Moving finally on to Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Black Orpheus” (1948), where he introduces a book of black poetry by praising its revolutionary spirit as embodied in “negritude.”
This continues our discussion from Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew (parts one and two), which criticized Jews whose reactions to racism he deemed inauthentic. “Black Orpheus” presents a similar story, but put more positively: The more successful poems in the collection (Sartre, like Fanon, often quotes Aimé Césaire) do the work of unearthing the “black soul.” Sartre doesn’t take this as a kind of essential nature that blacks share (as an existentialist, he doesn’t believe in essential natures), but an affective attitude toward the world that supposedly captures the unique historical situation of the formerly colonized French-speaking blacks: a consciousness of their situation that Sartre takes as an essential step to overcoming that situation.
Is this attitude found by the poet through introspection and circumspection or created? The answer is, confusingly, both: it can’t be simply found as pre-existent because Sartre’s existentialism precludes this, but it constitutes a definite point of convergence, and so can’t just be the invention of several individual poets (who presumably also create themselves as individuals). Sartre criticizes the poets in the collection he is introducing who are not focused on exhibiting and proclaiming negritude: he calls out Étienne Léro for engaging in in garden-variety surrealism that aims to liberate the imagination as opposed to liberating the black man. That’s one of many points that made us uncomfortable, as even though Sartre claims not to be essentializing (again, his existential psychology entirely rules this out), he points to elements in the poetry displaying a closer (i.e., primitive) connection with nature than exists in white-dominated society and a closely related nature-imbued eroticism. He claims that the black race has gained authenticity through suffering, and that whites are well-advised to use this poetry as a way to see whiteness from the outside and hence cut through our pretensions to live more authentically ourselves.
So is this a legitimate consciousness-raising activity for all involved, or a weird romanticizing of blackness? Perhaps complicating this is Sartre’s claim that yes, negritude is an authentic mode of being, but embedded within it is its own overcoming: Fanon was greatly affected by this as Sartre’s remonstrance to him that what seems like this authentic end-point is actually just a step, where the final destination is a raceless society. Whether Sartre and Fanon differ in the importance they place on these two stages is a matter of disagreement between some of us PEL hosts, and it’s the issue that cuts right to the modern application of the thought of these two men.
The stress on negritude is the way of Malcolm X and modern identity politics, where the stress on the post-racial goal is the way of Martin Luther King Jr. taken up by what Sartre would call liberalism. Sartre definitely thinks that (as is more clearly stated in Anti-Semite and Jew) asserting post-racialism in an era of racism is deluded and ineffective: It is an all-too-common strategy of whites who do not personally or intentionally take part in racial discrimination to declare that the problem has been solved and no sacrifice should be required from them to make right existing injustices.
Fanon (in “The Fact of Blackness” chapter) seems, though, to regard negritude as merely a stage, as an immature, angry reaction to racism that one needs to grow out of, preferring a calm self-assertion. But it’s not clear whether this latter attitude (which in Fanon’s case was compatible with actually fighting in a war for black liberation in Algeria) has really transcended or merely transformed negritude as Sartre has described it. Is racial pride consistent with a commitment toward everyone being treated ultimately as equals, or does it (as Fukuyama seems to fear) contain implicit claims of irremediable racial separateness or even racial superiority?
You can hear all three parts of this discussion together via the ad-free Citizen Edition. Your Citizenship also gets you access to Wes’s (sub)Text episode 5 on Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. Please support PEL!
End song: “Punch Bag” by Godley & Creme as discussed on Nakedly Examined Music #3.