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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A Brief History of Negritude

Négritude is a movement of Francophone writers of Africa and the African diaspora who sought to develop a literature reflecting distinctly African values and sensibility. Of course, traditional African poetry, largely oral, but sometimes written, had long existed, as well as a scattering of individual authors in European languages, but the fact that a flowering of literary thought and work arose first in French rather than English or Portuguese was influenced by differences in techniques of colonial rule.

Though all colonial governance was exploitative and often brutal, significant variation existed. The English preferred “indirect rule,” in which they found cooperative traditional rulers who would work with them, in this way maintaining control while leaving much indigenous culture intact. On the other hand, the French sought to educate selected Africans in the French curriculum, and regarded a colonial subject who had mastered not only their language, but who could write explications of Corneille and Racine as a sort of fellow countryman. Thus residents of the motherland’s départements et territoires d'outre-mer have long had French citizenship and representation in the National Assembly and Senate.

Among the promising young students brought to Paris for higher education were Aimé Césaire from Martinique, Léon-Gontran Damas from French Guiana, and Léopold Sédar Senghor from Senegal. These three produced the journal L'Étudiant noir in 1934–1935 where the word négritude first appeared in a piece by Aimé Césaire.

Yet négritude’s trois pères did not work in isolation. [1] They admired Alain Locke’s 1925 anthology The New Negro and met American writers of the Harlem Renaissance, many of whom, including Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and Richard Wright, spent time in France. [2] Sisters Jane (or Jeanne), Paulette, and Andrée Nardal from Martinique hosted a literary salon and published the Revue du monde noir. Jane Nardal’s article “Internationalisme noir,” one of the earliest expressions of pan-Africanism, was published in 1928. Etienne Léro, René Ménil, and Jules Monnerot from Martinique published a single number of a radical journal titled Légitime défense in 1932 in which Léro condemned as dodoism (that is to say, obsolete) poets such as Daniel Thaly who imitated French literature and advocated instead a poetry influenced by black Americans, Surrealism, and Marxism. Ménil later served as editor of Aimé Césaire’s 1941 Tropiques which had a thoroughly Surrealist program.

Légitime défense, a legal term roughly equivalent to self-defense, had been used by Breton in a 1926 pamphlet declaring Surrealism’s revolutionary autonomy. The Surrealists as a group had also spoken on the specific issues of race and colonialism. In 1932 a manifesto titled “Murderous Humanitarianism” [3] was signed by the principal white figures in the movement such as Breton, Char, Crevel, Éluard, and Tanguy, as well as by Martiniquans Pierre Yoyotte and Jules Monnerot. “Murderous Humanitarianism” was predominantly anti-capitalist, calling exploiters “slavers” and supporting the Communist Party. [4] The few comments on culture per se remain governed by political considerations, and jazz itself seemed to the authors merely a “distorted” vogue like chinoiserie.

“Those Blacks who have merely been compelled to distort in terms of fashionable jazz the natural expression of their joy at finding themselves partners of a universe from which Western peoples have willfully withdrawn may consider themselves lucky to have suffered nothing worse than degradation. The eighteenth century derived nothing from China except a repertoire of frivolities to grace the alcove. In the same way the whole object of our romantic exoticism and modern travel lust is of use only in entertaining that class of blasé clients sly enough to see an interest in deflecting to his own advantage the torrent of those energies which soon, sooner than he thinks, will close over his head.”

The solidarity extended to the colonial subjects by the Surrealists on political grounds was returned by all the important négritude writers, though in varying degrees. In the introduction to Légitime défense, Léro wrote, “we accept without reservation surrealism, to which—in 1932—we bind up our future.” Césaire explicitly identified as a Surrealist; indeed, he regarded himself as a Surrealist before Surrealism.

I was ready to accept surrealism because I already had advanced on my own, using as my starting points the same authors that had influenced the surrealist poets. Their thinking and mine had common reference points. Surrealism provided me with what I had been confusedly searching for. I have accepted it joyfully because in it I have found more of a confirmation than a revelation. . . Surrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor . . . if I apply the surrealist approach to my particular situation, I can summon up these unconscious forces. [5]

Damas’ first collection of poetry was introduced by Robert Desnos and illustrated by Frans Masere, both closely associated with Surrealism. In a revealing hedge, Senghor insisted on the distinction between European reason and African intuition, saying “Negro-African surrealism is mystical.” [6]

The alliance was furthered by other factors, both in Communist politics, and Surrealist theory. It is surely significant that at this time, Stalin’s line encouraged ethnic identification and every recognized minority in the USSR was granted its own national territory such as the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Far East. [7] Apart from (and even in a sense in opposition to) revolutionary aspirations, Surrealism shared with négritude writers the celebration of magic and the subconscious. The fetishization of the primitive by European avant-gardists is well-known, [8] while African and African-American authors found the Surrealist rejection of European rationalism and other values attractive, allowing them to view what had seemed superstition as a sort of higher wisdom.

In 1945 Damas’ Poètes d'expression française 1900–1945 appeared with an anti-colonialist introduction quoting Léro's “Misère d'une poésie” (“Poverty of a Poetry”). The book included writers from Africa, the African Diaspora, and Indochina. In 1948 the definitive anthology of the movement was published, Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache. The book’s introductory essay by Sartre titled "Orphée Noir" ("Black Orpheus") guaranteed that the volume would receive widespread attention.

