Leopold Sedar Senghor’s Concept of Negritude

Leopold Sedar Senghor believes that every African shares certain distinctive and innate characteristics, values and aesthetics. In the poem ‘New York’, Senghor argues that the black community of Harlem should ‘Listen to the far beating of your nocturnal heart, rhythm/ and blood of the drum’ and ‘let the black blood flow into/ your blood’.(1.)The word nocturnal is interesting because it refers to the image of night. By using the imagery of night, Senghor is asserting that one’s African heritage (one’s Blackness) is both inescapable and natural (like night-time). Negritude is the active rooting of an Black identity in this inescapable and natural African essence.(2.) The major premise of Negritude is therefore that one’s biological make-up (race) defines one’s outer (skin colour) as well as inner (spirit/essence) traits. Negritude is a concept which holds that there is a ‘shared culture and subjectivity and spiritual essence’ among members of the same racial group.(3.)  As Irele explains, there is a ‘parallel between this conception and the racial doctrines propounded in Europe, presenting the Negro as an inherently inferior being to the white man, and which provided the ultimate ideological rationale for Western imperialism’.(4.) Instead of rejecting the (colonialist) theory that race defines one’s being; Negritude rejects the assumption that the African is inherently inferior to the “white man”. To Senghor, this makes Negritude a weapon against colonialism and an ‘instrument of liberation’.(5.)

To Senghor, the African essence is externalized in a distinctive culture and philosophy.(6.) This claim is supported by Senghor’s assertion that Negritude – the rooting of identity in one’s natural essence – is ‘diametrically opposed to the traditional philosophy of Europe’ (the colonizer).(7.) To Senghor, European philosophy is ‘essentially static, objective… It is founded on separation and opposition: on analysis and conflict’.(8.) In contrast, African philosophy is based on ‘unity’, ‘balance’ negotiation and an appreciation of ‘movement and rhythm’.(9.)As Loomia notes, Senghor describes African culture ‘in terms of precisely those supposed markers of African life that had been for so long reviled in colonialist thought – sensuality, rhythm, earthiness and a primeval past’.(10.) The traditional stereotypes of African culture are not directly challenged by Negritude – Africans are essentially spiritual according to Senghor – they are modified. Negritude is a process of negotiation which proposes a counter-myth or counter-reading of those traditional stereotypes with the aim of valorizing and celebrating the African personality.

Senghor’s conception of Negritude holds that one’s inner and outer essence is informed, defined by one’s race. This position – that race is biological and informs one’s character – has encountered criticism because it relies on an incorrect conception of race. Senghor’s conception of race asserts that a person from Ghana, Senegal and Liberia are all biologically African – and therefore share the same African essence. However, as Michael Jones notes ‘there is no biological or genetic foundation for the grouping of individual humans into a racial group’.(11.) There is no such thing as a race biologically speaking; race is a social construction. If there is no biological foundation for Senghor’s assertion that the African race shares certain essential features then the concept of Negritude appears to be invalidated. It therefore appears that rooting Black identity in an inescapable and natural African essence becomes problematic.

A possible response to this criticism is to adopt a more sophisticated understanding of race. Although Senghor’s Negritude relies on a biologically constructed concept of race, the sophisticated-Negritude critic could cite racial constructivism. Racial constructivism is the position that holds that as society labels individuals as belonging to certain racial groups (regardless if they are justified to) and that belonging to racial groups entails ‘differences in resources, opportunities, and well-being, the concept of race must be conserved, in order to facilitate race-based social movements or policies, such as affirmative action, that compensate for socially constructed but socially relevant race differences’.(12.) There is no biological foundation for race but the concept can be used to enable a common identity. A shared history (of slavery, colonialism) and shared experiences (of being African, the interaction between white Europe and black Africa, institutional racism) allow for the rooting of identity in Africa. The sophisticated-Negritude critic is able to cite racial constructivism as the foundation for a shared African identity and escape the criticism against Senghor’s biological conception of race.(13.)

Negritude is a process of negotiation which attempts to alter the value of those labels attached to Africa. This negotiation with the coloniser has been criticised. Frantz Fanon explains ‘the efforts of the native to rehabilitate himself and to escape from the claws of colonialism are logically inscribed from the same point of view as that of colonialism’.(14.) The attempt to produce an African personality ensures the “native” uses the same logic of the coloniser. As Ran Greenstein notes ‘no pre-colonial discourses of Africa are known and it is highly doubtful that indigenous conceptualizations of African… ever existed’.(15.) “Africa” is a colonial concept that reduces a multitude of cultures, tribes, sects, religions and peoples into a simply defined and generic “essence” which is easily controlled and understood by the coloniser.(16.) Negritude doesn’t appear to challenge colonisation.

A possible reply may be that it is permissible for the colonised to utilize the tools of the coloniser if used to the fight against marginalization and cultural domination. A strategic move can be made to accept the “essentialism” of the coloniser (as Negritude does in asserting that race defines one’s being) with the aim of liberation. However, the strategic-essentialist Negritude remains unsatisfactory because it mirrors identically the way colonialism works and therefore offers no meaningful opposition to the coloniser. The main problem arises because strategic essentialism is itself the logic of colonialism. Strategic essentialism holds that for political and practical purposes it is advantageous to adopt the position that all people of a certain grouping share the same “essence”. In the colonisation of Africa, this is exactly the process the coloniser took in regards to the inherent value of those peoples it encountered. Colonisation holds that all Africans are the same because it is advantageous politically as well as financially. Therefore strategic essentialism, being itself the logic of colonisation, will ultimately commit the same crimes of marginalization (between classes, sexes and religions) and cultural domination (from more powerful tribes over lesser ones).(17.) Naturalized and apparently organic in nature – because it proclaims being African as a positive thing – Negritude becomes a tool in furthering the process of colonisation in the minds of the colonised. Although Senghor saw Negritude as a way of combating colonialism, Negritude is implicit with the process of colonial domination. The counter-reading of racial stereotypes which Negritude proposes fails to challenge the cultural domination of colonialism at its root.

