Part III: Fanon’s Complex Relation to the Négritude Movement: Césairean Echoes, Inflections, and Reharmonizations

Fanon, echoing Césaire, highlighted the damage inflicted upon humankind as the result of colonizing practices. Like Césaire, Fanon was convinced that when humans, through repeated acts of self-deception, eventually habituate themselves to treat other humans as animals and objects, they perform a violence on themselves that has a tendency to produce ripple effects throughout the entire social body, including the “white” part of the body politic.[1]

Césairean Négritude expressed through his powerful prose and his distinctively black surrealist poetry provided a way for the oppressed to transgress the boundaries of a white world with into a “violent affirmation” of black identity. Thus, Negritude serves both a socio-political critical function and a productive, creative function enabling the decolonization process to reach not only society in general but also, to sound a Du Boisian note, the very souls of black folks. With these goals in mind, Fanon too, following in Césaire’s footsteps, advocates a “critical return to the precolonial history and culture of the colonized nation, a radical rediscovery of the precolonial history and culture of the colonized people”;[2] however, this Césairean rediscovery of or return to the precolonial past must not be understood as a quest for some paradisiacal, unsoiled, utopian originary moment, but rather as a critical engagement with the African tradition in order to bring its past to bear upon the present emancipatory struggles.[3]

As was mentioned earlier, this notion of “return” is one of the most important, yet misunderstood aspects of Césaire’s thought.  For Césaire, the process of decolonization requires a recovery of a pre-colonial African past. The colonized must strip away the layers of white mythology, which decade after decade  taught them to be ashamed of their history and culture, while forcing them to embrace white European values. Thus, in order to go forward and to carve out a new present and future, the colonized must return to their ancestral roots “to learn the lessons of Africa’s tragedies and triumphs.”[4] Here it is important to stress that this Césairean return is not a call to a romanticized, infallible Africa that must somehow be recreated in the present.  Rather, it is a call to rediscover African values—values emphasizing a communal existence and a sharing of goods with one another rather than individualistic, consumer, and market-driven socio-political and economic structures. Thus, Césaire encouraged a return to Africa’s past with the aim of a non-repetitive translation into contemporary society of those socio-political principles, cultural values, and ancestral practices lacking in Western “enlightened civilization.”



[1] Césaire, in fact, claims that Nazism came about as a result of the “boomerang effect.” Employing his linguistic whip, Césaire unleashes a series of verbal strikes calculated to leave their marks on Europe’s back and perhaps reawaken its anesthetized conscience.  “First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, […] a gangrene sets in, a center of infection begins to spread; and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these prisoners who have been tied up and ‘interrogated,’ all these patriots that have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds toward savagery. And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss. People are surprised, […] they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, […] the crowing barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimated it, because until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; […] they have cultivated Nazism, […] they are responsible for it” (Discourse on Colonialism, 35–6).

[2] Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 126.

[3] Ibid., 127.

[4] Ibid., 128.


Part II: Fanon’s Complex Relation to the Négritude Movement: Césairean Echoes, Inflections, and Reharmonizations

Césairean Négritude, as Rabaka observes, “is wide-ranging and grounded in black radical politics and a distinct pan-African perspective; a purposeful perspective aimed not only at ‘returning’ to and reclaiming Africa, but perhaps more importantly, consciously creating an authentic African or black self.”[1] A concern for solidarity with all colonized and enslaved people of African descent occupied Césaire and will likewise be Fanon’s concern. Césaire voices his pan-African perspective toward the end of his interview with Depestre. Having acknowledged that he and his colleagues “bore the imprint of European civilization,” Césaire then adds,

but we thought that Africa could make a contribution to Europe. It was also an affirmation of our solidarity. That’s the way it was: I have always recognized that what was happening to my brothers in Algeria and the United States had its repercussions in me. I understood that I could not be indifferent to what was happening in Haiti or Africa. […] And I have come to the realization that there was a “Negro situation” that existed in different geographical areas, that Africa was also my country. There was the African continent, the Antilles, Haiti; there were Matinicians and Brazilian Negroes, etc. That’s what Negritude meant to me.[2]

