Editorial from PN Review 172
In Paris on Wednesday, 19 September 1956, Le Congrès des Ecrivains et Artistes Noirs was opened, a few hours later than scheduled, by the editor of Présence Africaine Alioune Diop. It lasted for four days. The formal meetings were staged in the sweltering Amphitéâtre Descartes at the Sorbonne. There was a bakers' strike in the city and on the bright pavements outside the bakeries Parisians queued for scarce loaves. Inside, delegations from the nations of Africa and its 'Diaspora', gathered thus for the first time, set out to find a cultural common ground beyond the fact of their colonial histories, and to reach some kind of resonant, unifying conclusion.
Wole Soyinka spoke in Paris in September 2006 at a gathering to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Congrès (see Africa Today, October 2006, p. 22-4). His focal theme was Darfur, whose tragedy he viewed from the double perspective of that original conference and the present. The real luxury of hindsight is to anatomise the failure of foresight. Soyinka did not indulge that luxury. For him the world's appalling betrayal of Darfur had a specifically African dimension. Fifty years before, the nations of his continent were debating the noble mission of independence. Among their high-table spokespersons writers abounded, chief among them Leopold Sedar Senghor, the incomparable Senegalese statesman (who called the delegates 'cultural militants'), Aimé Cesaire from Martinique, Richard Wright from the United States, and the poet and novelist Jacques Alexis from a Haiti very different from today’s.
The tone of the Congrès was tetchy, oppositional, hopeful, impatient: in short, democratic. The delegates, Soyinka says, were 'protesting -- right on the terrain of their colonisers, and as protagonists of a distant civilisation -- the ascendancy of others over their own cultures and civilisations.' It was an attempt to right the 'lop-sided' dialogue between the colonial and the colonised, conducted always in the former's language. That language, left behind, was to be variously appropriated, darkened and deepened by unsupervised use, to overcome the condition in which 'the African mind' had been turned into 'a mere cultural receptacle of France' (and by extension of other colonial powers), 'indentured [...] to European identity and values'.
Darfur. Europe and America avert their eyes. An African problem. African nations gather, and their irresolution, Soyinka suggests in an angry, closely argued deposition, replicates in its lack of urgency, of integrity, its divisions, diversions, its impotence, a previous state of affairs. Expedient politics and what should be an informing culture of solidarity have separated out. At the heart of the problem is a break within Africa that is increasingly ominous. Senghor identified it and at the 1956 Congrès gave it a positive inflection: the ethnic and cultural division between northern Africa and the rest of the continent. The 'separatist assertiveness' of the Congrès, what Sartre dubbed its 'anti-racist racism', was, Soyinka insists, 'eventually guided into the predication of convergence with others. This optimistic outlook, the mutual insemination of cultures, under Senghor's restless historicism, expanded to embrace the Arab world and its cultural actualities, to which he gave the name Arabité.'
It was an embrace that was not to be returned, that would in time be more and more forcefully rebuffed: in the half century since that Congrès the distance between Negritude and Arabité has widened. Sudan, Janjaweed, Darfur: a human travesty perpetrated within the ‘inviolable’ borders of a nation state defined by a colonial project. This is something different in kind from the appalling tribal catastrophe of Rwanda, and in degree from the Apartheid of South Africa. 'Je parle d'arabité, de cette arabité qui est le foyer irradiant des vertus de l'éternel Bedouins,' Senghor had declared. In Darfur that radiance is darkness visible.
James Baldwin reported on the 1956 conference for Encounter in a long article entitled 'Princes and Powers' (reprinted in Nobody Knows My Name pp 24-55). He translated the word Noir in the Congrès' title as 'Negro-African', which sets his piece firmly in its period. His was an uneasy take on the event. As an American journalist (not part of the American delegation which W.E.B. Du Bois, prevented by the State Department from attending, successfully discredited by means of an open letter) Baldwin observed, commented but did not participate. He chronicled the attempts of delegates to reach general conclusions about the cultural nature of the 'Negro-African'. Senghor's argument arrested him: 'Art itself is taken to be perishable, to be made again each time it disappears or is destroyed. What is clung to is the spirit which makes art possible. [...] African art is concerned with reaching beyond and beneath nature, to contact, and itself become a part of la force vitale.' That phrase 'and itself become' is persuasive. But is it specific to African art? Baldwin was beguiled by a paradox: 'He was speaking out of his past,' he says, 'which had been lived where art was naturally and spontaneously social, where artistic creation did not presuppose divorce. (Yet he was not there. Here he was, in Paris, speaking the adopted language in which he also wrote his poetry.)'
In retrospect, the 1956 Congrès in its hot, crowded hall, with all the disagreements, backbiting and impatience which Baldwin witnessed, has a remote, leisurely aspect: four days in which cultural reflections were shared, sweated over and debated, in which questions were left hanging in the air for ever: 'Is it possible to describe as a culture what may simply be, after all, a history of oppression?' asks Baldwin, sounding momentarily like V.S. Naipaul, and like Naipaul requiring that we formulate if not an answer then a counter-question. Most pressing for Baldwin is the reality inherent in the languages of the Congrès, 'they' (he might have said 'we') 'are all, now, whether they like it or not, related to Europe, stained by European visions and standards, and their relation to themselves, and to each other, and to their past had changed.' Baldwin's sense of the inevitable, inescapable complicity of the 'Negro-African' and the European may relate to the widening gulf between such cultures and the Arabiste. Soyinka's September speech at the commemorative Congrès bears out such a possibility. It also underlines how culture and politics ought not to be divisible, and yet how they unfortunately are.