Pan-Africanism and Pedagogy

Manthia Diawara

Copyright 1996 Manthia Diawara



In the spring semester of the academic year 1994-1995, I added Jean-Paul Sartre's Black Orpheus to the reading list of my course "Introduction to Pan-Africanism." Because I wanted to emphasize the Harlem Renaissance and the Negritude movement as cultural and political components of Pan-Africanism, it seemed to me that Sartre's long introduction to the art and philosophy of the Negritude movement, like Alain Locke's manifesto at the beginning of his book The New Negro, would help to set the stage for further discussions of the problematic of race and its relation to culture and universalism.

The class began with W.E.B. Du Bois' The World and Africa, which refutes the racist thesis primarily associated with Eurocentric historians that of all the continents, Africa had made no contribution to world history and civilization. Du Bois's main objectives in this celebratory book, as in his classic Souls of Black Folk, were threefold: to write the history and culture of the people of Africa and African descent; to enable African Americans to identify with Africa as a proud and dignified source of identity that could be placed on an equal footing with Europe, Asia, and North America; and to posit Africa's humanism and rich heritage as a compelling argument against racism and colonialism. Du Bois believed that freedom was whole and indivisible, that Black people in America would not be completely free until Africa was liberated and emancipated in modernity; his Pan-Africanism was born out of the consciousness of freedom as a common goal for Black and Brown people.

That first week, the class's reaction to The World and Africa, was aggressive. One student from Africa challenged the very idea of Pan-Africanism, warning us that Africans were very different from Nigeria to Ethiopia, and that African Americans, like White Americans, were ignorant about Africa's complexity. Another accused Du Bois and other Pan-Africanists of the same colonial intentions as White people, and added that race should not be used to justify the paternalism and elitism of African Americans and West Indians in Africa. A woman also raised a question concerning the links between Pan-Africanism and sexism. But the majority tended to focus on Du Bois's attempt to raise consciousness about the worldwide exploitation of Black and Brown people by people of European descent, and on his quest for freedom.

I knew that the class was not going to be easy. I had to find some texts by women and Afrocentrists to add to the reading list. But, one might wonder, why Black Orpheus, a text by a dead French White male? Because the Du Boisian ideas of race unity are more interesting if they are studied together and repositioned by other racial theories in time and space, such as the nationalism of the Negritude movement, the Afrocentric movement, and Sartre's thesis of anti-racist racism as the basis for combatting colonialism and paternalism. I wanted to know what would happen to the core idea of Pan-Africanism if it were taught as a history of often contradictory ideas instead of a chronology of events and historical figures. What were the common links, for instance, between Du Bois's statement that the problem of the 20th Century was the problem of the color line and the Diopian, or Afrocentric, theory of the cultural unity of the people of African descent; and by extension, what were the intertextual relations between Du Bois' Pan-Africanism and C.L.R. James' appropriation of the central themes of the French Revolution for Black liberation struggles and his repositioning of the Haitian uprising as the first paradigm of race unity between Black and Brown people in the modern world; or Sartre's call for an anti-racist racism, in Black Orpheus, as a reason for unity among Black people against racism and colonialism? Sartre is important to me in this debate not only because of his role as an intellectual leader who was involved in several revolutionary movements in France of the 1940s and 1950s, including Negritude -- I shall say more about this later -- but also because of the similarities between his position on anti-racist racism and the Diopian essentializing of race.

Black Orpheus was written as an introduction to the Anthologie de la nouvelle poise negre et malgache de langue francaise (1948), edited by Leopold Sedar Senghor. It is the most famous essay on the Negritude movement, serving on the one hand to define the concept for Western audiences, and on the other hand to encourage some of its poets and writers to embrace Marxism in their search for a universal road beyond skin color. For Sartre, Negritude is a separation and a negation in the existential sense; it valorizes a word which was until then an ugly and dirty word in the French language. A French dictionary, Le Nouveau Petit Robert, gives the word negre, from which Negritude is derived, the following meanings: a person of the Black race, a slave; to work like a negre is to work hard without earning the right to rest; to be a negre in the literary world is to be a ghostwriter for famous authors; to speak petit negre is to express oneself in a limited and bad French. In other words, a negre is a person without a soul and a mind; a dirty person; the opposite of a white person, of a human being. For Sartre, Negritude derives its authenticity from the unhinging of the word negre from these traditional connotations in the French language; from the destabilization of the meanings embedded in the roots of the concept; from its revelation that "...there is a secret blackness in white, a secret whiteness in black, a vivid flickering of Being and of Nonbeing..."1

