Black lives in Europe
Writers and poets
Resistance and pride in literature and poetry
Resistance and pride in literature and poetry
Black people have been considered to be inferior for many centuries beginning with the advent of racialised, chattel slavery to contemporary discussions around immigration. These perceptions have been amplified by racist theories such as eugenics, which were considered scientific at the time. During colonisation, Black people were made to assimilate and accept European cultural norms, and yet had to live with the constant reminders of how Europeans regarded their racial, cultural and artistic identity.
Notable Black figures during this period fought against these stereotypes, breaking barriers in writing and poetry and proving they were not there solely to entertain their white counterparts, but had their own culture and values. The literature and poetry of these artists revolutionized Black pride across the African diaspora, and continue to inspire generations of Black writers and poets today.
Alexandre Dumas was a prolific author and is still one of the most read French writers around the world.
He was born in Saint-Domingue on 24 July 1802, the son of Marie-Louise Labouret and general Thomas Alexandre Davy de La Pailleterie. His writings span many literary genres; he started his career by writing theatre plays and articles for various magazines. Later he switched to historical novels (initially published as serials), including The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Dumas’ work has been translated into over 100 languages and has inspired more than 200 films.
Despite his success as a writer, Dumas faced discrimination and racism due to his African ancestry throughout his life. When in a salon, a man insulted him about his mixed-heritage, he gave this famous riposte:
My father was a mulatto; my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends.
The short novel Georges is one of the rare works by Dumas which addresses questions of enslavement, racism, abolitionism and colonisation as central themes. In the book - set in Mauritius - Georges, the son of a planter of mixed Black and white heritage, seeks retribution for his brave but mocked father. When writing the story, the author found inspiration in the life of his father. Many of the ideas from Georges reappear in the famous Count of Monte Cristo.
Anton de Kom was a Surinamese anti-colonial writer, activist and resistance hero.
De Kom's father was born into enslavement on the Molhoop plantation in Suriname, a Dutch colony, just before the abolishment of slavery in 1863. Anton was born in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, on 22 February 1898. He completed his primary and secondary education and obtained a diploma in accounting.
In 1920 De Kom moved to Haiti and, one year later in 1921, to the Netherlands, where De Kom worked in several left-wing organisations such as Links Richten, a socialist-communist writers' collective and magazine. In 1933, he arrived back in Suriname, where the colonial authorities followed his every move. He was arrested without a trial due to his political activities, and sent as an exile back to the Netherlands.
Unemployed, he decided to concentrate fully on his book Wij slaven van Suriname (We Slaves of Suriname), which was published in a censored version in 1934. The book describes the creation, the history and life in the Dutch colony in Suriname. It is an account of the racism, exploitation and oppression faced by Black people in Suriname, both before and after the abolishment of enslavement. The book has been translated to English, German and Spanish and is still widely read. It finishes with the words:
Sranang my fatherland. Once I hope to see you again. On the day when all misery shall be erased from you.
Anton De Kom, Wij slaven van Suriname
De Kom didn't see Suriname again. After Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, De Kom entered the Dutch resistance. On August 7, 1944 he was arrested and imprisoned, then transferred to concentration camps. He was first held in Vught in the Netherlands, then sent to Germany where he was held in Sachsenhausen and ultimately Neuengamme where he died from tuberculosis on April 24, 1944. He was buried in a mass grave. In 1960 his remains were found and reburied in a cemetery in Loenen created for resistance fighters, political prisoners and soldiers who had died during World War II and who had originally been buried outside of the Netherlands.
Frantz Fanon was a French-Martinican psychiatrist, writer, Pan-African philosopher, freedom fighter and revolutionary.
He was born on 20 July 1925 in Fort-de-France, Martinique. He grew up in a middle-class family and went to the Lycée Schoelcher, where Aimé Césaire was one of his teachers. During World War II, he served in the Free French army and then studied medicine and psychiatry in France. He worked from 1952 to 1956 as a psychiatrist in Algeria, where he also dealt with the Algerian struggle for independence as editor of the Front de Liberation Nationale magazine.
Fanon was an influential thinker and writer. His first book Peau noire, masques blancs (Black skin, white Masks, 1952) deals with the psychological consequences of colonisation and oppression.
I, the man of colour, want only this: That the tool never possesses the man. That the enslavement of man by man cease forever. That is, of one by another. That it be possible for me to discover and to love man, wherever he may be.
