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Negritude: Article

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Nick Nesbitt


Neologism coined by Martinican poet and statesman Aime Cesaire in Paris in the 1930s in discussions with fellow students Leopold Sedar Senghor and Leon Gontran-Damas.

The concept of Negritude represents a historic development in the formulation of African diasporic identity and culture in this century. The term marks a revalorization of Africa on the part of New World blacks, affirming an overwhelming pride in black heritage and culture, and asserting, in Marcus Garvey's words, that blacks are "descendants of the greatest and proudest race who ever peopled the earth." The concept finds its roots in the thought of Martin Delany, William Blyden, and W. E. B. Du Bois, each of whom sought to erase the stigma attached to the black world through their intellectual and political efforts on behalf of the African diaspora. Early in this century, French Caribbean politicians such as Hegesippe Legitimus, Rene Boisneuf, and Gratien Candace affirmed the right and necessity of blacks to enter into the global community as equals, while historians such as Oruno Lara strove to "edify a more beautiful past, drawing upon our heritage of sacrifice and probity." The inspiration for Cesaire's term comes most directly, however, from the example of the Harlem Renaissance, in which writers such as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay explored and revindicated the richness of black culture. Senghor himself has referred to McKay as the "the true inventor of [the values of] Negritude....Far from seeing in one's blackness an inferiority, one accepts it, one lays claim to it with pride, one cultivates it lovingly." Like the evolution of the term "black" in the United States, Negritude took a stigmatized term and turned it into a point of pride.

As a historical movement, Negritude received two competing interpretations. Cesaire's original conception sees the specificity and unity of black existence as a historically developing phenomenon that arose through the highly contingent events of the African slave trade and New World plantation system. This formulation was gradually displaced in intellectual debate by Senghor's essentialist interpretation of Negritude, which argues for an unchanging core or essence to black existence. As this later formulation gained currency, it was widely attacked, all the more so as Senghor, then president of an independent Senegal, came to use the term ideologically to justify his own political platform. Senghor's Negritude nonetheless served to reverse the system of values that had informed Western perception of blacks since the earliest voyages of discovery to Africa. Cesaire's developmental model of Negritude, on the other hand, continues to offer a model for the ongoing project of black liberation in all its fullness, at once spiritual and political.

First used by Cesaire in his 1939 poem "Cahier d'un retour au pays natal" (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land), Negritude refers to a collective identity of the African diaspora born of a common historico-cultural experience of subjugation. Cesaire writes, "Negritude, not a cephalic index, or a plasma, or a soma, but measured by the compass of suffering." Both the term and the subsequent literary and cultural movement that developed equally emphasized the possible negation of that subjugation via concerted actions of racial affirmation, of which the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) is the prototype. In succeeding decades, the term became a focus for ideological disputes among the black intelligentsia of a Francophone world in the process of decolonization, and writers such as Leopold Sedar Senghor, Frantz Fanon, and the Anglophone Wole Soyinka each weighed in with their own reformulations and critiques of Cesaire's concept. Negritude as a concept encompassed and distilled a wide range of previous historical moments, in turn generating a diverse field of debate that has, in its use of the term, extended, and at times even contradicted, Cesaire's original intervention.

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The historical origins of Negritude can be traced to the various forms of cultural expression in the French Caribbean that find their roots in the African continent, practices that were transmogrified by the experience of the Middle Passage and slavery. Like the North American spirituals first championed in The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois, a variety of arts and practices served as refuges for Afro-Caribbean pride and African culture: the dances called calenda, bamboula, and laghia; the drumming and songs of the bel-air, Gwoka, and lewoz; Creole culinary arts; the Kric-Krac folktales; and the multitude of practices arising from Hatian Vodou. Forced underground by the violence and racism of slavery, this proto-Negritude manifested itself less as overt, self-proclaimed affirmation than through the concrete, positive production of cultural, religious, and aesthetic practices. In addition, black slaves at times responded to the threat of annihilation with self-affirmation in the form of overt resistance: feigned laziness, ignorance or incompetence, theft, poisoning of animals and burning of buildings, escape into maroon communities, and organized revolts (Slave Rebellions in Latin America and the Caribbean).