As part of his aim to establish a positive black identity, Césaire drew from various elements of his French educational training and created something new, something bearing the distinctive marks of the African spirit. For example, Césaire in no way denied the French influences shaping his work. “Whether I want to or not, as a poet I express myself in French, and clearly French literature has influenced me.”[3] Even so, Césaire states emphatically that while elements of the French literary tradition function for him as a “point of departure,” his goal has always been “to create a new language, one capable of communicating the African heritage.”[4] Here one might draw an analogy between Négritude’s relation to French culture and literature and the relation between African American jazz and European classical music. That is, just as African American musicians infused European musical practices with their own distinctive African-inspired rhythms, phrasings, and improvisatory emphases creating a new and unquestionably African-American music, Césaire, Senghor, and others took elements of the French intellectual traditional and reharmonized them to sound with a decisive African tonal center. “French was a tool that I wanted to use in developing a new means of expression. I wanted to create an Antillean French, a black French that, while still being French, had a black character.”[5]

With this new language as his weapon, Césaire begins his Discourse on Colonialism with a triple staccato firing of single sentence paragraphs, each carefully crafted to condemn Europe’s so-called civilizing mission.[6] Listen to Cesaire’s diagnosis of a “decadent,” “stricken” [atteinte], “dying” Western civilization[7]—a Europe revealed as “morally [and] spiritually indefensible.”[8]

A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.

A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.[9]

Of course the culprit in view is European civilization, “Western civilization,” whose Enlightened and progressive vision has proved “incapable of solving the two major problems to which its existence has given rise: the problem of the proletariat and the colonial problem.”[10]

Unlike the white Marxists, including Sartre, Césaire and the Négritude writers could not separate the class problem from the race problem, nor did they overlook the connection between capitalism and colonialism. As Rabaka observes, “Césaire understands European civilization to rest on the colonization of non-Europeans, their lives, labor and lands. His Negritude, like Du Bois and James’s discourse, was a revolutionary humanist enterprise”,[11] attuned to the sufferings of all those exploited by the machinery of colonialism and slavery.  Although appreciative of Marx, the Negritude movement (and Fanon as well) sought to expand and revise Marxist teachings not only to include but to give top priority to race-based economic exploitation.[12]As Césaire puts it, the Communists “acted like abstract Communists” in their failure to address the “Negro problem.”[13] In contrast, the colonized and enslaved, given their concrete experience of racialized existence past and present, do not have the option to overlook the race question; thus, concludes Césaire, Négritude has a crucial role to play in the ongoing reformation of Marxism. “Marx is all right, but we need to complete Marx.”[14]

Césairean Négritude is thus concerned not only for the “political emancipation” of oppressed blacks but also, as we have seen, it has one of its chief goals the creation of a positive black social identity. However, in the context of colonialism, with their past already written and their present constantly under construction, the opportunities afforded the colonized to shape and develop their own identity are severely restricted and practically non-existent.  Because the colonial system is built on the exploitation of black others, the oppressed are increasingly viewed as things or as non-human animals. This reduction of human others to the subhuman realm harms both the colonized and the colonizer, and thus, leads to the degradation of society at large. Césaire refers to this phenomenon as the “boomerang effect of colonization.“[15] As he explains,

colonization […] dehumanizes even the most civilized man; that colonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest, which is based on contempt for the native and [is] justified by that contempt, inevitably tends to change him who undertakes it; that the colonizer, who in order to ease his conscience gets into the habit of seeing the other man as an animal accustoms himself to treating him like an animal, and tends objectively to transform himself into an animal. It is this result, this boomerang effect of colonization that I wanted to point out.[16]


[1] Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 121.

[2] Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 92.

[3] Ibid., 83.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. Césaire goes on to explain his interests in the surrealist movement and how it became for him a way to “return” to Africa. Having described surrealism as a “weapon that exploded the French language,” he then states “[s]urrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor. […] I said to myself: it’s true that superficially we are French, we bear the marks of French customs; we have been branded by Cartesian philosophy, by French rhetoric; but if we break with all that, if we plumb the depths, then what we will find is fundamentally black” (ibid., 83–4).

