Art as Affirmation
A response to Maerhofer’s Poetic of Négritude in the context of Historical Avant-Garde in relation to Sartre and value
All art is, at its very essence, a reaction to and/or against a political regime, a claim, idea, or perspective. Reactions are conversations artists have through their work. The ideas that rest within a piece of art go well beyond the material matter of it. Writing is often the most evident and tangible form of art in which we see such reactions. For instance, the 1970s avant-garde group known as the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets began as a reaction to traditional 17th century American poetry. The movement sought to “place complete emphasis on the language of the poem and to create a new way for the reader to interact with the work” (Academy of American Poets). More recently, the 2005 New Sincerist blog-driven poetry movement is based on a philosophical reaction against post-modernism, aimed at writing and encouraging poetry that founder Anthony Robinson claims is “more than just jokes, or just post-modern, post-language, post-avant, post-lacan, or post-whatever” (Robinson).
All too often critics anchor their assessment of a movement’s value in its novelty. The Négritude movement’s poetics are no different. However, I believe that the innovation of a movement alone does not make it valuable. This essay argues that the Négritude poetics is a prime example of “reaction art” that is innovative in its own right and must be understood and analyzed on its own terms when engaging in critical dialogue with what has come before it.
Brief Introduction to the Négritude Movement
Négritude is, in its essence, is a movement aimed at reaffirming the Black identity of members of the African Diaspora, as a means of rejecting the dominant French colonial racism. Martinician writer and politician, Aimé Fernand David Césaire founded the Négritude movement alongside Senegalese poet, Léopold Sédar Sénghor, and French Guinean poet, Léon Damas. These intellectuals found solidarity in their common Black identity and found it to be the most effective weapon against French colonialism; it created a safe space for writers to address “the myth of Africa,” reject Western domination, ideals, and identity. Through the Négritude movement, the writers were able to speak to the identity crises facing French members of the African Diaspora by creating new identities for themselves (La Négritude).
While Négritude is generally characterized by its valorization of African history and denunciation of Western ideas, the definition varies from realm to realm. According to the 2009 edition of Webster’s dictionary, the term ‘Négritude’ is a derivation of the French word, negre closely meaning “Blackness” or “negro” in the English language. Césaire first coined the neologism in the 3rd issue of L’etudiant noir Paris magazine in 1934, where he published his collection of poems, Negresies (Nesbitt). His work, Cahier, is the movement’s foundational text, in which Césaire presents the intellectual tumult of his days as a student in the metropolis. Césaire’s use of the term here is in the spirit of the same defiance in which the phrase “Black power” would be used to snub assimilation in the ’60s. Politically, Négritude meant defeating the external factors that defined the Black man physically and psychologically- colonialism and white domination. The movement challenged the way in which colonialist discourse made a commodity out of Black individuals. It argued that Blacks were more than just an entity or product used for European gain; Blacks were human beings with an essence. In the artistic realm, Négritude referred to the exultation of Black identity in relation to the romantic myth of Africa (Nesbitt).
It is in the ideological sphere that the founders differed in their artistic approach to Négritude, namely Césaire and Sénghor. Césaire strived to legitimize the difference of the black aesthetic in the biological concepts that created the African myth, separating the black experience from the white experience, just as Marcus Bruce Christian and Amiri Baraka argued for a Black writing aesthetic or Virginia Wolf’s embodiment of female aesthetic. Heavily influenced by Langston Hughes, Richard Wright (of the Harlem Renaissance), and Andre Breton (of the Surrealist movement), Césaire’s work goes beyond biology and emphasizes the process of self-discovery/awareness, encouraging self-alienation. He replaces the tolerance of colonial inferiority with the discovery of alternate identities. In the 1950s, Césaire resigned from his French communist party and chose to concern himself with eradication of racism rather than the colonial system (Nesbitt).
