to a French archives or library.  French bureaucracy is designed to intimidate and put you in your place as a petitioner yearning for access to the treasures of a great civilization.  However, once you have gained access, the staff are always wonderful~ helpful, patient, and kind, willing to speak slowly and clearly.  Knowing that didn’t diminish the feeling of arming for battle as I packed up my book-bag last night: I forgot to get a letter from the Dean, on letterhead (the French love letterhead); I forgot to bring the little pack of photos d’identité that I always bring to France; and I didn’t have pencils (some archives don’t allow people to bring ink pens anywhere near rare documents.)


The Archives Départementales de Martinique opens at 7:30, so I rose early, and fortified by a cup of gritty coffee and miniscule container of mango yoghurt, ventured forth into yet another gorgeous day in paradise: past brilliantly cascading flowers of all colors beneath a sharply clear blue sky decorated with painterly, swollen white clouds.  The ferry, which doesn’t run on the posted schedule in the off-season, came within a few minutes, and perhaps because it was so early, was filled mostly with people obviously going to work, with their briefcases and high heels.  I sat at the front of the boat, marveling that the day could already be so humid and warm.

With a colleague’s detailed instructions, I made my way to the Aliker Terminal (the terminal is named after a courageous journalist whose investigations into governmental and béké corruption got him killed inn the 30s), and waited in the front of a lovely cemetery for bus number 26.  Along the way I saw a new neighborhood of Fort-de-France, of broader boulevards and what seemed to be 60s-era government buildings, the market at Place Paulette Nardal (the sign recognizes her as a militante and activist for Négritude, as well as a choir mistress), many small eateries diffusing lovely smells, and Martinicans moving as city people the world over do in the mornings, despite the heat.  The Number 26 came; the driver promised to let me know when he got to the Archives, and then things went downhill… literally.  Despite my attention to the intriguing scenery that passed behind the bus windows as we wound our way up impossibly steep and narrow streets, I didn’t see the Archives, and the bus driver said nothing.  When I was sure that what I was gazing at was familiar and we were definitely going downhill instead of up, I asked the driver about the Archives. Yes, we had passed them ~ they were at the top of the hill~ why didn’t I remind him?  Fortunately, I only had to walk a few minutes to a bus stop going in the other direction, and within 20 minutes I was at the Archives.


The président of the salle de lecteur examined my passport, even flipping through the pages (I wondered if she was looking for my visa, to double check that I was in the country legally, but she was looking for an address) and checking the photo against my face two or three times.  She then interrogated me about my research, and which themes and “pistes” I was following. I replied, summarizing my thesis and research methodology, apologizing as usual for my French (wondering if she might decide that it wasn’t good enough to give me permission to read their holdings~ would I have to tell her that last fall I earned a B1 in the Cadre Européen Commun de Référance pour l’apprentissage et l’enseignement des langues ?) Finally satisfied, she gave me my card, and suddenly was very friendly~ explaining that she was Haitian, and her French wasn’t very good either (with a big smile), explaining everything to me and saying if I had any questions or needed any help, to come right to her.  She seemed to be beaming approval at my project and encouragement for my efforts with both French language and feminist scholarship.


But the travails of initiation were not over yet.  Next was managing the catalogue~ looking at the mostly handwritten cards in the wooden drawers yielded nothing (the only card for Suzanne Césaire was one referring to Tropiques, and there was nothing on the Nardals or Lucie Thésée).  Next stop, the computer catalogue and figuring out which “fond” might be fruitful. The personal paper collections all seemed to belong to colonial governors and functionaries. I was briefly distracted by a collection of other 1000 vintage postcards.  OK, periodiques.  Three strikes, but three hits for my top priority periodicals. Hooray!  When I made the request through my reader’s account, the computer kept telling me that the number does not exist.  I varied the format: spaces, no spaces, slash after the year as well as before….  I had read the instructions twice and they had seemed straightforward.  The Haitian woman came to my rescue, perceiving my bewilderment from behind her counter. Of course when I read off the numbers to her and she typed them in, voilà! Triumph! I have found what I need, it appears at my desk. I’m authorized and my government-issued wand and it works.  I’m in!

And the view from my desk was lovely~ while waiting for my “demande” to be retrieved, I stood looking though louvered windows over a tree bursting with  red blossoms, over the characteristic Créole red tile roofs nestled in dense greenery, and not too far~ as it is never too far~ the blue-green bay, its horizon somehow much higher than the coastline.

The periodical I requested is called L’Etudiant Martiniquais, the journal associated with a support group for Martinican students studying in Paris in 1932. A small group of ambitious students found it hard to adjust to a cold climate and the very urban life of the metropole.

« Nous tacherons  donc que ce journal  soit comme exact miroir  où se refléterait notre vie.  Notre destin est en d ‘autre mains, pour une part, mais le destin  de cette humble feuille est tout entre les nôtres. »

(« We will attempt to make this journal an exact mirror where our life will be reflected.  Our destiny is in other hands, for the most part, but the destiny of this humble sheet of paper is totally in our own. »

No photographs are allowed in the Archives, so I can’t share with you the vision of these brittle yellow pages, nor can you hear the dynamic and hopeful voices of these university students, in Paris to study law, medicine, English literature… I had started reading the second volume when the Library closed.  It started with a copy of a letter to the Conseil General of Martinique, politely but a with a light tone (perhaps that Martinican 18th century elegance that doesn’t take oneself too seriously) inquiring why there had been no response to the previous letter asking for support for the organization.  The letter must have been lost in the bottom of a drawer, the editor speculates, for surely if Monsieur had seen this earnest plea, he would have responded.

