Caribbean Literature

Caribbean Literature


ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes



I have attempted to show that the French West Indian Negro


has made his greatest literary contribution in politics and poetry 



Books on Haiti and the Caribbean

Hubert Cole. Christophe: King of Haiti. New York: The Viking Press, 1967.

C.L.R. James. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938)

Edourad Gissant. Caribbean Doscourse (2004)  /  Barbara Harlow. Resistance Literature (1987)

Josaphat B. Kubayanda. The Poet’s Africa: Africanness in the Poetry of Nicolas Guillen and Aime Cesaire (1990)


Myriam J. A. Chancy. Framing Silence: Revolutionary Novels by Haitian Women (1997)

Paul Laraque and Jack Hirschman.  Open Gate An Anthology of Haitian Creole Poetry (2001)

David P. Geggus, ed. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World.  University of South Carolina Press, 2001.

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The Literary Contributions

of the French West Indian

By Mercer Cook


In its issues of April 1st and 15th, 1925, the Revue Mondiale published the opinions of a number of distinguished Frenchmen on colonial literature. While there was unanimous agreement on the importance of colonial literature, almost no one mentioned the French West Indies. Three years later Roland Lebel published his Etudes de littérature coloniale, and once again the French Antilles went almost unnoticed, although the author did deplore the lack of a “literary history of these old French colonies.” As a matter of fact, with the exception of the various publications which accompanied the Tricentenary of these islands in 1935, this neglect has been the general rule, and for at least two almost obvious reasons.

First, Martinique and Guadeloupe are both tiny possessions. In 1938, the population of the former was 244,908, or 221 per square kilometer, whereas Guadeloupe had 304,239 inhabitants. When one compares these figures with the millions of North Africans and Indo-Chinese, it is readily apparent why the French West Indian’s literary contribution has been smaller and less interesting to literary historians.

Secondly, Martinque and Guadeloupe are among the oldest and most loyal French colonies, and have never been fertile soil for autonomous movements, such as have occasionally sprung up in Algeria and French Indo-China. An Algerian author like Robert Randau writes almost always as an Algerian, while French West Indian authors often become so thoroughly assimilated into the literary life of Paris as to lose their insular identity.

This is particularly true of Martinique, which has never troubled to compile a volume on its contributions to French culture. Two such volumes were prepared for Guadeloupe five years ago and proved most revealing. This literary assimilation is but an outgrowth of the almost continual racial amalgamation which has allied the Negro élite of the islands with the Français de Franc.

In my brief paper this morning, I shall be able to indicate only the general trend of the French West Indian’s literary production through an introduction to several key figures. Some of the gentlemen whom I shall mention would be not a little surprised to hear themselves referred to as Negroes, but I shall be using the term in its American connotation; and, according to our standards, 97% of these islanders are Negroid. The first of our authors, Chronologically, denied that he was a mulâtre and always called himself an homme de couleur. One advantage of our American system is that it dispenses with such fine distinctions.

Julien Raimond

In the days when Haiti was Saint-Domingue, France’s most prosperous colony, Julien Raimond was born on the island of Martinique. Little is known of his youth or of his ancestry, but in 1791 he referred to himself as “the legitimate son and grandson of European fathers, land owners in Saint-Domingue.” In 1783, when he was about forty years of age, we find him in Saint-Domingue, wealthy in land and slaves, but smarting under the injustices suffered by the men of color, who could own property but who could not practice certain professions, own carriages, wear the same color clothing as the whites, or eat in the same restaurants. A generous donation to the construction of a vessel the colony was presenting to Louis XVI won him the ear of the royal administrators, and in 1784 he went to Paris to plead the cause of his oppressed brothers.

In the hectic days that followed the French Revolution, Raimond published, often at his own expense, a barrage of pamphlets and brochures, most of which were addressed to the National Assembly, and all of which urged recognition of the rights of the free men of color in the colonies. Wealthy Raimond was no radical demanding the abolition of slavery. As he himself stated: “One could scarcely suppose that I should wish to ruin with one blow my entire family which possesses seven or eight millions [of francs] in property at Saint-Domingue.”

