The following entry discusses the literary and ideological movement amongst French-speaking black intellectuals during the 1930s, in opposition to the political and economic oppression of colonialism, and espousing a reaffirmation of traditional African culture and identity.
Negritude is characterized by many scholars as a formative movement of African literature, a significant ideological and literary development that originated during the 1930s. In essence, the movement aimed to break down established boundaries and stereotypes of blacks that had been cultivated through several centuries of colonial rule. Led largely by a small group of writers living in France, including Léopold Sédar Senghor, Léon Damas, and Aimé Césaire, Negritude gained popularity among many black intellectuals over the next few decades, inspiring works of literature, poetry, and drama that celebrated black identity and culture as integral and dominant elements of the art of these writers.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Paris was home to a large number of expatriate intellectuals, both from Africa as well as other parts of the world. For writers such as Senghor, Damas, and Césaire, their lives in France threw into sharp relief an alienation from their colonial rulers. This, coupled with the rise of the American black renaissance movement of the 1920s, provided African writers with an impetus to reflect upon and publicly begin expressing their opinions about issues of racial and cultural identity. Using the student newspaper, L'Etudiant Noir (The Black Student, 1933-35), as a starting point, African intellectuals began their viewpoint regarding race by exploring the idea that there was a basic commonality across all black cultures. Although the paper folded after a few years, the ideas expressed within its pages took root, and the Negritude movement was born. It is believed that the term Negritude was coined by Césaire, who developed the basic theory in partnership with Senghor. In essence, Negritude placed a deep emphasis on the celebration and uniqueness of black, African culture and traditions. Ideas expressed in The Black Student were taken up by several other periodicals, such as Présence Africaine, and finally, with the publication of an anthology of poetry edited by Senghor, which included a preface by French author Jean-Paul Sartré, titled Orphée Noire (1948; Black Orpheus), the movement was firmly established.
Celebration of a black African identity was the major focus of Negritude as defined by Senghor and his contemporaries. In their view, colonization had stripped their cultures of not only their uniqueness, but also the means of expressing it, via a transposition of a foreign language. While writers of the Negritude movement did not use their indigenous languages, they did use French and other languages in new ways, using them to express symbolically their connection to traditional African culture, rituals, and symbols. In fact, according to Senghor, Negritude defined the best means of expressing the essence of black identity, and he often stressed the existence of a unique black psychology. In one of his many essays on the subject he stated, “emotion is black as reason is Greek.” Ironically, Sartré, whose preface provided such impetus to the movement, viewed Negritude as a phenomenon that would eventually disappear once the black/white racial conflict was resolved. Many black writers, including Frantz Fanon and Chinua Achebe, rejected Sartré's denial of race as an integral component of Negritude and black identity. In contrast to Senghor, however, and in agreement with Sartré, many others did view the reclaiming of the African self as defined by the Negritude movement as only one step in an ongoing journey to overcome colonization and finally establish a truly national culture. Modern scholars also seem to concur, acknowledging that although Negritude stressed racial differences, it was nonetheless a significant precursor to decolonization. In fact, argues Pal Ahluwalia in his overview of Negritude, as an ideological phenomenon, Negritude is a movement that needs to be recognized as an important part of the decolonization process in Africa, one that eventually led to political independence.
Although the Negritude movement took root in the 1930s, critics such as Ahluwalia have argued that the phenomenon has evolved over the decades, changing with the times. Even during its heyday, there were differences in the way black intellectuals viewed the movement and where it was headed. For example, Senghor and Césaire, who had essentially collaborated on the definition of the original movement, eventually split in their views regarding Negritude. Senghor regarded Negritude as a part of the history of Africa, a natural and dynamic merging of European and African cultures and technology. In contrast, Césaire could never view colonialism as a process that fostered positive contact between civilizations. Instead, he always regarded imperial rule as a process of consistent and detrimental domination of the colonized culture. Later African writers also viewed Negritude in a somewhat negative manner, deeming it a philosophy that ultimately alienated cultures on the basis of race, and therefore was complicit with imperialism. Many of these writers were especially concerned with Senghor's transformation of the ideology into a political movement, as well as his insistence that Negritude was ultimately a biological phenomenon. This interpretation of Negritude was especially bothersome to Césaire, who consistently wrote about the movement as a cultural phenomenon. Among Senghor's contemporaries, one of his harshest critics was South African author Ezekiel Mphahlele, who saw Senghor's argument as yet another contribution to perpetuating the myth of the Noble Savage. Mphahlele argued strongly against Senghor's views, stressing the many differences among African writers. Similarly, authors such as Frantz Fanon also argued against a too literal interpretation of Negritude, calling it a limiting philosophy that made less—not more—of African reality because of its focus on the preservation of traditional African values. According to these writers, a cultural revival of the sort Senghor was proposing was not only impossible, but also undesirable. They viewed the premise of a black psyche as too simplistic and one that would be unable to meet the challenges of contemporary and future African societies. Yet others, Ayi Kwei Armah chief among them, viewed Negritude as yet another manifestation of a slave mentality, one that stemmed from an inherent inferiority complex.
