White and Black children, photographer unkown.

8- What is Négritude?

We promote the appreciation of Négritude -Black Consciousness- as a selected frame in a world that eventually differentiates itself because of unique particularities, rather than excluding other worlds. Négritude is also -and mainly- a territory, a space. There, Black Africans created an extremely rich combination of cultural patterns and abstract artistic forms, and for millennia, often with a great sense of individual artistic freedom and hard community work, in the context of a tough environment, the unlivable Sahara desert and the impenetrable jungle.

Perhaps the postcard shown above explains why Black Africans are particularly keen on helping the community. Twenty or twenty-five people transport a timber house through the beautiful city of St. Louis. Picture dated circa 1900.

Négritude

The word Negritude comes from French Négritude, which means Blackness. In French, Noir means Black, in Spanish and Portuguese Negro, from Latin Niger, Black.

Négritude is a literary movement originated in Paris' intellectual groups between 1930 and 1940. It was inspired by Jazz and the American Harlem Renaissance, pioneered by writers like Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, and fin-de-siècle French poets like Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire (1821–67)*, which at the turn of the century were involved in Symbolism; which was the prodigal son of Romanticism, movement whose deity was solitude, night and darkness.

In the 19th century, when slavery started to be prohibited in the Americas (Argentina in 1853; the US, 1885; Brazil, 1886) and thanks in part to US, Argentinean and French official pressure on trade companies, some people started to pay attention to what was beyond... rich cultures, powerful art, rare forms and spaces of Africa. Artists were captured by the beauty of Black people and their unique alien art expressions.

Particularly in the early 20th century, hundreds of books, magazines, postcards, stamps, started to feature Negro Art, showing far landscapes where its peoples created powerful, timeless wooden sculptures, extremely complex body art and abstract games.

At the turn of the century, old Europe had reached a dead end and needed to reinvent itself. Writers, thinkers and sensible artists soon found in African Art a source of inspiration to create what was going to be known as Modern Art. African art was recognized by Belgian painter and engraver James Ensor (1860–49), who later influenced Expressionists like Norwegian painter and engraver Edvard Munch (1863–44), and the Abstract Art of Russian painter and theorist Wassily Kandinsky (1866–44), Paul Klee (1879–40), and German architects like Hans Poelzig.

Afrique Ecuatoriale Francaise, timbre 1947.

Black writers started to reaffirm their identity. First, Aimé Césaire (Martinique), Léon-Gontran Damas (French Guiana) and Léopold Sédar Senghor (Senegal); they created a powerful poetry and encourage essays that identified recent Black alienation produced in Africa, Europe and America, defining and expanding the concept of Négritude.

L.G.Damas, Pigments, 1937, Paris.

Dès la préface, Robert Desnos remarque ainsi que "Damas est nègre et tient à sa qualité et à son état de nègre. Voilà qui fera dresser l'oreille à un certain nombre de civilisateurs qui trouvent juste qu'en échange de leurs libertés, de leur terre, de leurs coutumes et de leur santé, les gens de couleur soient honorés du nom de "Noirs"."

Already in the preface, Robert Desnos pointed that: "Damascus is a Negro and is keen on his quality and negro status. This will make listen to a number of civilizers who find that in exchange for their freedom, their land, customs and health, people of color are honored with the name of "Negroes"."

Césaire and Damas focused on traces of loss and slavery, while Senghor expressed African traditionalism. Their main works are: Pigments, from Damas, Cahier from Césaire, Hosties noire and Chants d'ombre, from Senghor. They created and edited the journal L'Etudiant noire. Other journals were Légitime défense (West-India), and Revue du monde noir (Nardal sisters' journal).

Négritude was crucial to end colonialism and start the path for politics against racism. Aimé Césaire and his wife became later Caribbean Surrealist writers, respected by writers like Andre Breton. Jean-Paul Sartre supported Senghor's books, writing an introduction in Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie négre et malgache. Senghor was the leading African writer for five decades, member of the French Academy, and first president of Senegal, 1960-80.

Fifty years later: the exceptional book "Black Ladies" from photographer Uwe Ommer and preface of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Courtesy © 1986 Les Editions du Jaguar, Paris.

The movement is still respected and active as an inspiration not only for contemporary Black and Afro-desdendants, but for everyone whose soul is touched by our peculiar way of expressing and relating to life.

Beyond that, it gave activism a new dimension: unlike extreme socialist movements in the sixties and seventies, that promoted violence and even terrorism, Négritude managed to change the status quo of many generations, in many places, through literature, art and thinking.

* Baudelaire, Charles (Pierre) (1821–67), French poet and critic. He is known for the Les Fleurs du mal (1857), a series of 101 lyrics that explore melancholy and the attraction of evil, macabre, and darkness.

Read the next chapter, Self-Contained Cultures, here.

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