Remicard Sereme | Background on the Congresses of Black Writers and Artists (1956 and 1959)

By Remicard Sereme (Sciences Po/Columbia)

The Congress of Black Writers and Artists

The Congresses of Black Writers and Artists were some of the most significant gatherings of Black intellectuals in the 20th century. The First Congress, organized by the Pan-African quarterly cultural, political, and literary review Présence Africaine, was held from September 19-22, 1956, at the Sorbonne in Paris. The Second Congress was held from March 26th to April 1st, 1959, in Rome. By way of background, and to learn more about them, the following sources may be useful:

  • Christopher Bonner, “Alioune Diop and the Cultural Politics of Negritude: Reading the First Congress of Black Writers and Artists, 1956” (Indiana University Press, 2019).
  • Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Duke 2015)
  • Niyi Osundare, “If Alioune Diop Were Alive Today: Contemporary Black Discourse and the 1956 Congress”, Présence Africaine, 2006.
  • The original contributions to the First Congress can be read here on JStor.
  • The different contributions to the Second Congress can be read in English open-access here.
  • On Aimé Césaire, Nietzsche 6/13. On Frantz Fanon, Nietzsche 8/13.

The Contributions to the Congress of Black Writers and Artists by some of our “worldly philosophers”

 The following selected texts were written by Léopold-Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and Frantz Fanon, three of the “worldly philosophers” whose ideas ignited revolutions and whom we will explore during the Revolution 13/13 public seminar. All the selected texts have a common theme: culture. More precisely, they focus on the culture of la civilisation négro-africaine (the Black-African civilisation). Each author writes about the main elements of this culture, its values, its relationship with colonisation, and more importantly, how Black writers and artists can, and have a responsibility, to revive it so as to inspire Black people to fight for their liberation and achieve true decolonisation. Each of these authors contributed to both Congresses and wrote on the subject of culture. Their texts are complementary.

Léopold Sédar Senghor

 “L’esprit de la civilisation ou les lois de la culture négro-africaine,” Présence Africaine, JUIN-NOVEMBRE 1956, Le Ier Congrès International des Ecrivais et artiste Noirs (Paris – Sorbonne – 19-22 Septembre 1956), pp. 51-65

Senghor focuses here on Black-African culture, which he describes as the spirit of the Black-African civilization. He starts by explaining who the “negro” is at the very essence of self. According to Senghor: “le Nègre est l’homme de la nature” (“the Negro is the man of nature”). He takes his sustenance from the earth and lives with the earth. He is fundamentally sensual, meaning that he lives and places himself in the world through his senses: “il se sent.” That doesn’t mean, however, that he isn’t rational and doesn’t have a sense of reason, it only means that, traditionally, he has a different system of knowledge.

Senghor then goes on to explain how, in Black-African culture, mankind is only one form of life. Everything around him also has a life force and he is in a symbiotic relationship with them. Life is conceived in its unity. This conception of life gave rise to a harmonious civilization, defined by its unity, achieved through the interrelationship of the different spheres of Black-African society. This unity is expressed through social and religious life, of which literature and art are the most useful instruments, through the use of image and rhythm. Therefore, Senghor places the concept of unity, the importance of social and religious life, and art expressed through image and rhythm, as the essential elements of Black-African culture.

“Eléments constructifs d’une civilisation d’inspiration négro-africaine,” Présence Africaine, FEV-MAI 1959, Deuxième Congrès des Ecrivains et Artistes Noirs (Rome: 26 mars-1er avril 1959), pp. 249-279

In this contribution to the Second Congress, Senghor focuses on the environment, social institutions, and values that gave birth to and animated Black-African civilization. He starts by describing the climate in which Black-Africans lived and thrived, and the effect of that climate on their culture, their social organization, and their sensibilities. He then goes on to explain the Black-African’s physical environment and role in his psychology, sense of self, and mode of knowledge. After that, he discusses the different social institutions which structured the Black-African civilization, i.e religion, society, work, art, and how those institutions modeled the Black-African ethics. Senghor concludes by adressing the issue of his time: “Le problème qui se pose maintenant à nous, Noirs de 1959, est de savoir comment nous allons intégrer les valeurs négro-africaines – les thèmes et les totems – au monde de 1959.” He makes it clear that this knowledge of Black-African values doesn’t aim to enable Blacks to reproduce blindly elements of that culture but to re-appropriate it and use it to build their own civilization in this new world where Blacks are regaining their freedom.

Frantz Fanon

“Racisme et culture,” Présence Africaine, JUIN-NOVEMBRE 1956, Le Ier Congrès International des Écrivains et artistes Noirs (Paris – Sorbonne – 19-22 Septembre 1956), pp. 122-131

Fanon focuses here on the link between racism and culture. His main idea is that a colonial society is necessarily racist because racism is an intrinsic part of its economic and social model. He rejects the idea that racism is an individual decision or a social pathology. According to Fanon, racism is nothing but a symptom of colonialism. It naturally comes from the colonizers’ deliberate destruction of the indigenous culture and sense of self as a way to subjugate the latter. In essence, colonization puts the colonizers’ culture as superior and the culture of the colonized as inferior. This process naturally gives rise to racism as the normal state of a colonial society which involves the domination of a people over another.