Nevertheless, he soon realized that his only chance of support was to ally himself with the newly formed Société des Amis des Noirs. It was doubtless Raimond who influenced this group to work first for political rights for free men of color, a campaign which resulted in the momentous decree of May 15, 1791.

In the meantime Raimond was contributing articles to Brissot’s Patriote français, appearing frequently before the National Assembly with various petitions, defending himself from the attacks of the powerful Club Massiac, and writing some of his most forceful brochures. His Observations on the Origin and Progress of the Prejudice of White Planters against the Men of Color appeared on January 26, 1791, shortly before the debate on the aforementioned decree.

Two years later when the pro-slavery planters were blaming Raimond and other members of the  Société des Amis des Noirs for the insurrection in Saint-Domingue, he published his Reflections on the True Causes of the Troubles and Disasters of our Colonies. 

Despite these eloquent and logical publications, Raimond was imprisoned during the Reign of Terror, and it seemed likely at one time that he would meet the same fate that had befallen his influential friend Brissot. Once again, however, his pen came to his defense; after fourteen months in prison he published his correspondence to prove that he had neither fomented the colonial disorders nor attempted to defraud his compatriots to bribe [Jean Pierre] Brissot [de Warville, 1754-1793 founder of Société des Amis des Noirs], [Abbé Baptiste-Henri] Gregoire [1750-1831], and other members of the Society of Friends of the Blacks.                                                                

Photo Left: Abbé  Gregoire

In 1796, Raimond had regained his influence and was named to the commission sent to Saint-Domingue, where Toussaint L’Ouverture had now become the all-important power. One year later Raimond was recalled to Paris and was once again under fire. He reported, however, that he had saved the colony for France. Who can say that his words might not have proved true if napoleon had refrained from sending the Leclerc expedition to subdue Toussaint?

The last years of Raimond’s life are almost as hazy as the first. We do know that by 1800 he had returned to Saint-Domingue, for Napoleon listed him as one of the islanders to be imprisoned. we also know that he served on a committee of important Haitians, and that he must have been largely responsible for two of Toussaint’s pronouncements: the Report of 1797 and the 1801 Constitution.

Few people today read the fifteen or sixteen dusty pamphlets which made Julien Raimond an important figure in an important era. His pleas for his his mulatto brothers did much, however, to extend the meaning of the doctrine of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity which had just found expression, and even such a brief account as this would seem to indicate that he was more than the “cowardly” and “subservient” Raimond to whom Lothrop Stoddard refers.

Like Raimond, many of the important French West Indian authors have been more or less interested in politics; few have followed the Parnassian theory of “Art for Art’s sake.”

Charles Bissette

Our second neglected figure, Charles Bissette, also a free mulatto, was born in Martinique on July 9, 1795. Deported in 1824 after having been publicly burned with the branding iron on a charge of inciting the mulattoes to revolt, Bissette was released from prison two years after his arrival in France, and later was awarded a pension by Louis-Phillipe because of the unjustified incarceration.

Like Raimond, Bissette began to publish pamphlets and petitions attacking injustices to mulattoes, afterwards including all Negroes in his campaign. In the Bibliothèque Nationale there are more than fifty entries under his name.

In 1834 he founded a magazine, the Revue des Colonies, for the purpose of defending Negroes everywhere. This was, I believe, the first periodical published by Negroes in France. It appeared with decreasing regularity for about eight years; Bissette was bankrupt before it ceased publication. Some of the issues are richly informative and contain, for example, interesting studies of conditions in the French colonies, of distinguished Haitians like Henri Christophe, a short story by Victor Séjour, and occasional poems by French Negroes                                   

Photo right: Charles Bissette

Buried in one of the issues is a letter from Alexandre Dumas the elder, which is one of the few printed statements of his interest in such movements. Through the Revue, Bissette became a champion of Negro rights in France, and it is not surprising that he was elected in 1848 to represent Martinique in the Constituent Assembly. He resigned, however, when his election was challenged on the ground that no person still in bankruptcy could hold political office in France. The following year Bissette was able to satisfy his creditors–and he was named to the Legislative Assembly.

