- In Search of Seven SistersA Biography of the Nardal Sisters of Martinique
“There were other black diasporic intellectual circles in Paris at the time, notably the group surrounding the Nardal sisters of Martinique . . . “ (Kelley). This phrase sparked a search into the lives of these women that has lasted over a dozen years. Who were they? What notable group surrounded them? My research began with an exploration of the many connections between African American writers and black French intellectuals in Paris in the 1930s. Inspired by the Harlem R-enaissance authors, a new literary movement began in Paris known as the negritude movement. Just as early scholarship about the Harlem Renaissance focused on the men in the movement, until very recently there was almost no information about women writers in the negritude movement. There were references to the Nardal sisters in much of the scholarship, especially regarding famous intellectuals who had been introduced to each other by the Nardal sisters. However, there was scarce and often conflicting historical information about who the Nardal sisters were. Born on the small Caribbean island of Martinique at the turn of the twentieth century, the seven Nardal sisters were among the very first women of African descent to be educated in the French colonial system. The Nardals organized for social reform, published widely, and influenced some of the most important politicians, artists, and intellectuals of their time. They developed an early pan-African identity, fought against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, created women’s political networks as women first won the right to vote, promoted African American music and literature, and worked at the United Nations during its foundation.
After researching in thirteen archives in Europe, Africa, the United States, and the Caribbean, I have found the Nardal sisters to be even more well-connected and influential than I had originally guessed. Yet the story of this remarkable family has been left largely untold. While there is little biographical research on the Nardal family, there has been important work on the tremendous influence of the Nardal sisters in interwar Paris and their significant literary contributions by scholars such as T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Tyler Stovall, Brent Hayes Edwards, Jennifer Boittin, Claire Oberon Garcia, and Shireen K. Lewis. In addition, Martinican filmmaker Jil Servant made a film about Paulette Nardal, and there have been a number of articles on the Nardal family in the local press in Martinique over the years. What I have done here is collected oral histories, personal correspondences, and other archival documents in an attempt to reconstruct the lives and contributions of these women. There are still some unanswered questions and opportunities for further research about the Nardals, but I believe this biographical narrative is long overdue. My [End Page 375] forthcoming book will provide substantial analysis of the sources and provide greater historical context. This article is split into four sections: an outline of the Nardal’s ancestry, traced back five generations to enslavement; a biography of Paulette, the luminary of the seven sisters; a section on the lives of her six accomplished sisters; and an outline of the Achille family, their maternal line, with special attention to their cousin Louis-Thomas Achille, who was like a brother to them and was a critical link to the African American intellectuals in Paris. For visual reference, I have created a family tree based on research at the archives in Martinique, records at the cemetery in Fort-de-France, and interviews with the Nardal family.
The story of the seven Nardal sisters does not begin with the birth of the first sister, but rather with their enslaved ancestors who were forcibly exported from western Africa to the Caribbean during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. This historical legacy was central to shaping the worldview of their descendants. The first ancestor I have found a record for is a woman named Zilia, who was the great-great grandmother of the Nardal sisters. Zilia and her family were enslaved in the region of Martinique called Trinité, located along the Atlantic Ocean in the northeastern part of the island. Trinité was particularly known for sugar production, and...