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
His best-known work is his second book, Les Damnés de la Terre (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961). This book brought him worldwide fame as a source of inspiration for freedom fighters in colonised countries.
To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take the responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
In his works, Fanon’s wife, Josie to whom he dictated his texts, wrote down, adapted and in a number of cases, supplemented his texts.
Fanon died at the age of 36 from leukaemia, but his work left a great impact on political and anti-colonial movements around the world.
Poets, authors and political leaders Léopold Sédar Senghor (Senegal, 1906-2001), Aimé Césaire (Martinique, 1913-2008) and Leon-Gontran Damas (French Guiana, 1912-1978) met while studying in Paris in 1931 and together created poetry that would define the Negritude movement.
Negritude was an intellectual movement that reclaimed the derogatory French term and used it as a form of empowerment. The movement emphasised that Black people had a history and culture that was equal to others. It denounced colonialism, Western ideas and dominance.
Aimé Césaire first used the term in his book-length poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to My Native Land).
my negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against the clamour of the day
my negritude is not an opaque spot of dead water over the dead eye of the earth
my negritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral
it reaches deep down into the red flesh of the soil
it reaches deep down into the blazing flesh of the sky
It pierces opaque prostration with its straight patience.
Considered his masterpiece, this book-length poem is an expression of Césaire's thoughts on self and cultural identity in a colonial setting. It was first rejected by a French publisher but then published in 1939. In 1947 an expanded version with an introductory essay by French writer and poet André Breton was published. In this, André Breton called the poem ‘nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of our times’.
Along with the literary works from African American poets and writers such as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin, Césaire’s Cahier was a landmark in Caribbean literature. It was a new European literary style, which allowed Caribbean writers to discard Western interpretations in favour of their own reality, alongside the writing movements of the Harlem Renaissance.
The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual and cultural movement of African American creative arts and politics, which was centred around the district of Harlem in New York during the 1920s and 1930s.
While Cahier is considered an essential piece for the Negritude movement, Leon-Gontran Damas’s Pigments (1937) is sometimes considered the ‘manifesto of the movement’ and was the first text to be published. In the poetry collection, Damas argues against slavery and colonial assimilation of European culture. He also identified the traits of internalised racism and repression of self that are ingrained into the African diaspora. Damas introduced this concept 20 years before it was explored by Franz Fanon who called it ‘the colonized personality’ in his work The Wretched of the Earth.
Pigments was published into several African languages, translated and distributed across several continents. Its impact was felt; the Baoulé people of Ivory Coast, provoked by the text, refused to serve in the French army against Germany in 1939. Pigments was seen as a threat to French state security and was banned by the French government.
For Léopold Sédar Senghor, his use of the Negritude movement was to develop a global sense of value and dignity for African people and the African diaspora, in order to advocate for the celebration of African culture, traditions and ideas,
I remember the pagan voices punctuating the Tantum Ergo And processions and palms and the triumphal arches. I remember the dance of the nubile girls The wrestling choirs - oh! young men's final dance, bust Leaning slender, and the pure cry of love of women - Kor Siga! I remember, I remember ... My rhythmic head What a weary march along the days of Europe where sometimes An orphan jazz appears who sobs, sobs, sobs.
Extract from Shadow songs (1945)
Negritude drew influence from many sources. Césaire spoke of Haiti being ‘where negritude stood up for the first time’, a country that has been the pride of Black intellectuals throughout history due to the Revolution (1791 – 1804) led by Toussaint L’Ouverture which led to the emancipation of the enslaved Africans and the establishment of a free Black state.
Senghor, Damas and Cesaire were also influenced by the Harlem Renaissance. The works of the African American writers of the Harlem movement were translated for the French intellectuals by the French-Martinican writer Paulette Nardal.
In fact, the Negritude movement would not have been possible without two essential women, Paulette Nardal and her sister Jane Nardal. Their Clamart Salon created a literary space where intellectuals of all backgrounds in Paris could come together and discuss local and international Black politics, arts and culture. Paulette Nardal’s essay Eveil de la conscience de race (The Awakening of Race Consciousness) which expresses African pride, and solidarity through the shared history of enslavement greatly influenced the leaders of the Negritude movement. Like many Black women, the Nardal sisters' contributions to society and to the Negritude movement - including their own writing - have been overlooked.