1Leopold Sedar Senghor, ‘New York (Jazz orchestra: solo trumpet)’, in J. Reed and C. Wake (trans), L.S. Senghor: Prose and Poetry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1965), pp. 155-157, p. 157.

2Leopold Sedar Senghor, ‘Negritude: A Humanism of the Twentieth Century’ in, P. Williams and L Chrisman (eds), Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory, London: Longman, (1993), pp. 27-35, p. 27.

3Ania Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism, Oxon: Routledge, (2005).p. 176.

4Abiola Irele, The African Experience in Literature and Ideology, p. 71.

5Leopold Sedar Senghor, ‘Negritude: A Humanism of the Twentieth Century’, p. 27.

6Ibid, p. 27.

7Ibid, p. 30.

8Ibid, p. 30.

9Ibid, p. 32 & 34.

10Abiola Irele, The African Experience in Literature and Ideology, p. 177.

11Michael James, ‘Race’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/race/&gt;.

12Ibid.

13This move doesn’t entirely absolve the Negritude-critic from every criticism concerning the conception of race. An alternative philosophical approach is racial scepticism. Racial scepticism contends, as there is no biological foundation for race, that race as a concept should be eliminated (a normative position called eliminativism). The Negritude-critic therefore, in accepting racial constructivism, has to indicate why racial scepticism is a flawed doctrine.

14Frantz Fanon, ‘On National Culture’ in P. Williams and L Chrisman (eds), Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory, London: Longman, (1993), pp. 36-52, p. 38.

15Ran Greenstein quoted from Ania Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism, p. 178.

16Amilcar Cabral, ‘National Liberation and Culture’ in P. Williams and L Chrisman (eds), Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory, London: Longman, (1993), pp. 53-65, p. 61.

17As bell hooks notes in regards to why postmodern critiques are useful to issues of race ‘Employing a critique of essentialism allows African-Americans to acknowledge the way in which class mobility has altered collective black experience so that racism does not necessarily have the same impact on our lives. Such a critique allows us to affirm multiple black identities, varied black experience. It also challenges colonial imperialist paradigms of black identity which represent blackness one-dimensionally in ways that reinforce and sustain white supremacy’. bell hooks, ‘Postmodern Blackness’, in P. Williams and L Chrisman (eds), Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory, London: Longman, (1993), pp. 421-427, p. 425.

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Ed Guerrero on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)

This is a brilliant excerpt from Ed Guerrero’s Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. If you are interesting in the representation of race, or Hollywood in general, I highly recommend this book. This excerpt surveys the representation of race in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967):

 

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?‘s narrative epitomizes the standard Hollywood “problem picture” formula, rendered in the production values of the slick 1940s, big-studio style associated with its principal white stars, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Problem pictures usually present the audience with a communal “problem” completely stripped of its social or political context, reduced to a conflict between individuals, sentimentalized and happily resolved at the picture’s end. Ultimately aimed at box-office profits by shaping films into standardized consumer products, this narrative formula was distilled from a long-established strategy of ideological containment that allowed Hollywood to stay current, keeping abreast of the contemporary social and political climate and simultaneously upholding the status quo and containing all insurgent political impulses. By introducing topical political issues into stable, easily recognized and consumed genres, narratives, and plot structures, Hollywood’s conservative ideology [remains un-] challenged.

 

…The specifics of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?‘s plot are those of a gifted and famous thirty-seven-year-old black doctor, head of the World Health Organization, who falls in love with the twenty-three-year-old daughter of millionaire white liberals… The integrated couple returns to San Francisco from a romantic interlude in Hawaii to confront the girl’s parents with an untimatum: either consent to the marriage by nightfall or the girl will be permanently alienated from her parents, and the doctor, the ebony saint that Poitier always portrays, out of personal dignity will break off the relationship and leave.

 

…By making the black man an eminently qualified and desirable suitor at the top of a professional class to which only the smallest minority of blacks could possibly belong, and by locating the narrative in the exclusive domain of the wealthiest stratum of white society, the film reduces the social dimensions of racial conflict to that of mere contrasts of skin colour while completely avoiding the historical, cultural, and economic legacy of what it means to be black in America. So, because Poitier portrays a black who diligently strives to be white, and because there is no representation whatsoever of the black world in the film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? makes no connection with the contemporaneous struggle raging on a grand social and political scale outside the theatre. What conflict there is in the film is transposed from race into a conflict between black generations, reflective of the surrounding “generation gap”, as Poitier tells his father that he will not submit to the self-limiting boundaries of his father’s generation. In a reversed, contrasting gesture that frames the dominant white perspective as the solution to the race problem, Spencer Tracy works out his conflict with his daughter and lapses into platitudes about love conquering all, thus leading the film to a standard sentimental, romantic conclusion. By limiting the range of emotional experiences to simple expression of sentiment worked out by the use of predictable narrative conventions, Hollywood restricted its political vision and masked its conservative assumptions about race, passing them off as consensus. This narrative formula has served the studios well beyond this specific film, which amounted to Hollywood’s last attempt to explore integrationist theme within the frame of its status quo politics.(1.)

 

1. Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, (1993), pp. 76-78.