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  • Frantz Fanon and the Négritude MovementHow Strategic Essentialism Subverts Manichean Binaries

In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon recounts how his subjectivity as a colonized other was constructed and how a politics of white assimilation contributed to his self-fragmentation.1 With white social and cultural norms imposed at every turn, the black colonized subject must wear a white mask—a mask whose foreignness and forced application produces in the colonized subject a deep sense of alienation and homelessness. Although Fanon is attuned to social forces at play in systemic racialized contexts, he, nonetheless, refuses to deny the black person’s freedom and agency. In other words, Fanon recognizes that the colonized person in some sense actively participates in and thus accepts aspects of her white-scripted history. For example, throughout the book, we find comments such as, “I transported myself” and “I gave myself up as an object”—all of which acknowledge Fanon’s own participation in his social construction as a colonized subject (Fanon, Black Skin 92). Clearly, the colonized person’s internalization of the white narrative occurs as a result of great duress and extreme psychological and emotional pressures created by the dominant society. Granting this, Fanon rejects vehemently the claim that human freedom and the power to resist is extinguished even in systemic oppressive social contexts such as those in which colonized and enslaved persons dwelt. Although constrained and severely limited, the oppressed retain the ability to choose, to act as a free agent, and to resist and (re)configure their subjectivity. Fanon’s insistence on this point has political, ethical, and philosophical import, as it highlights the fact that the colonized, enslaved, or otherwise subjugated and exploited person is not a mere thing determined from the outside. To the contrary, just as several contingent factors coalesced to create the historical situation in which the colonized subject finds herself, other equally contingent factors—including the oppressed engaging in intentional subversive acts and resistance strategies—can emerge and help to bring about socio-political transformations, even if gradual, partial, and local.

Moreover, as I shall argue, Fanon, like his teacher Aimé Césaire, understood that the process of decolonization and subject re-narration would occur over a period of time and in various stages. By studying Fanon’s complex relationship to the Négritude movement and by highlighting his appropriation and critique of its themes and variations, Fanon’s resistance tactics come into sharper focus. That is, contrary to worries of Fanon promoting a reactionary racialized essentialism, I argue that Fanon’s employment of essentialized narratives can be interpreted as a variant of (what Spivak calls) strategic essentialism. In short, Fanon, like Césaire, understood that different historical moments require different resistance strategies. His recognition of the need to adopt for a time essentialized narratives for therapeutic and up-building purposes, coupled with his understanding of the [End Page 342] productive nature of socially constructed identities signals a movement beyond a mere reactionary response still trapped within a binary Manichean framework. With this sketch in view, I turn first to Fanon’s retelling of his own experience of social construction, and then I move into an analysis of Fanon’s complex relation to the Négritude movement.

Fanon’s text, Black Skin, White Masks, is more than an account of alienation and angst. It is also a powerful reminder of the resilience of the human spirit, as well as an unflinching affirmation of freedom as a distinguishing mark of human being and experience. Listen closely to Fanon’s own refusal to be bound by and imprisoned within the white narrative.

I find myself one day in the world, and I acknowledge one right for myself: the right to demand human behavior from the other. And one duty: the duty never to let my decisions renounce my freedom. . . . I am not a prisoner of History. I must not look for the meaning of my destiny in that direction. I must constantly remind myself that the real leap consists of introducing invention into life. In the world I am heading for, I am endlessly creating myself.

These emancipatory proclamations in no way undermine Fanon’s famous schemata, particularly his account of the emergence and subsequent ossification of social identities and concepts such as a “black essence.” Fanon develops his historico-racial and racial-epidermal schemata as he reflects upon his and others’ experiences of racism and social construction as the black, (alleged) inferior “other.” With the historico-racial schema, he emphasizes how the colonized (black) person, given the socio-political imbalances and prejudices built into the very fabric of colonial society, has a world differently than his or her white counterparts. More specifically, Fanon’s historico-racial schema draws our attention to the contingencies—the discursive practices, economic drives, and institutional configurations—involved in the creation of the so-called “black essence.” With the racial-epidermal schema, Fanon foregrounds the production of the historico-racial schema—that is, the resultant “naturalized” understanding of blackness firmly entrenched in the social consciousness and incorporated in the political, cultural, and legal practices of a society. Given Fanon’s framework and his stress upon the historical, contingent character of how racialized subjectivities are created, we are better situated to grasp the emancipatory significance of his schemata. White narratives of “blackness” and the “black essence” in no way reflect necessary realities or givens; rather, they are contingent inventions capable of re-invention. Thus, throughout Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon’s alienated strains must be balanced with his repeated calls to effect socio-political change through various acts of resistance—acts which, of course, include subject re-narration.

