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 Not only will I be hearing the voices, through their letters and both published and unpublished writings, of the women I am studying, but I will also be exploring Martinique’s unique history and culture, trying to gain an understanding of the island that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.