Negritude Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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.