Negritude and the Harlem Renaissance

By the end of the 1930's, the Harlem Renaissance as a cohesive cultural movement had largely run it's course. Many of the individual players continued on, of course, but the Great Depression disrupted the cohesivity of the movement in a way that was irreparable. The (approximately) 20 years of the Harlem Renaissance, then, are often treated as a sort of fluke - a bit of culture outside the ordinary stream of 20th century art. For many years - and in some ways even today - the renaissance has been painted as an essentially provincial, bordered thing, a sort of happy freak of artistry, closed in on itself, with a sharp beginning and end, the days when 'Negros were fashionable' as one commentator put it. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Harlem Renaissance echoed not only through African American culture, but through the entire world for years to come. To speak about the entire legacy of the Renaissance would take a book - here I'd like to discuss just one legacy, and really only offer the barest introductions to it: the Negritude Movement.

In the 1920's, and into the 1930's, Paris was, arguably, the cultural capital of the world. The Left Bank and Montmartre parts of the city are deservedly famous for the expatriate culture of Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. What is less discussed in standard American literary history is that the artists of the Harlem Renaissance visited or lived in Paris as well. The mark of this cultural cross fertilization was strong in French culture. Josephine Baker, a black music hall dancer, was among the most sought after figures in French Cabaret culture. French musicians like Django Reinhardt would define Jazz in Europe in emulation of Cotton Club alumni like Count Basie and Duke Ellington. And in literature, particularly, the work of poets like Langston Hughes had a strong influence.

France, as a colonial power, spread a vast diaspora of blacks across the globe, ranging from colonies in Senegal in Africa, to the famous Black Republic in Haiti. The diversity in these different colonial cultures was vast, but in many ways, the sheer nastiness of colonial rule gave them a certain binding identity - a history of slavery and maltreatment, of sexual pecadilloes, of inhuman, iron-fisted justice, of cultural destruction and discrimination. The legacy, in fact, continues to this day, with Algerians in France suffering blatant and miserable everyday discrimination. In the beginning of the 20th century, the diaspora began to search for a voice. A number of literary journals sprung up, featuring writing by black authors.

For poets Leopold Senghor, Aime Cesaire, and Leon Damas, this journals didn't do enough. The writing in them was too 'assimilationist', too bourgeois. The writing in these journals, the three felt, simply acted to legitimize the injustices of the French rule. The three of them had read closely the writing of Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and other Harlem Renaissance giants, and had even spoken to and listened to them in Paris. The vision of the Renaissance inspired them to think about what it was to be black, and inspired them to found their own journal, 'L'Eutdiant Noir'. It was shortly after that Cesaire wrote the defining poem of the movement: "Notebook of a Return to a Homeland". The poem begins mired in the ugliness the the colonizer forces on the 'natives':

(Niggers-are-all-alike, I-tell-you vices-all-the-vices-believe-you-me
nigger-smell, that’s-what-makes-cane-grow
beat-a-nigger, and you feed him)
among “rocking chairs” contemplating the voluptuousness of quirts
circle about, an unappeased filly
And the poem is never pretty. IT grinds along with a simmering, powerful anger. But it isn't just a diatribe, in it, he coins a new word: negritude: “my negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against the clamor of the day”. The poem is not a simple argument that the French are cruel, but rather a statement that the very thing that the French hate in the Blacks is the thing that is powerful in them, and potentially beautiful. Negritude translates, roughly, to 'blackness', but it implies a cohesivity, an identity with a past and a future independent of a colonial master and worthy of the same consideration as the whiteness of Western Europe. It wasn't an anti-white platform - the fin-de-siecle French poets, for instance, were one of the greatest influences on the movement, and Jean Paul Sartre was close to the movement as well - it was simply a statement that blackness was beautiful as well.

The movement went on to have enormous resonance across the diaspora. Cesaire became the mayor of the capitol of his home country, Martinique. Senghor was the first president of Senegal after it's independence, and one of the greatest leaders of Africa of the 20th century. The poets would inspire philosophers like JEan Paul Sartre and Franz Fanon, the arts of Haiti, and in an ironic turnabout, the black literature of the United States through authors like Richard Wright.


Amanda said...

I didn't realize Django Reinhardt was french...

Jason Gignac said...

Indeed he was - a French Romany, one of the fathers of the Parisian Gypsy Jazz style.

Amanda said...

I just get him mixed up with Antonio Carlos Jobim. Yeah I'm an idiot.

Emily said...

Thanks for this great post, Jason. I think pointing out the wide-reaching effects of the Renaissance is very useful. And you remind me of my constant, back-burner desire to read a biography of Josephine Baker!

Rebecca Reid said...

Until recently I did not know much about the Renaissance itself, let alone it's aftermath! I think it's so important to see the after effects. Your right: so often it's seen as this specific time and place movement. So interesting. Thanks for sharing this!

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Emily - Yes! Josephine Baker = full of win :). When I was a kid, there was an article about Belle Epoque France in this National Geographic at school, that had Ms Baker and Colette in it :). The picture was of Baker with her rows and rows of shoes... :D

Ms Reid - My pleasure! I'm not sure it was interesting to most folks, but I am glad you enjoyed it :). I read one of Franz Fanon's books a few years ago when writing a paper about the lumpenproletariat (ie, the 'ragpicker' class), and was very interested - it was fun to trace it backwards to the Harlem Renaissance :).