The final chapter of his career is characterized by mudslinging and an almost inexplicable change of policy. Between Bissette and Victor Schoelcher, sometimes called the French Abraham Lincoln, there had been a feud of long standing. Bissette charged that Schoelcher was not sincere in his professed friendship for the Negro, and it is also possible that he was jealous because Schoelcher and not he had been selected to draft the plans for the abolition of slavery. Whatever the reason, upon his election to the Assembly, since Schoelcher was identified with the leaders of the liberal Left, Bissette [1795-1858] joined the reactionary Right, the very group which had opposed the principles for which he had fought all his life.

Melvil Bloncourt

In contrast to Bissette, the Guadeloupan Melvil Bloncourt [b. 1825] began and ended his career as an ardent republican. One of the best educated of the nineteenth century French West Indian authors, Bloncourt contributed articles to such newspapers as La Vraie République, Le Peuple, and La Voix du Peuple during the Second Republic. Under louis Napoléon he was imprisoned for a time and his own publication, La France parlementaire, was banned. On regaining his freedom, he was compelled to desert political writing “for literary and economic studies.”

Evidence of his wide erudition is seen in the fact that he published articles in such works as Didot’s Biographie universelle, the Dictionnaire universel, the Encyclopédie générale, the Dictionnaire du Commerce et de la Navigation, and in such periodicals as l’Illustration, the Citoyen, the Courrier de Paris, and the Revue du Monde Colonial. It is also significant that in 1865 Bloncourt sponsored a campaign to raise funds for the recently emancipated Negro slaves in the united States.

Early in 1871, Guadeloupe elected this distinguished son to the short-lived commune. President Thiers’ friendship for Bloncourt doubtless saved the latter from imprisonment or execution with other members of the ill-fated Commune, and enabled him to continue to serve as a deputy until 1874. Bloncourt’s career as a parliamentarian was especially noteworthy for his interest in founding and stocking libraries in Guadeloupe.

From 1874 to 1879, he was in exile in Geneva, where he wrote several volumes on Voltaire under various nom de plume, and began work on a manuscript which was to have been a history of Haiti, Martinique, and Guadeloupe during the First French Republic. Like the Bissette-Schoelcher feud, there was hard feeling between Bloncourt and the celebrated novelist Alphonse Daudet, which has been explained in various ways, In his novel Jack, Daudet depicted Bloncourt as the detestable mulatto, Moronval. The fact in this case are much kinder than fiction, for Julius Levallois has called Bloncourt “one of the men who best uphold our country’s intellectual and philosophical tradition.”

In the direct line of Raimond, Bissette, and Bloncourt, French West indian intellectuals have continued to interest themselves in politics down to the present day. Because most professions have been crowded and capital limited, they have made politics the plague of the French Antilles. Some have succeeded, like Candace and Lémery.

The former [Candace] was until recently vice president of the Chamber of Deputies. We mention him here because he has written two books [La Marine marchande française et son importance dans la vie nationale (Paris, 1930) ; La Marine française (Paris, 1937)] on the French navy and has edited a newspaper in Guadeloupe.

Henry Lémery, Senator from Martinique, shining example of that rare animal, the Negro fascist, is now Colonial Minister in the Pétain government. he has contributed to numerous rightist periodicals and has published a volume of his speeches [De la Guerre totale à la paix mutilée (Paris, 1931)] and a study of La Révolution française à la Martinique [Paris, 1936].

The second major trend in French West Indian literature is poetry. This is hardly surprising to one who has seen their magnificent sunsets and exotic beauties, both scenic and feminine. many of their short stories and novels have an undeniable poetic flavor, in much the same manner that Pierre Loti’s prose is poetic. three examples will serve to introduce this final group of writers.

Privat d’Anglemont

First, meet Privat d’Anglemont [1815?-1859], the gifted Guadeloupan who forsook the study of medicine for that of Parisian night life in the eighteen thirties and forties. Friend of Baudelaire, Dumas, Balzac, Murger, and of most of the writing fraternity, Privat lived a care-free Bohemina existence and was admittedly the person best qualified to tell the story of Paris Inconnu, which became indeed the title of his most important volume. He was a legendary figure, and anecdotes about him were legion.