Although the movement had its detractors, it is clear that it provided a great impetus to African literature in the 1930s and later, helping an entire generation of authors and intellectuals to develop an awareness and appreciation of their racial and cultural identities. In doing so, the movement also helped pave the way to national and political freedom for many African countries, and as such, concludes Ahluwalia, should be placed within the context of an evolving African identity.
Cahier d'un retour au pays natal [Notes on a Return to the Native Land] (poem) 1939
Et Les Chiens se taisaient (play) 1943
La Tragédie du Roi Christophe (play) 1963
Une Saison au Congo (play) 1966
Discours sur le Colonialisme (nonfiction) 1972
Pigments (poetry) 1937
Graffiti (poetry) 1952
Black-Label (poetry) 1956
L'Unite culturelle de l'Afrique noire: Domaines du patricat et du matricat dans l'antiquite classique (nonfiction) 1959
Peau noire, masques blancs [Black Skin, White Masks] (nonfiction) 1952
Les Damnes de la terre [The Wretched of the Earth] (novel) 1961
The African Image (nonfiction) 1962
Orphée Noire [Black Orpheus] (essay) 1948
Léopold Sédar Senghor
Chants d'ombre [Shadow Songs] (poetry) 1945
Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (poetry) 1948
Ethiopiques (poetry) 1956
Nocturnes (poetry) 1961
Liberté I: Négritude et humanisme (nonfiction) 1964
Négritude, arabismé et francité (nonfiction) 1967
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Criticism: Major Figures
SOURCE: Wolitz, Seth L. “The Hero of Negritude in the Theater of Aimé Césaire.” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 16, no. 3 (1969): 195-208.
[In the following essay, Wolitz explains the vision of Negritude as expressed by Césaire in his drama and poetry.]
“J'ai marché devant tous, triste et seul dans ma gloire.”
—Alfred de Vigny
The poet-President Léopold Senghor has written many theoretic tracts on Negritude,1 but Aimé Césaire, poet, playwright, Mayor of Fort-de-France, has expounded, for the most part, his vision of Negritude in verse and drama.
… ma Négritude n'est ni une tour ni une cathédrale
elle plonge dans la chair rouge du sol elle plonge dans la chair ardente du ciel …
(Cahier, p. 71)2
Césaire, like Lorca, began with poetry and turned to theater later in his career. The stage offered a larger audience and a more dynamic expression.
Art, for Césaire, provided the rhetorical vehicle for his didactic goal: to convince the reader of the validity and importance of Negritude. He must seek, therefore, to fulfill the highest esthetic norms in order that his polemics reach a receptive audience. Césaire, like Eisenstein in films and Brecht in theater, faces the demanding task of satisfying both art and ideology. It is clear then that...
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SOURCE: Dixon, Melvin. Introduction to The Collected Poetry, by Léopold Sédar Senghor, pp. xxi-xli. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1991.
[In the following introduction to Senghor's collected poetry, Dixon summarizes Senghor's life and work, focusing variously on his writings and political career.]
The election of Léopold Sédar Gnilane Senghor to the French Academy in 1983 marked yet another milestone in the fifty-year career of the poet and former president of the Republic of Senegal. He became the first African and the only black intellectual among the forty life members of the 349-year-old Academy. Widely respected in France as an association of the most distinguished intellectuals, the Academy monitors the growth of the French language by compiling a dictionary of acceptable new words and usage. Senghor's admission to this august body of writers and scholars represents more than the personal triumph of a single poet. It signals the now irrefutable fact that the vitality of the French language is no longer the responsibility of Europeans alone but also of those who shape a living language wherever it is spoken and written, including parts of the Caribbean, Canada, Africa, and the Orient. Francophone writers now would be seen as helping to promote the French language without compromising their ethnicity or forfeiting their nationality. Thus, as an African writing in...
