Creolization, Caribbean

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


The concept of creolization lies at the very center of discussions of transculturalism, transnationalism, multiculturalism, diversity, and hybridization. This essay begins by examining the term's roots in the ethnic and cultural complexities of the Caribbean experience. It then goes on to look at the transformation of this experience into a theoretical framework for pluralism that consciously sought to avoid the binary pitfalls of its antecedents. It concludes with a brief look at the work of several key authors and surveys recent critiques of the Caribbean creolization movement.

Despite its currency in literary, cultural, and critical circles, the term creolization cannot be fully understood without taking into account its historical background and geographical context. In these terms, creolization must be seen not simply as a synonym for hybridity but as a phenomenon that is indispensable to understanding the New World experience. Although the history of the term dates back several decades earlier, its critical status in the early 2000s is largely the result of a number of publications emanating from the French Caribbean in the 1980s.

Caribbean Context

The origins of creolization for the Caribbean region arguably lie in the contested and interrelated processes of colonization, slavery, and migration that both brought the New World into being and gave it impetus and direction. Once the indigenous New World populations were decimated, the growth and development of plantation economies that arose in the Caribbean in the seventeenth century produced pathbreaking patterns of economic and cultural exchange between Europe, the New World of the Americasincluding Central America, the Guianas, Mexico, and Braziland the African continent. Catalyzed by the slave trade, which forcibly removed untold numbers of peoples of diverse racial, cultural, and geographical origin from their African homelands and transplanted them onto vast island plantations, these already variegated groups subsequently came into contact with other transplanted peoples from Europe, South Asia, China, and the Middle East. As a result, the Caribbean region quickly became a key nodal point in what would become the creolization of these composite populations.

It was the product of these intersecting influencesthe inauguration of a creole society in the Caribbean Seathat became the subject of the text Eloge de la créolité/In Praise of Creoleness (1989). Written by Raphaël Confiant and Patrick Chamoiseau, two Martinican novelists, in conjunction with Jean Bernabé, a Guadeloupean linguist, this manifesto can be seen in one sense as an attempt to come to terms with the paradox of French overseas departmentalization. The fact of these former colonies' incorporation into the French nation in 1946, and the conferral of French citizenship on their citizens, had done nothing to negate the ongoing material differences in history, geography, culture, and ethnicity that continued to separate these territories from the metropole, creating a double trajectory that made their citizens feel both French and West Indian. The "double consciousness" imposed by the duality of their legal and cultural status encouraged these thinkers to come to terms with the dilemma of belonging posed by departmentalization. Their solution was to seek out the origins of this pluralism, and to celebrate it.

Importantly, however, they were certainly not the first to do so. Some twenty years earlier, the Barbadian historian and poet Edward Brathwaite sought to establish patterns of creole interaction as a sort of sociological foundation for Caribbean societies. In his The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 17701820 (1971), Brathwaite proposed that the principles of cultural distinction and unitary origin through which societies were typically analyzed and categorized be abandoned in the Caribbean case, recognizing instead the intrinsic ethnic and cultural pluralism of the islands. The cultural intersection, ethnic admixture, and linguistic cross-fertilization that lay at the core of the Caribbean experience would be made to contest the historical discontinuity and geographical and political fragmentation through which the region traditionally had been framed.

From Experience to Theory

On the surface, creolization would appear to be of a piece with criollo and mestizaje in Spanish, and with métissage in French. However, although each of these categories responds to the implicit pluralisms of the colonial encounter, each also reflects specific differences within the colonial experience that are not easily rendered in general terms. What the authors of the Eloge sought to convey above all was the abandonment of negative binaries in favor of the creative openness that lies behind any conception of the creole. "Neither Europeans, nor Africans, nor Asians, we proclaim ourselves Creoles" (Bernabé et al., p. 75). Indeed, their aim more specifically was to develop modalities for creative expression in the arts that would reflect and embody the multiplicity and complexity of the creole mosaic. "Our history is a braid of histories We are at once Europe, Africa, and enriched by Asian contributions, we are also Levantine, Indians, as well as pre-Columbian Americans in some respects. Creoleness is 'the world diffracted but recomposed ' a Totality" (p. 88; emphasis original).

