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Frantz Fanon and the Ngritude Movement: How Fanonian Strategic Essentialism Signals Historical Attunement and a Movement

Beyond a Reactionary Manichean Framework


ABSTRACT Frantz Fanon recounts how his subjectivity as colonized other was constructed and how a politics of white assimilation contributed to his selffragmentation.1 While cognizant of the social forces at play in systemic racialized contexts, Fanon, nonetheless, refuses to deny a black persons agency. Fanons insistence that the oppressed retain their ability to act as free agents and to resist and (re)configure their subjectivity has political, ethical, and philosophical import, as it highlights the fact that the subjugated are not mere things 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 strategiescan emerge and help to bring about socio-political transformations. Moreover, Fanon, like his teacher Aim Csaire, understood that the process of decolonization and subject re-narration would occur over a period of time and in various stages. By studying Fanons complex relationship to the Ngritude movement and by highlighting his appropriation and critique of its themes and variations, Fanons resistance tactics come into sharper focus. That is, contrary to worries of Fanon promoting a reactionary racialized essentialism, I argue that Fanons employment of essentialized narratives can be interpreted as a variant of (what Spivak calls) strategic essentialism. In short, Fanon, like Csaire, understood that different historical moments require different resistance strategies. His recognition of the need to adopt for a time essentialized narratives for therapeutic and upbuilding purposes, coupled with his understanding of the productive nature of socially constructed identities signals a movement beyond a mere reactionary response still trapped within a binary Manichean framework. KEYWORDS: Frantz Fanon, Ngritude movement, strategic essentialism, Aim Csaire, Fanonian resistance strategies, colonized subjectivity, Fanon on decolonization

Several themes I develop in the present study overlap with my more detailed discussion of Fanon in my forthcoming article, Resistance Through Re-Narration: Fanon on Deconstructing Racialized Subjectivities, African Identities: Journal of Economics, Culture, and Society 9:4 (Nov. 2011): 36385.

In Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon recounts how his subjectivity as colonized other was constructed and how a politics of white assimilation contributed to his self-fragmentation.2 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 persons 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 gave myself up as an objectall of which acknowledge Fanons own complicity in his social construction as a colonized subject.3 Clearly, the colonized persons 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. Fanons 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
2

Several themes I develop in the present study overlap with my more detailed discussion of Fanon in the forthcoming article, Resistance Through Re-Narration: Fanon on Deconstructing Racialized Subjectivities, African Identities: Journal of Economics, Culture, and Society 9:4 (Nov. 2011): 36385. 3 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 92.

resistance strategiescan emerge and help to bring about socio-political transformations, even if gradual, partial, and local. Moreover, as I shall argue, Fanon, like his teacher Aim Csaire, understood that the process of decolonization and subject re-narration would occur over a period of time and in various stages. By studying Fanons complex relationship to the Ngritude movement and by highlighting his appropriation and critique of its themes and variations, Fanons resistance tactics come into sharper focus. That is, contrary to worries of Fanon promoting a reactionary racialized essentialism, I argue that Fanons employment of essentialized narratives can be interpreted as a variant of (what Spivak calls) strategic essentialism. In short, Fanon, like Csaire, understood that different historical moments require different resistance strategies. His recognition of the need to adopt for a time essentialized narratives for therapeutic and upbuilding purposes, coupled with his understanding of the 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 Fanons retelling of his own experience of social construction, and then I move into an analysis of Fanons complex relation to the Ngritude movement. Fanons 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 Fanons own refusal to 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.4 These emancipatory proclamations in no way undermine Fanons 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, inferior other. With the historico-racial schema, he emphasizes how the colonized (black) person, given the socio-political imbalances and prejudices built into very fabric of colonial society, has a world differently than his or her white counterparts. More specifically, Fanons 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 racialepidermal schema, Fanon foregrounds product 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 Fanons 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, Fanons alienated strains must be balanced with his repeated calls to effect socio-political change through various acts of resistanceacts which, of course, include subject re-narration. Quite similar to and certainly compatible with Michel Foucaults productive notion of power relations, which both presuppose free subjects
4

