2 February 2024

The seven Nardal sisters.


Do you know Paulette Nardal (1896-1985)? Maybe not. His story resurfaced in 2019, when Philippe Grollemund published the book Black Woman Prides. Interviews/memoirs of Paulette Nardal, published by L’Harmattan. This Martinican intellectual, journalist, was, with her sisters, one of the central figures of “Paris Noir” in the 1920s and 1930s. By creating The Black World Review in 1931, with the writer Léo Sajous, they played a founding role in the intellectual movement of negritude.

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“(Aimé) Césaire and (Léopold Sédar) Senghor took the ideas that we brandished and expressed them with much more spark and brilliance. We were only women! But we have unquestionably paved the way for them.”, affirmed Paulette Nardal. The documentary by Léa Mormin-Chauvac and Marie-Christine Gambart soberly tells the story of an invisibilization but above all that of the inevitable political antagonisms that any struggle, here anti-racist and feminist, entails. A story that is all the more difficult to tell since Paulette Nardal lost a large part of her archives in the fire of her house in 1956.

Fortunately, his descendants and relatives have collected photographs, letters, or archives of The Black World Review. These dispersed initiatives enabled the two women to highlight the paradoxes and “the ambivalence of commitments” of this intellectual, descendant of a slave, whom belonging to the Creole Catholic intellectual bourgeoisie and an immoderate belief in the meritocratic ideal will not protect from the experience of othering in Paris.

Literary and political fair

By holding a literary and political salon in her apartment in Clamart (Hauts-de-Seine), like her parents in Fort-de-France, in Martinique, in the interwar period, Paulette Nardal brought together black diasporas, including major figures of the “Harlem Renaissance”. Slavery has only been abolished for eighty years, France is still a colonial empire. At the heart of fruitful exchanges, in Clamart: current events, the fate of the colonies, the condition of blacks, self-alienation, emancipation through culture…

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But after the colonial exhibition of 1931 and its human zoos, more radical movements were born. The bubbling initiated by the Nardals is overtaken by the spread of communism. Back in Martinique and when women finally obtained the right to vote, in April 1944, Paulette Nardal created an ephemeral feminist movement then reconnected with her passion for Negro spirituals by founding a choir.

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If Senghor ends up recognizing him, in the 1960s, a place in the genealogy of negritude, we have to wait for the black studies Americans to analyze the work of the Nardal sisters in terms of racism and sexism. In the meantime, why not, the opening of a museum.

The Nardal Sisters, the forgotten ones of negritude, documentary by Léa Mormin-Chauvac and Marie-Christine Gambart (Fr., 2023, 52 min). Broadcast on France 5 as part of the program “La Case du siècle” and available on demand on France.tv until September 20.

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