Leon Damas, 65, the great French Guianan black poet who with other French-colonized contemporaries founded the Negritude movement in Paris in the 1903s, died Sunday at George Washington Hospital after a long illness.
Damas, together with the now-famous poet-statesman of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and Martinique poet Aime Cesaire, pioneered in creating the cultural and literary movement that championed. Negro-ness. It became one of the most important literary movements of the postwar era. In the 1960s, Negritude was an important influence in the revolution of black consciousness in America.
"As Cesaire used to say, we had no idea at the time that the movement would become so important," Damas said in 1970 shortly after his works were translated into English in sizable numbers for the first time.
Damas had lived in Washington since 1970 and had taught at Georgetown University, Federal City College and at Howard University as a distinguished visiting professor. He also lectured at several other American universities including Princeton, Yale, New York University, Johns Hopkins, and Hofstra.
A slight man whose powerful poetry belied his fragile appearance, Damas wrote 10 books of verse and prose which were reminiscent of fiery young black consciousness poets of the 1960s. His first volume of poems, "Pigments" (1937), was at once an expression of outrage and a striking of firmation of inner freedom. He went on to write "Poems Negres sur des Airs Africains" (Negro Poems Written to African Airs) in 1947; "Grafitti" (1952) and "Black Label" (1956).
His prose works include "Retour de Guyana" (1938) and a volume of short stories entitled "Veillees Noires" (1944). He edited one anthology, "Poetes d'Expression Francaise" (Poets of French Expression) in 1947 and collaborated on a second.
"Pigments" was banned in France and parts of Africa when it was first written. "All of these poems written in the '30s prepare awareness of a race consciousness which contributed to struggles for independence in Africa," Damas has stated.
As a student of Paul Rivet, then director of the Museum of Natural History, he was assigned to carry out ethnographic field studies of vestiges of African culture in the Guianas. He exposed the plight of his country in "Return from Guiana.:"
There was little in his early life, however that presaged this future revolutionary impact. Born Leon Gontran on March 28, 1912, in Cayenne, attended the University of Paris where he studied modern Oriental languages, literature, law, history and ethnology.
In Paris the Dadaist and Surrealist movements were challenging traditional values and a young Martinique poet, Etienne Lero, published a manifesto that lashed out against black West Indian writers who accepted white culture and neglected their own peoples' struggles and aspirations. These ideas deeply influenced Damas, as did the work of black American writers such as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown and the rhythms of American jazz.
It was during this time that Damas wrote "Pigments," which the French quickly decided was a "risk against the internal and external security of France."
Damas went into politics after the war and served in the French Assembly from 1945-51 as deputy from Guilana When he refused to whitewash the findings of a commission investigating the bloody uprisings of the Ivory Coast in 1949, pressures by the French resulted in his defeat in the next election. He was awarded the French Commemorative Medal for the Liberation of 1945.
He then returned to literature and journalism and a prodigious outpouring. He headed up the overseas department of the publishing house, Editions Fasquelle, on official assignment for various French government agencies.
In 1963-64, he traveled extensively throughout Brazil, the U.S., Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico and Cuba to collect material for a study of the black contributions to occidental literature and culture.
Damas' output demonstrated his spirit, energy and genius Published in French and translated into a dozen languages, Damas continued to be the subject of academic thesis and dissertation. Many of his poems have been seet to music and recordings of his works have been issued in Brazil, Germany and in the U.S.
In recent years he worked on three other books: a collection of folk tales from Guiana, biographical study of Langston Hughes, most of whose poems Damas translated into French, and a volume of poems, "Mine of Nothing."
His interest in young people, including the black American "soul poets as he called them, stimulated and inspired him, he said, and the love was returned. A few weeks before his death, Damas was notified of an honorary degree that Dennison University intended to confer upon him on May 27, 1978.
He is survived by his wife, Maretta Campos Damas, of Washington, a brother, Joseph, and a sister, Henrietta Bibas, both of Martinique, and relatives in Paris and in Guiana.