I took the bus back to the bottom of the hill, then walked toward the docks.  I stopped by an open-air stand to have the best smoothie (made with local fruits and no sugar) that I have ever tasted. A Latin band was rehearsing across the street, and the insistent rhythms of meringue and salsa ignited the air, causing all the passersby to sway their shoulders and adjust their stride.






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On “silences,” “disappearances” and lost texts

The problems of researching black women of the past were brought home to me two years ago, when I combined a trip to a Henry James conference in Paris with a trip to the Archives d’Outre-Mer in Aix-en-Provence (I had learned about the Archives back in 2006, when a colleague also doing research in Paris told me that this was where “all the black and colonial stuff is”).  Henry James was a genius, a prolific fiction writer, essayist, critic, letter writer, and diary keeper. Jamesian scholars don’t need to wonder what volumes were in his library, what he thought of this or that contemporary, what the origins of a particular story might be.  He wrote it all down, and his friends, among whom he counted some of the most creative and significant men and women of letters in his day, preserved his correspondence, recorded their encounters and conversations.  And James, who knew that he was great, carefully curated the traces of his being for history, (The paper I presented there, “Citizens of Babylon: Henry James’s Parisian Women” was just published in April in a volume titled, Henry James’s Europe: Heritage and Transfer, Tredy, Duperray, and Harding, eds.)

But black women of the past are hard to find in archives and libraries.  Jessie Redmon Fauset (left), the most prolific novelist of the Harlem Renaissance era, does not have an archive.  Her few papers are found scattered in archives and libraries up and down the East coast, in archival boxes devoted to Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and others.  Laura Waring Wheeler, an artist who contributed many illustrations for The Crisis during the interwar years and had substantial gallery sales, has her documents, letters, programs and other archival materials in a box labeled with her husband’s name.  He has a couple of folders, one which includes an unfinished, unpublished novel, the others contain bills and the sort of things you would find in a lawyer’s private desk drawer. She has dozens.


And their work” disappears.”  Jessie Fauset was working on a novel just before her death, but no one knows where it is.  Many of her personal belongings were thrown away when a distant relative (she was childless) inherited the house she was living in before sh died.  Suzanne Césaire (right) went “silent” after publishing her essays in the surrealist journal, Tropiques, that she co-founded with her husband,  Aimé Césaire, save for a play she wrote that was performed by a youth theatre.  No one can find the play; one surviving actor remembers only his own lines (which is unusual for an actor). Suzanne Dracius, the contemporary Martinican writer, a “literary daughter” of Aimé Césaire’s, recounts her attempt to find out more about the play from the great poet and statesman:

“I reproached the great poet for never having published what his wife had written, even if only at the publishing house Présence africaine where, rather, it existed-a play by Suzanne Césaire of which only the title remains: Youma, aurore de la liberté. The great man had no memory of it. I put the question to him frankly: What happened to the text of that play? Why wasn’t it published? In a very small voice, the great man told me that at the time, it was very difficult, for a woman, to be published. It did me no good to speak to him about de Beauvoir, who had come, at the very same time, into that France of the beginning of the twentieth century, with the help and support of Sartre, certainly, with greater difficulty and much later than Sartre, perhaps, but even so, with success. . . . From all evidence, what was good for Simone was not good for Suzanne.

“Couples are not all alike, all couples do not have the same pacts. Not all couples are safe from ‘contingencies.’

All women belong to the “second sex” but all don’t write Le deuxième sexe. Moreover, the problems, for a Martinican woman, a woman ‘of color,’ a ‘daughter of the islands,’ are doubtless increased. The play had been performed at the beginning of the 1950s, but never published, and its text had been lost, mysteriously.

When I evoked that play, its title, Youma, aurore de la liberté, Césaire was beset by punctilious memories. For his part, he remembered, not Suzanne Césaire, as one might have expected and as I had wished, but Lafcadio Hearn, since the play by Suzanne, his wife, was a theatrical adaptation of the novel by Hearn entitled Youma (1890),,, The conversation continued about Lacadio Hearn’s Youma, losing sight of Youma, aurore de la liberté, Suzanne Césaire’s play that I wanted information on because it intrigued me. How did Suzanne renew that theme ([a black nursemaid saving her white charge from a fire] with respect to the master/slave, and, in this case, the specific relationship joining the black nanny to the white child? What new contributions did she make?  If you go by the title, the addition of ‘aurore de la liberté’ [‘dawn of liberty’] to Suzanne Césaire’s play to the simple eponymous title promises to emphasize the beginnings of the emancipation of slaves more than the servile devotion of the “da” saving a little béké4 from the fire. That is what I was burning to know. Césaire didn’t remember. He stopped smiling, furrowed his brows. Césaire could no longer hear very well. You had to shout for him to understand, bending very close to his ear. He assured me that he did not remember. He was eager to pass on to another topic.”

