As we witness ongoing protests by Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists, it’s worth exploring the roots of the movement in an earlier generation of Black intellectuals who sought to reclaim their cultural heritage and dignity in the face of colonial oppression. In a 2018 talk at the UCLA African Studies Center, Professor of Comparative Literature Frieda Ekotta drew a connection between the BLM movement and Négritude, arguing that both movements challenge(d) dominant systems of oppression for people of color, particularly Black people. As Ekotta explains:
Black Lives Matter reflects on history and demands that Black people be treated as human beings. This call for respect of the dignity of Black individuals, founded on historical analysis, echoes the negritude literary movement, which was hugely influential on Black culture, identity and empowerment.
Evolving out of the Black diaspora in the 1930s and led by Black Francophone writers such as French Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire, Senegalese poet and politician Léopold Sédar Senghor, and French Guianan poet Léon Damas, the Négritude movement condemned colonialism and racism while challenging narratives that historically relegated Black people to the margins and portrayed them as inferior or primitive.
Scholar of French and Black World Studies Babacar Camara points out that Négritude emerged as both a cultural and political movement in response to racism and oppression faced by Black people. He, too, argues that it remains relevant today as a means of cultural affirmation and survival, criticizing contemporary approaches to Négritude and Black Studies that fail to consider the specific historical and social conditions that gave rise to the movement. Camara’s view of Négritude supports Ekotta’s argument, positioning a knowledge of Négritude—and its ability to strengthen African and Black identity by promoting solidarity in the fight against oppression—as essential for understanding the injustices that Black communities have and continue to endure in society. Writes Camara:
Despite various assaults against Négritude, I show that it did not disappear altogether, and rather, it is still influencing any claim of Africanity (African identity and belonging). […] In terms of practical necessity, Négritude is a factor of unity in the long and fragmented struggle of Blacks against oppression.
Although marginalized in academic conversations and facing criticism, Négritude remains relevant to understanding Black and African identity. Camara suggests that African writers and artists resist the commodification, reification (objectification), and recuperation (the act of co-opting a subversive movement into a mainstream form) of Blackness by embracing African traditional values. By doing so, they are reviving Négritude as a means of cultural affirmation and survival.
Négritude and the Black Lives Matter movement share a common goal of challenging oppressive systems that affect Black communities by promoting solidarity and strengthening African and Black identity. As such, Négritude remains relevant in contemporary discussions surrounding systemic oppression. A recognition of Négritude also promotes a better understanding of artists and writers involved with the BLM movement and their efforts to challenge systemic racism and oppression of Black people in the United States and around the world.