[6] In “Orphee Noir,” Sartre makes several poignant observations regarding the different aims of the Eurpoean surrealist poets and the Négritude poets. Having just noted that “[f]rom From Mallarmé to the Surrealists,” the goal of French poetry seems to have been the “self-destruction of language” [autodestruction du langage], Sartre goes on to say that the Negritude poets “answer the colonist’s ruse by a similar but reverse ruse: because the oppressor is present even in the language they speak, they speak that language in order to destroy it [pour la détruire]. The contemporary European poet attempts to dehumanize words in order to return them to nature; the black herald intends to de-Frenchify [défranciser] them; he will crush them, he will break their customary associations, he will join them violently” (ibid., xx, my translation).

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid., 31.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 122.

[12] Of the capitalism of his day, Césaire writes, “capitalist society, at its present stage, is incapable of establishing a concept of the rights of all men, just as it has proved incapable of establishing a system of individual ethics” (Discourse on Colonialism, 37).

[13] Ibid., 85.

[14] Ibid., 86.

[15] Ibid., 41.

[16] Ibid. Frederick Douglass makes a similar observation regarding the social degradation that occurs in a slave society.  For example, Douglass describes how his master’s wife, Mrs. Auld, who at first treated Douglass with compassion, eventually becomes socially habituated to see him as a slave, that is, as nothing more than property to be used to further the goals of white society. (See, for example, Douglass, Narrative of the Life, 40).


Part I: Fanon’s Complex Relation to the Négritude Movement: Césairean Echoes, Inflections, and Reharmonizations

While recognizing that colonialization and the construction of colonized subjectivities are contingent creations and hence malleable, Fanon nonetheless understood that the process of decolonialization and renarrating new, positive identities and conceptions of “blackness” would take time and would proceed in stages. As Pal Ahluwalia observes, Fanon’s complex relationship to the Négritude movement can help us to make sense of his strategy to move beyond the “Manichean structure” of a colonized world.[1] Given the significant influence of the Négritude movement and Césaire in particular in shaping Fanon’s thought, it is necessary to spend some time discussing the movement and how Fanon appropriates and criticizes certain aspects of Négritude’s many inflections.

The well-known Martinician surrealist poet, Aimé Césaire (1913–2008), first coined the term “Négritude” in 1939 in his work, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, and is, along with Léopold Sedar Senghor, one of the founders of Négritude.[2] As one is made aware rather quickly when engaging the literature, it is perhaps better to speak of Négritude movements or variations on Négritude themes. Reiland Rabaka, for example, distinguishes between Sartrean Négritude, Césairean Négritude, and Senghorian Négritude.[3] Over against Sartre’s claims, Senghor emphasizes the positive value of Négritude in the ongoing process of African identity formation. As Rebaka observes, “Negritude, for Senghor, was […] an affirmation of African humanity that was perpetually open to revision and redefinition.”[4] Senghor, very much like Fanon, sought to present a more genuine humanism rather than the pseudo-(racist)-humanism of Europe. That is, Senghor believed that all cultures have something distinctive and important to contribute to humankind and thus promoted, as Rabaka notes, “cultural borrowing” (Senghor’s term).[5] However, Senghor is clear that whatever Négritude might appropriate from other cultures, including European culture, would be put to use to strengthen its own (African) tradition and values. Here the idea is to uphold the uniqueness of each culture or contributing group while respecting the values of others and seeking together to better humankind. Moreover, and here again we find common ground between Senghor and Fanon, Senghor’s version of Négritude in a more authentic humanistic key “breaks free from Sartre’s Hegelian dialectical progression and Manichean thinking, and openly acknowledges that ‘the’ world, as it actually exists, is not merely a series of binary oppositions between blacks and whites, or Africans and Europeans.”[6] Rather, the world, for Fanon and Senghor, consists of multiple choruses and rhythmic movements whose distinctive qualities have the potential to create a symphony—a sounding together; when each part allows the other to be heard, difference can translate into consonant harmony as the various parts contribute toward common goals advancing human flourishing. However, intolerable dissonance sounds when one part seeks to reduce all others to its own voice, a unison voice allowing no variation, improvisation, or syncopation.[7]