Suzanne Césaire’s published oeuvre consists of seven essays that appeared in Tropiques. Despite their small number, the essays are powerful and prescient. Informed by an indigenous surrealist aesthetics, Nietzsche, Frobenius, and others, her work embodies an  unprecedented way of thinking about place, identity, and resistance to fascism and other tyrannies.  To read S. Césaire is to encouter a new way of seeing and being. When discussing the question of Suzanne Césaire’s literary “silence,” most people talk about the six children and the difficulties of being married to a national monument.  The Guadeloupan poet and novelist Daniel Maximin has another idea:

“Au fond, peût-être le secret du silence  si tôt advenu de Suzanne Césaire tient-il a ce que la feu cannibale de ses écrits a pu consumer son être, son visage “de cendre  blanche et de braise,” brulant de sa capacité de refus et d’engagement corps et âme, en allée jusqu’où l’écriture ne puisse plus suivre.”

Here a quick and literal translation that does not do justice to the beauty and passion of Maximin’s original:

“At the bottom of it, maybe the secret of Suzanne Césaire’s silence that came so early is due to this cannibalistic fire of her writing that could have consumed her being, her face ‘of white cinders and embers’, blazing with its capacity of refusal and engagement of body and soul, perhaps along a path leading to where writing can’t follow.”

Suzanne Césaire, at the age of 47, divorced her husband.  She died three years later of a brain tumour.

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An anxious eye

I saw, for the first time today, an imposing and oddly shaped mountain that hovers over Fort-de-France.  How did I miss it?  It is huge and abrupt and weirdly shaped. Like Mount McKinley, it is shrouded by dense, swollen clouds most of the time. When I was able to see the mountain briefly during the ferry crossing, its presence changed the proportions of the landscape.


Because my work is historical and comparative, everything I see in the streets and in the landscapes is filtered through the lens of the past and my comparisons to the American experience. I’m very aware that I am in a society shaped definitively by slavery and colonization.  Yet are Martinicans any more bound by the past than African Americans?  An American woman told me, “Martinicans think they’re French.”  I told her, “They are French.” How would she respond to a foreigner telling her that she wasn’t “really” American, that she is African? Both African Americans and Antilleans emerged from the “New” World (“new”, of course, to the Europeans and Africans, not to the Caribs and other indigenous people who had inhabited that side of the Atlantic for centuries). Africa is a dream to us, who are now more than three centuries removed~ “Africa? A book one thumbs/
Listlessly, till slumber comes.”


I am “reading for” Africa as I treat the streets of Fort-de-France as a text.  The enormous~ to American eyes~ numbers of interracial families, both tourist and, apparently, native. More black woman/white man combinations than one sees in the States~ and not Halle Berry black women~ women with natural hair who are “traditionally built.” The many deeply black-skinned, long-legged people who “look” African. The African rhythms in Creole. But I am also “reading for” France: the young men in the outrageous hip-hop gear who, when they discover that they are blocking my passage on the narrow, deteriorating sidewalk, say sweetly, “Ah, excusez-moi, madame” and move quickly and gracefully out of the way.  The outrageously priced French products in the grocery store~ candy bars and muesli that are bargains in Paris, even with the exchange rate, are priced as luxuries here. The baguettes and patisseries viennoises. Everyone saying “bonjour” as they enter the waiting area at the ferry dock. Yet what I have seen so far is not the “France in the Caribbean” that the guidebooks promised~ no grand boulevards and outdoor cafés.  And I am reading for “the US”:  the rap that thunders relentlessly from most of the cars.  The extravagant interpretation of hip-hop gear on most of the young men.  The McDo, sitting prominently on the dock, promising “McFlurry avec chocolat Cadbury.”  The “NBA Déoderant” in the grocery store.  Though I haven’t seen a Starbucks yet.


Aimé Césaire was mayor of Fort-de-France for 50 years.  His face greeted me at the airport, and a huge banner of his face and words hangs behind the statue of the revered Schoelcher in front of the old Palais de Justice (now an arts center). France, I hear, wants his remains in the Panthéon in Paris (the Panthéon had an homage to him when I was there last fall~ two huge banners draping the front of the building) but his family says he would never want to be there.  But the sidewalks are deteriorating and the newspapers I’ve been reading say that violent crime is a major problem.  I read a report in day before yesterday’s paper of a demonstration of Christians against violence in the city. There were dozens of demonstrators, all wearing white shirts. People say not to go through the Savane even during the day, though it is a vast park full of wonderful plants and flowers. The guidebooks assure the reader that no one goes out at night in Fort-de-France~ the bourgeoisie retires to their lovely homes and the city closes down.


The tourist of 6 days says, “Why, father of Négritude, does your city look so shabby?  From what I have seen, not much changed from the city described so damningly in your great opus, LE Cahier?” Of course I’m being as bad as those European explorers who would see a tiny patch of a new land and draw all sorts of conclusions about the people and society of that country.  I’m looking for the Fort-de-France of 1900-1950~ another century, and generations.