Thus the creole language serves as a fundamental metaphor for the key goals and tenets of French Caribbean creolization. As Chamoiseau and Confiant point out in their critical work Lettres créoles, this language was the product of the experience of colonization and slavery. Born and nurtured on the plantation, it was brought into being both by the interaction of slaves deliberately separated by ethnic group to forestall the possibility of communication that might lead to resistance and revolt, through the influence of Maroons (runaway slaves) and by the interaction of these groups with the colonial culture. The creole language thus symbolizes cultural continuity, resistance to oppression, and the richness of ethnic admixture; as such, it serves to valorize the region's oral tradition even as it reinforces the qualities of pluralism and transformation that sum up the heterogeneity of the French Caribbean experience in particular.


The arc of this experience explicitly acknowledges the antecedent influence of two other key Martinican writers and thinkers, Aimé Césaire and Edouard Glissant, and the literary movements with which their names are respectively linked: negritude and antillanité, or Caribbeanness. The créolistes, as the authors of the Eloge are called, address the importance of negritude to their thought formation: "To a totally racist world Aimé Césaire restored mother Africa Césaire's Negritude gave Creole society its African dimension" (Bernabé et al., p. 79). Indeed, they make specific reference to the irreplaceable role played here by Césaire himself. "It was Césaire's Negritude that opened to us the path for the actuality of Caribbeanness We are forever Césaire's sons" (p. 80).

At the same time, however, it must be recognized that the créolistes simultaneously acknowledge the limitations of the African model of cultural origin for the complex realities of the Caribbean basin. The basic paradox intrinsic to such an approach lay in the fact that adopting the negritude paradigm would simply amount to exchanging one unitary model of culture for another. Neither the European nor the African paradigm could contain the myriad ethnic influences and creative cultural exchange that had given rise to the Caribbean. To adequately account for the region's plural character, another model was necessary. For this, they would turn to the work of Edouard Glissant.

Patrick Chamoiseau

Patrick Chamoiseau was born in 1953 in Fort-de-France, Martinique. The son of working-class parents, Chamoiseau studied sociology and law in Paris before moving back to Martinique, where he became a social worker. His third novel, Texaco, won France's top literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 1992, making him world-famous. The novel was eventually translated into more than twenty languages. Chamoiseau continues to live in Martinique, where he writes novels as well as short stories, screenplays, autobiography, childhood memoirs, and texts for pictorial histories.

Despite the publication of other novels such as Solibo le magnifique and Biblique des derniers gestes, Texaco remains by far Chamoiseau's best-known work. The novel traces 150 years of postemancipation Martinican history through the eyes and voice of Marie-Sophie Laborieux, the aging daughter of a freed slave. It is Laborieux's encounter with an urban planner, and her attempt to convince him to abandon his plan to raze, in the name of progress, the shantytown of the title that provides the framework for this episodic story of struggle and resistance. This structure, and its trademark of creole existing alongside and transforming the French language, allows the key nuances of ethnic and cultural exchange and linguistic wordplay to assume pride of place in a portrait of Martinique's creolized society.

An accomplished novelist and poet as well as an important cultural theorist, Edouard Glissant had produced more than half a dozen creative works by the time he published his groundbreaking Caribbean Discourse in 1981. In this work, he also sought to take his vision of Caribbean reality beyond the epistemological boundaries of negritude. Realizing that a response that simply negated the tenets of a colonial discourse did nothing to expunge its essential properties, Glissant sought to specify the terms and conditions of a creole culture that would be inclusive of the wider English, Spanish, and Dutch Caribbean as well as the French overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, one that would give rein to the region's constant creative flux and its insistent patterns of transformation and exchange. The core of this Caribbean vision, the one on which the créolistes would draw, he termed antillanité, or Caribbeanness.

Glissant locates the key axes of this concept between uprooting and transformation. Within these patterns of intersection and exchange, he demarcates the terms of Caribbean survival. "I feel that what makes this difference between a people that survives elsewhere and a population that is transformed elsewhere into another people and that thus enters the constantly shifting and variable process of creolization is that the latter has not collectively continued the methods of existence and survival, both material and spiritual, which it practiced before being uprooted" (Glissant, p. 15; emphasis original). This generative framework stresses principles of mixture and combination rather than confrontation and rupture; the infinite openness and fluidity of its practice expresses the diversity of the Caribbean collective identity in a way that allowed the architects of créolité scope to articulate structurally similar concerns. The productive multiplicity of the Caribbean, one that draws on its peoples and cultures to continually transform and reinvent themselves, is thus a core principle of both antillanité and créolité.


