40 years ago died Léon-Gontran Damas

Written by Éric Amiens

Léon-Gontran Damas was born on March 28, 1912 in Cayenne, French Guiana. After the death of his mother in 1913, he was raised by his aunt Gabrielle Damas called “Man Gabi”. The young Damas did primary school in Cayenne then continued his secondary school in Fort-de-France, at Schœlcher High School where he met Aimé Césaire (1913-2008). In 1928, the Guyanese was in France for higher education, he studied law, literature, Russian, Japanese and Baoule. In the French capital, in a Negro cultural fever, he met again his friend Césaire. The Guyanese student became friends with Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906-2001) and African and black American intellectuals like Richard Wright. Léon-Gontran Damas is the third man of negritude. Indeed, he co-founded the movement with Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor. The writer and poet created in 1935 in Paris with his two acolytes the magazine “L’Étudiant Noir”.

A maroon

He published, in 1938, his pamphlet “Retour de Guyane” where he denounced the poverty that raged in Guiana and the ambiguous relationship that France had with its overseas territories. Two years later, he published his first collection, “Pigments”, which is very committed. Then, “Poèmes nègres sur des airs africains” (1948), “Graffiti” (1952), “Black-Label” (1956) and “Névralgies” (1966). In his writings, the nonconformist poet rebelled, denounced assimilation, acculturation. For some people, he was the “bad negro”, the one who condemned colonialism. Engaged in politics, Damas did not have a long career like Césaire and Senghor, he was deputy of Guiana from 1948 to 1951. The writer will be, later, technical adviser, in charge of cultural matters (1958-1963) at the Société de Radiodiffusion de la France d’Outre-mer (SORAFOM), a cooperation company between France and Africa. From 1964 to 1969, he was hired by Unesco to study the contributions of African culture in the New World.

A literature professor in the United States

Léon-Gontran Damas travelled a lot in Africa, the West Indies and Latin America, before settling in the United States (1970). The writer became a professor at Howard Washington University, he was reponsible for the research department on African literature. The poet met African-American intellectuals and writers. He gave many conferences to make known negritude. The Guyanese writer died in the United States, on January 22, 1978, after a throat cancer. He was buried in his native country, French Guiana.

Every year, the Guyanese pay tribute to this “rebellious negro”. We regret that the poet and his works are not widely known.


Léon-Gontran Damas 1


Nous Les Gueux (Extrait de Black Label, 1956) – We beggar

Nous les gueux

Nous les peu
nous les rien
nous les chiens
nous les maigres
nous les nègres
Nous à qui n’appartient
guère plus même
cette odeur blême
des tristes jours anciens
Nous les gueux
nous les peu
nous les riens
nous les chiens
nous les maigres
nous les nègres
les gueux
les peu
les rien
les chiens
les maigres
les nègres
pour jouer aux fous
pisser un coup
tout à l’envi
contre la vie
stupide et bête
qui nous est faite
à nous les gueux
à nous les peu
à nous les rien
à nous les chiens
à nous les maigres
à nous les nègres…