Sartre defines Negritude as an operative power of negation, an anti-racist racism, which unites Black people in their combat to reclaim their humanity. He finds in the poetry of Aime Cesaire, Senghor, Leon Gontran Damas, and many others from the French West Indies and Francophone Africa, an authentic élan driven by a new meaning of Blackness; an existentialist affirmation liberated from fixed and atavistic connotations in the French imaginary; an obsessive energy sending the Black poets after their Negritude. Sartre is reminded of Orpheus's descent into hell to rescue Eurydice. The Black poet, too, will leave no stone unturned, will reverse the meaning of every French word which had contributed to his subjugation, and rescue his Negritude with positive values. Sartre sees another analogy in the manner in which the Negritude poets defamiliarize the French language: to Prometheus stealing the fire, symbol of knowledge, from Zeus. This leads the French master to declare Negritude a poesie engage, "the sole great revolutionary poetry" in French at that time.


At first, Sartre's celebration of Negritude's racial essentialism does not seem to allow room for criticism. Like the poets, he sings the African's closeness to nature; he speaks of the synthetic African versus the analytic European, the capacity of Black people to display emotion against the cold rationality of White people, and the African's blameless role in modern history's catalogue of genocide, fascism, and racism. For Sartre, the White worker is incapable of producing good poetry because he has been contaminated by his objective and technical surroundings. The Black man, on the other hand, is subjective and therefore authentic; his poetry is evangelical; the Black man, as Sartre puts it, "remains the great male of the earth, the world's sperm" (316). The Negritude that Sartre describes here resembles that of Cheikh Anta Diop and Leopold Sedar Senghor, who believe that Black people live in a symbiotic relation with nature, unlike White people who dominate and destroy their environment.

But Sartre is not content to define Negritude as only an anti-racist racism uniting people around race conciousness to combat French colonialism, paternalism, and imperialism. He also sees Negritude as a becoming, a transcendence of Blackness into a future universalism. For Sartre, there are two ways of constructing racial concepts, one internal and the other external. Those who internalize their Negritude and make of it an irreducible difference are mobilized by the desire to constitute a unique history and to shield themselves from outside contamination. They are traditionalists. On the other hand, there is the vanguard that deploys Blackness as an anti-racist racism, or uses racial consciouness as a social movement, because it "desires the abolition of all kinds of ethnic privileges; [the] solidarity with the oppressed of every color" (326). Here, Sartre anticipates the Blackness of C.L.R. James who discovered that Black unity coincided with the quest for liberty, fraternity and equality, the central themes of the French Revolution that Toussaint L'ouverture appropriated for Haiti; of Aime Cesaire, who wrote Discourse on Colonialism; and of Frantz Fanon, who stated that "a nation which undertakes a liberation struggle rarely condones racism."

Sartre, too, sees the ideal of the French revolution in Negritude: The black contribution to the evolution of Humanity is no longer savor, taste, rhythm, authenticity, a bouquet of primitive instincts; it is a dated enterprise, a long-suffering construction and also a future. Previously, the black man claimed his place in the sun in the name of ethnic qualities; now, he establishes his right to life on his mission; and this mission, like the proletariat's, comes to him from his historical position: because he has suffered from capitalistic exploitation more than all the others, he has acquired a sense of revolt and a love of liberty more than all the others. And because he is the most oppressed, he necessarily pursues the liberation of all, when he works for his own deliverance. (325)

Black Orpheus provoked the ideological divisions in my class to come to the surface. There were those who felt invigorated by Sartre's call for a common struggle for a universal humanism. They agreed with Sartre that Negritude was about class struggle; that racism and colonialism themselves were conditions of class antagonism. Others felt that this movement toward the universal was preventing the Black struggle from defining its own agenda for freedom and recognition; they felt that Sartre was diluting the meaning of Negritude.