When I’m not frantic about a bus stop or a book request, I can speak French. When I’m frantic about a bus stop or a book request, I say all the wrong words, knowing they are wrong even as they pass my lips. I start every conversation with apologies for my French (“Je suis enseignant- chercheur~ je peux lire mais je ne peux pas parler”), but then my interlocutor looks amused and says, “But you do speak French. You are speaking French. If I could speak English the way you speak French I would be very happy. Your family is from Martinique.”   I can chit-chat.  I can say what I want on my sandwich.  I can complain to the cab company that I have been waiting for almost an hour at the cab stand and I may as well walk, although “je viens de faire mon shopping et je suis une vieille femme.”  Words are now drifting through my brain in French instead of English.


I have only been here just under a week, but I am trying to keep my eyes open.  A tourist is always “reading for”.  I only have three weeks here; one week is almost gone, and I am still a beginner, a tourist, trying to align what I see with what I have read. The city is my text, along with the books I am trying to read, to photograph, to copy, in the Antilles Room at the Schoelcher. I already know that I will need to come back, to read the books and newspapers and letters that I can’t possibly get to during this visit, and to read the streets, the people, the land- and seascapes that I can only get a taste of.  All that I am not seeing is humming around me, looming over me, like the invisible mountain over Fort-de-France.



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Paulette Nardal, une femme “evoluée”

Paulette Nardal was born in Martinique in 1896, the eldest of 7 sisters.  Her father was the first black engineer in Martinique, but the racism of colonial society prevented him from having a job title that reflected the work he actually did for the island and the French government.  Paulette and her sister Jane were among the first of a small group of Martiniquaises who went to Paris to earn university degrees between the wars.  Nardal earned  a degree in English, and although her dissertation was on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Nardal was among the first to call for scholarly studies of African American and other black literatures.  She wrote for Aimé Césaire’s paper, L’Etudiant Noir, and later co-founded a newspaper~ La Dépêche Africaine and La Revue du Monde Noir. Her work in all of these publications reflected her interest in exploring black culture in a global context.  The Dépêche had a page devoted to events in North and Latin America, while the Revue was bilingual (French and English) and played a major role in introducing francophone writers to the work of American writers such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. In the first issue of La Revue du Monde Noir, Nardal expressed the goals of the publication:

“To study and make known by the voice of the press, books, conferences and courses of study, everything that concerns the BLACK CIVILIZATION and the natural riches of Africa, the homeland thrice sacred to the black race.

To create between Blacks the world over, without distinction of nationality, a intellectual and moral bond which permits them to know each other better, to love each other fraternally, to defend more effectively their collective interests and to represent their Race…

We stand and will always stand for PEACE, WORK, AND JUSTICE through LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY.”

La Dépêche was closed down by the French government (which had originally given it some funding) over concerns that it was becoming too radical, especially after Marcus Garvey’s organization shared office space with their editors.  The Revue, which was independent of external funding,  lasted only a year, finally closing down due to financial pressures.

In 1931, the French government commissioned Nardal to write a guide to Martinique.  The Guide is in the rare books collection of the Bibliothèque Schoelcher. I asked permission to photograph each page, and it was granted immediately. The librarian even asked if I had my own camera, as if he were ready to lend me one if I did not. The library closed at one on Wednesday (I had thought the fermature was at 1:30), and I of course worked up to the last minute~ when I looked up, the librarian was gone and the office lights were out, and I had a rare book in my hands. I waited for someone to return, but the staff was eager to begin their celebrations of Bastille Day, so I hid the book far back on the librarians’ computer keyboard, rolling it carefully under the desk. When I saw the librarian downstairs making for the door I , told him, “J’ai caché le trésor Nardal” and made him come back upstairs with me.  He took the little book  out of my hiding place, and tossed it on the top of a hodgepodge of books stacked on a bookshelf.

Scholars have speculated why Nardal took this assignment from the French government, especially after the tensions associated with La Dépêche Africaine. My guess is that they paid her well, and that it enabled her to do something positive for the island~ her book details not only its sights, but its history, economy, culture, and peoples~ while promoting what was at the time a potential new source of revenue for the island: tourism. Other authors wrote the entries for Guadeloupe, Guyane, and St. Pierre-Miquelon.

Here’s a sample from the opening page of the guidebook. I have provided the original, for you francophiles, and my own off-the-top-of-my-head literal translation.

1. Avant-propos

Le Martinique ! Ce nom aux claires syllables, évoque tout un passé brillant : suprématie de la petite île qui, au XVIII s., devint le ch.-1 des Antilles.  On disait alors : les seigneurs d’Haiti, les messieurs de la Martinique et les bonnes gens de la Guadeloupe. A cette époque fleurient dans l’Ile aux Fleurs les grâces d’un siècle brillant et policé dont on peut retrouver un écho affaibli chez les actuels habitants de l’Ile aux Fleurs.  Manieres un peu désuètes. Vieille politesse française. Légére précosité de la musique et de la danse. Recherche du costume. Expressions vieillies.  Souvenirs galants ou aimables. Lent et doux parler.(Martinique! This name of clear syllables evokes a brillant past: the preeminence of the little island which, in the XVIII century, became the first chapter of the Antilles.  One used to say: the lords of Haiti, the misters of Martinique and the good people of Guadeloupe. In this epoch the graces of a brilliant and orderly century flourished on the Isle of Flowers in which one can recognize a weak echo in the present inhabitants of the isle. Manners a little old-fashioned. Old-style French politeness. A light precocity in music and dance. A sense of style. Old-people expressions. Relics of gallantry or considerateness. A slow and sweet way of speaking.) (Note to my colleagues in the field: These photos are from the copy of the Guide held by the Archives d’Outre-Mers in Aix-en-Provence~ I photographed only the cover and title pages, and due to lack of time, transcribed the passages I thought most significant at the time.  Of course, since my visit to Aix, I’ve discovered that the whole book is important to my project, so photographed every page of the volume here in Fort-de-France.)