Quite similar to and certainly compatible with Michel Foucault’s productive notion of power relations, which both presuppose free subjects and allow for the ever-present possibility of resistance,3 Fanon’s understanding of power relations and social construction likewise upholds human agency. Thus, even in contexts such as a colonized society wherein power relations are oppressive and freedom is limited, the subjugated are not rendered completely passive. Rather, they remain active yet constrained subjects able to resist, subvert, and transform their own subjectivities and at least to some extent the socio-political “landscape” in which they dwell. If resistance possibilities are structurally linked to contingent power relations and the latter involve free subjects,4 then individual [End Page 343] re-narration and communal transformation are ever-present, open, viable options. This is, of course, good news for the oppressed, as it means that the socio-political order in which they find themselves is not a necessary order; rather, it is contingent “all the way down” and thus open to new configurations and ways of being.

On the one hand, Fanon, as we have seen, was well aware of the socio-historical forces at play in the construction of the colonized subject. On the other hand, he understood that the process of decolonization and subject re-narration would occur over a period of time and in various stages. Here as postcolonial scholar Pal Ahluwalia observes, Fanon’s complex relationship to the Négritude movement serves as an hermeneutical lens enabling us to make sense of his strategy to move beyond the “Manichean structure” of a colonized world (Ahluwalia 58). In light of the immense influence of the Négritude movement and Césaire in particular on Fanon’s thought, I now turn to a more focused examination of the movement’s modulations, as well as Fanon’s appropriation and critique of its themes and variations.

Aimé Césaire (1913–2008), the internationally acclaimed surrealist poet and social activist, is credited with coining the term “Négritude” in 1939 in his work, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land). Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor—a likewise accomplished poet and sociopolitical critic—met in Paris and eventually became the founders of the Négritude movement (Rabaka 119).5 Given Négritude’s many expressions, one must stress the movement’s plurality, diversity, and particular inflections. Reiland Rabaka, for example, distinguishes between Sartrean Négritude, Césairean Négritude, and Senghorian Négritude.6 In contrast with Sartre’s account, Senghor lays stress on the positive value of Négritude in the historical struggle to (re)constitute an African subjectivity both acceptable to Africans and those of African descent and flexible enough to incorporate cultural infusions and expansions over time. As Rabaka explains, “Negritude, for Senghor, was . . . an affirmation of African humanity that was perpetually open to revision and redefinition” (160).7

In addition, both Senghor and Fanon refused to give up on humanism and both sought to reform and to purge it of its racist, non-inclusive Eurocentric elements. For Senghor, appropriating political, philosophical, or other insights from different cultures—what he referred to as “cultural borrowing”—was to be expected in light of each culture’s unique contributions to humankind (Rabaka 160). Nonetheless, Senghor is clear that Négritude’s cultural borrowing—given the black/white power differential and the particular historical moment in which blacks found themselves—was strategically aimed at bolstering and strengthening African culture, traditions, and values. Moreover, and here again Senghor and Fanon are united, Senghorian Négritude with its culturally blended, polyphonic humanism cannot be understood within Sartre’s narrowly defined and overly abstract view of history. Senghor, in other words, presents a more concrete view from below, engaging “‘the’ world, as it actually exists,” rather than as “a series of binary oppositions between blacks and whites, or Africans and Europeans” (Rabaka 160).8 The “world” for which Fanon and Senghor labored was a world constituted by manifold voices and rhythmic movements sounding together yet retaining their distinct qualities. So long as one voice neither dominates nor overpowers the others, but instead allows others to sound and be heard, difference creates the possibility for rich extended harmonies. However, harmonies dissolve when one voice demands strict and unflinching unison. In fact, when union is [End Page 344] required in every respect, music comes to a complete standstill and we are left with either deafening silence or maddening monotony.

