Jennifer Osei-Mensah explores the issue of cultural identity in Martinique
Living abroad makes you much more aware of your identity. One of the first questions I am asked when I meet someone new is where my accent is from, and then often, because I am mixed-race, where I’m really from. When your nationality, your accent, your language, and the colour of your skin set you apart from the people around you, you start to consider identity more.
Identity is an extremely complex issue here in Martinique, an overseas department of France situated in the Lesser Antilles. The people here are French citizens who have the right to vote in French elections, and you do not need a passport for the 8-hour flight from Paris: although it’s nearly 7,000km from the French capital, Martinique is technically in the Schengen zone. But the culture here is closer to that of its neighbouring Caribbean islands than to the rest of France, and this is easily seen in the local food, the Creole language spoken by a vast majority of the population, and the laid-back attitude of the Martiniquais. The Creole population is mostly made up of the descendants of West Africans, brought to the Caribbean during the slave trade, and since the first French colonials arrived in Martinique the island has not been independent – it became first an Overseas Department in 1946 and then a Department in 1974. The white descendants of the slave owners are called Békés, and these families still control the majority of the island’s wealth.
Recent history illustrates the tensions that are at work here when you consider identity. In January 2009, Guadeloupe, another Caribbean French territory, was hit by national strikes protesting the high cost of living. These strikes quickly spread to Martinique, and paralysed the islands for months. The group behind these protests, Liyannaj Kont Pwofitasyon, which translates literally as Collective Against Outrageous Exploitation in Creole, flaunted the words ‘Guadeloupe belongs to us’ on posters and in their group’s anthem – words clearly calling for independence. Political commentator Julien Mérion stated that behind the very real social crisis in Martinique and Guadeloupe, there was a more hidden identity crisis.
The movement for independence was not a novelty. In the 1980s the terrorist group Caribbean Revolutionary Alliance, based in Guadeloupe, called for independence through much more violent means, leading to a series of bomb attacks both in the Lesser Antilles and Paris between 1983 and 1989, resulting in 3 deaths and 50 injuries. In an interview, one of their so-called soldiers clearly states “I am not at all French, I am Guadeloupean.”
However, despite these demonstrations calling for independence, the people of Martinique remain resolutely French. The independence referendum held in January 2010 saw a 55% rate of participation, of which an overwhelming 80% voted to remain French. There are undeniable economic and social benefits to being a part of the French Republic, but the Martiniquais identity remains distinct from that of mainland France. Does this then lead to a separation between an attachment to the French nationality and republican ideals? A cultural identity that is specifically Martiniquais? If so, what exactly is this Martiniquais cultural identity?
The issue of defining identity apart from the political aspects of being a French department remains complicated. Martiniquais writer Aimé Césaire was one of the main founders of the Négritude movement which started in the 1930s – this can be translated literally as Blackness, and was primarily a political movement to ‘write back’ against colonialism. Aimé Césaire is somewhat of a national hero in Martinique – the international airport is named after him. However, other equally celebrated Martiniquais writers such as Jean Bernabé and Patrick Chamoiseau would go on to argue that the Négritude movement reduced the Antillean identity to its African aspect, and denied 400 years of complexity and development that was specifically Creole. And then, if the Martiniquais identity is only defined by the Creole population that arrived with the slave trade, is that definition denying the traces that remain of the Amerindians – the native people who were here before the arrival of Columbus in 1502, who were themselves a combination of different peoples with different languages… Identity becomes a sort of Russian doll the more you think about it – questions lead to more questions.
So maybe the issue now is not so much how to define the Martiniquais identity, because it can be defined by its complexity. Maybe the task of recognition of Martiniquais identity should really fall to mainland France, by recognising Creole as a national language and allowing more overseas influences to permeate ‘French’ culture – progress that seems unlikely in the near future. The debate at this point is rather, how to make the identity of this beautiful island work in harmony with its political attachment to France.
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