- Kojo Tovalou Houénou, précurseur, 1887–1936: pannégrisme et modernité
Lilyan Kesteloot's ground-breaking Les écrivains noirs de langue française: naissance d'une littérature, of 1963, set the tone: Négritude marked a totally new beginning. Preceding it had been doudouisme, pale imitations of European models, and the Harlem renaissance. René Maran's Batouala of 1921 shone like a lonely beacon. This suited both literary critics (and course-planners) seeking to circumscribe their compass and the Negritude writers themselves, flattered to be presented as emerging almost ex nihilo. Historians have been less parsimonious in the interest they took in the preceding generation of French-speaking black activists but, significantly, they were not based in France: Roi Ottley, James Spiegler, Imanuel Geiss and James Ayodele Langley. Recent years have seen attempts, notably in English by Christopher Miller and Robert Young, to redress the imbalance and place such figures as Kojo Tovalou Houénou, Tiémoko Garan Kouyaté and Lamine Senghor within the compass of postcolonial literary discourse. In French, Philippe Dewitte's Les mouvements nègres en France, 1919-1939 made a major contribution towards bringing them out of the shadows. Both it and Zouménou's book (for Zinsou merely wrote the anecdotal preface, being presented as co-author out of misplaced deference for a former president of Benin) were first presented as theses in Paris in 1985. However, whereas Dewitte's appeared in book form the same year, Zouménou's has waited this long and, scandalously, not been updated. The most recent bibliographical reference dates from 1981. However, its virtues are considerable. It gives a fully documented picture of the Dahomean Prince Kojo Tovalou Houénou and his role in various (generally fruitless) efforts at having France allow his fellow-countrymen and other nations colonized by France either citizenship and equality or independence, as justice and the logic of the Republic's theoretical championship of the rights of man required. He qualified as an attorney and in parallel pursued medical training. Regrettably, Tovalou's First World War records have not survived, but the cover photograph (from the archives [End Page 150] of his relative, the novelist Olympe Bhêly-Quenum) prompts a striking revision of assumptions about the role of Africans in it. He is shown as a medical officer, complete with Red Cross arm-band. His aristocratic stance and convoluted writing style lacked the common touch to produce a major leader, but his foundation in 1924 of the Ligue universelle pour la défense de la race noire and its fortnightly organ Les Continents promoted principles deserving wide consideration and application. They were shared actively by Maran, also born in 1887 (as was Marcus Garvey, with whom Tovalou fell out, preferring Du Bois's more moderate approach) and also—but this goes unmentioned—schooled at Bordeaux. The unctuous and self-serving Blaise Diagne, on behalf of the colonialist lobby, whose memoranda here reveal utter contempt for native peoples and an absolute resolution to prevent any serious questioning (invariably bugabooed as bolshevik) of ruling authority, torpedoed this and other initiatives. That this important study, likely to remain the sole reference for Tovalou for many years, has no index adds injury to the insult of its time-warp.