Jan 1, 1999 | Article, Shireen Lewis

What about the women of Négritude? The Négritude movement has traditionally been characterized and historicized as a literary and cultural movement by black men against the imperialist, masculinist power of the West.

There are very few studies that fully explore the role black women played in the birth and development of the movement.

In reflecting on the movement in 1963, Paulette Nardal, a black Martinican woman intellectuall who lived and wrote in Paris during the inter-war period, “complained bitterly that a complete ‘silence was maintained for a long period’ about her activities in the 1930s.”

She explained that her sister, Jane Nardal, was the first “promoter of this movement of ideas, so broadly exploited later.”

She pointed out that Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire “took up the ideas tossed out by us and expressed them with more flash and brio.”

She summed up the situation with the words “we were but women, real pioneers—let’s say we blazed the trail for them [Senghor and Césaire].”2

Nardal’s retrospective remarks are important on two levels: first, they demonstrate her gender consciousness and her recognition of the role gender played in the marginalization of black women’s intellectual work; and second, they highlight her positioning of women at the forefront of the movement for racial consciousness taking place within the black intellectual community in Paris during this period.

However, Nardal’s gender and racial consciousness were already quite evident at the time she
was actively writing in Paris in the 1930s.

In a pioneering 1932 article in La Revue du monde noir [The Review of the Black World], Nardal had already recognized the unequal treatment of women within the black intellectual community and the pivotal role black women played in the movement for black consciousness. There, Nardal wrote:

However, parallel to the isolated efforts cited above, there was a group of Caribbean women students in Paris whose aspirations began to crystallize around La Revue du monde noir. Women of color living alone in the metropolis, less recognized than their male counterparts before the Colonial Exhibition, felt long before they did the need for racial solidarity which was not only material: this is how [these women’s] race consciousness was awakened.3

In this article Nardal further buttresses her position by pointing to the large number of scholarly works that these black women in Paris had already written on black people. She highlights the originality of their vision by explaining that at the time these women did their scholarship, race conscious literature by black American writers was not yet known in France.

Nardal not only points to black women’s second-class status vis-à -vis their black male colleagues, she also includes the loneliness they faced as part of a very small community of single black women living in Paris.

What is somewhat surprising is Nardal’s failure to seize the moment to criticize the political consequences of French colonial rule since she invokes colonialism in her above reference to the Colonial Exhibition. We will continue to explore her political position later in this article.

Here Nardal credits the Colonial Exhibition with having boosted black women’s intellectual standing and consequently depicts it in a favorable light. It is therefore interesting to briefly look at what the Colonial Exhibition was about and the manner in which it was viewed by anticolonial groups at this historical moment.

The Colonial Exhibition was a grand affair organized by the French government in 1931 and held at the Bois de Vincennes. The Exhibition was meant to mark the pinnacle of French colonization and to demonstrate to French citizens the economic success and the international aspects of colonial rule.

The Exhibition was denounced by anti-colonial groups in France, including Surrealists an Communists, who characterized it as an obscene display of European imperialism and colonialism.

In fact, these groups formed an alliance and mounted a counter exposition entitled “La verité sur les colonies” [The Truth About The Colonies] where they highlighted some of the atrocities taking place in the colonies including the plight of sugar cane workers in Guadeloupe.4

Within this particular historical context and in light of the purpose of the Exhibition, Nardal’s favorable depiction is indeed problematic. As we will discuss later in this article, Nardal’s lack of a critique of colonialism demonstrated her failure to make a link between the black colonized lack of knowledge about, and appreciation of, black culture—which she attempted to rectify in her work—and their political status as French colonial subjects.

But who was Paulette Nardal and how was she important to Négritude? Even though Négritude founders have since described Nardal as their “initiatrice” and have acknowledged that Nardal’s review, La Revue du monde noir, influenced their movement,5 there is still no comprehensive study on Nardal’s life and work.

In this essay, I will take a close look at Nardal’s gender and racial consciousness by analyzing her work. My intent here is to reinsert Paulette Nardal into the history of Négritude since she has not been fully recognized for her contribution to the birth of the movement and to modern Francophone literature in general.

