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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 (19062001) 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 19311932, 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 experiencewhat separated it from Western subjectivity and provided the basis for the new aestheticwas 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 .


Arnold, A. James. Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

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

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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


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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In the 1930s the poet and politician AiméCésaire (b. 1913), a Martinican who later led his home colony to assimilation as a French department, coined the term negritude. Negritude corresponded to an intellectual movement that emerged during the interwar years in France and promoted culture as a political mode of expression for black identity within the context of Europe's relationship to its colonies. Scholars have traditionally credited Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001, the first president of Senegal), and the French Guianan Léon-Gontran Damas (1912–1978) with developing negritude. However, in the intellectually and politically turbulent Paris of the 1920s and 1930s, many people contributed to elaborating a set of ideas that are neither clearly defined nor completely obvious in their repercussions. The origins and influences of negritude should be understood within their cultural, intellectual, and political contexts. Among the sociopolitical conditions providing a backdrop for this movement were the arrival of colonial men in France during World War I; ensuing anti-imperialism across Europe; and the printing of African- and Caribbean-run newspapers in interwar Paris.


World War I transformed France's relationship with its African and Caribbean colonies. For the first time black men were invited to discover the metropole at the center of their empire. Approximately 250,000 conscripted soldiers from Sudan and Senegal were joined by 30,000 from the Caribbean and Madagascar. Moreover, French men called upon to fight were replaced in factories by 200,000 colonial workers.

Colonial soldiers were admired for their fighting skills and suffered high casualty rates. Some of those who survived remained in France after the war as workers, often in exploitative jobs, or students. Remembering fallen comrades and knowing that they had helped France out of a severe crisis in manpower, many from Africa and the Caribbean believed the nation owed them a blood debt. Yet the social prospects momentarily revealed by the war, including possibilities for interracial relationships with French women and the promise of equality as citizens, disappeared during the post-war years. Convinced that France owed them suffrage and freedom, some black men and women organized associations that demanded assimilation as French departments or an end to French colonialism.

Proponents of anticolonialism congregated in port cities across France and Europe, including Bordeaux, Marseille, Toulon, and Le Havre, but played to France's centralized political system by placing headquarters in Paris. A series of organizations succeeded one another, including the Committee for the Defense of the Negro Race (1926), the League for the Defense of the Negro Race (1927), and the Negro Workers' Union (1932). These associations were carefully observed by undercover informants who reported to the police and the Ministry of Colonies, and as a result were divided by paranoia about how to escape the French government's scrutiny. Uncertain to what extent they should allow themselves to be funded by the Communist Party and influenced by directives from Moscow, they fell victim to bickering that broke down along class lines, as well as lines of geographical origin. Intellectuals and workers from the Caribbean and Africa, were often at loggerheads over whether they could trust one another. Nonetheless, these organizations maintained an ongoing presence in Paris and contacts with likeminded European groups throughout the 1920s and 1930s.


Police informants were more concerned with members of radical anticolonialist associations than with individuals who are usually credited with elaborating black nationalism through negritude. They made few references to Senghor or Césaire, preferring to comment upon debates within all three associations about whether to describe themselves as Negro or black. Nègre, or Negro, the word that forms the base for negritude, was considered a powerful statement about the desire to take control of a pejorative descriptive previously employed by Europeans in an attempt to affirm white superiority. The January 1927 issue of La race nègre (The Negro race), an organ for the Committee, included an article entitled "The Word Negro." The author explicitly placed the word in opposition to others less charged with race and class, such as men of color or blacks. The scholar Christopher Miller suggests that this article marks the beginning of an attempt to recapture blackness through language, one that has been associated traditionally with the writings of Senghor and Césaire. Repeated references to the divide between black and Negro in newspapers and police notes suggests that cultural and intellectual attempts to redefine the parameters of a debate on race predated those usually associated with negritude.


This historiographical development in the understanding of negritude's origins has emerged alongside a growing interest in the women who were part of a movement traditionally associated with men. Senghor and Césaire had few contacts with their radical anticolonialist counterparts, even though they were also fleetingly intrigued by communism. In contrast, there were exchanges between these groups and a woman named Paulette Nardal. The eldest of seven Martinican sisters, Paulette and her sister Jane held a salon that connected Africans, Antilleans, and African Americans. Negritude developed in Paris largely because the city facilitated interracial and intercultural contacts, and the salon encouraged such exchanges.

