The term ‘negritude’ (blackness) is a neologism coined by Martinican poet and politician Aimé Cesaire that appropriates the derogatory ‘negre’ (whose cognates in English would include ‘negro’ and ‘nigger’) and turns it into a positive. The most famous instance of this is in Cesaire’s powerful prose poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939), translated as Notebook of a Return to My Native Land (2001), which contains the line ‘Haiti, where negritude stood up for the first time and said it believed in its humanity’. The reference to Haiti is in fact a reference to the leader of the slave revolt of 1791, Toussaint Louverture.
As a movement, negritude was established by a small group of African-Caribbean scholars in Paris in the 1930s—including the future leader of Senegal Leopold Sedar Senghor and the poet Leon Damas—who, under the influence of the Harlem Renaissance in the US (particularly the poet Langston Hughes, who spent time in Paris in the early 1920s, but also W.E.B. Du Bois and Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey) as well as Surrealism in Paris, undertook a kind of mental decolonization through poetry and writing.
It was primarily aimed at celebrating African heritage (in a deliberately essentialist manner), specifically an African personality or affectivity, as a means of affirming existence in a racist, white-dominated world. It took as its purview the entire black diaspora as well as Africa itself. This bold standpoint was praised by Jean-Paul Sartre in his famous preface to Senghor’s 1948 collection of poetry, Anthology of New Black and Malagasy Poetry.
Negritude was not without its critics, however, even from within the black community. It was attacked by the Creoleness writers for its monolithic outlook; it was also attacked by Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka for accepting the inferior term handed out by the European powers instead of constructing its own positive term. Soyinka saw in negritude what he thought of as an unhealthy fetishism of the ‘native’ state. Although it was an important movement for several decades, its force is all but spent now.
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