Paulette Nardal was fluent in English and had a “licence à¨s lettres anglaises” from the Sorbonne—the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in English in America. Nardal and her family belonged to the Martinican black bourgeoisie and were known for their strong Catholic beliefs.

The Nardal family was remarkable for several reasons. The family consisted of seven girls. At least five of the girls, including Jane and Andrée, received degrees from the Sorbonne in Paris during the inter-war period.

Paulette and Jane were two of the first black Francophone women to receive degrees from the Sorbonne. Nardal’s mother, Louise Achille, belonged to the famous Achille family from Martinique.

She was a piano teacher at a colonial school in Martinique and had studied piano with a local teacher and with a great pianist from abroad who had visited the island.

Their father, Paul Nardal, was the first black Martinican to win a scholarship to study in France. He was a construction engineer and manager of the Department of Highways and Bridges under the colonial government in Martinique (Robeson 9).

Paulette Nardal enjoyed a full intellectual life while she was in Paris in the 1920s and 30s. Before founding La
Revue du monde noir, she wrote for many Parisian newspapers and magazines including Le Soir and La Dépàªche Africaine.6

Her writing included different genres such as creative writing, critical essays and journalistic pieces.
Some of her work included a series of articles on the Caribbean girl (with a sociological perspective), on Negro art (she did an article on the black American sculptress, Augusta Savage, who had a studio in Paris) and on colonial questions.

She also wrote many short stories and authored a tourist guide entitled Guide des Colonies
Franà§aises [Guide to the French Colonies], which had been commissioned by the Martinican and Guadeloupean governments to help develop the tourist industry. Nardal’s gender consciousness is quite evident since she puts black women at the front and center of her writing.

In 1929 and 1930 respectively, Nardal published two articles dealing with black women in La Dépàªche Africaine: a short story about a Caribbean woman entitled “En Exil” [In Exile]7 and a journalistic piece featuring Augusta Savage, entitled “Une Femme sculpteur noire” [A Black Woman Sculptor].8

Nardal’s 1929 short work of fiction, “En Exil,” is remarkable for its sensitive portrayal of a black woman and its contribution to modernism with its themes of exile, alienation, despair and loneliness. Nardal’s piece is perhaps one of the few sensitive portrayals of a black woman in literature written in French at this time.

Her protagonist, Elisa, is an elderly black Caribbean woman who lives and works in Paris. She is a woman of little means who works as a domestic, suffers from rheumatism and pinches her pennies. Elisa feels uprooted and displaced in Paris and longs for a return to her native Martinique:

This life which leaves no place for enjoying leisure time, for joyous and enlivening conversations with one’s neighbors and other friends, seemed too painful for her. She intended to return to her native country as soon as possible. (6)

Nardal draws a sharp contrast between life in the Parisian metropolis and life in the small village of Sainte Marie, Martinique, where Elisa was born and raised.

Paris is portrayed as a hostile and threatening city. It is a place where winter is “a cruel and implacable enemy” (6). Parisians are depicted as unfriendly and uncaring since they have “. . . twisted faces, hard eyes, the closed and indifferent physiognomy characteristic of white people” (6).

It is a place where winter is “a cruel and implacable enemy” (6). Parisians are depicted as unfriendly and uncaring since they have “. . . twisted faces, hard eyes, the closed and indifferent physiognomy characteristic of white people” (6).

Elisa feels lost, displaced and lonely in Paris and lives there in despair. In contrast, her memories of her native Martinican village are of warmth and happiness emanating from a close-knit community of black people. Elisa’s reverie is enveloped in an idyllic seaside village scene where she and her friends enjoy each other’s company:

“she is seated on a worm-eaten bench, in front of the door of her low-level house, attracted by the gossip of her
friends, who, like her, were enjoying the air coming in from the sea. Small talk. Loud laughter… They allowed
themselves to be carried away by the languorous air” (6).

Here, home (Martinique) is portrayed as a place of camaraderie and of care-free living.

It is important to note that Nardal’s consciousness of her race and of her African heritage is quite evident in this 1929 short story. Elisa’s sense of home is deeply rooted in the life of her village, which Nardal sees as rooted in African culture. Elisa and her friends are happy as they recount Martinican folk tales and play music.