The Nardal sisters contributed to newspapers linked with their salon that challenged black intellectuals to find their place in Europe while coming to terms with their identity, both essential components of negritude. In a 15 October 1928 article for La dépêche africaine (The black dispatch), Jane explored the dangers of allowing Europeans to project their negrophilia—or passion for all things black—upon colonial men and women who would be reduced to mere "Exotic Puppets." Writing for La revue du monde noir (The review of the black world) in April 1932, Paulette added that women were the first to be truly challenged by their blackness because they were the focal points for exotic gazes projected by Europeans. L'etudiant noir (The black student) appeared only once, in March 1935, but gathered writings by Paulette Nardal, Césaire, and Senghor in a paper that has often been considered the immediate catalyst for negritude. Articles focused, in the vein of Jane and Paulette Nardal's work, upon establishing an identity as both European and black by rejecting stereotyping and defending blackness.


Negritude, anticipated in the writings of anti-imperialist blacks and Antillean women, was finally embodied by Césaire's term. But what did it mean? In L'etudiant noir, Césaire wrote that before World War I blackmen wished to become European and assimilated, but the blood debt and France's stern dealings with its colonies in postwar years changed their hopes. This concurrence inspired negritude, which was voiced by black men educated in elite French institutions including the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Senghor emphasized in negritude a cultural heritage common to Africans around the world. Césaire took control of blackness by reclaiming the word nègre in his 1939 work Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land). As poets and politicians, both men sought to explore black consciousness through the French language, inspired by the writings of African Americans Claude McKay (1889–1948), Langston Hughes (1902–1967), and Countee Cullen (1903–1946), as well as by some of the French avant-garde artists known as surrealists. They were stirred, like the Nardal sisters, by a sense of alienation that they saw spreading to an entire race. They answered by articulating fundamental differences between Europeans and Africans. Female, emotional, and rhythmic Africa, all components of a black essence, contrasted in their writings with male, technical, and cold Europe. However their expression of negritude differed slightly since Senghor emphasized the essentialist approach while Césaire argued that differences defining people of African descent were cultural rather than genetic. For Césaire negritude meant the recognition of one's cultural heritage and the communications of that legacy to others in the African diaspora.


World War II marked a turning point for colonialism. During the war Césaire resisted in the Vichy-dominated West Indies with the journal Tropiques. Senghor saw service in the French army and was taken prisoner before eventually being released. After the war Senghor and Césaire became increasingly involved in politics. They also continued to write about negritude, encouraging others to find a black consciousness.

Their project and the term negritude were recognized when the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) wrote in a 1948 preface for an anthology of African and Caribbean poetry edited by Senghor. In it he described the movement as an inner experience and a philosophy in its own right that depended upon the black poets' ability to recapture European languages.

Many reacted to negritude after Sartre helped reveal it to a broad public. Negritude was attacked by communists, who believed it withdrew attention from the class struggle. Others believed negritude was racist because it established black men as different, not only physically but also in their essence, through their souls. Some who saw a fundamental break between poet-politicians and their increasingly anti-imperialist people attacked the idea for its elitism. The final criticism appeared in the 1960s: most Africans in France's past and present colonies did not read French and hence could never discover negritude. These critiques suggested an important post–World War II development: politics, not culture, were supposed to lead Africans toward their desired independence.

Negritude was a literary and cultural movement that identified a shift in the relationship between black and French identity. Although not the first expression of black nationalism, since several 1920s organizations presaged its ideas, negritude was the most articulate rejection of white European supremacy. Contrasting Africa's emotive intuition with European rationalism and individualism allowed a cultural movement to reinvent itself politically and inspire others after World War II in their African nationalism. The movement died down in the 1960s because decolonization had largely succeeded and because of internal inconsistencies. Nonetheless, negritude marked a seminal moment in Europe's changing relationship with its colonies, one in which Africans and Antilleans found articulate and passionate voices in defense of their blackness.

See alsoColonialism; French Empire; Racism; Senghor, Léopold Sédar.


Primary Sources

Césaire, Aimé. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Translated and edited by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Middletown, Conn., 2001.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Black Orpheus. Translated by S.W. Allen. Paris, 1976. Translation of Orphée Noir, originally the preface to Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache delanguefrançaise, edited by L. S. Senghor(1948).

