Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Césaire are important founding fathers of Négritude, a literary and political movement opposing the exoticization of Africa. With their philosophical project, they aimed at liberating colonial and colonized thinking – in Africa and in Europe.

Histo­rical rese­arch and commu­ni­ca­tion demand two oppo­sing approa­ches: On the one hand, as you delve more deeply into a subject, things neces­s­a­rily become more complex – and usually also more compli­cated. On the other hand, it is neces­sary to reduce this comple­xity in order to estab­lish the big picture, as well as to explain and connect facts and circum­s­tances. When conside­ring African history and philo­sophy, however, it seems that only the reduc­tion of comple­xity has been accep­table. Writers, poli­ti­cians, philo­so­phers, and artists have, appar­ently, been given only two options: They either devote them­selves to radical, mili­tant resis­tance or they are accused of colla­bo­ra­tion with “colo­nia­lism”. In his book Freedom Time from 2015, Gary Wilder’s valuable contri­bu­tion is that in his re-reading of the texts of Léopold Sédar Senghor and Aimé Cesaire, he refuses to apply the dicho­tomy between resis­tance and assi­mi­la­tion which allows African men and women only these two roles. This refusal renders moot ques­tions such as why “the Afri­cans” did not form an alli­ance against “colo­nia­lism”, or the notion that every lite­rary, artistic or philo­so­phical expres­sion should first be examined on the basis of how they connect and relate to colo­nia­lism and post-colonialism.

Concrete utopian dreams in Paris

Aimé Césaire intro­duced the term Négri­tude in the Paris-based maga­zine L’Etudiant Noir in 1935; thus before World War II and decades before the deco­lo­niza­tion of Africa. Born in Marti­nique in 1913, his excel­lent perfor­mance in school won him a scho­lar­ship at an elite high school in Paris where he met Léopold Senghor from Senegal, seven years his senior and a student of clas­sical philology.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Paris was a hub for intellec­tuals from fran­co­phone Africa, the Carib­bean and the USA. Paulette Nardal, writer and jour­na­list from Marti­nique, the first black student at the Sorbonne, and, toge­ther with her sister, a host of a lite­rary salon, also trans­lated many works into French. In this way, the sisters brought toge­ther writers of the Harlem Renais­sance and students from the French colo­nial empire, crea­ting a “trans­na­tional black public sphere in impe­rial Paris.”

Quelle: dukepress.edu

Wilder’s book starts with this period, but mainly focuses on the period after World War II “when these student-poets became poet-politicians parti­ci­pa­ting directly in resha­ping the contours of the Fourth and Fifth Repu­blic of France.” Senghor had been a soldier in the French army and was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1940. During his two years as a prisoner of war he wrote “Hosties noires” (Black Hosts) and spent a lot of time reading Goethe. After his release, he worked as a teacher and in 1945 was elected deputy to the French National Assembly for the consti­tuency of Sénégal-Mauritanie. Césaire, too, worked as a teacher upon his return to Marti­nique in 1938 and was elected mayor of Fort-de-France in 1945. As of 1946 he was deputy to the French National Assembly for the French Commu­nist Party until 1993. Césaire and Senghor were convinced that the future of the colo­nial terri­to­ries would not lie in national sove­reignty, in the buil­ding of new nation states, but in surmoun­ting natio­na­lism through a newly-defined terri­to­rial frame­work. Their starting point was not the French nation state, but the French empire. “Senghor called neither for France to deco­lo­nize Africa nor for Africa to libe­rate itself, but for Afri­cans to deco­lo­nize France.”

