Négritude


As a literary and political movement, Négritude was generally characterized by opposing colonialism, the denunciation of Europe's lack of humanity, and the rejection of Western domination and ideas. Also important was the acceptance of and pride in being black and a valorization of African history, traditions, and beliefs. Its literary style was realistic and it cherished Marxist ideas.

Négritude was prominent between 1930 and 1950 among black, French-speaking African and Caribbean writers, and closely linked to the concerns of many of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance in the United States. Négritude's founders were Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal, Léon Damas from French Guiana, and Aimé Césaire of Martinique, who first used the term in his long poem "Cahier d'un retour au pays natal." Reacting against doctrines of Western racial and cultural superiority and the assimilationist pressure of colonialism on native cultures, the negritude writers attempted to invoke a pan-national black African social and artistic identity. Making some use of surrealism artistically and Marxism politically, negritude criticized the West's materialism, individualism, violence, and rationality, contrasting them with African values of group and tribal solidarity, rhythm and symbol in art, poetry, and religion, peacefulness, and intimate connection to nature.

Like any literary, cultural, or philosophical movement,Négritude did not exist in a vacuum - there were precursors and situations which helped it along, as well as important milestones along the way. This timeline summarizes the most important events and situations which contributed to the francophone literary movement.

1517

France begins enslaving black Africans.

1636

Martinique colonized by Louis XIII - the first black slaves arrive.

1665

Le Code noir, by Jean-Baptiste Colbert (French chief financial minister) - A rulebook for the treatment of slaves, is published.

1789

French Revolution - Major themes include the rights of man, the issue of slavery.

1804

Haiti is the first French colony to gain independence.

1823

Ourika, by Mme de Duras (wife of Louis XVIII's chamberlain) is published. It is the first French-language novel to address the effects of racism on black people.

1848

Victor Schoelscher (French under-secretary) abolishes slavery in all French colonies

1919

The Harlem Renaissance (US) - Césaire and Damas were greatly inspired by this valuation of the culture, literature, art, and music of the black world, notably:

  • W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
  • Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
  • Alain Leroy Locke, The New Negro
  • Claude McKay, Banjo, Home to Harlem

1921

Negrismo (Cuba) - Celebration of black-Cuban music, rhythm, folklore, literature, poetry, and art.

1927

Journal: La Revue Indigène, is first published by Jacques Roumain. It is an attempt to rediscover a black African authenticity in the Antilles.

1930

Damas's book of poetry, Pigments, is published. it is sometimes called "the manifesto of Négritude." It offers a general theme of demystification: we need to cure the ills of Western society.

Some important poems:

  • "Ils sont venus ce soir"
    The night white man arrived and kidnapped Africans for slavery, many people were killed - we don't even know how many.
  • "Un Clochard m'a demandé 10 sous"
    Damas once had to beg for money, but pride helped him to grow strong enough to earn it instead.
  • "Solde"
    Whites are pretentious and ridiculous, never mind cruel, yet Blacks have to be their accomplices.
  • "S.O.S."
    Why and how on earth did Whites decide to steal Blacks and to commit such Hitleresque acts?
  • "Blanchi"
    Whites try to bleach us, but we want only to be black.

1931

The trois pères meet in Paris and begin discussing and dreaming about Négritude.

La Revue du monde noir (The Journal of the Black World), by Paulette Nardal and Dr. Sajoux, is published. In addition to disseminating ideas via the journal, this collaboration led to a kind of club where black writers could meet to discuss related issues.

1932

Légitime défense - A single issue of a Marxist, revolutionary, surrealist journal published by a group of Martinican students and immediately suppressed.

1934

L'Étudiant noir (The Black Student), is puiblished by the three fathers - They attempt to break down nationalistic barriers among black people; recognize, approach, and unify black people in Africa, France, and the Antilles. This was the first and most important political and cultural journal of la Négritude.

1935

Birth of la Négritude - Seek out richness and originality, rehabilitate that which had been marginalized. Already independent, Haiti isn't interested in participating.

1938

Les Griots, by François Duvalier, highlighting the contributions of black African civilization.

1939

Césaire's poem, "Cahier d'un retour au pays natal" (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land), uses the word "Négritude" for the first time in print. The poem is about being black and living in the Antilles.

