Negritude was a cultural movement initiated by the Afro- American poets living in the Caribbean Islands which aimed at the awakening of the race consciousness and the sense of identity among the black people. Paralleled by other similar movements, like the Harlem Renaissance in America, Negritude endeavored to redefine the black culture and to save it from the white domineering influence that promised to absorb it in its own structures. Also, the Negritude was an anti-racist stream which criticized the white people’s attitude towards the people of a different race.
One of the most important poets of Negritude was Aime Cesaire, an Afro-American born in Martinique at the beginning of the twentieth century. The term “Negritude” was at first used and defined by him in his Notebook of a Return to a Native Land. Cesaire criticized for example, the fixed view on blackness that the white culture promoted and encouraged the Afro- Americans to value their culture as something alive. As he emphasizes, the black culture is not a stone, that is, something rigid and dead but rather something alive, that “plunges into the red flesh of the soil” and that “riddles with holes”:
“my Negritude is not a stone / nor a deafness flung against the clamor of the day / my Negritude is not a white speck of dead water / on the dead eye of the earth /my Negritude is neither tower nor cathedral / it plunges into the red flesh of the soil /it plunges into the blazing flesh of the sky / my Negritude riddles with holes /the dense affliction of its worthy patience. “(Cesaire, 1990, 17) However, although Negritude was an intellectual movement that was centered on learning to know and understand otherness, it failed to integrate gender as well.
At the beginning, the movement was led only by male activists and writers, and consequently, the black women were represented strictly from the masculine perspective. Therefore, some of the black women started another movement within Negritude that could be called black feminism. They felt that neither Negritude nor Feminism represented in the right manner, since the black cultural movement was led by men and the white feminists that had already formed intellectual groups like that of Gertrude Stein for example, were actually ignorant of the condition of the black woman.
The Afro- American woman had a different identity than the white woman, and faced even more discrimination from society because of her race. She was twice oppressed by the others, as a woman and as a colored person at the same time, and had no discourse of her own. Many of the male poets of the Negritude spoke of the black women in their works, but when they did, they represented them merely as mothers or lovers, that is, in the same offices that the traditionalist society had always seen them. The role of the woman was strictly that of the mother or wife of man, therefore secondary, as in the white cultural discourse.
At the same time, although the white feminists represented the invisibleness of women in general, the black women with their specific background were absent from their discourse. The black poets of the Negritude movement such as Langston Hughes, Aime Cesaire or Leopold Sedar Senghor represent women as either mothers or lovers, or even mere objects for desire. For example, Langston Hughes The Negro Mother represents the black woman as a mythological mother-figure, who “carries the seed” of the race.
The woman is seen essentially as a carrier of man’ seed primarily, the origin of all things. The role that Hughes attributes to women is very important and is probably inspired by the traditional ancient matriarchic African view of the world, but the women are still not represented according to their identity. They are symbolic mother figures that suffers for her race and protects her people: “I am the dark girl who crossed the red sea / Carrying in my body the seed of the free. /I am the woman who worked in the field /Bringing the cotton and the corn to yield.
/I am the one who labored as a slave, /Beaten and mistreated for the work that I gave — /Children sold away from me, I’m husband sold, too. /No safety, no love, no respect was I due[…]” (Hughes, 1989, 77) The woman described by Hughes feels happy and fulfilled not because of what she is, but, in the traditional way, because of her sufferance and sacrifice and because of the children she bore: “Now, through my children, young and free, /I realized the blessing deed to me. /I couldn’t read then. I couldn’t write. /I had nothing, back there in the night.
/Sometimes, the valley was filled with tears, /But I kept trudging on through the lonely years. /Sometimes, the road was hot with the sun, /But I had to keep on till my work was done[…]”(Hughes, 1989, 77) Also, it is obvious that the woman has a rear role, although seemingly an important one: she is the one that encourages the race to fight for their freedom and to keep going. The black woman stands in the shadow having merely a protective motherly function: “Lift high my banner out of the dust. /Stand like free men supporting my trust. /Believe in the right, let none push you back.
