15 November 2023


Zoom lecture

Black France 2

Black Paris: from the Harlem Renaissance to Négritude

The second lecture in our new Wednesday series

With Sylvie Koneski

International Black Writers' congress, 1956
International Black Writers' congress, 1956

Negritude is not a philosophy. / Negritude is not a metaphysics. / Negritude is not a pretentious conception of the universe. / It is a way of living a history within history.”


In the nineteenth century, the few black American intellectuals who visited Paris dreamed of meeting the writer Alexandre Dumas, the epitome of "negro merit consecrated by France". In the early 1950s, most black expatriates, came to France in search not of images or models, but rather of a refuge. All the great names of black American prose, from Langston Hughes to Chester Himes, Richard Wright, Claude McKay, William Gardner Smith and James Baldwin, spent long periods in Paris. These iconic figures with roots stretching to the Harlem Renaissance, a period of extraordinary revival of black American culture in the 1920s, escaped segregation and racism in America and blossomed in the City of Light to become trailblazers of literary and artistic expression for decades to come.


Though France may have welcomed Blacks from America, in its own colonial empire it practiced forced labor, population massacres and “exotic” human zoos even in the heart of Paris. In reaction to this colonial oppression, Francophone Caribbean and African blacks linked up with American blacks to form the Négritude movement. Paris served as “a special … cosmopolitan space for interaction, boundary crossing and collaborations.” It was within this cosmopolitan space that Pan-African connections were established between partisans of the New Negro Renaissance from the United States and anti-colonialist francophone speakers from Africa and the Caribbean.


Much of the impetus behind the Négritude movement can be found in the early publications of Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, and Leon Damas in the two journals - Étudiant noir and Présence Africaine - founded by Alioune Diop. Césaire codified the term Négritude in 1939, in his poem “Notebook of a Return to The Native Land” and then in is Discourse on Colonialism (1953), leading up to his great achievement of the first International Black writers’ conference in Paris in 1956.

James Baldwin in Paris at St Germain-des-Près in the 1950s
James Baldwin in Paris at St Germain-des-Près in the 1950s

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