Congress of Negro Writers and Artists

African Presence

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 33

The First International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists, held from 19-22 September 1956 at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, was one of the most significant gatherings of black intellectuals during the twentieth century.

Organised by the cultural journal turned publishing house, Présence Africaine, the congress remains a landmark event in the history of black internationalism.

Présence Africaine was founded in 1947 by Senegalese writer Alioune Diop and his wife and fellow writer Christiane Yandé-Diop to:

“Affirm the presence, or ethos, of the black communities of the world, and to defend the originality of their way of life and the dignity of their culture.”

A mission that was in keeping with the theme of their first congress: ‘the crisis of Negro culture’.

Over the course of four days, twenty-seven speakers would each present on a specialised topic, including:

  • Léopold Senghor - The spirit of civilisation or the laws of African negro culture

  • Ebenezer Lasebikan - The tonal structure of Yoruba poetry

  • William Fontaine - Segregation and desegregation in the United States: a philosophical analysis

  • Aimé Cesaire - Culture and colonisation

  • Marcus James - Christianity in the emergent Africa

  • Jean Price-Mars - Transatlantic African survivals and the dynamism of Negro Culture

  • Ben Enwonwu - Problems of the African artist today

  • Richard Wright - Tradition and industrialisation: the plight of the tragic elite in Africa

  • George Lamming - The Negro Writer and his World

Other eminent attendees included: Mercer Cook, Mario de Andrade, Peter Blackman, Chester Himes and James Baldwin.

In total, there were sixty-three delegates with many more observers in attendance, given much of the conference was open to the public.

It must be added that women were almost entirely absent from official proceedings, a point expressed by American author Richard Wright:

“I don’t know how many of you have noticed it - there have been no women functioning vitally and responsibly upon this platform helping to mold and mobilise our thoughts. This is not a criticism of the conference, it is not a criticism of anyone, it is a criticism that I heap upon ourselves collectively… In our struggle for freedom, against great odds, we cannot afford to ignore one half of our manpower, that is, the force of women and their active collaboration. Black men will not be free until their women are free.”

However, although no women were featured on the delegates list, women were actively involved in the planning and the direction of the congress.

American-born entertainer and civil rights activist Josephine Baker was an active member of the organising committee, while Christiane Yandé-Diop as co-founder of Présence Africaine, played a crucial role in coordinating the event.

The congress sought to discuss the position of Africans, both at home and in ‘Western’ societies, in the face of racism, Eurocentrism, assimilation and colonialism.

It also reflected on the similarities and differences that united and sometimes divided those from Africa and across the diaspora.

Despite the number of high-profile writers and artists present, such as Senghor, Cesaire and Baldwin, the congress is perhaps most remembered today for the works of two figures who at the time were barely known: Frantz Fanon and Cheikh Anta Diop.

In his presentation titled ‘Racism and Culture’, Fanon explained:

“It is not possible to enslave men without logically making them inferior… racism is only the emotional, affective, sometimes intellectual explanation of this inferiorisation.”

He argued that one of the most significant forms of racism was the ‘destruction of cultural values’, a manifestation of colonialism, which led to the separation of people from their own national cultures and instead subjugated them to the yolk of Eurocentrism.

For Fanon, the solution to this situation was to be found in the ‘total liberation of the national territory’ through decolonisation, which could lead to brotherhood and the mutual enrichment of cultures.

Diop’s presentation, titled ‘The Cultural Contributions and Prospects of Africa’, saw him introduce the concept that ‘the ancient Egyptian and Pharaonic civilisation was a Negro civilisation’.

Diop believed that restoring the truth of Africa’s history was vital in the struggle for the total liberation of the continent. As he put it:

“You do not know where you are going until you know where you have come from.”

Diop also stressed the importance of ‘African historical consciousness and cultural unity’, which he felt needed to manifest in the replacing of European languages as official languages on the African continent and the finding of African languages that could be used as lingua franca.

Fanon, Diop, and the rest of the congress delegates argued that Negro intellectuals had to apply themselves to solving the problems facing the Negro world.

One of the lasting legacies of the Paris congress was the founding of the Société Africaine de Culture in 1956 and the American Society of African Culture in 1957, two organisations that we’ll discuss in a later edition.