Notes on: Diagne, SB Négritude. Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

Three black students from French colonies met in the 1920s in Paris (Senghor, Césaire, Dumas). They realised that they all belong to people considered uncivilised and they have recent memories of slavery. They had all been educated in elite French or French colonial institutions and had experience of revolt against racism and colonialism, including hatred of local black elites. They also noticed embarrassment at being associated with other Africans among French Caribbeans. They are influenced by American thinkers in the Harlem Renaissance. At first the movement was liable to exclude black women, and their contribution tended to be incorporated without acknowledgement, especially the contribution of African civilisation.

A journal was founded in the 1930s and the term
négritude coined, deliberately as a provocation, to stress the value of blackness against white supremacists. It is still an irritant. It is admitted to be still only a possible posture of revolt rather than a particular philosophy, a poetic revolt, and aesthetics, although there are claims for it as something more philosophical '"the sum total of the values of civilisation of the Black World"'.

Initially, anthologies of poetry were published to develop négritude as a literary movement, with the themes of publicising poverty illiteracy and exploitation and political racism, as a kind of manifesto, for all the colonised, including yellow people, people of colour in general. It claims a new vitalism opposed to the decadence of white literature, but was also contrasted to 'Caribbean "mulatto society "' which was seen as corrupted by white decadence: white incomprehension was seen as a matter of pride. The poetry expressed the love for life joy in life.

The anthology had a preface written by Sartre entitled 'Black Orpheus', but this had contradictory consequences, because it also implied an eventual impotence 'in front of fate and death', and captured
négritude as 'an illustration of his own philosophical theses' . For Sartre, it was a poetic appropriation of French,  a necessary use of the language of domination, even though it was a weapon against that domination, a radical transformation, appearing as a fundamental violence against French self-assurance, making French itself unfamiliar, especially if it invokes other techniques such as surrealist writing and [what looks like semioclasm]. But then French poets had already done that, '"from Mallarmé to the Surrealists"', so négritude became a kind of surrealism.

Sartre maintained the traditional Marxist view that the proletariat could be the only revolutionary class and actor of history.
Négritude was a creation of poetry just as Eurydice was a creation of Orpheus. It could only ever be a poetry, while liberation was in the hands of the proletariat. It can only be subjective, something concrete and particular rather than universal and abstract.

So overall Sartre's preface popularised
négritude but simultaneously 'dismissed its historical significance' and many of his criticisms were to be repeated later, especially from certain Marxists who announced that race was a distraction, something that detracted from the universal struggle against capitalism. Senghor became his country's president and indeed seem to imply that cultural recognition and reconciliation was what was needed, seeming to compromise with neocolonialism. There is also an accusation of essentialism, some common identity, the African was somehow beyond historical trajectories and circumstances.

négritude had to define itself afterwards against Sartre. It had to insist it was not just a particularism, specifically against white supremacy is, and it had to show there was something substantial not just poetic in African values of civilisation, that it had an ontology and epistemology.

Differences appeared among the three founding fathers. Two of them (C and D) were poets rather than theorists and stressed cultural heritage and common cultural traditions, while Senghor , insisted on some shared 'ontology of life forces', some vital force that constituted being, all being including animals and vegetables, even minerals, that tended towards personhood, freedom, and that this was the driving force of religion. An ontology of life forces, subsequently summarised by a Belgian philosopher: there are specific forces characterised by different intensities and types, and each one can be strengthened or weakened; they can influence and act upon each other; they are organised in a hierarchy starting from God and going down to the mineral through the ancestors living humans and animals; causal action involves the influence of stronger force on weaker force.

The idea of a hierarchy of forces 'constitutes a good summary of the view shared by many African religions characterised as "animism", while the other points help understand the particular type of causality that has been labelled magical thinking'. Senghor also tries to argue that African art is to be understood as 'the language of an ontology of vital forces'. His argument was supported by a later book on Bantu philosophy claiming to rest on exactly this sort of ontology, written by a Belgian Franciscan priest: he claimed to uncover ontological principles from ethnographical description of Bantu culture.

While Senghor embraced the book, his fellow founder C rejected it, because he saw it as fundamentally compatible with colonialism, and with satisfactions like decent wages comfortable housing and food, too pure and spiritual, only concerned with ontology: even the Bantu had accepted white people as part of their ontology at first, a higher power, only ever reformist and quietist.