After the second World War, when Martinique became a “département”  (state) of France and French women (including those in Martinique and other “outre-mers” (overseas) départements) got the right to vote, Nardal founded a Catholic women’s group~ Rassemblement Féminin~ and was both the director and editor of its newletter, La femme dans la cité. The group focused on encouraging women to vote and be civically engaged while addressing the dire problems facing Martinican families at the time: high infant mortality rates, rampant illness due to unsanitary conditions within and outside of the home, and work conditions not terribly different from those of slavery. The Rassemblement Féminin focused its efforts on persuading women of the importance of getting to the ballot box (exasperated by Martinican women’s political apathy, Nardal wrote several jermiads in her newsletter about voting, including “De la paresse intellectuelle”/”Intellectual laziness”) and what we would now call “domestic science”~ running workshops on infant nutrition, hygeine, and other domestic knowledge.

When in France, Nardal and her sisters held salons in their apartment in the Parisian suburb of Clamart, where artists, students, writers, musicians and other intellectuals from throughout the black diaspora met to discuss the future of “La Race,” sing (all of the Nardal sisters were talented musicians), and drink tea (there are reports that no alcohol was served chez Nardal, so the men often went out to a bar together afterwards).  In 1937, Nardal worked for a time in Senegal with her friend the Négritude poet and later first president of a free Senegal, Léopold Sedaar Senghor, rallying resistance to  the invasion of Ethiopia.

A fierce and untiring feminist, a devout Catholic, an energetic writer, editor, and translator, Nardal never married.  From her compassionate portrait of a Martinican domestic worker living unhappily in Paris (“En Exile”) to her efforts to promote knowledge and appreciation of Antillean culture to her multi-faceted efforts to facilitate conversations about race across cultural, national, and linguistic borders, Nardal’s work still resonates today.

There is a Place named after her in central Fort -de- France.  The street sign reads:  “Paulette Nardal 1896-1985. Active militante de la Negritude et du Negro-spirituals. Crée de chorale “joie de chanter.”



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Adjustment of Vision

I’ve noticed something strange about the way I see things here.  Objects that I assume are large and far away are small and close by. An apartment building that the caretaker pointed out to me as a landmark for the boat landing looked as if it were a 45-minute walk, not barely 20. The cathedral spire in Fort-de-France, viewed as the ferry approaches, seems a massive presence over the city~ but it is a block and a half from the dock  and the size of a small American church.  Although I came in on a tiny propeller jet from San Juan, Air France and Air Caraibe 380s  are constantly flying low over the bay, looking like illustrations that wandered in from another book.  Why do my eyes  play these tricks?  It is as if I haven’t learned to see Martinique, haven’t scaled my Western-state  American lens to the appropriate perspective.


Today was my first full working day.  I rose around 6, had one of those miniscule French yogurts and resisted the temptation to have a second (they are what the French consider “one serving”), packed up my book bag (the Michelin guide suggests never wandering Fort-de-France alone, only traveling the edges of the great public park, the Savane, and being vigilant about rampant crime~ hadn’t heard any of that from my professor friends and colleagues who have done research here) against both rain and pickpockets, and headed out to the ferry.  It was raining lightly, and the world smelled new.


The few blocks I saw of Fort-de-France today surprised me on many levels.  First, I stopped by the famous Saint-Louis cathedral on the way to the Bibliothèque Schoelcher.  It is a beautiful example of Creole architecture, both inside and out: the filigree woodwork, the bright colors.  But the exterior looked terrible~ peeling paint and wood. I assumed that it was undergoing renovation, but it was not.  The second surprise was all the activity within the cathedral~ although it was a little after 9, I thought perhaps a mass had just ended or was about to begin. But no, during my 20 minutes or so in the cathedral dozens of devout people came in to light candles or say prayers and then go on to the rest of their day.  There were both men and women praying, and they were of all ages. Later in the morning, I would be reading about the fierce rivalry between two feminist groups~ Paulette Nardal’s Catholic Rassemblement feminin”, which attempted to « connaître les problèmes sociaux concernant la famille, la profession, la cité ; étudier leurs solutions à la lumière de la doctrine sociale catholique » (know the social problems concerning the family, work, the civic sphere [citizenship~ women had just gotten the vote when she founded the group] ; to study their solutions in the light of Catholic social doctrine » and the communist feminist group, the Union de Femmes Martinique.  The agendas of both groups were almost identical : working for women’s equality in all realms of Martinican life, but the communist organization felt Nardal’s organization a threatening bourgeois group that used their domestic education programs as a means of training their maids.

Next, I stopped by the famously beheaded and paint-blood bespattered statue of the Empress Josephine, who was born in the village where I’m staying (Suzanne (Roussy) Césaire, one of “my” surrealists and the wife of Aimé Césaire, was also born in Les Trois-Ilêts)) and continues to be both a source of pride and resentment for Martiniquais.


