Revisiting Antillean Literary History

October 2023

Jacqueline Couti, Sex, Sea, and Self: Sexuality and Nationalism in French Caribbean Discourses, 1924–1948 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2021); 256 pages; ISBN 978-1800859944 (paperback)

Jacqueline Couti’s Sex, Sea, and Self: Sexuality and Nationalism in French Caribbean Discourses, 1924–1948 is a monograph with an explicit intention, one grounded in Couti’s lived experience—her rightful indignation in the face of a colonialist gaze that persistently imposes itself on her Black Antillean woman’s postcolonial body in the eyes of White metropolitan French men.1 Couti is interested in tracing this insolent regard—material and embodied in its punctuation of her present—to its origins in a specific transatlantic francophone past. Her project seeks to excavate and confront the discursive constructions of Black womanhood during the crucial period of the transformation of the Antilles from colonies of French subjects into departments of French citizens.

Attending in particular to the feminine figure-trope of the doudou—“an exotic and sexualized object . . . a tropical siren” (3) characterized by self-abasing longing for the affection of White French men—Couti asserts at the outset that the exotification and eroticization of Black women has been constitutive of Martinican nationhood. The overdetermination of Martinique through the prism of the doudou, she claims, obscures the anticolonial resistance projects taken up by Black women and men in the 1930s and 1940s. Couti’s principal aim, however, is not to document the many instances of doudouisme in colonial literature, a task she set for herself in an earlier monograph, Dangerous Creole Liaisons: Sexuality and Nationalism in French Caribbean Discourses from 1806 to 1897 (2016). Rather, she is concerned with those writers, Antillean women and men of African descent, who contested this trope and yet have remained largely understudied.

The relative scholarly neglect of the writers of her corpus—Suzanne Lacascade, Jane Nardal, Paulette Nardal, Lucienne Combette (a.k.a. Mayotte Capécia), Sully Lara, and Raphaël Tardon—is revealing, Couti argues. These writers’ ambivalent relationships to the French imperial state and its colonial politics have rendered them difficult to integrate into the postcolonial canon. Although they unanimously condemn the oppressive violence of the imperial order, they rarely if ever go as far as to denounce or renounce France itself. It is true, too, that much of their work can imply a certain complicity with White Creole and French nationalist patriarchal ideas, thus proving distasteful and unsettling to present-day readers. For Couti, however, these writers must nonetheless be considered and no longer relegated to being silenced by presentist perspectives. Their works tell stories that make legible the conflicted experiences and relationships between Black Antillean women and men in the decades surrounding the First and Second World Wars. Not everything was Negritude, and Negritude was not everything, Couti insists.

Our scholarly commitment to decoloniality must happen intramurally, even when that means navigating what appear to be contradictory values and intentions among writers from the colonial past. Couti’s careful close readings, combined with pointed evocations of the sociopolitical and historical conditions in which these authors wrote, enable her to parse the conscious and subconscious provocations and limitations of each of the works she considers. Such efforts to recover, rehabilitate, and rediscover these lost, forgotten, or otherwise silenced voices undergird what she calls a “feminist process” (25) of “literary archeology” (34). She understands the works of her corpus as early manifestations of a Black Atlantic humanism that anticipates the thinking of later, far better recognized twentieth-century intellectuals.

Structurally, Couti separates feminine and masculine voices for her analyses. Part 1 of her study considers the lives and works of Suzanne Lacascade; the Nardal sisters, Jane and Paulette; and Lucienne Combette, a.k.a. Mayotte Capécia. Couti’s intention in these first chapters is explicitly to redress the sidelining of Antillean women writers and thinkers relative to their male counterparts, and to highlight Martinican women writers’ rejections of a postwar visual culture that hypersexualized them and feminized their island. Couti weaves a richly detailed historical tapestry that links the period of Vichy France’s control over Martinique to a reliance on the figure of the doudou, the widely circulating trope of the insatiably desirous fair-skinned woman who exists only in and for the eyes of her White French lover. Couti explicitly shows how Lacascade and Paulette Nardal’s respective fictional writings and Jane Nardal’s essays refuse stereotypes engendered both by colonial patriarchy and by French nationalist misogyny. To do so, they rely on a mode of “female theorization” (18) that proceeds from what Couti names a proto-Senghorean “epistemology of emotions” (17), whereby the production of knowledge is facilitated by affective considerations.