The aesthetics of
négritude is perhaps the most important, even for Senghor, and he supported the vogue of black art and ethnography in France, taken up by people like Picasso. He wanted négritude to be a philosophy of African forms and argued that it intended to depict the sub- reality that is inhabited by vital forces rather than just reproducing appearances. Life forces followed rhythms and masks and sculptures should be seen as combinations of those rhythms, themes of sweetness as in one of his analyses of the feminine statuette, combinations of concave forms and cylindrical forms, in an underlying rhythm, expressed in material forms.

Senghor became president in 1960 and organised his own international festival of black arts. C's main theme was whether African arts could regain some sort of initiative. He remained informed by surrealist politics and the Dionysian, with a deliberate link to Nietzsche. Art remained as a response to mechanism and dehumanising philosophy, reification associated with modern Europe, and offered a hopeful retotalising

Senghor also developed some epistemological implications, expressed in the slogan that '"emotion is Negro as reason is Hellenic"', associated with his views on rhythm. This clearly runs the danger of accepting Western ethnology and the distinction between Western rationality and the inferiority of colonised societies and their more primitive mentality, suffused with participation and magical thinking, ignoring contradiction and proper understandings of causality, associated with Levy-Bruhl. C also seem to support this view in a poem suggesting that black people were somehow simply abandoned in the world.

Sartre saw this as similar to the distinction in Bergson between intelligence and intuition, and this leads to a more redemptive reading, negritude as '"Afro Bergsonian epistemology"', although Senghor explicitly used the language of Levy Bruhl. Later he was to argue that there was an identical form of reason, however just different combinations of these elements, pointing back to Bergson, and more explicit allegiances later claiming that we now know that knowledge does not divide subjects from objects nor objects into separated parts. Senghor 'following Bergson' argues for a 'reason – that – embraces' [still looks a bit animist to me] [and there are similarities between animism and the Elan Vital?]. So there is no simple division of humanity into two categories, and this should be seen instead as an acknowledgement of Bergsonian intuition. Further, it is a description of art as knowledge that attracts the most controversial bits about emotion. In the context of the remark about emotion being Negro, what Senghor is really saying is that 'Hellenic art is to analytic reason what African art is to emotion'

Cesaire was originally a member of the French Communist Party but then resigned. The other two were socialists. It was total allegiance to Russia that seemed to be the problem rather than an adequate recognition of blackness, and an insistence that Stalinist paternalism was really the same as colonialism. Culture was more important than politics. This is also a response to Sartre and his 'emaciated universalism'. He called for an African communism or an African socialism, based on the early Marx. He advocated the epistemological break and focused on the ethical and humanist work, while the later work was a betrayal. This early work had to be built upon to think out an African path to socialism 'inspired by black spiritualities and which continues the tradition of communalism'. Alienation is particularly important, and it is to be combated on all levels, to reach a stage when we can give birth to 'homo artifex' instead of Homo Faber.

Négritude has affected the concept of Africa invented by Europeans. It has forced critical self appraisal and challenged the concept of European rational man. Does it have anything to say about black art, especially as philosophy? There can be no recipe, because African art should be a matter of self invention. What about the role of négritude in general black politics? It's heyday was really before the great independence movements in Africa.

The vertical dimension, pan- Africanism, became increasingly important in identifying
négritude, as independent liberation struggles seem to have replaced any attempt at essentialism — for example in the Caribbean Creoleness as a hybrid construction fought racism rather than négritude [a bit like Fanon on sociogenesis?]. African-American identity depends more on internal identity politics of being American rather than solidarity with Africans, except for a tiny elite.

Pan- Africanism has been revived via things like the African Union, with the African diasporas as a symbolic region only, unlike as in
négritude [it also implies that people actually living in Africa may be African even if they are of European or Asian descent]. Négritude becomes problematic in terms of whether it is a horizontal or vertical solidarity, a political alliance to fight racism, or a matter of reviving heritage while fighting off essentialism. Both essentialism and hybridity are pervasive, with mixture probably dominating these days. Négritude might even be extended to include people who aren't black, to include surrealists or poets, and philosophers like Bergson [apparently an argument by Senghor].