Migration of African-American Writers to Paris and Encounter with African and Caribbean Writers (1930-1960), par Aliko SONGOLO

Professor Aliko Songolo (University of Wisconsin-Madison) is the first Fulbright Specialist selected within the framework of the cooperation agreement signed by AMU and the Fulbright French-American Commission in July 2017, which also includes the creation of a Migration Studies Fulbright/IMéRA .

From January to end of March 2018, Professor Songolo will be working on a project involving both AMU/IMéRA and the Senegalese university Gaston Berger. A summary of the project is given below.  


Aliko Songolo’s research and teaching interests lie primarily in Francophone literatures of Africa and the Caribbean, and Francophone cinemas of Africa and Québec. He has published a monograph (Aimé Césaire: une poétique de la découverte, 1985), two co-edited volumes (Twenty-five Years After Dakar and Fourah Bay: The Growth of African Literature, 1998 and Atlantic Cross-Currents/Transatlantiques, 2001), and was Associate Editor of the highly acclaimed five-volume New Encyclopedia of Africa (2008). He also edited special issues of two eminent journals in his field, French Review (1982) and Présence Francophone (2003), and published numerous articles. His current research projects investigate the question of national cinema in Québec and Francophone Africa, and postcoloniality in the wake of the Négritude movement.

The project

Entitled “Migration of African-American Writers to Paris and Encounter with African and Caribbean Writers (1930-1960),” the project I propose to undertake aims to explore the complex and sometimes complicated web of relationships among African-American writers, artists, and intellectuals and their Francophone African and Caribbean counterparts over three crucial decades of the twentieth century.

African-American interest in Africa was not new. It dated back to the 18th century and found its political culmination with the creation of Liberia in 1847 by freed American slaves. It was an African-American missionary, William Henry Sheppard who, in 1907, revealed to the world the atrocities committed in the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium and multinational companies of the time, leading to the first recognition of the offense of “crime against humanity.” Two additional examples include the return-to-Africa movements such as Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, and the Pan-African Congress, the first meeting of which was held in Paris in 1919, co-organized by African-American scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, with the singular purpose of militating for the end of colonialism on the African continent.

The period under scrutiny in this project is noteworthy because of its roundabout connection of African-Americans to Africa and because this connection happened on French soil. In the 1920s and 1930s African-American writers of the Harlem Renaissance movement migrated to France to seek relative freedom of expression, away from racial discrimination and the deleterious social and political pressures in the United States. In Paris, they found what they sought, but in addition they encountered writers and other intellectuals from Africa and the French West Indies. The bond that developed between the three groups was highly productive in terms of mutual influences and cross-pollination in the areas of literature, culture, and political awareness. The encounter with the African elite brought African-Americans face to face with an Africa they had not heard of in their country. At the same time, the Africans learned much about an American political and social reality they knew only vaguely. The difficulty of cross-communication between the three groups was mitigated by the creation of La Revue du Monde noir by the Nardal sisters from Martinique. Thus, Americans could read the work of Francophone African and Caribbean writers in translation, and vice-versa. The renowned Martinican poet Aimé Césaire averred that he had never heard the black world described in such stark terms as Harlem was in the poetry of Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. He subsequently wrote a Master’s thesis on « Le thème du Sud dans la littérature Négro-Américaine. » For his part, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the acknowledged theorist of Négritude, contended many years later that the “real father” of the Négritude movement was the African-American W.E.B. Du Bois.

The decade of the 1940s and 1950s intensified contacts between the three groups. The creation in 1947 of the bilingual journal Présence Africaine and the eponymous publishing house by Alioune and Christiane Diop assembled African and African-American as well as French leftist intellectuals. In 1956 and 1959 the group organized the “Congrès des écrivains et artistes noirs” in Paris and Rome, at which such figures as Frantz Fanon, Senghor, Césaire and others distinguished themselves with their eloquence in the pursuit of independence for African countries that would foreground culture. As he observed the 1956 congress, the African-American writer James Baldwin wrote his famous essay, “Princes and Powers” that revealed at once the enduring search for the “real Africa” and profound misunderstandings between African-American and African intellectuals in the political realm.

