An aesthetic and literary movement inaugurated in the 1930s that centers on the creative potential of black consciousness, negritude was one of the premier cultural phenomena of the twentieth century. Curiously, negritude has no originating text as such; it took root and flourished in Paris in the mid-1930s, fed by the writings of two black scholars from the French colonies, Aimé Césaire (b. 1913) of Martinique and Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001) of Senegal. Both of these figures would go on to become major writers, and each would play a leading role in the political life of his respective country of origin. Senghor became the first president of an independent Senegal, and Césaire served simultaneously as mayor of the Martinican capital, Fort-de-France, and as Martinique's representative to the French National Assembly for more than forty-five years.
Negritude became internationally recognized with the publication of Césaire's book-length poem, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Return to my native land) in 1939. The Césaire-Senghor collaboration that led up to this moment was indeed serendipitous. They met as colonial scholarship students in Paris. Each had been strongly influenced by the scope for rehabilitating black history and culture evinced by such recent movements as the Harlem Renaissance, and admired greatly the work of such poets as James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, and Claude McKay. René Menil, a constituent member of the Parisian group that published the radical manifesto Légitime défense (Legitimate defense) in 1932, was also a major influence on Césaire, and joined him later in launching the Martinique-based periodical Tropiques. The Revue du monde noir (Review of the black world), published 1931–1932, introduced them to the work of such writers and educators as Langston Hughes and Alain Locke; they were also influenced by the presence in Paris of the French Guyanese author René Maran, the author of Batouala, which had won the French Prix Goncourt in 1921 and was subsequently banned in French African colonies. Together with a group of fellow students, they launched a literary magazine, L'Etudiant noir (The black student), which took a militant stand against black cultural assimilation by actively seeking to explore and valorize the singularity of the black cultural experience. The publication inaugurated the use of the word negritude, and appeared roughly half a dozen times before closing in 1936. During this period Césaire and Senghor, along with their friend and collaborator, the French Guyanese poet Léon Dumas, culled from these influences a framework for rehabilitating and resituating the articulation of black consciousness and its attendant cultural expression, even within an ongoing context of colonialism and racism.
Philosophy and Practice: Césaire
Drawing on a binary structure that, as we shall see, would ultimately lead to its undoing, negritude sought to ground and, indeed, to legitimize the difference of the black aesthetic in a set of biological concepts meant to firmly separate the black experience from the white experience. Initially, however, from an artistic perspective, its founders drew heavily on French surrealism. This radical mode of poetic expression, which first made its appearance in postwar France, afforded a means of discursive liberation from French rationalism through the abandonment of traditional aesthetic and expressive constraints. To this expressive vein must be added the work of Leo Frobenius, whose groundbreaking Histoire de la civilisation africaine (1936; History of African civilization) exploded the myth of Negro barbarity as a European invention and was of cardinal importance in allowing the founders of negritude scope for a needed valorization of Africa-based civilizations and cultures. This concatenation of beliefs and arguments allowed them to posit that what was unique to the black experience—what separated it from Western subjectivity and provided the basis for the new aesthetic—was a predetermined predilection for art, emotion, intuition, and rhythm, which were opposed to supposedly Western characteristics of order, reason, and logic. These, then, were the enabling categories of expression that mediated the appearance and argumentation of negritude.
In literary terms, and especially in the Cahier, which is typically seen as its foundational text, negritude functions as an illumination and affirmation of pride in black subjectivity. The sentiments voiced in the poem derive their importance equally from their form and their content as the poet joins lyricism to self-revelation in a rediscovered empathy with his African ancestry. This black subject revels in the rebirth of a black identity that is both historically and culturally grounded; negritude becomes a framework for creative cultural expression that valorizes black civilizations past and present and thus, at least in the Cahier, goes beyond a reductive essentialism based on biology. Ultimately, what is emphasized is the process of self-discovery and self-actualization, an ongoing voyage into blackness that replaces the static acceptance of colonial inferiority with the active uncovering of viable alternative identities.
Philosophy and Practice: Senghor
Senghor differed from Césaire in both his vision and his practice of negritude; for him, opposing the values of Europe to those of the African world led him to valorize life forces as the essential framework grounding his poetic portraits of African civilization. Arriving in Paris in 1928 on a partial scholarship in literary studies, he studied at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the Sorbonne. It was during this period that he began to be influenced by his discussions with Césaire, Maran, McKay, and the Haitian author and intellectual Dr. Jean Price-Mars. It was around this time that Senghor formed the belief that blacks could benefit by assimilating European culture without severing themselves from their own cultural origins. He promulgated a return to historical and cultural sources through the cultivation of indigenous languages and traditions, and sought to instantiate this value system through the vocabulary, themes, and symbolism of his published poetry. His Hosties noires (Black offerings) and the collection Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (Anthology of new black and Malagasy poetry in French) appeared to mark the centennial of the French abolition of slavery in 1948, joining the already-published collections by Césaire in rehabilitating the perceived "primitive" character of black colonial civilizations.