1941

Tropiques, is published by Aimé and Suzanne Césaire. In it they demonstrate their refusal of European culture.

1944

Gouverneurs de la rosée, is published by Jacques Roumain.
There are two main themes:

  1. Humans are responsible for their own lives - we need to act.
  2. Community is more important than self.

1946

Creation of four Départements d'outre-mer (DOM), in which citizens of French colonies are citizens of France - thanks to Aimé Césaire, now a member of the French National Assembly.

1947

Présence africaine is published by Alioune Diop, with assistance from Senghor, Césaire, André Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others. Dissemination of the ideas and words of black writers.

1948

L'Anthologie d'un nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (Anthology of a New Negro and Madagascan French-Language Poetry), is published by Senghor. The preface, "Orphée noire" (Black Orpheus), was written by Jean-Paul Sartre, who defined Négritude as the "négation de la négation de l'homme noir," and includes a discussion of Négritude issues. This work represents the official birth of black-African literature.

1950

Rue Cases Nègres, a novel, is published by Josephe Zobel.

1952

Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), a theoretical work, is published by Frantz Fanon. He studies the human consequences of colonialism and racism and offers a portrait of a black man in the Antilles, who is a victim of color prejudice and an internalized inferiority complex.

Fanon argues for a decolonization of language, because black people are drowning in a white identity. He urges that blacks need to speak a language that belongs to them alone.

Ultimately, the black man is alienated from the rest of society, and is suffering an identity crisis. But because he is complicit in the society that treats him thus, he must be liberated from himself.

1953

Césaire's essay, "Le Discours sur le colonialisme," is published. He argues that colonialism is a form of racism, and that in a pre-colonial state, blacks live in harmony with the earth, rather than trying to dominate it. However, with the advent of the colonial project, Christianity is considered civilization, while paganism is linked to savagery.

1956

1st Colloquium of Black Arts, in Paris.

"La Lettre à Maurice Thorez" (Letter to the Secretary General of the Communist Party), by Césaire - The author's official break with the Communist Party, in his new quest to found a sort of African socialism.

1959

2nd Colloquium, in Rome.

1960

The decolonization of Africa begins with Senegal's independence.

1960s

Criticism of la Négritude begins.

Césaire shifts his efforts to theater, hoping to be in closer contact with the public. His plays show an orientation toward the future and a stronger political aspect than his earlier work.

1961

Fanon publishes Les Damnés de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth), with a preface by Sartre.

It begins as a study of the Algerian revolution, and asks "How are we to be independent after being dependant for so long? How do we transform ourselves from a dominated country to an economically free country?"

His answer is that black people should not wait for others to give them their independence; they should seize it for themselves. If this involves violence, then the violence itself will be therapeutic.

All this appreciation of black arts is fine, but first, let's find political solutions, then we'll worry about appreciation of our black culture.

The book is pitched to the Antilles bourgeousie, mulattos who took power from whites simply in order to have it for themselves.

1963

Césaire's play, La Tragédie du Roi Christophe, explores the political implications of the movement.

1966

3rd Colloquium, in Dakar, at which Senghor's ideas are criticized.

1968

Césaire adapts Shakespeare for Une Tempête. Here he demonstrates the creative force of words; they can change and even remake the world.

1983

The movie Rue Cases Nègres (Sugar Cane Alley, Black Shack Alley) - written by Josephe Zobel and directed by E. Palcy, is released. It shows that colonization and the school system are supported by religion, but school is a threat to family life for some, and the only escape for others. However, school alone is not enough. A recognition of and education in the oral traditions passed down outside of formal cultural institutions, along with school, will give one a total education.

Other themes:

  • The importance of the plantation economy
  • Creole language
  • Social classes
  • Pride and shame in being black
  • The ambiguous place of the mulatto
  • Fascination about France
  • Legitimization of Africa

2005

Aimé Césaire refuses to receive Nicolas Sarkozy (then French Interior Minister) in protest of articles 3 and 4 of a law that claimed colonization was a good thing. Césaire did receive him a year later, in return for which Sarkozy renamed Fort-de-France's airport after him.

2008

Aimé Césaire's life and death are celebrated and mourned, respectively, around the world.

Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary & Cultural Criticism, 1995, 203-204.<

Timeline of Négritude: http://french.about.com/library/bl-negritudet.htm

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a substantial article on Négritude as a philosophy.