Paulette Nardal

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Paulette Nardal
Paulette Nardal.jpg
Born(1896-10-12)12 October 1896
Died16 February 1985(1985-02-16) (aged 88)
Occupationwriter, journalist, activist
Known forFirst black person to study at the Sorbonne

Paulette Nardal (12 October 1896 – 16 February 1985) was an Afro-Martiniquais writer and journalist and one of the drivers of the development of a black literary consciousness. She was one of the authors involved in the creation of the Négritude genre and introduced French intellectuals to the works of members of the Harlem Renaissance through her translations.

Born into the upper-middle class on Martinique, Nardal became a teacher and went to complete her education in Paris. She was the first black person to study at the Sorbonne and established an influential literary Clamart Salon with her sisters which explored the experiences of the African diaspora. As a journalist and author, she published works which advocated a Pan-African awareness and acknowledged the similarities of challenges faced by people due to racism and sexism. Though an ardent feminist, she was not radical, encouraging women to work within the existing social structures to achieve political influence.

At the beginning of World War II, Nardal fled France, but was injured when a submarine attacked her ship, causing a lifelong disability. Returning to Martinique, she established feminist organizations and newspapers encouraging educated women to channel their energies into social improvement. She sponsored home economic training and founded nursery schools for impoverished women. Because of her understanding of issues facing the populations of the Caribbean, she was hired to work as an area specialist at the United Nations. Nardal was the first black woman to hold an official post in the Division of Non-Self-Governing Territories at the UN.

When she returned to Martinique after her UN position, she worked to preserve the music traditions of the country. She wrote a history of traditional music styles for the centennial celebration of the abolition of slavery on the island and developed a choir which celebrated the African-roots of the music of Martinique.

Early life[edit]

Paulette Nardal was born on 12 October 1896 in Le François, Martinique,[1][2] to Louise (née Achille) and Paul Nardal. Her father was a construction engineer, who had been trained in France and her mother was a piano teacher.[1] She was the eldest of seven sisters in the family, which was a part of the island's small upper-middle class black community.[3] She attended school at the Colonial College for Girls and studied English in the West Indies.[2] After graduating from high school, Nardal became a teacher but decided to continue her education in Paris. At the age of 24, she enrolled at the Sorbonne to study English, the first black person to attend the university. She quickly became involved in the artistic circle of the French intelligentsia, coming under the influence of the Harlem Renaissance writers.[3] Hosting a salon, with her sisters Jane and Andrée,[2] Nardal brought together black intellectuals from Africa, the Caribbean and the United States to discuss their experiences of being black and being part of the diaspora.[4]

French years[edit]

After completing her studies in Paris, Nardal briefly returned to teaching in Martinique but was back in Paris within a year, where she began working as a journalist,[5] writing for such publications as, France-Outremer, Le Cri des Nègres,[6] Le Soir and La Dépêche africaine and later L'Étudiant noir.[5] Her writing included literary works, critiques, journalism, discourses on colonialism, and a tourist guide called Guide des Colonies Françaises that was commissioned by the governments of the islands of the French Antilles. Even at this early point, she wrote about women in works such as En Exile (In Exile) (1929), a short story about an exiled Caribbean woman, and Une femme sculpteur noir (A Black Woman Sculptor) (1930), a piece about the American sculptor Augusta Savage.[7] She also wrote significantly about her consciousness of race and black solidarity[8] as well as the double standard of marginalizing women. In October 1931, she founded a journal called La Revue du monde noir (Review of the Black World)[2] with her sisters; Louis Jean Finot, a French novelist; Léo Sajous, a Haitian scholar; and Clara W. Shepard, an African-American teacher and translator. Nardal's roles included contributing to the journal, serving as editor and translator, as well as moving the journal toward a more Pan-African audience.[9] Through her translations of the works of Harlem Renaissance writers, she influenced Aimé Césaire, Léon Damas and Léopold Senghor,[8] who were later credited as the founders of the Négritude movement. As Nardal said, "…we were but women, real pioneers—let’s say we blazed the trail."[10]

Six issues of La Revue du monde noir were published before the journal stopped production in April 1932. Nardal’s essay in the final issue was titled Eveil de la conscience de race (The Awakening of Race Consciousness) and evaluated the progression of Caribbean intellectuals' racial awareness.[11] Both the later leaders of the Négritude movement and the group called Légitime Défense, made of up Afro-Caribbean radical surrealists and communists, were significantly influenced in their ideas by this essay, in which Nardal makes a case for African pride and acknowledgement of the shared history of slavery.[12] Nardal's view of pride did not advocate giving up one's French identity, or ending French rule in the colonies, but instead favored a middle-ground, embracing both Afro-Caribbean and French cultures.[13] Both Mamadou Badiane and Shireen K. Lewis argue that Nardal's reflections on race began nearly a decade before Césaire and Senghor were credited with founding the philosophy of Négritude, concluding that women were both the movement's founders and its inspiration.[14][10] Senghor acknowledged Nardal's involvement in founding the "New Negro Movement" in a speech delivered at Howard University in 1966.[15]

