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A Defence of Negritude. a Propos of Black Orpheus by Jean Paul Sartre

A Defence of Negritude. a Propos of Black Orpheus by Jean Paul Sartre

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W.E.B. Du Bois Institute
A Defence of Negritude: A Propos of Black Orpheus by Jean Paul SartreAuthor(s): Abioila Irele, Abiola Irele, Jean Paul SartreSource:
No. 50 (Oct., 1975 - Mar., 1976), pp. 39-41Published by: Indiana University Press on behalf of the W.E.B. Du Bois InstituteStable URL:
Accessed: 22/07/2009 03:37
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A Propos ojf Black Orpheus ly
Jcan Plaul
was the first to give Negritude
extended clitical exposition. It was his famous essay, "Black Orpheus", which he wrote as a pieface to Senghor's anthology of negro poets of French ex- pression that defined and consecrated the term, which has since enteIed into the popular French dictionary, Larousse, and may one day be accepted by the French Academy for inclusion in its official dictionary. While the concept of negritude has met with con- siderable success in French intellectual circles, though not without inspiring some controversy among certain French African elements, it has met with either suspicion or open hostility (and even ridicule) among English-speaking Africans. Much of this attitude arises, I believe from grave misconceptions about the real aims of the movement in general, and in some cases, from prejudice and complete lack of knowledge. It is in this respect that the recent separate publication of Sartle's preface in an English translation comes as a welcome move1. Satre's essay is in many ways characteristic- trenchant, lofty altogether compelling, but very personal. Without doubt, in analysing the work of the Negro poet, he tells us a lot too about himself, and indeed his interpretation amounts to an act of annexa- tion: some of his usual themes as a committed writer- philosopher, and as an active combatant resound rather loudly in these pages. On the other hand, his enthusiasms derive also from a definite feeling of identity with the profound aspirations to which the negro poets were giving literary expression, as well as from his great faculty of penetration. The most obvious aspect of the literature of negri- tude is its revolutionary character and this was some- thing that a post-war French intellectual could easily understand. With Sartre moreover, it fitted in perfectly with his most important literary concept, that of a "literature engagee." His belief that the most valuable literature is that which is involved with a definite human situation, coincides with the concern of the negro poet to express in poetic terms the great collective experience through which the negro race was passing, and Sartre in presenting the result feels obliged to explain, "why it is necessary through a poetic experience that the black man in his present situation must first take conscience of himself." This process of self knowledge is first analysed in terms of the Marxist class struggle, since the revolt of the black man was directed against an oppression which *Translated y Samuel Allen and published y Presence Africaine (Paris) was pre-eminently economic. But we know that the racial opposition of oppressor and oppressed gave a new dimension to the age old phenomenon of imperial- ism as regards the black man. In the negro experience, the economic exploitation and political oppression went hand in hand with the humiliation of his race-they were a denial of his humanity. This fact can hardly be well appreciated in this day and age of decolonisation, but when one considers that Professor Balandier thought it necessary to entitle the essay which he contributed to the inaugural number of Presence Africaine, "The Negro is a man" something of the prejudice which the black man had to fight against becomes clear. Moreover, the period befote the 2nd World War was the height of colonisa- tion and the poets of negritude produced the greater part of their work during that time. It was a period when real atrocities were being committed in the name of civilisation in Afiica, and when, in America, the wrongs against negroes were not confined merely to refusal at lunch counters, but went as far as daily lynching of negroes. This fact explains the loud public tone, the extreme self consciousness of the poetry of negritude. But how could it be otherwise? "From one end of the earth to the other, the blacks, separated by the language, the politics and the history of their colonisers, have in common a collective memory," says Sartre. The Negro poet is the incarnation of his suffering race, and the fact that the whip and the gun recur so often in the imagery of his poetry shows how much his memory was haunted by the fact of slavery. "My memory is girded with blood", says Cesaire, and similar sentiments are expressed in the works of men, as diverse and far flung as Damas, Diop, Cullen, Guillen, and even J. P. Clark ("Ivbie"). The historical origin of negritude is rooted in the revolt of the black man: "Insulted, enslaved, he redresses himself; he accepts the word "negro" which is hurled at him as an epithet, and revindicates himself, in pride, as black in tle face of the white". Negritude is therefore in the beginning a movement of black solidarity, sharply differentiated from the Marxist concept of class solidarity by a racial cons- ciousness Sartre. describes this aspect of it by a term which has led to a misconception: "an anti-racist racism". But the black poets were primarily concerned with projecting a healthier image of their race and not arbitrarily proclaiming an inherent superiority, their purpose was one of definition and affirmation and not one of aggressive confrontation. Sartre's term therefore meant a negro racial pride signed to destroy racialism itself and the parallel that has been drawn with Nazism is quite uncalled for, since racial consciousness is qualitatively different from racialism. 39
