Damas, Léon-Gontran 1912–1978
Léon-Gontran Damas 1912–1978
Together with fellow writers Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire, the Caribbean-born French poet Léon-Gontran Damas is recognized as one of the founders of Négritude, a French-language literary movement of the twentieth century that explored the use of African themes in literature and urged African-descended peoples to struggle for independence from European domination and influence. Less well known than the other two (Senghor eventually became president of the African nation of Senegal), Damas was nevertheless deemed highly influential by other black poets; he was one of the first poets writing in a language other than English to express a distinct black consciousness. Damas was heavily influenced by African-American poetry and music, and he moved to the United States in his later years.
Born March 28, 1912, in the Caribbean coastal city of Cayenne in what was then the colony of French Guyana, Damas grew up in a middle-class household of varied ethnic background. He excelled in school early and was sent to a French government school, the Lycée Schoelcher, on the island of Martinique to complete his primary education. There he met Aimé Césaire in a philosophy class, and the two became lifelong friends.
Winning admission to law school in Paris, Damas seemed set for a life of financial success. The law career, however, had been his parents’ idea, and he took courses on the side at the University of Paris in subjects ranging from anthropology and history to Oriental languages. He also began to develop an interest in left-wing politics. Damas felt out of place in France and began to turn to his own cultural roots for sustenance. He came under the sway of various ideas, absorbing the anticolonialist manifesto Légitime Défense, acquainting himself with surrealist art, and becoming fascinated with the African-American culture that was sweeping Paris at the time. The productions of the Harlem Renaissance that Damas would have encountered included not only jazz and blues music but also distinctively African-American poetry by Langston Hughes and other authors.
Damas’s parents cut off his financial support when they heard about the turn his interests had taken, and he was forced to work at a series of odd jobs in the early 1930s to support himself. He won a scholarship and managed to stay in school. In 1934 he had his first poems published and joined with Césaire and Senghor to found a journal called L’étudiant noir, with the general goal of promoting black cultural awareness. Césaire coined the term “Négritude” to describe the movement that was taking shape in the work the three were doing, but Damas was the first to publish a book of poetry that reflected their new ideas.
That book, Pigments, had a political orientation. For an opening epigraph Damas used a line by the African-American poet Claude McKay: “Am I not Africa’s son, Black of that black land, where black deeds are done?” One poem, “Et cetera,” urged black Africans to liberate Senegal from French domination and to resist the French military draft; the book was banned in France’s
At a Glance…
Born on March 28, 1912, in Cayenne, French Guyana; died on January 22, 1978, in Washington, DC.; married Marietta. Education: Attended the University of Paris, c. 1930s. Military Service: French army, 1940s; anti-fascist resistance, early 1940s.
Career: L’étudiant noir journal, co-founder and editor, 1934-40; French National Assembly, deputy from Guyana, 1945-51; UNESCO, 1960s; Radio France, overseas editor, 1960s; Présence Africaine, editorial board, 1960s; Georgetown University, Washington, DC, instructor, 1970; Federal City College, Washington, DC, instructor, 1970s; African Studies program, Howard University, Washington, DC, professor and acting director, 1970s.
Awards: Republic of Haiti, Officer of National Orders of Honor and Merit.
African colonies as a result, but Damas’s poems circulated in African-language translation among anticolonial activists. Other poems in the book were less political and were structured in emulation of American jazz rhythms.
Despite his dissatisfaction with the French regime, Damas served in the French army during World War II and later took part in the anti-Fascist Resistance. He continued to live in France after the war, winning a term in the French National Assembly as a deputy from his homeland of Guyana. Later he worked for the overseas department of Radio France and United Nations agency UNESCO, and he became a member of the editorial board of the influential French-African literary journal Présence Africaine. He traveled extensively, through Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and the United States.
Damas published essays and translated Guyanese folktales from Creole into French before and during the war years, and in 1947 he edited an anthology of poetry from around the black French-speaking world. He published three more volumes of his own poetry in the 1940s and 1950s, including Black-Label (1956), an 84-page poem in four parts. He became friends with Langston Hughes and translated some of his poetry into French as well. In 1961 one of Damas’s books was translated into English under the title African Songs of Love, War, Grief, and Abuse.
Hughes became one source of influence upon Damas’s poetry, which sometimes proceeded in seemingly simple, everyday language that took up the lamenting tone of blues music. “Nights with no name // nights with no moon // no name // no moon // no moon // no name // nights with no moon // no name no name,” Damas wrote in one poem. Repetition of language was a common trait of Damas’s poetry, and one that was borrowed in a general way from African traditions. In the introduction to African Songs of Love, War, Grief, and Abuse, Damas listed several traits of African traditional verse that he hoped to emulate. These included an improvised, sung quality, colloquial language, and “antitheses and parallelisms of ideas”—the construction of a poem in such a way that ideas might be restated or placed in sharp contrast with one another.
Beyond these African and African-American influences, though, another primary characteristic of Damas’s poetry was anger at European domination. Unlike the writings of some of his colleagues in the Négritude movement who looked to a cleansing revolution in the future, Damas was often terse, ironic, and sarcastic. He flirted with Communism in his younger years and was a lifelong adherent of socialism, but as revolutionary fervor faded he became pessimistic. His book Nèvralgies, published in 1966, reflected this darker mood.
In 1970 Damas, together with his Brazilian-born wife Marietta, moved to Washington, D.C., to take a summer teaching position at Georgetown University. During the last decade of his life he taught at Howard University in Washington and served as acting director of the school’s African Studies program. He died on January 22, 1978, in Washington and was buried in Guyana. Although the political aspect of his poetry held somewhat less appeal in the later years of the twentieth century, Damas’s reputation was on the rise. His poems, which sometimes experimented with typography and with the sheer sound of words, were strikingly modern for their time, and they seemed to anticipate the black poetry, both French and English, of a much later era.
Pigments, 1937; revised as Présence Africaine, 1962.
Poètes d’expression françaises d’Afrique Noire, Madagascar, Réunion, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Indochine, Guyane: 1900-1945, Seuil, 1947.
Poèmes nègres sur des airs Africains, Guy Lévis Mano, 1948.
Graffiti, Seghers, 1952.
Black-Label, Gallimard, 1956.
African Songs of Love, War, Grief, and Abuse, Mbari Publications, 1961.
Nèvralgies, Presence Africaine, 1966.
(Translator) Veillées noires, Stock, 1943.
Herdeck, Donald, ed., Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical-Critical Encyclopedia, Three Continents Press, 1979.
Racine, Daniel L., ed., Léon-Gontran Damas, 1912-1978: founder of Negritude, A Memorial Casebook, University Press of America, 1979.
Tucker, Martin, ed., Literary Exile in the Twentieth Century, Greenwood, 1991.
Warner, Keith Q., comp. and éd., Critical Perspectives on Léon-Gontran Damas, Three Continents Press, 1988.
Wordworks, Manitou, ed., Modern Black Writers, St. James, 2000.
“Léon-Gontran Damas,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (June 10, 2004).
“Léon-Gontran Damas: Poet of Negritude,” Emory University, www.emory.edu/ENGLISH/Bahri/Damas.html (June 10, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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