Sénghor, on the other hand, takes a more existentialist approach to Négritude. He argues that the essence of Black existence needs no alteration, no alternate identities. Sénghor believed assimilating to white culture would benefit Blacks without severing their own heritage. His work often stresses the claim of individual Black emotion and psychological experience, referring to the relationship Africa has to the universe, separate from the Western culture (La Négritude). Nevertheless, Sénghor does not argue that whites lack the ability to be emotional and that Blacks cannot reason, he simply argues the difference in temperament and worldview. Thus, there is a thread of common themes in his work, including alienation, exile, and the central role of his own homeland. The majority of Sénghor’s influences were Césaire, Mavah, McKay, and Dr. Jean Price-Mars, a Haitian author he met during his studies in Paris.
John W. Maerhofer and the Poetics of Négritude I.
In Maerhofer’s Ph.D. dissertation, Philosophies of Confrontation: Aesthetic and Political Vangaurdism, 1917-1956, he makes the claim that Césaire’s form of Négritude alters, or as he put it “contrasts the way it was revealed in his first published collection, Cahier” by adapting the “European model of aesthetic and political vanguardism” to more effectively express Négritude (Maerhofer, 5). This is arguable. However, the fact that Césaire’s influences change over the course of his artistic and political life, and he began further developing his own ideologies do not contrast Cahier, just expands what a young Césaire first eluded to in 1963. Going beyond the biological sphere of the African myth, Césaire emphasizes the process of self-discovery and awareness, replacing the tolerance of colonial inferiority with the discovery of alternate identities, allowing Blacks to define themselves on their own terms. Though Sénghor takes a more existentialist approach to Négritude, Sénghor’s assimilation ideology was widely rejected.
Surrealism and the Harlem Renaissance heavily influence Césaire’s poetics. He never denied the extent to which surrealism, and more specifically Andre Breton, had influenced him. However, it must be noted that he was practicing the principles of Surrealism (i.e. “concreteness of expression”) long before he actually became familiar with the Surrealist aesthetic and lyric technique. He does divert from the surrealist lyric form in the realm of poetic, but later in his work returns to it. Regardless, in all of his work, Césaire continuously explores “the nature of the psychosocial bond between colonizer and colonized” or what Nietzsche calls the “master-slave morality” (Davis, 9).
Maerhofer, Sartre, and Value
Jean-Paul Sartre argues that that there is no creator. Thus, existence precedes essence and human beings have no essence; everything is simply matter and subject (Sartre1, 27). However, he contradicts himself in Black Orpheus. Sartre claims:
“The unity which will come eventually, bringing all oppressed peoples together in the same struggle, must be preceded in the colonies by what I shall call the moment of separation or negativity: this antiracist racism is the only road that will lead to the abolition of racial differences” (Sartre2, 118).
Here, Sartre calls the Négritude movement vital because it is the only way through which an end to racism can ever occur. Thus, Sartre gives the movement and its poetics some weight, an essence; value. In fact, Sartre’s Black Orpheus is what put Négritude on the map and able to be taken seriously by (white) intellectuals.
Furthermore, Sartre refers to the movement as “anti-racist racism,” when Césaire’s willingness to learn about other styles of writing-writing styles invented by white men- (i.e. Breton and Mallarmé) and inform others about the Black aesthetic proves that Césaire sought to emphasize the importance of the exchanging of ideas among cultures. Additionally, Sartre presents a logical fallacy; he claims reverse racism will end racism. This is a limited choice fallacy. Sartre suggests that Blacks have no other manner to combat racism. He also limits the intent and value of the Négritude movement to simply “ending racism.”
When “value,” is addressed, it is often in terms of materialistic qualities (i.e. textile, popularity, expense, etc). Whether or not some is transient is usually the main concern. The Négritude movement does not offer any avaricious qualities and is, as a movement, temporary. But what movement isn’t? Négritude was a result of its time, as all literary, historical, and political movements are. Though Sartre legitimized Négritude, he also undermined it by “destroying the black zeal” as Frantz Fanon put it (Fanon, 135). Sartre’s comment insinuates that the black experience and its power are only temporary. The end of racism makes it unimportant and powerless; once racism is over, there is no longer a need for the movement or its poetics. Sartre disregards the fact that Négritude sought to fight against the perception of an underdeveloped African culture and to praise and reveal the uniqueness of African identity in addition to ending racism. Now, let it be understood that this is simply Fanon’s take on Sartre’s comment and not necessarily Jean-Paul Sartre’s intent; intent and impact are not always instinct. Fanon’s argument is simply a reaction to Sartre’s argument.
