- Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World by Gary Wilder
In Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World, Gary Wilder proposes a counterintuitive thesis: that emancipation from French colonial rule was not always conceptualized as national independence; rather, anticolonial intellectuals and political actors imagined a federation, in which former colonies could be equal partners in a decentralized, territorially interdependent, culturally diverse, and democratically governed French republic.
Drawing on the writings and political careers of Aimé Césaire and Léopold S. Senghor, Wilder carefully reconstructs this postnational moment after World War II with theoretical sophistication, historical depth, and imaginative power. Doing so, he asks readers to consider the political possibilities that lay dormant in the present moment for transnational and federated political affiliations that can empower economically impoverished and politically disenfranchised national and ethnic communities.
Wilder’s central claim is that radical political transformations are possible when social and political forces converge to create an opening in historical time for new articulations of the world order, and he identifies decolonization in the postwar era as one such moment. The question and the challenge are how to orient oneself to these visions of self-determination and freedom from the past, now eclipsed by a world order that invests former colonial powers with immense economic and political power. Revisiting historian Reinhart Koselleck’s notion of “futures past” (futures that might have been), Wilder contends that political actors today should not dwell on either the failure or the premature foreclosure of emancipatory projects of the past, but should identify in them a vitality that can inspire and expand the range of political possibilities (p. 199). Politics, he underscores, requires a pragmatic comportment to the past; it demands a keen and perceptive understanding of the present, always informed by the openings for change in the past.
This seemingly abstract argument about politics and time is made with rich historical detail about a number of efforts at departmentalization in Martinique and Senegal, efforts that aimed to devolve power without territorial sovereignty, and thus to reinvent the French imperial structure on more egalitarian terms. Though Césaire and Senghor occupy a central place in these efforts to surpass state sovereignty, other figures, such as the French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher and the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint [End Page 104] L’Ouverture, are present as ghosts from the past, who inspired the radical political imagination of Césaire and Senghor.
The force and persuasiveness of this account lie in how Wilder galvanizes tremendous historical detail to narrate the possibility of a transnational federation of states that emerged in the mid-twentieth century. The theoretical sophistication of this book gives the historical account a complex form and shape, forcing readers to go beyond the confines of the archive to reckon with larger issues about the nature of political change and transformation. For these reasons, this book is an intervention into multiple fields of inquiry, including history, political theory, Africana studies, and postcolonial theory.
Wilder begins with two chapters that situate the writings of Senghor and Césaire in the intellectual context of the postwar era, expounding on the central ideas that were developed in their poetry, speeches, and political writings. Chapters two and three offer a sketch of the conceptual ideas in their writings that later bore fruit in their political activism. In their intellectual and aesthetic projects, both thinkers persistently engaged with the problem of how to form a culturally plural, democratic union that could transcend the structure of the French imperial state. These chapters display extraordinary theoretical erudition, which should be appreciated by scholars working in comparative political theory, as Wilder sets up an animated dialogue between these two black francophone thinkers and their European counterparts.
Chapter four presents a genealogy of the idea of “self-determination without state sovereignty” in the history of European political emancipation from 1789 to 1848. Building on this, the succeeding chapters (5–9) show how Césaire and Senghor continued this legacy of political thinking and action by refusing to reduce colonial emancipation...