NYU Black Renaissance Noire Volume 18 Issue 3 - Fall 2018 - Page 60

When I looked across the room at Damas sitting in his chair, he was much larger than his physical size. He was also very dapper. I didn’t know about his reputation or honors, what I knew is that I was being introduced to the “poetry of class and style.” I never saw Damas without a suit and tie. Perhaps this was my introduction to formalism. Did the poetry of Léon Damas come out of the blackness of his flesh? Did it emerge from the inner darkness of his bones? As a literary activist, my concern is with memory and preservation. At times the task and responsibility is to serve as witness. Before I graduated from Howard in 1972 I took two classes taught by Stephen Henderson. One was “The Problems of the Black Aesthetic” the other was “Blues, Soul and Black Identity.” Henderson gave me a copy of The Militant Black Writer in Africa and The United States. The book consists of two essays delivered by Henderson and Mercer Cook at a two-day symposium, “Anger and Beyond: The Black Writer and a World in Revolution” held in Madison, Wisconsin, on August 8 and 9, 1968. Henderson’s work in this book was an attempt to define and give legitimacy to the Black poetry being written in the late 1960s. His first paragraph was unapologetic to critics of the Black Arts Movement. Henderson was speaking just a few months after Martin Luther King’s assassination. He said the following: The term “militant” when applied to black people in the United States is at once inadequate and redundant; when applied to black writers it circumscribes them in a way which they themselves reject. Black writers are “militant” only to white people and to Negroes who think “white,” for merely to say, “I’m black,” in the United States is an act of rebellion; to attempt to systematically to move black people to act out of their beauty and their blackness in white America is to foment writers do not write for white people and refuse to be judged by them. They write for black people and they write about their blackness, and out of their blackness, rejecting anyone and anything that stands in the way of self-knowledge and self-celebration. They know that to assert blackness in America is to be “militant,” to be dangerous, to be subversive, to be revolutionary, and they know this in a way that even the Harlem Renaissance did not. After the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., Henderson would help build the Institute of the Black World (ibw) in Atlanta. It was a think-tank that sought to find an answer to King’s question — “Where do we go from here?” The search was for a higher synthesis that would bring clarity to Black political thought. Derrick White examines this point in his book, The Challenge of Blackness, The Institute of the Black World and Political Activism in the 1970s. Henderson’s comments are interesting when placed next to the poetry of Léon Damas. In his first book Pigments, Damas is the militant poet. His embracing Blackness almost causes the ground beneath his feet to move. His poems would be viewed as dangerous and subversive. In the essay “African Voices of Protest” which opens The Militant Black Writer, Mercer Cook makes reference to a new era of African humanism that began in the 1930s. He links the publication of Pigments to a new militancy growing among young Africans and makes reference to books by Jomo Kenyatta (Facing Mount Kenya) and Nnamdi Azikiwe (Renascent Africa). Unfortunately, financial problems curtailed the activities of ibw, forcing Henderson and others to leave Atlanta. Henderson came to Howard University and arrived in a city where Damas was teaching. In Henderson’s luggage were ideas and concepts that he carried out of Atlanta. Meeting Damas, Henderson would conclude that Damas had what he called the blues spirit — “that particular way of looking at the world and seeing the contradictions, making fun of the contradictions, being utterly serious, yet living fully and sensuously in them and yet having a means for dealing with contradictions.” Henderson had started teaching at Morehouse College in 1962. By the end of the decade he had begun a theoretical examination of the Black experience, trying to define what he called a Black aesthetic. ibw did its most important work between 1969 and 1971. Henderson along with Vincent Harding and William Strickland started looking at the movement of Black people, not only within the confines of the United States. Scholars C.L.R. James and Walter Rodney were invited to give seminar lectures at ibw. Their work encouraged ibw to pursue a more international dimension. Damas and Henderson shared the same cultural sphere while at Howard. Damas would be connected to the African Studies and Research Department, while Henderson was in Afro-American Studies. I saw Damas being associated with African Studies as key to getting that departmental unit to understand that African Studies would be developed by Black people from around the world and not only from Africa. The life and work of Damas was a “living” reminder to Africans to celebrate their Blackness and remember their Negritude. Léon Damas was instrumental in organizing a delegation from Howard University to travel to Senegal to celebrate Léopold Senghor’s 70th birthday in 1976. Henderson was part of the group and was forever grateful to Damas for giving him the opportunity to visit Africa. The trip strengthened their friendship. It made Henderson view Blackness on a global level. It also made him more deeply aware of the importance of documenting and recording the Black experience. Today the epigraph of Claude Mckay that Damas selected to introduce the poems in Pigments remains prophetic: Am I not Africa’s son Black of that black land where Black deeds are done Sadly, too much of our world today is broken and in need of repair. The African continent struggles with economic and political instability. In January 1972 “Black World” magazine published a special feature on Damas. It consisted of a short essay by Ellen Conroy Kennedy and her translations of 16 poems from Pigments. In the essay Kennedy made note of how the poetry of Damas published in 1937 should be seen as providing a theoretical framework for the work of Frantz Fanon, Fanon’s work being crucial in the struggle against colonization and the shaping of African independence. From the poems of Damas one discovers blueprints for survival. In my personal library I have a copy of Léon-Gontran Damas 1912-1978, Founder of Negritude/A Memorial Casebook, edited by Daniel L. Racine. The book was published the year after Damas died. I recall Racine taking his pen to my book and writing: For Ethelbert Miller, a young poet of Negritude who was a friend of Léon Damas and who will continue to spread our older brother’s message with great admiration and encouragement. What was the message? What did Léon Damas try to teach us? At the funeral of Léon Damas, on January 27, 1978, Stephen Henderson said this about his friend: He taught us. The chief thing he taught us was to be aware — as he used to call it ­— of the plantation mentality, whether you are a plantation owner, plantation master, or plantation slave. Do you remember the days of slavery? What do we keep forgetting? Is it our Négritude? Time to rise and ascend. n E. Ethelbert Miller, December 10 2017. Today during this era of celebrity, we know what the one name represents. It stands for the ultimate in achievement and branding. Yet there is a difference between Aretha, Madonna, or Michael — icons in popular culture defined by their first names and those individuals known only by their last. Think of Picasso, Joyce and Faulkner. There is something very definitive when one says the name — Damas. Even when one talks about the Negritude Movement one might say the names Léopold Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and then — Damas. His name seems to punctuate a movement. It operates like an exclamation mark or maybe even a mantra. By coincidence, Stephen Henderson was the exact height as Damas. Maybe this is why they saw eye to eye, when it came to understanding Black culture. What they had in common was a friendship with Mercer Cook. In his last public speech, Damas expressed the hope that one day a student would write a thesis or dissertation about Cook. Mercer Cook was a cultural bridge bringing Black people together around the work of French speaking Black authors. When Damas came to the United States in 1945 (his first time), he stayed at the home of Mercer Cook in Washington, D.C. and visited Cook’s classes at Howard University. I remember attending the first meeting of the Advisory board, held in the Board of Trustees room at Howard University. Everyone was sitting in big chairs around the conference table. As people introduced themselves, they all made reference to having a doctorate degree or representing an academic department. When it came time for Damas to introduce himself, he sat in his chair with his legs crossed and simply said — “Damas.” No title or even first name. Simply “Damas.”