Leopold Sedar Senghor’s Concept of Negritude
Leopold Sedar Senghor believes that every African shares certain distinctive and innate characteristics, values and aesthetics. In the poem ‘New York’, Senghor argues that the black community of Harlem should ‘Listen to the far beating of your nocturnal heart, rhythm/ and blood of the drum’ and ‘let the black blood flow into/ your blood’.
The word nocturnal is interesting because it refers to the image of night. By using the imagery of night, Senghor is asserting that one’s African heritage (one’s Blackness) is both inescapable and natural (like night-time). Negritude is the active rooting of a Black identity in this inescapable and natural African essence.
The major premise of Negritude is therefore that one’s biological make-up (race) defines one’s outer (skin colour) as well as inner (spirit/essence) traits. Negritude is a concept which holds that there is a ‘shared culture and subjectivity and spiritual essence’ among members of the same racial group. As Irele explains, there is a ‘parallel between this conception and the racial doctrines propounded in Europe, presenting the Negro as an inherently inferior being to the white man, and which provided the ultimate ideological rationale for Western imperialism’.
Instead of rejecting the (colonialist) theory that race defines one’s being; Negritude rejects the assumption that the African is inherently inferior to the “white man”. To Senghor, this makes Negritude a weapon against colonialism and an ‘instrument of liberation’.
To Senghor, the African essence is externalized in a distinctive culture and philosophy. This claim is supported by Senghor’s assertion that Negritude – the rooting of identity in one’s natural essence – is ‘diametrically opposed to the traditional philosophy of Europe’ (the colonizer).
To Senghor, European philosophy is ‘essentially static, objective… It is founded on separation and opposition: on analysis and conflict’. In contrast, African philosophy is based on ‘unity’, ‘balance’ negotiation and an appreciation of ‘movement and rhythm’. As Loomia notes, Senghor describes African culture ‘in terms of precisely those supposed markers of African life that had been for so long reviled in colonialist thought – sensuality, rhythm, earthiness and a primeval past’.
The traditional stereotypes of African culture are not directly challenged by Negritude – Africans are essentially spiritual according to Senghor – they are modified. Negritude is a process of negotiation which proposes a counter-myth or counter-reading of those traditional stereotypes with the aim of valorizing and celebrating the African personality.
Senghor’s conception of Negritude holds that one’s inner and outer essence is informed, defined by one’s race. This position – that race is biological and informs one’s character – has encountered criticism because it relies on an incorrect conception of race. Senghor’s conception of race asserts that a person from Ghana, Senegal and Liberia are all biologically African – and therefore share the same African essence. However, as Michael Jones notes ‘there is no biological or genetic foundation for the grouping of individual humans into a racial group’.
There is no such thing as a race biologically speaking; race is a social construction. If there is no biological foundation for Senghor’s assertion that the African race shares certain essential features then the concept of Negritude appears to be invalidated. It therefore appears that rooting Black identity in an inescapable and natural African essence becomes problematic.
A possible response to this criticism is to adopt a more sophisticated understanding of race. Although Senghor’s Negritude relies on a biologically constructed concept of race, the sophisticated-Negritude critic could cite racial constructivism. Racial constructivism is the position that holds that as society labels individuals as belonging to certain racial groups (regardless if they are justified to) and that belonging to racial groups entails ‘differences in resources, opportunities, and well-being, the concept of race must be conserved, in order to facilitate race-based social movements or policies, such as affirmative action, that compensate for socially constructed but socially relevant race differences’.
There is no biological foundation for race but the concept can be used to enable a common identity. A shared history (of slavery, colonialism) and shared experiences (of being African, the interaction between white Europe and black Africa, institutional racism) allow for the rooting of identity in Africa. The sophisticated-Negritude critic is able to cite racial constructivism as the foundation for a shared African identity and escape the criticism against Senghor’s biological conception of race.
Negritude is a process of negotiation which attempts to alter the value of those labels attached to Africa. This negotiation with the coloniser has been criticised. Frantz Fanon explains ‘the efforts of the native to rehabilitate himself and to escape from the claws of colonialism are logically inscribed from the same point of view as that of colonialism’.
The attempt to produce an African personality ensures the “native” uses the same logic of the coloniser. As Ran Greenstein notes ‘no pre-colonial discourses of Africa are known and it is highly doubtful that indigenous conceptualizations of African… ever existed’. “Africa” is a colonial concept that reduces a multitude of cultures, tribes, sects, religions and peoples into a simply defined and generic “essence” which is easily controlled and understood by the coloniser. Negritude doesn’t appear to challenge colonisation.
A possible reply may be that it is permissible for the colonised to utilize the tools of the coloniser if used to the fight against marginalization and cultural domination. A strategic move can be made to accept the “essentialism” of the coloniser (as Negritude does in asserting that race defines one’s being) with the aim of liberation. However, the strategic-essentialist Negritude remains unsatisfactory because it mirrors identically the way colonialism works and therefore offers no meaningful opposition to the coloniser. The main problem arises because strategic essentialism is itself the logic of colonialism. Strategic essentialism holds that for political and practical purposes it is advantageous to adopt the position that all people of a certain grouping share the same “essence”.
In the colonisation of Africa, this is exactly the process the coloniser took in regards to the inherent value of those peoples it encountered. Colonisation holds that all Africans are the same because it is advantageous politically as well as financially. Therefore strategic essentialism, being itself the logic of colonisation, will ultimately commit the same crimes of marginalization (between classes, sexes and religions) and cultural domination (from more powerful tribes over lesser ones).
Naturalized and apparently organic in nature – because it proclaims being African as a positive thing – Negritude becomes a tool in furthering the process of colonisation in the minds of the colonised. Although Senghor saw Negritude as a way of combating colonialism, Negritude is implicit with the process of colonial domination. The counter-reading of racial stereotypes which Negritude proposes fails to challenge the cultural domination of colonialism at its root.