Even if Sartre’s intent was true to Fanon’s suspicion, who gave Sartre the authority of deciding the value of the Négritude poetics as art? Maerhofer addresses the movement in relation to the [French] Avant-Garde. Though the context appears limited, the choice in perspective is sensible. It is the center of the movement. It is the center of Césaire’s battle: a Martinique poet who holds office in Paris. Much of the Négritude works come on the heels of the Vichy regime. As James Arnold writes, “Césaire must grapple with the contradiction of being Othered while being deeply implicated with an antagonistic and exploitative Western environment.” (Arnold, 107). But when assessing value, one can pose a litany of questions: Are the artist’s limitations and struggles taken into account? The artist’s creativity? Who sets the standard for assessments? How does one obtain such authority, and moreover, can art assessments be quantitative?
Césaire’s ability to bend the French language by taking from surrealism, magical realism, and Mallarmé at the same time is virtuosic not because of how hard it is to incorporate all three influences into one’s work, but because Césaire begins to redefine what these influences are and stretches them far beyond their initial intent. With the influence of Mallarmé, Césaire is able to make the familiar unfamiliar by giving words meaning with words that are closer to their essence. (i.e. instead of just calling day “day” and night “night” Césaire sought to assign more accurate description to things.) Césaire’s surrealism has been compared to magical realism, but the form is his own, ad referred to as “natural local surrealism,” one that “doesn’t need to be invented but is simply registered by the poet” (Davis, 11). It makes no difference that Mallarmé is a white man; Césaire reinvents Mallarmé’s aesthetic and registers the Black experiences within his work.
In conclusion, the poetics of the Négritude movement, specifically Césaire’s, are valuable. It is a call for affirmation of the African Diaspora. It is not an attempt to “rescue a lost Africa,” since Africa has never been lost. This is the beauty and value of this particular movement: It does not create something to fight for, something merely from one’s imagination. Instead, it delves into the value of a matter already here– African/African American people.
Academy of American Poets. “A Brief Guide to Language Poetry.” 2 May 2010 < http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5661>
Arnold, James. Modernism and Negritude. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. 109. 8-11.
Davis, Gregson. Non-Vicious Circle. California: Stanford University Press, 1984.
Fanon, Franz. Black Skin, white Mask, trans. Charles Lam Markmann. New York, Grove Press, 1967. 135.
*Maerhofer, John W. “Philosophies of Confrontation: Aesthetic and Political Vanguardism,” 1917-1956” (City University of New York, 2007)
“Negritude – “La Négritude.” 2009. 22 Apr. 2010
“negritude.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary. 2010 <www.yourdictionary.com/negritude>
Nesbitt, Nick. “Negritude.” 2002. African Writers Index. 22 Apr. 2010 <http://http://www.geocities.com/africanwriters/origins.html>.
Robinson, Anthony A few notes from a New Sincerist. Obama Convention. 22 July 2005. 2 May 2010. < http://luckyerror.blogspot.com/2005/07/few-notes-from-new-sincerist.html>
Sartre1, Jean-Paul, and Philip Mairet. Existentialism and Humanism. London: Methuen, 1991. Print.
Sartre2, Jean-Paul. Black Orpheus, in Race, ed. Robert Bernasconi (Malden, MA, Blackwell, 2001). 118.
* I used a shorter, online article version of the Maerhofer document called Aimé Césaire and the Crisis of Aesthetic and Political Vanguardism. The page numbers used in my essay correlate to that of the online article. <http://clogic.eserver.org/2007/Maerhofer.pdf>