Development of Negritude

Drawing influence from the Harlem Renaissance in the United States and their own experiences as men from France’s colonies in Africa, Aimé Césaire of Martinique, Léopold Senghor of Senegal, and Léon-Gontran Damas of French Guyana discussed and wrote about the concept of negritude.

Summary of Event

The negritude movement in Paris in the 1930’s had much in common with the Harlem Renaissance Harlem Renaissance in the United States. It grew out of Paris, a city that, like Harlem, had a diverse population of people of African descent, and it also evolved out of discussions and concepts that were eventually expressed in verse. Although the negritude movement drew some of its ideas from what had happened in Harlem ten to fifteen years earlier, there were clear differences between the two movements. The negritude movement brought significant change to France’s colonies of France: It produced political activists and political leaders as well as artists. Furthermore, it outlived the Harlem Renaissance, which faded into obscurity in the 1930’s. [kw]Development of Negritude (1932-1940)
[kw]Negritude, Development of (1932-1940)
Negritude movement
Literature;negritude movement
[g]Africa;1932-1940: Development of Negritude[07950]
[g]Caribbean;1932-1940: Development of Negritude[07950]
[g]France;1932-1940: Development of Negritude[07950]
[g]French Guiana;1932-1940: Development of Negritude[07950]
[g]Martinique;1932-1940: Development of Negritude[07950]
[g]Senegal;1932-1940: Development of Negritude[07950]
[c]Literature;1932-1940: Development of Negritude[07950]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;1932-1940: Development of Negritude[07950]
[c]Psychology and psychiatry;1932-1940: Development of Negritude[07950]
[c]Social issues and reform;1932-1940: Development of Negritude[07950]
Césaire, Aimé
Senghor, Léopold
Damas, Léon-Gontran
Frobenius, Leo

The negritude movement was grounded in a celebration of African heritage. It was developed by men and women of African descent who lived in white cultures that privileged European lineage and subjugated African heritage, a hierarchy that had become firmly ingrained in the English language. For example, as Malcolm X explains in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), the word “white” is associated with innocence and purity, whereas the word “black” is associated with blindness and evil. In European and American educational systems early in the twentieth century, then, Africa was portrayed as a country that lived in darkness, without civilization, while Europe was the center of civilization. European culture was hailed by many as a civilizing influence on peoples from Africa and the Caribbean.

In Paris in the 1930’s, college students Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor, and Léon-Gontran Damas all felt alienated by French society. In a famous description of his arrival in Paris, Senghor conveyed some of this feeling: “I disembarked one morning in Paris in a cold rain and October sky. And everything was gray, even the famous monuments. What a deception!” These men found that many of their colleagues shared their discontent, and they refused to be indoctrinated into the Eurocentric system. Instead, they valued, explored, and celebrated their African identities, and they were joined by others who also wanted to develop a sense of community. There were, however, a large number of people of other nationalities, and the realization of this fact helped Césaire, Senghor, and Damas develop a sense of cultural relativity.

Resistance to assimilation—an idea that would become one of negritude’s essential tenets—developed partly as a result of the negative experiences Césaire, Senghor, Damas, and others had while living in poverty in Paris. They were underprivileged and wore tattered clothes, were often hungry, and worked long hours in order to remain in Paris and get a university education. While taking courses at three institutions, Damas worked various menial jobs: He was a day laborer, a dishwasher, and a bartender; at one point he worked all night at a market in Les Halles and attended school during the day. Recounting his experiences as a student in Paris during the 1930’s, Césaire remembered, “It was a pretty unbalanced life. . . . I was sick. I suffered from headaches, stomach aches, and that’s when I lost perspective.” Césaire eventually suffered a mental breakdown that rendered him incapable of continuing his university work. Senghor, who remembered Césaire’s breakdown quite clearly, later wrote that the three were rebels whose marginalization helped them to value their heritage: “We lived our writing morally, even physically and metaphysically to the edge of dementia.”

Damas was the first of the three to publish a volume of verse. By the time he got to Paris, he spoke English and had already read and embraced many of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. His volume of poetry, Pigment (1937), Pigment (Damas) became “a manifesto of negritude”: It articulated many of the ideas that others in the group were just beginning to experience. This book continued to influence the movement for years to come. Even before Damas published Pigment, however, the negritude movement had begun to create visibility for students of African descent. In 1934, Césaire, Senghor, and Damas founded a literary journal for black students called L’Étudiant noir (the black student). Étudiant noir, L’ (journal) The journal began the exploration of African roots and colonial alienation that would form the negritude movement’s basis. L’Étudiant noir, which was published until 1940, was actually the continuation of an earlier college journal that celebrated African identity called Légitime Défense, which began in 1932 and was discontinued in 1934. L’Étudiant noir’s longer life span was probably due to the prominence its founders achieved in the literary world.


Despite their early poverty and their cultural position, in Paris Césaire, Senghor, and Damas experienced opportunities not afforded to people of African descent in other parts of the world. In France, blacks had free access to libraries, museums, and galleries. Furthermore, they had access to a university education, something few blacks in the United States were able to experience in the 1930’s. As a result, all three scholars had the opportunity to explore their cultural roots and to encounter writers such as Leo Frobenius, a German ethnologist who bucked the standard historical view that African culture was inherently uncivilized. All three negritude founders were heavily influenced by Frobenius, whose work Senghor described as “a sudden burst of thunder.”

The negritude movement catalyzed a group of intellectuals whose articulation of a universal sense of African identity united people of African heritage around the world. The movement drew on and extended many of the ideas made famous by the Harlem Renaissance, and in the process it set the stage for liberation movements in France and created ideas that would inspire the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Negritude movement
Literature;negritude movement

Further Reading

  • Bahri, Deepika. “Introduction to Postcolonial Studies.” Very good brief introduction to the issues and people in colonial France.
  • Jack, Belinda E. Negritude and Literary Criticism. New York: Greenwood Press, 1996. A study of people of African heritage writing in French from 1920 onward.
  • Kestelhoot, Lilyan. Black Writers in French: A Literary History of Negritude. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1991. A study of African American writers in French as examples of the worldwide explosion of African self-realization.
  • Wilder, Gary. The French Imperial Nation-State: Negritude and Colonial Humanism Between the Two World Wars. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. A study of the political milieu out of which the negritude movement developed.

Founding of the Niagara Movement

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Is Founded

Great Northern Migration

Universal Negro Improvement Association Establishes a U.S. Chapter

Harlem Renaissance

West African Student Union Is Founded

Nation of Islam Is Founded