Senghor's primary themes are alienation and exile, along with a recognition of the central role played by the culture and tradition of his African homeland. The importance of the cultural heritage that he was thus able to describe and define for his fellow blacks cannot be overemphasized. This valorization of a cultural patrimony became a catalyst for black self-realization, demonstrating negritude's capacity to engender pride in authenticity and racial difference. Much more so than did Césaire's, Senghor's writing stressed claims for a particular black emotional and psychological experience, an affective rapport that draws on a specifically African relationship to the forces of the universe that are separate and apart from those of the West. Where the black African perceives and internalizes in a subjective way (the argument goes), relating to external stimuli in primarily emotional terms, the Westerner, in his turn, relates to the world through analysis and reason. This is not to claim a monopoly on either category for either group, in his view. While not denying the rational power of blacks or the emotive capacities of whites, Senghor does see very real differences in temperament and worldview that determine the ways in which certain cultures view and relate to the world. As limited and reductionist as this argument might seem today, it extended an elaborate and perhaps necessary ontology to the concept of negritude, providing an enabling framework for literally hundreds of African and Caribbean writers to express their vision of their own cultural and historical experience well into the 1960s.
Negritude, then, was in a certain sense a product of its time; despite its own claims to the contrary, its primary shortcoming was perhaps that it drew unconsciously on the binaries of the colonial era. It opened the way for a flood of creative black expression, but it would in time be superseded by alternative approaches to, and theories of, black identity. Critiques that would be leveled at negritude by Frantz Fanon, the Martinican intellectual, and Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian novelist and Nobel laureate, among others, would center on the concept's racial grounding and its implicit essentialisms, contradictions, and limitations. Given the widely varying social and historical situations involved in the development of black culture, any theory that sought to contextualize and mediate this development needed to be deracialized. By moving away from a race-based analysis of culture to one that reflects the range of influences inflecting black historical reality, the differing cultural expressions of black people could be taken into account, catalyzed, and valorized. The theories of Césaire and Senghor would in time give way to those of Glissant and Bernabé, Chamoiseau, and Confiant, among others, acknowledging the opening up of the categories of race and culture whose binary, colonially driven structures established the boundaries of blackness even as they sought to endow them with value and meaning.
See also Africa, Idea of ; African-American Ideas ; Afrocentricity ; Authenticity, Africa ; Black Atlantic ; Black Consciousness ; Colonialism: Africa ; Communication of Ideas: Africa and Its Influence ; Diasporas: African Diaspora ; Humanity: African Thought ; Race and Racism .
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Bâ, Sylvia Washington. The Concept of Negritude in the Poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973.
Cailler, Bernadette. Proposition poétique: une lecture de l'oeuvre d'Aimé Césaire. Sherbrooke, Que.: Naaman, 1976.
Confiant, Raphaël. Aimé Césaire: une traversée paradoxale du siècle. Paris: Stock, 1993.
Davis, Gregson. Aimé Césaire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Eshleman, Clayton, and Annette Smith, trans. Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
Popeau, Jean Baptiste. Dialogues of Negritude: An Analysis of the Cultural Context of Black Writing. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2003.
Richardson, Michael. Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean. Translated by Krzysztof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson. London: Verso, 1996.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. "Orphée noir." In Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue francaise. Edited by Léopold Sédar Senghor. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1948.
Scharfman, Ronnie. Engagement and the Language of the Subject in the Poetry of Aimé Césaire. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1987.
Senghor, Léopold Sédar. Négritude et humanisme. Paris: Seuil, 1964.
Taylor, Patrick. The Narrative of Liberation: Perspectives on Afro-Caribbean Literature, Popular Culture, and Politics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.
H. Adlai Murdoch
"Negritude." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/negritude
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négritude (nĕg´rĬtōōd´, –tyōōd), a literary movement on the part of French-speaking African and Caribbean writers who lived in Paris during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Adherents of négritude included Leopold Sédar Senghor, Léon Damas, and Aimé Césaire, who is said to have coined the term. Characteristic of négritude are a denunciation of Europe's devastation of Africa, a decrying of the coldness and stiffness of Western culture and its lack of the humane qualities found in African cultures, and an assertion of the glories and truths of African history, beliefs, and traditions.
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ne·gri·tude / ˈnegriˌt(y)oōd; ˈnē-/ (also Ne·gri·tude) • n. the quality or fact of being of black African origin. ∎ the affirmation or consciousness of the value of black or African culture, heritage, and identity: Negritude helped to guide Senegal into independence with pride.
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