Following the example of intellectuals in France
and Haiti, Afro-Creole activists in Louisiana - led by Haitian émigrés, their
children, and French-speaking native Louisianians - had been nurturing their
republican heritage. As political expression was stifled, they poured their
energies into a new vehicle of revolutionary ideas, the Romantic literary
New Orleans' highly politicized black intelligentsia
thereby tapped into the Atlantic world's ongoing current of political radicalism,
protesting injustice in their literary work. Their principal forum was La
Société des Artisans. Founded by free black artisans and veterans of the War of 1812, the organization provided local Creole writers the opportunity to
exchange ideas and present their numerous artistic works in a friendly setting.
Among these young writers was Victor Séjour. His
father, a Haitian émigré, was a veteran of the War of 1812 and a prosperous
dry-goods merchant. The young Séjour had been educated at New Orleans' prestigious
black school Académie Sainte-Barbe, under the tutelage of Michel Séligny,
the most productive Afro-Creole short-story writer. Séjour's audience at La
Société proclaimed him a prodigy, and his father, determined to see his son
fulfill his artistic potential and anxious for Victor to escape the burden
of racial prejudice in Louisiana, sent him to France to complete his education.
In Paris, the youth quickly came under the influence of another writer of
African-Haitian descent, renowned novelist Alexandre Dumas, author of The
Three Musketeers (1844), The Count of Monte Cristo (1844-45), and
many other celebrated works.
Séjour made a dramatic debut on the
literary scene with the publication, in March 1837, of an impassioned attack
on slavery, "Le Mulâtre" (The Mulatto), the first short story by an African-American
writer to be published in France.
Following the publication of "Le Mulâtre,"
Séjour embarked on a remarkably productive artistic career. When he was only
twenty-six years old, the famed Théâtre Français produced his first drama;
it would be followed by two dozen more. In one season, French theaters produced
three of his works simultaneously, and Emperor Napoleon III attended opening
nights of two of them.
Ironically, Séjour's first story,
though it may have circulated privately within the black community, was never
published in New Orleans. It fell within the parameters of an 1830 Louisiana
law prohibiting reading matter "having a tendency to produce discontent among
the free coloured population . . . or to excite insubordination among the
slaves." Violators faced either a penalty of three to twenty-one years at
hard labor or death, at the judge's discretion.
Despite such restrictions, the city's
free people of color managed to fashion a vibrant literary movement, dominated
by Haitian refugees and their descendants. The influence of the French Romantic
movement among New Orleans' black intellectuals became more evident in 1843
with the publication of a short-lived, interracial literary journal L'Album
littéraire: Journal des jeunes gens, amateurs de littérature (The Literary
Album: A Journal of Young Men, Lovers of Literature). Its most prominent black
founder was Armand Lanusse, of Haitian ancestry and one of the city's leading
Romantic artists. Lanusse and his fellow writers, both émigré and native-born,
ignored the 1830 literary censorship law and, like their fellow Romantics
in France and Haiti, used their literary skills to challenge existing social
In a series of introductory essays,
the anonymous contributors to L'Album deplored "the sad and awful
condition of Louisiana society," where the spectacle of rampant greed, unrelieved
poverty, and institutionalized injustice "grips our hearts with deep sorrow,
showering grief over all our thoughts, filling the soul with terror and despair."
Within a year of its debut, L'Album
disappeared from the literary scene after critics attacked the journal
for advocating revolt. Lanusse then edited a collection of poems by Creoles
of color in 1845; Les Cenelles: Choix de poésies indigènes was the
first anthology of literature by African Americans in the United States. Les
Cenelles was much more subdued in tone than its predecessor. Still, Lanusse
in his preface emphasized the value of education as "a shield against the
spiteful and calamitous arrows shot at us." He and his colleagues considered
their art form a springboard to social and political reform.