Ibid., 204. 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 (ibid., 205).

and

allow

for

the

ever-present

possibility

of

resistance,5

Fanons

understanding of power relations and social construction likewise uphold 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 the socio-political landscape in which they dwell. If resistance possibilities are structurally linked to power relations because the latter entail free subjects,6 then individual 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 sociohistorical forces at play in the construction of the colonized subject. On the other hand, he understood that the process of decolonization and subject renarration would occur over a period of time and in various stages. Here as postcolonial scholar Pal Ahluwalia observes, Fanons complex relationship to the Ngritude movement serves as hermeneutical lens enabling us to make sense of his strategy to move beyond the Manichean structure of a colonized world.7 In light of the immense influence of the Ngritude movement and Csaire in particular on Fanons thought, I now turn to a more focused examination of the movements modulations, as well as Fanons appropriation and critique of its themes and variations. Aim Csaire (19132008), the internationally acclaimed surrealist poet and social activist, is credited with coining the term Ngritude in 1939 in his work, Cahier dun retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the
5

Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1, esp. 9596. See also, Foucault, The Subject and Power, esp. 790. Cf., Yves Michaud, Des modes de subjectivation aux techniques de soi, esp. 1518. 6 See, for example, The Subject and Power, esp. 78889. In this late work Foucault discusses 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. 7 Ahluwalia, Out of Africa, 58.

Native Land). Csaire and Lopold Sedar Senghora likewise accomplished poet and socio-political criticmet in Paris and eventually become the founders of the Ngritude movement.8 Given Ngritudes many expressions, one must stress the movements plurality, diversity, and particular inflections. Reiland Rabaka, for example, distinguishes between Sartrean Ngritude, Csairean Ngritude, and Senghorian Ngritude.9 In contrast with Sartres account, Senghor lays stress on the positive value of Ngritude 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 Rebaka explains, Negritude, for Senghor, was [] an affirmation of African humanity that was perpetually open to revision and redefinition.10 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 cultureswhat he referred to as cultural borrowingwas to be expected in light of each cultures unique contributions to humankind.11 Nonetheless, Senghor is clear that Ngritudes cultural borrowinggiven the black/white power differential and the particular historical moment in which blacks found themselveswas strategically aimed at uplifting and strengthening African culture, traditions, and values. Moreover, and here again Senghor and Fanon are united, Senghorian Ngritude with its culturally blended, polyphonic humanism cannot be understood within Sartres narrowly defined and overly abstract
8

Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 119. See also, Bouvier, Aim Csaire, la ngritude et louverture potique, where, among other things, Bouvier recounts Csaires formative student years in Paris and his initial meeting and subsequent friendship with Lopold Sdar Senghor. 9 See Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, chapter four, Aim Csaire and Leopold Senghor: Revolutionary Negritude and Radical New Negroes. 10 Ibid., 160. Cf. Bernasconi, The Assumption of Negritude, esp. 71, 7980. Bernasconi reads Senghor as promoting an essentialist view of black identity and an overly pastcentered position, or as Bernasconi puts it, a poetry of the past relying on memories and an expression that surpasses the content (ibid., 80) 11 Ibid.

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.12 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 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 Csaires prose-poem, Cahier dun 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.13 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, Csaires 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.14 Csaires notion of return thus emerges as a central theme in Cahier (Notebook). Given the sociopolitical, cultural, and literary significance of Csaires development of Ngritude and his complex, polysemous articulation and employment of the term return, I examine these two concepts in detail. As we become more
12

Ibid. For a detailed analysis of Sartres relation to Hegelian philosophy, see Fanons Dialectic of Experience, esp. 6272. 13 Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 11920. 14 Ibid., 120.

intimately functions.

