Part II: Scotus On the Harmony, Beauty, and Consonance of a Moral Act

In the previous post, I introduced a number of important themes connected with Scotus’s view of a moral act and commented on passages in which he employs musical imagery and terminology to explicate his view. In this post, I want to discuss one additional passage where Scotus once again draws upon musical metaphors and concepts to unpack various aspects of his moral theory. Having highlighted Scotus’s use of the term “consonance,” I then develop his image further, bringing his dynamic view of natural law, as well as his emphasis on the beauty of moral acts and the creativity and practical skill of the moral agent into conversation with my own thoughts on the interplay of contingency and stability and our role as co-composers in an ongoing improvisatory symphony which is this world.

In Ordinatio III.37.25-28, Scotus uses the term consonare (“to be consonant”) four times to explain the relationship between natural law in the extended sense and natural law in the strict sense. For example, the Subtle Doctor states, although the precepts of second table of the Law, that is, natural law in the extended sense, “do not follow necessarily” from the precepts of the first table of the Law, that is, natural law in the strict sense, nonetheless, the former are “highly consonant (multum consona)” with “those first practical principles that are known in virtue of their terms and necessarily known to any intellect [that understands their terms].”[1] Building on Scotus’s metaphor, perhaps we might think of natural law in the strict sense as an unchanging melody given by God in order to reveal himself—his love, beauty, goodness and so forth—to his creatures. This divine melody is a theme that reverberates throughout the created order and sounds most strongly in the human heart. Natural law in the extended sense is the harmonic background supporting the divine melody and drawing attention to its beauty. One could imagine a different harmonic background upon which the melody might be played—one could conceive, for example, an alternative consonant or even an extremely dissonant harmonic background.  However, just as with a masterpiece like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, whose main theme is so distinctive and pronounced yet is so intimately tied to the harmonies, rhythms, and unfolding compositional “story,” if Beethoven were to completely reharmonize the piece, changing the time signature and main tonal center, we would hear the piece as a different, new composition.

Similarly, God as divine master-composer could have, as Scotus might put it, according to his divine power (de potentia absoluta), presented us with a different set of natural laws in the extended sense and with different divine positive laws; yet, he has chosen in his wisdom and creativity, according to his ordained power (de potentia ordinata), to give us the second table of the Law as we have it.[2] That he also chooses to dispense with or reharmonize certain aspects or selected precepts of these laws at different times and with respect to different individuals is his prerogative qua master-composer. Such free activity in no way impugns his character since neither natural law in the extended sense nor divine positive law (for example, circumcision in the Old Testament or certain dietary laws) entails the necessity of natural law in the strict sense.

Developing our musical analogy further and bringing in the two power theme just mentioned, once you are given a specific musical framework, structured according to a particular set of theoretical principles—analogous to the world into which we have been thrown and the natural laws given in the Decalogue—a certain regularity or order is established. As a result, those who live and work within this context must learn to work creatively with rather than against the given structures and principles. Refusal to do so not only alienates the musician from the artistic tradition, but it also hinders his or her own development as a musician and, in effect, silences his or her work, rendering it either obscure or unintelligible. If musicians here represent humans who must live and move and have their being within God’s world and live according to his laws, then one can draw the comparisons relatively easily: human being is lived best when humans live harmoniously with God’s laws—laws which are crafted to enhance, rather than impede their freedom and creativity.

In addition, once a musical framework has been given and established, those working in it are socialized by it. That is, although the musical scales, theoretical rules, harmonic progressions, and so forth could have been otherwise, that they not, creates a “feel” of permanence and attaches a sense of stability to present framework. In other words, this particular framework becomes the framework. Consequently, since the musicians occupy the same framework, shared understandings of consonance and dissonance will develop naturally.  Such shared perceptions also materialize due to commonalities in the very being of the musicians themselves (for example, refined auditory skills), making them well-suited for creative work within this context. Analogously, humans created by God are well-suited for the world in which he has placed them—a world in which they are summoned as co-composers to beautify and better themselves, others, and the world itself. Given our historical and temporal existence, the shared understandings of consonance and dissonance form a continuum of greater and lesser degrees, allowing for many variations on the given themes and much “movement” within the structures. In other words, there is a dynamism built into the framework itself permitting and even beckoning artists to improvise the “original” themes so that they might be heard anew through the passage of time.

