Négritude is a framework of critique and literary theory, developed mainly by francophone intellectuals, writers, and politicians of the African diaspora during the 1930s. Its initiators included Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor(the first President of Senegal), and Léon Damas of French Guiana. Négritude intellectuals disavowed colonialism, and argued for the importance of a Pan-African racial identity among people of African descent worldwide. The intellectuals employed Marxist political philosophy, in the black radical tradition. The writers generally used a realist literary style, and some say they were also influenced somewhat by the Surrealist stylistics. In 1932, the manifesto “Murderous Humanitarianism” was signed by prominent Surrealists, including the Martinicans Pierre Yoyotte and J. M. Monnerot.
Négritude inspired a range of other movements, one of these being “Black is beautiful”. The Black is Beautiful movement was a cultural movement that began in the 1960s in the United States and was led by African Americans. This movement, which has its origins in Négritude, began in an effort to counteract the racist notion in American culture that features typical of Blacks were less attractive or desirable than those of Whites.
Négritude is a constructed noun from the 1930s based upon the French word nègre, which, like its English counterpart, was derogatory and had a different meaning from “Black man”. The movement’s use of the word négritude was a way of re-imagining the word as an emic form of empowerment. The term was first used in its present sense by Aimé Césaire, in the third issue of L’Étudiant noir, a magazine that he had started in Paris with fellow students Léopold Senghor and Léon Damas, as well as Gilbert Gratiant, Leonard Sainville, Louis T. Achille, Aristide Maugée, and Paulette Nardal. L’Étudiant noir also includes Césaire’s first published work, Conscience Raciale et Révolution Sociale, with the heading “Les Idées” and the rubric “Négreries”, which is notable for its disavowal of assimilation as a valid strategy for resistance and for its use of the word nègre as a positive term. The problem with assimilation was that one assimilated into a culture that considered African culture to be barbaric and unworthy of being seen as “civilized”. The assimilation into this culture would have been seen as an implicit acceptance of this view. Nègre previously had been used mainly in a pejorative sense. Césaire deliberately incorporated this derogatory word into the name of his philosophy.
In 1885, Haitian anthropologist Anténor Firmin published an early work De l’Égalité des Races Humaines (On the Equality of Human Races), which was published as a rebuttal to French writer Count Arthur de Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inegalite des Races Humaines (An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races). Firmin influenced Jean Price-Mars, the initiator of Haitian ethnology and developer of the concept of Indigenism, and 20th-century American anthropologist Melville Herskovits. Black intellectuals have historically been proud of Haiti due to its slave revolution commanded by Toussaint L’Ouverture during the 1790s. Césaire spoke, thus, of Haiti as being “where négritude stood up for the first time”.
Other diverse thinkers include Charles Baudelaire, André Breton, René Maran, and Arthur Rimbaud.
The Harlem Renaissance, a literary style developed in Harlem in Manhattan during the 1920s and 1930s, influenced the Negritude philosophy. The Harlem Renaissance’s writers, including Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, addressed the themes of “noireism” and race relations.
Development during the 20th century
During the 1920s and 1930s, young black students and scholars, primarily from France’s colonies and territories, assembled in Paris, where they were introduced to writers of the Harlem Renaissance by Paulette Nardal and her sister Jane. The Nardal sisters contributed to the Négritude discussions in their writings and also owned the Clamart Salon, a tea-shop venue of the Afro-French intelligentsia where the philosophy of Négritude was often discussed. Paulette Nardal and the Haitian Dr Leo Sajou initiated La revue du Monde Noir(1931–32), a literary journal published in English and French, which attempted to appeal to African and Caribbean intellectuals in Paris. This Harlem association was shared by the parallel development of negrismo in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean region.
Although each of the initiators had his own ideas about the purpose and styles of Négritude, the philosophy was characterized generally by opposition to colonialism, denunciation of Europe’s alleged inhumanity, and rejection of Western domination and ideas. The movement also appears to have had some Heideggerian strands in the sense that its goal was to achieve Black people’s’ “being-in-the-world”, to emphasize that Black individuals did have a history and a worthy culture capable of standing alongside the cultures of other countries as equals. Also important was the acceptance of and pride in being Black and a celebration of African history, traditions, and beliefs. Their literary style was realistic and they cherished Marxist ideas.
Motivation for the Negritude movement was a result of Aimé Césaire’s, Leopold Senghor’s, and Leon Damas’s dissatisfaction, disgust, and personal conflict over the state of the Afro-French experience in France. All three shared a personal sense of revolt for the racism and colonial injustices that plagued their world and their French education. Senghor refused to believe that the purpose of his education was “to build Christianity and civilization in his soul where there was only paganism and barbarism before”. Césaire’s disgust came as embarrassment when he was accused by some of the people of the Caribbean as having nothing to do with the people of Africa—whom they saw as savages. They separated themselves from Africa and proclaimed themselves as civilized. He denounced the writers from the Caribbean as “intellectually… corrupt and literarily nourished with white decadence”. Damas believed this because of the pride these writers would take when a white person could read their whole book and not be able to tell the author’s complexion.