I asked the class to think seriously about the passage quoted above, and to put into brackets, in a Husserlian sense, the words "It is a dated enterprise, a patient construction, a future." With these words, I felt that, Sartre had historicized Negritude into a grand narrative and conferred upon it the same mission as Christianity or Marxism, two of the most important teleological social movements of modern history.

Negritude's utopia calls for a society without racism and class division. Sartre placed his hope on Negritude, which he believed would create the society that Europe failed to realize at the end of the second World War. Richard Wright also believed that Europeans had abandoned the spirit of modernity by refusing to give up racism and xenophobia. What better people than Blacks, therefore, who have known racism and suffering, to charge with the mission of ending the evils of humanity and bringing the grand narrative to closure? Negritude contains the romantic ideas that the oppressed would not persecute their brothers and sisters, because they knew how it felt to be oppressed; that the excluded would know the meaning of ostracism; and that those who suffered the pogroms would teach the world to love. Confident that decolonization was the most important revolution of the last half of the 20th century, the Negritude poets would identify with suffering, as Christ did, in order to end all suffering.

I feel that this Sartrean view is worth pursuing in Pan-Africanism; it universalizes Black struggle by positing Africa and other continents involved in the fight against colonialism and racism as the future of the world. Negritude and other decolonizing movements, before being co-opted by the Cold War and forced to align themselves with NATO or the Soviet Bloc, held the promise of world renewal: Black and Brown people would have the right to shape their own destinies; and the White people would rid themselves of the guilt accumulated through centuries of racism and paternalism. Modernity would be finally fulfilling its true mission in the Habermasian sense: to go beyond the visible difference of skin color and save humanity from obscurantism and oppression.

Suddenly, this changes the goal of Negritude into something larger than the Black poets who invented it. Negritude will not be limited to Africa and turned inward into a narcissistic contemplation of the self, or fixed as a blinding determinism of skin color. Its poets will seize the leaven of life away from those who hate and exploit, in order to provide energy to those in need of freedom and emancipation. The mission of Negritude is now universal freedom which encompasses not only the colonized subjects of Africa and the Caribbean, but also the exploited working classes of Europe, America and Asia. Clearly, the struggle for Black rights in Negritude coincides with Sartre's Marxian analysis of the condition of the working class in France; and with the Civil Rights movement in America. The role of the Black poet, like that of a demiurge, is to create a new man, a new woman in a new World, and not to ghettoize the muse. Fanon, a young writer coming out of the Negritude movement, was the first to agree with Sartre and to declare the pitfalls of racial identification in his pathbreaking book, The Wretched of the Earth: "The unconditional affirmation of African culture has succeeded the unconditional affirmation of European culture"1 (212).

I wanted my students to know what this meant to some of us growing up in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. The idea that Negritude is bigger even than Africa, that we were part of an international movement which held the promise of universal emancipation, that our destiny coincided with the universal freedom of workers and colonized people worldwide, gave us a bigger and more important identity than the ones available to us until then through kinship, ethnicity, and race. It felt good to be in tune not only with Sartre himself, but with such world- renowned revolutionaries as Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Albert Camus, Andre Malraux, Fidel Castro, Angela Davis, Mao Tse-Tung, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Frantz Fanon. The awareness of our new historical mission freed us from what we thought then were the archaic identities of our fathers and their religious entrapments; freed us from race and made us no longer afraid of the Whiteness of French identity. To be now labelled the saviors of humanity, when just yesterday we were colonized and despised by the world, gave us a feeling of righteousness that bred contempt for capitalism, racialism of all origins, and tribalism. In fact, the universalism proposed by Sartre became for some of us a new way of being radically chic, of jumping into a new identity in order not to deal with race, which was not mentioned except during discussions of racism. It was not until the mid-sixties, when we became sufficiently immersed in Black American popular culture, that race reappeared as a significant element of culture.

Ironically, this awareness of common struggle, of the worldwide demand for human rights from White supremacists and capitalists, seems to take away Negritude's first claim to authenticity and singularity. As some students in the class pointed out, it may not be possible to take everyone in the direction that Sartre is taking Negritude. The desire to appear universal may cause Negritude to forget or ignore some of its constituent elements, and therefore to disintegrate. The students were concerned about Sartre setting the agenda for the Negritude poets, a white man telling them what to do and how to do it and therefore diluting the radical ideas in the movement.