Senghor, Léopold Sédar. Liberté. Paris, 1964. Contains most of Senghor's cultural works from reviews and journals published between 1937 and 1964.

Secondary Sources

Dewitte, Philippe. Les Mouvements nègres en France 1919–1939. Paris, 1985. A thorough text portraying, using police archives, the black men who were politically engaged in interwar France.

Edwards, Brent Hayes. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge, Mass., 2003. An investigation of the links between African American writers and their French counterparts.

Kesteloot, Lilyan. Black Writers in French: A Literary History of Negritude. Translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy. Washington, D.C., 1991. A classic reference work that includes a number of interviews with negritude's founding thinkers.

Miller, Christopher L. Nationalists and Nomads: Essays on Francophone African Literature and Culture. Chicago, 1998. A collection of essays on the interwar context in which negritude developed.

Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. Negritude Women. Minneapolis, Minn., 2002. The most complete study of women who claimed negritude for themselves. Includes translations of primary works.

Jennifer Anne Boittin

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Négritude, term invented by Aimé Césaire in Paris in 1934, in order to emphasize the important role of black creativity in human history, a role that had been denied by colonialism and Christianity. In the magazine L'étudiante Noir, Césaire claimed that he possessed a miraculous weapon, a poetry that spoke not to the reason but to the heart. Césaire was then one of a group of black students from the Caribbean and Africa who studied in Paris and were interested in the work of black artists from all over the world, especially Africa. The most famous members of the group were Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–1990?) and Ousmane Socé (1911–1973) from Senegal and Léon-Gontran Damas (1912–1978) from Guyana.

The group around the magazine was greatly influenced by the controversy over the novel Batouala (1921), written by the Guyanese René Maran. This "really black novel," with its anticolonial allusions, caused a scandal while at the same time winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt. Inspired by this controversy, some students founded the antico-lonalist magazine Légitime Défense (1932–1934), which borrowed its name from surrealism and engaged in the debate about communism and sociopolitical alternatives. Of course, for Senghor, Damas, and Césaire this alternative was closely involved with the process of political decolonization, an orientation that distinguished their concept of "marvelous realism" from that of André Breton and André Masson, two exponents of French-oriented surrealism.

Senghor felt closer to the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, who debated French colonialism in his magazine Les Temps Modernes and wrote the famous preface "Black Orpheus" for Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (1945). Senghor became the first president of the Republic of Senegal in 1960 and served for two decades as head of the government. Nevertheless, he continued working on the elaboration of the poetical concept of négritude, in order to confront western ideological models with humanistic African traditions.

Black pride, considered by Senghor and Césaire as the sine qua non for négritude, maintained its influence in the younger generation of students coming from Africa and especially, from the Caribbean. Frantz Fanon and Édouard Glissant, both former students of Césaire's in Martinique, developed their own ideas, although they did not adopt the term négritude. Fanon was very much involved with the independence movement in Africa, which inspired his Les Damnées de la terre (1961), again published with a preface by Sartre. Glissant searched for a broader view of cultural networks under the label "poétique de la rélation," which literally means a poetics of networks.

In the French- and Creole-speaking areas of Africa and the Caribbean, the term continues to offer an important motif for discussion, especially in relationship with nation-building and political independence. The writer René Dépestre from Haiti, a country with a long tradition of négritude and marvelous realism since the 1920s, took the concept up in his long essay "Bonjour et adieu à la négritude," published in the anthology Africa en las Américas (1977). Three years later, in a revised version of this text edited in Paris as a collection of essays, Dépestre declared that négritude was meant to demystify the terms "black" and "white" imposed by the colonial past. He believed that such concepts would one day be replaced by a syncretistic mutation he termed créolité. This implies a decentralization of European views and the possibility of a new imaginative faculty. With the decline of national social identities, Dépestre claims that créolité would be a worldwide process of escape from slavery and radical denial of oppressive models of colonialism. The critic James Clifford commented on this process and its relation to Césaire's négritude: "Césaire makes rebellion and the remaking of culture—the historical maroon experience—into a verb. A necessary new verb names the New World poetics of continuous transgression and cooperative cultural activity."

The extensive literature on négritude continues to grow. It describes cultures inspired by African values, emphasizing their importance in contemporary situations and their creative capacities, all too often kept from public view in the past.

