Research in African Literatures 33.4 (2002) 143-153
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Negritude and a New Africa:
Peter S. Thompson
In this attempt to outline the present reputation of Negritude we will at times remark that the movement is held in low esteem. It is vital to be clear: what seems like a low reputation is simply the contrast with past eras when feelings about Negritude were more generally positive. There is now a lack of consensus about the movement. Inevitably, an age-old lack of agreement over the definition of Negritude plays a part in this discussion. It is time to try to clarify the multiplicity of views about Negritude, and to give some reasons for the complexity of critical opinions on the subject. The goal here is to be sufficiently precise about the latter to be of use to specialists, while also helping generalists who may have been surprised to read that there are not uniformly positive views of the movement. The question arises—and as yet remains impossible to answer: can the Negritude movement still serve as an inspiration to writers and leaders in black cultures, as a step towards "the creation of a meaningful perspective of collective life and action for the African people in the modern world" (86)?
A status report of the present kind follows, in part, a simple chronology, from the conception of the movement in the late thirties by Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire, through its changes and voluminous defenses (chiefly by Senghor) into the seventies. Three strains of thought, which grow more insistent in the seventies and eighties, add interest to the chronological approach: accusations of a neocolonialist (economic) presence in Africa; the "language problem" and African languages in literature; and the demand for multiculturalism in school curricula. All three of these are reflected, subtly and paradoxically, in both the tenets of Negritude and some of the attacks it has suffered. More than any chronological development, however, the very diversity of these attacks gives insight into a large sense of dissatisfaction. The first criticisms were some of the strongest—for example, an essay by Gabriel d'Arboussier in 1949. Since the late forties Negritude has suffered incrementally, a kind of decline from a thousand cuts. These disparate reactions should be examined, as they provide more insight into African writing than does the search for any unifying trend that might gradually have pushed the Negritude movement outside of consensus. Let us look at some of the severest criticisms, while conceding that their very complexity makes an assessment of Negritude's status shift constantly in and out of focus. Emotion, prejudice, and ideology grip almost all speakers on the subject, and what can be said without arousing the rhetoric of riposte becomes as problematic as what can be known by non-Africans. We can be sure, at least, that two great poets—Senghor and Césaire—are remnants of this movement, along with René Maran and the earliest Africa-centered prose writers. And prominent critics—among them Ezekiel Mphahlele and Abiola Irele—continue to give Negritude its due as an important historical stage. [End Page 143]
In Africa 1 one often hears that the goals of Negritude, both political and literary, have been by-passed. In the Caribbean, Boukman, speaking in the sixties, offered the same:
It is no service to African culture to cling like an oyster to notions overtaken by history. The concept of Negritude which was revolutionary in the forties and fifties is today only fit for the museum of literature. (qtd. in Irele 84)
This notion, with its chronological frame of reference, is worth exploring before setting forth the many specific quarrels. The assertion that Negritude is dead gives us the pause necessary to reexamine its earliest definitions, and to see how these were often misinterpreted. Senghor's best known definition is that Negritude is "l'ensemble de valeurs de civilisation du monde noir" 'the totality of civilization and its values within the black world' (Vaillant 244). Sylvia Bâ summarizes much of Senghor's...