Nardal states categorically that Martinican folklore is based on the adaptation of African tales and she describes the Martinican musical instrument, the tambour, as the Caribbean version of the African tam-tam. Elisa’s sense of self is therefore based on a communal black identity rooted in traditional Africa. Nardal’s portrayal of her protagonist’s embrace of her African heritage is quite remarkable.

During the interwar years, most black Francophone people from the Caribbean were ashamed of their blackness and of their African heritage. Nardal moves from fiction writing to journalism in her second article on a black woman.

This piece, published in 1930, is a portrait of Augusta Savage’s life and work. Nardal overflows with enthusiasm and admiration for Savage and she describes the sculptress as “a self-made woman (sic)” (5). Augusta Savage was a black American artist of the Harlem Renaissance whose extraordinary talent made her a significant artist of the early twentieth century.

Savage has been described as “[b]rilliant, friendly, fierce and difficult at times”9 and was also perhaps one of the first black artists to be identified as a black nationalist. Savage had received wide acclaim in
America starting in the early 1920s and was among the few recognized black women sculptresses of her time.

Nardal met the artist while Savage was studying and working in Paris during the inter-war period. Nardal’s article on Savage’s work is accompanied by pictures of three of Savage’s more famous sculptures: “Le Gamin” [Gamin], “Divinité nà¨gre” [Negro Divinity] and “Tàªte de jeune fille” [Bust of a Young Girl].

Nardal’s article is an introduction to Savage’s life and work and is perhaps one of the few published in the Parisian press. The article is based on an interview Narda conducted with Savage in the sculptress’ studio in Paris and on articles Nardal had read over the years.

Nardal traces Savage’s talent for the sculpture to the pieces she did as a child growing up in West Palm Beach, Florida.

She also reveals a significant aspect of Savage’s life, more specifically her dedication to nurturing young black artists at a studio she established in New York for this very purpose. Nardal also summarizes the difficulty and adversity Savage faced as a black woman artist in America during the 1920s and 30s.

In outlining Savage’s struggles with racial discrimination in America, Nardal mentions the much publicized rejection of Savage for a prized scholarship because she was black. The scholarship committee was made up of an eminent group of white American artists and architects.

In reviewing Savage’s sculptures, Nardal describes Savage as a modern artist who rejects “the classical discipline” (5) in order to produce original art. For Nardal, Savage’s work is primarily racial and this accounts for it being a part of “the modern genre characteristic of Negro art” (5).

Nardal sees Savage’s “Divinité nà¨gre” as “born from an imagination nurtured by African legends and folk tales” (5). It is clear that Nardal saw Savage as the model black artist who possessed a deep black consciousness and who reveled in her African heritage.

It was Paulette Nardal’s early racial consciousness that awakened Négritude founders—Léon Damas, Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire—to the issue of black consciousness and black solidarity. Through both her literary salon and her writings, Nardal introduced the Négritude founders to black Americans of the Harlem Renaissance whose work played a crucial role in the birth of the literary movement.

Nardal and her sisters had a literary salon in Paris where they entertained prominent Harlem Renaissance figures such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Alain Locke. Claude McKay, who may have begun
frequenting the Nardals’ as early as 1923,10 played a significant role in introducing other prominent Harlem Renaissance artists to the Nardal sisters.

Alain Locke became an annual guest of the Nardals after McKay introduced him to them in the 1920s. Senghor later explained that he and the other founders of Négritude met black American, including Alain Locke and Mercer Cooke at the Nardals’ in the 1920s and 30s.11

Moreover, Nardal introduced Damas, Césaire and Senghor to the works of Harlem Renaissance writers
through the translations in her review. Senghor explained that it was Césaire who first read the review and then showed him the poems by black Americans.

Léon Damas used to distribute Nardal’s review throughout Paris and would have published an article there if the review had not abruptly ceased publication. In fact, Nardal was not only responsible for introducing the Négritude founders to black American writers, but as she explained earlier, her review introduced many of the ideas that Négritude founders would explore and expand as significant aspects of
their movement.

