When Négritude Was In Vogue: Critical Reflections of the First World Festival of Negro Arts and Culture in PDF

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When Négritude Was In Vogue: Critical Reflections of the First World Festival of Negro Arts and Culture in 1966 by Anthony J. Ratcliff, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of

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When Négritude Was In Vogue: Critical Reflections of the First World Festival of Negro Arts and Culture in 1966 by Anthony J. Ratcliff, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Department of Pan African Studies California State University, Northridge Abstract Six years after assuming the presidency of a newly independent Senegal, Leopold Sédar Senghor, with the support of UNESCO, convened the First World Festival of Negro Arts and Culture in Dakar held from April 1-24, The Dakar Festival was Senghor s attempt to highlight the development of his country and his philosophy, Négritude. Margaret Danner, a Afro-North American poet from Chicago and attendee of the Festival referred to him as a modern African artist, as host; / a word sculpturer (sic), strong enough to amass / the vast amount of exaltation needed to tow his followers through / the Senegalese sands, toward their modern rivers and figures of gold. For Danner and many other Black cultural workers in North America, the prospects of attending an international festival on the African continent intimated that cultural unity among Africans and Afro-descendants was rife with possibility. What is more, for a brief historical juncture, Senghor and his affiliates were able to posit Négritude as a viable philosophical model in which to realize this unity. However, upon critical reflection, a number of the Black cultural workers who initially championed the Dakar Festival came to express consternation at the behind the scenes machinations which severely weakened the lovely dream of Pan-Africa. 167 Following Senegal s independence from France in 1960, the poet-statesman Leopold Sédar Senghor became the county s first African president. He subsequently established Négritude and African socialism as the cultural, political, and economic ideologies of his government. 1 Six years after assuming the presidency of Senegal, Senghor, with the support of UNESCO, convened the First World Festival of Negro Arts and Culture in Dakar held from April 1-24, The Dakar Festival was Senghor s attempt to highlight the development of his country and his philosophy, Négritude, by bringing together people of African descent from around the globe. Margaret Danner, a Afro-North American poet from Chicago and attendee of the Festival referred to him as a modern African artist, as host; / a word sculpturer (sic), strong enough to amass / the vast amount of exaltation needed to tow his followers through / the Senegalese sands, toward their modern rivers and figures of gold. 2 For Danner and many other Black cultural workers in North America and elsewhere, the prospects of attending an international festival on the African continent intimated that cultural unity among Africans and Afro-descendants was rife with possibility. What is more, for a brief historical juncture, Senghor and his affiliates were able to posit Négritude as a viable philosophical model in which to realize this Pan African unity. 3 Brent Hayes Edwards The Practice of Diaspora (2003) documents the post-world War I international linkages between Africans and Afro-descendants in the Franco-phone Caribbean, Paris, and North America, which resulted in the formation of the Négritude movement. He suggests that Paris served as a special sort of vibrant, cosmopolitan space for interaction boundary crossing, conversations, and collaborations. 4 It was within this cosmopolitan space that Pan African connections were established between partisans of the New Negro Renaissance from the United States and francophone speakers from Africa and the Caribbean. Much of the impetus behind the Négritude movement can be found in the early publications of Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, and Leon Damas in L Étudiant noir (1934) and later Présence Africaine (1947), as well as the literary expression of Langston Hughes in North America and Nicolás Guillén in Cuba. However, equally essential to the formulation of the movement was the cultural and political work of Paulette and Jane Nardal, two Martinican women residing in France during the 1920s. In fact, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting s (2002) important study on the Nardal sisters and Suzanne Césaire, the wife of Aimé Césaire, documents the genealogy of Afro-Caribbean women creative intellectuals in the articulation of Négritudist and Pan African cultural politics. 