It is true in this sense that Negritude is primarily a poetry by Black people about Black people. It is also true that every movement has its own internal coherence which is kept alive by the specific way in which it sets its elements into motion and maintains a specific relation between them. This autonomy imparts to a movement like Negritude its singularity, enables it to shine among other movements, and even to be admired and imitated by them. One risks rendering invisible these constitutive parts by emphasizing too quickly the similarities between Negritude and the proletarian movements around the world.

But, I asked the class, is the movement toward the particular necessarily a move away from the universal? Or, to put it in another way, is the movement toward the universal a selling out of Black culture? My own answer is no in both cases. When the particular is successful, its central themes begin to illuminate other struggles and creative projects. And conversely, when the universal is truly universal, it takes away from the particular the need for resistance and ghettoization and brings freedom to the elements that used to constitute the particular. This is what Sartre sees in Negritude, a movement which he thinks is capable of shedding a new light on the meanings of freedom, love, and universal beauty. The light coming from Africa and from Black poets, visible enough to influence liberation struggles elsewhere and release energies in other parts of the world against racism and exploitation, is what constitutes the universality of Negritude. It is important therefore to distinguish Negritude from its emanations. The universality of a thing is not the thing itself; it is what the thing reveals or teaches to others; it is external to the thing itself. Sartre emphasizes that which is external to Negritude: the Black poet's gift to the world; in other words, the lesson of freedom.

Some of my students said that Sartre's universalism was Eurocentric; his sources -- Orpheus, Prometheus, the Bible, the proletariat -- were all from a European scholastic tradition, not from Egyptian or ancient Sub-Sahara African sources. It did not grant the Negritude poets time enough to digest what their Blackness meant to them and what they wanted to do with it. Yet Negritude, as part of decolonization, was important because, for the first time, it enabled Black people in France to assert themselves in the political, psychological, and artistic spheres. This would later lead to the independence of several African countries with Negritude writers among the heads of state. Negritude enabled Africans and West Indians, for the first time, to deploy Blackness as a positive concept of modernization: be proud of your ancestry, discover the beauty of Blackness, and let Negritude unite you against colonialism. It is because the Negritude poets turned inward to become conscious of their own historical situation that they discovered a truth bigger than themselves; it is because they sang their love song from within this specificity that it shone and inspired other liberation songs.

It was time then for me to make an argument exposing certain ethnocentric definitions of universalism. I explained to the class that I understood the need to celebrate Negritude on the ground of particularism. I myself might not have been their teacher today, had it not been for the nationalism of the Negritude poets. My generation was drawn to Negritude because of its promise to make us equal to White people, to lift us above the tribe and the clan, and to provide us with our own nations. Many of the children of my generation, overlooked by the colonial system, only went to school and learned to read and write because of Negritude and independence. It is in this sense that we say that Negritude invented us, taught us how to think in a particularly modern way, and put us inside history. It is easier to ask those who would have known modernity without Negritude to forget about it, than to demand those of us who owe our modernity to Negritude to abandon it for the universal. As Sartre himself puts it, "the colored man -- and he alone -- can be asked to renounce the pride of his color" (329). The universalist tendency carries with it and against the separatist tendency, a threat of destruction of identity, a shift of priority, an aggressive attitude which leads the separatist to feel anxiety over being cast aside and neglected. It is important to remember again that the universal is always a gift or a revelation to the world. The modes of actualization of this gift lead, under certain social conditions, to control, resistance, or disempowerment. First of all, the universal may take on particularist or racist features whenever people, in order to control it, choose a selective way of dissemination. Aime Cesaire was right in calling the colonial experience in Africa a controlled gift system, because it was willing only to selectively educate and to partially Christianize the native Africans, and was never interested in letting people take full advantage of the universal potential of education and Christianity. But a gift must be total in order to have a positive cultural significance.

Today, people still give selectively, and there remains an essentialist tendency which links Whiteness to such universal practices as scientific inquiries or classical music. For example, the reluctance to give generously or let go of things leads some scholars to keep referring to the novel as only a Western narrative form, as opposed to a form invented in Europe at a particular moment in history. Clearly, to write a novel today one does not have to be an European or agree with an European way of life. A parsimonious gift system colors our vision of America itself, whose civilization is called "Western." But notwithstanding the presence of Americans of European descent and the development of certain ideas and practices that originated in Europe, the fact remains that the identities of Americans derived as much from a flight from Europe and its monarchist, Victorian, and religious cultures as from Africa and Asia; America is not culturally interchangeable with Europe, just as it cannot be with Africa and Asia.

