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The Poet's Africa: Africanness in the Poetry of Nicolas Guillen and Aime Cesaire.

Nicolas Guillen and Aime Cesaire have long been poles of reference in Caribbean literature, but Josaphat Kubayanda is right when he argues that these twin pillars of negrismo and negritude have never before been put side by side, at least so methodically.

Kubayanda has set himself a more precise goal, however. He intends to situate these poets within an Afrocentric framework and to dispel what he feels to be a creeping Eurocentric cooptation of their work. He is, of course, right in questioning the unexamined application of European esthetic norms to Guillen and Cesaire, but could in turn be criticized for exclusively embracing the Afrocentric perspective, itself reductive of Caribbean multiculturalism and the complexity of this poetry. It is, in other words, one thing to argue that "there is a Caribbean literary discourse that cuts across Cuban-Martiniquan boundaries and French-Spanish cultural and linguistic barriers." It is another to insist that the common element underlying this unity is "the idea of Africa and the African presence" (9), however persuasive that idea and presence may be.

To be sure, both negrismo and negritude ("different in name but not in substance" |11~) were epochal moments in Caribbean and, for that matter, world literary and political culture. This does not justify dehistoricizing them, let alone using them as the sole prospect from which to view creative writers, an undertaking Kubayanda himself was nervous about, as his careful delimitation of period shows (from 1929, date of Guillen's essay "El camino en Harlem," to 1961, after which point Cuba was Castrist and Cesaire committed to collaborating with French rule over Martinique). Guillen and Cesaire were indeed at certain phases of their careers "negrista/Negritudinist evangelists" (51). Yet both moved on to different positions, Guillen in particular coming to conceive of his negrismo period as a means to an end. There is, moreover, evidence in the ambiguous reaction to Cesaire by some recent French-speaking Antillean writers that predicating Caribbean literary discourse upon Afrocentricity is misconceived. In this light, the absence of any reference to Edouard Glissant's Discours antillais (1981) is both revealing and somewhat disturbing, since Glissant's text amounts to a protracted, if implicit, debate with Cesaire over Caribbean identity. One suspects the reason for this lacuna is that Glissant and many other similarly inclined writers do not share the project Kubayanda articulates in his conclusion, "Keeping Alive the Discourse on Africa," however positively they regard their African roots. The mots-d'ordre these contemporary French-speaking Caribbean writers espouse are rather those of antillanite, per Glissant, or creolite as proclaimed by J. Bernabe, P. Chamoiseau and R. Confiant in their 1989 manifesto Eloge de la Creolite.

It might seem unfair to transpose current debate about Antillanite and Creolite onto The Poet's Africa, the study of an earlier period. But Kubayanda himself addresses the question of Creole, and in inadequate and contradictory terms. If "the use of Creole elements is indispensable to the creation of a distinct Negritude discursive space" (69), then how to explain that Cesaire never wrote in "lower-class French Creole" (76), indeed shunned Creole completely as a literary language? As for Guillen, he did sometimes use Afro-Cuban dialect, especially early on, but he certainly did not write in anything resembling a pidgin or creole language, as linguists understand it. Thus Kubayanda's translation of Afro-Cuban dialect into Ghanaian pidgin English is clever, but as fraught with incongruity as any translation of dialect. Kubayanda is far from alone in the misuse of the term creole, but his assumption that the Caribbean Creoles can be defined as "Afro linguistic forms" (69) is simplistic even from the point of view of those linguists who defend the "substratist" school of creolistics, who show more subtly how some African linguistic habits were transferred to the New World, and who would find perplexing, to say the least, his assertion that the phonological peculiarities in Afro-Cuban were "transferred to al-Andalaus, especially Seville, during the Arab-African colonization of the Peninsula" (75). This lack of information about or misunderstanding of linguistics makes the fifth chapter, "Language As (De)Sign of Cultural Roots," especially unsatisfying and undermines the overall credibility of the book.

But credibility to a wide and well-informed audience may not be part of Kubayanda's decidedly agonistic intentions: countering presumably Eurocentric readings of two important black poets, and keeping the Afrocentric faith alive.

However deeply rooted in the classroom and indeed the general public sphere erroneous European "universalist" theory and criticism still are, Afrocentrism is but one possible ideological response, an option, furthermore, that is neither particularly viable in multiracial societies nor wide-spread among contemporary Caribbean writers, including those whose respect for Guillen or Cesaire is obvious. This study therefore has a fusty air about it, because it insists on the contemporary relevance of the strategies negrismo and negritude proposed to earlier generations, strategies that contemporary Caribbean writers have for the most part set aside. Kubayanda's own discourse thus seems strangely displaced. The Poet's Africa may well find a favorable audience in North America, where Afrocentrism is an understandable tit-for-tat response to the renewed racism that has greeted recent efforts to revise the Eurocentric cultural canon. From the perspectives of Antillanite or Creolite, such de-centering onto a distant African self now seems futile and doomed to defeat.(1)


1 We note with regret the death of Josaphat Kubayanda in late 1991.
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Author:Land, George
Publication:College Literature
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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