Wilder’s book can be approa­ched in two ways. At one level, it could be read as an intellec­tual history of Senghor and Césaire’s poli­tical and lite­rary work between 1945 and 1960. 1960 was the so-called Year of Africa, the year 18 colo­nies became inde­pen­dent and Senghor was elected presi­dent of the Repu­blic of Senegal after a union between Mali, as well as the utopian dream of a post-national union with France, had both failed. Wilder recon­s­tructs their concepts of fede­ra­lism, depart­ment­a­lism, and self-determination on the eve of inde­pen­dence, as well as their ideas of a non-Stalinist socia­lism and their notion of a funda­mental soli­da­rity needed to achieve a post-national and post-racial society. At another level, Wilder under­stands his re-reading as provi­ding a perspec­tive still valid in our time as we, again, face the chall­enge of concep­tua­li­sing demo­cracy and soli­da­rity in a world that needs to be reor­dered after the end of the East–West conflict, and that is entan­gled in nation states, empires, and globalization.

Léopold Sédar Senghor und Aimé Césaire, o.J.; Quelle: 7lameslamer.net

Throug­hout their lives, Senghor and Césaire remained authors of lite­rary texts and this is why Wilder high­lights the connec­tions between poli­tical thin­king and aesthetic prac­tice in the works of his prot­ago­nists, who he consider prag­matic utopians and cosmo­po­litan huma­nists. Through his elegant and enjoyable style and enga­ging text Wilder successfully demons­trates that it is possible to deco­lo­nize intellec­tual history by inclu­ding African philo­sophy, and also to globa­lize critical theory by expan­ding it with the colo­nial dimen­sion. All this without agre­eing with all of Senghor and Césaire’s ideas and without justi­fying their later politics.

Poli­tical reality in West Africa

At the consti­tu­tive confe­rence of the Parti de la Fédé­ra­tion Afri­caine in Dakar in 1959, which united dele­gates from Senegal, Niger, Sudan, Upper Volta, and other African colo­nies, and should have laid the foun­da­tion for an African federal state, Senghor – by this time already deputy to the French National Assembly – explained his programme:

Nevert­heless, we shall not be won over to a regime of liberal capi­ta­lism and free enter­prise. We cannot close our eyes to segre­ga­tion, although the Federal Govern­ment combats it; nor can we accept the eleva­tion of mate­rial success to a way of life.
We stand for a middle course, for a demo­cratic socia­lism, which goes so far as to inte­grate spiri­tual values, a socia­lism which ties in with the old ethical current of the French socialists.

The fede­ra­tion, however, disbanded. Colo­nial depen­dence and indi­vi­dual inte­rests in the colo­nies prevailed. Self-determination and self-governance could barely be thought of outside the nation state and anti-colonial move­ments argued for national inde­pen­dence for their count­ries, leading to the foun­ding of new states.

Sie können uns unter­stützen, indem Sie diesen Artikel teilen: 

Senghor was confronted with incre­asing tumult in his own country Senegal. In 1968, a student rebel­lion took place in the capital, followed by a general strike. While the students protested against the outdated educa­tion system, the unrest was rooted more deeply. Senghor might have seriously unde­re­sti­mated class antago­nisms; the people protested against the concen­tra­tion of power in the ruling party, the reces­sion, and the country’s endu­ring depen­dence on France after eight years of poli­tical inde­pen­dence. Under the influence of the Nige­rian Civil War (Biafran War), the removal of Kwame Nkrumah from office in Ghana in 1966, and perhaps of the world-wide student protests and strikes, Senghor reacted by using the police and mili­tary to crush dissent.

Honour in Germany – Négri­tude as history

Senghor als Präsi­dent Sene­gals, o.J.; Quelle: africanouvelles.com

1968 was also the year in which Senghor became the first African to receive the German Book Trade’s pres­ti­gious Peace Prize. While guests listened to the beau­tiful tribute by Fran­çois Bondy in the Pauls­kirche in Frank­furt, the members of the Socia­list German Student Union (SDS) protested outside. Their leaf­lets said: “We will barri­cade the Pauls­kirche against this philo­so­phi­zing puppet of French impe­ria­lism who supresses the exploited masses of his people with Goethe in his mind and a machine gun in his hands.” Bondy did not mention the upri­sing in Senegal in his speech. He hono­ured instead the “regal presi­dent”, who considered himself a socia­list, and he spoke in a scho­larly manner about the Négri­tude. Accor­ding to Bondy, Senghor had always thought of the Négri­tude – toge­ther with métis­sage (hybri­dity) – as a global culture.