/Remember the whip and the slaver’s track. […]/For I will be with you till no white brother Dares keep down the children of the Negro Mother. ” (Hughes, 1989, 77) The same thing happens in another poem by Hughes, entitled Mother to Son – the woman is the mother who encourages her son to move forward, and not be set back by any kind of obstacles: “So, boy, don’t you turn back. / Don’t you set down on the steps. /’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. / Don’t you fall now—/ For I’se still goin’, honey,/ I’se still climbin’,/ And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
”(Hughes, 1989, 100) Leopold Senghor also represents the woman as a mother, but this time in a subjective manner as he addresses the poem to his own mother. The poem is almost written in a reproachful tone that criticizes the mother for not being caring enough, “you do not hear me when I hear you”. Senghor therefore also views motherhood as the essential role of any woman, a role in which it would be inexcusable for her to fail: “Be Blessed, Mother! / I will not send the East Wind over these sacred images as over/ the sands of the road.
You do not hear me when I hear you, like an anxious mother/ who forgets to push Button A/ But I will not efface the footprints of my father or of my/ father’s fathers in this head open to all the winds and plunders of the North. / Mother, in this study lined with Latin and Greek, breathe the/ fumes of the evening victims of my heart. / May the protecting spirits save my blood from slackening like/ that of the assimilated and the civilized! ”(Senghor, 1976, 134) One of the very well known poems by Senghor called Black Woman, represents the female in the role of the lover this time.
The eroticism of the lines clearly hint at the traditional woman who is hunted and wooed by man, “moaning under the hands of the conqueror”: “Naked woman, dark woman/ Ripe fruit with firm flesh, dark raptures of black wine, / Mouth that gives music to my mouth/ Savanna of clear horizons, savanna quivering to the fervent caress/ Of the East Wind, sculptured tom-tom, stretched drumskin/ Moaning under the hands of the conqueror/ Your deep contralto voice is the spiritual song of the / Beloved. “(Senghor, 1976, 156) The black woman is seen as an exotic female lover, and the African setting suites the description:
“Woman, rest on my brow your balsam hands, your hands/ gentler than fur. / The tall palm trees swinging in the night wind/ Hardly rustle. Not even cradle songs. / The rhythmic silence rocks us. /Listen to its song, listen to the beating of our dark blood,/ listen / To the beating of the dark pulse of Africa in the mist of lost/ villages. ”(Senghor, 1976, 157) In the end, the poet jealously proclaims himself as the author of the song about the black woman. She is trapped in his discourse, as his creation, and she depends on his writing so as to be a part of the eternal world:
“Naked woman, dark woman/ Oil that no breath ruffles, calm oil on the athlete’s flanks of the Princes of Mali/ Gazelle limbed in Paradise[…] I sing your beauty that passes/ the form that I fix in the eternal, /Before jealous fate turn you to ashes to feed the roots of life. ” (Senghor, 159) Therefore, the black woman is essentially dominated by the male discourse. She is the oil on the athlete’s limbs, that is, a sexual element that is used for pleasure. In another poem by Hughes, the woman again appears as conquered and dominated by man.
He promises her to take to make her completely his and to be as a God for her: “I will take you heart. / I will take your soul out of your body/ As though I were God. / I will not be satisfied With the touch of your hand/ Nor the sweet of your lips alone. / I will take your heart for mine. / I will take your soul. / I will be God when it comes to you. ” (Hughes, 1989, 122) Aime Cesaire Prophecy is also very enlightening for the way in which women were viewed in Negritude. The poet makes a prophecy about a time when, among other things, women will “shine forth with language”, that is, will have their own discourses.