The social dynamics of a Caribbean society created through the institution of slavery and its vehicle, the plantation (in its French variant, l'habitation), resulted in a powerful ideological valorization of and identification with a highly centralized metropolitan French culture. For commentators such as Edouard Glissant, this identification explains the success and longevity of a French colonial project that, in his estimation, continues to this day in the very Martinique that Aime Cesaire helped to integrate juridically in 1945. This overwhelming cultural identification points to the radicality of Cesaire's revalorization of African, rather than French, culture. The Franco-centric cultural reference also explains why literary models for Negritude must be sought elsewhere in the African diaspora. No equivalent of Olaudah Equiano's 1789 slave narrative, Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or the various autobiographical narratives of Anglophone authors such as Phillis Wheatley, Ottobah Cugoano, and Frederick Douglass, appears to have survived in French Antillean letters. The French Code Noir of 1685 had forbidden blacks to read or write, and remained in effect through 1848. The authors Patrick Chamoiseau and Rapha.l Confiant have described how, in a century and a half of literary production preceding Cesaire, Martinican writing was characterized by a triple rupture. "From oral to written [production], a rupture of enunciation; from the Creole language to French, a rupture of language; from the storyteller to the writer, a temporal-spatial rupture." The result was a literature entirely subordinated to a "French cultural superego," mimetically echoing succeeding French literary fashions (Romantic, Parnassian, then Symbolist poetry), mired in the tradition of literary exoticism (doudouisme).

Despite the fundamental importance of the German philosopher Hegel for both Cesaire and subsequent participants in the Negritude debate such as Frantz Fanon, Richard Wright, and Jean-Paul Sartre, an insidious aspect of Hegel's philosophy decisively marked the development of proto-Negritude thought in the 19th century. Hegel notoriously exempted blacks from the processes of historical development in his Philosophy of History, stating that their "condition is capable of no development of Culture, and as we see them at this day, such they have always been." Hegel's thesis participated in the development of a biological racism, whose main proponents in the French tradition were the doctor J. J. Virey, the biologist Georges Cuvier, and the writer Joseph-Artur de Gobineau. This field of thought articulated a belief in the inferiority of blacks based upon supposed physical and intellectual traits, furthermore presupposing the existence of discrete "races" that modern genetics has repeatedly disproved. In response, writers such as Alexander Crummell, Martin Robison Delany, and Edward Wilmot Blyden sought to rescue the image of Africa for New World blacks. Delany organized the first scientific expedition to Africa from the Western Hemisphere and is acknowledged as the founder of Black Nationalism in America, while Blyden undertook the revalorization of African history after Hegel's blanket condemnation, developing as well an early form of Pan-Africanist thought that prefigures the championing of African culture enacted in Cesaire's Negritude. W. E. B. Du Bois continued this turn to Africa, and initiated reflection upon the formal continuities of African diasporic culture. The fruits of that more general reflection informed Du Bois's critique of North American racism in works such as The Souls of Black Folk in ways strikingly similar to Cesaire's later critique of the specific forms of French racism as found in Martinique and Paris. Though not well known to Cesaire in 1939, intellectual forerunners like Du Bois, Delany, and Blyden thus anticipated that aspect of Negritude that strives for the revalorization of Africa in French Caribbean culture.