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SOURCE: Breton, André. “A Great Black Poet: Aimé Césaire.” In Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean, edited by Michael Richardson and translated by Krzysztof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson, pp. 191-98. London: Verso, 1996.
[In the following essay, Breton briefly recounts his relationship with Césaire, also expressing his admiration for the poet as a truly significant and powerful black poet.]
April 1941. The view was blocked by the hulk of a ship, sealed with madrepore to the sand of the beach and probed by the waves (at least the little children could not have dreamed of a better place to frolic all day long), which by its very fixity gave no respite to the exasperation of only being able to move a few measured paces, between two bayonets: the Lazaret concentration camp, in Fort-de-France harbour. Released after a few days, with what avidity did I plunge into the streets, in search of all the never-before-seen things they had to offer, the dazzle of the markets, the humming-bird accents, the women Paul Eluard, on his return from a trip around the world, had told me were more beautiful than anywhere else. Soon, however, I discerned a discovery that threatened to take everything over once more: this city itself was coming apart, seemingly deprived of its essential organs. Its trade, all on display, assumed a disturbingly theoretical character. All movement was a little slower...
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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Kimenyi, Alexandre. “The ‘Popularity’ of Négritude.” Journal of Ethnic Studies 9, no. 1 (spring 1981): 69-74.
[In the following essay, Kimenyi defines the characteristics of Negritude, moving on to expound on the reasons for its rise and popularity.]
Books, conferences and hundreds of essays, supportive and critical, have been devoted to Négritude. The question which has never been discussed is why Négritude became so popular. Négritude as a literary movement denouncing oppression, political domination, economic exploitation and intellectual and cultural alienation was indeed predictable. Literature, or any other type of art, is not independent of the spatio-temporal factors in which the writer lives. Whether he is committed or not, the political, economic and social conditions witnessed by the author will be reflected in the work.
Since Africans have been subjected to all forms of humiliation, were not responsible for their own destiny, had been forced to negate themselves, to reject their cultures (values, customs, languages, religions, etc.), Négritude had to be both a reaction against European acculturation and reaffirmation of traditional African culture. The mission of the French colonialist was to civilize the African, to change the Negro into French in manners, language, and in all aspects of behaviour. As Frantz Fanon put it: “… for the black man there...
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SOURCE: Spleth, Janice. “The Philosophy of Negritude.” In Léopold Sédar Senghor, pp. 20-33. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1985.
[In the following essay, Spleth explains Negritude as a literary and philosophical movement, placing it in the context of Senghor's work.]
An outstanding characteristic of Senghor's poetry is its coherent and unifying substructure, for almost every poem, either in its theme or form, illustrates some aspect of the poet's concept of Negritude. Many of the major works of Senghorian criticism, as indicated by their titles, have chosen to focus specifically on this attribute: The Concept of Negritude in the Poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor; Léopold Sédar Senghor et la défense et illustration de la civilisation noire; The African Image in the Work of Léopold Sédar Senghor; Léopold Sédar Senghor, l'Africain; L'Afrique dans l'univers poétique de Léopold Sédar Senghor; and even Léopold Sédar Senghor: Négritude ou servitude?1 Each study emphasizes some dimension of the writer's style or imagery which stems from his African origins. Beyond mere exoticism this evocation of Africa becomes, in Senghor's hands, a poetic expression of a tightly knit philosophy expounded elsewhere in his speeches and essays. As the theory of Negritude undergoes various metamorphoses in its different political and cultural roles, these...
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Criticism: Negritude And Humanism
SOURCE: Guillaume, Jr., Alfred J. “Negritude and Humanism: Senghor's Vision of a Universal Civilization.” In The Harlem Renaissance: Revaluations, edited by Amritjit Singh, William S. Shiver, and Stanley Brodwin, pp. 271-80. New York: Garland Publishing, 1989.
[In the following essay, Guillaume ruminates on the ideology of Negritude as espoused by Senghor and others during the 1930s.]
