Hostname: page-component-7479d7b7d-q6k6v Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-15T03:36:01.477Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false


Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 April 2009


The New Negro, Indigenist, and Négritude movements of the 1920s and 1930s constitute the grounded base of contemporary Afro-American, Caribbean, and African literary scholarship. Critics return repeatedly to this textual field as if to embrace a heralded center, familiar and stable. Skepticism regarding presentations of the era as a coherent whole has inspired redefinitions of the period's demarcations, classic works as well as national and transnational intertextualities. Bearing in mind the discontinuities, one must acknowledge, however, that among other achievements, the new letters movements provided an epistemological break away from the predominance of Euro-American influences on black texts, the discursive agendas previously defining textual production particularly in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Caribbean writing. New letters works became communal property to be read and revised across national boundaries. Antilleans and some Hispanics, for instance, embraced texts by Langston Hughes and Claude McKay and were challenged by the Afro-American example to respond in stylistic kind. Unlike any other epoch of African-American expression, new letters shared a common ideology: writing regional, ethnic, and peasant experiences into existence. Their very articulation signified protest directed against cultural repression on the one hand and racial self-hatred on the other. The paradox of such a posture is suggested by Jean Price-Mars's use of the term collective bovaryism to describe in retrospect his generation's capitulation during the American Marine Occupation of Haiti (1915–1934). From the Haitian contradictions emerged defensive political, cultural, and textual agendas as of 1927, which paralleled the black revolts of Harlem and Paris but were determined by the particular circumstances provoking their enunciation.

Research Article
Copyright © American Society for Theatre Research 2009

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



1. Scholarship devoted to new letters is extensive. For bibliographical references see Huggins, Nathan, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974)Google Scholar; Perry, Margaret, comp., Harlem Renaissance: An Annotated Bibliography [and Commentary] (New York: Garland Publishing, 1982)Google Scholar; Kramer, Victor A., Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined (New York: AMS Press, 1987)Google Scholar; Michael, Colette V., comp., Négritude: An Annotated Bibliography (West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 1988)Google Scholar. Although I have confined my remarks to new letters in Harlem, Port-au-Prince, and Paris, similar developments were occurring in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad. See, for example, Cobb, Martha K., Harlem, Haiti, and Havana (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1979)Google Scholar; Perez, Anibal González, “Ballad of the Two Poets: Nicolás Guillén and Luis Palés Matos,” Callaloo 10.2 (Spring 1987): 285301CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sander, Reinhard [W.], The Trinidad Awakening: West Indian Literature of the Nineteen-Thirties (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1988)Google Scholar.

2. The history of nineteenth-century literary production is described in Dash, J. Michael, Literature and Ideology in Haiti (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981)Google Scholar and Hoffmann, Léon-François, Le Roman haïtien: idéologie et structure (Sherbrooke, Québec: Naaman, 1982)Google Scholar.

3. On the subject of new letters influence and intertextualities, consult Cobb, Harlem, Haiti, and Havana; Ramersad, Arnold, The Life of Langston Hughes [vol. 1] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986)Google Scholar; Smith, Robert P. [Jr.], “Rereading Banjo: Claude McKay and the French Connection,” CLA Journal 30.1 (September 1986): 4658Google Scholar; Mudimbe-Boyi, M. E., “Harlem Renaissance et l'Afrique: une aventure ambiguë,” Présence Africaine 147 (1988): 1828CrossRefGoogle Scholar. With meticulous detail, Arnold, A. James documents French literary influences in Césaire's work in Modernism and Négritude (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981)Google Scholar. Textual relations between Mallarmé and Césaire are examined in Pibarot, Annie, “Césaire lecteur de Mallarmé,” Frankophone Literaturen ausserhalb Europas, ed. Reisz, Janós (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1987), 1727Google Scholar.

4. Price-Mars, Jean, Ainsi parla l'oncle (Paris: Imprimerie de Compiègne, 1928)Google Scholar. For a rereading of the ideological conflict between the Francophile Dantès Bellegarde and Price-Mars, see Bellegarde-Smith, Patrick, In the Shadow of Powers: Dantès Bellegarde in Haitian Social Thought (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1985)Google Scholar. Their opposed positions deserve comparison with that of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois within the wider field of culture and discourse, as in Baker's, Houston A.Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987)Google Scholar; and Child's, John BrownLeadership, Conflict and Cooperation in Afro-American Social Thought (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989)Google Scholar. I am grateful to Andrew Parker (Amherst College) for drawing my attention to Child's study.

5. Lacascade, Suzanne, Claire-Solange, âme africaine (Paris: Eugène Figuière, 1924)Google Scholar; and Desroy, Annie, Le Joug (Port-au-Prince: Imprimerie Modèle, 1934)Google Scholar.

