Négritude emerged in interwar France as a cultural campaign against colonialism, in which black intellectuals used their literary output to reject French colonial ideals of assimilation and celebrate blackness as an identity. In their discussions on Négritude and its origins, many scholars have positioned three men, Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas, and Léopold Sédar Senghor, at the forefront – but should they receive all of the credit?
Césaire, Damas, and Senghor began publishing their journal L’Étudiant noir in 1935, and it was within these pages that the term Négritude would first appear.[i] The journal’s only female contributor was Paulette Nardal, an often overlooked figure in the discourse surrounding the movement. ‘L’architecte oubliée de la négritude’,[ii] Nardal and her peers had already discussed the core ideas of the concept of Négritude three years earlier in La Revue du monde noir.[iii] In addition to her writings, Nardal and her sisters hosted a weekly literary salon at their apartment in Clamart, on the outskirts of Paris, where many of the preliminary conversations about the concepts which would go on to be synthesised as Négritude took place.
The fact that women such as Nardal and their contributions to Négritude have been overshadowed by the men of the movement raises the question of intersectionality, more specifically how black women experience(d) a uniquely layered oppression at the intersection of gender and race.
On the 12th of October 2021, Google set an illustration of Paulette Nardal as the ‘Doodle’ on their homepage in celebration of what would have been her 125th birthday. The illustrator commissioned to create this piece, Jessica Coppet, is of Martinican heritage – a well-considered choice on the part of Google Doodle’s art director, Angela McKinley, since Nardal was also from Martinique. The illustration is rich with intentional details that reflect key aspects of Nardal’s time in Paris, as one of the first black women to attend La Sorbonne and an active member of the city’s black literati.
The Négritude Salon
The background of Coppet’s composition depicts the apartment in Clamart that Nardal shared with her sisters Jane, Alice, and Andrée. It was in this apartment that Paulette hosted her literary salon from 1929 onwards, which she created with the intention of creating a space in which black women could feel safe from the marginalisation and isolation that they experienced, whilst also facilitating interaction amongst black people as well as with members of various other communities.[iv] She had created ‘a pivotal space for interracial, intraracial, and international interaction’[v] which would go on to inspire the intellectuals who later formalised and popularised the notion of Négritude through their work.
Although the literary salons held by Nardal were instrumental in forming the Négritude movement, they have for the most part been overlooked by scholars in their treatment of the subject. The fact that those who have received the most recognition for their involvement were men shows that patriarchal dynamics persisted even amongst those who were themselves seeking to challenge another oppressive system in the form of colonialism.
It could perhaps be with this male-dominated narrative in mind that Coppet made the choice to feature predominantly female subjects in her illustration, highlighting the women who have long been obscured. On reading about the piece, most of the information given is biographical, focusing on Paulette and her life’s work, therefore we cannot be certain of who the figures are intended to represent. However, since there are three women pictured, it may be the case that they represent the three of her six sisters that Paulette shared the Clamart apartment with – Jane, Alice, and Andrée.
Who the male figure could be is less clear, though presumably it might be a representation of one of the three men mentioned previously who are often credited as the founding fathers of Négritude. Of the three, it is most likely to be Senghor, since Césaire claimed towards the end of his life when speaking of the salon that Senghor regularly attended them, and that he did not attend more than a couple of times himself.[vi]
La Revue du monde noir
Another key detail included in the illustration is the copy of La Revue du monde noir that Nardal is holding. In one of the drafts (Fig. 2), we see that this originally would have been excluded, but the decision to add it to the composition is a judicious one.
In 1930, Nardal co-founded La Revue du monde noir in collaboration with Dr. Léo Sajous. The periodical was published in both French and English, exploring ideas that lay the foundations for the Négritude movement. The publication, despite being critical of colonialism, was partially funded by the Ministère des Colonies – it is therefore no surprise that they soon withdrew their funding, less than two years into the lifespan of La Revue. They argued that, despite claiming to be philanthropical, the publication held views that were ‘clearly hostile to [their] influence in Africa’.[vii]
In its short-lived run of only six issues, La Revue du monde noir was nevertheless influential, serving as a precursor to the more widely known oeuvres of Négritude; such as L’Étudiant noir in 1934, to which Nardal herself contributed, as previously discussed, and Césaire’s seminal work Cahier d’un retour au pays natal in 1939.[viii] It has been referred to as ‘a source of black intellectual thought and opinion long before the official decolonization of blacks, physically, mentally, and spiritually actually occurred.’[ix] Yet it was still the men who received all of the credit.