Satre distinguishes further how the negro process of self knowledge is at another remove fronm hat of the white proletariat in that it is an act of exploration of the self, a descent into the tormented and wounded depth of the black soul. The negro in combatting a given historical situation is obliged not only to grapple with the objective reality with which he is faced, but also to scour the vast regions of his inner being in quest of a sustaining force. This double action can be summarised in one phrase-it is an immense act of disalienation, of which the protest theme is merely a "point of departure". In attempting to define himself, before the white man, the negro poet strains at his physical and spiritual exile in order to regain something of his integral being. This is the reason wihy Sartre gave the title of Black Orpheus to the negro poet; as he puts it, "because this untiring descent of the negro into himself causes me to think of Orpheus going to reclaim Eurydice from Pluto." And it is not surprising to him that this process is carried out by a systematic reversal of white values, beginning from the very vehicle of expression through which these poets were obliged to transmit their ex- perience: the French language. Sartre rightly emphasises the great importance of Surrealism as "the miraculous arms" of the negro poets' revolt, but his lucidity makes him realise that, the moment a precise objective purpose is attached to the unfolding of the interior, something more than the passive quietism of Andre Breton's conception of the poetic function is achieved. Surreal- ism for the poet of negritude is a means of reversing the human and social order imposed upon him, this order being symbolised by white rationalism, of which the free association of ideas and the free conjugation of forms and images is a negation. On the other hand, it is also the means of creating a new and different order, derived from the values of what he considers the es- sential man; negritude is: "the prelude of forests on the move around the bloody neck of the world It is my singular hate deviating its icebergs in the breadth of true flames". (Cesaire: "Survie"). The negation of Europe takes the form of a revolt against it as well as a search for self. This is why Sartre describes negritude as "the weak stage of a dialec- tical progression: the theoretical and practical affirma- tion of white supremacy is the thesis, the position, of negritude as an antithetical value is the moment of negativity." But earlier, he distinguishes between the "objective negritude" of the values and systems of the negro poet. In designating this latter as the antithetical point of a dialectical progression, Sartre's idea is that black affirmation will by a conscious will dissolve itself into a universal conlsciousness, "he who lives his particularism to the end to find thereby the dawn of the universal." On the other hand, it is possible to see his progression from a different point of view, that of the black man himself, for whom its thesis would be the pre-colonial negrilude, colonial occupation the point of negation, and the new aware- ness, the "subjective negritude", the synthesis. It is because the traditional African life represented for the poet of negritude is both a valid human system and also something that he could claim for himself that his recreation of the world is based upon it. If we bear in mind that the poetry of negritude was not an expression of revolt in the abstract sense, as one finds in the poetry of Blake and Rimbaud, but that it was concerned with objective realities, we can appreciate better why it was a necessary phenomenon. The negro poet denies a concrete social order, white supremacy, which is founded upon a concrete ideological concept, that of black savagery and inherent black inferiority, manifested by such concrete facts as slavery, colonial occupation and assimilation. Negritude in this light is certainly a reaction, an act of self defence, at the same time, it expresses the aspiration of the negro poet to a plenitude of being, it indicates his claim to an integral personality by an appeal to the African heritage. This appeal takes a double aspect: apology and glorification on one hand, an attempt at identification on the other. In the first respect, the critics of negritude have denounced its romantic evocation of the African past--as if it was not the very privilege of poetry to dispense with the cold realism of prose. Besides, no poet would ever put pen to paper if he knew that his words were going to be interpreted literally. In this respect, it is not to be supposed that Cesaire for instance would be defending cannibalism because he wrote in Cahier: "Because we hate you, you and your Reason, We demand for ourselves the precocious dementia Of the flaming folly of tenacious cannibalism". These lines express an identification with tle trance rather than with the objective savagery of cannibal rites. Nor should one presume too quickly that Damas claims exclusive possession by the Negro of the virtues that he enumerates in "Black Label", which is opposed to the litany of calumnies of the negro by the white man. Such lines represent the truculent, rebellious attitude of the black man hitting back. The poets of negritude construct a dream image of the African past, of a negro "golden age". This is a natural enough phenomenon; in times of sorrow, one dreams of happier times. But in the case of the negro poet, his aspiration also takes the form of a vindica- tion of his myth through a revalorisation of African values. There is something here that goes beyond a literary pose-we are faced in fact with a myth in the ancient sense, transcendental conception of life. Sartre has given this aspect of negritude its most memorable definition-he calls it, in Existentialist terms, "the being-in-the-world of the negro". It is a particularly appropriate term in its double implication of a negro apprehension of the universe, and of a voluntary reconstitution, at the same time a metaphysical and a social attitude. But how far do the poets of negritude express a dis- tinctively negro (African) vision? How far do their works define and share in a definite negro sensibility? "Is there a systematic explanation of the black soul, or a platonid archetype which one can approach without ever attaining it?" asks Sartre. And his own answer is surely the only one: "As all anthropological notions, Negritude is an iridescence of being and the duty to be; it makes you and you make it." This negro being is rooted in African tradition which is unified by a common philosophical conception, cultural variatiolns notwithstanding: a common ontological outlook which governs the African psyche and in which the negro in America can rightly be supposed to share. This total African cosmology is what Senghor calls "the ensemble of African values"2.

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