Anyone who has spent any time with Césaire’s prose-poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) would likely, as Fanon certainly did, hear the strong revolutionary soundings resonating throughout the text (Rabaka 119–20). As a result of their oppressive context and their social and cultural shaping via the French educational system, many educated blacks in the West Indies suppressed their blackness. Ashamed of their African heritage, they took up their white masks and sought to present themselves as part of the educated French elite. Thus, Césaire’s poem sounded notes from a distant homeland, calling blacks to return not only to their local West Indian culture but to their “pre-colonial and anti-colonial indigenous, continental and diasporan African history and culture” (Rabaka 120). Césaire’s notion of “return” thus emerges as a central theme in Cahier (Notebook). Given the socio-political, cultural, and literary significance of Césaire’s development of Négritude and his complex, polysemous articulation and employment of the term “return,” I examine these two concepts in detail. As we become more intimately acquainted with these two central themes, we become increasingly attuned to their respective deconstructive and constructive functions.

At the end of Discourse on Colonialism, Césaire responds to René Depestre’s question regarding Négritude and describes it as “a resistance to the [French] politics of assimilation” (88). In a move similar to Senghor’s, Césaire rejects the abstract and (false) binary opposition between a civilized European world and a barbarian African world. Instead, he views Négritude as distinctly African yet combining and improvising upon multiple cultural, literary, political, and other insights. This new improvisational (ongoing) masterpiece was formed in the crucible of oppression and exploitation. Négritude embodies, symbolizes, and communicates this historical struggle for a positive African identity. Because Antilleans had internalized the degrading discourses of white society—discourses which had constructed blackness as evil, inferior, and subhuman—Césaire recognized the need both to deconstruct the white narratives and to (re)construct new narratives.9 The black bard must recapture the term nègre and infuse it with inspiring, positive connotations. As a skilled poet, rhetorician, and a public intellectual par excellence, Césaire was aware of the power of words to create, as well as alter, social realities. Thus, part of his movement’s strategy was to remove the shame the black person had come to associate with the term nègre. As he explains, “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” (Césaire 88). Through such discursive “warfare,” the Négritude writers were able to decontaminate the racist-created “atmosphere of rejection” in which the colonized lived, moved, and had their being (Césaire 91). Constantly seen and presented as the shadow of the white man, the black person internalizes a deep sense of inferiority. Consequently, Césaire was adamant that blacks must create their own subjectivities and narratives wherein blackness, as well as African history, is defined not as the weak or negative pole of the alleged white superior, but by way of an aesthetic amenable to and shaped by a distinctively African inflection and way of being. Stated otherwise, black history must be told by the black bard, reinterpreted poetically to reflect its beauty, worth, and ongoing relevance. “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” (Césaire, Discourse 92). [End Page 345]

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 (present) authentic African or black self” (Rabaka 121). A concern for solidarity with all colonized and enslaved people of African descent occupied Césaire and will likewise occupy Fanon. 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 Martinicans and Brazilian Negroes, etc. That’s what Negritude meant to me.

As part of his aim to establish a positive black identity, Césaire pulled 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 but rather affirmed 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” (Césaire 83). 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” (83). 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 syncopated 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” (Césaire 83). Césaire then explains how the sur-realist movement became a creative means by which he could enact a “return” to Africa. Surrealism was a “weapon that exploded the French language,” and one that could be used for emancipatory purposes (Césaire, Discourse 83).

With this new black-inflected improvisatory 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.10 Listen to Cesaire’s diagnosis of a “decadent,” “stricken” [atteinte], “dying” Western civilization (31)—a Europe revealed as “morally [and] spiritually indefensible” (32). [End Page 346]

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.

Césaire then adds that this 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” (31).