Certain lone figures in the French Caribbean, however, also participated in the affirmation of black culture. The early years of the French Third Republic (1871-1940) witnessed profound changes in Martinican and Guadeloupean culture. Economies previously based on the production of sugarcane were thrown into a long decline that would continue into this century, after the introduction of cheaply produced sugar beets undercut global sugar prices, making competition impossible. This recession, combined with the presence of a black proletariat and nascent middle class following the abolition of slavery in the French colonies in 1848, paved the way for the novel success of black socialist politicians such as Hegesippe Legitimus of Guadeloupe. Martinican politics remained dominated through this period by members of the white land-owning beke class, such as Ernest Deproge and Osman Duquesnay. In contrast, a relatively small beke population in Guadeloupe led that island's elected positions to be filled by representatives of the mulatto bourgeoisie, such as Gerville-Reache, Sarlat, Auguste Isaac, and Emile Reaux. The electoral defeat of the mulatto Issac by Legitimus in 1898 signals the triumph of black electoral politics in the region, foreshadowing Cesaire's 50-year dominance of Martinican politics as both mayor of Fort-de-France and Martinican representative in the French General Assembly. If Legitimus's early affirmation of racial pride and solidarity predated the Negritude movement by three decades, his recourse to race baiting in electoral politics soon reduced him to inflammatory diatribes against mulatto politicians, whom he referred to as "parasites" and "yellow politicians." Other black Guadeloupean politicians, such as Rene Boisneuf and Gratien Candace, continued the processes initiated by Legitimus in the years before the emergence of Negritude. Candace, along with Cesaire one of the leading black political figures in French politics of the 20th century, was one of the first black colonial leaders to begin questioning French racial and colonial hegemony.

World War I had brought blacks from the French Caribbean colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana to Europe. Already benefiting from full French citizenship since 1848, they, along with Senegalese blacks, fought beside metropolitan and black American soldiers, and sent representatives to the French parliament following the war. Blaise Diagne of Senegal and Gratien Candace organized the first Pan-African Congress with W. E. B. Du Bois in 1919, immediately following the armistice. Though only tentative steps were taken in condemning colonialism at the congress, it nonetheless marked the beginnings of a truly international solidarity among members of the African diaspora.

In addition, a series of journals, publications, and organizations appeared that prefigure the Negritude of Aime Cesaire. In 1924 Kojo Tovalou Houenou of Benin founded the "Ligue universelle de defense de la race noire," which two years later would change its name to the "Comite de defense de la race Negre." The league's journal, La Voix des Negres, quotes Legitimus's revindication of black pride: "We honor and glorify ourselves in using the word "Black" ["Negre"] with a capital B." In 1927 Lenis Blanche founded an "Association des etudiants guadeloupeens," while the "Comite de defense" confusingly changes name again to become the "Ligue de defense de la race Negre," arguing in its journal, La Race Negre, for the collaboration between (Francophone) black intellectuals and workers, and calling for a student-led Pan-Africanism. In 1928 the Internationale Syndicale Rouge published in Moscow L'Ouvrier Negre, in defense of "the disinherited son of the proletarian family." In 1931 the Ligue split, and Tiemoko Garan Kouyate founded, with the Martinican communist Trissot, the journal Le Cri des Negres. This black communist journal vigorously defended Antillean workers, and its circulation was severely limited by the French authorities.

In the realm of black cultural production, La Dep.eche africaine, published from 1928 to 1930 with the participation of Rene Maran and the Nardal sisters, saw its mission as forming a "juncture between Negroes of the entire world" via the valorization of black aesthetic and intellectual production. In 1928 the publication of Jean Price-Mars's Ainsi parla l'oncle (So Spokethe Uncle) was the first overt condemnation of the colonial identification with French culture, which had led, in Price-Mars's famous formulation, to a "collective boveryism" or romanticized yearning for French cultural products and the denigration of African-derived culture such as Haitian Vodou. In 1931 the Revue du monde noir valorized black cultural production, positioning itself as a moderate, proassimilationist voice. Far more radical, the revue Legitime Defense, founded in 1932 by the Martinican Etienne Lero, combined in its single published issue discourses of Surrealism, Hegelian Marxism, and Freudianism in its vehement condemnation of French colonialism, racism, and capitalist exploitation. Despite a certain lack of depth in its analysis and the immaturity of its poetic texts, it marked a fundamental step in the assertion of black identity in the Francophone world. In 1934 the 21-year-old student Cesaire, along with Gilbert Gratiant, Leonard Sainville, Paulette Nardal, and Cesaire's fellow student Leopold Sedar Senghor, founded the review L'Etudiant Noir. More moderate in tone than Legitime Defense, it nonetheless contains Cesaire's first published text, the poem ""Negreries," in which he clearly prefigures Negritude in his forceful, affirmative use of the stigmatized term "Negre," refusing the assimilation of blacks into French society in favor of "emancipation."

