Per Caritatem

Aimé Césaire (1913–2008), engaging in deconstruction before deconstruction began, calls Western Enlightenment to account for its uncivilized practices and its inability to deal with the concrete, existentio-political concerns of people “on the ground.” That is, European “Western civilization” for all its claims to Enlightenment and progress 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.”[1] Unlike the white Marxists, including Sartre, Césaire and other black 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’s and James’s discourse, was a revolutionary humanist enterprise,”[2] attuned to the sufferings of all those exploited by the machinery of colonialism and slavery. Although appreciative of Marx, the Négritude movement (and Fanon as well) sought to expand and revise Marxist teachings not only to include but also to give top priority to “race”-based economic exploitation.[3] As Césaire puts it, the Communists “acted like abstract Communists” in their failure to address the “Negro problem.”[4] 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.”[5]

Césairean Négritude is thus concerned not only for the “political emancipation” of oppressed blacks but also, as we have seen, one of its chief goals is 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 blacks and non-European others, the oppressed are increasingly viewed as things or as non-human animals. This reduction of humans 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.”[6] 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.[7]

In his writings, Fanon also 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.[8]

Notes

[1] Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 31.

[2] Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 122.

[3] Commenting on 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).

[4] Ibid., 85.

[5] Ibid., 86.

[6] Ibid., 41.

[7] Ibid. Frederick Douglass makes similar comments about the social degradation that takes place in a slave society.  For example, Douglass describes how Mrs. Auld, his master’s wife, who at first treated Douglass humanely and 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).

[8] 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 crowning 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).

 

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.

Notes


[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).

 

 

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.”

 

Notes 


[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.