- Cold War and Black Transnationalism:Aimé Césaire and Mercer Cook at the First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists
The First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists (Ier Congrès International des Écrivains et Artistes Noirs) took place in the Descartes Amphitheater at the Sorbonne, Paris, from September 19 to September 22, 1956. The Senegalese philosopher Alioune Diop organized the event under the auspices of Présence Africaine, the journal and publishing house he had founded a decade earlier. The congress included the participation of delegates from twenty-four countries. Present were such luminary figures as Léopold Sédar Senghor, Jean Price-Mars, Richard Wright, Aimé Césaire, and brilliant younger men like Edouard Glissant, Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin, and George Lamming, among many others. While in his opening lecture at the congress, Diop would compare the gathering with the overtly political Bandung Conference1 of the year before, he had in fact been very careful in emphasizing the congress’s interest in exploring and examining in depth the nature of African traditional and diasporic cultures.2
The congress’s preoccupation with the cultures of the African continent and its diasporic offshoots is an extension of Diop’s ideological grounding in the 1930s Négritude movement and its ideals, which, under the aegis of the poets Aimé Césaire (Martinique), Léopold Sédar Senghor (Senegal), and Léon Gontran-Damas (French Guiana),3 considered culture a primary site of the [End Page 115] colonized subject’s sense of alienation. In espousing the value of traditional African and African diasporic cultures, the Négritude poets and ideologues were articulating their resistance to Western cultural domination, especially the French colonial policy of assimilation, which they interpreted as an outright denial of the legitimacy of their cultural heritage. As other scholars have noted the congress’s focus on culture reflected a culmination of the Négritude movement’s ideological investment in that concept.4
Yet there was also a very practical reason behind emphasizing an examination of culture as the goal of the gathering. This emphasis in favor of culture against politics, as correspondence between Richard Wright and the Trinidadian Pan-African socialist George Padmore indicates, likely rendered it possible for the event to take place.5 At the time of the congress, France was in the midst of combatting the Algerian struggle for national independence and had recently lost Indochina. There was yet no national political consensus over abandoning the colonial empire, which, in light of France’s humiliation at being occupied by Nazi Germany during the Second World War, had remained a symbol of French national grandeur.6 By disavowing overt political concerns, Diop and other congress organizers at Présence Africaine helped ensure that a gathering of intellectuals, many of whom went on to become leading anticolonial global figures, could occur.7
While the apparent diplomatic savvy exhibited by the organizers would allow for the congress’s staging, the proceedings were punctuated by a number of events that revealed significant differences of opinion and political tensions. The first such event occurred in the opening minutes of the gathering during the reading of a message sent to the congress by the African American historian, sociologist, and civil rights advocate W. E. B. Du Bois. A second instance took place on the following day, as Mercer Cook and John A. Davis, members of the American delegation at the congress, responded to a statement by the Martinican poet, playwright, and politician Aimé Césaire linking the colonial situation to the condition of African Americans in the United States. Both instances illustrate how national, or nation-oriented narratives, encroached upon the black transnational discourse articulated at the congress. This illuminates how a logic of transnational collaboration will, as Brent Hayes Edwards has stated, at times “fall back on the nation-state and the national community as the final points of entanglement.”8
Specifically, these instances of tension reveal how the context of the Cold War and national freedom struggles (the civil rights movement in the United States and decolonization around the globe) inflected black transnationalist discourse among African American...