T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting. Negritude Women.
T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting's Negritude Women proffers an enlightening, revisionary analysis of the Negritude movement. Negritude, the term coined by the Martinican poet Aime Cesaire in the mid-1930s, signifies a new cultural and literary movement among Francophone African and Caribbean intellectual diasporas living in Paris. The movement is generally examined through the works of male writers, such as Aime Cesaire, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and Leon Damas. Sharpley-Whiting, however, counters the male-centered interpretations and offers a new outlook on the gender politics within the Negritude movement. Sharpley-Whiting argues that the male leaders of the movement marginalized black female intellectuals such as Jane and Paulette Nardal and Suzanne Cesaire from Martinique. Concerned with the male-dominant discussions of Negritude, Sharpley-Whiting illuminates the path, which led to a significant black movement, taken by the outspoken and courageous Martinican women mentioned above. Referring to their brilliant essays, Sharpley-Whiting chronicles the history of Negritude from 1928 to 1945. Starting her discussions of Negritude several years earlier than the general understanding of the birth of the movement, Sharpley-Whiting recovers "Negritude women" and documents the formulation of philosophical and theoretical concepts which directly influenced the "founding fathers" of the movement. In effect, Negritude women enabled the emergence of the international black conscious movement.
Sharpley-Whiting begins her discussions of Negritude women with an examination of the social and cultural milieu of Paris after World War I. In postwar Paris, under aggravated living conditions, moral corruption, xenophobia, racism, and paternalism threateningly prevailed, and the frustrations of the black Francophone people at racial discrimination and French colonial policies accelerated. Accordingly, the climate to confront racism and to foster solidarity of the black race transcending class and ethnic differences was ripe enough to inaugurate multiethnic organizations and newspapers, which promoted the evolution of the international black movement. In particular, the interaction between the participants of the black movement and African American intellectuals and activists, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, advanced the debate on racial inequality and oppression from the international perspective.
The colonial-reformist newspaper La Depeche africaine (1928-1932), influenced by Du Bois Pan Africanism and Garvey's black nationalism, internationally advocated social political, and economic issues of French-speaking African descendants and also encouraged students to be involved with the black race consciousness movement. Among contributors to the journal, Sharpley-Whiting especially credits Jane Nardal, who called for the formation of black cultural internationalism.
Sharpley-Whiting's analysis of Nardal's writings which appeared in La Depeche africaine illustrates Nardal's contribution to constituting a global black community. Nardal was strongly inspired by Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925), an anthology of African American artists, critics, and writers of the Harlem Renaissance in the United States, which records the black cultural emergence of a new "race spirit" rooted in Africa. Regarding African Americans as pioneers of resistance, who attained a new identity and a new self-consciousness despite the hardship devolved from slavery, Nardal urged French-speaking black people to study the spirit of their race and tradition so as to repudiate passive assimilation into Frenchness and to claim their own identity. Nardal also critiqued modernism, which created the exotic image of Africans and their descendants in French and American cultures after World War I. Nardal urged modernists, who objectified black people as "exotic," to change their notion of humanity to recognize the complex subjectivity of the oppressed. Her challenge to the ethnocentric homogeny of France and hope to create a new cultural movement based on the diversity of the colonized would be reflected in the black cultural and literary journal La Revue du monde noir (1931-1932).
The discussions of Andree, Jane, and Paulette Nardal's engagement with the Clamart Salon and its offspring, La Revue du monde noir, demonstrate their efforts to promote a globalized, multicultural black consciousness. The salon started by the sisters in 1931 was characterized by its transracial and gender-inclusive nature. Sharpley-Whiting's observation of other salons hosted by white women such as Natalie Barney and Gertrude Stein reveals the hindrance imposed on women of color: "Barney set up a 'formal,' essentially white feminist colony that transcended class, and Stein preferred to cultivate relations with a predominantly male French and American expatriate community in her 'casual' Parisian salon." Women of color were not generally welcome in the salons patronized by white women. As a result, the Nardal sisters opened their own salon. The vigorous exchanges between intellectuals and artists at the Clamart Salon led to the emergence of the concept of Negritude, as well as the publication of a bilingual review La Revue de monde noir. The journal served as a tool to defy unfair racism and prejudice, proclaiming the unadulterated black cultural movement.