Throughout the 1920s, the triumph of Russian Bolshevism was followed closely throughout the African diaspora. Though the French Communist Party long regarded colonialism as strictly subsidiary to the triumph of European proletarian revolution, journals such as Les Continents (founded in 1924 by Rene Maran and Kodjo Touvalou) and, in particular, L'Action coloniale (founded in 1918 by Maurice Boursaud) were fundamental in articulating a preliminary Marxist condemnation of colonialism. An increasing social and juridical permeability between colonized and colonizer helped make possible the rapid changes in black consciousness that occurred through the 1920s and 1930s.

The Harlem Renaissance was also central to Cesaire's concept of Negritude. Cesaire wrote a dissertation on the movement in the 1930s, and Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen were already well known among the Paris-based Antillean intelligentsia when Cesaire arrived there in 1931. The Jamaican McKay in particular, in works such as Banjo, expressed a keen perception of the fractures dividing black cultures along lines of pigmentation and class. Indeed, Senghor has gone so far as to cite McKay as the spiritual founder of Negritude: "Claude McKay can rightfully be considered the true inventor of Negritude. I speak not of the word, but of the values of Negritude. . . . Far from seeing in one's blackness an inferiority, one accepts it, one lays claim to it with pride, one cultivates it lovingly." Leon Gontran Damas's 1930 collection of poems Pigments powerfully appropriated many of McKay's insights, its violent condemnation of racial division and colonialist assimilation serving as the most immediate spur to Cesaire's invention of Negritude. In Haiti a similar renaissance occurred during the 1920s and 1930s, as journals like the Revue indigene and writers such as Jacques Roumain, Emile Roumer, and Jacques Stephen Alexis developed the racial revindication articulated in Price-Mars's Ainsi parla l'oncle.

The work of another Caribbean, Marcus Garvey, though unknown to Cesaire in 1939, prefigures the concept of Negritude in more than one respect. Garvey's critique of an assimilationist black middle class announces that of French Antilleans such as Lero and Cesaire, while his revalorization of African culture is similar to both Cesaire's and Senghor's subsequent development of Negritude. "Negroes," Garvey implored, "teach your children that they are direct descendants of the greatest and proudest race who ever peopled the earth." In 1933 the Jamaican Leonard Percival Howell founded the Rastafarian movement, striving to "construct the black race economically, the better to serve God." Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Cuban poets allied with the Revista de Estudios Afrocubanos, and Nicolas Guill*n in particular, along with the Cuban painter Wifredo Lam, sought to explore and valorize their African heritage.

Certain European intellectuals were central to the elaboration of Negritude. The fashionable interest in African art and culture that arose in 1920s Paris in the work of Pablo Picasso, the writers Jean Cocteau, Blaise Cendrars, and Andre Gide, and the composer Darius Milhaud made reference to an often vague amalgam known as "l'art Negre." Too often, little effort was made to differentiate between the cultural traditions of regions as diverse as Dakar, Senegal, Bahia, Brazil, and Harlem, New York, in deference to a putative "black soul." Nonetheless, this movement created a climate of receptivity in which intellectuals such as Andre Breton and Sartre would quickly recognize the importance of Negritude in the 1940s. Anthropologists also turned to Africa and its diaspora in these years. Maurice Delafosse, in his 1927 work Les Negres, applied to African culture the methods of ethnographic analysis. The German Leo Frobenius's History of African Civilization was translated into French in 1936 and avidly read by both Cesaire and Senghor. "We knew by heart chapter II of the first book of the History," Senghor has written, "entitled 'What does Africa mean to us?' a chapter adorned with lapidary phrases such as this: 'The idea of the "barbarous Negro" is a European invention, which in turn dominated Europe until the beginning of this century.'" Frobenius's work, along with Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918), provided Cesaire and Senghor with a conception of history in which a tired, defeated West might be superceded by more vital African diasporic cultures.

