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  • Preface:The Fellowship of Présence Africaine
  • David Scott (bio)

In memory of Teshome Gabriel

Le noir qui brille par son absence dans l'élaboration de la cité moderne, pourra, peu à peu, signifier sa présence en contribuant à la récreation d'un humanisme à la vraie mesure de l'homme. (The black, who is conspicuous by his absence in the working-out of the modern city, will be able, little by little, to make his presence known by contributing to the re-creation of a humanism commensurate with the true measure of man.)

—Alioune Diop

At 25 bis, rue des Ecoles, in the Latin Quarter of Paris, near the corner of rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève and within a stone's throw of the Collège de France and the Sorbonne, stands the historic librairie of Présence Africaine. Compact, with the singular but reserved and unobtrusive dignity of those who have hard-earned the simple right of residence, it looks out at you from a facade stamped with its signature graphic emblem. And within its crowded interior, its shelves bend perceptibly under the weight of titles (often otherwise-impossible to-find titles) that are themselves the burdened trace of a long story, not yet ended. It is hard not to be viscerally moved by the sheer concrete longevity of this institution, not to pause startled by wonder at the profound history it embodies. This year, 2010, marks the centenaire of the birth of its remarkable founder, Alioune Diop (January 1910-May 1980), scholar, poet, and politician; and the organization he brought into being is, justifiably, in the middle of a year of reflection and celebration. [End Page vii]

When in late 1947 the first issue of Présence Africaine appeared in Paris it must have been something of a cultural, intellectual, and political event. For Paris, in the years following the Résistance and the Libération, was in the throes of a fundamental self-interrogation. There was a sense among its leading figures—a sense more or less inchoate, more or less wide-spread—of a new urgency to rethink the nature of intellectual and artistic commitment. The revues of the moment—Les Temps Modernes (established by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in 1945), for example, and Critique (founded by Georges Bataille in 1946)—were at once symptoms of the new conscience de soi and shapers of the new esprit de révolte. Alioune Diop, attuned precisely to the implications of this European crise de conscience for a critique of empire (and perhaps self-conscious also of the difference between his own generational moment and that of earlier, interwar journal projects such as Légitime Défense and L'Etudiant Noir), sought to make an intervention in the name of the absent presence of an as yet unexamined and unheard African voice. As Diop recalls in "Niam n'goura ou les raisons d'être de Présence Africaine," the essay introducing the journal: "L'idée en remonte à 1942-43. Nous étions à Paris un certain nombre d'étudiants d'outre-mer qui—au sein des souffrances d'une Europe s'interrogeant sur son essence et sur l'authenticité de ses valeurs—nous sommes groupés pour étudier la situation et les caractères qui nous définissaient nous-mêmes."1 ("The idea for it goes back to 1942-43. We were in Paris, a certain number of overseas students who—from within the suffering of a Europe questioning its essence and the authenticity of its values—got together to study the situation and the characteristics that define ourselves.")

In this inaugural essay Diop mapped a project of spiritual reclamation and cultural critique driven by a capacious universal humanism. He began by carefully sidestepping the Cold War trap of ideological allegiance then beginning to define global politics. "Cette revue," he maintained, "ne se place sous l'obédience d'aucune idéologie philosophique ou politique."2 ("This journal is not under the subjection of any philosophical or political ideology.") What was required, he suggested, was an ecumenical embrace of the goodwill of all those who recognized the injustice of the exclusion and silencing of...


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