Thursday, September 19, 2013

57th Anniversary of the 1st International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists

The First International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists convened at the Sorbonne on September 19, 1956 - 57 years ago today. I was reminded of the date because I recently purchased the complete proceedings of the event from Présence Africaine, the bookstore and publishing house that was responsible for organizing the conference.

Proceedings of the 1st International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists
© Discover Paris!

I frequently refer to James Baldwin's report of the proceedings when I take clients to the Sorbonne on my Black Paris after World War II walking tour. He wrote about the congress in his essay "Princes and Powers" and I have always wanted to read an independent source of information about the event. During a recent tour, I noted with delight that there was a book in the window at Présence Africaine (which is also a stop on the Black Paris after WWII tour) containing the proceedings and returned to purchase it at a later time.

Présence Africaine - current façade
© Discover Paris!

Roughly a third of the entries in the book are in English.  Topics range from the tonal structure of Yoruba poetry to a philosophical discussion of segregation and desegregation in the United States. Final resolutions of the congress are presented in French and English. There are also messages at the back of the book in French and English from persons who were unable to attend, including one from Josephine Baker (in French, signed with her married name "Bouillon"). But the presentation that interested me the most was that of Richard Wright. I had long been intrigued by Baldwin's sardonic commentary on it and was looking forward to reading it for myself.

Wright was the last person to give a formal presentation at the Congress and he felt awkward about what he had prepared because things that he learned during the course of the conference inspired a desire to modify his discourse. Because there was no time to do so, he decided to "correct" his paper as he presented it at the conference. Baldwin refers to this as Wright "exposing, in short, his conscience to the conference and asking help of them in his confusion."

Baldwin and Wright Collage*
© Discover Paris!

Wright did just that, saying "...midway in my text, when I start criticizing my own formulations, I hope you would understand what I am trying to do." He proceeds to question several of his own statements, such as thanking "Mr. White Man" for freeing the black, brown, and yellow peoples of the world from the "rot" of their irrational traditions and customs.

Prior to broaching the subject of his discomfort, Wright talked about the absence of women as organizers and presenters at the Congress. He said the following:

— I don't know how many of you have noticed it there have been no women functioning vitally and responsibly upon this platform helping to mold and mobilize our thoughts . . . When and if we hold another conference—and I hope we will—I hope there shall be an effective utilization of Negro womanhood in the world to help us mobilize and pool our forces . . . we cannot afford to ignore one half of our manpower, that is, the force of women and their active collaboration. Black men will not be free until their women are free.

Indeed, among the messages at the back of the book is one addressed to the Congress by "Un Groupe de Femmes Noires" (a group of black women) that emphasizes the vital role that women play in the construction of black nations.

The "Euro-African" dialogue that occurred after the presentation of the final resolutions of the Congress and just before the closing of the conference is also presented in the book. Wright was the only Anglophone invited to comment during this exchange. He expressed his feelings about the event as follows:

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to congratulate the Conference upon the successful termination of its work. I feel that this is a moment in history, a moment that is terminating a five-hundred-year domination of European culture over African culture. There is something that one feels when one is caught up in a historical situation: you are gripped by it, claimed by it and you know that history is in the making. It seems as though at such times an impersonal tide sweeps men up, irrespective of their will, and pushes them on in their direction whether they want it or not. It is irresistible and irreversible and I say "So be it."

*Image of James Baldwin taken by Carl Van Vechten in 1955; image of Richard Wright from the Michel Fabre Collection


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