Cesaire's revindication of the term "Negre," though mirroring parallel processes occurring in the North American adoption first of "black," then "African American" as self-designations, occurred in a specific historical and linguistic environment. In 1939, when Cesaire's poem appeared, the term "noir" ("black") roughly corresponded to the socially valorized North American "negro." The traditional French Caribbean identification with metropolitan French culture also meant, in the view of commentators like Frantz Fanon, that black Antilleans were largely alienated from their African roots. In Fanon's words, the Antillean black until 1939 conceived of Africa as "a country of savages, of barbarians, of natives, of 'boys.'. . . The African was a nigger ["Negre"] and the Antillean a European." In France during the 1920s and 1930s, "Negre," particularly in its adjectival form, was used more or less interchangeably with "noir" ("l'art Negre," "la musique Negre"). In Martinique, however, the term "Negre" shared a functional similarity with the racist North American epithet "nigger." A. James Arnold credits Cesaire with being the first black intellectual outside Africa to have taken the humiliating term "nigger" and boldly transformed it into the proud term "black." The specificity of Cesaire's intervention and affirmation arises from this highly specific historical conjuncture of self-alienation, in which, Fanon states, "haunted by impurity, overwhelmed by sin, ridden by guilt, [the Antillean] lives the drama of being neither white nor black ['Negre']."

In addition to its historical importance, Cesaire's coining of the term "Negritude" possesses a philosophical dimension later developed in the work of Fanon (1952) and Sartre. Theoretically, and in contradistinction to the uses and abuses that the term would undergo in succeeding decades, N*gritude in C*saire's poem possesses a decidedly objective status, as the poet refuses to affirm the unity of black identity. Previous articulations of black identity in the Francophone world opted uniformly for the latter. Earlier in the century to cite two relevant examples Hegesippe Legitimus had affirmed with pride his status as "Negre," while Oruno Lara in his 1921 History of Guadeloupe proclaimed his pride to be a "writer of the black race." Lara states that his book a little-known precursor to Negritude is "the image of the painful and formidable creation of an American continent wrought with African tears and blood," written to serve "our advancement." The first black historian of the region and author of the 1923 novel Questions de couleur: Blanches et noires, went on to affirm that "If, born yesterday, we seem to have neither a past, nor civil status, it was up to one of us to edify a more beautiful past, drawing upon our heritage of sacrifice and probity."

Cesaire's concept of Negritude, in contrast to these and many other postulations of black identity that came before it, objectifies the self-alienation of colonized black subjects through an act of creation: the neologism. In Cesaire's usage, an alienated black identity is forced to confront itself as a reified object:

ma negritude n'est pas une pierre, sa surdite ruee contre
la clameur du jour
ma negritude n'est pas une taie d'eau morte sur l'il
mort de la terre
ma negritude n'est ni une tour ni une cathedrale
elle plonge dans la chair rouge du sol
elle plonge dans la chair ardente du ciel
elle troue l'accablement opaque de sa droite patience. (1994: 42)

my Negritude is not a stone, its deafness dashed against
the clamor of the day
my Negritude is not an opaque spot of dead water
on the dead eye of the earth
my Negritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral
it plunges into the red flesh of the soil
it plunges into the ardent flesh of the sky
it pierces opaque prostration with its upright patience