5 Moreover, Sharpley-Whiting and Edwards each point out that in addition to translating Alain Locke s The New Negro (1925) into French, the Nardal sisters also wrote numerous essays exploring the complex interaction between race, place, and gender experienced by Afrodescendant women in France. According to Edwards, Jane Nardal initially asserted the centrality of Black women in constructing and codifying racial consciousness, which ultimately resulted in Négritude: 168 Until the Colonial Exposition, the coloured women living alone in the metropolis have certainly been less favoured than coloured men who are content with a certain easy success. Long before the latter, they have felt the need of a racial solidarity that would not be merely material. They were thus aroused to race consciousness. The feeling of uprooting which they experienced was the starting point of their evolution. 6 Later Paulette Nardal would suggest that Jane was the first promoter of this movement of ideas, so broadly exploited later, and that Senghor and Césaire took up the ideas tossed out by us and expressed them with more flash and brio [W]e were but women, real pioneers let s say that we blazed the trail for them. 7 Even though the Nardal sisters were genealogical foremothers of Négritude, Aimé Césaire did not codify the term until 1939, in his poem Cahier d un retour au pays natal ( Notebook of a Return to The Native Land ). 8 Originally, the French word Negre had the same connotation as the English pejorative n*gger, however, Césaire succeeded in transforming it into a positive signifier of Francophone Afro-Diasporic identity: my Négritude is not a stone, its deafness dashed against the clamor of the day my Négritude is not an opaque spot of dead water/ on the dead eye of the earth my Négritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral it plunges into the red flesh of the soil it plunges into the ardent fresh of the sky it pierces opaque prostration with its upright patience. 9 In this stanza, Césaire establishes that Négritude cannot be reduced to static objects, such as stones, dead water, a tower nor a cathedral, but instead it is an active, living subject that plunges, pierces and has patience. Robin D.G. Kelley (1999) asserts that Césaire s Discourse on Colonialism (1953) is an attempt by the poet-activist to synthesize his variants of Négritude, Marxism, and Surrealism into a poetics of anti-colonialism. 10 Césaire would later build upon his socio-historical rendering of the ideology: Negritude is not a philosophy. / Negritude is not a metaphysics. / Negritude is not a pretentious conception of the universe. / It is a way of living a history within history. 11 Nick Nesbitt (2003) argues Césaire s original conception sees the specificity and unity of black existence as a historically developing phenomenon that arose through the highly contingent events of the African slave trade and New World plantation system. However, he notes that Senghor, who intellectually supplanted Césaire as the primary exponent of Négritude, posited an essentialist interpretation that argues for an unchanging core or essence to black existence Senghor, Césaire, Damas and other members of the Société Africaine du Culture engaged many of their ideas on Négritude at two international Black writers conferences in Paris (1956) and Rome (1959). In addition to the African delegates: Alioune Diop, Cheikh-Anta Diop, Leopold Senghor, Paul Hazoume, Thomas Ekollo, E.L Lasebikan, and Jacques Rabemananjara, numerous writers from the United States and the Caribbean were also in attendance, such as Richard Wright, Cesaire, George Lamming, Horace Mann Bond, Jacques Alexis, John Davis, William Thomas Fontaine, Jean Prince-Mars, James Baldwin, James W. Ivy, Chester Himes, Mercer Cook and Frantz Fanon. Even though Négritudists and other cultural nationalist tendencies dominated the writers congresses, a handful of African and Afro-descendant Marxists and left nationalists posed ideological challenges at the proceedings. Speeches like Fanon s Racism and Culture in 1956 and Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom in 1959; Wright s Tradition and Industrialization in 1956; and Alexis s On the Marvelous Realism of the Haitians, in 1956 each highlighted the shortcomings of Négritude and cultural nationalism. Even the preamble of the Second Congress of Negro Writers and Artists expressed that political independence and economic liberation are the essential conditions for the cultural advance of the underdeveloped countries in general and the Negro-African countries in particular. 13 One of the most vocal critiques of Senghor s interpretation of Négritude came from Afro- North American writer Richard Wright. Although Négritude was the dominant philosophy driving the two congresses, in Négritude, Afrocentricism, and Black Atlanticism, Adeleke Adeeko explores the differences in the conceptualization of African culture that ensued between Senghor and Wright. Adeeko suggests that Senghor intended Négritude to be a black meta-hermeneutics and existential ontology, which asserts that the black person isa being with open senses, with no intermediary between subject and object, himself at one the subject and object Stimulated, he responds to the call and abandons himself, going from subject to object from me to Thee on the vibrations of the Other: he is not assimilated: he assimilates himself with the other, which is the best road to knowledge. 