Négritude – Empowering the African Diaspora in Francophone Literature and Thought

by Beth Velletri

We have all probably heard of the Harlem Renaissance, that pivotal African American intellectual movement in the early part of the 20th Century. But did you know its influence spread across the ocean to France, and all francophone countries through a literary and ideological movement called Négritude?

King and Carter Jazz Orchestra, ca. 1923 (Center for American History, University of Texas, Austin)

As the Harlem Renaissance began to wane, several of its writers and thinkers, including Claude McKay, moved to France, eschewing the segregation and bigotry of the United States. McKay’s book, Home to Harlem (1928), is a vibrant, realistic portrait of nightlife in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. This honest portrayal of the real lives of Harlem African Americans captured the imagination of francophone blacks and led Léopold Sédar Senghor, one of the leading voices of Négritude to designate McKay the founder of the movement (A Brief Guide to Negritude 2004). The name, Négritude, was coined by another leader, Aimé Césaire (Micklin, 2019), who asserts in his article “Conscience Raciale et Revolution Sociale” (1935):

Ainsi donc avant de faire la Révolution et pour faire la révolution – la vraie –, la lame de fond destructrice et non l’ébranlement des surfaces, une condition est essentielle: rompre la mécanique identification des races, déchirer les superficielles valeurs, saisir en nous le nègre immédiat, planter notre négritude comme un bel arbre jusqu’à ce qu’il porte ses fruits les plus authentiques.

      Alors seulement, nous aurons conscience de nous; alors seulement, nous saurons jusqu’ou nous pouvons courir seuls; alors seulement nous saurons ou le souffle nous manque, et parce que nous aurons saisi notre particulière différence, et que nous < jouirons loyalement notre être >, nous pourrons triompher de tous les esclavages, nés de la < civilisation >.

The term Négritude arose from the derogatory francophone slur against blacks. While seemingly sensational, the Négritude leaders believed that by taking up the term and using it, blacks empowered themselves by allowing themselves to define what it means to be black. The trois péres of the movement, Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Léon-Gontran Damas brought different perspectives about how best to classify Négritude, and those perspectives were explored in writing, for their journal, L’Etudiant noire.

Césaire and Damas, both from Caribbean countries, focused on the loss of the motherland caused by the Atlantic slave trade, though Damas was more strident in his repudiation of colonialism (ThoughtCo, 2020). Senghor, who was from Senegal, wanted to focus on African customs and traditionalism (Micklin, 2019), but with a forward vision, not to a return to the past.

The early years of Négritude were defined by Césaire’s vision, in which blacks recognized their colonized and enslaved history and mourned what they had lost, but celebrated their culture (ThoughtCo, 2020). As time went on, however, Senghor’s beliefs, which focused on cultural assimilation with reciprocity and respect between blacks and whites, characterized the latter part of the movement (A Brief Guide to Negritude 2004).

Négritude came into being just as colonized African countries began to assert their independence, and the Négritude movement, influenced by Marxism (Rexer, 2013), realism, and surrealism, helped colonial blacks discover their identity as free individuals (Micklin, 2019). As colonialized francophone countries won their independence, the drive for self-identity in these societies became less of a necessity. But the Négritude movement continued, and some say continues still, influencing other black acceptance movements around the world, including Afro-Surrealism, Creolite, and the United States based Black is Beautiful movement (Négritude, 2020).


References

A Brief Guide to Negritude. (2004, May 22). In poets.org. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://poets.org/text/brief-guide-negritude

Cesaire, A. (1935).Conscience Raciale et Revolution Sociale. L’Etudiant Noir, (3). Retrieved January 13, 2021, from  https://letudiant-noir.webs.com/

L’Etudiant Noir. (n.d.). Retrieved January 14, 2021, from https://letudiant-noir.webs.com/

Micklin, A. (2019, August 13). Negritude Movement. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/negritude-movement/

Négritude. (2020, December 23). In Wikipedia. Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N%C3%A9gritude

Rexer, R. (2013). Black and white and re(a)d all over: L’Etudiant noir, communism, and the birth of negritude. Research in African Literatures, 44(4), 1+.

The Francophone Literary Movement (La Négritude). (2020, November 2). In ThoughtCo. Retrieved January 13, 2021, from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-negritude-francophone-literary-movement-4078402

Beth Velletri is a freelance writer and former college English instructor and academic advisor. Her specialties include technical and academic writing. Beth loves turning complex information into readable and relatable text.

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