Beyond Négritude: Francophone African Women’s Pan-Africanism

*This is the fourth post in a new blog series on Women, Gender and Pan-Africanism edited by Keisha N. Blain. Blog posts in this series will examine how women and gender have shaped Pan-Africanist movements and discourses of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the United States, Europe, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. In this post, Annette Joseph-Gabriel examines the significant, yet often unacknowledged, role Francophone African women played in shaping Pan-Africanist discourse of the twentieth century.


Cover of Awa’s seventh issue published in September 1964
Cover of Awa’s September 1964 issue

In studies on the cultural and political movements of the African diaspora, there is a perceived divide between Négritude as a uniquely francophone form of expression, and Pan-Africanism as centered more on the Anglophone world. However, the activism of some francophone women suggests a different story.

In the 1960s, in the wake of independence movements throughout Africa, francophone women were key participants in the conversation on Pan-Africanism. They contributed to a body of writing that sought to establish a network of black women’s political activism across geographic and linguistic borders. The journal, Awa: La Revue de la femme noire (Awa: The Black Woman’s Journal) was one such contribution.

Published and circulated throughout Africa in the mid-1960s, this bilingual feminist journal boasted readers and contributors from Senegal to Madagascar to France to the United States. Its editor-in-chief was Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, the first holder of a journalism degree in Senegal, who also authored collections of poetry and children’s literature, and founded the Henriette Bathily Museum of Women on Gorée island.

annette-mbaye-derneville
Annette Mbaye d’Erneville (Credit: www.lesvoixdelapoesie.com)

Awa emphasized women’s voices in debates about nationalism, healthcare, gender equality and racism. It also sought to celebrate black women’s achievements on the continent and beyond by highlighting, for example, the work of Aïda Senghor, Senegal’s first woman parachutist, and Frankie Muse Freeman’s appointment to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.1  These stories sat alongside pictures of the latest African fashion trends, short stories by black writers like Joseph Zobel from Martinique and Birago Diop from Senegal, and an analysis of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Awa’s thematic and geographic reach was expansive and the journal is today an important yet underutilized archive on francophone women’s contributions to Pan-Africanist discourse.

During the 1960s, Awa shaped the conversation on the international dimensions of black women’s activism in three significant ways. First, the journal’s choice of name was a deliberate Pan-Africanist gesture in response to rising nationalism in newly-independent African countries. Second, the articles and letters cast a wide net that expanded the geographic reaches of Pan-Africanism beyond its traditional Atlantic world hubs in the Caribbean, the United States, and Europe. Finally, articles by male contributors, in the pages of a publication that sought to privilege women’s voices and experiences, point to Awa’s engagement with gender and its role in shaping the discourse on black women’s social roles in the mid-twentieth century.

Coverage of Frankie Muse Freeman’s appointment to the United States Commission on Civil Rights in Awa: La Revue de la femme noire no. 7 (September 1964).
Coverage of Frankie Muse Freeman’s appointment to the United States Commission on Civil Rights in Awa (September 1964)

The first indication of Awa’s Pan-Africanist nature was its choice of name. It is striking that a journal aimed primarily at African women readers would be titled Awa: The Black Woman’s Journal rather than Awa: The African Woman’s Journal. This choice is significant because it disrupts the perception that, with the exception of apartheid South Africa, race was a less significant category of identification than ethnic or tribal affiliations on a continent where everyone supposedly identified as black.

The journal’s name highlighted the intersections between racial and gendered identities in order to frame the subsequent debates within its pages on the specific forms of discrimination that African women faced. The editorial in the first anniversary issue described “Awa the black woman” as the “daughter of militant Africa, born in the euphoria of an enthusiastic era […] feminine but not violently feminist.”2  Personified as the quintessential African woman through the name “Awa,” a name found with slight variations throughout several West African countries, the journal attempted to straddle the boundary between feminism and respectability politics, as well as that between the local West African context and the global context of black women’s activism.

Straddling this boundary was not an easy task. One French reader, Mireille Bastard, wrote a letter to the editor, criticizing the journal for everything from its choice of font to its use of punctuation. Bastard was, however, most concerned about Awa’s tone. She asked “Is Awa nationalist?” and described nationalism as “such a violent poison” that it made her “worried” about the overly “patriotic” nature of Awa’s articles.