If the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s served as the catalyst for the “New Negro” in the United States, the Negritude movement of the 1930s in Paris sparked a similar renewal for black students from Africa and the Caribbean, who rejected the assimilation of European values and redefined themselves as children of Africa. This journey to the ancestral sources (“pèlerinage aux sources ancestrales”)1 began in 1932 with the publication of Légitime Défense, a Communist and surrealist journal that opposed the bourgeoisie. Founded by Etienne Léro, Jules Minnerot, and René Ménil, all from the Antilles, the journal extolled black values and culture. But it was the 1934 literary journal Etudiant Noir, of Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, that gave birth to Negritude, the second Negro Renaissance.
Although Césaire coined the word, Senghor, the poet/politician, became Negritude's principal apostle, promoting it in his poetry and essays as well as...
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Criticism: Poetry Of Negritude
SOURCE: Kennedy, Ellen Conroy. Introduction to The Negritude Poets: An Anthology of Translations from the French, pp. xix-xxix. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1975.
[In the following essay, Kennedy identifies poetry as one of the most significant artistic expressions of Negritude, briefly outlining the rise of the movement and discussing its major poets, including Senghor, Damas, and others.]
Poetry has been the single most important artistic manifestation of the black-world cultural and intellectual movement which, since the close of World War II, has come to be known as “negritude.” This anthology traces its development by gathering, translating, and commenting on key texts of black poetry in French since 1900, and by situating the men who wrote them. In all, twenty-seven poets are represented by approximately 170 poems. These poems, together with the commentaries, offer a broad perspective of the poetry of black self-awareness in French, a body of work still neglected and too little understood in the English-speaking world.
Until very recently, most of the poets included in the present volume were relatively unknown in America. Aimé Césaire's long poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notes on a Return to the Native Land), which coined the word “negritude,” was published in 1944 in France, with a preface by André Breton, and enthusiastically received....
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SOURCE: Pallister, Janis L. “Return.” In Aimé Césaire, pp. 1-28. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991.
[In the following essay, Pallister analyzes in detail Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal as a work that traces the poet's long journey from a place of alienation from his culture to an eventual acceptance and pride in his cultural background.]
Cahier d'un retour au pays natal—the title alone tells us much. It informs us of the poem's modernity: it says the poem is a “notebook”—certainly not a formal or traditional genre. It speaks of return, after many physical voyages the world over, after many spiritual voyages in which the native land has been spurned as a source of embarrassment. Not only return but a return, and a significant one. An archetypal return or nostos, one not unlike that of the prodigal son. A return to the land of one's birth; a return that marks the end of alienation and the beginning of an identity with one's compatriots, with those of one's own race and culture.
The title suggests resolution rather than the “heart of a conflict,” as André Breton has said. It is interesting to note in this respect that the poem, which ultimately came to have some 1,055 lines, was no doubt begun as early as 1936, just as Césaire was completing his studies at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and preparing to go back to Martinique. It...
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Criticism: Politics Of Negritude
SOURCE: Moore, Gerald. “The Politics of Negritude: Frantz Fanon, Léopold Senghor, Léon Damas, Aimé Césaire, David Diop, and Tchicaya U'Tamsi.” In Protest & Conflict in African Literature, edited by Cosmo Pieterse and Donald Munro, pp. 26-42. London, England: Heinemann, 1969.
[In the following essay, Moore surveys the relationship between politics and Negritude as it is expressed in the works of various authors identified with the movement.]
It is my hope to say something new about politics and Negritude, although that isn't easy because it is a much-trodden field. I certainly don't want to thrust at you reflections with which you are probably already quite familiar.
So I thought we might take as a starting-point the observations of Frantz Fanon, a Martiniquan writer of Negro origin, who spent a good deal of his life in France and, latterly, became the head of a mental hospital in Algeria. He looks at the problem of colour (if you can call it a problem) from the point of view of an Antillean. He doesn't claim to be an African. He keeps insisting that what he says is true of the Antilles. He doesn't say it is true of anywhere else. He looks at these problems also as a psychiatrist who has been concerned with treating people whose mental condition may be related to some of the conflicts and stresses of racial contact. And in his book, Peau Noire, Masques Blancs—the...