Nardal solicited articles, edited and wrote for the review, which was financially supported by Dr. Sajous, an
intellectual from Haiti. Nardal and a black American professor, Clara Shepherd, translated material into English or French where appropriate to produce a bilingual review.12

Nardal’s sisters, Jane and Andrée, also collaborated on the review. Nardal and her group published six issues of La Revue du monde noir from 1931 to 1932. The review ceased publication in April 1932, and was followed by the publication of Légitime Défense [Legitimate Defense] in June of that same year.

Légitime Défense is important because it has been canonized as playing a historic role in the birth of modern Francophone literature originating with Négritude.13

This one issue review was an inflammatory text co-authored by black Caribbean Surrealists and Communists such as Etienne Léro and René Ménil. The authors took a radical, oppositional stance in condemning French colonialism and the Francophone Caribbean bourgeoisie of color.

They saw their publication as a rejection of La Revue du monde noir’s apolitical stance and its failure to condemn French colonialism and imperialism. Interestingly enough, both Léro and Ménil had published in Nardal’s review. Moreover, key ideas expressed about black literature in Légitime Défense were borrowed from Nardal’s review.

In what was to become the last issue of her review, Nardal published an essay entitled “Eveil de la conscience de race” [The Awakening of Race Consciousness].14 In this article Nardal traces and analyzes the evolution of race consciousness among black Caribbean intellectuals and makes a comparison with that of black American intellectuals.

Nardal’s article is important because fundamental ideas she expressed here about black literature were later borrowed by both the group of Légitime Défense and by the Négritude founders. Nardal opens her essay by announcing that there had recently been a shift in the racial consciousness of some Caribbean blacks in Paris.

Previously, the subject of slavery and pride in being of African descent were taboo for Martinicans. However, some blacks became conscious of their race because of their experiences of uprootedness and estrangement in the Parisian metropolis (25). Nardal compares the general attitude of blacks from the Caribbean and those from America toward race.

For Nardal, it is white racism in America that “pushed [black Americans] to seek historical, cultural, and social pride in their African past” (26). She then displays her vast knowledge of both black American and Caribbean literature by tracing the literatures from their inception to the present to show at what point racial themes began to appear.

Nardal raises the issue of Francophone Caribbean writers’ mimicry of French writers and their disregard of
their black identity and the black condition—two main ideas more fully and more dramatically outlined later by the authors of Légitime Défense.

Nardal points to a new group of black intellectuals who recently emerged to change the landscape. She includes Marcus Garvey and René Maran as examples. However, as we saw earlier, she designates the place of true pioneer, true trail blazer to the black women scholars from the Caribbean who worked on her review.

Nardal proudly points out that these women were challenging established norms in the French educational system by devoting numerous scholarly works to the study of their race, including works by French Caribbean writers and black American poets (30–31).

Nardal ends her essay by making a special appeal to students pursuing doctoral degrees. She hopes that these students would allow her to analyze their work in her review. Also, Nardal states that she intends to publish a series of poems with racial themes.

None of these plans materialized however because the review prematurely ceased publication due to a lack of funds. It was not only Nardal’s ideas that influenced Négritude founders but also the ideas of others whose work she solicited for her review. Some of Senghor’s theories on Négritude were influenced by ideas expressed in Nardal’s review.

Senghor’s concept of black humanism was borrowed from the review. In its editorial, La Revue du monde noir advocated that the black race contributes to the improvement of humanity. Further, one of the issues of the review announced a forthcoming article by Jane Nardal entitled “Pour un humanisme noir” [Advocating a Black Humanism].

One of Senghor’s 1935 articles in L’Etudiant noir was entitled “L’Humanisme et nous: René Maran” [Humanism and Us: René Maran], where Senghor advocated a black humanism.15 Also, Senghor later theorized Négritude as a twentieth century humanism in an article entitled “La Négritude est un humanisme du XXe sià¨cle” [Négritude is a Twentieth-Century Humanism].

Even more compelling is Louis Th. Achille’s article in the second issue of the review entitled “L’art et les noirs” [Art and Blacks] where Achille lays out what he calls the “psycho-physiologie” of the black race and its relationship to black aesthetics.