acquainted

with

these

two

central

themes,

we

become

increasingly attuned to their respective deconstructive and constructive At the end of Discourse on Colonialism, Csaire responds to Ren Depestres question regarding Ngritude and describes it as a resistance to the [French] politics of assimilation.15 In a move similar to Senghors, Csaire rejects the abstract and (false) binary opposition between a civilized European world and a barbarian African world. Instead, he views Ngritude 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. Ngritude embodies, symbolizes and communicates this historical struggle for a positive African identity. Because Antilleans had internalized the degrading discourses of white societydiscourses which had constructed blackness as evil, inferior, and subhumanCsaire recognized the need both to deconstruct the white narratives and to (re)construct new narratives.16 The black bard must recapture the term ngre and infuse it with positive, uplifting connotations. As a skilled poet, rhetorician, and a public intellectual par excellence, Csaire was aware of the power of words to create, as well as alter social realities. Thus, part of his movements strategy was to remove the shame the black person had come to associate with the term ngre. As he explains, we adopted the term ngre, as a term of defiance. [] There was in us a defiant will, and we found a violent affirmation in the words ngre, and negritude.17 Through such discursive warfare, the Ngritude writers were able to decontaminate the racist-created atmosphere of rejection in which the colonized lived, moved, and had their being.18 Constantly seen as the shadow of the white man, the black person internalizes a deep sense of inferiority. Consequently, Csaire was adamant
15 16 17 18

Csaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 88. See also, Gibson, Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination, esp. chapters 1 and 2. Csaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 88 Ibid., 91.

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 culture 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.19 Csairean Ngritude, 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.20 A concern for solidarity with all colonized and enslaved people of African descent occupied Csaire and will likewise occupy Fanon. Csaire 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, Csaire then adds, but we thought that Africa could make a contribution to Europe. It was also an affirmation of our solidarity. Thats 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. Thats what Negritude meant to me.21
19 20 21

Ibid., 92. Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 121. Csaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 92.

As part of his aim to establish a positive black identity, Csaire pulled from various elements of his French educational training and created something new, something bearing the distinctive marks of the African spirit. For example, Csaire 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.22 Even so, Csaire 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.23 Here one might draw an analogy between Ngritudes 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, Csaire, 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.24 Csaire then explains how the surrealist 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.25 With this new black-inflected improvisatory language as his weapon, Csaire begins his Discourse on Colonialism with a triple staccato firing of single sentence paragraphs, each carefully crafted to condemn Europes socalled civilizing mission.26 Listen to Cesaires diagnosis of a decadent,
22 23

Ibid., 83. Ibid. 24 Ibid. 25 Ibid. 26 In Orphe Noir, Sartre makes several astute observations regarding the diverse goals of the Eurpoean surrealist poets and the Ngritude poets. As he explains, the French poets [f]rom Mallarm to the Surrealists seek the self-destruction of language [autodestruction

stricken [atteinte], dying Western civilization27a Europe revealed as morally [and] spiritually indefensible.28 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.29 Csaire 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.30 Unlike the white Marxists, including Sartre, Csaire and other black Ngritude writers could not separate the class problem from the race problem, nor did they overlook the connection between capitalism and colonialism. As Rabaka observes, Csaire understands European civilization to rest on the colonization of non-Europeans, their lives, labor and lands. His Negritude, like Du Boiss and Jamess discourse, was a revolutionary humanist enterprise,31 attuned to the sufferings of all those exploited by the machinery of colonialism and slavery. Although appreciative of Marx, the Ngritude movement (and Fanon as well) sought to expand and revise Marxist teachings not only to include but also to give top priority to racedu langage]. The Ngritude poets, having not only aesthetic but socio-political goals in view, answer the colonists 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 dtruire]. The contemporary European poet attempts to dehumanize words in order to return them to nature; the black herald intends to de-Frenchify [dfranciser] them; he will crush them, he will break their customary associations, he will join them violently (ibid., xx, my translation). 27 Csaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 31. 28 Ibid., 32. 29 Ibid., 31. 30 Ibid. 31 Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 122.

based economic exploitation.32 As Csaire puts it, the Communists acted like abstract Communists in their failure to address the Negro problem. 33 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 Csaire, Ngritude has a crucial role to play in the ongoing reformation of Marxism. Marx is all right, but we need to complete Marx.34 Csairean Ngritude 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. Csaire refers to this phenomenon as the boomerang effect of colonization.35 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

32

Commenting on the capitalism of his day, Csaire 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). 33 Ibid., 85. 34 Ibid., 86. 35 Ibid., 41.

this result, this boomerang effect of colonization that I wanted to point out.36 In his writings, Fanon also highlighted the damage inflicted upon humankind as the result of colonizing practices. Like Csaire, 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.37 Csairean Ngritude, 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.38 Thus, Negritude serves both a socio-political 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
36

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 masters 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). 37 Csaire, in fact, claims that Nazism came about as a result of the boomerang effect. Employing his linguistic whip, Csaire unleashes a series of verbal strikes calculated to leave their marks on Europes 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, 356). 38 Ibid., 89.