Interestingly enough, the reference to America's Western identity is no more than the European-Americans' desire to insert themselves permanently in the very image of Americanness, and to maintain the power to reproduce themselves as the ideal and universal Americans. This type of essentialism remains a problem as people continue to lay claim to certain universal elements discovered by their ancestors at a particular time in history; obviously they are still suffering from a separation anxiety. The mishandling of the loss of a country of origin and the psychological split engendered by the flight from Europe to America leads to a denial of new American identities, to a permanent misrecognition of these new identities as purely Western, and consequently to racism and xenophobia.

The desire to control the universal element in Negritude, or to give selectively, haunts also some Black people in Africa and the Diaspora. Here, though, social agents are faced with a different problem, because, unlike the Euro-Americans who possess the means of disseminating what is universal and of exercising control over its deployment, they have no mechanism of distributing their Negritude in the public sphere and therefore are unable to control its definition universally. Faced with the dearth of political, cultural, and scientific resources with which to position audiences for their category of the universal, Black people who cannot stimulate or impose reality through their representations rely either on Euromodernisms such as Marxism or Christianity to define their Negritude or retreat into narrow particularism and resistance. For example, Afrocentrists resort to the binary opposition schemata of Euromodernism, which freeze into an eternal antagonism Black and White, good and evil, sedentary and nomadic, sun people and ice people, as a mode of defining their Negritude. The proponents of ethnophilosophy in Africa, on the other hand, posit tribal religions, oral traditions, and drumology as the basis for identity formation and rationalization of their Negritude. Clearly, social agents can be pushed to retreat into the comfort zone of identity politics because of: the lack of access to the tools necessary for the distribution of universal ideas and objects; the wide commercial dissemination by others of what they perceive as their culture; or the continued absence of their images in what is perceived as universal. But such resistance movements risk deviating from the very modernity that revealed itself to them in the Negritude poets' struggle for liberation. In contemporary debates on universalism, it is easy to see that people who refute the existence of race on biological and cultural grounds are among the same groups that deny the large majority of Blacks access to the political, economic, and cultural means which will enable them to move beyond the simple determinism of color. It is increasingly easier to point to the homophobia, sexism, and xenophobia in groups that espouse particularism, and harder for public intellectuals to try to provide such groups with access to the economic and political means that cause White males to become less xenophobic, homophobic, and sexist. Currently, White male control over the definition of what is universal, beautiful, and rational also excludes particularists from discursive spaces. Writer and critic Ishmael Reed is right to refer to English departments as White ethnic studies because, like Black and Chicano Studies departments, English departments refuse to democratize the aesthetic criteria which give other literatures access to their lists of great books. One cannot continue to defend the claim for the universality of art while resisting at the same time the universalization of access to the social and economic conditions that produce a taste for art.

On the last day of class, I brought up Sartre's Black Orpheus again and asked the students if they thought it had a place in a class on Pan-Africanism. The debate was as animated as the first day of class. Most students had not been swayed from their original positions. But they were more friendly this time. I was not surprised. As a teacher, I see my role as a facilitator; in other words, I wanted to provide them with enough arguments to defend whatever position they chose to occupy. There was one bright moment for me in all of this. One student confessed that she took the class because of the authentic sound of my African name. All the courses on Black people and Africa were taught by White professors. She did not trust them. She wanted to study with a real African and see what it was like. "And?" I asked impatiently. "Oh! Now I know that White people are not all the same, just as all Black people are not the same. With more Black professors like you around, I no longer feel mistrust of White professors, and their knowledge of Africa; and I am glad that you made us read Sartre."



1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Black Orpheus, tr. John MacCombie, "What is Literature?" and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 306; all subsequent references incorporated into the text.

1. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, tr. Constance Farrington (New York: Grove, 1968), 212-213.


Back To Manthia Diawara Front Page I Back To Black Cultural Studies Front Page I