In à la française mode, I thought it best to stop to prendre un café at a little place just before the library.  Then, I walked up to the Bibliothèque Schoelcher, and knew the moment that I stepped inside that I would love working here.  The original building was erected in Paris in 1899, where it won numerous architectural prizes, and then transported and rebuilt, brick by brick, windowpane by windowpane, in Fort-de-France, to house the library of the much-revered white French abolitionist, Victor Schoelcher.  As I walked over the still bright floor tiles and was hit by that wonderful bookbinding smell that all libraries used to have, I was confronted by an exhibit of a woman who was a poet, teacher, and leader of the UFM, Solange Fitte-Duval .  Born in 1920, most of her career is after the period I am studying, but I had never heard of her, and the exhibit, which detailed her youth, her poetry, her activism, and her private life (she is still alive) was fascinating, and set the tone for my labors for the rest of the day.


I won’t bore the non-scholars among you with the details of the challenges of finding traces of women’s lives in library and archival catalogues, but I’ll only say here that I had a very productive day, reading a documentary history of Martinican women from the era of the Caribs to the present day, produced in 2008 by the Departmental Archives. I read it cover-to-cover, and got several fruitful leads.  I’ll spend the rest of the week looking at periodicals and searching for information about two of my most elusive women.


There was only one other scholar in the Antillean Collection reading room~ a woman~ and two library workers who were singing (yes!) and chatting for almost two hours before one went off duty.  They were both very nice to me, though, helping me find things and not charging me for photocopying.  It rained on and off throughout the day~ I got up once in a while to look at the large wet palm leaves outside the window while stretching my legs, and packed up shortly before four.


I wandered back to the dock through narrow streets lined with cheap clothing boutiques. I saw only three white people, even when I stopped for a quick look at an arts center that is now housed in the old Palais de Justice.  I’ll write more about Fort-de-France when I have seen more of it, but for now, I will say this:  it demonstrated what I have read about contemporary Martinique: it is black and poor.  Since slavery, Martinique, though first a French colony and then, since 1946, a “department” or state,  has been overwhelmingly black~ at the end at the 18th century, over 89% of the island population was of African descent.  On another but related note, I heard English for the first time since I arrived here~ there are many tourists in Les Trois-Ilêts but Americans don’t come here.  A Latina and her son were touring the gallery at the art center. My cab driver says the only Americans come in on the huge cruise boats during the winter months and dash into Fort-de-France for an afternoon.


As I walked back up the hill to my apartment, I saw the family to whom I had surrendered my window seat.  The woman is very dark-skinned, with natural hair. Her husband looks a little like a beefier, younger Julian Bond.  Many Americans would assume he is “white.” Their children are blonde. I wonder if the notoriously finely calibrated color/caste metrics are still alive on this island as they were during the period I am studying.  Next week, I’ll be getting together with the mother of some friends as well as meeting some friends of colleagues at the university, I hope, so perhaps I’ll learn more. Just as in Paris, people assume I’m a Martiniquaise until I open my mouth.  The airport cabdriver inquired, in a way that sounded more like an observation than a question, whether my family was originally from Martinique, then asked where I learned to speak French, then.  Both African Americans and Martinicans are here in “the West” thanks to slavery; why do some Americans assume that Martinicans are less “French” than African Americans are American? Is it that Créole culture has persisted?  The Créole voices I hear, especially from the men, sound so African to me.  “Martinique is French, Guadeloupe is African”, several people have told me in the last couple of weeks. To me, what little I have seen of Martinique has a strong African flavor. Perhaps I would see more of the remnants of Africa in the American South.


I relax on the balcony terrace, dining on a baguette tuna fish sandwich washed down with a glass of 2 euro rosé while watching darkness drape itself over the bay (“night coming on tenderly/black like me”) and catching up with my internet word games.  Yes, Eve, those Caribbean frogs are here, animating the velvety night air with their hollow-wood xylophone voices.  I’ve been reading Glissant and articles from Tropiques before falling asleep.  I look forward to my dreamlife here.  Glissant is right: realism doesn’t work in the Caribbean. My eyes need to adjust if I am to learn anything.



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“A stranger, and alone!”

Now that my children have flown the nest, my husband is working two jobs, and my research is taking me to unfamiliar places where they speak French, at least a couple of times a year I find myself in a moment just two breaths away from panic:  What am I doing here, a middle-aged woman with poor eyesight and poorer French? Sometimes that moment happens in front of a microfiche machine that isn’t working, or in front of a French bureaucrat asking the classic French bureaucrat’s question, “Well, Madame, what would you have me do?”.


Today it happened at a moment as I was wandering around the Martinican village of Trois-Ilêts, with a map that seemed to have no relation to the streets that I was seeing, and directions to a grocery store from people who have no idea that being in a car and walking changes not only your perspective but the landscape itself.


The plan for the day had been simple enough: although I was tempted to jump on the ferry (once I found it) and start browsing through the catalogue at the Bibliothèque Schoelcher, it made more sense to get breakfast; find a grocery store (my dinner last night had been two digestive crackers from the hotel in Liverpool, half a chocolate chip cookie from an airport meal a couple of days ago, and a cup of unsweetened, unmilked tea); get a ferry schedule; and orient myself. I would spend the afternoon writing my first blog post and going through the material I had brought with me to develop a research plan of action that was a little more focused than looking up “my” women’s names in the catalogue.


