Per Caritatem

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]

 

Notes

 


[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.

 


6 Responses so far

Good post! Let me make a brief comment.
The tension in Senghor’s theorization of cultural and identiy, and his negritude philosophy is this: on one hand, Senghor gladly embraced the idea of “métissage of civilizations and cultures,” on the other hand, he argues fervently for an explicit civilization and culture could be said “negroid.” In interviews, Senghor often states that his negritude “consciousness” became something of great importance, as a student at Libermann seminary in Senegal (1924-1928), that is before his sojourn to Paris. Here, Senghor must have had in mind pre-colonial African cultures and civilizations (which Cheikh Anta Diop defends in his seminal studies: Nations nègres et culture, L’ Afrique noire pré-coloniale, L’ unité culturelle de l’Afrique noire: domaines du patriarcat et du matriarcat dans l’antiquité classique, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality)that were not in contact with European’s. Second, Senghor writes: “Je l’ai dit, c’est des le séminaire Libermann, en 1924-1928, que j’ai conçu l’idée d’une civilisation noire, originale et belle, en réaction contre le Père Albert Lalouse, qui dirigeait le séminaire. En effet, celui-ci nous affirmait que nous n’avions pas de « civilisation » et que le rôle de la France était de nous civiliser par la politique de l’assimilation” (I said it, it is at Libermann seminary, in 1924-1928, that I conceived the idea of a black civilization, original and beautiful, in reaction against the Father Albert Lalouse, who directed the seminary. Indeed, this one (Lalouse) affirmed us that we did not have “civilization” and that the role of France was to civilize us by the policy of the assimilation. Third and finally, Senghor comments, “Il y a, non seulement une civilisation, mais une culture noire” (“There is, not only a civilisation, but also a black culture”). Yet the central issue for the negritude founders).

In the words of Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that:-) I look forward to part II.


Is this discussion something that would help the Anglican Communion in its quest for self-understanding in the current controversies? beyond the “presenting issue” in the Anglican controversy are some of the points raised in the negritude movement. I was trying to say as much at a recent consultation. This helps me articulate some of my thoughts. Looking forward to the next post.


Hi Lou, Thanks for your comment. Do you see Senghor’s position as being more strictly “essentialist” than Cesaire’s? That is, it seems to me, as we were discussing at the party, that Cesaire could be read as having a more complex very than promoting a mere essentialism of “blackness.” That is, he too, like Fanon, advocated for a kind of “strategic essentialism.” Best wishes, Cynthia


Hi James, Sure, I think that the identity issues that the Negritude writers were dealing with are definitely analogous–certainly not the same–to current identity issues in the Anglican communion. Of course, one would want to qualify carefully the differences in the analogy, but yes I can see how certain principles or ways of approaching the issues could be similar and fruitful. Best wishes, Cynthia


Cynthia,

This is a very interesting read. I must say, as one who wrote my honors thesis on the American Black Experience (a Narrative of disadvantage), becoming exposed to this literature of the Negritude (for basically the first time) provides more substance to my understanding and knowledge of this issue (I cannot yet define the nature or the advantage it brings, though). It is very interesting to hear about the struggle of black identity realization (or as Cesaire terms it, the need to “return” back to recovering a true or “pure”(?) black identity) of Non-American blacks. Since most American Scholars, from Dubois, to the early Chicago sociologists (Burgess, Sutherland, etc) have always found the anomie experienced by American blacks concomitant with the distinctively hypocritical message of the American Dream, and just as distinctively hypocritical, American Calvinism, I have never even considered the problems of those Caribbean blacks under French colonialism. This is a new and very interesting topic for me. Several parts of your blog stood out to me:

“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”

I believe Sartre is calling it as it is, as it relates to blacks and whites (especially in the States). I do think that the American epistemology is not analogical at all, but exists through this “series of binary oppositions between black and white”. While European culture is still mostly class-based, America uses a more fluid (and intractable) system of distinction (that is still de facto oppression) through a so-called free market ideology towards its citizenry that has already been fixed within this binary of opposition, but is masked as democratic (when information asymmetry impedes a true democratic system). Yet my future studies and heart is with Fanon and Senghor towards an analogical approach to humanity, seeing difference more as distance to be “made up”, and variation to be realized.

I agree with “Césaire and others, the struggle for a positive African identity was a ‘struggle against alienation,’”. This alienation is now being mass-produced through atomization, by the now trendy personalizing of space (which is only a “privatization” of bodies and virtue). This is what I feel is at stake for the discourse of black identity. It is a misstep by black leaders to ask blacks to reject American culture, when, as was mentioned earlier, we can “create a symphony—a sounding together” of our distinct culture and the American culture. When the black assimilates into the American culture “transactionally”, it is a zero-sum approach, that eliminates what the black identity has to offer, and thus ends up a white soul with black skin. On the other hand, when a black rejects American culture, while in American culture, this anti-participation only solidifies the alienation that Césaire seems to oppose. As you stated, “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.”

This is why I don’t think it is neither possible nor wise to promote as you noted of Césaire as advocating, that “blacks must create a new identity for themselves…” I think the attempt to “create something new” is a stay over of modernity, which post-modernity has long made a commodity of now. The obsolescence of experience, I call it. This is why I like Radical orthodoxy, because I see the past as the answer for the future, and that anything “new” is misleading. I feel blacks have a history, for better or worse, which they have for a very long time cultivated as their own, within a context of alienation, rejection, oppression, struggle, perseverance, etc., which has created something different that must now be brought to the table of American culture, (not “the market” for the purposes of commodification) but for participation, in pride and with sophistication, towards an increased realization of our human culture. I feel once we accept that all of culture is ours to claim and we can justly use and express it in various ways that were never explored before, all will benefit. I am sure my opinion is still very inchoate, and needs more education, but if I were asked to respond to what you wrote, this is what it would be. But I will definitely read more!

CA


Dear Collins,

I love what you have to say in your insightful and thought comment. What you say about America and the so-called “free” market ideology is spot on in my opinion. Regarding Césaire and the creation of a “new” identity, I think it is possible to read him in a more rhetorical and historical key. That is, I don’t think that he is embracing a modern, Enlightenment dismissal of tradition etc., but rather, given the calcification of the oppressive colonial context and the need to, in the first stage of active resistance and re-formation of black subjectivity, he is saying we need a “new” (=non-bleached, white-washed) understanding of what it is to be black. Césaire himself readily admitted his debts to European literary influences (surrealism, e.g.); however, he also is quick to add that he wants to de-Frenchify the language and to use it to create “tonalities” that allow African values etc. to be heard; the deconstructionists have nothing on Césaire!

Thanks again for your excellent contribution to the conversation,

Cynthia