Imprisonment as a poetic epiphany: Jacques Rabemananjara and the Negritude Movement

In June 2022 ‘franceculture’ (a radio channel part of Radio France) released a 12-part podcast series titled Bonjour et adieu à la négritude. With help from recordings of the voices of its key figures the goal was to (re)discover the prolific aesthetic from the 1930s[i]. Negritude is a literary and ideological trend that appeared in France in response to the social and cultural conditions of colonisation[ii]. From the Latin Quarter in Paris, densely populated with students, came an attempt by African and Caribbean intellectuals to formulate strategies of resistance to the discrimination perpetuated by colonialism. Episode eight of this series introduces a ‘mémoire radiophonique’ of an interview with Jacques Rabemananjara from January 1978. As the beginning of the podcast states, his name is not highly recognisable, nevertheless he can be considered the fourth musketeer of the Negritude movement after the more well renowned figureheads of Césaire, Senghor and Damas. His literary prowess and political work made him one of Madagascar’s most celebrated modern figures[iii]. In this interview Rabemananjara recalls the origins of Negritude and explains the 9-year imprisonment that marked a turning point in his writing.

Figure 1: [Rabemananjara pictured here, 3rd figure from the left]

Ideas of liberation and emancipation that are inherent to Negritude first circulated in the Latin Quarter, Rabemananjara states, because it provided an appropriate international space for writers, poets, and thinkers from colonised countries within Paris and by extension, France. The concept first appears in L’Etudiant Noir, a journal created by the aforementioned ‘three musketeers’ in 1934 and the ideas are firmly established in Césaire’s ‘Cahier d’un retour au pays natal’ (1939)[iv].

It was in the cafés and salons of the 5th arrondissement that Rabemananjara met other like-minded students, here they were able to discuss more freely colonial injustices[v]. The creation of this environment was crucial because during these decades a black man would be obliged to move off the pavement for a white man in some of France’s overseas territories. Speaking in 1978 Rabemananjara states that the goal of Negritude writing was two-fold – to galvanise the awareness of the colonised peoples in France but also to ‘secouer la conscience des bien-pensants’[vi]. Hearing so explicitly their objectives, to rattle the conscience of the self-righteous (in other words the colonisers) from one of the movement’s foremost contributors gives an insight into the social issues in France. It helps in understanding why Negritude was so important in addressing, and consequently overcoming, the unjust racial hierarchies.

The Malagasy Poet

The conversation then turns to the question of Madagascar, which was annexed to France on 6th August 1896 and regained independence in 1960, 13 years after the beginning of an insurrection against French colonial rule[vii]. Rabemananjara and other political leaders were arrested and sentenced to life for their alleged involvement in this rebellion. The message portrayed by Rabemananjara in the interview is that Madagascans never completely accepted the stripping of their sovereignty – “Ils ont toujours dans le cœur la nostalgie de cette souveraineté perdue”. Consequently, the events of 1947 and the three years of fighting that followed can be seen as a natural amalgamation of this sentiment. In prison, Rabemananjara wrote three poems that shifted radically from his previous work as they adopted a revolutionary free verse, where his pre-prison writing followed the classical conventional rules of French poetry[viii].

It was his later work that established his voice within the sphere of Negritude, however, much like the Malagasy sentiment of sovereignty, a non-Franco-centric reading of Rabemananjara’s earlier work can reveal hidden ideas of resistance[ix]. Magali Compan argues that by following the conventional rules of French poetry (particularly in his first book Sur les marches du soir, 1940), he covertly defied colonial rule because such messages were overlooked by French critics in their eagerness to praise him for being the perfectly assimilated ‘Model colonial subject’[x]. The notion of adopting traditional French writing form whilst also not letting the feeling of innate independence die is summarised in the metaphor used by Donat Bédard in his work on the ‘poète malgache’ – the idea that “s’il fallait se nourrir d’apports étrangers, il importait de ne pas couper le cordon ombilical qui rattachait à la terre natale”[xi]

In this environment of colonial oppression, Rabemananjara was aware of the need to disguise messages of subversion because aged 23 he founded La Revue des jeunes de Madagascar which was subsequently shut down after being deemed a direct challenge to colonial rule[xii]. Negritude authors aimed to create a genre of writing whereby intellectuals could overtly challenge the oppression that was inherent to the colonial system, as we see in Rabemananjara’s later works. That is not to detract from the hidden messages in his earlier poetry, which was a product of its time.

After a trial that was in reality just a formality and following a 9-year incarceration, Rabemananjara and his peers (pictured above in Figure 1) were released and went on to become integral members of the Madagascan government. Speaking 18 years after being released, Rabemananjara condemns the French judicial system because the outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion, he implies the Metropole wanted to erase the MDRM (Mouvement démocratique de la rénovation malgache) from Madagascar as it was a threat to French hegemony[xiii].

