‘Hungarian Negro’: Race and Coloniality in Interwar Hungarian Literature


Art beyond the Politics: Africa and the ‘Other’ Europe during the Cold War, Vilnius Academy of Arts, Lithuania, May 5–6, 2022.

Black African and Afro-American writers’ anti-colonial and anti-racist, specifically Pan-African and négritude literature appeared in translations throughout the socialist Eastern Bloc – almost completely to be forgotten after 1989. Current discussions on socialist era anti-colonialism and the Cold War, however, often conceal this literature’s deeper roots in the early 20th century diasporic networks of the Black Atlantic. In fact, Eastern Europeans, especially in the communist movement, were also involved in the circulation networks of colonial metropoles, bringing home ideas and experiences about race and coloniality that shaped their writings. This literature sometimes expressed a semiperipheral raciality: ‘peripheral whites’ identifying with the black position or with being the ‘white negros’ of Europe. This paper provides an overview by focusing on three different Hungarian cases from the art and documentary exhibition Transperiphery Movement: Global Eastern Europe and Global South (transperiphery.com), co-curated by Eszter Szakács and the present author as part of the OFF-Biennale Budapest in May 2021. The first is French Guyanese writer René Maran’s Batouala (1921), the first ‘negro novel’ which received the prestigious Goncourt Prize in Paris, and was translated into Hungarian in 1922 by the famous writer-poet Dezső Kosztolányi. By exploring the novel’s Hungarian reception, it shows how blackness and criticism of French colonialism was interpreted and ultimately downplayed by Kosztolányi’s Westcentrism and ambiguous relation to race, well demonstrated by his recently discovered anti-Semitic writings. The second case study follows the – today almost unknown – Hungarian Jewish writer Illés Kaczér’s Ikongo Will Not Die (1936): the first Hungarian ‘negro novel’ and contribution to Pan-Africanism, which protested against Nazism and Fascism internationally in numerous translations. The third example looks at how the famous Hungarian Jewish poet Miklós Radnóti was influenced by the late 1920s French avantgarde and the Paris Colonial Exhibition in 1931, which inspired him to write poetry about the racially subjugated black African. Radnóti’s translations of African poetry and folk tales in the book Karunga (1944) was edited by István Kende, who became an important Africanist and anti-colonial reporter in the socialist era. The paper aims to contest the ‘Cold War paradigm’ by interpreting these deeper connections to the anti-Semitic interwar era within global colonialism. In conclusion, it asks why and how these authors and writings were either completely forgotten or repositioned to demonstrate socialist era anti-colonialism and anti-racist solidarity with the postcolonial countries of the Third World.