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.

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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