Here I want to return to our Beethoven example and engage in a thought experiment. What if Beethoven crafted his masterpiece in such a way that in order for the main theme to sound most beautifully, select themes introduced in the opening movements were meant to be developed, placed within new extended harmonies and set over syncopated poly-rhythms unconceivable to those hearing only the earlier movements? Instead of a static one-time composition, what if Beethoven’s symphony was intended as a multi-authored work, inviting multiple co-composers to co-create a dynamic, ongoing piece? The structure of the piece—its “narrative” or form—as well as its central melodic themes are givens; they remain constant and are the framework within which the performers as co-composers must choose to operate. Nonetheless, within the various movements or epochal periods, the themes may be reharmonized, ornamented, and improvised upon in myriad ways. The main themes and “storyline” must remain identifiable, but the structure itself both fosters and invites (by design) co-composers of various intellectual levels, practical skills, and moral character to contribute to the beauty of the whole. If we can imagine such a state of affairs, then perhaps we can apply the analogy to God’s free creation of the world and his invitation to humans to participate in his, as it were, on-going redemptive historical improvisational symphony, whose last movement continues to be written.

Although I have highlighted the dynamism built into the structures and framework of an artistic composition, I want to emphasize again that choosing to work with the givens is not to forfeit one’s freedom or one’s creativity. The expert musician is well aware of this fact, as she is one who has chosen to devote herself to the study of the masters, the principles of music theory, and the customary practices of the art, both submitting to and innovatively expanding the tradition.

Lastly—and hopefully the Scotistic echoes of this section will be heard—as a freely created structure, the framework itself could have been otherwise; however, the fact that it is not means that a certain level of stability and regularity characterize the present framework (analogous, of course, to the present world). If we acknowledge these givens and work creatively with them as co-composers in an ongoing improvisatory symphony, we do well. Yet, as free beings, we can choose to reject this framework along with its principles and the authority of the person or persons “behind” the givens. To do so is certainly possible, but it is not without consequences for oneself, for others, and for the piece itself.


[1] Scotus, Ord. III, d. 27, n.25 (ed. Vat. X 283); Williams, “The Decalogue and the Natural Law,” 603. In Ord. IV, d. 17 Scotus likewise employs the image of consonance to describe the relation between natural law and positive law. See, Wolter, Will and Morality, 197–98.

[2] For Scotus’s discussion of God’s absolute and ordained power, see Ord. I, d. 44 (ed. Vat. VI 633–69); Wolter, Will and Morality, 191–94. God’s ordained power speaks of his self-imposed limitations to act in accord with laws he himself has freely willed to be the case.  God’s absolute power speaks of his ability to non-contradictorily and justly alter, revoke, reconfigure, or transcend such ordained laws. As Scotus explains, to the extent that God “is able to act in accord with those right laws he set up previously, is said to act according to his ordained power; but insofar as he is able to do many things that are not in accord with, but go beyond, these preestablished laws, God is said to act according to his absolute power. For God can do anything that is not self-contradictory or act in any way that does not include a contradiction (and there are many such ways he could act); and then he is said to be acting according to his absolute power” (Wolter, Will and Morality, 192). See also, Courtenay, “The Dialectic of Omnipotence.” Courtenay observes that the two power distinction was based on the “fundamental perception […] that what God created or established did not exhaust divine capacity or the potentialities open to God” (ibid., 243).


Part II: Divjak Letter 10* and St. Augustine as Socio-political Activist

In epistle 10*, addressed to Alipius, the bishop of Thagaste, Augustine brings to Alipius’s attention his concerns regarding the activities of slave dealers in his region. As Augustine explains, these “businessmen” are “draining Africa of much of its human population and transferring their ‘merchandise’ to the provinces across the sea.”[1] These traders and their hired thugs preyed upon the poorest of Roman citizens, kidnapping them and then selling them as slaves.[2] As he emphasizes throughout the letter, the situation at Hippo Regius had become increasingly violent. With the most vulnerable terrorized, and receiving little or no protection from Roman officials, they turned to the church for help.