This conception postulates Negritude as self-estrangement, a fact or quality that confronts the black subject as an object. Such a gesture initiates a movement in Cesaire's poem toward a self-consciousness that breaks the bonds of subjugation through a grappling with negativity in the form of self-alienation. Negritude "is not" the lifeless object society has reduced it to (stone, spot, or even tower). Instead, it is active, creative, and liberatory ("plunging," "piercing" through the world that had enchained it in subjection). Cesaire applies to the realm of black subjectivity Hegel's insight that "alienation" is in fact a transformational process in which the individual's so-called "natural" existence in this case the ideological subjugation of blacks is concretely negated for an artificial, self-created one: "[The self's] actuality consists solely in the setting-aside of its natural self. . . . The self knows itself as actual only as a transcended self." Cesaire's neologism is at once the naming and active instantiation of the very process it describes, tracing the liberation of black subjectivity through a confrontation with racism and colonialism. Negritude is thus for Cesaire the self-created object that negates the very objectivity of black existence itself where humans are reduced to pure animal-objects (slaves) in a becoming-human. Humans, following Marx's articulation of Hegel, "distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce . . ." In the concept of Negritude, Aime Cesaire produced the material, textual objectification of black self-consciousness, a program for self-understanding and liberation.

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When Aime Cesaire returned to Martinique in 1939, the term "Negritude" was known and used only by the small circle of black intellectuals who had surrounded Cesaire in Paris, in particular Senghor and Leon-Gantron Damas. Cesaire's "Cahier" was itself virtually unknown, having appeared only in an obscure Parisian review, Volontes. During the occupation of Martinique by the Nazi-controlled Vichy government, Cesaire, along with his wife, Suzanne, Rene Menil, and Aristide Maug*e, edited from 1941 to 1945 the journal Tropiques. The journal enacted a profound refusal of white European cultural values and references in favor of those of the African diaspora. Unlike Cesaire's earlier historicizing use of the term Negritude, articles such as "What Does Africa Mean to Us?" argued for a biologically based notion of black identity inherited from Frobenius, in which a black "biological reality" is invoked to account for black identity. During this period, as A. James Arnold has argued, both Cesaire's and Senghor's uncritical reliance upon a sanguinary ideology of African "blood" resonates disturbingly with Fascist doctrine of the era. At the same time, Tropiques appealed nondogmatically to a heterogeneous field of influences, invoking those elements of a European aesthetic heritage (surrealism, the French poets Rimbaud and Leautr*amont) whose iconoclastic work could be appropriated as a tool in refashioning black Caribbean culture.

In 1947 Leon-Gontran Damas published an anthology of poetry from the French colonies, and in the following year Leopold Senghor published a similar collection, Anthologie de la nouvelle poesie Negre et malgache. In addition to Cesaire, Damas, and Senghor, a number of black Francophone poets and writers produced works that participated indirectly in the project of Negritude, reflecting upon the vicissitudes of black existence. Paul Niger, David Diop, and Guy Tirollien all explored diasporic psyches damaged by colonialism and the contradictoins of a dual African and European heritage. The novels of Cheikh Hamadou Kane (L'Aventure ambiguee), Mongo Beti (Pauvre Christ de Bomba), and Ousmane Sembene (La Femme noire) articulated the various forms of alienation encountered by colonized African subjects.

Senghor's 1948 anthology featured a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre, "Black Orpheus," that is largely responsible for establishing the concept of Negritude at the center of postwar Francophone debate regarding black identity. Sartre's position as the dominant postwar Francophone intellectual caused the Negritude debate to focus on his articulation of the concept, with subsequent participants often defining their use of the term in relation to Sartre's analysis. Sartre's text develops the Hegelian category of negativity in relation to black consciousness, building upon the Russian philosopher Alexandre Kojeve's influential lectures on Hegel's master/slave dialectic. Sartre endorses the notion of a racial essence ("The black soul is an Africa from which the black ['Negre'] is exiled amidst the cold buildings of white culture and technology"), grounding this conception within the undeniable visibility of skin color:

A Jew, a white among whites, can deny that he is a Jew, declaring himself a man among men. The black cannot deny that he is black nor claim for himself an abstract, colorless humanity: he is black. Thus he is driven to authenticity: insulted, enslaved, he raises himself up. He picks up the word "black" ["N*gre"] that they had thrown at him like a stone, he asserts his blackness, facing the white man, with pride.

