Pierre-Aristide Desdunes, Les Cenelles, and the Challenge of Nineteenth-Century Creole Literature

By Kress, Dana | Southern Quarterly, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Pierre-Aristide Desdunes, Les Cenelles, and the Challenge of Nineteenth-Century Creole Literature


Kress, Dana, Southern Quarterly


Over the course of the nineteenth century, Louisiana's Creoles de Couleur scored numerous "firsts" in the realm of American literature by persons of color. Their accomplishments in poetry, the short story, the theater, and journalism - echoed by the creation of one of the first literary revues in the state, the first anthology of poetry, and the first black daily newspaper in the United States - offer ample proof of the sophistication of these Francophone writers. The brilliant careers in poetry and drama enjoyed by Creole exiles in France, writers such as Victor Séjour (1817-1874), Camille Thierry (1814-1875), and Pierre Dalcour (b. 1813), shown as a glaring example to all Louisiana Francophones of color that it was not the man who failed his country, but the country who failed the man.

For Creole and Black writers who either chose or were forced to remain in Louisiana because of financial considerations after the Civil War, the newspapers of the period quickly became the forum of preference for their social activism. The first of these newspapers that played a significant role in Louisiana was the radical publication, L'Union, founded at the beginning of the Civil War by Louis Charles Roudanez (1823-1890). Its stance was both abolitionist and revolutionary. Renamed La Tribune de la Nouvelle-Orléans in 1864, this paper, the first black daily in the United States, included ample selections of poetry and serialized short fiction by Creole writers. During Reconstruction the paper became the official organ of those advocating radical change, and for the paper's Creole readers, literature became a highly political and socially engaged act. The poem "To Father Chócame," published in the Tribune on Tuesday, 16 April 1867 offers an excellent example of this social engagement. The fact that the author conceals his identity behind the penname Pierre L'Hermite, the leader of the first crusade to the Holy Land, reveals the true nature of the Creole crusade for social equality:

To Father Chocarne1

My most Reverend Father,

An obscure and lowly Negro,

Listened, overwhelmed last week,

To your radiant words.

He felt the light of faith

Shine within his soul:

Rejecting his consoling doubts

He sought the cross once more.

But this man, oh most Reverend Father,

Listening, transported,

Lost in the glorious tumult of your austere words,

This man lifted his eyes and heart from the world,

And the supreme call, the divine whisper

He had heard stirring within his soul

Vanished like a dying flame,

Like a fugitive memory

Pursued by the realities of the world;

Because he remembered that even in this church

Christ's Apostles permit men to scorn,

To banish to distant pews,

Not great sinners, nor impure tyrants,

But throngs of wretched poor

Whose only fault, whose only crime,

In the eyes of white men who oppress them,

Is to have

Black skin.

You must speak out against such injustice:

As Christ drove the merchants from the temple,

You too must drive out evil men

Who seek in you an accomplice.

Thinking of the obscure and lowly poet

Captivated by your radiant words

You must tell them, oh most Reverend Father,

That a white man who does not want a black man to be his brother,

Loses the sacred right to call God his father.

As the struggle for civil rights became fiercer, the articles and literature became so militant that, finally, the line between literature and armed struggle became blurred. The breaking point came when the post-war constitutional convention, meeting on 30 July 1866 in the Mechanic's Institute, advanced the cause of universal suffrage. The news spread rapidly, and almost immediately an army of angry whites sprang up and converged on the offices of the Tribune. …

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