Following Achille, Senghor would later examine the “psycho-physiologie” of the black race in his essays theorizing Négritude as defining black aesthetics. However, in spite of Nardal’s progressive views on blackness and her active role in promoting a strong black identity within a Panafrican framework, it is indeed troubling that neither she, nor the women who surrounded her, criticized French colonialism or cultural assimilation during this early part of the century when European imperialism and colonialism had reached its zenith.

What are we to make of what appears to be Nardal’s endorsement of the Colonial Exhibition, which anticolonial groups fervently denounced as the glorification of the oppression of colonized people?

Nardal and her group evidently did not see their goal—outlined in the preface of the first issue of their review as: “to study and popularize . . . NEGRO CIVILIZATION . . .” and to have black people “. . . defend more effectively their collective interests . . .”—as fundamentally connected to the advocacy of cultural and political disassociation from France, in order to bring an end to French rule in the Francophone colonies.16

For Nardal, it was a question of adopting both French and Caribbean cultures and she expressed this view explicitly in her article. Although she did not explain, she stated that she and the women on her review had passed through a period of revolt and had come out more mature.

They believed that everything was relative and were not declaring war against “Latin culture,” nor on the white world in general, but believed in adopting a “middle ground” position. Their “middle ground” position vis-à -vis French culture, taken together with their failure to articulate a politics of resistance against colonialism, infuriated Etienne Léro, who dismissed their review as “rose water.”17

As we saw earlier, Léro and the other co-authors of Légitime Défense, like Nardal, were from the Francophone Caribbean and belonged to the black bourgeoisie. Unlike Nardal and her group, however, Lero and the others had a definitive political agenda and publicly declared themselves anti-colonial and anti-imperialist.

Was La Revue du monde noir’s apolitical stance simply a ploy to keep politics out of the review so that they would not be considered a threat by the colonial authorities? This seems plausible on the surface since the group was under surveillance by the Parisian police who were reporting their activities to the colonial administration.

The police summarized the review’s editorial for its archives and speculated about possible links to Communists and other black activists, including followers of Marcus Garvey in America.18 This assumption would be acceptable if it were not for Nardal’s confirmation in the 1960s.

Nardal indicated that she and her group were not interested in politics. They were exclusively concerned with “bringing back the Negro into the human community” and “getting him to rid himself of his complexes.”19

Evidently, Nardal and her group did not see that the Negro’s position outside the human community and the attendant complexes were both a direct result of France’s cultural and political domination in the Caribbean.

Works Cited

Arnold, A. James. Modernism and Négritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.

Bearden, Romare and Harry Henderson. A History of African- American Artists. From 1792 to the Present. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.

Biondi, Jean-Pierre. Les Anticolonialistes, 1881–1962. Paris: Robert Laffont, 1992.

Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Schocken Books, 1987.

Fabre, Michel. From Harlem to Paris: Black America Writers in France, 1840–1980 . Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1991.

–––. “Du Movement nouveau noir à  la négritude césairienne” in Soleil éclaté. ed., Jacqueline Leiner. Tubingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1986.

Hymans, J. L. Léopold Sédar Senghor: An Intellectual Biography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1971.

Kesteloot, Lilyan. Les Ecrivains noirs de langue tranà§aise: nuissance d’uve littérature. 1963; Brussels: Editions de l’Universà­té de Bruxelles, 1983.

L’Etudiant noir. Journal de l’Association des Etudiants Martiniquais en France 1 (March, 1935).

Nardal, Paulette. La Revue du monde noir. 1931, Reprint. Nendeln: Kraus, 1971.

–––. “Une Femme sculpteur noire,” La Dépàªche Africaine 27–28 (Aug.–Sept. 1930)

–––. “En Exil,” La Dépàªche Africaine 19 (15 Dec. 1929). Paynter, John H. Fifty Years After . New York: Margent, 1940.

Robeson, Eslanda Goode. “Black Paris.” Challenge. Ed. Dorothy West. 1.4 (January 1936).

Vaillant, Janet G. Black, French and African: A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990.


