Joseph Zobel's La Rue Cases-Nègres(Black Shack Alley)
La Rue Cases-Nègres serves as an autobiographical testimony of Joseph Zobel, in which he touches many topics regarding post-colonial Martinican social structure and its contrast to that of the French educational system. As a novelist, Zobel denies being a contributor to the négritude movement, and claims himself to be “a creative artist,” to which he must not “sacrifice [his] individuality.” Even though he may set himself apart from the négritude movement, Zobel does however create more of a depiction of Antillanité, trying to portray the Caribbeaness within a small island. Within one of his most influential works, Zobel depicts common themes of Antillanité such as: the role of the Antillean matriarch, the movement from orality to that of written literature, hybridized identity, along with describing a generation of what Frantz Fanon calls “self-hatred.”
In summary, La Rue Cases-Nègres takes place in a small plantation village, Petit-Morne, where the protagonist, José Hassam lives with his grandmother on the Rue Cases-Négres. This work is divided into three parts, in which the first section depicts José’s life before going to school, where he is meticulously brought up by his grandmother, m’man Tine. The second part of the novel deals with his education and pursuit of the Certificat d’Etudes Primaires, which without this certificate according to José, “we would fall in the ‘petites-bandes’ and all the sacrifices of our parents would have been in vain.” Finally, in the last section of the novel, José moves to Fort-de-France, after receiving a quarter scholarship from le Concours des Bourses. At this point in his development, he lives with his birthmother, Délia, who makes sacrifices in order to send her son to school.
Zobel underscores a primary cultural aspect of Caribbean countries-the Antillean matriarch. Both m’man Tine and her daughter Délia make up an extended line of support for the main character, illustrating a “poto mitan.” Both of these women prove to be essential in the upbringing of José, with m’man Tine working feverously in the cane-fields, and Délia working for the béké in order to support her son fully to live a life outside that of the common Martinican social structure. In an interview, Euzhan Palcy states that “women in Martinique are very kind, very lovely...but they are very proud, very hard…they don’t let you see their tenderness.” This proves true especially as Zobel continues to develop m’man Tine’s character throughout the novel. She strives to make José “un enfant bien-élevé” even if it means she must brutally punish him, and remind him constantly that he bears quite a burden on m’man Tine. Towards the end of the novel, Délia serves as an urban extension of this matriarch as she looks after José in Fort-de-France.
Furthermore, Zobel focuses overall on José’s progression from a milieu of orality and a traditional society to that of a “better future” in written literature. Monsieur Médouze, the village elder and storyteller, is a quintessential representation of oral tradition and the art of storytelling. At the beginning of the novel, we see many interactions between the main character and his “teacher” Médouze who uses riddles and stories as a way of depicting the history of slavery and the economic relationship between blacks and the békés in Martinique. One could also put forward that this form of teaching, through riddles and stories, is a way of “discovering” one’s own history, rather than merely accepting the “official” story. As a whole, Médouze instills a thought of questioning and resistance within José, and represents the ancestral knowledge and memory. In contrast, José begins to go to school and after receiving his Certificat, embarks on a journey that immerses him in a completely different world of teaching. Even his grandmother urges him to go to school, that he “is finished picking up bad habits on the plantation. You’re going to school to get some education in your head…” José begins to realize that his grandmother wished to save him from the cursed life of living on the plantation, and that the only way to “free himself” from it is to receive an education. Zobel brings forth this idea of “Frenchness” being considered a path to upward social mobility. That is to say, that with his French schooling and fluency, José would be able to integrate himself within the large city.
I feel that Zobel creates a sense of irony with the “traditional versus French system” ideology. According to Médouze, the blacks on the plantations are still chained to the sufferings of working for white man, working laboriously for such a humble lifestyle. In contrast, in order to escape this “residue” left by imperialistic colonizers (a life spent endlessly working in the cane-fields) José must chose to conform to the French educational system as a way to promise a life out of this misery. Therefore, in an effort to flee from the harshness of a “white economy,” he must still run away from his traditional upbringing, embracing the education of the Other.
As a result of having an “oral” past and embracing a “literary” future, José creates a sort of hybridized identity; a personal culture. This, of course, allows him to embrace the historical and ancestral teachings of Médouze, the practical upbringing from m’man Tine, along with ideals of the French educational world.
Finally, Zobel provides many examples that portray a generation of Martinican citizens who undergo a sense of “self-hatred” or identity confusion as Frantz Fanon claimed. For example, an issue of Créolité is presented when Mam’zelle Mélie, who speaks only Creole, prevents Jojo from hanging around José because they engage in conversations in Creole. She labels the language as a “treacherous invention.” In addition, Carmen and José have a discussion on the idea that many Martinican citizens possess concerning the “lightening of the race.” They talk about black women and white men producing children who are thus a “saved” skin. Furthermore, José must defend his color even when talking to a woman later on in the novel, Mme Adréa, who is disgusted so much by her race, that she claims to be “white on the inside.” Overall, these three examples describe a level of identity confusion, that there are prejudices and hatred even among those with the same background and color.
In conclusion, Joseph Zobel uses his novel to convey major Caribbean themes such as the role of the matriarch, the progression from orality to literature, hybridized identity, and the issues of identity confusion.