I had found the beach, I had found a boulangerie, I had found breakfast. I had found one ferry landing, but the schedules were not frequent there~ a young man said that the other embarkation~ Pointe du Boue~ had more frequent passages. I had asked for directions from the kind woman in the sandwich shop where I had happily found breakfast and a newspaper, and all seemed clear.  I started walking. And walking. And walking.


And suddenly, it seemed very, very hot and very, very humid and I felt very, very alone.  I thought of all the other people who had been at the airport, being picked up by friends and family or air-conditioned megabuses that brought them to their air-conditioned resorts while I, after inquiring about alternatives to the wallet-busting 60 euro cab ride (“J’ai entendu qu’il y a des petits auto busses…?”), and all the people around me now with cars who obviously knew where they were going, who could drive the 15 minutes to the Carrefour near the roundabout and get everything they needed without having to calculate what they could carry 45 minutes up a steep hill in what felt like 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity.  I missed my husband, who would be joining me in 2 weeks (with a rental car), and my daughter, who is my perfect travel companion but couldn’t take time from work to come with me.  I wondered if it was a sign of cardiac weakness that I simply had to sit down.


Luckily, this low point didn’t last long (they never do). A few quiet moments on a park bench, staring between two graceful palm trees across the bay to Fort de France, inspired me to tell myself in wonder, “I can’t believe I’m here!”  How delicious the sea breeze felt against my uncharacteristically perspiring skin, how stunning the scenery was, yet I also felt the presence of the thousands of slaves who had labored~ many until death~ to satisfy Europe’s taste for sugar in conditions far more intolerable than my own little tourist discomfort. “I can’t believe I’m here”~ in Aimé Césaire’s world~ in the village where Suzanne Roussy, the surrealist writer who became his wife!~ was born ~ where the heroine, if you could call her that, of “Je suis Martiniquaise” rode her horse from her village of Carbet from Fort de France~ where almost 100 years ago young students railed against “the coloured bourgeoisie” for being brainwashed into considering themselves Frenchmen~ and now impeccably groomed young men with skin the color of plums wear American hip-hop gear that somehow doesn’t look American on them.  Martinique~! A world of unfamiliar histories, stories, and lives lived, that I can only glimpse. But how tantalizing are these glimpses! I feel the exultation~half fear, half wonder~that Langston Hughes described when he landed penniless, knowing no one, in the dead of a Parisian winter: “But here I am in Paris, a stranger and alone!” It is a lovely thrill that I’ve sought in Paris as well as on the Perfume River in Vietnam.


A young woman told me that it would be easier, without a car, to take a bus to the village of Riviére Salée, as there was a bus stop right by the supermarket.  And just as in a Green World play, here is the bus right now, air conditioned and only a euro twenty and yes, it stops right across the street from a Leader Price.


I go into my traveling weight-loss mode.  Despite eating wonderful food when I’m in France, I always lose a pound or two because I can’t load up the car with whatever looks tempting or is on sale and I always have to carry groceries upstairs. My last two Parisian apartments were on the sixth and seventh floors; my Trois-Ilêts rental is not only on the top floor, but the apartment building sits on a steep hill. Lettuce, eggs, yogurt, butter, pasta, and a bottle of wine; I forgo the block of cheese, sugar, a candy bar, anything canned, even the tuna fish, which is a staple of my diet. The Atkins diet this isn’t, but if I could ever stay in a Francophone country long enough, I’m sure I’d be thinner.


The place on the opposite side of the street where I descended the bus is not marked as a bus stop, and I suspect that the driver let the mother and her children off right across the street as a courtesy.  I ask a municipal worker sitting at a truck where the stop is, and he offers to drive me the half-mile or so to it. The Martinicans whom I have encountered in my first 24 hours have the French politeness but with a warmth I don’t see in Paris. Perhaps because I’m not in a city, and I’m a stranger of a certain age by herself, people are very helpful.


While waiting in the bus shelter, a ginger-bready “Creole-style” hut, I witness one of those brief, intense, vertical tropical rains that I have read are characteristic of Martinique in July.  It seems to come from only one cloud~ around the cloud is sunshine and cumulus. After about 12 minutes, as if someone closed a faucet, the rain just stops.  It is sunny, but now cooler and steamier.


The bus arrives, and I ask the driver if I could get off at a stop just before the Pointe de Boue.  Finding the correct stop for me becomes the project of the entire little bus, and hooray~ I can get off (though it is not a real stop), right at the foot of the hill road that leads to my apartment.


So ultimately, the morning has gone well.  “What luck~!” as Lily Bart would say: the right bus just appears the moment you learn of it, the rain comes as you wait for the return bus, but the sun comes out for your walk up the hill. And across the bay are an enormous library, and an archives full of pages where Paulette and Suzanne and Lucie pressed their wrists and their pens as they asked and exhorted and dreamed and explored and crossed the Atlantic and came back.