As Rabaka explains, Césaire’s prose-poem, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, was viewed by Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Breton, and numerous others as a revolutionary text.[8] During Césaire’s day, educated blacks in the West Indies did everything they could, given their oppressive colonial situation and French education, to deny their blackness; they saw themselves as white and identified with the French elite.  Thus, Césaire’s poem, calling blacks back, not only to their “Caribbean history and culture,” but to their “pre-colonial and anti-colonial indigenous, continental and diasporan African history and culture” scandalized both blacks and whites. In addition to his notion of “Négritude,” the second most important term in Césaire’s poem, Notebook, is his notion of “return.” Gaining a better understanding of these two conceptions will enable us to see the deconstructive as well as constructive aims of his project.

In an interview with René Depestre found at the end of Discourse on Colonialism, Césaire describes Négritude as “a resistance to the [French] politics of assimilation”;[9] it was the creation of a third way, a way beyond the false dichotomy of a civilized European world and a barbarian African world. For Césaire and others, the struggle for a positive African identity was a “struggle against alienation,” and “[t]hat struggle gave birth to Negritude.”[10] In light of the degrading, demeaning constructions of blackness internalized by Antilleans, Césaire recognized the need both to deracinate the negative Eurocentric depictions that the colonized had come to accept, and to recapture and reinvigorate the term nègre with positive, life-affirming, and culturally significant connotations. As Césaire explains, Antilleans had come to associate shame with the term nègre; consequently, they sought “all sorts of euphemism for Negro; […] That’s when we adopted the term nègre, as a term of defiance. […] There was in us a defiant will, and we found a violent affirmation in the words nègre, and negritude.”[11] Because blacks had been forced to live a white world, as Césaire puts it, in a “atmosphere of rejection,” they came to see themselves as inferior.[12] As a result, Césaire was convinced that blacks must create a new identity for themselves, an identity affirming the concrete reality and beauty of phenotypic differences: black skin must not be seen as a sign of negativity, ugliness, evil, and so forth. Along the same lines, black history must be reconceived, or rather discovered through black eyes and reinterpreted to the world, as “a history that contains certain cultural elements of great value.”[13] In short, Césaire states, “we asserted that our Negro heritage was worthy of respect, and that this heritage was not relegated to the past, that its values were values that could still make an important contribution to the world.”[14]




[1] Ahluwalia, Out of Africa, 58.

[2] Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 119. See also, Bouvier, “Aimé Césaire, la négritude et l’ouverture poétique,” where, among other things, Bouvier recounts Césaire’s formative student years in Paris and his initial meeting and subsequent friendship with Léopold Sédar Senghor.

[3] See Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, chapter four, “Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor: Revolutionary Negritude and Radical New Negroes.”

[4] Ibid., 160.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. For a detailed analysis of Sartre’s appropriation of and departure from Hegelian philosophy, particularly with respect to Hegel’s notion of reciprocity, see Sekyi-Otu, Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience, esp. 62–72.

[7] Rabaka makes a similar claim when he says, “Negritude, like Du Bois and James’s Pan-African Marxism and, as we shall soon see, Fanon’s discourse on decolonization, was ultimately concerned with the greater good […] of humanity—that is, it was profoundly, nay radically, humanistic. In this sense […] it contributes and helps to highlight another important theme of the discourse of Africana critical theory: its revolutionary humanism, its deep and abiding concern […for] to use Fanon’s phrase, […] suffering humanity as a whole” (Africana Critical Theory, 160–61).

[8] Ibid., 119–20.

[9] Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 88.

[10] Ibid., 89.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 91.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 92.


Part III: Augustine and Foucault on Developing an Ethic of Humility, Confessional Technologies in a Secular Key, the Birth of the Scientia Sexualis, and the “New” Priesthood

As we have seen, with the old categories of sin and salvation transmuted into the language of pathology and cure, the role of experts in our everyday lives becomes increasingly common and (seemingly) “natural.” As the new discourse of normalization gains ground, playing on “our fears of pathology” and “entic[ing] us with visions of unending health,” it seems all the more “natural” to turn to these highly trained experts when our lives begin to fissure, whether physically or mentally.[1] Consonant with Foucault’s analyses, consider the ways that we today entrust ourselves with the utmost faith to medical experts. For example, we allow them to inquire into the most intimate details of our lives, both past and present; in fact, in a most unreflective casual manner, we willingly hand over our souls and bodies so that they may poke, prod, cut, inject, and anesthetize us, assuming in an act of faith that they have our best interests in view. Because now our seemingly natural yet socially created impulse is to turn to specialists of various kinds—specialists with particular knowledge of which we have little or no access apart from submitting ourselves to their care—, our relation to these experts is one-sidedly stacked in their favor.

