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

Undoubtedly, Fanon greatly admired Césaire and the Négritude writers. Césaire, in fact, had influenced not only his own thinking about the need to develop a positive, black social identity, but he helped to inspire countless young Antilleans, as Foucault would say, to imagine themselves otherwise, that is, black-wise. Fanon, of course, did more than merely drink deeply from Césaire’s intellectual well, he likewise put his teacher’s ideas into practice. After all, Négritude was set on bringing about social change. “Négritude was a theory that promoted praxis toward the end of transforming [various socio-political, cultural, and economic] aspects of African life worlds in the best interests of persons of African descent” and beyond.[1] Like Césaire, Fanon was a Pan-Africanist, although his version of Pan-Africanism often brought him into conflict with activists of various stripes.[2] Nonetheless, he shared with the Négritude writers a desire to recover African values and to share those values with the world.

However, as Rabaka observes, although “Negritude […] was the very foundation upon which Frantz Fanon developed his discourse on decolonization,” from the beginning “Fanon was not an uncritical disciple of Cesairean Negritude.”[3] Fanon’s appreciation of the movement was not without misgivings and sharp criticisms. For example, through the influence of his brother, Joby, came to see Césaire’s “cultural nationalism” as promoting a “vanguardism and top-down” approach that Fanon would later attack in his book, The Wretched of the Earth.[4] Likewise, although reluctantly, Fanon concluded that some (but not all) aspects of Sartre’s critique were correct.[5] As Memmi explains, Sartre had argued that Negritude a mere weak phase in the black emancipatory struggle; consequently, Négritude is reduced to mere negativity.[6] Fanon agrees that Négritude is a response to the violence of colonization; however, he does not agree that Négritude is mere negativity. Consequently, I find Memmi’s criticisms of Fanon overly severe and driven too much by his particular psychological reading of Fanon’s failure to return to his West Indian roots. On my interpretation, Fanon’s relation to the Négritude movement and his acceptance in part of Sartre’s critique is ambivalent and more multilayered than Memmi is willing to grant.[7] On the one hand, Fanon chides Sartre’s view of Négritude for having forgotten that “the black man suffers in his body quite differently from the white man.”[8] On the other hand, Fanon’s agreement with Sartre’s assessment that Négritude was a phase through which one must pass rather than abide, might be interpreted as something akin to akin to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s notion of “strategic essentialism.”[9] According to Spivak’s account, the subjugated group, in order to move beyond binaries such as colonized/colonizer, develops an essentialist identity to promote group pride and unity, to advance and achieve specific, socio-political goals, and to foster healing. This stage thus has a decidedly therapeutic function; once its purposes are accomplished, it (qua essentialist narrative, not qua positive social identity narrative) is altered and expanded in order to address new historical contexts and conflicts; hence the denomination, strategic essentialism. In other words, Fanon can reject essentialzed notions of blackness and still affirm the crucial aspects of Césairean Négritude—the development and continued fostering of a positive, black, social identity, a non-repetitive “return” to and ongoing reappropriation of African values, and a revolutionary call to decolonization and a historically attuned humanism.


[1] Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 171.

[2] See Rabaka’s discussion on Fanon’s Pan-Africanism, ibid., 167–68.

[3] Ibid., 171.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See, for example, Sartre, “Orphée Noir,” dans Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française, esp. xli. In addition to his claim that Négritude is a “weak stage” [le temps faible], an antithesis in the dialectic of which “white supremacy is the thesis” [la suprématie du blanc est la thèse] and that which “exists for its own destruction” [est pour se détruire], Sartre also claims that Négritude is intended as a preparatory stage for the ultimate synthesis, namely the “realization of a human in a society without races” [réalisation de l’humain dans une société sans races] (ibid.). As Rabaka points out, particularly with respect to the idea of a postracial society, Sartrean Négritude is at odds with both Césaire and Senghor’s articulations of Négritude. See, for example, Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, chapter four, “Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor: Revolutionary Negritude and Radical New Negroes,” esp. 112–19. Rabaka also underscores how Sartre and the (white) Marxists generally speaking have failed to see the connection between capitalism and colonialism and capitalism and racism, whereas Césaire and other black radicals, having lived an exploited existence, refuse to make colonialism and racism secondary issues (ibid., see esp. 116–19).

