Publics, Counterpublics, Black Publics: The Growth of a Negritude Public in the Twentieth Century

Monday, 7 November, 2022 - 16:00

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This paper employs the history of negritude’s intellectual and institutional expansion across the twentieth century, to argue for a new conceptualization of public spheres. Against conventional Habermasian accounts, I argue that states are always central to, and not autonomous from, the formation of liberal public spheres. From the 1930s through to the 1970s West African intellectuals, from Senegal and Nigeria most especially, made the Black humanist philosophy of negritude into a global phenomenon. These artists, writers, politicians, publishers, academics, and organizers built a network of institutions that traversed the francophone and anglophone Black public sphere. Just as negritude’s expansion was made possible by its multilingual interlocutors, however, it was also magnified through its conscription into the Cold War 'cultural front'. An influx of state funding from Senegal, Nigeria, France, and the United States – some clandestine, others not – financed the institutions which made negritude’s fame. Most scholarship has thus emphasized the subversion of African and Black 'autonomy'. Yet framing the Black public sphere as exceptionally heteronomous presupposes that there exists a sanitized public sphere beyond bureaucratization or commodification. Instead, I argue negritude’s ascension to newfound visibility and distribution by the later twentieth century is representative of the nature of public spheres and their inextricability from state (and private) support. Presenting a revisionist history of negritude, of the “cultural” Cold War, and of public spheres and their evolution, this paper centers Africa within Black Studies and brings together history and political theory.

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