Afro-Literati The Nardal Sisters and the Négritude Movement

At the height of their careers in the Harlem Renaissance, celebrated African American writers Langston Hughes and Alain Locke found themselves in an apartment in Paris, where they met the likes of Réné Maran, the first Black writer to win the French Prix Goncourt, and Leopold Senghor, the revered Senegalese poet and politician. It was the apartment of Paulette Nardal, the eldest of the seven accomplished Martinican sisters who brought the best creative minds of the Afro-anglophone and -francophone worlds to produce the acclaimed Négritude movement.

An extremely accomplished group of women, their names, in order of birth, are Paulette, Emilie, Alice, Jeanne, Lucy, Cécile and Andrée. Between the women are distinguished educators, writers, community organizers, musicians, political ambassadors, and religious leaders. Though each of the women was engaged in intellectual and creative pursuits, most of the archival information tell of the legacy of Paulette and Jeanne Nardal as actively engaged in pan-African politics. Nevertheless, their collective legacies underscore the significant role women played in shaping Black identity across the pan-African world.

Rooted in generational achievement, the ‘Nardal Sisters’ became the nucleus that drew the finest minds of the pan-African world into their orbit. Emily Musil Church writes that their father, Paul Nardal, ‘was the first black man to earn an academic fellowship for the national École des Arts et Métiers after the abolition of slavery in 1848,’ and ‘the first black engineer in the Department of Public Works in Martinique.’ Their mother, Louise Achille, Church continues, ‘was a schoolteacher and prominent musician’ who co-founded the Société Saint-Louis-des-Dames, ‘one of the first women’s groups in Martinique.’ Collectively, Paul and Louise Nardal ‘opened their home to frequent visits from the local intellectuals and musicians, a tradition that would be carried on by their daughters.’ These meetings that took place in Paulette and her sisters’ apartments, or salons, are a culmination of the intellectual and activist legacy initiated by their parents. The Nardal sisters reinvigorated this legacy with a pan-African lens that was informed by the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, which would go on to inspire the Négritude movement of the 1930s catalyzed by the sisters.


Paulette herself studied literature at the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris in 1920, one of the first Black women to do so. According to Church, she also later worked as the Parliamentary Secretary for Joseph Lagrosillière, the Martinican politician who has been acknowledged as the ‘father of Martiniquan Socialism’, and Ngalandou Diouf, a Senegalese politician and the first African to become deputy to the French National Assembly in 1914.

Before enrolling at Sorbonne University, Paulette studied English and literature in Garveyite Jamaica. In Jamaica and in the United States, the revolutionary Marcus Garvey drew attention to the new Black consciousness ushered by World War One. Whereas Black populations across the world were becoming increasingly disillusioned by the mistreatment faced by the nations they were fighting for in the war. Harlem Renaissance figures also picked up on this feeling of solidarity in the face of mistreatment and global changes, not only giving creative expression to the political rhetoric of Garvey but also to proto-pan-African ideologies such W.E.B. Du Bois’ theory of Double Consciousness and Edward W. Blyden’s theory of the African Personality.

On one hand, Double Consciousness holds that Black people must negotiate the world not only through the lens of their Blackness, but also through the lens of the white gaze, speaking to mistreatment faced. On the other, African Personality suggests that there is a unique quality innate to all Black people despite geographic difference that has the potential to link us in practical ways, speaking to the feelings of solidarity across the Black world. These theories circulated in the Harlem Renaissance and, thus, in the Parisian homes of Paulette and her sisters as they welcomed the budding creatives and intellectuals of the Afro-francophone world.


