While at university, I had the opportunity to study poets of the “Négritude,” the French equivalent of the Harlem Renaissance. But it was only recently when I learned about a woman named Paulette Nardal, whose ideas were hugely influential to this particular movement. Discovering that a woman had been so important during this time was both wonderful and unsettling. Why had she never been mentioned?
Paulette Nardal was born in 1896 in the French Caribbean island of Martinique. The oldest of seven daughters, her father was the first black Martinican engineer, and her mother was a talented pianist. Nardal was educated to become a school teacher, but in 1920 she moved to Paris to study English, thus becoming the first black Martinican woman to attend the prestigious university of La Sorbonne.
While in France, Nardal lived with two of her sisters in the Parisian suburb of Clamart. Every Sunday, they would gather black intellectuals in their salon in hopes of creating bonds within the African diaspora. Among their visitors were French intellectuals such as Leopold Sedar Senghor and Aimé Césaire, but also African-American scholars. Nardal spoke English fluently and was instrumental in introducing French intellectuals to the ideas of the Harlem Renaissance.
In 1931, Paulette Nardal, her sister Andrée and many other intellectuals founded the Review of the Black World (La Revue du Monde Noir), a journal published in both French and English. In the journal, Nardal theorised the notion of “race consciousness,” and asserted the necessity for French Afro-Caribbeans to acknowledge their African heritage in order to find their own cross-cultural literary voice. The journal was short-lived due to lack of funding, and only six issues were published. But the Review of the Black World was key in defining the theoretical framework of the “Négritude.” Although Nardal’s translations of Harlem Renaissance works had a lasting influence on Césaire and Senghor, Paulette Nardal was never credited for her ideas.
In 1939, Nardal was on her way back to Martinique when her boat was sunk by a German submarine. She survived, but both her kneecaps were fractured. She spent the war in Martinique, illegally teaching English to young men willing to join the French Resistance in England. She then worked briefly as an adviser for the United Nations in New York, but her health forced her to come back to Martinique. She spent the rest of her life working for the advancement of women, creating an organization and a newspaper to support their political rights. Passionate about Martinican culture, she and her sister Alice wrote about the folk music of their native island. She died in 1985 at the age of 89.
Paulette Nardal was an intelligent, dedicated woman who contributed to shaping an important literary and political movement. Why has her story been erased? I can only answer with speculations. The Négritude movement was heavily male-centered and failed to acknowledge her reality as a black woman was very different from theirs. It is thus sadly unsurprising that they overlooked her contribution. Nardal herself was extremely lucid about it and once wrote, in manner of parody, ”We were but women! We blazed the trail for men!”
BONNI, Tanella, “Femmes en Négritude : Paulette Nardal et Suzanne Césaire”, https://www.cairn.info/revue-rue-descartes-2014-4-page-62.htm
KREOL, Maxime, “Il Etait une fois Paulette Nardal”, De La Négritude à la Féminitude, https://blogs.mediapart.fr/edition/de-la-negritude-la-feminitude/article/250316/il-etait-une-fois-paulette-nardal
Association Archives : http://www.associationarchive.com/?page=persos&ID_perso=59
Histoire par les Femmes : https://histoireparlesfemmes.com/2015/04/03/paulette-nardal/