Negritude Essay - Critical Essays




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.

Representative Works

Aimé Césaire
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

Léon Damas
Pigments (poetry) 1937
Graffiti (poetry) 1952
Black-Label (poetry) 1956

David Diop
L'Unite culturelle de l'Afrique noire: Domaines du patricat et du matricat dans l'antiquite classique (nonfiction) 1959

Frantz Fanon
Peau noire, masques blancs [Black Skin, White Masks] (nonfiction) 1952
Les Damnes de la terre [The Wretched of the Earth] (novel) 1961

Ezekiel Mphahlele
The African Image (nonfiction) 1962

Jean-Paul Sartre
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

Criticism: Major Figures

Seth L. Wolitz (essay date 1969)

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...

(The entire section is 5399 words.)

Melvin Dixon (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 6610 words.)

André Breton (essay date 1996)

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...

(The entire section is 3301 words.)

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Alexandre Kimenyi (essay date spring 1981)

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 entire section is 3236 words.)

Janice Spleth (essay date 1985)

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...

(The entire section is 6113 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 3250 words.)

Criticism: Poetry Of Negritude

Ellen Conroy Kennedy (essay date 1975)

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...

(The entire section is 4286 words.)

Janis L. Pallister (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 12253 words.)

Criticism: Politics Of Negritude

Gerald Moore (essay date 1969)

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...

(The entire section is 6254 words.)

Carroll Yoder (essay date 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 11667 words.)

Criticism: The Negritude Debate

Ezekiel Mphahlele (essay date 1965)

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...

(The entire section is 2511 words.)

Abiola Irele (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 8150 words.)

Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 470 words.)