14 Senghor also sought to dispel the notion that his articulation of Négritude somehow proposed that Blacks were without reason. Conversely, he argued, the Negro is not devoid of reason, as I am supposed to have said. But his reason is not discursive: it is synthetic. It is not antagonistic : it is sympathetic. It is another form of knowledge. The Negro reason does not impoverish things, it does not mold them into rigid patterns by eliminating roots and the sap : it flows in the arteries of things, it weds all their contours to dwell at the living heart of the real. While reason is analytic through utilization : Negro reason is intuitive through participation In responding to Senghor s black ontology, Wright criticized what he viewed as the irrationality of holding onto African spirituality and tradition, which he viewed as being in opposition to progress and the Enlightenment. Despite having already repudiated his ties to the Communist Party, Wright s rejoinder is very much an historical materialist reading of race; for instance, he pondered: Can a way be found to merge the rational areas and rational personnel of Europe with those of Asia and Africa? How can the curtains of race, color, religion, and tradition all of which hamper man s mastery of his environment be collectively rolled back by free men of the West and non-west? 16 He also felt that Senghor s postulation about an African Negro culture was inherently essentialist: I wonder where do I, an American Negro, conditioned by the harsh industrial, abstract force of the Western world that has used stern, political prejudices against the society (which [Senghor] has so brilliantly elucidated) where do I stand in relation to that culture? If I were of another colour or another race, I could say, All this is very exotic, but it is not directly related to me, and I could let it go at that. I can not. The modern world has cast us both in the same mould. I am black and he is black; I am an American and he is French, and so, there you are. And yet there is a schism in our relationship, not political but profoundly human Is it possible for me to find a working and organic relationship with [the culture]? I don t condemn it. I am questioning and asking: Might not the vivid and beautiful culture that Senghor has described not been I speak carefully, choosing my words with the utmost caution, speaking to my colleagues, hoping that you will understand my intensions might not that beautiful culture have been a fifth column a corps of saboteurs and spies of Europe? 17 It is clear that Wright is restating the Du Boisian notion of double consciousness in this passage: the difficulty of being of African descent and American. However, where Du Bois two-ness derived from the strife of being a Black American, Wright is questioning how he relates to Senghor s meta-african culture unbounded by history and geography. Moreover, he goes further to suggest that the beautiful culture that Senghor has described may have aided in the subjugation of Africa by Europe. For Wright, any articulation of Pan African culture must recognize the historical and spatial diversity of Black people caused by enslavement, colonialism and imperialism. In addition, he was not opposed to adapting values and knowledge from the West to further develop Afro-Diasporic cultural identity. 18 Despite this and other ideological challenges, by the early 1960s, Senghor had become the primary exponent of Négritude. In doing so, he tended to emphasize the cultural aspects of African subjectivity at the expense of political and economic considerations. This was evident in both the methods in which Senghor led Senegal, as well as in the marginal support he gave to liberation struggles on the African continent and elsewhere Moreover, the privileging of culture was particularly apparent at the Festival in Dakar. One account of the event actually described it as a chance for Africans to disregard the trials and tribulations of nation-building to rejoice for a while in their unique and rich cultural achievements. 20 Here, it is important to realize that the joint sponsorship of the Senegalese government, SAC, and UNESCO, as well as the select participation of African and Afrodescendant entertainers, had a delimiting effect on the articulation of radical Pan Africanism and the burgeoning international Black Arts movement. 21 Although Richard Wright and many other Black radicals remained relatively silent about the Dakar Festival, Hoyt Fuller and his Negro Digest would become one of the main supporters of the event in North America. In fact, he published numerous calls in the journal with the hopes of mobilizing Afro-North American participation. In the August 1965 issue of Negro Digest, Fuller printed the prospectus of the Association for the World Festival of Negro Arts, describing the four objectives of the event: To advance international and interracial understanding; To permit Negro artists throughout the world to return periodically to the sources of their art; To make known the contributions of what President Senghor has termed Négritude ; a Negro s pride in his race and a recognition of the Negro s unique creative ability based on his African heritage; To make it possible for Negro artists to meet and demonstrate their talents to publishers, impresarios, film producers and other members of the international art world, who can provide them with the necessary outlets. 