Csaires 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;39 however, this Csairean 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 the present emancipatory struggles.40 As was mentioned earlier, this notion of return is one of the most important, yet misunderstood aspects of Csaires thought. For Csaire, 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 Africas tragedies and triumphs.41 Here it is important to stress that this Csairean return is not a call to a romanticized, infallible Africa that must somehow be recreated in the present. Rather, it is a call to rediscover African valuesvalues emphasizing a communal existence and a sharing of goods with one another rather than individualistic, consumer, and capitalistic socio-political and economic structures. Thus, Csaire encouraged a return to Africas past with the aim of a non-repetitive translation into contemporary society of those socio-political principles, cultural values, and ancestral practices lacking in Western enlightened civilization. The Black Bard and Improvising in Tune with History Fanon, having studied under Csaire and greatly respecting his intellectual talents, incorporated many of his teachers insights and strategies in his own work. Yet, as is true of any good student, Fanon
39 40 41

Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, 126. Ibid., 127. Ibid., 128.

developed his own distinctive style, which no doubt retains Csairean echoes.42 Consonant with the Ngritude writers concern for social justice, equality, and the transformation of oppressive social practices, Fanon too labored for these ends. Both Fanon and Csaire fall within the Pan-Africanist camp; however, Fanons Pan-Africanism often collided with the philosophies of other black activists seeking to enact social change through existing political, legal, and other structures.43 On the one hand, Fanon applauded the Ngritude 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.44 Some of Fanons critical remarks can be found, for example, in his book, The Wretched of the Earth. There he claims that Csaires 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.45 Another variant of Ngritude was developed by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartrean Ngritude, like Senghorian and Csairean expressions, also influenced Fanons thinking. In brief, Sartre claimed that Ngritude 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 suprmatie du blanc est la thse], Ngritude is in the larger picture a mere moment of negativity.46 Sartre goes on to claim that Ngritude exists for its own destruction [est pour se dtruire], as its purpose is to prepare the way for the ultimate synthesis, namely the realization of a human in a society without races [ralisation de l'humain dans une socit sans races].47 As
42 43

See, for example, Bouvier, Aime Csaire/Frantz Fanon, esp. 14650. See Rabakas discussion on Fanons Pan-Africanism, ibid., 16768. 44 Ibid., 171. 45 Ibid. 46 See, for example, Sartre, Orphe Noir, dans Anthologie de la nouvelle posie ngre et malgache de langue franaise, esp. xli. For a reading of Sartres influence on Fanon, differing in significant ways from mine, see Memmi, La vie impossible de Frantz Fanon, 255. 47 Sartre, Orphe Noir,xli.

Rabaka explains, the idea of a postracial society places Sartrean Ngritude in clear conflict with both Csairean and Senghorian Ngritude.48 As was mentioned earlier, Rabaka draws attention to how Sartre and the (white) Marxists by and large failed to see the connection between capitalism and colonialism and capitalism and racism. For Csaire and other black radicals those forced to live on the margins and suffering at the hands of dominant societysuch a connection was a reality they lived day in and day out. Understandably, unlike their white Marxist counterparts, they refused to make colonialism and racism secondary issues.49 While Fanon does not deny that Ngritude is a response to the violence of colonization, he sees the productive, positive dimension of Ngritude is mere negativity. That is, contra Memmi, Fanons response to Sartres account is significantly more critical, hesitant, and sophisticated than Memmi at times portrays.50 For example, Fanon decries Sartre for having failed to recognize that the black man suffers in his body quite differently from the white man.51 Still, how are we to understand Fanons agreement with Sartre
48