Paulette’s younger sister Jeanne also drew attention to the shift caused by WWI, writing that just as ‘the barriers that exist between countries are being lowered, or are being pulled down [because of WWI],’ Black people ‘of all origins and nationalities, with different customs and religions,’  sense that despite the free and forced migrations which have caused these differences, they still belong to ‘single and same race.’ Jeanne Nardal had a special affinity for African American culture, hosting a conference in Martinique in 1929 on ‘le chant Nègre aux Etats Unis,’—or ‘Negro spirituals in the United States’—which featured African American Spirituals and blues music. Church writes that Jeanne—who took on the pseudonym YAHDÉ in the journal apparently after an ‘African deity’—was described by her family as having the most ‘African’ features of the sisters. She was also referred to as one who ‘took pride in her African heritage and would often wear African jewelry and turbans.’ Paulette herself, Church continues, admitted that Jeanne ‘was the first one to become interested in pan-African literary and political movements.’ She was also a beloved teacher who taught in Chad for two years after initially having her visa to an African country denied.


Evidence for the Nardal sisters’ involvement in sparking the Négritude movement lies in the production of their journal La Revue du Monde Noir. Published in intervals in 1931, the journal features work from Langston Hughes, René Maran and Claude MacKay as well as Paulette, Andrée and Jeanne Nardal. It featured the works in both French and English, and Paulette played a central role in liaising between the franco- and anglophone worlds due her studies and experience in English literature.

In Jeanne’s only entry in La Revue du Monde Noir, she wrote a poem called ‘Night Falls on Karukera’, the indigenous Arawak name for Martinique. The short poem bears a striking similarity to Aimé Cesairé’s seminal 1939 poem, ‘Notebook of a Return to the Native Land’, in which he coins the phrase ‘Négritude’, retroactively categorizing that influx of literature produced in the Afro-francophone world during the 1930s.

Jeanne’s poem describes the ‘languid’, and ‘facile beauty’ of the island while warning the ‘traveler’ to ‘be worthy of Karukera, her beauty and her wildness, her patriarchal customs.’ She continues, ‘her people are rude and free, you will love them, you who suffer in a world so monotonous and so commonplace.’ Cesaire’s poem also illustrates the beauty of Martinique and Africa, while similarly juxtaposing the ‘the white world’ as ‘horribly weary from its immense efforts/ its refractory joints cracking under the hard stars.’ One of my students suggested that both writers were perhaps emulating the point of view of the ‘adventurous’ colonizer, only now transforming it into genuine love and desire for one’s homeland after free or forced migration.

The youngest sister, Andrée, also wrote an entry in the journal entitled ‘Notes on the Biguine Créole’, a form of dance and music that originated in nineteenth-century Martinique, fusing elements of traditional African and French ballroom dance and sound. Reproaching the appropriation of the dance in Paris, Andrée asserts that, ‘if it were not for the Antillean musicians and the records,’ one ‘should doubt the real success of the beguine in the Parisian dance halls.’ She compares it to other creolized culture forms in the Black experience, including Calypso in Trinidad and Tobago, and Rumba in Cuba. Andrée’s commentary on the popular practice of the Biguine in Paris contemplated the tension between desires of repatriation and connecting back to one’s past and the call for the serious consideration of the contributions Black people made to colonial societies. This tension as illustrated by Andrée was significantly central to the Négritude movement.

The Nardal Sisters also introduced Garveyist ideologies to the Négritude movement’s educated, and in some cases, elitist intellectual class of creatives, writers, theorists and politicians. The foreword of the journal’s collection is reminiscent of Garvey’s rhetoric and formula expressed through the aims of his Universal Negro Improvement Association or ‘UNIA’. Whereas Garvey asserted that ‘the Negro must be united in one grand and racial hierarchy. Our union must know no clime boundary, or nationality,’ the journal’s foreword written by the Nardals read that ‘the two hundred million individuals which constitute the Negro race, even though scattered among the various nations, will form over and above the latter a great Brotherhood, the forerunner of universal democracy.’