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 . . . discourse, was a revolutionary humanist enterprise” attuned to the sufferings of all those exploited by the machinery of colonialism and slavery (122). 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.11 As Césaire puts it, the Communists “acted like abstract Communists” in their failure to address the “Negro problem” (85). 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” (Discourse 86).

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 (white) construction, the opportunities afforded the colonized to shape and develop their own identity are severely restricted. 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.” 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.

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 [End Page 347] 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.13

Césairean Négritude, captured 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 a “violent affirmation” of black identity (Césaire 89). Thus, Négritude serves both a sociopolitical 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” (Rabaka 126); 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 present emancipatory struggles (Rabaka 127).

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” (Rabaka 128). 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 redis-cover African values—values emphasizing a communal existence and a sharing of goods with one another rather than individualistic, consumer, and capitalistic sociopolitical 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 sociopolitical principles, cultural values, and ancestral practices lacking in Western “enlightened civilization.”

The Black Bard and Improvising in Tune with History

Fanon, having studied under Césaire and greatly respecting his intellectual talents, incorporated many of his teacher’s insights and strategies in his own work. Yet, as is true of any good student, Fanon developed his own distinctive style, which no doubt retains Césairean echoes.14 Consonant with the Négritude writers’ concern for social justice, equality, and the transformation of oppressive social practices, Fanon too labored for these ends. Both Fanon and Césaire fall within the Pan-Africanist camp; however, Fanon’s Pan-Africanism often collided with the philosophies of other black activists seeking to enact social change through existing political, legal, and other structures.15 On the one hand, Fanon applauded the Négritude writers’ endeavors to re-present African culture and values to the world, having extracted, of course, white distortions of Africa and blackness; on the other hand, as Rabaka makes clear, “Fanon was not an uncritical disciple of Cesairean Negritude” (Rabaka 171). Some of Fanon’s critical remarks can be [End Page 348] found, for example, in his book The Wretched of the Earth. There he claims that Césaire’s “cultural nationalism” was incongruent with a revolution-from-below approach, which he believed necessary given the entrenched, systemic structures in place in a (racialized) colonized context (Rabaka 171).

Another variant of Négritude was developed by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartrean Négritude, like Senghorian and Césairean expressions, also influenced Fanon’s thinking. In brief, Sartre claimed that Négritude was in essence reactionary, a weak stage (le temps faible) in the dialectic march toward liberation. In other words, because it was birthed out of a reaction to the dominant phase or thesis, namely, white supremacy (la suprématie du blanc est la thèse), Négritude is in the larger picture a mere moment of negativity.16 Sartre goes on to claim that Négritude “exists for its own destruction” (est pour se détruire), as its purpose is to prepare the way for the ultimate synthesis, namely the “realization of a human in a society without races” (réalisation de l’humain dans une société sans races) (Sartre xli). As Rabaka explains, the idea of a postracial society places Sartrean Négritude in clear conflict with both Césairean and Senghorian Négritude.17 Recall, as was mentioned earlier, Sartre and the (white) Marxists by and large failed to see the connection between capitalism and colonialism and capitalism and racism. For Césaire and other black radicals—those forced to live on the margins and suffering at the hands of dominant society—such a connection was a reality they lived day in and day out; consequently, unlike their white Marxist counterparts, they refused to make colonialism and racism secondary issues.