Paulette Nardal was highly aware of the fact that it was based on her womanhood that her efforts, as well as those of other women, were cast aside. Even in La Revue du monde noir, the publication that she partly conceived, she had the title of General Secretary – a classically feminised, secondary role.[x]
In her final essay for La Revue du monde noir, titled ‘Éveil de la Conscience de Race‘, Nardal makes a case for the unique experience of oppression faced by black women; a ‘gendered response to racism’.[xi] She points out how critical the female voice was to the male-dominated sphere of Négritude, making the ‘significant claim that black female students in Paris were the first to develop race consciousness and set about creating a global black community’.[xii] After discussing the work of male scholars before Négritude, and criticising their inability to detach their writing from what she refers to as Latin culture – i.e. that of the white coloniser – she goes on to argue that black women were not only in possession of race consciousness before black men, but also that they were ‘less favoured’ than those black men who ‘[were] content with a certain easy success’, citing La Revue du monde noir as ‘the starting point of their evolution.’[xiii]
A Case for Intersectionality
Later in her life, in 1963, Nardal was even more critical of her male contemporaries for their lack of acknowledgement of her and her sister Jane as pioneers of the movement. She advocated for a major upheaval of how Négritude is treated by scholars, suggesting that women should be seen as the true originators of the racial consciousness that developed in interwar Paris.[xiv] This could then position her as one of the first intersectional intellectuals, since she made a case for the unique experience of oppression faced by black women, at the intersection of race and gender, many decades before Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality in 1989.[xv]
Fig. 1, Fig. 2: https://www.google.com/doodles/paulette-nardals-125th-birthday
Boni, T., ‘Femmes en Négritude : Paulette Nardal et Suzanne Césaire’, Rue Descartes, 83 (2014), 62-76
Boscher, M., ‘Paulette Nardal, l’architecte oubliée de la négritude’, Outre-mer la 1ère , (2020), https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/longs-formats-paulette-nardal-architecte-oubliee-negritude-690928.html [accessed 7 November 2021]
Crenshaw, K., ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, (1989), 139-168
Lewis, S. K., Race, Culture, and Identity: Francophone West African and Caribbean Literature From Négritude to Créolité, (Oxford: Lexington Books, 2006)
Nardal, P., Éveil de la Conscience de Race, in La Revue du monde noir, 6, 25-30, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k32946v/f361.item# [accessed 10 November 2021]
Olson, L. C., ‘The Personal, the Political, and Others: Audre Lorde Denouncing “The Second Sex Conference”’, Philosophy & Rhetoric, 33.3, (2000), 259-285
Sharpley-Whiting, T. D., Beyond Negritude: Essays from Woman in the City (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009)
Sharpley-Whiting, T. D., ‘Paulette Nardal, Race Consciousness and Antillean Letters’, in Race, ed. by Bernasconi, R. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 95-105
Smith Jr., R. P., ‘Black Like That: Paulette Nardal and the Negritude Salon’, CLA Journal, 45.1 (2001), 53-68.
Sweeney, C., ‘Resisting the Primitive: The Nardal Sisters, La Revue du Monde Noir and La Dépêche Africaine’, Nottingham French Studies, 43.2, (2004), 45-55
Umoren, I. D., Race Women Internationalists: Activist-Intellectuals and Global Freedom Struggles (California: University of California Press, 2018)
[i] Umoren, I. D., Race Women Internationalists: Activist-Intellectuals and Global Freedom Struggles (California: University of California Press, 2018), p. 17.
[ii] Boscher, M., ‘Paulette Nardal, l’architecte oubliée de la négritude’, Outre-mer la 1ère , (2020), https://la1ere.francetvinfo.fr/longs-formats-paulette-nardal-architecte-oubliee-negritude-690928.html [accessed 7 November 2021].
[iii] Sharpley-Whiting, T. D., Beyond Negritude: Essays from Woman in the City (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009), p. 4.
[iv] Umoren, p. 17.
[vi] Césaire, A., Nègre je suis, Nègre je resterai, Entretiens avec Françoise Vergès, (Paris: Albin Michel, 2005), p. 25.
[vii] Umoren, p. 21.
[viii] Smith Jr., R. P., ‘Black Like That: Paulette Nardal and the Negritude Salon’, CLA Journal, 45.1 (2001), 53-68, (pp. 63-64).
[ix] Smith Jr., p. 67.
[x] Sharpley-Whiting (2001), p. 100.
[xi] Smith Jr., p. 60.
[xii] Umoren, p. 19.
[xiii] Nardal, P., Éveil de la Conscience de Race, in La Revue du monde noir, 6, 25-30, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k32946v/f361.item# [accessed 10 November 2021] (p. 29).
[xiv] Lewis, S. K., Race, Culture, and Identity: Francophone West African and Caribbean Literature From Négritude to Créolité, (Oxford: Lexington Books, 2006), pp. 55-56.
[xv] Crenshaw, K., ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, (1989), 139-168.