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Arnoult Chair Celebrates the Radical Culture of Creoles

March 30, 2003

Mark Miester

mark@tulane.edu

The history of French colonialism without a doubt comprises repression and exploitation, but according to writer Daniel Maximin, dwelling on that history is to become party to one's own victimization. What matters is not that one has been oppressed, Maximin argues, but how one uses that oppression to create something new and positive.

In February, Maximin spent two weeks at Tulane meeting students and lecturing as the Yvonne Ryan Arnoult Chair in Franco-phone Studies. A poet and novelist from Guadeloupe in the French West Indies, Maximin is the author of two novels and several volumes of poetry that lyrically evoke the distinctive creole culture of the French Caribbean.

A resident of Paris, Maximin also serves in the French Cultural Ministry, where he promotes the arts and humanities in public schools. As one of France's leading intellectuals of Caribbean descent, much of Maximin's writing concerns the issue of creole culture and identity. Maximin characterizes the process through which creole culture evolved as one of metissage.

From a French root meaning weave, metissage suggests the mix of cultures that resulted from colonization, but the emphasis in Maximin's view is the new culture created. While slaves brought to Guadeloupe from Africa were stripped of their freedom and forced to adapt to a French-ruled life, the culture that evolved in the colony was not French but a new culture that combined French, African and Indian. Creole cultures, such as that of Guadeloupe, Maximin argues, are equal parts colonizer and colonized, master and slave.

"When we speak of metissage, it is the creation of a new culture made of different origins," Maximin says. "You can recognize this new culture as different from the old one. For instance, West Indian food is made of French, African and Indian influences, but when you eat it you cannot say, 'This is French, this is African and this is Indian.'"

The dialect spoken in Guadeloupe is likewise neither French nor African but a new language forged by master and slave to communicate with one another.

"Creole is not the language of the slaves," Maximin says. "It was not invented by slaves because then it would be an African language. And it was not the language of the masters, because it would be French or Spanish or English."

Maximin distinguishes between metissage and the American notion of the great melting pot. "With the melting pot, you just put together differences," Maximin says. "It doesn't make unity. You can have people that live in peace but separately, sometimes in ghettos. This is not what happened in the Caribbean. In the Caribbean, we were forced to be together."

Maximin credits the values of post-revolutionary France with setting the stage for such dramatic cultural combinations. "These were good ideas for a bad reason," Maximin says. "The bad reason was the superiority of French civilization, so they tried to give the savages their culture. The good ideas were freedom and equality."

France was a country of revolutionary and universal ideals, and those ideals were brought from France to colonists who were obliged to learn French language and culture. In the process they also picked up French notions of revolution, equality and freedom.

"The French way of colonization was bad and good also, because it allows the metissage," says Maximin. "The people to whom you impart a new culture find in that culture something to fight against the oppression."

Mark Miester can be reached at mark@tulane.edu.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 website@tulane.edu