The editorial response, written by the persona “Awa the black woman,” proclaimed that the journal was indeed nationalist, a nationalism that encompassed the African continent and was motivated by the need to reclaim an African history that colonialism had sought to erase. Awa cautioned, however, against more insidious forms of nationalism: “Awa the black woman is against unreflecting and narrow-minded nationalism which looks more like racism than like any other ideology.”3 In this Pan-Africanist response, Awa defines the nation as a larger, composite unit beyond the singular geopolitical boundaries of any nation state. The journal rejects the insular forms of nationalism that became more divisive than unifying in the turbulent early years of African independence, in favor of highlighting the shared experiences of black women throughout the African continent.

paulette_nardal
Paulette Nardal

The francophone women who contributed letters and articles to Awa, expanded the geographic boundaries of Pan-Africanism beyond the African continent, and even beyond the more traditionally-defined Pan-African spaces in the Atlantic world. The “Courrier” section of each issue featured letters from around the world, expressing solidarity with Awa’s vision and seeking opportunities for collaboration. From Martinique, the writer Paulette Nardal wrote a glowing review of Awa in the French journal, La Paix, and a letter to Awa’s readers. Contributors wrote from Prague, Warsaw and Madagascar. The “News Flash” column also highlighted events beyond the continent that could be of interest to African women, including a performance in Berlin of Jean Genet’s play The Blacks and Douta Seck’s role in Aimé Césaire’s The Tragedy of King Christophe.

Even as Awa was engaged in a project of redrawing a Pan-Africanist map, it was also concerned with the ways in which definitions of gender roles were shaping the discourse on Pan-Africanism. A regular column titled “A Gentleman’s Commentary” sought to create a space for men to dialogue with the primarily female contributors and readers.  This masculine space was critiqued by a reader, Amadou Dia, in his letter to the editor.4 Claiming to speak on behalf of “all my black brothers,” Dia patronizingly explained that Awa’s readership was being misled by the columnist’s “assimilationist” writer whose only goal was to denigrate elements of African culture such as the dowry system. Dia also decried what he saw as Awa’s “infantilism,” “narcissism” and “immorality” in holding its journal launch at an expensive hotel. He closed his letter by exhorting his reader “la Négresse, my sister” not to be dazzled by the trappings of the title of a “modern” black woman but rather to “march to the rhythm” of her brothers, her husband and her (male) friends.

Awa’s response revealed the tense nature of these exchanges on the definitions of black womanhood. Describing Dia’s tone as “aggressive and vexing,” the editor defended the choice of launch venue and the editorial decision to include men’s voices—ironically a decision that allowed Dia to air his grievances in the journal’s pages—by explaining that Awa was a project funded entirely by the all female editorial board. Awa challenged the narrative of black women’s dependence on men for financial support and social recognition and legitimacy. The editor’s response denied Dia the power to define the terms of a “modern black woman’s” identity. It also shifted agency from the author of the “Gentleman’s Commentary” column as a patriarchal figure misleading gullible women, by reclaiming the economic and decision-making power of black women as funders, founders and owners of the journal.

Awa: La Revue de la femme noire was a textual space that privileged black women’s voices and valorized their contributions to national liberation and feminist struggles throughout the African continent and beyond. Through its choice of interlocutors, the journal made an important contribution to ongoing debates on the role of black women’s political activism and socioeconomic agency. Awa is today one of the few testaments to the presence of francophone African women in Pan-Africanist discourse in the mid-twentieth century and remains an important archive for the study of gender and Pan-Africanism in the French-speaking world.

  1. “Awa est-elle nationaliste?” Awa: La Reue de la femme noire no. 8 (October 1964), 34.
  2. For more extensive biographical information on d’Erneville and her firsthand accounts of her work, see Radio France International’s interview (in French) on its radio program En sol majeur.
  3. “Awa à Mireille,” Awa: La Reue de la femme noire no. 8 (October 1964), 35.
  4. “En toute sincérité,” Awa: La Reue de la femme noire no. 6 (June 1964), 34-35.

Annette Joseph-Gabriel

Annette Joseph-Gabriel is an Assistant Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Michigan. Her book manuscript, Decolonial Citizenship: Black Women’s Resistance in the Francophone World, examines Caribbean and African women’s anti-colonial writings and political organizing. Follow her on Twitter @AnnetteJosephG.