Congratulations to SOCLAS French Studies postgraduate Bart Miller on the recent award of his PhD on ‘Léon-Gontran Damas, Genre and Resistance: An Alternative Trajectory of Négritude’! 

Here Bart tells us something about his research, which is the first PhD project in the UK devoted entirely to Damas.

My PhD thesis was about the French-Guyanese writer, activist, Howard University professor and French National Assembly member Léon-Gontran Damas (1912­–1978). He published Pigments (1937), the first collection of Négritude poetry. This collection was retroactively banned in the French colonies by the Commission Rogatoire of the Côte d’Ivoire in 1939 because it was deemed too subversive.

Consistently visceral, the poetry of Pigments is often introduced to readers through the work of the psychiatrist and writer Frantz Fanon in Peau noire; masques blancs (Black Skin; White Masks) (1952). Damas’s poem ‘Hoquets’ is quoted in the collection, as an example of writing describing the remit of French colonial assimilation.

Damas is often considered a peripheral figure within the Négritude movement, but after reading his works and biography, I became interested in his artistic focus, an attitude which treated Négritude as personal expression with universal implications. This can be seen, for another example, in his ethnographic essay Retour de Guyane, which appeared in 1938 but soon thereafter was banned and burned in the colonies.

My research explored the different ways in which creative expression in the works of Damas resonated with the political aegis of the Négritude movement. In my thesis,  I argued that experimentation with different generic forms allowed him to negotiate a continually changing aesthetics of resistance.

Among the forms examined in the thesis were poetry, essay and folk tale. I presented the case that these forms allowed for the adaptation of Damas’s creative expression. The implications for this research are twofold:

Firstly, my thesis presented Damas’s varied imagination of Négritude and its dependence upon generic experimentation. This means that the rapid nature of this generic experimentation in Damas’s works was an integral part of his expression of Négritude. Secondly, the thesis opened a new avenue for reading postcolonial authors through the lens of genre theory.

Alongside work on his PhD, Bart has published two articles and a book chapter: ‘Rethinking Damasian Négritude: biography, literature, genre theory’ (2010) was published as part of the runner-up prize for the International Journal of Francophone Studies postgraduate essay competition in 2009; Writing Wilderness and Civilization in Léon-Gontran Damas’s Retour de Guyane and Black-Label’ appeared in Romance Studies  (2011); and in 2012, his chapter ‘Adaptation to Colonialism in Paris: Damas’s Pigments’ will be published in the volume Adaptation: Studies in French and Francophone Culture. Bart is currently preparing his thesis for publication with Rodopi.

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