- Canonizing Senghor: On Cheikh Thiam’s Return to the Kingdom of Childhood
by Cheikh Thiam
Columbus: The Ohio State UP, 2014.
ix + 150 pp. ISBN 9780814212509 cloth.
Cheikh Thiam’s Return to the Kingdom of Childhood mounts a robust intellectual defense of Léopold Sédar Senghor against his critics. As the subtitle of the book announces, its author is engaged in “Re-envisioning the Legacy and Philosophical Relevance of Negritude.” In the end, therefore, Return to the Kingdom of Childhood is an exercise in sympathetic historical recuperation, philosophical rehabilitation, and intellectual canonization. Senghor, Thiam will have his readers know, has more than earned his place in a pantheon of Pan-African [End Page 159] and humanist intellection. Against those who claim the contrary, Thiam finds it necessary to proclaim: “Negritude is not dead!”
Thiam proposes that the critical certification of Negritude’s death, ongoing “[s]ince the 1940s,” has been a costly error in the intellectual “historiography of African Studies.” It has come from Negritude’s assessors’ failure—with the rare exception here and there—to recognize the authentic sources and the proper signs in which Negritude has its life and vitality. To be sure, knowledge production is situated in history and so is its reception. For this very reason, knowledge is always susceptible to being critically submitted to the judgment of history: is knowledge validated or not by history? Is it properly accountable or not to history? In its critical reception, Senghorian Negritude has not escaped this all-important juridical interrogation of its relation and relevancy to history. But what counts as the history to which Negritude should be held accountable? And here Thiam is critical of the critics of Negritude for having held it recurrently accountable to standards of history and relevance that are really quite narrow and suffocating. It has been Negritude’s fate to be read reductively, as nothing more than a historically specific—and soon to become a historically dated—reaction to colonialism.
Critics have repeatedly seen Negritude, then, as reactionary anticolonial cultural and identity politics. Negritude’s preconditions and presuppositions are thus said to be found in the following: there was a time when Western colonialism, seeking justification for the European domination of so-called inferior races, called the humanity of the Negro into question. Under the colonial order, the Negro furthermore suffered existential debasement as the object of the anti-black discrimination and prejudice of the white world. At this same time the assimilationist ideology and practice of French colonialism threatened to rob the Negro of his unique identity. Negritude rises in a historical specificity as an intellectual, psycho-existential, and cultural-political response to colonially induced ontological crisis felt by a francophone colonial intelligentsia. Under colonial duress, this black intelligentsia is imposed upon to address the questions: Who are we? Where and how do we authentically belong? In what mode of knowing do we claim authentic selfhood? What is our human worth? Negritude is born in an effort and movement to humanize, vindicate, and disalienate a Negro race smarting under white domination, denigration, and marginalization. As proposed by Senghor, “To be black is to recover the human being crushed under the wheel of inhuman conventions” (qtd. in Thiam 2). Negritude’s significance in that case is seen as limited to an immediate historical situation and occasion—the colonial one. As one of its ardent critics, Stanislas Adotevi, diagnoses: “Negritude is the last-born child of an ideology of domination” (qtd. in Miller 19).
For its unsympathetic critics, therefore, Negritude was obliged to link its historical and existential fate to the colonial system and the colonialist ideologies against which it rose in reaction. After the historic passing of colonialism, Negritude as anticolonial cultural politics could appear to have lost its significance and relevance. Fanon, for instance, is compelled to “concede that whatever proof there is of a once mighty Songhai civilization does not change the fact that the Songhais today are undernourished, illiterate, abandoned to the skies and water, with blank minds and glazed eyes” (148). In the post-independence era, Africans faced political...