Held up by robbers one night, he is supposed to have said, “Why, I’m Privat!” Whereupon the bandits apologized and took him to dinner. On another occasion his brother in Guadeloupe sent for him to return home. Privat took the long voyage back to the Antilles, spent twenty-four hours at home, decided that he had been away from Paris long enough, and took the same boat back to France. In 1859, at the age of 44, he died of tuberculosis in his beloved Paris.

Obviously, work did not play the major rôle in his happy-go-lucky existence. Ocassionally, however, he would contribute poems to various newspapers, like l’Artiste and the Revue de Paris, and articles on little-known parts of Paris to Le Siècle, Le Figaro, and other periodicals. After his death, his friends collected some of his articles, short stories, playlets, and poems into two volumes which constitute his literary legacy. in his prose, as in his hectic career, he was primarily a poet.

Daniel Thaly

A more conscientious artist than Privat is the Martiniquan Daniel Thaly, who has published at least eight volumes of his verse since 1900. His poetry has appeared in such important periodicals as the Mercure de France, and his work has been praised by critics generally. Unfortunately, French poetry, like her American sister, is rarely lucrative, and Thaly has spent most of his time practicing medicine on the island of Dominica. About two years ago he returned to Martinique to accept a position as librarian. his career seems to bear out the truth of one of his poems:

Airplane, jazz and cinema

That is the new life.

Dead is the blue panorama

           Of poetry.

Love, the beauty of nature, and patriotism provide his usual inspiration. Rarely does he touch upon the race question or any other social problem. His is the poésie pure, reminiscent of a bygone age.

René Maran

René  Maran, my final example, is known primarily as a novelist, the author of  Batouala. his first two volumes, however, were books of verse, La Maison du Bonheur and La Vie Intérieure, published in 1909 and 1912 respectively. Every book he has since written, including his biography of Livingstone, bears the distinct imprint of his penchant for verse. this is why he is so meticulous in his choice of words, and why he is a difficult author to translate. A paragraph like the following in which he describes daybreak in his masterpiece Le Livre de la Brousse could almost be written in couplets:

Alors la brousse s’anime, en proie à une joie panique. Les tam-tams exultant. Plus rien n’existe qu’eux. La frénésie de leurs rythmes, gagnant de proche en proche, gorge enfin les plus lointaines étendues d’une trepidation à laquelle participent: bourdonnements, crissements, coassements, croassements, gloussements, bêlements, rauquements, aboiements, frisselis, gazouillis, clapotis, appels, cris, chants, stridulations, rires, froufrous des termites, martélement de pilons, les mille bruits humains, animaux, végétaux ou vermineux de la nature en fête et de la terre en travail.

The son of Guianan parents, René Maran was born in Martinique fifty three years ago [1887-1960]. When he was but six years of age he was placed in boarding school at Bordeaux. Incidentally, one of his most beautiful prose poems is the passage in Le Coeur serré, an autobiography of his youth, which tells how his parents left him in the principal’s office, promising that they would return immediately. He sees them enter the carriage, dashes out to follow them, but is unable to catch up with them. “Never again,” he concludes, “will I have confidence in my parents.”

After completing his studies at Bordeaux, Maran entered the colonial service in French Equatorial Africa, where he remained for more than ten years. This rich experience has been the inspiration for most of his works, not one of which treats of his native West Indies. Batouala [1921], which won him the Goncourt prize in 1921, Le Livre de la Brousse [1934], Djouma, chien de brousse, and his other animal stories are all laid in French Equatorial Africa which he knows so well. His works have been translated into German, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Portuguese and other languages; only  Batouala has been published in English. The use of extracts from Le Livre de la Brousse in various French schools attests to the excellence of his prose. 

Moreover, he has contributed regularly to such periodicals as Vendémiaire, Candide, and Je Sais Tout.

That his pen has not made him a wealthy man is easily explained. He has been unable to collect royalties due him in countries like Russia and Japan, where Batouala enjoyed wide popularity. His outspoken criticism of certain colonial abuses in Equatorial Africa made him persona non grata in France for a number of years. In addition, his almost tactless frankness and objectivity have created antagonisms for him even among his own compatriots.