While the Caribbean focus of these twin discourses was seen as a much-needed corrective to metropolitan visions of the Caribbean as a region mired in fragmentation and loss, an alternative view took a much more critical line, accusing the créolistes of having appropriated the issue of creolization and of imbuing it with restrictive, essentialist characteristics that valorized exclusivity over process. From this viewpoint, despite the specific historic context and catalyst of migration, colonialism, slavery, and indentured labor, the concept of creolization was applicable to many cultures and civilizations beyond the Caribbean basin.

By contrast, the creolization of Glissant's antillanité sought to subvert universalist notions of pure and impure, positing the world as subject to ceaseless cultural transformation, a joining of braiding and becoming: "Creolization as an idea is not primarily the glorification of the composite nature of a people: indeed, no people has been spared the crosscultural process. To assert peoples are creolized, that creolization has value, is to deconstruct in this way the category of 'creolized' that is considered as halfway between two 'pure' extremes" (Glissant, p. 140).

Edouard Glissant

Edouard Glissant was born in 1928 in the commune of Sainte-Marie in Martinique. A poet, novelist, dramatist, and essayist, Glissant studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and ethnology at the Musée de l'homme. In the 1950s he co-founded the Front Antillo-Guyanais pour l'indépendence, and went on to found the Institut martiniquais d'etudes in 1970. In 1982, he went to work as editor of the UNESCO Courier, was named Distinguished University Professor at Louisiana State University in 1988, and left there for a position at the City University of New York's Graduate Center in the mid-1990s. He began publishing in the mid-1950s, and his novels, plays, essays, and volumes of poetry have won many outstanding prizes. Perhaps the premier contemporary French West Indian cultural theorist, his influential concepts of antillanité (Caribbeanness) and poétique de la relation (cross-cultural poetics) promulgated in Le Discours antillais (Caribbean Discourse) seek to creatively anchor the Caribbean experience of fragmentation and disjuncture in a framework that gives voice to its central tenets of diversity and hybridity. The interpenetration of languages and cultures that lies at the core of this process of creolization posits contact and chaos, cultural relativity, and exchange and transformation as key tools in a polyvalent system of thought that redefines traditional notions of identity.

In their turn, Bernabé, Chamoiseau, and Confiant managed to expand and buttress their own positions in a key interview published some years after their manifesto. Here, they stress the pluralities of creoleness: "our position is that there are several créolités " (Taylor, p. 142); valorize the role of pluralism: "créolité is all about understanding mosaic, multiple identities" (p. 153); and suggest that creolization is a process that encompasses more than a simple synthesis, more than métissage: "There's metis-sage in creolization, but creolization is chaosshock, mixture, combination, alchemy" (p. 136). In these terms, creolization establishes its specific difference from hybridity, reflecting its beginnings in colonialism and slavery as well as the ceaseless redefinition and rebirth that are its primary constituent elements.

See also Africa, Idea of ; Black Consciousness ; Diasporas: African Diaspora ; Identity: Personal and Social Identity ; Language and Linguistics ; Mestizaje ; Negritude ; Postcolonial Theory and Literature ; Slavery .


Balutansky, Kathleen M. and Marie-Agnès Sourieau, eds. Caribbean Creolization: Reflections on the Cultural Dynamics of Language, Literature, and Identity. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1998.

Benítez-Rojo, Antonio. The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. Translated by James E. Maraniss. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1992.

Bernabé, Jean, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphaël Confiant. "Créolité Bites." Transition 7, no. 2 (1998): 124161. Interview.

. Eloge de la créolite. Paris: Gallimard, 1989.

Bongie, Chris. Islands and Exiles: The Creole Identities of Post/ Colonial Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Brathwaite, Kamau. The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 17701820. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

Britton, Celia. Edouard Glissant and Postcolonial Theory. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999.

Burton, Richard D. E. Afro-Creole: Power, Opposition, and Play in the Caribbean. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Chamoiseau, Patrick. Ecrire en pays dominé. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.

Chamoiseau, Patrick, and Raphaël Confiant. Lettres créoles: tracées antillaises et continentales de la littérature: Haiti, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyana, 16351975. Paris: Gallimard, 1999.

Dash, J. Michael. Edouard Glissant. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Glissant, Edouard. Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays. Translated by J. Michael Dash. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989.

. Poetics of Relation. Translated by Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.

Lionnet, Françoise. "Créolité in the Indian Ocean: Two Models of Cultural Diversity." Yale French Studies 82 (1993): 101112.

Murdoch, H. Adlai. Creole Identity in the French Caribbean Novel. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2001.

H. Adlai Murdoch