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Negritude and Literary Criticism: The History and Theory of "Negro-African" Literature in French.

Belinda Elizabeth Jack. Westport: Greenwood P, 1996. 203 pp. $55.00.

Reviewed by

A. James Arnold University of Virginia

Greenwood Press has done a real service to U.S. scholars of African and diaspora literatures in French by publishing Belinda E. Jack's Oxford doctoral dissertation. Although the book displays the usual characteristics of published dissertations, they do not constitute a major obstacle in this instance. Jack's primary contribution is that she has reviewed, carefully and critically, nearly all of the significant writing in English and French on what was long called "Negro-African" literature in French. The author's analytical method seeks to point up the ideological investment that scholars have made in their construction and dissemination of this relatively new field of inquiry.

As Jack points out most convincingly, "typological terms of secondary discourses are not simply descriptive terms; they also operate explicitly or implicitly as criteria of evaluation." Nowhere is her approach more useful than in her treatment of Lilyan Kesteloot's Black Writers in French: A Literary History of Negritude, Ellen Conroy Kennedy's 1974 translation of Kesteloot's 1961 Brussels dissertation in literary sociology. Kesteloot had excluded the Martinican poet Gilbert Gratiant - who was Aime Cesaire's English teacher in Fort de France - from the emerging canon that she was the first to describe on the grounds that Gratiant failed to meet her test as a protest writer. Jack cites Martin Steins' 1979 article "Litterature engagee" to demonstrate how wrong-headed this appreciation of Gratiant was.

A similar ideological skewing of the field of inquiry vitiated much of the early critical work done on Negritude, as all the literature in French by black writers was called for a generation. Indeed, Kennedy's English title further narrowed the range of Kesteloot's original, which translates literally as "Black Writers in French: Birth of a Literature." The reader will come away from Jack's well-documented and competently written analysis convinced that, as the author claims, the field under discussion is inherently unstable. One fundamental reason for this instability derives from the origin and history of the Negritude movement itself. Conceived in the mid-1930s, brought into the world in the 1940s and to fruition in the 1950s, Negritude was the child of the last decades of French imperialism and its assimilationist doctrine. The English-speaking world only took up Negritude in the 1960s, at the time of the Black Power Movement, when African independence was well under way.

Belinda Jack is also among the first scholars to examine Martin Steins' 1981 (University of Paris III) French state doctoral dissertation on L. S. Senghor's early years and Joseph Costisella's 1982 (Paris Iv) state doctoral dissertation on black consciousness movements in Paris from 1919 onward. Taken together, these two dissertations correct the multiple inaccuracies disseminated by Kesteloot twenty years earlier and, alas, still frequently repeated today. Jack treats another vexed question - the relationship of Negritude to the European Surrealist movement - according to the model I first synthesized in my 1981 Modernism and Negritude.

Without wishing to detract from the practical virtues of this book, I must point out flaws in the preparation of the manuscript for publication. It is scarcely forgiveable that a writer as well known as Maryse Conde should have an extra e appended to her surname (twice in the bibliography, but not in the index). The late Albert Gerard's name lacks the acute e on all three items in the bibliography, as does J.-L. Gore's. Joseph Costisella's surname is consistently written Costissella. The Kennedy translation of Kesteloot's published dissertation is cited in a 1991 reprint, with no indication that it first appeared seventeen years earlier. In a book that will be frequently consulted for its bibliography, these are not insignificant details. More important, no doubt, is the absence from this study of the important volume of essays edited by Georges Ngal and Martin Steins, Cesaire 70 (Paris: Silex, 1984). The bibliographies in Cesaire 70 include valuable material not discussed by Jack in her dissertation. These flaws notwithstanding, Belinda Jack's book belongs in every college library.
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Author:Arnold, A. James
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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