In the midst of this violence, Augustine and his church intervened. Not only did Augustine investigate Roman law in order to find potential loopholes to help put an end to this criminal activity,[3] but he and his church actually physically rescued captives from slave ships and hid them away—actions which put their own lives at risk. Augustine recounts to Bishop Alipius one such rescue mission, in which over one hundred individuals captured by Galatian merchants were rescued by parishioners from Augustine’s church.[4]

There was not lacking a faithful Christian who, knowing our custom in missions of mercy of this kind, made this known to the church. Immediately, partially from the ship in which they had already been loaded, partially from the spot where they had been hidden prior to boarding, about 120 people were freed by our people […] Your Holy Prudence can imagine how much similar trafficking in unfortunate souls goes on in other coastal areas, if at Hippo Regius, where in God’s mercy, the great vigilance of the church is on the watch so that poor people can be freed from captivity of this sort and these people who carry on such a trade, though far from suffering from the severity of this law, are nevertheless punished, at least by the loss of the money they originally spent, so great is the greed of these people.[5]

Even though prior to the discovery of Divjak epistle 10* scholars such as Claude Lepelley and Peter Brown have argued, drawing heavily on Augustine’s homilies and Scripture commentaries, that Augustine evinced extraordinary concern for the downtrodden and destitute,[6] the Divjak letters provide additional strength to such claims and reveal the degree to which Augustine and his congregation were actively involved in socio-political projects on behalf of the poor, oppressed, and exploited. In addition, Divjak letter 10* reveals Augustine’s concern for political or citizen freedom—even though incomplete and in need of revision. This suggests that Augustine was not unaware of the connection between political freedom and metaphysical freedom—a connection commonplace in Franciscan tradition.[7] (In future posts, I hope to revisit, in particular, John Duns Scotus’s views on freedom and slavery).


[1] Augustine, “Divjak Letter 10*,” in St. Augustine Letters, Vol. VI, edited by Eno, 75–6.

[2] For additional study of the social setting of Augustine’s day, see Lepelley, “Facing Wealth and Poverty.” Lepelley discussion how the status of the coloni had become de facto (though not de jure) “a kind of serfdom” (ibid., 6). See also, Brown, “Augustine and a Crisis of Wealth.” Brown argues against two common misconceptions of modern historians regarding the socio-political and economic constitution of the Catholic church of Augustine’s day.  First, Brown contends that the Catholic church at that time “was not a rich church, nor was it necessarily a church exclusively of the rich. It was not until the early sixth century that any church in the Latin West came to hold properties which equaled in their extent and income the estates of the great secular landowners. Up to then, the Catholic church had remained overshadowed by the truly wealthy—and the church of Africa seems to have been no exception to this rule. Second, […] the Catholic church in Africa was not a state church, securely established by imperial fiat at the top of African society. […] The newly-discovered Divjak letters, in particular, tell a dismal story. Bishops frequently found themselves unable to protect those who had fled to sanctuary in their churches. There was a constant shortage of clergymen. Heavy taxation had impoverished the urban classes from whom the clergy was most often recruited, and the imperial government systematically restricted the tax benefits of those who served the church. Rather than being a church of the upper classes, the social composition of the Catholic church was little different from that of its Donatist rival” ibid., 6–7).

[3] In paragraphs three and four, Augustine informs Bishop Alipius that he had come across a law decreed previously by emperor Honorius to suppress these activities and to punish the perpetrators (see, Augustine, “Divjak Letter 10*,” 77–8). Chadwick conjectures that Augustine perhaps learned of this decree through his friend Eustochius. The latter is the addressee of Divjak letter 24*, whose content focuses primarily upon complex legal and practical questions Augustine had to address with respect to children sold into slavery (“New Letters of St. Augustine,” 433).

[4] Commenting on this remarkable event, Lepelley notes that the gangs employed by the Galatian slave traders often had as their target peasants—in this case, impoverished Numidian peasants. Appealing strategically to Roman law and employing Roman honor and freedom rhetoric (see paragraphs 5 and 6 of “Divjak Letter 10*,” in St. Augustine Letters, Vol. VI, edited by Eno, 78–9), Augustine intercedes on their behalf. As Lepelley observes, “[t]hese peasants, Augustine said, were still Roman citizens and had the right to be protected by the imperial authorities. Unfortunately for them, in 428, when this letter was written, the Western Roman Empire was collapsing” (“Facing Wealth and Poverty,” 7).

[5] Augustine, “Divjak Letter 10*,”in St. Augustine Letters, Vol. VI, edited by Eno, 79–80.

[6] See, for example, Lepelley, “Facing Wealth and Poverty,” esp. 4–10; Brown, Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire, esp. 63–4.

[7] This is not to suggest that Augustine’s notion of metaphysical freedom, or political freedom for that matter, is precisely the same as, for example, John Duns Scotus’s notion.


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).


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.