We can start with one of Frantz Fanon’s fellow Martinicans: Paulette Nardal. She’s largely responsible for forcing the issue of Black consciousness onto the Parisian community of Black intellectuals and artists in the 1920s and 30s.
Négritude is cultivated in her apartment on Sunday afternoons, where Black, white, Arab, Muslim and Christian perform art and discuss intellectual issues. Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire attend. In May 1935, Nardal becomes activist. The occasion is fascist Italy’s aggression towards Africa’s last sovereign and non-colonized entity – Ethiopia.
Nardal co-founds the Ethiopian Action Committee with French Sudanese activist Tiemoko Kouyaté. By the summer, Nardal has become a key node in the trans-empire coordination of Black peoples opposed to the fascist invasion – including her more famous accomplises in London.
In October 1935, as Italy invades Ethiopia, Nardal publishes “Levée des races” in the Senegalese paper, Le Périscope africain. In political terms, the word levée connotes the raising of an army. Nardal made three points about this prospect:
- Firstly, the Black defense of Ethiopia is not in the service of a race war but in support of the principles of democracy.
- Secondly, nonetheless, the Italian invasion has produced a new “common soul” amongst Black peoples worldwide.
- Thirdly, the response to the fascist invasion demonstrates for Nardal the existence, across races, of a desire for humanism to temper the violence of colonialism.
Nardal’s call to arms is therefore driven by a Black humanism, seeking to gather a diverse constituency of colonial subjects for the prospect of global democracy in opposition to fascist aggression.
Nardal and her colleague Kouyaté then pursue a diplomatic mission, strikingly resonant of Fanon’s later ambitions: their Ethiopian Action Committee works closely with North African Star, the Algerian nationalist organization founded by Messali Hadj and a forerunner – although ultimate competitor – to Fanon’s beloved FLN.
The first meeting of this International Committee for the Defense of the Ethiopian People brings together 800 white, Black and North African participants. In the ensuing march, on August 21 1935, Mussolini is declared the “enemy of our race” – and, also, excessively, as the enemy of “the 66 million colonized people”.
Come January 1936, North and West Africans form a Coordinating Committee of the Blacks and Arabs of Paris. They publish their own journal. An International Conference of Arabs and Negroes is soon after convened in Paris. Attendees discuss the liberation of Ethiopia from fascist occupation and scope out the possibility of a permanent political organization of Black and Arab unity.
In April 1937, a number of organizations including the Association of Martinican Students, Kouyaté’s Union of Black Workers, and Hadj’s Nationalist Party of Algeria – they come together to form the Rassemblement Colonial. The Rassemblement brings together activists from North Africa, the Antilles, West Africa and French Indochina: an anti-colonial anti-fascist popular front.
Aimé’s wife, Suzanne Césaire: she must have grounded with Nardal during her Paris sojourn. Ethiopia would have been all around her and her husband. Consider this: whilst at the École Normale Supérieure, a fellow white student confers upon Aimé the Amharic military title, ras – a title since popularized by the Rastafari faith.
Anyway, back in Martinique, Suzanne theorises the black humanist response to fascistic anti-blackness.
Suzanne sees in the Antilles a fertile terrain that has the potential to gestate a new humanity by cultivating its African heritage. Her poetics are indebted to the 19th century Haitian anthropologist, Anténor Firmin. His ripostes to Europe’s Manichean racism utilize the biblical figure of the Ethiopian as an exemplar of both the Black and the human.
Suzanne is also indebted to a contemporary of Firmin, the German ethnologist Leo Frobenius. Unlike Firmin’s biblical inspiration, Frobenius’s preference for the Ethiopian is, in good part, determined by his political commitment to enhance Germany’s African colonies and labor forces. He even undertakes a (failed) secret mission during World War One to reach Addis Ababa, where he hopes to convince Lij Iyassu – at that point designated but not crowned Emperor – to enter the war on Germany’s side. Anyway, from Leo she takes the idea that civilization is driven by a vital force comprised of bipolar energies: the Hamitic and the Ethiopian.
Suzanne draws upon biblical Firmin and imperial Frobenius to parody and undermine racist attributions of laziness and indolence to Black Antilleans. She argues that the Ethiopian is a vegetative energy – yet unlike the Hamitic, an energy that “lives and lets live”; in its obstinacy for surviving – even if trampled underfoot – the Ethiopian is a force for ”independence”.
There’s a class analysis here too: the Ethiopian energy of unresistable independence is unto poor Blacks, just as the Hamitic – and its fascistic urge for domination – is unto upper-class light skins.
The Martinican, claims Suzanne, is the same kind of “plant-human” as the Ethiopian; and Antillean self-determination can only be achieved by embracing the “Ethiopian desire for abandon” – the race-class inflected abandon of domination. Suzanne is adamant: cultivating the Ethiopian in the Martinican exposes an “incredible store of varied energies until now locked up within us” and one that might bring “every living strength … together up on this earth where race is the result of the most unremitting intermixing”.
Suzanne writes these lines as Haile Selassie, British Commonwealth soldiers and Ethiopian guerillas finally drive out the fascists from Addis Ababa.
Did Fanon meet Suzanne, the wife of his teacher?
Did they speak of the black humanist struggle for Ethiopia?
Did Frantz catch wind of that legacy in France?
Did it blow him surreptitiously towards Algeria?
Extracted from: “From Ethiopia to Bandung via Fanon“, Bandung: Journal of Global Studies (forthcoming)
And especially indebted to:
- Boittin, Jennifer Anne. 2010. Colonial Metropolis: The Urban Grounds of Anti-Imperialism and Feminism in Interwar Paris. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
- Edwards, Brent Hayes. 2003. The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Genova, James E. 2001. “The Empire Within: The Colonial Popular Front in France, 1934-1938.” Alternatives 26: 175–209.
- Goebel, Michael. 2017. Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
- Rabbitt, Kara. 2013. “In Search of the Missing Mother: Suzanne Césaire, Martiniquaise.” Research in African Literatures 44 (1): 36–54.
- Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. 2002. Negritude Women. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
- Umoren, Imaobong Denis. 2018. Race Women Internationalists: Activist-Intellectuals and Global Freedom Struggles. Oakland: University of California Press.
- Walker, Keith Louis. 2016. “Anténor Firmin, Aimé and Suzanne Césaire: In Search of Africa and Ourselves.” L’Esprit Créateur 56 (1): 129–44.