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I had given up my window seat to allow a family to sit together, but looking past the woman next to me who was fingering her rosary as our propeller plane tilted sharply, I could see the precipitous green mountains of Martinique rising from a glittering Caribbean Sea.  For the first time, I am visiting the “pays de revenants” (“land of those who return”) a bit of land (1100 square kilometers with a population close to that of Colorado Springs) that has figured so prominently in my recent research and teaching.  Not only will I be hearing the voices, through their letters and both published and unpublished writings, of the women I am studying, but I will also be exploring Martinique’s unique history and culture, trying to gain an understanding of the island that gave birth to the first black pride anti-colonial movement, yet remains, according to the Martinican writer and philosopher Edouard Glissant, “an example of an extreme case of historical dispossession in the Caribbean.. caught between the fallacy of the primitive paradise, the mirage of Africa, and the illusion of a metropolitan identity.”


For the last couple of years, I have been studying the relationship between the work of African American and Antillean women during the modernist era~ the early decades of the twentieth century.  I have focused my study on women who lived, worked, and studied in Paris at key points in their careers because Paris was the most important nodal point of the black diaspora during the modernist era.  Paris has always shown a multiplicity of faces to the black people who migrated to, were transported to, or aspired to sojourn there.  Before the twentieth century, there had been black people in France aside from slaves and former slaves who had successfully petitioned for their liberty – these included genuine and faux African princes, students from the Francophone United States seeking an education forbidden to them in their native country, parliamentary representatives of colonial possessions, and bourgeois tourists in search of self-improvement. However, the participation of thousands of soldiers from the United States, West Africa, and the Antilles in the war “to keep the world safe for democracy” and French popular and avant-garde interest in black forms of cultural expression marked a new chapter in the history of black people in France.  African American veterans returned to the United States with renewed determination to fight for their citizen rights at home after experiencing the social and educational freedoms in France.  France seemed to African American as well as other artists to be a realm of social liberty and creative possibility.  For black citizens and subjects of France, Paris represented an intractable and often cruel imperial power, while for many African Americans, post-World War I France represented, in W. E. B. Du Bois’s words, “the only real white democracy,”  with its proud proclamation of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” Yet even as Langston Hughes could exalt, as a young artist at the French border, “I was in France.  La Frontiére! La France!  The train to Paris.  A dream come true”, he could also, in a poem called “Cubes” that was prompted by an encounter with a Senegalese man “on the boulevards of Paris” observe that the African’s presence in Paris is “the old game of the boss and the bossed” and that “since it is the old game/For fun/They give him the three old prostitutes of France—/Liberty, Equality, Fraternity—/And all three of ‘em sick.”


During the interwar years, Paris was an arena for black cross-cultural, transnational, and interlingual communication.  In cafés, salons, cabarets and classrooms, black people from all over the world encountered each other.  Add to that potent mix the fact that “the Negro was in vogue,” from Josephine Baker to Picasso’s interest in African masks to surrealists’ fascination by “the primitive”, and that a new generation of students from France’s overseas possessions were raising radical questions about their intellectual, psychological, and political relationship to “the mother country” and, like other modernists, how one expresses these new questions in new aesthetic forms, and one has the makings of one of the most exciting eras in black history.


In the late twenties and thirties, for the first time, a small group of women from the French Antilles joined the young men who crossed the Atlantic to earn degrees at the best French universities. For the next two weeks, I’ll be learning more about who these women were.  All of them were writers and activists for social justice. Some were Catholic, some were Marxists and/or surrealists. A couple of them never married or had children; one had six.  One died while she was still at university; two seem to have simply vanished from the public record after publishing prominent work.  One was a journalist and editor who also led a world-renowned choir, worked with Eleanor Roosevelt on global women’s issues and wrote a guidebook to Martinique. Her sister  went to work in Africa. Another was a surrealist essayist, reviewer, and editor who married the most significant artist and politician of Martinique.  One left only a novel, dedicated to her “African grandmothers,” as a witness to her existence.  They were poets, novelists, journalists, anthropologists, translators, teachers. Some were active in party politics, others looked to art and culture to do political work.  They all considered themselves modern women on the frontiers of the future.


Paulette Nardal. Suzanne (Roussi) Césaire. Jane Nardal. Roberte Horth. Lucie Thésée. Suzanne Lacascade. Andrée Nardal. Their work, from their individual perspectives and interests, taken together raises still pertinent questions about gender, racial identity, liberation, and how art confronts and articulates what it means to be modern and free  Like their African American sisters to the north, these women were confronting the legacies of slavery along with an unfurling future that promised new opportunities and challenges for women of African descent in the “New World.”


During the next three weeks, thanks to a generous grant from the Humanities Executive Committee at Colorado College, I’ll be trying to learn more about these women and the world from which they emerged and the world they sought, each in their own way, to be changed by their work.  I’ll not only be searching for them in libraries and archives, but also in the landscapes, streetscapes, plantations, museums, and performances that I will be exploring.  I hope to come to a better understanding of how their presence and efforts fit into official and unofficial narratives of Martinican identity, and, of course, as an African American woman, I’ll be interrogating my own narratives. I’ll be listening for their voices in the voices of the living women of Martinique whom I encounter, but I might also discover that listening to the voices of these women from another century might help me hear my own as I negotiate a land, culture, and language very different from my own.


But first, I need to find out how to buy groceries and get to the places I need to go without a car.

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