Frantz Fanon critiques Senghor's famous statement "Emotion is black as Reason is Hellenic," indicting Cesaire and Senghor's glorification of the irrational as a "regressive process" in his 1952 study Black Skin, White Masks. He then proceeds to attack Sartre's interpretation of Negritude as what the latter termed an "antiracist racism." Fanon critiques Sartre's reduction of Negritude to "the weak pole (or antithesis) of a dialectical progression" from within the very Hegelian perspective Sartre invokes: "For once, this born Hegelian [Sartre] had forgotten that consciousness needs to lose itself in absolute night, this being the only requirement for the attainment of self-consciousness." Fanon violently refuses Sartre's vision of an instrumentalized black identity dissolved in the Hegelian aufhebung (sublation) of a "raceless society," asserting: "I am not a potentiality for something. I am fully that which I am."

In 1947 Alioune Diop of Senegal began in Paris the journal Presence Africaine with the backing of the Parisian and colonial intelligentsia, including Andre Gide, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Aime Cesaire, and many others. The journal was fundamental in articulating the parameters of African diasporic culture, addressing a global audience of English and French speakers in more than a half century of publication. In addition, Presence africaine sponsored a series of celebrated conferences uniting black scholars of the world, at the Sorbonne in 1956 and in Rome in 1959. In 1966 Presence africaine also sponsored the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal. By the time Senghor organized a Colloquium on Negritude in 1971, Negritude had itself become a highly contested term, whose interpretation had rigidified into a largely ideological concept.

During the postwar period, the concept of Negritude developed along two opposing lines of interpretation. The first sustains the notion as a cultural, historically developing process. This, we have seen, was implicit in Cesaire's original conception of the term, and he increasingly abandoned any notion of Negritude as based upon a genetic or "blood" inheritance: "My Negritude has a ground. It is a fact that there is a black culture: it is historical, there is nothing biological about it." Similarly, recent interpretations of Fanon's work have underlined its historical dimensions; in this view, the author of The Wretched of the Earth, following Hegel's 1804 Phenomenology of Spirit, undertakes a veritable phenomenology of black consciousness as it moves from immersion in the immediacy of experience to self-consciousness and fully historical, human existence. In contrast, Leopold Senghor's notion of Negritude and the general reception and critique of the concept in West Africa following Senghor, focused on the putatively "African" characteristics of emotion, intuition, and artistic creativity as opposed to a Western, or "Hellenic," rationality.

Senghor elaborates his conception of Negritude in various texts collected in the five-volume work Liberte. Dismissing without engaging the scientific invalidation of races, Senghor constructs a typology of an "eternal . . . black soul" based upon the categories of "emotion," "rhythmic attitude," "humor," and "anthropopsychism." This last trait refers to the unmediated relation of the "black soul" to the phenomenological world, the "eternal . . . essential" trait, Senghor affirms, of the black soul. Though this early formulation dates from 1939, Senghor continued to defend and develop this conception of an "african personality" in the 1966 text "Negritude is a Humanism of the Twentieth Century, " arguing tautologically for the objective existence of such a category [the "african personality"], since it had been accepted as a given over "60 years" of ethnological and sociological investigation. In this text, Senghor further elaborates his articulation of an immediate black apprehension of phenomena, invoking the philosophers Henri Bergson and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Senghor's Negritude is, to use his own term, an ontology, or study of the being of blacks in the world, a fundamentally ahistorical, transcultural determination of the constituents and commonalities of "blackness" in African diasporic societies. In 1969 he refers to it as a modification of the Hedeggerian Dasein, a "Neger-sein" or "black being." As Senghor himself points out in 1993, this ontological definition of N*gritude has become the accepted one: in the standard French Robert dictionary, we find the definition "The ensemble of characteristics, of manners of thinking, of feeling, proper to the black race; belonging to the black race." There follows a quotation of Senghor. No mention is made of Cesaire's act of neologism. Senghor's Negritude reverses the stigmatization of blacks derived from the 19th-century racialism of Gobineau, Lucien Levy-Bruhl's concept of a prelogical "primitive mentality," and fictional works such as Paul Morand's stereotype-laden novel, Magie noire (1928). Senghor's postulation of an African ontology is echoed in works such as Placied Tempel's La Philosophie bantoue (1949). In turn, philosophers such as Marcien Towa (Essai sur la problematique philosophique dans l'Afrique actuelle [1971]) and Paulin Hountondji (Sur la "Philosophie africain" [1977]) have questioned whether traditional African philosophies can truly sustain such ontological interpretations .

