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.


4 thoughts on “Part III: Fanon’s Complex Relation to the Négritude Movement: Césairean Echoes, Inflections, and Reharmonizations”

  1. Hi Cynthia,
    You wrote another good post! I’m really happy you’re pursuing this important series further.

    Here’s my comment, speaking from the perspective of a ltirary scholar. Rabaka and the exception of few other writers do not read the French word “retour” (“Return”) in “Cahier” correctly. The language in Cesaire’s Cahier (that is, the French Text) is very specific. “Retour” can be interpreted in two different ways, and this is how Cesaire uses the word anyway. In both cases, “retour” signals an action and ultimately a series of movements. The action is both physical and mental: mental in the sense of mental rehabilitation of one’s consciousness, physical in the context of a physical (literal) return or departure.

    There are two references of “retour” in “Cahier.” The first reference is the ideological return to precolonial African cultures and values as the project of reconstituting the black self, consciousness, public image, and the critical reimagining of the future world of black people, what Fanon would advocate in “Les damnes de la terre” as the program of “revolutionary humanism,” the concept of the new man. The second reference is the poet’s [Cesaire’s] anticipated (physical) return to Martinique, his homeland, from Paris. In fact, “retour” is used in relation to another verb, “partir” (“To go away”) in the French Text. Cesaire also sees his departure from France to Martinique as the process of reconstituting his own people of Martinique, that is imputing a new meaning and a new experience on their lived world and their lived experiences.


  2. Hi Lou, Thanks for your comment. So on your read, are you saying that if one does not physically return to one’s geographical origin, one cannot truly participate in the kind of return Cesaire has in view? If so, then are you saying that Fanon, because he did not return to Maritinque, he did not “return” and thus failed in some significant sense (that is, using Cesaire’s notion as a standard)? If so, that seems consonant to some extent with A. Memmi’s criticism of Fanon; however, I don’t find it very convincing, as it seems overly literal and does not leave room for more flexible, metaphoric interpretations. Just my two cents : )

    Best wishes, Cynthia

  3. Hi Cynthia:
    What I am suggesting is the idea that “retour” has a double meaning in “Cahier.” It connotes both a physical and mental return. Commentators on the poem have often overlooked the former meaning. In other words, there is a relationship between Cesaire’s articulations of a philosophy of negritude to the concept of a physical return to the Caribbean landscape, not Africa. In this framework, Cesairian negritude is rooted on Caribbean soil, experience and values. Cesaire’s negritude is not defined as “black Africa’s cultural patrimony,” as Senghor maintained. Rather it is “the acknowledgment of a fact, revolt, and the acceptance of responsibility for the destiny of his race.” The way “retour” is rhetorically deployed in the poem is critical,with theoretical difference. For, retour as a concept establishes the distinction between Senghorien negritude and Cesairian negritude.

    We need to talk about this topic further. Let me go back to editing .:-)
    * By the way, I received the book yesterday.
    Merci, Lou

  4. Dear Lou,

    Thanks for the additional clarifying comments. What you say makes sense; however, is it not still possible for someone like Fanon to take up Cesairean Negritude or at least many of its central themes and develop and apply these more broadly, that is, beyond Carribean soil and people. If not, then so much of the richness of Cesaire’s thought seems lost to the world, and he himself saw what he was doing both in terms of his own people and as a way to contribute to humankind and other cultures (at least he says that in his _Discourse on Colonialism_). Does that make sense? We definitely need to figure out a way to grab coffee or something and continue this conversation in person–it would be a joy!

    Best wishes,

    p.s. I’m glad that you received the book safe and sound ; )

Comments are closed.