See alsoCésaire, Aimé; Race and Ethnicity.


Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Charles Markmann, (1989); and Les Damnés de la terre (1968).

Léopold Sédar Senghor, Liberté. Vol. 1, Négritude et humanisme (1964) and Vol. 3, Négritude et civilisation de l'universel (1977).

Manuel Moreno Fraginals, Africa en América Latina (1977).

A. James Arnold, Modernism and Négritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire (1981).

René Dépestre, Bonjour et adieu à la négritude (1990).

James Clifford, "A Politics of Neologism: Aimé Césaire," in The Predicament of Culture (1988), pp. 175-182.

Édouard Glissant, Le discours antillais (1981).

Additional Bibliography

Jack, Belinda Elizabeth. Negritude and Literary Criticism: The History and Theory of "Negro-African" Literature in French. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1996.

                                             Ineke Phaf

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Negritude is an African diasporic, self-affirming idea that evolved into an artistic and cultural movement and later became a lightening rod for controversy and ideological disputes. The (re)valorization of the black world, the affirmation of the humanity of black people, and the glorification of the richness of black culture had antecedents in the works of earlier thinkers and scholars such as Edward Wilmot Blyden (1832–1912), Martin Delany (1812–1885), and W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), and writers of the Harlem Renaissance such as Claude McKay (1890–1948) and Langston Hughes (1902–1967), who reclaimed "blackness" with pride, reinvested it with positive meanings, and rejected the negativity heaped on it by racism, slavery, colonialism, and imperialism.

The strong argument for a rethinking and revaluing of black identity and culture grew in the nineteenth century among black intellectuals and precursors of black nationalism and Pan-Africanism, such as Blyden, who were responding to the biological racism of European writers and philosophers, such as G. W. F. Hegel (1770–1831) from Germany, that placed blacks outside of historical progress and development.

The redefinition of black identity and the celebration of black heritage picked up steam early in the last century and jelled into a cultural movement of the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance, which grew in New York City but had a profound impact beyond the United States, particularly in the Caribbean and Europe, where it fueled the activities of a group of young black students from the colonies. A member of the group, Aimé Césaire (b. 1913) of Martinique, wrote a dissertation on the Harlem Renaissance.

Post-World War I (1914–1918) Europe witnessed a gathering of blacks from the French Caribbean and West Africa who fought alongside French and African-American soldiers in World War II (1939–1945). In the early 1930s, they founded journals and other publications as outlets for their political, cultural, and artistic works—the moderate, proassimilationist Revue du monde noir (Review of the Black World, 1931) was followed three years later by the radical, antiassimilationist, and proliberation review, L'Etudiant noir (The Black Student), founded by Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001) of Senegal, and others.

These activities morphed into a cultural and artistic movement of reaffirmation of black identity and heritage that took its name, negritude, from Césaire's 1939 poem "Cahier d'un retour au pays natal" (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land). Césaire's conceptualization of the term negritude was imbued with the historical context of a black world whose unity is "measured by the compass of suffering." But as the movement evolved, some of its proponents invested the concept with new meanings. Senghor for one gave the concept an ontological base that is anchored in black essences. The biologism that was injected into the concept caught on with French intellectuals and artists who championed African art and culture, in particular Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980), whose preface to Senghor's 1948 poetry collection presented negritude thinking as the black man's descent into self in search of essences.

Senghor's ontological positioning of the idea of negritude became even more controversial when he went further to engage in a comparative analysis that assigned emotion to the black man and reason to Europe. This racialized dichotomy earned Senghor some criticism from black Francophone intellectuals and writers (e.g., Stanislas Adotevi) that became even more acerbic in the writings of intellectuals from Anglophone Africa, including Nigerian author Wole Soyinka (b. 1934), South African author Ezekiel Mphahlele (b. 1919), and others.

see also Assimilation; Decolonization, Sub-Saharan Africa; Nationalism, Africa; Pan-Africanism.


Adotevi, Stanislas Spero. Négritude st Négrologues (new edition). Paris: Le Castor Astral, 1998.

Kesteloot, Lilyan. Black Writers in French: A Literary History of Negritude. Translated by Ellen Conroy Kennedy. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1991.

Senghor, Léopold Sédar. The Foundations of "Africanité or "Néritude" and "Arabité" Translated by Mercer Cook. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1971.

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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.