While Fanon does not deny that Négritude is a response to the violence of colonization, he sees the productive, positive dimension of Négritude as more than mere negativity. That is, contra Albert Memmi, Fanon’s response to Sartre’s account is significantly more critical, hesitant, and sophisticated than Memmi at times portrays.18 For example, Fanon decries Sartre for having failed to recognize that “the black man suffers in his body quite differently from the white man” (Black Skin 117).19 Still, how are we to understand Fanon’s agreement with Sartre that Négritude is in fact a temporary stage through which blacks (and whites) must pass? If we bring Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s notion of “strategic essentialism” into the conversation, Fanon’s position reveals itself as not only coherent but as significantly more “in tune” with the concrete, historical needs of the oppressed at different stages of their collective identity (re)construction (Spivak 205). As Spivak explains, the oppressed group, recognizing its need for group unity and a positive self-conception, intentionally promotes an essentialist identity. Such a move is both therapeutic and strategic in nature. With respect to the former, a period of healing and regaining strength is necessary, given the suffering the group has endured. With respect to the latter, in order to accomplish their socio-political goals, the group must have time to solidify and develop its own distinctive voice, signature, discursive practices, and other unique features. Thus, on the one hand, Sartre was right to stress the temporary character of Négritude as a movement emerging at a particular point in history. On the other hand, Sartre failed to grasp that the essentialist inflection of Négritude can be (and has been) intentionally discarded. What is retained is the larger goal with which the movement began: the creation of the social reality of Négritude positively conceived—a reality that endures today and continues to expand in order to meet new social, political, and cultural challenges. In short, as feminist theorists and activists are well aware, a subjugated group’s temporary adoption of an essentialist identity can be employed for specific historical purposes and then jettisoned when the group’s aims are achieved. The shedding of one’s essentialized [End Page 349] “skin” (i.e. fixed identity) in no way annuls the socially constructed (group or individual) subjectivity. As philosophers of “race” and postcolonial scholars point out repeatedly, when it comes to “race” our choice is not between “race” as a natural kind or essence or the non-existence of “race” in any significant sense. Rather, “race” and racial identities qua social constructions are social realities, which as both Césaire and Fanon attest, can be used to foster group pride and thus contribute to a polyphonic chorus constituting a symphonic humanity or to mute and render silent the voice of the other, thus replacing the rich harmonies of humankind with a deafening monotone monotony.

To conclude, a Fanonian strategic essentialism recognizes Négritude’s positive reinvention of “blackness” as a social reality, constructed by the oppressed for specific socio-political, emancipatory, and therapeutic aims. In light of the historical situation into which blacks were thrown, Négritude begins within the Manichean frame; however, the social identity it produces through discursive practices and political acts transcends this white-imposed frame and creates something new. Négritude’s initial strategic phase of course had a different function than its later phase. Fanon, as Nigel Gibson observes, was cognizant of the stages involved in the historical process of colonized identity construction, deconstruction, and (ongoing) reconstruction: “For Fanon, active resistance was the first stage toward self-discovery, and he was well aware that in its early stages anticolonial action was an inversion of colonial Manicheanism and remained within its framework” (Gibson 13). Fanon’s dialectic, in contrast to Sartre’s, evinces an acute awareness of how in a racialized society black and white embodiment produce different worlds. Stated otherwise, existentially speaking, the black person’s ever-present black skin is always visible to the panopticism of the white gaze. Bodily proximity, whether to make eye contact, what vocal inflections ought to be used—such mundane actions, which never occur to the white person, become questions over which the black person must labor. Consequently, an asymmetry permeates the colonized world, creating a situation in which black and white experiences become, at best, equivocal “all the way down.”

With my sketch of Fanon’s recognition of something like Spivak’s strategic essentialism, coupled with Fanon’s acceptance of Césaire’s dynamic idea of return and the constructive aspects of his project (subject-re-narration, of course, playing a central role), we can counter worries about Fanon unwittingly embracing a racialized essentialist subject.20 Fanon, like Césaire, understood that different historical moments require different resistance strategies. Improvisatory skills, socially engaged listening, performative acts, and attunement to the rhythms of life “on the ground” are perquisites not only for the jazz musician, but likewise come in handy for the bard qua public intellectual committed to affecting social change.

Cynthia R. Nielsen

Cynthia R. Nielsen is a Catherine of Siena teaching fellow in the ethics program at Villanova University. She recently received the PhD from the University of Dallas.


1. Several themes I develop in the present study overlap with my article, “Resistance Through Re-Narration.”

2. Fanon goes on to say, “[t]he density of History determines none of my acts. I am my own foundation. And it is by going beyond the historical and instrumental given that I initiate my cycle of freedom” (Black Skin 205).

4. See Foucault, “The Subject and Power” 788–89. In his late work, Foucault provides helpful elaborations of his notion of productive power relations and his account of the correlativity of and structural linkage between power and freedom and thus power and resistance. [End Page 350]

5. 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.