The Black nationalist framework permeated the Nardal’s orbit, further tightening the ties between the Harlem Renaissance and Négritude movements. Robert P. Smith, Jr. writes that Garvey’s rhetoric ‘spoke directly, perhaps spiritually, to those black writers seeking their “true” identity and “roots” in African culture and civilization.’ Referring to Harlem Renaissance figures in the US, Smith further writes that ‘this latter group had a hunger to know a lost African culture which they believed the white world had denied them and whose existence they intended to prove.’ The reimagined role and prestige of Blackness catalyzed by Garvey was expressed in Harlem Renaissance literature and migrated from the US into France by way of the Nardal sisters’ homes.


Though Paulette and Jeanne agreed upon many ideas, they did differ in their response to colonial history. Paulette retained pride in her French identity, as did her father, asserting that the ambivalence towards ‘race problems’ found in the French Caribbean is ‘obviously explained by the liberal spirit which characterizes the politics of France towards coloured people’ whereas ‘the lack of colour prejudice amongst the French is due to the fact that they are certain to transform the mind of any coloured man to a truly French one in a comparatively short time.’

Paulette compares this ‘general attitude’ of the French Caribbean with the African American inclination towards ‘[seeking] for reasons for social and cultural pride in their African past,’ such as that found in Harlem Renaissance, and attributes it to the ‘deliberate scorn with which they have always been treated by white Americans.’ But Paulette also looked back toward the past to the ‘great forefathers [who] were busily claiming equal liberty and political rights for the different categories of the Black race living on Antillean soil,’ such as Toussaint Louverture, the acclaimed leader of the Haitian Revolution. Thus, Paulette found that the ‘forefathers’ of the French Caribbean legitimized their claim to French identity and French citizenship. However, to Paulette, French identity and citizenship did not negate their Blackness, but on the contrary, enhanced it.

Jeanne Nardal, however, retained pride in her Afro-diasporic identity, rather than a French identity. While she acknowledged the same historical differences described by Paulette, she found that African Americans advanced in Black revolutionary consciousness at a much more rapid rate and asserted that the Afro-Francophone world would do well by following suit. While Jeanne shared her sister’s belief in European culture being a benefit to Black people, she went further to suggest that it was time for the global Black world to unite under a Black racial pride that would go on to be illuminated in the Négritude movement. This tension led to complex ideas introduced by the Nardal sisters, producing pieces of literature and policy-making that negotiated and reimagined the space between being Black and being a colonial subject, as elucidated in Du Bois’ theory of Double Consciousness.

For example, Senghor, a close ally of Césaire and prominent Senegalese politician and theorist in the Négritude movement, opposed the loi cadre, a political move by France to give their colonies a degree of but not complete autonomy amid increasing calls for independence. However, while Senghor became an advocate for a completely independent Senegal, he also sought to support a relationship between France and francophone-Africa, which he expressed briefly through political moves like the Mali Federation. The seemingly contradictory position of uplifting one’s past yet seeking to rework if not reaffirm colonial ties had come to permeate the Négritude movement through the politics of Senghor. He also had a cultural impact, helping to found Presence Africaine, a journal that was dedicated to publishing the work of Black writers, much like the journal the Nardal sisters had founded before.  These journals were not the only instance that the Nardal sisters had emphasized and inspired the importance of literature in a pan-African culture.

Take Alain Locke’s The New Negro, an anthology of literature from the foremost Black writers since the turn of the twentieth century, for example. Brent Hayes Edwards writes that in December 1927, Jeanne Nardal wrote to the office of Dr. Alain Locke at Howard University, a historically Black university in the US, and proposed translating the anthology to French. ‘Locke responded favorably,’ continues Edwards, ‘offering to compose a new introduction to the French version.’ Alain Locke, who had been a long-time colleague of René Maran, also suggested that the two collaborate on the process. Though the translated edition never came to fruition, it illustrates the direct role the Nardal sisters played in uniting the two movements and uniting the Afro-Anglophone and Francophone worlds more broadly.