6. With the exception of Suzanne Césaire, Aimé Césaire's wife, who edited the journal Tropiques with him from 1941 to 1945, women's participation in Francophone new letters was marginal. See the two-volume facsimile of Tropiques reprinted in 1978 by Éditions Jean-Michel Place, Paris. The role of the Nardal sisters in the Négritude movements as conveners of gatherings and translators of La Revue du monde noir remains confusing despite frequent mentions in several literary histories. For a brief attempt at unraveling the story, see Achille, Louis T., “In Memoriam: Paulette Nardal,” Présence Africaine 1334 (1985): 291–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7. Condé, Maryse, La parole des femmes (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1979)Google Scholar.

8. Condé, Maryse, En attendant le bonheur: Hérémakhonon (Paris: Seghers, 1988)Google Scholar; Marshall, Paule, Praisesong for the Widow (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1983)Google Scholar; and Me Llamo Rigoberta Menchú y Asi Nació la Consciencia, ed. Elisabeth Burgos-Debray (Barcelona: Editorial Argos Vergara, 1983). English translations of Condé and Menchú are by Philcox, Richard, Hérémakhonon (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1982)Google Scholar; and Wright, Ann, I, Rigoberta Menchú (London: Verso Editions, 1984)Google Scholar.

9. Contending approaches to comparative literature methodologies within Caribbean literature appear in Gérard, Albert S., “Problématique d'une histoire littéraire du monde caraïbe,” Revue de littérature comparée 62.1 (January–March 1988): 4556Google Scholar; Pizarro, Ana, “Reflections on the Historiography of Caribbean Literature,” Callaloo 11.1 (Winter 1988): 173–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Rodríguez, Ileana and Zimmerman, Marc, eds., Process of Unity in Caribbean Society: Ideologies and Literature (Minneapolis: Institute for the Study of Ideologies and Literatures, 1983)Google Scholar. Regarding comparative literary theory, see Weisstein, Ulrich, Comparative Literature and Literary Theory, trans. Riggan, William (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973)Google Scholar.

10. The Christopher Columbus ventures are examined critically in Todorov, Tzevetan, The Conquest of America [trans. Howard, Richard] (New York: Harper & Row, 1984)Google Scholar; and Koning, Hans, Columbus: His Enterprise (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1976)Google Scholar.

11. Braithwaite, Edward, The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770–1820 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971)Google Scholar; Genovese, Eugene [D.], Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Vintage Books, 1972)Google Scholar; Debien, Gabriel, Les esclaves aux Antilles françaises: XVIIe–XVIIIe siècles (Basse-Terre: Société d'histoire de la Guadeloupe, 1974)Google Scholar.

12. Locke, Alain, The New Negro (New York: Albert & Charles Boni, 1925)Google Scholar.

13. For this fascinating insight, I am indebted to Sylvia Wynter's argument in which she identifies as an epistemological recentering the entry of Black Studies into the academy. See her article, “The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism,” Boundary 2 12.3–13.1 (Spring–Fall 1984): 19–70.

14. Gérard, Albert S., ed., European-Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Gérard, Albert S., African Language Literatures: An Introduction to the Literary History of Sub-Saharan Africa (Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1981)Google Scholar.

15. The term diaspora literacy developed originally from my analysis of Hérémakhonon developed as a paper during the 1984 African Literature Association Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. The definition here has been revised and expanded. See “Developing Diaspora Literacy: Allusion in Maryse Condé's Hérémakhonon,” in Out of the Kumbla: Womanist Perspectives on Caribbean Literature, ed. Carole Boyce Davies and Elaine Savory Fido (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1989), 315–31.

16. Houston Baker's analysis is certainly more broadly argued than my brief references would indicate. For purposes of comparing texts from the diaspora, I have found it useful to refer to his model for the study of discursive strategies rather than the Afro-American interdisciplinary sites on which the argument is grounded. In the future, similar cultural bases for analysis of Caribbean and African texts must certainly be considered.

17. Critical works by Houston Baker and Henry Louis Gates have suggested models for the vernacular approach to literary theory that I am attempting to practice in this essay. Gate's chapter “A Myth of Origins: Esu-Elegbara and the Signifying Monkey” is exemplary; my efforts here represent a preliminary statement of the marasa principle within comparative literature; see Gates, Henry Louis Jr., The Signifying Monkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 343Google Scholar.

