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Négritude

NÉgritude


It was in Aimé Césaire's revolutionary surrealist poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land ), published in 1939, that the term négritude first appeared in print. It had been invented by Césaire, Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor tells us, perhaps as early as 1932. The term did not come into literary and cultural history until the publication in 1948 of Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache (Anthology of New Black and Malagasy Poetry), whose preface, "Orphée noir" (Black Orpheus), had been written by Jean-Paul Sartre. In addition to Senghor (future president of Senegal) and Aimé Césaire (future representative of Martinique to the French Assembly), the poets of the anthology were Léon Damas of Guyana; Gilbert Gratiant and Étienne Léro of Martinique; Guy Tirolien and Paul Niger of Guadeloupe; Léon Laleau, Jacques Roumain, Jean-François Brière, and René Belance of Haiti; Birago Diop and David Diop of Senegal; Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo, Jacques Rabémananjara, and Flavien Ranarivo of Madagascar. Each of these poets had, in his particular fashion, "returned to the source," composed poems out of the matrix of African culture and experience.

The poems in the anthology varied greatly, from Birago Diop's "Souffles" (Breaths), a haunting tribute to African beliefs that predate the colonial era ("The dead are not dead / Hear the voice of the fire / Hear the voice of the water / Listen to the wind / To the sighing bush / It is the breathing of the ancestors") to a fragment of Césaire's majestic Cahier, which is a meditationconfessional and epic, philosophical and historical, somber and affirmingon the modern black experiences of enslavement and domination, dispossession and alienation:

my negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against the clamor of the day
my negritude is not a leukoma of dead liquid over the earth's dead eye
my negritude is neither a tower nor cathedral
it takes root in the red flesh of the soil
it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky
it breaks through the opaque prostration with its upright patience
(Trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Wesleyan, Conn., 2001, p. 35)

Négritude gathered to itself many poems with diverse themes and varied tones: Praise poems to the beauty of the black woman imagined as symbol of Africa, a lost paradise and homeland; poems inspired by or in homage to jazz, drum, or oral traditions; poems of social and political critique focusing on assimilation and betrayal, and the alienated world of the Creole bourgeoisie; exhortations to solidarity and struggle; edenic reminiscences of the black world before slavery and colonialism, and utopic visions of the black world after racist domination.

Similar concerns and patterns were echoed in a number of West African novels, such as the nostalgic L'Enfant noir (The Dark Child, 1954) by Guinean Camara Laye and L'Aventure ambiguë (Ambiguous Adventure, 1960) by Senegalese Cheikh Hamidou Kane, in which the young hero, Samba Diallo, is trapped between the values of feudal Africa and Islam, on the one hand, and the West, on the other.

Négritude was thus diverse phenomenon, but it has been associated chiefly with Senghor, its principal promoter, who defined it as the "totality of values of black African culture." It was at once a racial essence, common to all Africans and their descendants, wherever they are found, and a conscious choice to embrace the "condition" of being black in a world of white domination. In classic Senghorian négritude, the affirmation of African identity is complemented by faith in the virtue of cultural mixing (métissage ) and an aspiration toward a universal civilization or humanism:

Let us answer "present" at the rebirth of the World
As white flour cannot rise without the leaven.
Who else will teach rhythm to the world
Deadened by machines and cannons?
Who will sound the shout of joy at daybreak to wake orphans and the dead?
Tell me, who will give back the memory of life to the man of gutted hopes?
They call us men of cotton, coffee, oil.
They call us men of death.
But we are men of dance, whose feet get stronger
As we pound upon firm ground.
(From "Prayer to the Masks." In Léopold Sédar Senghor: The Collected Poetry, trans. Melvin Dixon, 1991, p. 13.)

It was in Paris in the 1930s, in a climate of modernism, jazz, African primitivism, and surrealism that the idea of négritude arose. West Indian and African students had come to the capital to complete their education. They had attended French colonial schools whose objective, in keeping with the values of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, was to make of them "black Frenchmen." The effect of this policy of "assimilation" was that these subjects or citizens of France had learned to reject their African cultures of origin and to emulate the culture of the French. Yet, these students now felt the pull of both culturesor, as W. E. B. Du Bois had written three decades earlier, a double consciousnessand they sought the intellectual means to rehabilitate African civilization(s).