Of the potential of this project, Jeanne stated ‘for a book written by American Negroes to be translated by French Negroes, would not  that be an obvious sign of the workings of that Negro internationalism, that Mr. Burghardt Du Bois speaks about so prophetically…’ Jeanne here referred to an essay by Du Bois that concludes Locke’s anthology, and further built on it in her own seminal essay entitled Black Internationalism, published the Parisian magazine La Dépêche Africaine. This vision of Black Internationalism, another proto-pan-African ideology, came to fruition through the pan-African intellectual channels that were being formed literally by the sisters’ hands.

For all its philosophical value, the practical uses for Négritude have been called into question, most famously by Frantz Fanon, the famous Martinican psychiatrist and political thinker—and student of a Cesaire. Fanon criticized Négritude, pragmatically asserting that ‘it is around the peoples’ struggles that African-Negro culture takes on a substance, and not around songs, poems, or folklore.’ He thought the idea of Négritude as a vanguard of pan-African culture was mistaken because ‘the problems which kept Richard Wright or Langston Hughes on the alert were fundamentally different from those which might confront Leopold Senghor or Jomo Kenyatta.’ Fanon argued that national consciousness should be the first practical channel toward liberation because unifying on vague racial notions would run into conflict when different parts of the Black experience realize that their battles are unique in historical context.

However, despite Fanon’s harsh criticisms of Négritude, he did express empathy towards the movement, conceding that ‘the concept of negritude…was the emotional if not the logical antithesis of that insult which the white man flung at humanity. This rush of negritude against the white man’s contempt showed itself in certain spheres to be the one idea capable of lifting interdictions and anathemas.’ Fanon here understood the importance racial pride played in unveiling the revolutionary consciousness of the Black world. Fanon himself was a product of this expression of racial pride that characterized the Négritude movement spearheaded by the Nardal sisters. His very ability to engage in the revolutionary politics of Blackness in a colonial space like Martinique, which remains a French colony today, stems from the work of the Nardal sisters.


In her final entry to La Revue du Monde Noir, Paulette Nardal noted that in the average Black intellectual experience, those who in ‘their intellectual curiosity applied [themselves] to the history of their race and of their respective countries,’ found that there was a dreadful ‘absence of such interesting matters in the educational programs ascribed to the Antillean schools.’ But she then wrote about her hope ‘that the students coming up for [doctoral] degrees in History and Geography will avail themselves of the riches which the Black race and the African continent offer to them.’ Paulette and her sisters then went on to create the space for this very work for figures like Fanon to build upon, even in critique of the movement that made it possible.

The Nardal sisters are key evidence of the way pan-Africanism had developed throughout the diaspora before reaching the continent. Indeed, the first ‘pan-African congresses’ were founded by diasporans at the turn of the twentieth century, with such diasporans including Du Bois, George Padmore and Alexander Crummell. In the diaspora, Africa had become a concept, a symbol of pride and pain, a lens through which to look towards the future by looking back to the past. The racialized oppression of the Black population throughout the diaspora made the success of Africa even more important to the diaspora, leading to feelings of international solidarity rooted in the continent. For example, droves of African Americans rushed to join the Ethiopian army to resist the occupation of fascist Italy in 1935 in the middle of the Négritude movement. Paulette herself was sponsored by Association Universitaire Catholique des Laîques Missionnaires to visit Belgium to speak about the ‘importance of Ethiopia’s independence in the face of the Italian invasion.’ Thus, the threads of racial and national identity were thus deeply intertwined in the Négritude movement. As Fanon discusses, without this racial awakening, one might argue, there may not have been such a clear path to the wave of independence movements that we witness in the Black world throughout the twentieth century.

The Nardal sisters are indeed the unsung heroes of the Négritude movement and pan-African thought more broadly. They undoubtedly influenced and were some of the greatest minds the Black intellectual world had to offer in pan-Africanism’s infancy. They at once acted as vessels and originators of the most revolutionary ideas that would lead the Black world into liberation. They illustrate the oft-erased role Black women played in constructing the future of the global Black world, incubating the past, present and futures of our collective lives

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