22 While each of these objectives was important, nowhere did the prospectus discuss politics or African liberation as they related to cultural development. What makes the lack of emphasis around political struggle and anti-colonialism even more problematic is the fact that four months prior to the Festival, the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAALA), also known as the Tri-Continental Solidarity Conference occurred in Cuba, strengthening the non-aligned and anti-imperialist-oriented Third World movement. 23 Moreover, in February of 1966, one of the leaders of continental Pan Africanism, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, was overthrown in a military coup by Western-backed forces. 24 It is not completely surprising that Senghor remained mute about Ghana because even before the neo-colonialist ousting of Nkrumah, the Senegalese and Ghanaian leaders had divergent ideas about the best path to African unity. As early as 1961, a serious fracture had occurred within the continental Pan African movement with the Casablanca-Monrovia split. 172 The former group (Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Morocco, Egypt, and Algeria) advocated armed struggle, anti-imperialism, and variations of Marxism-Leninism to liberate Africa and create a Pan African continent, while the latter group originally the known as the Brazzaville group (Congo-Brazzaville, Senegal, Côte d'ivoire, Cameroon, Madagascar, Benin, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, The Gabon, Libya; and later adding the Congo (Kinshasa), Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Togo, and Tunisia) maintained a gradualist approach to decolonization. What is more, the left-leaning Casablanca group accused the more conservative Monrovia group of accommodating neo-colonialism by maintaining economic ties to Western countries. With the exception of Ghana, all the other Casablanca members represented Muslim states and Egypt, Morocco, and Algeria were Arab countries, which further complicated matters. 25 This split had serious repercussions for the general Pan African movement that was somewhat diffused at the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in Nonetheless, at the time of the Dakar Festival in 1966, ideological and tactical differences remained acrimonious. 26 Seeking to circumvent the conflict, organizers of the Festival did not want to engage political issues, focusing solely on cultural expression. The Festival Association established the event s exhibitions and performances around visual art, literature, film, dance, plays, and music, as well as a colloquium on the function of Negro Art. Conveying the impression that the Festival was little more than an African Cultural Olympiad, however, the organizers offered prizes to the best work of art in each category. The Festival Association also sought to highlight the cosmopolitan aspects of Dakar by labeling it the crossroads that links Europe, America and the whole of Africa. Ironically, while the aims of the Festival were to build unity among African and Afro-descendant performers by illustrating the cultural developments of newly independent nations, much of the impetus behind the event became legitimizing Africa in the eyes of their former European colonial regimes. 27 Upon being elected as the president of the Festival Association, Alioune Diop, a Senegalese writer and co-founder of Présence Africaine along with Senghor, limited participation at the Festival to nation-states. Thus, there was no representation of African liberation movements, the Afro-North American delegation had to get approval from the U.S. State Department to attend, and the Festival Association denied exiled Afro-Brazilian writer Abdias do Nascimento entrance into the event because he was not a member of the official Brazilian delegation. Later that year, Nascimento responded to his exclusion with an Open Letter to the First World Festival of Negro Arts, which chastised the Festival Association for allowing white Brazilians to represent Afro-Brazilian culture at the event. 28 In an equally ironic move, although the vice-president of the North American Committee was John A. Davis of the American Society of African Culture, the president of the delegation was a Euro-American woman named H. Alwynn Innes-Brown. 173 As head of the American National Theater and Academy and a consultant to the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs of the State Department, she served as a gatekeeper between prospective participants and the U.S. government. 29 Though Richard Pritchard, a Black classically trained musician and other Afro-North American artists protested A
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