Critical to this emergent black cultural consciousness were Paulette and Jane Nardal of Martinique. The Nardal sisters were students at the Sorbonne in the 1920s, and their home became a meeting place for young black intellectuals and writers from Africa and the Americas. Among the American visitors to the Nardal home and to that of their cousin, Louis Achille Jr., were Alain Locke, the editor of The New Negro (1925), and Mercer Cook, a professor of French at Howard University. In 1931 and 1932, Paulette Nardal and Dr. Léo Sajous, a Haitian, published a bilingual journal, the Revue du monde noir (Review of the Black World), which featured translations of Harlem Renaissance poets from the United States and which set forth forceful arguments and appeals for racial pride and solidarity across national and continental boundaries. A remarkable contribution to the Revue was Paulette Nardal's article, "Awakening of Race Consciousness" in which this new international racial and cultural vision is tied to a growing feminist consciousness. (See Chapter 3 of Edwards.) In its brief existence the journal exposed the African and Caribbean students in Paris to facets of black life in the United States and to the poetry of Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. Soon thereafter, Césaire and Senghor were reciting poems by these and other black American writers, among them Jean Toomer, Sterling Brown, and Countee Cullen. Senghor read articles by W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson in The Crisis and Opportunity respectively. The example of these black American brothers, these "new Negroes," was crucial in spurring on Senghor and Césaire, as had been the intellectual courage of René Maran (Batouala, 1921) and Jean Price-Mars (Ainsi parla l'oncle [Thus Spoke the Uncle], 1928), and the work of European anthropologists and ethnographers Maurice Delafosse, Leo Frobenius, and Robert Delavignette, who demonstrated that precolonial African civilizations were not devoid of "culture."

A flurry of attacks against négritude began after the publication of the Anthologie. They were directed especially against Senghor and the proposition that "emotion is Negro as reason is Greek." Above all, the idea of a "Negro soul"collectivist, rhythmic, spiritual, one with naturemade it all too easy to ignore the intellectual acumen and achievements of black people. The assertion of a transcendent racial identity was seen likewise as an essentialist mystification that disregarded critical factors of difference among blacks such as nationality, modes of economic life, history, and language. The emphasis on racial and cultural identity had also overshadowed a more political anti-colonialism, dating from the 1920s and 1930s. And since négritude was a response to the psychological turmoil of a French-educated elite, it was deemed irrelevant to the vast majority of people in French West Africa and to Africans governed under the British policy of "indirect rule." One French critic also observed that négritude merely corresponded to one strain of Western humanism that privileged the intuitive and the irrational. (See chapters 22 and 23 of Hymans, 1971, for a discussion of négritude's early detractors.) Sustained critiques have been made by Stanislas Adotevi in Négritude et négrologues (1972) and Marcien Towa in Léopold Sédar Senghor: Négritude ou servitude? (1971). (See also chapter 2 of Anthony Appiah, In My Father's House, 1992.) In fiction, Yambo Ouologuem's Devoir de violence (Bound to Violence ; 1968) denounced romanticized notions of pre-colonial Africa, and Mariama Bâ's Un chant écarlate (Scarlet Song; 1981) revealed the masculinist bias of négritude. In the French-speaking Caribbean, the emphasis on racial and cultural ties to Africa of the more political Césairian négritude has given way to an assertion of a distinct Caribbean identity (antillanité ) and creoleness (créolité ). (See Edouard Glissant, "L'avenir antillais," Le Discours antillais ["Towards Caribbeanness," excerpted in Caribbean Discourse, 1989] and Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant, Eloge de la créolité/In Praise of Creoleness, 1990.)

Yet African writers and intellectuals acknowledge the critical role of négritude as a cultural and aesthetic philosophy that sought to affirm the humanity of those whose humanity had been denied by Europe on the basis of race. On American shores, Samuel W. Allen published "Black Orpheus," a translation of Sartre's preface, and an anthology of African writers, illustrated by Romare Bearden. Mercer Cook also taught, published, and lectured on African and West Indian writers. Langston Hughes, too, published several anthologies of African writing. That new renaissance of cultural nationalism, the black arts movement of the 1960s, was an American version of négritude: The same themes resonated in the works of writers such as Don Lee, Larry Neal, Sonia Sanchez, and Paul Carter Harrison (The Drama of Nommo, 1972). Moreover, the elaboration of black or African-inspired theoretical models for African-American literature by Houston Baker (Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, 1984) and Henry Louis Gates Jr. (The Signifying Monkey, 1988) can be seen as another avatar of the aesthetic ideology at the heart of négritude.

See also Césaire, Aimé; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Ethnic Origins; Hughes, Langston; McKay, Claude; Neal, Larry; Sanchez, Sonia; Woodson, Carter Godwin

Bibliography

Arnold, James. Modernism and Negritude. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Cook, Mercer, and Stephen Henderson. The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

Edwards, Brent Hayes. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Nationalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Fabre, Michel. From Harlem to Paris: Black American Writers in France 1840-1980. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Hymans, Jacques Louis. Léopold Sédar Senghor: An Intellectual Biography. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1971.

Kesteloot, Lilyan. Black Writers in French. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1990.

Vaillant, Janet. Black, French, and African: A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

eileen julien (1996)
Updated by author 2005

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