“B(l)ack to the future?” Sphere Magazine, December 2006
Fifty years ago Léopold Sédar Senghor, esteemed patriarch of African letters in French, took a ride on the train from Tours to Paris, a trip which, in 1956, was only 10 French francs. With Senghor, dozens of other black artists, from Africa, the Caribbean and North America, made their own journeys to Paris for the First International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists, sponsored by Présence Africaine in September of that year and commemorated this fall by UNESCO and Harvard’s Du Bois Institute. The ticket is pricier now, but the 2006 gathering—held on the same dates in the same place in the same storied city—offered still-living original participants and leaders of the contemporary black intellectual and artistic world the chance to make a pilgrimage to the site that, in 1956, served as midwife to a new black cultural destiny.
Présence Africaine founder Alioune Diop had, since 1947, been encouraging the process of free creative expression for blacks in his native Senegal and around the francophone world. His title, as the first internationally circulated magazine of African letters, was the ideal vehicle for a real-life intellectual and literary exchange. The Paris Congress was the culmination of the publication’s efforts to date, attended by pillars of black aesthetic and political history such as Richard Wright, Aimé Césaire, René Depestre, David Diop, Frantz Fanon and the venerable Senghor himself. For a memorable three days, the very center of Paris became a melting pot for cultural dialogue, fraternity and debate.
The participants, met at the Sorbonne, were as diverse as the term “Noir” could then suggest. Also in attendance were a squadron of politically committed Haitian writers, an editor of NAACP magazine The Crisis, poets from Dahomey (now Benin) and Madagascar, sculptors and painters from Nigeria and the editor of a magazine representing the Belgian Congo.
These men and more enacted an early notion of black solidarity in diaspora. Diop’s opening address notes: “We have then, we others of the non-European world, to provoke, all of us, new values, to explore together the new universes born out of the meeting of peoples.”
A litany of written RSVPs to the Congress invite, published in a period Présence Africaine, express similar passion for the global project, as well as a belief in the intrinsic value of such focused and thoughtful interaction. Figures like Claude Lévi-Strauss, W. E. B. Du Bois and Picasso—who created a pen and ink poster specifically for the 1956 Congress—were among the dozens of well-wishers. A telegram from one Julien Blérald, 7000 km away in Fort-de-France, Martinique, bears out the breathless energy of the moment:
Enthusiastic Hello first cultural Congress black men stop Present Heart spirit stop We follow passionately grand unfolding event stop Congratulations Présence Africaine stop Convinced brilliant new success for Paris stop.
This idea of pan-African and pan-Atlantic black solidarity may, through a 2006 lens, seem routine, but stated in 1956 the aims of the conference were revolutionary enough to merit such excitement. The fifty intervening years between the original congress and its 2006 incarnation has found black creativity in the west and all across the diaspora flourishing, circulating images and ideas to the enrichment of both artist and audience.
Perhaps the most delightful fact about the first Congress is that the entire history of the black Atlantic world after 1956—the wave of independence that would begin its sweep through Africa in only a year, the Civil Rights movement in America, the Cold War, then in infancy, the end of apartheid—all these had not yet occurred. That over 40 promising and enterprising black artists and writers converged at the Sorbonne, that palace of wisdom, in a room consecrated to the philosopher Descartes, speaks to a remarkably early “globalized” consciousness.
Also telling: for most of the luminaries that made their way to the Amphithéâtre Descartes, 1956 was an early point along a trajectory of cultural influence and impact that none could then have predicted. Besides Senghor and poet Aimé Césaire, his partner in the negritude movement, American Richard Wright may be the only delegate to the Congress to have been well- and widely- known, for works like Black Boy and Native Son. The others were members of a young academic avant-garde, green but committed, earnestly engaged with their pan-ethnic project and training themselves, it seems, for the tasks the latter half of the 20th century would bring.
Given until 2006 the roster would include two presidents of Senegal and the namesake of its national university, an ambassador to Great Britain, the first black tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and many true legends of the black intelligentsia. But the Présence Africaine Congress catalogue contains “notices bibliographiques” on 1956 delegates that are in many cases, terribly premature.
Delegate Frantz Fanon was listed as a “doctor in psychiatric hospitals”, with only the first of his many landmark studies, “Black Skin, White Masks,” published to date. Abdoulaye Wade, current president of Senegal (elected in 2000) was listed in the briefest of entries, as a “legal trainee”. Barbadian novelist and critic George Lamming had then only published his first, well-loved novel In the Castle of My Skin, though over a dozen other novels and collections of essays were to follow.
So the First International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists brought together the makers of the modern black intellectual agenda—no small feat—and did it at a pivotal moment for both the individual and the century. The legacies of the Congress are many; the gathering gave birth to pioneering notions of cultural diversity and plural identities; Présence Africaine, impressive in scope and in durability, continues to champion black creative efforts through its Paris-based publishing house; and I, working as an archivist this summer for Henry Louis Gates, Jr., UNESCO and the Du Bois Institute organizational team, caught a glimpse at the architects of the black intellectual century at an age not much older that my own—an encouraging prospect in any time.
Partners like UNESCO, Gates, Nigerian Nobel winner Wole Soyinka and other heavyweights have made their own journey to Paris this year. The airfare is worth it—they are champions of an homage to the old order, which insists that, as Aimé Césaire said in the leadup to the Congress: “The shortest path to the future is always the one that involves looking deeper into the past.”
(photographs courtesy Du Bois Institute/Présence Africaine)