Though Sartre had grown to be sympathetic to the politically revolutionary aims of many négritude poets, he had been actively hostile to Surrealism, most notably in his “Situation of the Writer in 1947” which calls them “victims of the disaster of 1940,” noting that, for all their revolutionary rhetoric, their emigration and solipsistic endeavors in the face of fascist occupation signaled their fecklessness. Indeed, like this condemnation of the white Surrealists, his motives for endorsing writers of color seem primarily political.

Négritude has been criticized from several angles. Wole Soyinka’s jibe "The tiger does not proclaim its tigerness, it jumps on its prey" [9] is doubtless the most well-known. The fact is, of course, that, unlike humans, the tiger proclaims nothing whatever in words, but only in actions. Soyinka later moderated his opposition, saying “When you pass where the tiger has walked before, you see the skeleton of the duiker, you know that some tigritude has been emanated there.”

Tension arose between black writers to whom Marxism or a similar political orientation was primary and those who pursued a specifically Afrocentric art. Stanislas Adotevi from Benin condemned the assignment of racial characteristics even by fellow Africans, and, in particular, objected to the projection of a special intuition or mysticism on Africans. [10] He described the movement contemptuously, saying that, négritude was the “soporific of the Negro. It’s opium.” By its tenets, "in the great orchestra of the Universal, mankind will have Europe as its conductor, white. The Negro will hold the rhythm section. " [11] For some such as the Cameroonian Marcien Towa [12], Senghor in particular was guilty on the one hand of accommodating and finally accepting colonialism and on the other of cultivating a “biologisation du culturel,” which amounted to a sort of racism. Paulin Hountondji, student of both Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser, objected to what he called “ethnophilosophy, implying that different concepts were applicable for different peoples.” [13] Perhaps most influential was Frantz Fanon, psychiatrist, revolutionary theoretician, and former student of Césaire's, who claimed not only that that négritude was simplistic, but also that the notion of the "black soul was but a white artifact." [14]

The influence of these poets is profound. Without attempting further detail, here it will suffice to note that among the groupings and individuals which would not have been the same without their example are political figures such as Harry Haywood, Maulana (Ron) Karenga, and Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), artists such as Ted Joans, Bob Kaufman, and Amiri Baraka, the Afro-Surrealism and Black Arts Movements, Larry Neal, Ishmael Reed and Neo-Hoodoo, Etheridge Knight, Henry Dumas, Jacques Stephen Alexis’ Marvelous Realism, D. Scot Miller, the Last Poets, and, in academia Henry Louis Gates and Molefi Kete Asante.

Whatever evaluation a critic may make of their work in itself, the place of the négritude movement writers is secure in literary history. Their work marked an end of the slavish imitation of European literary models and the beginning of the construction of a modern African literature in European languages. It was Senghor, Damas, Césaire and their fellow-countrymen, not the colonialist overlords, as Sartre’s phrase suggests, who “removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut,” [15] changing and enriching both social and aesthetic thought.

1. All literary history is continuous, but the historian must begin somewhere. Apart from earlier African writing in European languages, Arabic (and Swahili and Hausa) and Bantu, I omit here the earlier movements in the Caribbean of Indigenism in Haiti and Negrism in Cuba.

2. Damas said that McKay was the movement’s spiritual founder and dedicated his first book of poetry Pigment to McKay. Lilyan Kesteloot found that even in the sixties all three of the pères could “still cite entire chapters” of McKay’s Banjo. See Les écrivains noirs de langue française: naissance d'une littérature.

3. Later published in the remarkable Nancy Cunard's Negro Anthology (1934).

4. Revolutionary politics had, of course, been an essential part of the Surrealist program as of Dadaism before it. This element is routinely neglected by more recent theoreticians, practitioners, and scholars.

5. From an interview of Aime Césaire by Rene Depestres at the Cultural Congress of Havana, 1967.

6. By far the best general treatment of the topic is Jean-Claude Michel’s The Black Surrealists.

7. With their tailing of Stalin’s line expressed in the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, the American Communist Party during this era suggested the creation of a similar black national state in the South. This was never a popular notion in American black communities, though in general the Party enjoyed disproportionate support from blacks, for instance electing Benjamin J. Davis, the editor of the Communist Party’s journal The Negro Liberator, to the city council from 1943 until he was jailed for his Party membership in 1949.

8. See for instance, my own “The Fetish of the Primitive in Twentieth Century Art.”

9. Apparently first said in Kampala in 1962. Soyinka’s second comment was from a 1964 talk in Berlin.

10. See, for instance, his “Léopold Sédar Senghor : Négritude ou Servitude?” Poésie de la Négritude: Approche structuraliste, and Essai sur la problématique philosophique dans l'Afrique actuelle.

11. “Dans le grand orchestre de l’Universel, l’humanité aura pour chef d’orchestre l’Europe, le blanc. Le nègre tiendra la section rythmique. La négritude doit être le soporifique du nègre. C’est l’opium.” See also his Négritude et négrologues.

12. His critique is repeatedly restated, including in Poésie de la Négritude and Identité et Transcendance.

13. See Sur la philosophie africaine.

14. See Peau noire, masques blancs.

15. See the opening line of “Black Orpheus.”

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