As a francophone critic, Gilbert Ilboudo, put it, "It would certainly not be an idle task to try and determine what is really original in the substance of African literature" (30). However, Ilboudo's suggestion was not as simple as it might seem. By "original" did he mean what is essentially African in the literature? Did he mean Negritude? It would not be an idle task, certainly, to determine what Negritude is. Such a task is well beyond the scope of this study, of course, just as this chapter suggests it was beyond the scope of the African critics themselves in the early years of their criticism. Nevertheless, Negritude has been an important theme in African literary criticism - theoretical and applied -- since Leopold Senghor began explicating the term in the 1930s.
More has been written on Negritude, perhaps, than on any other single concept concerning African literature. In the first two decades after World War II it was easily the most controversial issue among the critics themselves, and generated the most heated debate in journals and at the various conferences at which African critics gathered over the years. It has often been thought of as the dividing line between French-speaking and English-speaking African critics, though this chapter will indicate that this line was by no means rigid -- exceptions being found on both sides of it.
No attempt will be made here to define Negritude, but rather an attempt will be made to show that, whatever it is, it has been of central concern to African critics. It will also be seen that, while the large part of the discussion of it has been theoretical, Negritude has also been applied as a critical standard.
The early story of literary Negritude is largely a story of two critics: Leopold Senghor and Ezekiel Mphahlele, with other critics rallying around one of the two main camps.