Love one another fraternally

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 28

An early manifestation of Pan-Africanism in France was seen with the creation of the journal La Fraternité in 1890.

The journal, which was the first French journal to have a black editor, was established by Haitian scholars Anténor Firmin and Benito Sylvain, who sought ‘to defend the interests of the Black race in Europe’.

However, it was the advent of the First World War and the subsequent increase in the number of African and Caribbean residents in France, as well as an influx of African American troops, that would really galvanise the Pan-African movement in France.

It is estimated that France mobilised over 800,000 colonial workers and soldiers across multiple fronts during the First World War, with over 155,000 being stationed in France.

The war had a significant impact on the consciousness of the African populace, both at home and in the diaspora, who called into question the nature of the relationship between imperial Europe and its African and Caribbean colonies.

It also undermined the notion of a civilised Europe and further heightened the contradiction between the claim of European moral superiority, on the one hand, and the continuing reality of its barbaric colonial rule on the other.

The experience of the war and its aftermath radicalised much of the African diaspora in France, just as it did across the world. Increasingly Africans and Caribbeans denounced the continued French colonial exploitation in their homelands.

Whilst those living in France aimed their anger at the indignities suffered at the hands of French government policy. For example, the indigénat, a policy of assimilation, compelled Africans to denounce their culture and tradition in favour of European ideals.

It was in this climate that some of the earliest anti-colonial and anti-racist organisations formed in post-war France.

In October 1931, Martinican writer Paulette Nardal, alongside Léo Sajous, a Haitian dentist, founded the bilingual journal La Revue du monde noir (The Black World Review).

The Revue declared that its aim was to:

“Create among the Negroes of the entire world, regardless of nationality, an intellectual and moral bond that will permit them to know each other better, to love one another fraternally, to defend their collective interests more effectively and to glorify their race.”

In conjunction with the journal, Paulette and her sister Jane held a weekly ‘circle of friends’ meeting, an opportunity for African Americans in Paris and intellectuals from Africa and the Caribbean to discuss the issues of the day.

It was in this setting that some of the pioneers of what would become known as the Négritude movement, such as the Nardal sisters, René Maran and Léopold Senghor, met with leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke and Carter G. Woodson.

In the ensuing exchange of ideas, the concept of Négritude emerged, an expression of revolt against racism, colonialism, and white supremacy.

Négritude as a term was first employed by Martinican intellectual Aimé Césaire in his 1939 poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land).

History generally credits the trio of: Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas (of Guiana) and Léopold Senghor (of Senegal) as the ‘founding fathers’ of the Négritude movement.

Négritude sought to reject the Eurocentric ideals of colonialism, racism, assimilation and paternalism, instead seeking to encourage a Pan-African unity as a solution to these ills.

Senghor, for example, had written about his rejection of claims by the teachers of his youth that through western education, they were building Christianity and civilisation in his soul where there was nothing but paganism and barbarism before.

Négritude was, in essence, a call for the ‘rejection of assimilation, an identification with blackness and a celebration of African civilisation’.

However, two more names should be included when discussing the founding members of the Négritude movement: Paulette and Jane Nardal.

As explained above, the two Martinician sisters were responsible for introducing the ideas of the Harlem Renaissance to the Francophone world with the Revue and its associated meetings.

The Nardal sisters were also keen intellectual thinkers in their own right who played a crucial role in articulating what was a growing awakening of race consciousness during this period.

As early as 1928, Jane Nardal expressed her views in the now-famous article L’International Noir (Black Internationalism), in which she argued:

“Blacks of all origins and nationalities, with different customs and religions, vaguely sense that they belong in spite of everything to a single and same race… From now on, there will be a certain interest, a certain originality, a certain pride in being black, in turning back towards Africa, cradle of the blacks, in recalling a common origin.”

The inter-war period saw what many have considered a golden age of Pan-Africanism across Europe and indeed much of the world.

A burgeoning black intellectual class combined with an unwillingness to accept white supremacy birthed a movement that within the century would see Decolonisation across Africa and the Caribbean, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and a wider embrace of black nationalism throughout the world.