[6] Memmi, “La vie impossible de Frantz Fanon,” 255. Regarding Sartre’s influence on Fanon, Memmi writes: “[Sartre] déclarant que la négritude n’est jamais que le temps faible dans la dialectique de libération du Noir. Fanon a fortement été impressionné par Sartre, jusqu’a la fin de sa vie, […] Et lorsque, dan Orphée noir, Sartre a tente de réduire la négritude a sa négativité […] Fanon en a été bouleverse; il a eu le sentiment d’avoir été expulse de lui-même. Il a ce sentiment, il est bouleverse, mais il accepte les conclusions de Sartre” (ibid.). (“[Sartre] declared that Négritude was nothing but the weak stage in the dialectic of Black liberation. To the very end of his life, Fanon was greatly impressed by Sartre, […] And when, in Black Orpheus, Sartre attempted to reduce Negritude to its negativity […] Fanon was shattered; he has the experience of having been expelled from himself. He has this experience, he is shattered, yet he accepts Sartre’s conclusions.” My translation).

[7] Ironically, aspects of Memmi’s critique of Sartre, on my reading of Fanon, are harmonious with Fanon’s own position on Sartre. For example, Memmi states that even if one concedes Sartre’s point about Négritude as a negative phase in the dialectic, one must still understand the historical and embodied significance of this phase. The existential process of black people forging their own identity invests this negative stage with a positivity overlooked by Sartre. “ […] s’il est permis de penser avec Sartre que la négritude […] est un temps faible, et même relativement négative, ce temps-la, il faut bien le vivre, avant de passer au suivant; et du fait qu’il est vécu, il acquiert son poids, très lourd, de positivité. L’erreur de Sartre, toujours la même, est de ne pas assez voir que même la négativité, le malheur, vécus, deviennent en quelque manière chair et sang, en somme positivité ” (256). (“ […] if it is permissible to think with Sartre that Négritude […] is a weak stage, and even relatively negative, nonetheless, that phase must be lived through in reality before passing to the next; and from the fact that it was experienced, it gains an enormously profound weight of positivity. Sartre’s error—always the same—was having failed to see that even negativity and misfortune when experienced in real life, in some way become flesh and blood, in short, positivity. ” My translation.

[8] Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 117. Fanon makes similar remarks earlier in the chapter. For example, before quoting a long paragraph from “Orphée Noir,” where Sartre elucidated his view of Negritude as a weak stage that must self-destruct, Fanon writes, “I wanted to be typically black—that was out of the question. I wanted to be white—that was a joke. And when I tried to claim my negritude intellectually as a concept, they snatched it away from me.  […] We had appealed to a friend of the colored peoples, and this friend had found nothing better to do than demonstrate the relativity of their action” (ibid., 111, 112). For a more detailed discussion of the tense yet fecund relationship between Fanon and Sartre, as well as their theoretical and socio-political similarities and differences regarding decolonization, see Jules-Rosette, “Jean-Paul Sartre and The Philosophy of Négritude : Race, Self, and Society,” esp., 276–81.

[9] See, for example, Spivak, In Other Worlds, 205. Cf. Memmi, “La vie impossible de Frantz Fanon.” Memmi’s assessment of Fanon’s relation to Négritude is cast in a mostly negative light and for the most part does not seem to allow for the possibility of Fanon coming to understand the movement along the strategic lines I have outlined in this chapter. According to Memmi, after first showing great excitement about Césaire’s project, Fanon became an ardent critic of the movement. “Il affirme qu la négritude est une fausse solution; après l’erreur blanche, il faut se garder de céder au mirage noir. Et le voici à tirer à boulets rouges sur la négritude, dont on trouve dans son oeuvre la condamnation la plus radicale” (ibid., 254). (“He affirmed that Négritude was a false solution; after the white error, one should beware of succumbing to a black mirage. Thereupon, he lays into Négritude, condemning it in the most radical way in his work.” My translation).


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

  1. How can anyone see Fanon as trying to go back to his west indian roots when in WOTE, he explicitly argues that one cannot go back to their roots, since culture is ever changing?

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