Dany Cohn-Bendit beim Versuch, die Absper­rung vor der Pauls­kirche zu stürmen, 22. September 1968; Quelle: fr.de

When we read further through the leaflet of the Socia­list German Student Union, we learn of Senghor’s “poeti­sing prattle, which seeks to sell the mysti­cism of blood and soil for black culture.” Although much of the Union’s criti­cism was justi­fied, it seems that there was also an under­lying element of anger caused by thwarted love.

The Négri­tude had always been confronted with two rather contra­dic­tory accu­sa­tions: That it put its focus too much on Europe and that it was too essen­tia­list. This critique had been mentioned at the Confe­rence of African Writers of English Expres­sion, which was held at Maka­rere College in Kampala, Uganda, in 1962. Among the parti­ci­pants were Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Es’kia Mphahlele, Lewis Nkosi, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and Rajat Neogy. The main ques­tions of the confe­rence were: What is African lite­ra­ture? Is it lite­ra­ture written by Afri­cans or is it lite­ra­ture that describes the African expe­ri­ence? Does African lite­ra­ture have to be written in an African language?

Prima­rily the dispute was about whether African lite­ra­ture should be part of a world lite­ra­ture (written in English) or whether it should find its own way. The Négri­tude, which praised the beauty of the old sensuous Africa in most elegant and polished French, was already considered outdated. Yet Amos Tutuola’s rough pidgin in his equally rough albeit inge­nious story about a palm-wine drunkard’s journey into the city of the dead also failed at the confe­rence. Nevert­heless, the gathered authors aimed to reduce Western supe­rio­rity and domi­nance, and formu­late a posi­tive concept of the African persona. These were in fact exactly the issues the Négri­tude had been engaged with: How can we think about diffe­rence without hier­ar­chical devaluation?

Later Wole Soyinka, one of its fier­cest critics, recon­ciled with the Négri­tude by histo­ri­ci­zing it and refer­ring to the diffe­rent expe­ri­ences that had been created under British and French colo­nial rule respec­tively. But Senghor was looking for some­thing universal. During his accep­tance speech in Frank­furt, he said:

[…] that today’s ceremony is strange. Here, you give the Peace Prize to a former prisoner of war of the German army, a prize that, after all, is still a lite­rary prize to an old acti­vist of the Négri­tude. Strange, indeed, is this ceremony, which expresses fittingly these times of violence and confu­sion but at the same of a new dawn and clarity, this second half of the 20th century in which we live. Strange ther­e­fore, but yet signi­fi­cant. For in the war poems of this poet-prisoner you have found no word of hatred. And this acti­vist for the Négri­tude has at the same time desired to be an acti­vist for a future universal world culture.

This is a rather confi­dent accep­tance speech.

Wilder sees the rele­vance and eminence of these two poet-politicians in that their ideas did not fit into the binary of resis­tance or assi­mi­la­tion. They not only claimed a place for their count­ries next to France, but they also claimed France’s heri­tage, the French Revo­lu­tion and the entire history of civi­liza­tion for Africa, the Antilles, and all colo­nized peoples. And at the same time, they showed what signi­fi­cant contri­bu­tion colo­nized peoples had already made and could continue to make to world civilization.

Wilder considers the two friends, Senghor and Césaire, as thin­kers of inter­na­tional historic signi­fi­cance because they were able to think of the world in global terms, at a pivotal historic moment: on the eve of deco­lo­niza­tion. And we still face this task today.


Gary Wilder: Freedom Time. Negri­tude, Deco­lo­niza­tion, and the Future of the World, Duke Univer­sity Press 2015