Maran has never been willing to compromise with his principles; he has refused to play politics, and has taken pride in the fact that he has never voted. Finally, in an age of facile literature, he has produced less than the average author. After taking eight years to write  Batouala, he waited seventeen more years before completing what he reluctantly consented to call the definitive edition of the novel. He never autographs one of his books without going through it to correct all misprints. In short, he has retained his self-respect even at the expense of his pocketbooks.

If I may be permitted a personal note, my last letter from M. Moran was dated Bordeaux, June 18th. With his wife and almost penniless he had fled from the Nazis to a town in southern France. To the end he was determined not to compromise, for he vowed that he would commit suicide before allowing the Germans to capture him. Confidently M. Maran awaits some future era that will have time for literature and that will re-evaluate his African epic Le Livre de la Brousse as one of the great novels of the early twentieth century.

In conclusion, I have attempted to show that the French West Indian Negro has made his greatest literary contribution in politics and poetry. Indirectly, of course, he has inspired writers like Hugo, Lamartine, Baudelaire, Michelet. Lafcadio Hearn, Mme. Desbordes-Valmore, Balzac, Pierre Benoit, and a host of others. I need not remind you that he has produced Alexandre Dumas to write about the world, and Toussaint L’Ourverture for the world to write about.

Source: The Journal of Negro History, Volume 39 (October 1940), No. 4.

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Mercer Cook (1903-1987)— distinguished linguistic scholar and author and diplomat — was born in Washington, D.C., the son of Will Marion Cook and singer Abbie Mitchell. After graduating from Dunbar High School, he entered Amherst College, where he graduated with honors in 1925. The college awarded Cook, a member of the Phi Beta Kappa society, the Simpson fellowship prize of $1,800, which made it possible for him to study the French language and literature at the Sorbonne in Paris where he received a diploma in 1926. After a brief period of teaching at the Agricultural and technical College in Greensboro, North Carolina and at Howard University, he entered Brown University and obtained his master’s degree and finally his doctor of philosophy degree in 1936.

On resuming his career as a teacher, he became head of the department of Romance languages at Atlanta University.  He taught French at Atlanta University for seven years during which he wrote and edited a number of books in English and French. Most notable were: (Le Noir 1934), Portraits Americans (1939), and Five French Negro Authors (1943). Cook also served  on the editorial board of the Journal of Negro History.

In 1943, he was called upon by the office of Inter-American Affairs to direct the English-teaching project in Haiti. In 1945, he returned to Howard University as professor of Romance languages.

In 1961, president Kennedy appointed Cook ambassador to the Republic of Niger, a post he held for three years. From 1964 to 1966, he was special envoy to Senegal and Gambia. In 1969 he co-authored with Stephen Henderson The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States..

In May 1973, Dr. Cook joined 12 other ambassadors and 2 under secretaries of state from the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in issuing as statement deploring the Nixon administration increased contacts with minority governments in Southern Africa. The statement said these contacts “convey a sense of collaboration and retard the eventual independence of black Africans.”

In 1970, Dr. Cook retired from active teaching. He died of pneumonia in Washington D.C. on 4 October 1987.

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Selected writings


(Editor) Le Noir: Morceaux choisis de vingt-neuf français célèbres, American Book Co., 1934

(Editor) Portraits americains, Health, 1939.

Five French Negro Authors, Associated Publishers, 1943.

Handbook for Haitian Teachers of English, H. Deschamps, 1944.

(Editor) The Haitian-American Anthology: Haitian Readings from American Authors, Imprimerie de l’Etat, 1944.

Education in Haiti, Federal Security Agency, Office of Education, 1948.

(Editor) An Introduction to Haiti, Department of Cultural Affairs, Pan American Union, 1951.

(Translator) Leopold Senghor, African Socialism, American Society of African Culture, 1959.

(Translator) Mamadou Dia, The African Nations and World Solidarity, Praeger, 1961, reprinted, 1987.

(With Stephen Henderson) The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States. University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

(Translator and editor) Cheikh A. Diop, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality? Lawrence Hill, 1974.

Jacques Roumain. Masters of the Dew. Heinemann 1978


“Haiti’s ‘Youngest’ Ambassador,” Crisis, April 1957.

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Slave Revolution in the Caribbean, 1789-1804

A Brief History with Documents

By Laurent Dubois and John D. Garrigus

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  /  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 6 May 2010




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