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The CLR James Journal

Volume 24, Issue 1/2, Fall 2018

Kathleen Gyssels
Pages 255-270

Bit in the Mouth, Death in the Soul
Remembering the Poetry of Léon-Gontran Damas

Sixty years after the famous ‘Conférence des écrivains et artistes noirs at the Sorbonne’, and sixty years after Black-Label, the third collection of poetry by French Guianese Leon-Gontran Damas, the word “nègre” and “nigger” remain offensive words all too much used in postcolonial Europe today. Even after the short lived Obamamania, Damas’s poetry remains actual as it expresses the censorship all too many times endured by the lyrical voice who cannot speak out loud against those violent verbal, physical, and thus psychological assaults. Consequently, his “mors dans la bouche”, or “bit in the mouth” is incoporated in his less wellknown work which testifies to the “mort dans l’âme”, it is the constant feeling of depression and blues lurking on the Black or coloured citizen of France and the West Indies. Standing in the shadow of the cofounders, and quite neglected by the leading Martinicans of the post-Négritude era, Damas nevertheless understood the urgency of transcontinental and transcultural solidarities in this battle and wrote against the dichotomies of race, class, and gender. Damas (b. 1912) and James (b. 1901) knew each other for over forty years. Damas read James’s novel, Minty Alley (published in 1936) before they met in Paris when James was doing the research for The Black Jacobins (published in 1938), his landmark history of Tousssaint L’Ouverture and the revolution in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. Damas helped James with translations and discovering documents at the Bibliothèque Nationale. On one occasion, Damas brought James to the home of Robert Desnos. Both lived in Washington, DC, in the 1970s when Damas was at Howard University and James taught at Federal City College/University of the District of Columbia.

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