In May 1935, the word ‘Négritude’ appeared for the first time in the only issue of the literary magazine L’Etudiant noir, which Aimé Césaire set up with his friends Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon-Gontran Damas. In May 2017, that made-up word, which sparked a cultural and intellectual movement, will be 82. Césaire, one of the ‘trois pères’ (along with Senghor and Damas) of the black Francophone literary movement, defined it as “the simple recognition of the fact that one is black”. But La Négritude transcended the borders of the black Francophone literary world. Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka even countered the idea with his now-famous quote, “A tiger does not shout its tigritude, it pounces.”
However, before the ‘trois pères’ there were the ‘mères’ – the mothers.
Les Mères de La Négritude
To be called a nègre (roughly translated as ‘Negro’) in the 1930s was to be a person of no value; a beast even. It was the racist term used by the French colonisers to refer to Africans in the colonies and in France. Therefore the questions of “Who am I?” and “Who are we in this world of whites?” were ones that black Francophones in France at that time were asking. The answers they were coming up with were that they were not what the colonisers wanted to portray them as.
In 1924, the Caribbean writer Suzanne Lacascade elaborated on that answer in her only novel, Claire-Solange, âme africaine (Claire-Solange, African soul). Claire-Solange, the young mixed-race heroine of the novel, refuses to do what is expected of her in the racist society of Paris in 1914, which is to hide. Not only did Lacascade speak of the racism and the subjugation of the black woman, she also went against the grain by writing the dialogue in Créole and depicting Caribbean society in minute detail.
The other woman who not only wrote but also acted as an activist to answer that question of identity was Paulette Nardal. The first black woman to enter the prestigious Sorbonne University, Nardal translated the writings of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance. With her sisters, Jane and Andrée, she set up a literary salon, the Salon de Clamart, where she introduced young Africans and Caribbean students in Paris to the Harlem Renaissance writers. In a letter written in 1960, Senghor, who was one of the many regulars at the salon, acknowledged the influence of the Harlem writers on him and spoke of Nardal’s intermediary role.
“We were in contact with these black Americans during the years 1929-34 through Mademoiselle Paulette Nardal who…kept a literary salon where African Negroes, West Indians and American Negroes used to get together.”
During these salons, the students had conversations with the more established poets in exile and they came to realise, as Senghor mentioned in his book, Problématique de la négritude, that “by being creative, we could make black-African civilisation respected and acknowledged.” It was with that objective in mind that Nardal with her sister Andrée and the Haitian writer Léo Sajous founded La Revue du Monde Noir, a bilingual French-English magazine, in 1931.
In 1935, when Césaire coined the word Négritude, the precursory works of the Nardal sisters and Lacascade had already been muted…
La Négritude had no ‘mères’
Despite the literary boldness Lacascade displayed, it was Batouala, the novel by the Martinican René Maran (another habitué of the salon), that was considered the first Négritude novel. It even won the Goncourt Prize of the Best Novel in 1921.
Granted, Maran’s book was published three years earlier than Lacascade’s novel, but Négritude as a fully formed concept did not come about until 1935, so either Batouala or Claire-Solange could have qualified. By giving credence to Batouala, Césaire not only gave more weight to the experiences of Africans in the colonies over what was happening in the metropole, but also to the need to write in perfect French, like Maran did, unlike Lacascade, who was too keen on Creole. And so her avant-garde work fell into obscurity.
In 1935, when Césaire coined the word Négritude, the precursory works of the Nardal sisters and Lacascade had already been muted, and by 1941, the movement was being identified solely with Césaire, Senghor and Damas. Some might say that the ‘trois pères’ did nothing to change that view.
Ten years before Césaire wrote Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) in 1939, which was heralded as the Négritude book, Jane, Paulette’s sister, was writing of the pride of being a nègre.
“From henceforth there would be some interest, some originality, some pride in being Negro, to turn oneself towards Africa, the cradle of the Negro, to remember a common origin.”
Paris was the centre of Francophone literature, and having legitimacy as a writer there was of vital importance. This meant having a French godfather.
So what happened in 1935 to cause Césaire to judge the Salon de Clamart as being too ‘assimilationist’ in his essay Discourse on Colonialism? Not even the contributions of Suzanne Roussi Césaire, who married Césaire in 1937, was mentioned in his address at the First International Congress of black writers and artists in 1956.
While sexism was at play, the context of 1930s Paris also needs to be looked at. Paris was the centre of Francophone literature, and having legitimacy as a writer there was of vital importance. This meant having a French godfather.
Black writers in Paris at that time could only be ‘black writers’; that is, exotic regionalists who wrote in Creole, used Creole in their writings or who published Creole or African fables. The ‘trois pères’ refused that tag and instead adopted the position of being ‘écrivains nègres’, speaking and writing in impeccable French. They were able to catch the attention of French poets, philosophers and writers like Jean-Paul Sartre and André Breton, who wrote the forewords to their works and brought them into the fold of the literary world.
Whether or not these French writers understood the movement, or if they had their own ideas on what it should be, was another question. But by writing those forewords, they opened a way for the ‘trois pères’ into the dominant literary scene of that time. Even Damas, one of the pères, saw his book Pigments being eclipsed in favour of works by Senghor and Césaire, whose forewards were written by more illustrious writers.
Of course, that approach was not approved by every black intellectual in Paris. Some felt that Césaire and Senghor especially were trying to get away from the nègre culture. In a letter she sent to Senghor’s biographer in 1963, Nardal called for a re-writing of the story of the movement. She wrote, “They [Senghor, Césaire, Damas] took the ideas tossed out by us and expressed them with more flash and brio. We might have just been women, but we were the real pioneers. We blazed the trail for them.”