6. See Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, chapter 4, “Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor: Revolutionary Negritude and Radical New Negroes.”

7. See also Bernasconi 71, 79–80. Bernasconi reads Senghor as promoting an essentialist view of black identity and an overly past-centered position, or as Bernasconi puts it, a “poetry of the past relying on memories and an expression that surpasses the content” (80).

8. For a detailed analysis of Sartre’s relation to Hegelian philosophy, see Sekyi-Otu 62–72.

9. See also Gibson chapters 1 and 2.

10. In “Orphée Noir,” Sartre makes several astute observations regarding the diverse goals of the Eurpoean surrealist poets and the Négritude poets. As he explains, the French poets “[f]rom Mallarmé to the Surrealists” seek the “self-destruction of language” [autodestruction du langage]. The Négritude poets, having not only aesthetic but sociopolitical goals in view, “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” (xx, my translation).

11. 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).

12. 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 (Douglass, Narrative of the Life 40).

13. 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.”

15. See Rabaka’s discussion on Fanon’s Pan-Africanism (167–68).

16. See, for example, Sartre xli. For a reading of Sartre’s influence on Fanon, differing in significant ways from mine, see Memmi 255.

17. See, for example, Rabaka, chapter 4, “Aimé Césaire and Leopold Senghor: Revolutionary Negritude and Radical New Negroes,” esp. 112–19.

18. Ironically, Memmi’s own critique of Sartre has much in common with Fanon’s sic et non relation to Sartrean Négritude. See especially Memmi’s comments on the historical significance of Négritude in reforming black identity and how this fact gives a positive dimension to Négritude, which Sartre failed to grasp. For example, Memmi writes, [End Page 351]

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.


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)

Bouvier also highlights Fanon’s appreciative yet ambivalent—and in no way uncritical—relation with Sartre and his analytical conclusions. See Bouvier 90.

19. Fanon makes similar remarks earlier in the chapter. For example, before quoting a long paragraph from “Orphée Noir,” where Sartre elucidated his view of Négritude 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” (Black Skin, White Masks 111, 112). For a more detailed discussion of the tense yet fecund relationship between Fanon and Sartre, as well as their theoretical and sociopolitical similarities and differences regarding de-colonization, see Jules-Rosette 276–81.

20. In his book, Refashioning Futures, David Scott voices such a concern (205).

Works Cited

Ahluwalia, Pal. Out of Africa: Post-structuralism’s Colonial Roots. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Bernasconi, Robert. “The Assumption of Negritude: Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, and the Vicious Circle of Radial Politics.” parallax 8 (2002): 69–83.
Bouvier, Pierre. Aimé Césaire/Frantz Fanon. Portraits de décolonisés. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2010.
———. “Aimé Césaire, la négritude et l’ouverture poétique.” Esprit 346 (2008): 15–28.
Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Trans. Joan Pinkham. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, My Bondage and My Freedom, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Library of America, 1994. 15–102.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. Rev. ed. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2008.
———. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2004.
Foucault, Michel. History of Sexuality. Vol. 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1990.
———. “The Subject and Power.” Critical Inquiry 8 (1982): 777–95.
Gibson, Nigel C. Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003.
Jules-Rosette, Bennetta. “Jean-Paul Sartre and the Philosophy of Négritude: Race, Self, and Society.” Theory and Society 36 (2007): 265–85.
Memmi, Albert. “La vie impossible de Frantz Fanon.” Esprit 39 (1971): 248–73.
Nielsen, Cynthia. “Resistance Through Re-Narration: Fanon on De-constructing Racialized Subjectivities.” African Identities: Journal of Economics, Culture, and Society 9.4 (2011): 363–85.
Rabaka, Reiland. Africana Critical Theory: Reconstructing the Black Radical Tradition from W. E. B. Du Bois and C. L. R. James to Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral. Landam: Lexington Books, 2009.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Orphée Noir.” Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française. Ed. Leopold Sédar Senghor. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1948. ix–xliv.
Scott, David. Refashioning Futures: Criticism After Postcoloniality. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.
Sekyi-Otu, Ato. Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York: Routledge, 2006. [End Page 352]

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