“It may be
they dare to
treat me white
though everything within me
wants only to be black
as Negro as my Africa
the Africa they ransacked”
~ excerpt from “Whitewash” by Leon Damas
In the early 1900’s while the New Negro Renaissance positioned itself in the U.S. as the latest skirmish in the ongoing struggle for a monolithic black identity, parallel literary and intellectual awakenings were taking place throughout the world amongst members of the African diaspora. In Haiti, the writings of Jean Price-Mars were linking Haitian cultural identity with an African lineage laying the groundwork for the Indigeniste Movement. This shift saw a reclamation of non-white and non-western elements of Haitian communal life paired with a rejection of French neo-colonial subjugation. In Cuba, Nicolas Guillen was engaging Afro-Cuban cultural experiences and son rhythm in his work becoming the genesis of the literary movement Negrismo.
In Paris, a Clamart salon was the seat of intellectual confluence for the global black community finding American, Caribbean and African writers meeting to exchange dialogue and shared ideals. Sisters Andree, Jane and Paulette Nardal hosted this trans-racial and cosmopolitan cast of characters whose discussions traversed the expanse of humanism, literature, art and the future direction of the diaspora. These first fruitful conversations beget “Negro: An Anthology” edited by Nancy Cunard which further beget “La Revue du monde noir” edited by Paulette Nardal. In these two publications was developed the social and political culture which would give rise to Negritude within the black writers and thinkers of the Francophone colonies.
The selections included here are rich with the anguish, experience, insight, emotion and intelligence emerging from different points within the black Francophone post-colonial world. The language was a common medium through which each author might interact and compare notes about how their individual culture had grappled with the question and impact of blackness. There was a vastly different cultural continuum which informed a Malagasy author such as Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo than would shape the Haitian author Rene Depestre. The poetry of the latter was born of the constant flux of Haitian revolutionary politics and the mysteries of Voudoun while the writing of the former had its origin in the relative isolation of Madagascar amongst African nations and the unity of the Malagasy tribes in resisting attempts at colonization.
These internal conflicts in the cohesive blackness that Negritude sought to invoke would later lead to a splintering amongst adherents and the rise of such offshoots as Creolite and Antillanite. Antillanite sought to draw attention to the unique historical and cultural configuration of the Caribbean which brought together both indigenous and imported elements in crafting a shared identity amongst its inhabitants. Creolite refined this shared identity further to focus its attention specifically upon the French Caribbean. These splits mirrored the search for a common black identity which gave rise to the New Negro Renaissance and Garveyism of the same period in the U.S. along with the conflicting direction of those two movements.
The most unfortunate aspect of the anthology is that one cannot reach a cohesive sense of this historical context by examining the introduction of the text and author biographies which precede each chapter. The editor chose to engage only the poetic and prosaic output which flourished within Negritude though as the movement expanded its reach through literary journals, it produced poems, prose, essays and cultural commentary. There was also a failure to adequately address the role women played in the conception and advancement of Negritude although the Nardal sisters amongst others provided a critical intellectual spark in propelling Negritude forward.
Even with these shortfalls, I consider this a necessary work in helping members of the diaspora in the U.S. to gain an international perspective of Pan African literary and intellectual insight where we have previously engaged mostly in the study those literary movements originating in the United States. The availability of more comprehensive information about the experience of members of the global black community serves only to strengthen the cultural ties we make with one another. The history of the Negritude movement should inform us that while we may not be able to wrangle all of these prickly personalities into a single, progressive monolith, we can open channels of dialogue and create pathways of exchange that may lead us to mine our own cultural experience even more deeply.