Lest We Forget Sesenne!
If you’re a Saint Lucian, then you know the significance of the name Sesenne Descartes, and if you’re a millennial like me, then the name brings to life images of Jounen Kwéyòl and folk singing without truly understanding the impact of this ‘chantwelle’ (folk singer). At first I really didn’t mean to make this article a “Did you know” piece but I can’t help myself because of all I’ve come to learn about the cultural queen.
While it’s right to equate Sesenne’s contributions to folk singing with the preservation of culture, she was quite the rebel; one could even say Saint Lucia’s first female cultural activist. Let me explain: while we live in a time when, for the most part, the Kwéyòl language has become synonymous with Saint Lucian culture, in Sesenne’s days, Kwéyòl speaking and even the customs of flower festivals were frowned upon, and in some cases prohibited, by the British elite who governed the island. While I can go on and on about Dame Sesenne’s biography, what strikes me is her persistence in preserving Creole culture and her nonconformance to colonial laws that were put in place to erase our Creole heritage.
We know the history of the Harlem Renaissance and names like Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, who used their art as cultural activism against racism, and the Jim Crow era in the South of the United States; but we don’t quite recognize the contributions of our own like Sesenne, who musically took a stance against British colonialism and its efforts to fragment Saint Lucian society and to make us loathe what is our own.
I grew up with parents who told me that at one point they were treated with contempt for speaking Creole because it was a “bush” language, but that’s how colonialism works, right? Our former “masters” told us that our language was unrefined, and in many ways we believed it. Today, Creole is a heritage celebrated around the world, and it is very present in the music and culture that is exported from Saint Lucia (just look at the rise of Dennery Segment).
Simply put, a Saint Lucia without the contribution of Sesenne, is a Saint Lucia that I would not want to call home. So now when I hear the Taboo Melee, shak-shak or even see the madras cloth, they won’t be symbols of patriotism that I don’t understand, but will represent a victory over colonial struggle. All praise to you Sesenne, a true “Cultural Rebel”. Helen’s Daughters is a Saint Lucian non-profit with a special focus on rural women’s economic development through improved market access, adaptive agricultural techniques, and capacitybuilding. It was formed in 2016 in a winning proposal for UN Women Empower Women Champions for Change Program. To learn more about the initiative, you can visit: Facebook page: Helen’s Daughters Instagram page: helensdaughters.slu Website: helensdaughters.org
Dame Sesenne Descartes; she was a true cultural rebel.