At the same time that they sought to carve out space to represent the idiosyncratic experiences of Black Antillean women, Couti acknowledges, these authors belonged to an educated elite social class and thus espoused a particular sort of feminism, one that fought mightily against any hypersexualizing characterizations of Black women by White French men. As such, the Nardals in particular had little tolerance for cultural actors like Combette/Capécia and Josephine Baker, for whom they reserved a disconcertingly classist vilification and whom they cast as vulgar sell-outs to an exploitative French Negrophilia. Couti makes critical space for this elitist blind spot. She emphasizes her subjects’ intersectional identities as grounds for understanding how these women’s discourse could be at once radical and, by present standards, retrograde. She also takes up the criticisms levied against Combette/Capécia by the Nardals, as well as by one of their contemporaries, the Martinican theorist and performer Jenny Alpha, and highlights both the writers’ and the performer’s ambivalent agency.

Couti’s analysis models a feminist scholarly praxis that avoids “concentrating on the micro-structure without looking at the macro-structure” (158). She interrogates, that is, the sociohistorical context that would have determined the possibilities for self-creation available to an uneducated but beautiful (read: fair-skinned) working-class Antillean woman in 1940s Paris. Shifting in this way the angle of her critical assessment of Combette/Capécia’s lived experience and literary production yields compelling insights into the raced, gendered, and classed horizons of the wartime and postwar period in France and its overseas territories. Couti does not shy away from recognizing Combette/Capécia’s (and Baker’s) participation in forms of self-commodification that in many ways reinforced the kinds of troubling representations of Black femininity so abhorred by Black women Antillean intellectuals at the time. From this perspective, she queries the many shapes freedom can take in contexts of sustained and systemic duress.

Part 2 of Couti’s book shifts to works by the male writers Sully Lara and Raphaël Tardon, Antillean intellectuals whose contributions have long been overshadowed, she argues, by Aimé Césaire and by Negritude more broadly. Lara’s narratives, for example, although adamantly anticolonial, have been perceived as insufficiently radical in their attitudes toward the French imperial state. Lara’s target is the Guadeloupean White planter class, whose immorality and barbaric behavior he insists “undermines the validity of French universal ideas” (214). His writings ultimately leave intact a certain love for the French metropolis, along with a faith in the project of French nation-building and the possible role of Antilleans in that effort. Tardon arguably pushes further in his condemnation of the European colonial project but does so in ways that remain distinctly and problematically masculinist.

Most significant to Couti in Lara’s and Tardon’s renderings of the plantation Americas are, indeed, the two men’s relentlessly brutal representations of the sexual violation of women as the foundation of their anticolonial critique. Women in their narratives are subject to graphic, spectacular, and often gratuitous sexual assault but are granted neither agency nor voice in the face of this violence. Unlike the work of the women writers and intellectuals Couti considers in her monograph’s first section, the stories written by these Antillean men never conceive of women’s subjectivity. They exhibit a “disturbing complicity between white Creole and Black Creole discourses that reifies female bodies as mere sexual objects” (229), and they forge a deeply uncomfortable connection between anticolonial nationalist struggles and the sexual degradation of women. For Couti, exploring the works of these largely forgotten male writers and the limitations of the perspectives they believed to be radical is an opportunity to better comprehend “the many forms that political ideas and the construction of the (Black) self can take” (274).

“Literary productions constitute archives that careful scholars have to decipher” (173), Couti writes. And she is just such a careful scholar. Her work offers example after example of how reading against the grain, and in pointed suspension of our own critical value judgments, can nuance and expand our understanding of transformative periods in postcolonial history, elucidating the diverse notions of citizenship and identity held by Black French subjects prior to and immediately following departmentalization. Sex, Sea, and Self rightly insists that scholars pay particular attention to those literary discourses and representations from the past that rankle our present-day political sensibilities around race, class, and gender. To eschew “easy answers” and embrace “unsettling conclusions” (340), Couti reminds us, is required of any scholar interested in writing truly thorough francophone intellectual histories.

Kaiama L. Glover is a professor of African American studies and French at Yale University. She is the author of Haiti Unbound: A Spiralist Challenge to the Postcolonial Canon (Liverpool University Press, 2010) and A Regarded Self: Caribbean Womanhood and the Ethics of Disorderly Being (Duke University Press, 2020). She is a founding co-editor of archipelagos journal, a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review, and a co-host of the podcast WRITING HOME | American Voices from the Caribbean.

[1] Editor's note: The editorial policy of the Small Axe Project is to capitalize “White,” “Black” and all other such racial, ethnic, religious, and national modifiers. That policy governs the style choices made throughout this essay, which should not be taken as a reflection of the author's position on this question.

Related Articles