A podcast to enlighten a new generation

Radio France’s podcast introduces Jacques Rabemananjara to a new generation and illustrates the durability of the interview because 44 years after it was first broadcast it can be re-released in a way that means a modern audience will consume it. What was first published as a radio interview is transformed into a more modern radio segment with the recorded introduction and musical elements that make up the first 1 minute and 42 seconds. It then becomes a podcast (available online and on a mobile application) which speaks to the intermediality of the interview and makes it more accessible in 2022, thereby highlighting the fact that Negritude is still relevant. For 28 minutes Rabemananjara and the interviewer (Ibrahim Baba Kaké) discuss his experience giving an uninterrupted, authentic insight into his life and the specificity of Madagascar under colonial rule. Baba Kaké does not challenge Rabemananjara but probes him into divulging further, which makes the listener feel privy to the intellectual’s personal history – a luxury that is afforded by this type of interview. Similarly, hearing Rabemananjara’s distinct Madagascan French accent and the purposeful intonation with which he speaks allows us to dive beyond the written word of his poetry.

In 1978, a postcolonial environment, the interview allows Rabemananjara to be unapologetic in his defence of Negritude, which was being criticised by Marxists for being too idealistic, abstract, and disconnected from the reality of class struggle[xiv]. In this extended dialogue he justifies the movement by explaining that the once-colonised communities had (by the 1970s) somewhat recovered their dignity, but when Negritude originated segregation and humiliation were rife. They had to create a space to resist, a space for hope, which helped with the emancipation of colonised peoples. He goes as far as suggesting that the insurrection in 1947 was not started or controlled by Malagasy individuals because the first to die were people with sympathies towards the Madagascan cause.

In conclusion, episode 8 of Bonjour et adieu à la négritude allows a modern audience to hear (literally and figuratively) the forgotten voice of Jacques Rabemananjara. Whilst his later works of poetry are more renowned within the Negritude movement, reading his earlier work from a different perspective reveals subliminal messages of resistance to colonial authority. Perhaps this should encourage us to read other literature produced in this environment with a broader outlook. His ability to conceal defiance through a mastery of European literary forms highlights his commitment to protesting the oppression experienced as a colonised subject throughout his professional career. The lengthy interview, which is re-broadcast for twenty-first century listeners, gives an insight into the origins of the Negritude movement and Rabemananjara’s experience under French colonial rule. This episode captures a moment in history, celebrating someone other than the figureheads of Césaire and Senghor and the podcast format means it can be experienced whilst going about our daily lives.


Figure 1:

Further Reading

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. Jacques Rabemananjara (2022) [Accessed 27 October 2022]

Bush, Ruth, ‘Introduction’, Publishing Africa in French: Literary Institutions and Decolonization 1945-1967 (Liverpool, 2016; online edn, Liverpool Scholarship Online, 24 Jan 2019), [Accessed 2 November 2022]

Compan, Magali, ‘On the Covert Steps of Evening: Resistance and Formal Mastery in the Early

Poetry of Jacques Rabemananjara’, Dalhousie French Studies, 76. (2006), 121-131

Irele, Abiola, ‘Negritude-Literature and Ideology’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 3. 4 (1965) 499-626

Johnson, Christopher, ‘Introduction: The Genre of the Interview’, Nottingham French Studies, 42, 1 (2003), 1-4

Müller, Ernst Wilhelm, ‘L’Etudiant Noir, négritude et racisme. Critique d’une critique’, Anthropos, 91. 1/3 (1996) 5-18

Rabemananjara, Jacques, Christiane Diop, and Hamidou Dia, ‘Entretien Avec Jacques Rabemananjara’, Présence Africaine, 154 (1996) 37-42

Radiofrance, Bonjour et adieu à la négritude (2022) [accessed 30 October 2022]

[i] Radiofrance, Bonjour et adieu à la négritude (2022) [accessed 30 October 2022].

[ii] Abiola Irele, ‘Negritude-Literature and Ideology’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 3. 4 (1965), 499-626 (499).

[iii] Magali Compan, ‘On the Covert Steps of Evening: Resistance and Formal Mastery in the Early Poetry of Jacques Rabemananjara’, Dalhousie French Studies, 76. (2006), 121-131 (121).

[iv] Ernst Wilhelm Müller, ‘L’Etudiant Noir, négritude et racisme. Critique d’une critique’, Anthropos, 91. 1/3 (1996) 5-18 (5).

[v] RadioFrance, Episode 8 : Jacques Rabemananjara : « Notre but était de secouer la conscience des bien-pensants » (2022) [accessed 30 October 2022].

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Compan, p.121.

[ix] Ibid

[x] Ibid

[xi] Donat Bédard, Jacques Rabemananjara Poète Malgache, (Sherbrooke Paris : Librarie de la cité universitaire, 1968), p. 235.

[xii] Compan, p.127.

[xiii] RadioFrance, Episode 8.

[xiv] Ibid.


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