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SOURCE: Yoder, Carroll. “The Birth of Negritude.” In White Shadows: A Dialectical View of the French African Novel, pp. 79-104. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Yoder focuses on various political and cultural perspectives regarding Negritude, comparing and contrasting the views expressed by Senghor and others during the 1930s and beyond.]
One of the more audacious and supposedly noble goals of the colonial writers was to put words into the mouths of the Africans so that they, too, could for the first time contribute to world civilization, it being of course assumed that inferior peoples could not speak for themselves. As long as the colonial writers set themselves up as the only authentic spokespersons for Africa—in view of the ignorance of the tourists and the illiteracy of the indigenous peoples—one could hardly expect the thesis of white supremacy to be denied. Although historians, ethnologists, administrators and missionaries were constantly expanding their knowledge of the continent, their information was inevitably brought into a Western frame of reference. Furthermore, the very presence of the European in Africa derived its justification from the assumption that the dark continent could not make progress by itself. Thus the answer to white supremacy could only come from those who were experiencing its alienating effects.
It was the...
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Criticism: The Negritude Debate
SOURCE: Mphahlele, Ezekiel. “Négritude—A Reply.” In Critical Perspectives on Léopold Sédar Senghor, edited by Janice Spleth, pp. 31-5. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Three Continents Press, 1993.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1965, Mphahlele, known for his opposition to the concept of Negritude as it was defined by Senghor and others, responds by pointing out that for him, Negritude is a socio-political movement with a set place in history; it is not, however, a concept that can or should encompass African literature and art.]
[Editor's note: The following remarks were made during the conference on “African Literature and the University Curriculum” held at the University of Dakar in 1963. They respond to Wendell A. Jeanpierre's comments on “Negritude and Its Enemies” and indirectly to President Senghor's opening address.]
Yesterday I was personally attacked by someone because of my views against négritude. He charged me, in effect, with hindering or frustrating the protest literature of négritude, its mission. If I had not exiled myself from South Africa five years ago, after having lived for thirty-seven years in the South African nightmare, I should either have shrivelled up in my bitterness, or have been imprisoned for treason. My books have been banned in South Africa under a law that forbids...
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SOURCE: Irele, Abiola. “The Negritude Debate.” In European-Language Writing in Sub-Saharan Africa, edited by Albert S. Gérard, pp. 379-93. Budapest, Hungary: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1986.
[In the following essay, Irele explores the various interpretations of Negritude by writers through the decades, placing it in a historical-political perspective.]
There is a sense in which the development of negritude,1 both as a movement and as a concept, has been marked by a fundamental irony. This irony stems from the fact that the first extended discussion and systematic formulation of negritude was provided by Jean-Paul Sartre. In many ways, it was Sartre's brilliant analysis in the essay “Orphée noir” that consecrated the term and gave negritude the status of one of the most important ideological concepts of our time. At the same time, it can be argued that his very formulation has been in large measure responsible for the ambiguity that has surrounded the term and generated the controversy that negritude has attracted to itself ever since.
The starting point of Sartre's analysis is the complex of emotions and attitudes expressed in the poetry of the first generation of French-speaking black poets brought together in the 1948 anthology by L. S. Senghor.2 These emotions and attitudes, related as they were to a historical experience common to all black people, were...
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Vaillant, Janet G. Black, French, and African: A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990, 388 p.
Detailed biography of Senghor.
Ahluwalia, Pal. “‘Negritude and Nativism’: In Search of Identity.” Africa Quarterly 39, no. 2 (1999): 21-44.
Provides a detailed account of the Negritude movement, from its beginnings in the 1930s and tracing it into the 1990s.
Ako, Edward O. “Langston Hughes and the Négritude Movement: A Study in the Literary Influences.” CLA Journal: A Quarterly 28, no. 1 (September 1984): 46-56.
Studies the influence on Hughes and other writers of the Harlem Renaissance on the Negritude movement.
Arnold, A. James. Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981, 318 p.
Essays on the work of poet Aimé Césaire in the context of the philosophy of Negritude.
Beier, Ulli. “The Stunning Vision of Aimé Césaire.” Quadrant 28, no. 11 (November 1984): 50-53.
Recollections of a professional relationship with Césaire, including a brief overview of his works.
Depestre, Rene. “Hello and Goodbye to...
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