Due to Senghor's overwhelming cultural and political influence in West Africa (he was president of Senegal from its independence in 1960 till 1979) it is precisely this ontological conception of Negritude that fueled attacks by writers such as Stanislas Adotevi. Adotevi's 1972 study Negritude et negrologues argues against a Senghorian racial explanation for African suffering in deference to a Marxist model of global capitalist exploitation. The Anglophone African nations received Negritude primarily as a politicized, ideological movement. Writers such as Ezekiel Mphahlele, in The African Image (1962), and Wole Soyinka, in Myth, Literature, and the African World (1976), attacked a perceived cultural imperialism on the part of Francophone African intellectuals, the latter stating that "the tiger does not stalk about crying his tigritude." Senghor, responding to these attacks in 1969, points to the Anglophone historical derivation of Negritude from the African American writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

In the French Caribbean, Cesaire's notion of Negritude has been developed and extended by another of his students, the writer Edouard Glissant. Glissant's notion of "antillanite," or "creolite" developed in works such as the 1981 Caribbean Discourse, envisages an opening of black experience to the entirety of global culture. Like Cesaire's earlier critique of cultural assimilation, Glissant argues against subsuming or dissolving an African and Creole Martinican identity in the economic and cultural imperialism of a North American-led "New World Order," without, on the other hand, limiting that region to a stifling provincialism. Other Antilleans have been more critical of aspects of Cesaire's concept. The Guadeloupean author Maryse Conde critiques the notion of a return to Africa by black Antilleans in novels such as Heremakonon (1976). Her 1974 article "Negritude cesairienne, Negritude senghorienne," while drawing attention to Cesaire's neologism, offers a trenchant warning against the fetishization of blackness:

The Black ("Negre") does not exist . . . [Negritude] is a sentimental and empty trap. Starting from an illusory "racial" community founded upon a heritage of suffering, it obliterates the true problems that have always been of a political, social, and economic nature . . . Our liberation will come through the knowledge that there will never be any Blacks ("Negres"). There has only ever been human exploitation.

Conde's critique implies that Cesaire's Negritude cannot remain a mere invocation to black identity politics; instead, the shock of its alienating gesture must serve to illuminate the very constructedness of "blackness" itself.

More recently, Jean Bernabe, Patrick Chamoiseau, and Raphael Confiant attack what they see as the mythologization of Africa in Cesaire's Negritude, affirming instead the heterogeneous status of Antillean culture,"creolite" with its French, Hindu, Chinese, Amerindian, and African elements. This attack reaches its apex in Confiant's 1993 polemic against Cesaire, Une traversee paradoxale du siecle.

The concept of Negritude represents a fundamental development in notions of African diasporic identity and culture in this century. The African and Antillean controversies around the term's reception and its rigidification into a politicized, ideological category initiated one of the fundamental debates in postwar global black thought, while Senghor's elaboration of the term itself constituted a radical reversal of dominant racialist discourse in the West. Finally, Cesaire's historicizing phenomenological use of the term remains largely unexplored, implying for the black subject a developmental model of enlightenment that sustains and advances the transformational project of black liberation, pointing beyond the circularity of identity politics toward the elusive instantiation of a fully realized utopian freedom.

Contributed By: Nick Nesbitt

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