Afro-Literati: An Introduction to Négritude and the Nardal Sisters
How a group of driven sisters from the Caribbean launched a Pan-African movement
This is an extract from a lecture given on Saturday 26 February 2022 online at the African History Project, “Turning Points in Pan-Africanism: The Nardal Sisters”.
The Nardal Sisters were a group of seven Martinican sisters who greatly contributed to the cultural, educational and political consciousness of Black people in the Afro-Francophone world more broadly, but the French Antilles in particular, which Martinique is a part of.
Most importantly, they were the incubators – some have called them ‘midwives’ – of the Négritude movement. In other words, these were a group of women who assisted in the ‘birth’ of the Négritude movement – in a much more integral way than the metaphor indicates – positioning Afro-Francophone cultural and political leaders like Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor, and even Afro-Anglophones like Claude Mckay to receive various accolades for the roles they played on the global Black cultural stage.
An extremely accomplished group of women jointly and independently, they were educators, writers, community organisers, musicians, political ambassadors, and religious leaders, with many of their children following their footsteps in this present-day, as the Nardal Sisters themselves had followed the many accomplishments of their parents. In other words, this group of seven women are part of a dynasty of cultural and political champions within the Pan-African world.
Their names, in order of birth, are: Paulette, Emilie, Alice, Jeanne, Lucy, Cécile and Andrée. Though each of these women were crucial to Négritude and Black political thought more broadly, for reasons of time and space, I will focus on the work and lives of Paulette and Jeanne, my reasons for this will soon become clear. But first I would like to clarify what the Négritude movement was.
The Négritude movement was a 1930’s literary movement in the Afro-Francophone world, similar to and perhaps stemming from the Harlem Renaissance which occurred in New York a decade earlier. The word Négritude was first coined in 1939 by the Martinican poet and philosopher Aimé Césaire in his poem Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (Notebook of a Return to The Native Land), one of, if not, the most essential Négritude works of literature. The word came to retroactively refer to the works of that influx of writings by Afro-Francophone writers during that decade.
Césaire’s poem simultaneously glorified African culture and civilization and juxtaposed it to Europe and its colonial world. It also asserted an African essence that inextricably connected the Black person to Africa and thus to their continental and diasporic counterparts–a phenomenon that 19th century Liberian educator and political thinker Edward Blyden felt was possible because of what he called the African Personality. With famous stanzas such as:
my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral
it takes root in the red flesh of the soil
it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky
it breaks through opaque prostration with its upright patience
Césaire evaluated Africa as a rich, dynamic place and compared it to European civilization, which he refers to as a ‘sterile sea of white sand.’ This is a sharp, historical statement, even if inadvertent. For most of the interaction between Europeans and Africans before the 1884 Berlin Conference which formally divided up Africa between the imperial powers, many white settlers remained on the coasts–the infertile lands of the sandy beach–rather than the interior where powerful African kingdoms such as the Asante oversaw the trade and production of a cacophony of gold, ivory, agricultural and cultural products–and of course, the enslaved–which were being exported in all directions. Thus, the Négritude movement is characterised as one that glorified Africa and saw it as both the patron of European civilization and the cradle of humanity.
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The canonical description of the Négritude movement is that it was centred in Paris. However, I would argue that though it was incubated in Paris by the Nardal sisters, and subsequently took-off under Parisian educated men in the Caribbean and on the continent, it was fundamentally prompted and propelled by the issues of race and nationhood which arose in the consciousness of the broader Afro-Francophone world. These issues, however, were not solely that of the Afro-Francophone world. In fact, I do not think that it would be an overstatement to say that the entire Black world–the Pan-African world–was becoming louder during this period in their quest for national sovereignty and cultural legitimacy. The political questions posed by Senghor in Senegal and the cultural questions posed by Césaire in Paris during the Négritude movement, for example, were reflective of themes regarding Black identity that resonated within a broader Pan-African culture. Thus, the Négritude movement resonated throughout the Black world and produced works of literature still revered and studied globally in this present day.
However, the Négritude movement is not without its criticisms. Frantz Fanon, a fellow Martinican, a revolutionary psychiatrist and political thinker as well a student of Aimé Césaire, adopted a sympathetic yet cautious attitude to Négritude. On one hand, he wrote,
“The concept of negritude, for example, was the emotional if not the logical antithesis of that insult which the white man flung at humanity. This rush of negritude against the white man’s contempt showed itself in certain spheres to be the one idea capable of lifting interdictions and anathemas.”Frantz Fanon
On the other hand, he wrote,
‘We must not therefore be content with delving into the past of a people in order to find coherent elements which will counteract colonialism’s attempts to falsify and harm. We must work and fight with the same rhythm as the people to construct the future and to prepare the ground where vigorous shoots are already springing up.’Frantz Fanon
It is thus ironic that Fanon is often associated with the Négritude movement. As a pupil of Césaire, it is easy to make that assumption, however, Fanon explicitly expresses his ambivalence toward Négritude in the idea that Black pride and consciousness are directly related, yet one cannot risk progression by spending all of one’s time looking to uncover a glorious past in search of that pride and consciousness.
In a previous lecture at the African History Project, we’ve discussed Fanon’s ideas on Négritude and Pan-African culture. As an extension, I would add that Fanon’s ideas also had their own limitations. Though a Pan-Africanist in a true sense, his frame of reference was in the revolutionary fight of the Arab Muslims that occupied Algeria. One must critically reflect on the differences in the plight of ‘Black’ Africans on one hand, and on the other hand, North Africans of Arabic descent who in large part held onto their Arabic culture, and at many times associated themselves with the conflicts and revolutions of the Middle East. Fanon may have found his resolution in the term ‘humanist’ or one who believes in the power of humankind to enact change, without the reference to and distinction of race, gender, etc.
Nevertheless, wherever one may stand on the concept of Négritude, the Nardal sisters were the true ‘forebearers’ of this movement, and can even be considered as the bridge between the Harlem Renaissance and Négritude as poets, writers and cultural leaders from both movements found themselves in the orbit of the Nardal sisters’ home and cultural organisations from the mid 1920’s onward.
Cite this article:
Mora, Kai. “Afro-Literati: An Introduction to Négritude and the Nardal Sisters”. The Africxn Review, the Journal of the African History Project. 2022.
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