1I want to insist that Paulette Nardal and her sisters were black and not mulatto as is stated in A. James Arnold’s Modernism and Négritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981) and Michel Fabre’s From Harlem to Paris: Black America Writers in France, 1840–1980 (Chicago:
U of Illinois P, 1991). Both scholars erroneously state that Nardal and her family belonged to the Martinican mulatto class.

In fact, they belonged to the Martinican black bourgeoisie. Nardal is described as having a “richly dark complexion” by John H. Paynter, an American intellectual who met Nardal in 1936 while
staying at her cousins, the Achilles, in Paris. See John H. Paynter, Fifty Years After (New York: Margent Press, 1940) 66. Also, in a biographical sketch of Nardal appearing in the 1936 issue of
the Harlem Renaissance magazine, Challenge, Nardal is described as having “clear dark-brown skin” with “bronze lights in it.”

Nardal and her sisters are also described as Negroes. Moreover, Nardal’s father is described as a Negro who did not advance in his job with the white colonial government in Martinique because he was Negro and not mulatto. See Eslanda Goode Robeson, “Black Paris,” Challenge, ed. Dorothy West. 1.4 (January 1936) 9. The editor of Challenge, Dorothy West, was part of the literary circle of the Harlem Renaissance.

2J. L. Hymans, Léopold Sédar Senghor: An Intellectual Biography (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1971) 36. All of the quotes here are from Hyman’s text. Hymans is quoting Nardal from a letter she wrote to him dated November 17, 1963. Nardal’s sister, Jane, sometimes wrote under the pseudonym “Yadhé.

3Paulette Nardal, “Eveil de la conscience de race” in La Revuedu monde noir (1931. Nendeln: Kraus. 1971)29.

4Jean-Pierre Biondi, Les Anticolonialistes, 1881–1962 (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1992) 168–170.

5Michel Fabre, “Du Movement nouveau noir à  la négritude césairienne” Soleil éclaté. ed. Jacqueline Leiner. (Tubingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1986) 149. Fabre is quoting Césaire in a speech he gave in Fort-de-France in 1979. Here Césaire paysspecial homage to Nardal. He had previously spoken unfavorably of Nardal’s review.

6Robeson 11. La Dépàªche Africaine was a Parisian newspaper published in the 1920s by Guadeloupean Maurice Satineau. It covered issues of the day dealing with black people in Africa, America and the Caribbean. It also had a very progressive view of African women.

7Paulette Nardal, “En Exil,” La Dépàªche Africaine, No.19 (15 Dec, 1929) 6. All other page numbers will be included in the text.

8Paulette Nardal, “Une Femme sculpteur noire,” La Dépàªche Africaine No. 27–28 (Aug-Sep, 1930) 5. All other page numbers will be included in the text.

9Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, A History of AfricanAmerican Artists. From 1792 to the Present (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993) 168.

10Wayne F. Cooper, Claude McKay: Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Schocken Books, 1987) 215.

11Mercer Cooke was studying in Paris and would later become a professor at Howard University in Washington, DC where he would work diligently to promote the works of Négritude writers.

12Michel Fabre, From Harlem to Paris: Black America Writers in France, 1840–1980 (Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1991) 152.

13See Lilyan Kesteloot, Les Ecrivains noirs de langue franà§aise: naissance d’une littérature (1963; Brussels: Editions de l’Université de Bruxelles, 1983) 23–87. Kesteloot is a pioneer in the field of black Francophone literature since she did the first comprehensive study of Négritude.

14Paulette Nardal, “Eveil de la conscience de race,” La Revue du monde noir, 25–31. All other page numbers will be included in the text unless indicated otherwise.

15L’Etudiant noir. Journal de l’Association des Etudiants Martiniquais en France No. 1 (March, 1935). This was the first journal published by the founders of Négritude.

16(Emphasis in original). Both quotes are taken from the preface of the first edition of La Revue du monde noir where Nardal and her group outline their goals under the title “Ce que nous voulons faire” [Our Aim].

17J. L. Hymans, Léopold Sédar Senghor: An Intellectual Biography 42.

18Janet G. Vaillant. Black, French and African: A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990) 95.

19Hymans 42.

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