Fanon argues that this is further confirmed by the fact that, as the dynamic of power within the colonial society evolves (especially when the colonized start to re-appropriate their culture, and with that, their sense of self and desire for liberation), racism changes forms. At first, when the indigenous people are completely defeated, broken, with no more link to their culture, the form of racism is vulgar with pseudo-scientific justification; but as the dynamic of colonial society evolves with industrialization (even though not very advanced) of subjugated countries, more and more sophisticated means of production of racism evolve, and racism becomes more subtle: “Le racisme vulgaire dans sa forme biologique correspond à la période d’exploitation brutale des bras et des jambes de l’homme. La perfection des moyens de production provoque fatalement le camouflage des techniques d’exploitation de l’homme, donc des formes de racisme.

Once the occupied people start fighting for their liberation using all the tools at their disposal, racism ceases to be present because the relationship of dominant-dominated is not there anymore: “En cours de lutte, la nation dominatrice essaie de rééditer des arguments racistes mais l’élaboration du racisme se révèle de plus en plus inefficace. On parle de fanatisme, d’attitudes primitives face à la mort mais encore une fois, le mécanisme désormais effondré, ne répond plus […] l’occupant ne comprend plus. La fin du racisme commence avec cette soudaine incompréhension.

“Fondement réciproque de la culture nationale et des luttes de libération,” Présence Africaine, FÉV-MAI 1959, Deuxième Congrès des Écrivains et Artistes Noirs (Rome: 26 mars-1er avril 1959), pp. 82-89

In this text, Fanon develops the idea he mentioned during the previous Congress that culture is the medium through which a subjugated people reconnects with their sense of self and is inspired to fight for their liberation. He explains the process through which this awakening happens and the fundamental role of artists (writers, poets, painters, storytellers etc.) in reviving culture and inspiring the general population to fight for that culture and, by extension, their national identity and liberation.

Aimé Césaire

“Culture et colonisation,” Présence Africaine, JUIN-NOVEMBRE 1956, Le Ier Congrès International des Écrivains et artistes Noirs (Paris – Sorbonne – 19-22 Septembre 1956), pp. 109-205

Aimé Césaire examines in this text the damage that colonisation has done to the development of African culture: “Le grand reproche que l’on est fondé à faire à l’Europe c’est d’avoir brisé dans leur élan des civilisations qui n’avaient pas encore tenu toutes leurs promesses, de ne leur avoir pas permis de développer et d’accomplir toute la richesse des formes contenues dans leur tête.

Césaire explains that it is an illusion to believe that out of colonization was born a mix of two cultures. Colonization is necessarily the domination of a culture over another, the inferiorization of indigenous culture, to set up the colonizer’s culture as superior. Through this process, cultural elements co-existed in colonial countries, but never in a harmonious way, as it was imposed over the indigenous people rather than giving them the opportunity to choose and assimilate parts of it useful to them.

In conclusion, Césaire exhorts the new generation of free Black people to incorporate the essential values and elements of African culture and civilization, reinvent them, and essentially re-appropriate them in the newly free nations.

“L’homme de culture et ses responsabilités,” Présence Africaine, FEV-MAI 1959, Deuxième Congrès des Écrivains et Artistes Noirs (Rome: 26 mars-1er avril 1959), pp. 116-122

Césaire focuses here on the role of Black intellectuals in reviving Black culture, in teaching and inspiring Black populations in the newly freed countries to re-appropriate this culture in order to achieve true decolonization and not partial, step-by-step decolonization. He argues that decolonization can never be a step-by-step process. It has to be a rupture. New Black nations have to get rid of all the roots of colonization planted in their psyche, their institutions, and rebuild over it a new civilization with the elements of Black-African culture. Césaire argues that the role of the Black intellectual is to help others do exactly that.

What makes these texts revolutionary…

What makes these worldly philosophers’ ideas so powerful and inspiring still today is the way in which these texts are not so much about abstract theory, but rather describe and offer an understanding of concrete social and historical processes. Moreover, they don’t content themselves with giving an inventory or describing how things are but offer concrete ways forward. They give their audience the tools to understand and make sense of their own realities, where they come from, while exhorting, encouraging, and suggesting how to go forward—and not by telling them what to do, but by inspiring them to take action. These texts illustrate well Fanon’s famous exhortation “each generation must find its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.” These writers’ ideas inspired, and continue to inspire, because they provided their generation, and maybe ours as well, with the tools to find their mission and fulfill it if they, and we, wish to do so.