With the psychiatrist/patient relation a new power-knowledge complex is formed.  This asymmetrical relationship shares certain similarities with the power-knowledge differential which constituted the confessor/confessee relationship. However, having been translated into a scientific and secular key, the ailing person is not instructed to confess sins and cry out for divine mercy and grace; rather, he or she is encouraged throw off such guilt-ridden, constricting thoughts in order to develop a positive, autonomous self.[2] Although speaking of sex and the “repressive hypothesis,” Foucault sees rightly how the new narratives—as he puts it, the “preaching” of the new physician-priests—have conditioned us to believe in their version of salvation now, evermore feeding our “longing for the garden of earthly delights.”[3] On the final page of his book, The History of Sexuality, volume 1, Foucault pens a noteworthy paragraph, summarizing how our embrace of these modern discourses, particularly the discourse about sex, ought to make us pause and consider how, when all is said and done, we may have been duped. Having discussed Freud’s place in this grand narrative about sex and its secrets, Foucault then states:

We are often reminded of the countless procedures which Christianity once employed to make us detest the body; but let us ponder all the ruses that were employed for centuries to make us love sex, to make the knowledge of it desirable and everything said about it precious. Let us consider the stratagems by which we were induced to apply all our skills to discovering its secrets, by which we were attached to the obligation to draw out its truth, and made guilty for having failed to recognize it for so long. These devices are what ought to make us wonder today.[4]

Whether we focus on discourses about sex or the claims of contemporary biotechnologies, this scientized,[5] enlightened “good news” holds out promises that both Foucault and Augustine call into question. Given what we have seen of Augustine’s embrace of our finitude and fallibility, he too would take issue with these and any narratives proclaiming hope in a utopian existence now. For Augustine, human solidarity began with Adam and finds its fulfillment in Christ. Our present salvation in Christ will not reach its final perfection in this life; consequently, given our solidarity with Adam and thus, as Schuld puts it, our “solidarity in sin,” our present existence is one of eschatological tension and existential struggle in which our hope and joy coexist continually with disappointment and pain. Though starting from very different perspectives and fundamental assumptions, both Foucault and Augustine speak in this instance with one voice, warning us to be weary of embracing claims, scientific or otherwise, promising to free us from “relational fragility, ambiguity, and finitude.”[6] Rather, than certitude based on so-called “scientific objectivity,” they point us toward a more humble approach to knowledge, urging us to reject a sovereign, autonomous self, and to embrace a decentered, ever-enigmatic self “on the way” (in via).


[1] Schuld, Foucault and Augustine, 154.

[2] As Schuld puts it, our in modern rituals, “’fragments of darkness’ are countered not through confessing our fallibility and need for mercy and sanctifying grace but through bold exercises of autonomy. Not self-forgetting love and surrender but self-assertion frees one from all such dangerous impulses” (ibid., 153).

[3] Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, 7. Emphasis added.

[4] Ibid., 159.

[5] Schuld suggests that certain instantiations of biogenetics may be replacing discourses about sex and thus serving as the new hermeneutical key to human existence. For her discussion of the “science of genetics, see Foucault and Augustine, 155-6.

[6] Ibid., 156-7. As Schuld points out, and I agree, Augustine’s view “would require of us not the rejection of contemporary science or the denial of its manifest contributions to personal and social well-being but a clear-eyed vigilance concerning the way s in which it is applied, especially with regard to those who are most vulnerable” (ibid., 157). I take Foucault’s view to be similar, namely, he is not advocating a full-scale rejection of science, psychiatry, or medicine; rather, he wants us to be aware of the dangers of embracing their respective claims uncritically, especially given the unequal and potentially harmful power-knowledge differential involved.