18. John Coltrane, My Favorite Things, Atlantic Recording CS 1361 (1981) [originally LP and SD 1361 (1961)].

19. See, for instance, Hammond, Peter B., “Economic Change and Mossi Acculturation,” in Continuity and Change in African Culture, ed. Bascom, William R. and Herskovits, Melville J. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), [238–56]Google Scholar; and Brain, Robert, “Friends and Twins in Bangwa,” in Man in Africa, ed. Douglas, Mary and Kaberry, Phyllis M. (New York: Anchor Books, 1971), [213–27]Google Scholar.

20. Depictions of the marasa in Haitian ritual ceremony appear in a number of works. Interpretive readings may be found in Rigaud's, Milo two studies, La tradition voudoo et le voudoo haïtien (Paris: Niclaus, 1953)Google Scholar and Ve-Ve: Diagrammes rituels du voudou (New York: French & European Publications, 1974); Deren, Maya, Divine Horsemen ([London: Thames & Hudson] 1953Google Scholar; repr., New York: Chelsea House, 1970); Karen [McCarthy] Brown, “The ‘Veve’ of Haitian Vodou: A Structural Analysis of Visual Imagery” (Ph.D. diss., Temple University, 1976 [Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1984]).

21. The “spiralist” agenda to which I am referring has been transferred to literary production by one of Haiti's premier authors in Creole and French: Frankétienne qualifies the aesthetics of his poetry and prose as a spiralist. See, among others, his most recent publications, Adjanoumelezo ([Port-au-Prince] Haïti: Imprimerie des Antilles, 1987) and Fleurs d'insomnie ([Port-au-Prince] Haïti: Imprimerie Henri Deschamps, 1986).

22. Consult, for example, Deren's Divine Horsemen; Brown's “The ‘Veve’ of Haitian Vodou”; and Vèvè Clark, “Fieldhands to Stagehands in Haiti” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1983).

23. Melville J. Herskovits, Dahomey, an Ancient West African Kingdom, [2 vols.] (New York: J. J. Augustin, 1938); and Herskovits with Herskovits, Frances S., An Outline of Dahomean Religious Belief (New York: Kraus, 1964 [1933])Google Scholar.

24. Rigaud, Ve-Ve: Diagrammes rituels du voudou, 35, 91, 141, 409–19. Rigaud collected and reproduced vèvès of the marasa trois and through his analysis introduced a figure that had been obscured in previous scholarship. The validity of his interpretations has been approached skeptically due to their mystical nature. In the current theoretical climate, Rigaud's persistent work at collecting and analysis may be reevaluated in an atmosphere more positively disposed to his unusual interest in Vodoun, uncommon among Haiti's mulatto elite, and his eccentric approaches, [which were] devalued in the wider field of cultural criticism at the time.

25. For an overview of Creole language theory, see Bickerton, Derek, Roots of Language (Ann Arbor, [MI]: Karoma Publishers, 1981)Google Scholar; and Valdman, Albert and Highfield, A[rnold]., eds., Theoretical Orientations in Creole Studies (New York: Academic Press, 1980)Google Scholar.

26. Cf. the earlier essay by Gates, , “The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique of the Sign and the Signifying Monkey,” in Black Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Gates, Henry Louis Jr. (New York: Methuen, 1984), 285321Google Scholar.

27. Clark, Vèvè A., “Marassa: Images of Women from the Other Americas,” Woman of Power 1.1 (1984): 5861Google Scholar; Laroche, Maximilien, Le patriarche, le marron et La dossa: essai sur les figures de la gémellité dans le roman haïtien (Sainte-Foy, Québec: GRELCA, 1988)Google Scholar.

28. Gates, The Signifying Monkey [chaps 5–7, respectively].

29. In addition to the sources cited above in note 20, the principal bibliographical references to marasa are collected in Gates, The Signifying Monkey, 3–43 and 259–64.

30. See Gérard's, “Problématique d'une histoire littéraire du monde caraïbe”; and Condé's view of the distanced reading public that she encountered on her return to Guadeloupe in [“Je me suis réconciliée avec mon île: une Interview de Maryse Condé /] “I Have Made Peace with My Island” [:An Interview with Maryse Condé,” interviewed by Clark, VèVè A., Callaloo 12.1 (Winter 1989): 85133, at] 111–15Google Scholar.

31. Roumain, Jacques, Gouverneurs de la rosée (Paris: Éditions Messidor, 1986)Google Scholar and Masters of the Dew, trans. Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook (London: Heinemann, 1978); Schwarz-Bart, Simone, Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1972)Google Scholar and The Bridge of Beyond, trans. Barbara Bray (London: Heinemann, 1982).

32. “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” Gloria Estéfan and Miami Sound Machine on the album Let it Loose, Epic Records OET 40769 [1987].