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Page 1

R. Smith
'Living in the gun mouth' : race, class, and political violence in Guyana
Argues that whatever racial antipathies exist in Guyana today are not the same of those of the
1960s. The author reviews the 'racial violence' of the 1950s and 1960s. He concludes that the
politics of that era was a complex process in which many elements were involved and not simply
the outcome of racial antagonism or the reassertion of colonial hegemonic values.
In: New West Indian Guide/ Nieuwe West-Indische Gids 69 (1995), no: 3/4, Leiden, 223-252

Page 2

RAYMOND T. SMITH

" LIVING IN THE GUN MOUTH" : RACE, CLASS, AND
POLITICAL VIOLENCE IN GUYANA

[T]he history which became part of the fund of knowledge or the
ideology of the nation, state or movement is not what has actually been
preserved in popular memory, but what has been selected,
written,pictured, popularized and institutionalized by those whose
function it is to do so ... all historians, whatever else their objectives, are
engaged in this process inasmuch as they contribute, consciously or not,
to the creation, dismantling and restructuring of images of the past which
belong not only to the world of specialist investigation but to the public
sphere of man as a political being.

(Eric Hobsbawm 1983:13)

Early in 1975 I visited a village in Guyana where I had lived for the whole
of 1956. As I walked along what is rather grandly named "Main Street,"
an old man greeted me and we exchanged a few words before I moved on.
The incident was hardly noteworthy, but one phrase, repeated several
times - half anguished and half defiant - has remained clearly in my mind.
He said, "Doe, we are living in the gun mouth here; living in the gun
mouth." The phrase conjured up images of cannon and siege, even per-
haps a war of attrition carried on by armies arrayed against each other and
securely dug in for the long haul. But there was no visible warfare; no
cannons; no smell of cordite or landscape of ruin. This apparently peaceful
village of rice farmers showed definite signs of increased prosperity com-
pared to 1956, with some splendid new houses and a vast proliferation of
tractors and agricultural machinery.1 However, it was very noticeable that
almost all of the 250 Afro-Guyanese who had lived peacefully in this pre-
dominantly East Indian village for many, many years, were gone. Both the
dramatic image of living "in the gun mouth," and the disappearance of the

New West Indian Guide/Nieuwe West-Indische Gids vol. 69 no. 3 &4 (1995): 223-252

Page 94

318 New West Indian Guide/Nieuwe West-Indische Gids vol. 69 no. 3 & 4 (1995)

Black Writers in French: A Literary History ofNegritude. LILYAN KESTE-
LOOT. Translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy. Washington DC: Howard
University Press, 1991. xxxiii + 411 pp. (Paper US$ 19.95)

YANNICKTARRIEU
Department of English
Université des Antilles et de la Guyane
97233 Schoelcher, Martinique

This new edition of the 1974 English translation of Les Ecrivains noirs de
langue frangaise is a scrupulous piece of scholarship that will appeal both
to new readers and to those who discovered the classic study of black
protest and creativity when it was first published in 1963.

One fascinating thing about this monumental effort is the sense it
creates of traveling through layers of time materialized by a juxtaposition
of texts issued over three decades. The core and bulk of the volume is the
English version of the Belgian critic's pioneering work which takes us
from the early 1930s to the early 1960s. We pass from the origins to the
aftermath of a vigorous cultural and literary movement initiated by colored
and black French West Indian and West African students in the intellec-
tual ferment of Paris, centered around Léopold Senghor from Senegal,
Aimé Césaire from Martinique, and Léon Gontran Damas from French
Guiana - a rather familiar story now, impressive in itself. But with the
translator's preface and richly documented introduction, and the author's
1989 and 1973 prefaces and 1963 introduction, readers are given an
opportunity to confront a panel of critical views stretching across an era of
rapid and drastic changes. It is not enough to commend the rendition of
Lilyan Kesteloot's lucid prose or the brilliance of numerous pieces of
poetry sampled in both their French and English versions. There is respect
but also distance in the translator's fastidious attention, as she touches
upon occasional overstatements and misreadings in her colleague's text.