See, for example, Rabaka, Africana Critical Theory, chapter four, Aim Csaire and Leopold Senghor: Revolutionary Negritude and Radical New Negroes, esp. 11219. 49 Ibid., see esp. 11619. 50 Ironically, Memmis own critique of Sartre has much in common with Fanons sic et non relation to Sartrean Ngritude. See especially, Memmis comments on the historical significance of Ngritude in re-forming black identity and how this fact gives a positive dimension to Ngritude, which Sartre failed to grasp. For example, Memmi write, sil est permis de penser avec Sartre que la ngritude [] est un temps faible, et mme relativement ngative, ce temps-la, il faut bien le vivre, avant de passer au suivant; et du fait quil est vcu, il acquiert son poids, trs lourd, de positivit. Lerreur de Sartre, toujours la mme, est de ne pas assez voir que mme la ngativit, le malheur, vcus, deviennent en quelque manire chair et sang, en somme positivit (256). ( [] if it is permissible to think with Sartre that Ngritude [] 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. Sartres erroralways the samewas 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 Fanons appreciative yet ambivalent and in no way uncritical relation with Sartre and his analytical conclusions. See, for example, Bouvier, Aim Csaire/Frantz Fanon, esp. 90. 51 Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, 117. Fanon makes similar remarks earlier in the chapter. For example, before quoting a long paragraph from Orphe Noir, where Sartre elucidated his view of Ngritude as a weak stage that must self-destruct, Fanon writes, I wanted to be typically blackthat was out of the question. I wanted to be whitethat 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

that Ngritude is in fact a temporary stage through which blacks (and whites) must pass? If we bring Gayatri Chakravorty Spivaks notion of strategic essentialism into the conversation, Fanons 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.52 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 sociopolitical 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 Ngritude as a movement emerging at a particular point in history. On the other hand, Sartre failed to grasp that the essentialist inflection of Ngritude can be (and has been) intentionally discarded. What is retained is the larger goal with which movement began: the creation of the social reality of Ngritude positively conceiveda reality which endures today and which 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 groups temporary adoption of an essentialist identity can be employed for specific historical purposes and then jettisoned when the groups aims are achieved. The shedding of ones essentialized skin (i.e. 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
nothing better to do than demonstrate the relativity of their action (ibid., 111, 112). For a more detailed discussion of the tense yet fecund relationship between Fanon and Sartre, as well as their theoretical and socio-political similarities and differences regarding decolonization, see Jules-Rosette, Jean-Paul Sartre and The Philosophy of Ngritude : Race, Self, and Society, esp., 27681. 52 See, for example, Spivak, In Other Worlds, 205.

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 Csaire and Fanon attest, can be used both to foster group pride and thus contribute to a polyphonic chorus constituting a symphonic humanity or used to mute and render silent the voice of other, thus replacing the rich harmonies of humankind with a deafening monotone monotony. To conclude, a Fanonian strategic essentialism recognizes Ngritudes positive re-invention 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, Ngritude begins within the Manichean frame; however, the social identity it creates through discursive practices and political acts transcends this white-imposed frame. Ngritudes initial strategic phase of course had a different function than its later phase. Fanon, as Gibson observes was cognizant of the stages involved in the historical process of colonized identity construction, deconstruction, and 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.53 Fanons dialectic, in contrast to Sartres, evinces an acute awareness of how in a racialized society black and white embodiment produce different worlds. Stated otherwise, existentially speaking, the black persons 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 usedsuch 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.

53

Gibson, Fanon: The Postcolonial Imagination, 13.

With my sketch of Fanons recognition of something like Spivaks strategic essentialism, coupled with Fanons acceptance of Csaires dynamic idea of return and the constructive aspects of his project (subjectre-narration, of course, playing a central role), we can counter worries about Fanon unwittingly embracing an racialized essentialist subject.54 Fanon, like Csaire, 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. Total word count with notes (minus the abstract): 6,232

54

In his book, Refashioning Futures, David Scott voices such a concern. See esp., 205.