The decade of the 1950s ended with intensive struggles for independence in Africa and the beginning of the civil rights struggle in the United States. Despite fewer direct contacts and lesser literary production in the years immediately following African independence, a relatively recent but significant phenomenon has emerged in Francophone African literature: The legacy of African-American novelist Chester Himes. A contemporary of protest writers such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin, Himes was never much appreciated in the United States until he moved to France in the late 1950s and became famous for his crime novels that were immediately translated into French for “La Série noire.”  Set in Harlem, Himes’ novels later circulated among a new generation of African writers and provided a model for novelists from the latter Mongo Beti to Sony Labou Tansi and more recently for Leonora Miano, Alain Mabanckou and Fiston Mwanza Mujila.

In sum, the project will aim to focus on a range of contributions of African-American thought and style of writing to the development of Francophone African writing and political thought over a period of three decades. Conversely, it will also display a new kind of knowledge of the African continent that African-American writers gained through their interaction with the African elite of their time.

Serving as a Fulbright Specialist will afford me an opportunity to link or relink three universities on three continents. These universities have enjoyed variously shared histories over several decades. The University of Wisconsin (UW) has had a highly successful exchange program with Aix-Marseille Université (AMU) for over 50 years; UW and Université Gaston Berger (UGB) of Saint-Louis, Senegal, enjoyed a rich exchange program from 1992 to 2012 that was initially supported by the US State Department. Reviving this link and connecting UGB to AMU would be of great intellectual and educational benefit to all three universities. Given adequate resources, UGB colleagues would find their way back to UW to pursue their research on African-American literature and other issues of interest; they will also benefit from abundant resources of UW libraries and researchers in Departments of African Cultural Studies, Afro-American Studies and in the African Diaspora & the Atlantic World Research Circle. Those who study these issues in French will share their research with colleagues and students in the UW’s Department of French & Italian and at AMU’s Institute for Advanced Studies (IMéRA) in Marseille. Finally, it will be a great opportunity for capacity building in Afro-American studies for UGB’s English Department and a good opportunity for AMU’s IMéRA to further diversify its humanities programming within its vibrant array of interdisciplinary collaborations anchored in the sciences and social sciences.

It is altogether fitting that AMU and UGB should be linked. Université Gaston Berger was named after an illustrious alumnus of AMU who was born in Saint-Louis, Senegal of a French father and a Senegalese mother. Gaston Berger later became a leading futurist philosopher and a significant reformer of the French system of higher education. Streets bear his name in Aix and in Marseille as well as a resident hall at the AMU Marseille campus. Finally, after he resigned his named professorship at the University of Aix-en-Provence to continue his career in the US, Gaston Berger was appointed Secretary-General of the nascent Franco-American Fulbright Commission in 1949.

I will conduct four types of activities: Research, seminars, workshops, and consultations with colleagues and students. The research will be part of the preparatory phase in the United States and Paris. At the Senegal host institution, UGB, the initial overview lecture will aim to engage my colleagues and/or students on the history, the literature, and the cultural exchanges that brought together the three groups of black intellectuals and artists. The lecture will be followed by a wide-ranging discussion on the subject. Secondly, having assessed the level of knowledge and interest about these issues, we will explore together available library and electronic resources to conduct deeper research into the subject. Important here will be an assessment of electronic connectivity for exploiting such data bases as Jstor. Thirdly, I will organize a workshop for those who want to conduct research on a specific topic and get them started on their projects.

At host institution AMU, I will participate in regular interdisciplinary seminars organized at IMéRA, particularly the “Sciences and the Humanities” seminar. I expect to give a talk during the initial two weeks of my stay in Marseille as an introduction to my project and an opportunity to exchange views with colleagues from the sciences and social sciences. Upon my return from Senegal, I will give a 10-hour doctoral seminar, aiming to share research methodologies in the humanities with science and social science students. The focus here will be on intellectual history and the circulation of ideas among French, African, Caribbean, and African-American writers and intellectuals during the three decades under study. I will also brief IMéRA’s administration on my mission to Senegal and consult with them on steps to be taken to strengthen relationships between the three universities. Ideally, these initial contacts will spur lasting interdisciplinary exchanges that could lead to a collaborative publication, the form of which would be decided among participants at the three institutions. The workshops and consultations with UGB colleagues will also aim at the creation of a course or courses on the subject.

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