Sharpley-Whiting also scrutinizes Paulette Nardal's significant contribution to the Negritude movement, especially among Antillean Francophone students in Paris, who were thoroughly immersed in the French education system. Calling for an awakening to the race consciousness and the riches of blackness, Nardal discouraged the students from imitating the French, who ostensibly appeared to bestow freedom on the colonized, but only on condition of their assimilation at the cost of self-negation.
Sharpley-Whiting solely adopts Paulette Nardal's analysis of the link between African American and black Francophone literature. Nardal classified the development of African American literature into three phases: imitative literature, including the early slave narratives; a literature of controversy and moral protest, such as Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861); and the literature from 1880 onward to the Harlem Renaissance. Nardal adopted the last phase as the prototype of the indigenous literature with racial pride in order to develop black Francophone letters. Yet Sharpley-Whiting's survey of the history of African American literature based on Nardal's readings appears succinct and insufficient, since analysis of the issues regarding racism and sexism in the United States is overlooked. Advanced research on these matters would provide a more globalized perspective on gender and race topics of the era.
Paulette Nardal's feat to lead students to the anti-colonialism movement is undisputed. In addition, Sharpley-Whiting highlights Nardal's concern with female students, who were placed in a more complicated and less privileged situation than their male counterparts. Women students who studied in Paris found it more difficult to get assimilated because of their gender, and their intellectual, middle-class upbringing prevented them from mingling with people from different social backgrounds. Whatever the reason might be, women, who had fewer opportunities to socialize with others, were more likely to suffer from a sense of isolation and displacement than men, which ironically made them aware of the importance of racial solidarity and promoted its formation. Nardal was one of the first to advocate racial consciousness among the Antillean Francophone students, both men and women, including Aime Cesaire, Leon Damas, and Leopold Sedar Senghor, who would later represent Negritude.
Sharpley-Whiting further highlights the marginalization of women in Negritude with her discussion on Suzanne Cesaire. Studying philosophy in Paris in 1930s, Cesaire became interested in issues of colonialism, assimilation, and black consciousness and was acquainted with people at the Clamart Salon. In 1937, she married Aime Cesaire, the leading poet of Negritude, and returned to Martinique in 1939. With her husband and Rene Menil, she founded the cultural review Tropiques (1941-1945), a pan-black, Negritude journal of international surrealism, to create the original Martinican literature free from French influences. Surrealism or sur-realite ('superior reality') became a powerful means of revealing the unconscious, as practiced in Freudian psychoanalysis, of the colonized, who had suppressed their identification with Africa to assimilate into Frenchness. Suzanne Cesaire asserted "that surrealism was in the service of liberty at the time." Despite her vital dedication to Negritude and her contribution to the journal, the article "Le Grand camouflage" ('The Great Camouflage'), which appeared in Tropiques in 1945, became her last piece. The article "The Great Camouflage," which Sharpley-Whiting translates as "The Great Smoke Screen," delineates the originality, diversity, and plurality of Martinican culture as well as the race and class problems of the former colony, which might have been masked by the great smoke screen. In her "Introduction," Sharpley-Whiting remarks: "Suzanne Roussy-Cesaire's intellectual legacy has suffered the fate of many talented women married to prominent men--marginalization." Likewise, the great smoke screen might have continued to obscure the courageous, talented female intellectual in the male-dominant Negritude movement were it not for Sharpley-Whiting's efforts in this book.
The volume concludes with selected translations of the writings by the Nardal sisters and Suzanne Cesaire, which Sharpley-Whiting refers to throughout Negritude Women. As there is very little literature by these women available, especially in English, the appendix provides readers with a valuable source to understand in depth the provocative and revolutionary ideas proposed by Negritude women.
Negritude Women takes a systematic approach to elucidating the achievements of Martinican female intellectuals, who, behind the scenes, forged the first black cultural, intellectual movement, anteceding men. Sharpley-Whiting's careful reexamination of Negritude certainly revises the history of Francophone Caribbean literature.
Hiroshima Jogakuin University (Japan)
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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