After the conclusion of the journal, Nardal began working as the secretary of Galandou Diouf, Senegalese deputy in the French National Assembly.[5] She was actively involved in the demonstrations which followed the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia,[5] and went to Senegal in 1937 to try to rally others to the cause against the invasion.[16] She was also active with feminist organizations including Ad Lucem Per Caritatem and the Union Féminine Civique et Sociale throughout the 1930s. When forced to flee France in 1939 because of World War II,[5] Nardal boarded a ship flying under protection of the Red Cross. When the ship was torpedoed off the English coast, Nardal fractured both of her knees jumping into a lifeboat and had to be hospitalized in England. She never fully recovered from her injuries.[3]

Return to Martinique[edit]

Upon recuperating sufficiently to travel, Nardal returned to Martinique. She settled in Fort-de-France and initially worked as an English teacher for dissidents wanting to support General de Gaulle.[17] Because Caribbean recruits were trained in the British West Indies, it was imperative that they learn English before they could receive military training.[18] When the war ended, she began implementing the ideas of industrial education, teaching women home economics to lift them out of poverty.[19] She also implemented nursery schools to educate the children of working mothers.[20] She worked towards suffrage and, when women gained the right to vote in 1944, urged women to take up the political mantle and work towards resolving social problems.[21] In December, she founded l'Association le Rassemblement féminin (Women's Rally Association), targeting liberal professional women. The organization was in part founded to offset the more radical feminists involved with l'Union des femmes de la Martinique (Union of Women of Martinique), whose membership is primarily working-class and philosophically aligned with the communists.[22] In 1945, she founded a journal, La Femme dans la Cite (Woman in the City) to coax middle-class readers into making the connection between improving the mind through industry[19] and awakening their social consciousness.[21] The journal was the only newspaper in the area[20] and Nardal used it to try to get women out to vote in the 1945 elections. The communists won a majority of seats and, the following year, Nardal wrote several editorials stressing to women the importance of gaining an understanding of world issues and voting. Her politics were conservative right center and while she supported women's equality, she was not militant. She was aware of inequality and wanted women to educate themselves to improve their situation, but she was not in favor overthrowing existing regimes.[23]

In 1946, Nardal was nominated to serve as a delegate to the United Nations.[24] She arrived in New York City, where she served as an area specialist. She was the first black woman to hold an official post in the Division of Non-Self-Governing Territories,[20] serving for 18 months.[24] Returning to Martinique in 1948, Nadal, with help from her sister Alice, prepared a history on Martinique's musical heritage as her contribution to the celebrations surrounding the centenary of the abolition of slavery on the island. Because the traditional music, bèlè and ladjia, were giving way to jazz, Nardal wanted to improve education addressing the musical traditions. She later founded a choir to promote and preserve African-rooted traditional music including folk songs, spirituals, classical and South American songs.[18] She continued to publish La Femme dans la Cite until 1951.[25]

Nardal died on 16 February 1985, in Marinique.[3] Posthumously, Jil Servant made a biographical movie in conjunction with France-Antilles T.V. in 2004 titled, Paulette Nardal, la fierté d'être négresse (Paulette Nardal, proud to be a black woman) about Nardal's life.[26] In 2009, a collection of her essays that had been printed in La Femme dans la Cite was translated and published by T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting.[25]



  1. ^ a b Edwards 2009, p. 152.
  2. ^ a b c d Sharpley-Whiting 2015, p. 149.
  3. ^ a b c d Histoire France 2009.
  4. ^ Sharpley-Whiting 2000, pp. 9-10.
  5. ^ a b c d e Edwards 2009, p. 154.
  6. ^ Edwards 2009, p. 121.
  7. ^ Lewis 2006, p. 58.
  8. ^ a b Lewis 2006, p. 60.
  9. ^ Badiane 2010, p. 47.
  10. ^ a b Lewis 2006, p. 55.
  11. ^ Ropartz, Elisabeth (31 December 2018). "Women History Forgot : Paulette Nardal". Harness Magazine. Archived from the original on 10 January 2019. Retrieved 10 January 2019.
  12. ^ Lewis 2006, p. 61.
  13. ^ Lewis 2006, p. 62.
  14. ^ Badiane 2010, p. 81.
  15. ^ The Pittsburgh Courier 1966.
  16. ^ Tesseron 2006.
  17. ^ Koda 2013.
  18. ^ a b Association de Recherche 2007.
  19. ^ a b Sharpley-Whiting 2015, p. 151.
  20. ^ a b c The New York Age 1947.
  21. ^ a b Lewis 2006, p. 65.
  22. ^ Pago 2000.
  23. ^ Lewis 2006, pp. 66-67.
  24. ^ a b Lewis 2006, p. 68.
  25. ^ a b State University of New York Press 2009.
  26. ^ Netlex News 2009.