During my recent engagement in reading the text “The Negritude Poets”, I have found the Francophone Afro-Diasporic response to the machinations of colonialism, language and culture to be as varied and colorful as those we study regularly from the Harlem Renaissance.  Yet, they hold a distinct African imprint slightly different from ours which I might suspect to be a consequence of the regular migration of persons between the continents of Europe and Africa where colonies were drawn into the European commonwealth after independence.  As I will speak to in my closing review of the text, I think this body of literature deserves another look from Africans in America.

If we are to be deeply engaged in the awareness of an African identity, it does not benefit us to be so insular in our approach.  We must recognize the profound resonance that Negritude has with the Harlem Renaissance and therefore a twin identity as writers traded communication regularly between the two movements.  This twin identity reached its zenith in June of 1966 when Anglophone, Francophone and Africans throughout the diaspora came together in Dakar, Senegal for the First World Festival of Negro Arts.  These fascinating aspects of history are things that I hope are not lost as we find ourselves drifting away from the idyllic notion of a monolithic Black identity in America.  We can ill afford to let such art, history, expression and culture simply be subsumed by the morass of American social assimilation.

I thought I should share three of my favorite recent selections from the text.  The paragraphs in italics below each selection are thoughts which occurred to me while I was reading through the pieces a second or third time around.

In a Storm by Antoine-Roger Bolamba

The river is rising, Ngoho, the river.
My canoe slips along on the crest of the waves.
Come, Ngoho, my love, come to my arms,
safe will it carry us.

The river is rising, Ngoho, the river.
A shiver is loose on the spine of the waves.
Hard must we paddle
to stay above the water
to sail on the water
till dawn.

Morning will come with its delicate trotting
its dancing of flowers
its waltzing of cyclones
its ngomo
its ngombi

that bring on man’s madness.

The river is rising, Ngoho, the river.

1. Ngoho: Darling, or sweetheart.
14-22. Ngomo . . . basanga: These nine words are the names of local dances and musical instruments.

I think the selection above would make a brilliant piece of performance art if it were read to the rhythm of drums with a dancer moving in tandem as the orator called forth the names of the local dances.

To the Banquet of the Earth by Martial Sinda

To the banquet of the earth
You bring your kitchen knife
And your little spoons.

To the banquet of the earth
I bring my own white teeth
And my big black hands.

To the orchestra of the earth
You bring your accordion
And your harmonica.

To the orchestra of the earth
I bring my n’tsambi
And my quick black hands.

To military processions
You bring your pom-poms
And your puny cheers.

To military processions
I bring my own white teeth
And my solid chest.

To the dances of the earth
You come in Sunday suit
To take some little steps.

To the dances of the earth
I come with n’tsambi
And my quick black hands

And my blood pulsing
And the voices of life
And my lively black feet

For this is my true language.

11. n’tsambi: Congolese drum.

There is such passion and virility in this verse to reclaim and adhere to one’s African identity by calling forth the qualities of an alien identity and then making a point for point comparison.  The vigor of the piece reminds me of the same indigenous insolence which Fela Kuti conveyed in his song “Gentleman” where he uses the song to question the common sense of those who would adopt aspects of an alien culture in a place where they don’t fit.

Dear Husband by Yamba Ouloguem

Once your name was Bimbircokak
And everything was fine.
Then you became Victor-Emile-Louis-Henri-Joseph
And bought a dinner set.

I used to be your wife.
Now your call me spouse.
We used to eat together.
Now we’re separated by a table.

Calabash and ladle,
drinking gourd and couscous
are banished from our daily fare
by your paternal order.

We’re modern now, you say.

The tropic sun is hot, hot, hot!
But your cravat
never leaves your neck
it nearly strangles.

You frown
when I mention it,
never mind, I’ll say no more.

But husband, look at me!

We eat grapes and
milk that’s pasteurized
and imported gingerbread from France
and don’t get much of any.
Isn’t it your fault?

You used to be Bimbircokak
and everything was fine.
Becoming Victor-Emile-Louis-Henri-Joseph
as far as I can see
doesn’t make you kin
to Rockefeller!
(Excuse my ignorance,  I don’t know much
about finance.)
But can’t you see
-because of you-
once I was underdeveloped
now I’m undernourished, too!

Here we have a male poet assuming the voice of a pleading wife who asks a similar question as the previous passage.  What sense do you have of yourself that you call these alien cultural aspects higher than you recognize your own?  While it reads as an individual discussion between one husband and one wife, the closing two lines cause me to consider that Ouloguem wrote it as a matter of commentary on the state of his own land of Mali as well as the larger African continent.