December 1, 2012

Paul Niger [Albert Béville] (Guadeloupe) 1915-1962

Paul Niger (Albert Béville) (Guadeloupe)

Born Albert Béville on December 21, 1915 in Basse-Terre Guadeloupe, Paul Niger—as the poet ultimately renamed himself—was orphaned at the age of four. His father had been one of the first Black lawyers in Guadeloupe.
     Attending graduate school in Paris, Niger obtained his doctorate in law. In 1939 he was mobilized into the military and fought for France, earning a Military Cross. Discharged in 1940, Niger discovered the work of Aimé Césaire and allied himself with Leopold Senghor, becoming in 1946, a founding member of the journal Presence Africaine and participating in the larger group of Negritude Poets.
      In 1954, Niger published his only book of poetry, Initiation. Two novels, Les Puissants and Le Grenouilles du mont Kimbo followed in 1969 and, after his death, in 1964.

Niger, a political activist, spent the next decade working again the colonial system and social injustice, joining the African Democratic Rally, a group of African thinkers aligned with communist or socialist ideology. From 1958-1959, Niger was the representative of the Federation of Mali in Paris, becoming in 1959-1960 the General of Administrative Affairs and Chief Executive Office of Agricultural Marketing for Senegal.
     In 1961, inspired by Césaire, Niger founded with Édouard Glissant, Cosnay Marie-Joseph, and Marcel Manville the Front of Antilles-Guyane for Autonomy, publishing a pamphlet The West Indies and Guyana At the Time of Decolonization. The independence movement was disbanded and Niger was banned from the West Indies and demoted in his administrative positions.
     In 1962, outwitting the police, Niger managed to board a plane from Paris bound for Guadeloupe. The crash of the plane in the hills of Deshaies has fueled speculation of an intentional murder of the poet and his associate, Justin Catayée, who was also aboard.
Initiation (Paris: Seghers, 1954)

short excerpt in The Negritude Poets: An Anthology of Translations from the French, ed. by Ellen Conroy Kennedy (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1975)

Initiations (excerpt)

a rhythm
a wave in the night through the forests,
      nothing—or a soul reborn
a drum
a chant
the power
the surging
an intense vibration which slowly in the shuddering
brings down an old flagging heart
seizes it by the waist
and pierces it
and turns it
and lives again in its mounting fury in the hands
in the loins
in the thighs
and in the quickening womb.

--Translated from the French by Samuel Allen

Reprinted from Ellen Conroy Kennedy, ed. The Negritude Poets: An Anthology of Translations from the French (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1985).  Copyright ©1985 by Ellen Conroy Kennedy.

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