This is no mere ("straight") translation, but the product of remarkable
scholarly detective work which determined the "minor" yet illuminating
editorial changes, like the re-arrangement and modification of chapter
titles. Not least are the updated "Selected Bibliography" and, especially,
the "Supplementary Bibliography, 1974-1990," listed as an indispensable
tooi for students of a fast developing field of research. One aspect of the
new situation has been the growing interest in traditional literature and the
use of the vernacular by African writers striving for authenticity: matters
which were not unnoticed by Kesteloot, as is shown by her 1965 essay,
"Problems of the Literary Critic," published in a remote Cameroonian

Page 95

BOOK REVIEWS 319

review and included here as a bonus. This visionary article will largely
counterbalance the "certain number of inaccuracies and oversights"
which she acknowledges and redresses in her preface to the first English-
language edition of her book. These are occasional misjudgments and
errors of perspective inherent in that sort of ground-breaking enterprise.

The only serious flaw in a literary history of such magnitude might well
be the underestimation of the role of La Revue du monde noir, which anti-
cipated by two years the revolution sparked by Légitime défense (1932),
ignited by L'Etudiant noir (1934) and Tropiques (1941-44), and propa-
gated by the still active Présence Africaine (1947). Kesteloot admits, in a
footnote, that it was impossible for her "to obtain more information con-
cerning this review published by Mademoiselle Nardal, or to obtain any
copies of it" (p. 57). This probably accounts for the confusion in another
footnote which mentions "the Achille brothers" (sic - they were actually
father and son) as contributors to "this essentially cultural little magazine"
(p. 9). Today such details are clearer, due to the recent re-edition of the
bilingual review (1992) with a preface by Louis-Thomas Achille, who died
in 1994 in France. One year before, Aimé Césaire's eightieth birthday had
been celebrated in Fort-de-France in the midst of a controversy over the
relevance of Negritude in the closing years of this century. Two books on
Césaire by Martiniquan intellectuals were published the same year (Con-
fiant 1993; Toumson & Henry-Valmore 1993). The first full biography of
the author of the classic Cahier d'un retour au pays natal was somewhat
undermined by the first. (radical). criticism of the "contradictions" of the
small French island's leading poet and politician: ^romoted by a vocal
group of younger writers, the créolité mövement stands töday as a power-
ful alternative to the Great Old Man's credo! . }

Negritude is having a hard time. Faced by the difficulties of post-colo-
nial Africa and tHe.bitter disillusionment of new generations of African
writers, Kesteloot confessed her "naivè pptimism" as early as 1973 (p. 4).
Ellen Conroy Kennedy does not seem to be .affected by such reservations.
Shedding the "ethno-mysticism" attached to the concept, she reaffirms
the authority of the word in the very title of her translation. She might be
right, after all. From its inception, the mövement had been rife with debates,
which are honestly chronicled in the original work. It has overcome them
all, and the intended American audience will provide it with fresh argu-
ments. Significantly, this edition appéars at a.time when the "new black
ethnic awareness" that took root in the United States in the 1960s (p. xxii)
is feeding theories of Afro-centricity. And it comes from the prestigious
place of black intellectüal activity, Howard University, where the late
Professor Achille taught, and found the base of his culture.

Page 188

CALLALOO
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The Fractal Poetics of Wilson Harris • Ulyssean Carnival: Epic Metamor-
phoses in Wilson Harris's Trilogy • Weaving the Tapestry of Memory: Wilson
Harris's The Four Banks of the River ofSpace • The Metaphor of the Theater in
The Four Banks of the River ofSpace • The Art of Memory and the Liberation
of History: Wilson Harris's Witnessing of Time • Limbo Rock: Wilson Har-
ris and the Arts of Memory • "Hieroglyphics of Space": Wilson Harris in The
Waiting Room • New Man in the Jungle: Chaos, Community and the Margins
of the Nation-State • Wilson Harris's Metamorphoses: Animal and Vegetable
Masks in Palace of the Peacock ' Vodun Iconography in Wilson Harris's Palace of
the Peacock • The Originality of the Sun: A Review of Wilson Harris's The
RadicalImagination: Lectures and Talks • Wilson Harris: A Selected Bibliogra-
phy of His Works.

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WHITTEN, NORMAN E., JR. & JOHN F. SzwED(eds.), 1970. Afro-American Anthropology.'Hsw
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