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Négritude’s Role in Reforming Marxism and the Relevance of the “Race” Question for All Human Beings

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

November 8, 2011

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).

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

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

April 16, 2011

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]

Notes


[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).