The fact that this is a prophecy is an obvious acknowledgement of the fact that women are not as yet speakers, neither for themselves nor for other matters in society: “There,/ Where adventure keeps clear its eye/ Where women are shining forth with language/ Where death is beautiful in your hand as a bird/ milky time/ Where the subterranean passage through its own/ genuflecting gathers a wealth of eyelids fiercer than caterpillars/ Where for the wonder it’s all grist and fire to the nimble mill[…]”(Cesaire, 1990, 83)
aques Lacan observed that the image of negritude itself was phallic, as it tried to reestablish the black man as a master, or a person that is no longer oppressed: “The image of negritude as phallus serves several functions for the subject. As a corrective device, it revalorizes the black man, symbolically castrated throughout the text by the forces of oppression. It is the perfect metaphor for the desired union between the subject and primal forces in nature. ”(Kalikoff, 1995, 23) Because the black women could not find themselves in these representations that Negritude offered, they tried to form their own identity.
Women such as Sharpley- Whiting, Suzanne Cesaire and the Nardal sisters formed intellectual groups that discussed black feminism. As Mori observes in her article, in Sharpley- Whiting’s works women are no longer marginalized as intellectuals: “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. ”(Mori, 2003, 658) In her book entitled Negritude Women, Sharpley- Whiting discusses the absence of the black women from the representation of the white feminist: “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. ”(Sharpley- Whiting 2002, 34)
The main point that the author tried to make in her book was that the women needed to gain an intellectual status, just like the man, and to have their own discourse: “Suzanne Roussy-Cesaire’s intellectual legacy has suffered the fate of many talented women married to prominent men—marginalization. ”(Sharpley- Whiting 2002, 12) Lurnka Funani observed also that the essence of the Afro- American feminist movement was to address the problems specific to Negritude, but to include the female perspective as well: “The question that tore the conference apart was ‘Should white women present papers about black women’s experiences?
This question was raised by an Afro-American. Before this question was addressed, the next question was asked, ‘What do American women know about the struggle in Africa? ‘ “(Coetzee, 2001, 344) Although it was acknowledged that all women were oppressed, the black women felt it necessary to speak for themselves and to choose their own identity: “[…]A central tenet of modern feminist thought has been the assertion that ‘all women are oppressed’. This assertion implies that women share a common lot, that factors like class, race, religion, sexual preference, etc. do not create a diversity of experience that determines the extent to which sexism will be an oppressive force in the lives of individual women.
Sexism as a system of domination is institutionalized but it has never determined in an absolute way the fate of all women in this society. Being oppressed means the absence of choices[…]”(Coetzee, 2001, 345) The black women appear thus as very important agents in the Negritude movement, since they included the missing part – a discourse of the black female that could be the counterpart of that of the black man.
The women appeared somewhat later in the chronologic line of the movement, which was initially coordinated by men only. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice may serve as a good commentary for the problem of feminism in Negritude. Thus, Orpheus was a the figure of the poet and the singer that enthralled everyone with his song, to the point that his listeners became almost spellbound when they heard him. When his lover Eurydice dies he goes after her in the Inferno and manages to convince the guards to set her free with his lyre.
However, he loses her again because he looks back to see if she followed him out of the underworld. The myth can be compared with the way in which women are represented by men in the Negritude discourse, as dependant on the man’s song or writing, as bound down by the spell of the male speech. As Orpheus fails to save Eurydice so man failed to represent the black woman in his Negritude discourse. Reference List: Cesaire, A. 1990. Lyric and dramatic poetry 1946-82. Charlottesville: University of Vancouver Press. Cesaire, A.
2001. Notebook of a return to the native land. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press Coetzee, J. P. 2001. The African philosophy reader. New York: Routledge. Kalikoff, Hedy. 1995 “Gender, Genre and Geography in Aime Cesaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal,” in Callaloo, Vol. 18, No. 2. pp. 492-505. Mori, A.. 2003. “Negritude Women. ” African American Review. Vol. 37 Senghor, L, S. 1976. Prose and poetry. London: Heinemann Educational. Sharpley- Whiting. 2002. Negritude women. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.