Legendary Writer Maryse Conde Commemorates Centennial of Negritude Co-Founder Leon Damas


Maryse Condé, a grande dame of Francophone literature, visited Howard University’s campus for the third time to celebrate the 100th birthday of the late poet and former Howard professor Léon Damas, who she said could have been her brother.

While Damas played a pivotal role in the founding of the Négritude movement, he was overshadowed by his fellow co-founders Aimé Césaire and Leopold Sedar-Senghor, the latter of which became the first president of Senegal after the country’s independence from France.

A panel discussion and keynote address by Condé sought to raise more awareness of Damas’s contributions.

During her keynote address, Condé discussed the impact of the Black/African consciousness movement among former French colonies on her writing and life, among several other topics, by dividing her life into four chapters.

The first chapter begins in her childhood and adolescence where she criticized her parents for being ashamed of their African roots.

The next chapter begins when Condé has to leave her home in French Guiana to go to France for her secondary education and higher learning at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. Her first trip to Paris shattered her belief that she was a “French-person” recognized as French by everyday people in public. On train rides on the Parisian metro, she said white French children gawked at her and sometimes cried, frightened that she was merely sitting beside them.

Yet, a roommate of Condé’s lifted her spirits by introducing a book to her that would change her life.

The book was Discourse on Colonialism and the poet-politician Aimé Césaire wrote the scathing polemic to criticize France’s oppressive presence in its African and Caribbean colonies, which still possessed when the book was originally published in the 1950s.

“I was 16 and I had never ever heard of Aimé Césaire,” Condé said, recounting the experience to audience packed inside the Blackburn Lounge.

After Condé finishing reading Discourse, she wanted to read some more of his work. So, she stopped by the small bookstore of the publisher, Présence Africaine.

“I bought the books of all writers of the Negritude movement,” she said, “Aimé Césaire, Léon Gontran Damas and Leopold Sedar-Senghor.”

“You see, I’m not guilty of the crime of saying ‘and Damas,’ she said, joking with audience about Damas’s status as the all too often forgotten founder of Négritude.

While Césaire immediately impressed her, her introduction to Damas was less so.

Damas was too familiar to me,” she said, “He was somebody who could have been a brother to me. What he was talking about was close to home. His main concern was the diaspora and how racism affected the people of the Caribbean and of Black America.”

“And I was looking for my roots. Aimé Césaire was the one who answered my needs at the moment,” she added.

Her sojourn to Sekou Toure’s Guinea with her Guinean husband would mark the unceremonious beginning of her disillusionment with the idea of Négritude which she initially hoped to “find” in Africa.

Instead of an idyllic universal sense of community, Condé found “two blocs” in society: the have-nots and the people “who had everything were driving Mercedes Benz and happy and fat.”

As the political turmoil continued to grow, Condé decided to leave Guinea since she deemed a place where Négritude was an “empty word” to help soften the oppression of the people.

Ghana proved as disappointing as Guinea for Condé who was still in search of Négritude.

“”I was asking myself, ‘Where is Négritude?'” she recounted to the audience, “‘If it’s not in Guinea or Ghana, where is it?”’

Expelled from Ghana following a coup d’état that ended Kwame Nkrumah’s reign, Condé returned to France. Her idyllic view of the movement created by Césaire, Damas and Senghor ended after re-reading philosopher-psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, (She didn’t like him at first because of his jibes at Césaire as the “Bard.”)

“After him [Fanon], there is no Négritude,” she said.

The movement’s emphasis on oneness played down or ignored the differences among people of African descent altogether.

“You don’t have to be alike to fight,” she said, summing up the epiphany she had. “The more different you are, the better you are when you fight [for a cause].”

La négritude est morte,” she said as she concluded her keynote address, “Vive la negritude!” Negritude is dead, but the necessity of unity lives on.