Defining black and African identity has been a journey of self-finding. We are a people who, by accident of history, have borne the worst brunt of European imperialism.
Try as we may, it is difficult to answer the question “who are we?” without a care for whose world we live in.
This much Leopold Sedar Senghor, the first president of Senegal, knew as far back as the early 20th century.
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And now, as the world marks what would have been his 103rd birthday on October 9, Senghor’s philosophy of Negritude requires the credit it is due.
In 1928, Senghor travelled to France to school at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand. At this school, Senghor will become friends with Martinican poet and cultural theorist Aime Cesaire.
Together with Cesaire and to an extent, Leon-Gontran Damas, Senghor conceptualised Negritude, an oft-quoted and oft-misrepresented philosophy of black identity.
It is easy for one to construe Negritude as a literary and art movement but that would be narrow. Negritude was communicated off the pages of literature into the political praxis.
We may need to remind ourselves of the grounds upon which Senghor, Damas and Cesaire built their case.
Let us suppose you were familiar with philosopher Rene Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum”. It is Latin that translates into “I think therefore I am/ I exist.”
Descartes was trying to answer the question, “how do I know I exist?” He concludes that I know I exist because I am even thinking of the question. I have to exist so as to think. How can a thing that does not exist think?
Using similar logic, the fathers of Negritude asked: “who are we?”. We might then answer, “we are black people.” But that actually begs another question: “what does it mean to be a black person?”
‘Black’ has to have meaning. It must consist of something otherwise the statement “I am black” will be useless. And that is how Negritude was born, courtesy the pejorative French negre, the equivalent of the N-word in the U.S.
Cesaire took negre and turned it into an empowering term for black consciousness.
For Senghor, who was the more prolific advocate of Negritude, the philosophy is the material, bodily, psychological and linguistic wholeness of the peoples of African origin.
Senghor noted that it had become necessary to define ourselves because a world had been created by another group of people and this world has subsumed us.
This other group, white people, have created the tools for which we, black people, must define ourselves and in doing so, they, white people, determine what we [can] look like.
The word Senghor used for this process can be translated as assimilation. White European identity is forcing us to assimilate, to be like them. If we refuse to assimilate, then we need to assert our identity.
Senghor, in subsequent years after World War 2, theorised essentialist conceptions of blackness. He wanted to give examples in ways that he felt black people were essentially (naturally) different and even better than others.
Senghor was accused of reverse racism by some European intellectuals in the 1960s, not least among them, Jean-Paul Sartre. The charge was that Senghor was fighting anti-black racism with anti-white racism.
But the Senegalese scholar had a response: “Négritude… is neither racialism nor self-negation. Yet it is not just affirmation; it is rooting oneself in oneself, and self-confirmation: confirmation of one’s being. It is nothing more or less than what some English-speaking Africans have called the African personality.”
In these theoretical differences, Senghor maintained that he was not racist. And when he became president, Senghor’s tone on Negritude was not antagonistic to Europeans.
He actually argued that black people gained nothing from severing ties to Europeans and the white race.
Senghor was optimistic, believing that together, the two races would give “une civilisation de l’universel, une uivilisation de l’unité par symbiose” (a Civilisation of the Universal, a Civilisation of Unity by Symbiosis).
Senghor did not only advocate a philosophy concerned with black and white race relations. He tackled black intra-race problems that hinder the union between diasporic and continental Africans.
In the theory that he called Decalage, Senghor opined that black people in the diaspora and their continental counterparts exist in different time and space.
By a different time, the poet meant the agenda of each group is different as a result of the times within which they find themselves. If Africa was undergoing massive regaining of independence in the 1960s, African-Americans were fighting to be allowed to vote.
Distance in geographical space was also a problem as Senghor believed this meant that continental Africans could not immediately connect with diasporans and vice-versa. If they could not immediately connect, it meant they are likely to be emotionally out of touch.
Senghor’s Negritude would be grounds for many after him to make their points all in the name of constructing the African narrative of self.
Frantz Fanon, the great French West Indies champion of black rationalism, was an avowed disciple of Negritude.
Senghor’s Negritude asked white people to accept his blackness on his terms. He argued that he was here and black and not going to change; they had to adjust to him and not he to them.
In many ways, that is the attitude with which most black people fight racism now. It is not hard to see that the days of black people walking on eggshells in white spaces are fast passing by.