Négritude

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Négritude is a literary, primarily poetic, movement that emerged in Paris in the 1930s. Its main proponents were Aimé Césaire (from Martinique), who coined the word Négritude and gave the movement its masterpiece, Return to My Native Land (1939); Léopold Sédar Senghor (from Senegal), who defined and theorized Négritude as the sum-total of the cultural values and expressions of the black world; and Léon Gontran Damas (from Guyana), who in 1937 published the first book of Négritude poetry, Pigments, which was quickly banned by the French government because of its unapologetic challenge to French colonialism. The three poets, who came from countries colonized by France, were then students in France. They had been influenced by the Haitian indigeniste movement of a few decades earlier, in which Jean-Price Mars led the Haitians in resisting the American military occupation of Haiti.

Pan-African Connections

The Négritude poets were in close contact with the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, and the ideas of Négritude are reminiscent of the early pan-Africanist thinker Edward Wilmot Blyden and his efforts to identify the “African personality.” Présence Africaine, the Paris-based publishing company created by Alioune Diop, played a major role in disseminating Négritude ideas and writings. In addition, two Martinican women, the Nardal sisters, held literary salons in Paris, where Négritude was widely discussed.
The Négritude movement was very influential and truly pan-African, since in addition to the three major poets mentioned above, it included scores of others from all over the African world, such as Jacques Rabémananjara (from Madagascar), Jacques Roumain (from Haiti), Etienne Léro (from Martinique), Paul Niger (from Guadeloupe), Guy Tirolien (from Guadeloupe), and David Diop (from Sénégal), to mention only a few. The writings of the pan-African poets were gathered by Senghor in his famous Anthologie de la Poésie Nègre et Malgache de langue Française (1969).

Resistance and Critique of Society

Négritude was primarily born out of resistance to assimilation and colonial alienation. The French official policy toward its colonial subjects worldwide was openly assimilationist. While an assimilationist policy seems to imply that the colonized can acquire the colonial culture, it is nonetheless predicated upon a deeper, more fundamental belief in the inferiority of the colonized. Indeed, if the colonized were not inferior, why would they renounce their own cultural ways and adopt another culture? Therefore, Africans in French colonies were viewed as culturally deficient and forced to submit to French culture, supposedly for their own good. The French language was, and continues to be, a crucial component of that precious French cultural package.
Thus, to counter the African cultural deficiency fabricated by the French and other Europeans in their attempt to rationalize their white supremacist plans, Césaire, Senghor, and Damas elaborated the concept of Négritude. As Senghor put it, Négritude is “a certain way of being a man, especially of living as a man. It is sensitivity, and as such, soul rather than thought. African expressions such as ‘I want you to feel me’ as opposed to ‘I want you to understand me’ are significant in that regard.” The values and attitudes that characterize and define African people, Senghor further explained, constitute a specific black ontology, the African essence. All the black people in the world, according to Senghor, have in common a particular physiopsychology that is unique to them and manifests itself independently of where they find themselves in the world.

Dedication to African Culture

The main characteristic of Négritude, as understood by Senghor, is an intimate, unmediated contact with the cosmos and the life forces, resulting in an extreme sensitivity to rhythm, the pulse of life. Through this positive definition of African culture, Senghor and his friends were attempting not only to deflate all claims of African cultural inferiority but also to encourage African people to re-embrace what is theirs. In one of his poems, Damas demanded that his “black dolls” be given back to him, while Senghor advocated “African socialism” as the ideal political and economic form of organization for African people.
In fact, Senghor insisted that cultural independence was the indispensable requisite for economic, political, and other types of independence. Césaire also made the case for the critical importance of a conscious return to African culture on the part of diasporic Africans. Africans could expect regeneration only from Africa, and not from Europe, which could only be expected to further their alienation and dislocation. Négritude and Western culture were presented as being in dialectical opposition to each other. Indeed, the Négritude proponents made a critical assessment of Western culture and its many shortcomings and concluded that it is materialistic, individualistic, hypocritical, and violent and has only succeeded in creating a world devoid of real life, joy, and imagination. In contrast, they viewed the African universe as dominated by life and rhythm, spirituality and mystery, innocence. Unfortunately, the integrity of the African world has been greatly jeopardized by Europe's savage assaults on Africa. Hence, the necessity to retrieve a precolonial consciousness, the true Négritude of Africans everywhere.

Contradictions and Issues

However, the Négritude movement was not without some serious contradictions. It seems as though, indeed, the apostles of Négritude, in particular Senghor and Césaire, never fully succeeded in removing themselves from the French cultural and intellectual matrix, despite their repeated assertions about the beauty and worth of African culture. For example, Césaire, in his famous Return to My Native Land, did not hesitate to refer to the black man as “one who has never invented anything,” while Senghor did not have any qualms identifying rational thinking as fundamentally European. There are at least two reasons for this. First, there is the great influence of Eurocentric anthropology, a fundamentally racist enterprise, over the definition of Négritude. Second, there is Césaire and Senghor's deep love and admiration for French culture and language. In the end, Senghor in particular argued that there was no contradiction between chanting the merits of Négritude and embracing French culture. Indeed, in the name of humanism, Senghor developed his concept that since all cultures have only cultivated fragments of humanity's potential, the best of each culture should therefore be gathered and a “civilization of the universal” offered to tomorrow's humanity. The main problem with the “civilization of the universal” construct is that it negates the self-sufficiency and autonomy of African culture vis-à-vis European culture, while locking African culture in a relationship of dependency on and necessity with European culture, a reflection of Senghor's own ambiguity.
Other issues have been raised as well. Some have cast doubt on the existence of a black essence, while others have questioned the sincerity of the Négritude poets, in particular that of Senghor, who supported the French neocolonial agenda in Africa. Césaire's vote in favor of the total assimilation of Martinique into the French republic in 1946 was not missed either. As Négritude was to be lived, not simply written about, it has been asked whether or not the primary audience of the Négritude movement was in fact African people.
Whatever the answer to these questions, though, it is undeniable that the Négritude movement played a major role in raising the racial and cultural consciousness of many African people worldwide and that it was responsible for inspiring numerous talented African writers.

References

Keywords

  • négritude
  • African culture
  • Martinique
  • Guadeloupe
  • African people
  • pan-Africanism
  • French language

Author(s)

Further Reading

  • Ba, Sylvia. (1973). The Concept of Négritude in the Poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. This is an excellent study of Senghor's philosophy.
  • Césaire, Aimé. (1970). Return to My Native Land. Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books. This remains one of the most beautiful literary pieces produced by an African person; it articulates in a powerful and poignant manner the feelings that have come to be associated with the Négritude movement.
  • Damas, Léon Gontran.Poems From Pigments. Black World (3) 4–6. (1972). This is a selection of translated poems from the first book of Négritude poetry. In the poems, Damas engages in a biting and uncompromising critique of French colonialism and African assimilation.
  • Dépestre, René. (1982). Bonjour et Adieu la Négritude. Paris: Laffont. Dépestre reviews the main tenets of Négritude and also includes an informative interview with Aimé Césaire about the origin and development of Négritude.
  • Senghor, Léopold Sédar. (1969). Anthologie de la Nouvelle Poésie Nègre et Malgache de langue Française. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. This book must be consulted to appreciate the literary and geographical scope of the Négritude movement.
  • Senghor, Léopold Sédar. (1988). Ce que Je Crois. Paris: Grasset. In this book, Senghor provides information about Négritude as a theory.