Césaire was a poet, playwright, and politician from Martinique. He studied in Paris, where he discovered the Black community and “rediscovered Africa”. He saw Négritude as the fact of being Black, acceptance of this fact, and appreciation of the history and culture, and of Black people. It is important to note that for Césaire, this emphasis on the acceptance of the fact of “Blackness” was the means by which the “decolonization of the mind” could be achieved. According to him, western imperialism was responsible for the inferiority complex of Black people. He sought to recognize the collective colonial experience of Black individuals —the slave trade and plantation system. Césaire’s ideology was especially important during the early years of la Négritude.
Neither Césaire—who after returning to Martinique after his studies, was elected mayor of Fort de France, the capital, and a representative of Martinique in France’s Parliament—nor Senghor in Senegal envisaged political independence from France. Négritude would, according to Senghor, enable Black people in French lands to have a “seat at the give and take the [French] table as equals”. However, the French eventually granted Senegal and its other African colonies independence.
Poet and the later first president of Sénégal, Senghor used Négritude to work toward a universal valuation of African people. He advocated modern incorporation of the expression and celebration of traditional African customs and ideas. This interpretation of Négritude tended to be the most common, particularly during later years.
Damas was a French Guianese poet and National Assembly member. He had a militant style of defending “black qualities” and rejected any kind of reconciliation with Caucasians. Two particular anthologies were pivotal to the movement, which would serve as manifestos for the movement. One was published by Damas in 1946, Poètes d’expression française 1900–1945. Senghor would then go on to publish Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française in 1948. Damas’s introduction to the anthology and the anthology was meant to be a sort of manifesto for the movement, but Senghor’s own anthology eventually took that role. Though it would be the “Preface” written by French philosopher and public intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre for the anthology that would propel Négritude into the broader intellectual conversation.
As a manifesto for the Négritude movement Damas’ introduction was more political and cultural in nature. A distinctive feature of his anthology and beliefs was that Damas felt his message was one for the colonized in general, and included poets from Indochina and Madagascar. This is sharply in contrast to Senghor’s anthology, which would be published two years later. In the introduction, Damas proclaimed that now was the age where “the colonized man becomes aware of his rights and of his duties as a writer, as a novelist or a storyteller, an essayist or a poet.” Damas explicitly outlines the themes of the anthology. He says, “Poverty, illiteracy, exploitation of man by man, social and political racism suffered by the black or the yellow, forced labor, inequalities, lies, resignation, swindles, prejudices, complacencies, cowardice, failure, crimes committed in the name of liberty, of equality, of fraternity, that is the theme of this indigenous poetry in French.” Damas’ introduction was indeed a calling and affirmation for a distinct cultural identity.
In 1948, Jean-Paul Sartre analyzed the négritude philosophy in an essay called “Orphée Noir” (“Black Orpheus”) that served as the introduction to a volume of francophone poetry named Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache, compiled by Léopold Senghor. In this essay, Sartre characterizes négritude as the opposite of colonial racism in a Hegelian dialectic and with it he helped to introduce Négritude issues to French intellectuals. In his opinion, négritude was an “anti-racist racism” (racisme antiraciste), a strategy with a final goal of racial unity.
Négritude was criticized by some Black writers during the 1960s as insufficiently militant. Keorapetse Kgositsile said that the term Négritude was based too much on Blackness according to a Caucasian aesthetic, and was unable to define a new kind of perception of African-ness that would free Black people and Black art from Caucasian conceptualizations altogether.
The Nigerian dramatist, poet, and novelist Wole Soyinka opposed Négritude. He believed that by deliberately and outspokenly being proud of their ethnicity, Black people were automatically on the defensive. According to some, he said: “Un tigre ne proclame pas sa tigritude, il saute sur sa proie” (French: A tiger doesn’t proclaim its tigerness; it jumps on its prey).Citation needed But in fact, Soyinka wrote in a 1960 essay for the Horn, “the duiker will not paint ‘duiker’ on his beautiful back to proclaim his duikeritude; you’ll know him by his elegant leap.”
After a long period of silence, there has been a renaissance of Négritude developed by scholars such as Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Columbia University), Donna Jones (Berkeley University), and Cheikh Thiam (Ohio State University) who all continue the work of Abiola Irele (1936–2017). Cheikh Thiam’s book is the only book-length study of Négritude as philosophy. It develops Diagne’s reading of Négritude as a philosophy of art, and Jones’ presentation of Négritude as a lebensphilosophie.
American physician Benjamin Rush, a signer of the United States Declaration of Independence and early abolitionist, used the term negritude to imagine a rhetorical “disease” which he said was a mild form of leprosy, the only cure of which was to become white. This early use of the term may not have been known by the Afro-Francophones who developed the philosophy of Négritude during the 20th century.
Novelist Norman Mailer used the term to describe boxer George Foreman’s physical and psychological presence in his book The Fight, a journalistic treatment of the legendary Ali vs. Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” bout in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) in October 1974.