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Reclaiming Negritude in African Political Theology

In his book Senghor’s Eucharist, introduced here, David Tonghou Ngong focuses on Senghor’s poetry collection called Black Hosts as a starting point for understanding his political theology. He argues that Black Hosts is a Eucharistic theology that calls for the reclamation of the Eucharist for the remaking of the world.

Negritude, at least the Senghorian version being considered here, was born limping, having been almost fatally injured by one of its ardent admirers, Jean-Paul Sartre.[1] To popularize the book that became one of the founding documents of Negritude, Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malagache de la langue Française (Anthology of New Black and Madagascan Poetry in the French Language) published in 1948, Léopold Sédar Senghor, one of the significant founders of the movement, had invited Sartre to write the preface of the book. In his preface, “Orphée Noir” (“Black Orpheus”), Sartre attempted to locate the development of Negritude in its historical moment, the moment of the colonized talking back to the colonizer.

Sartre noted that this was a new moment in the fractured relationship between the colonizer and the colonized, but it was not without its problems. One of the problems, Sartre noted, was the irony of the colonized talking back to the colonizer using the colonizer’s language, French. How can the colonized resist the colonizer using the colonizer’s language, Sartre seemed to be asking? To invoke Audre Lorde’s haunting question, Sartre was asking whether the master’s tool can be used to bring down the master’s house. Even more, Sartre saw Negritude as participating in a racist colonial dialectic in which the condemnation of things Black had resulted in the quest to revalorize these things while condemning things white in the process. Thus, Sartre described Negritude as “racisme antiraciste” (“antiracist racism”). In other words, Negritude was the Black version of white racism.

It would be difficult for Negritude to shake off this accusation. The imprimatur Sartre was supposed to provide for the anthology Senghor had compiled, as a famous French philosopher and anticolonialist, was therefore a mixed bag, almost a kiss of death. Such critiques of Negritude would continue unabated, especially in African theological and philosophical discourses.

In African theological and philosophical circles, Negritude came to be seen as a distracting fantasy and a tautology. It was a distracting fantasy because it focused on reclaiming a lost past, the lost past of precolonial Africa, which could not be retrieved in the colonial moment. Colonialism had done irreparable damage to precolonial African cultures and these cultures could not be retrieved. Seeking to retrieve these cultures was a fantasy and a distraction. Scholars such as the Cameroonian Marcien Towa and anticolonialists such as Frantz Fanon, saw Negritude as distracting from the anticolonial moment that called for the creation of new cultures rather than focusing on the past. For the Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka Negritude was a tautological distraction that merely repeated the claim that Black people were Black rather than demonstrating what Black people could do. This was captured in his famous dictum that the tiger does not proclaim his tigritude; he pounces! Scholars such as the Nigerian feminist Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí reprised Sartre’s critique when she argued that Negritude participated in a Western episteme, simply repeating what the West had said of Africans.

In African theology, Negritude was criticized as fostering a theology of culture that focused on issues of inculturation but failed to address the central political crises bedeviling the people, crises caused by Africa’s unenviable place in the global political economy. Few theologians vociferously critiqued Negritude as the Cameroonian theologian Jean-Marc Éla. He described Negritude as focusing only on the Africanization of Christian worship, luring people to focus on listening to the rhythm of the balafon while they are exploited by domestic and foreign agents.

These critiques, it must be admitted, were not entirely unfounded. While scholars such as the Senegalese Souleymane Bachir Diagne and Cheikh Thiam have argued that Negritude is a veritable African philosophy rather than a discourse that simply participates  in a western episteme, it could be argued that Negritude was in a sense echoing western ideas, even though it gave those ideas an African twist. For example, Senghor had in fact been influenced by the work of western anthropologists, philosophers, and even theologians such as the French anthropologists Maurice Delafosse and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, French philosopher Henri Bergson, French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French theologian Jacques Maritain, and the German anthropologist Leo Frobenius, among others. Lévy-Bruhl, for example, spoke of the essentially spiritual nature of what he called “mentalité primitive” (primitive mentality) and this view, though now seen as racist and rejected, influenced how Senghor came to speak of Black spirituality. Delafosse’s portrayal of Africa as having sophisticated civilizations energized Senghor to reclaim his African culture. Henri Bergson’s vitalism influenced how Senghor interpreted African vitalistic philosophy. In fact, what may be described as anti-rationalist western philosophy significantly influenced Senghor.

These critiques notwithstanding, in my book Senghor’s Eucharist (Baylor University Press, 2023), I argue that Senghorian Negritude still has much to offer to contemporary African political theology. This argument builds on recent works that reclaim Negritude, including works in political science, philosophy, anthropology, and Black Studies. However, to see what Senghorian Negritude offers, we need to think differently about Negritude. To think differently about Negritude, we first need to acknowledge that it was a highly political rather than only a cultural phenomenon. Its reclamation of African cultures should therefore be read as a first installment in the anticolonial process. The point of reclaiming culture was to enable the people to regain their footing by regaining their identity. A people can only effectively fight for their freedom if they have a better idea of who they are.

During colonial times, many Africans read books that described them as descendants of the Gauls because they were seen as a people without history and without culture. As the Haitian scholar Jean Price-Mars argued, people of African descent needed to know their background if they were to know who they are. Reclaiming their background was a first step towards self-discovery, a first step in the anticolonial struggle. This process can be seen throughout Africa and the African diaspora where the struggle for liberation has often begun with the reclamation of culture and history. Such is the case with the Black Power movement in the United States and in South Africa. It is reflected in the anticolonial struggles of people like Steve Biko and Amilcar Cabral. Thus, Negritude should be read as participating in this initial process of the liberation struggle, this process of reclaiming rather than retrieving culture, which is the first step rather than the end of the liberation struggle.

This understanding of the relevance of reclaiming culture leads us to a second issue that must be considered in reclaiming Negritude for African political theology – the essentialist depiction of Africans and their cultures. Such essentialist depiction of Africans and their cultures can be seen in the now famous Senghorian description of Africans as emotional and Europeans as scientific. While a scholar such as Souleymane Bachir Diagne has attempted to clarify such essentialism by suggesting that the statement was aesthetical rather than epistemological, we could say that such essentialism may be seen as “strategic essentialism.” In other words, it was a way of galvanizing the energy of a people by seeing them as one thing at a particular moment. Drawing from the Nigerian scholar Ifi Amadiume, the Africanist Laura Grillo described “strategic essentialism” as portraying a group of people as having specific qualities for purposes of solidarity. In other words, it is a way of constructing the identity of a people with the aim of achieving a particular purpose.

Seen in this way, it is a rhetorical and political move aimed at reimaging, that is, transforming the image of a people. Senghor had the anticolonial struggle in mind, and he needed to galvanize people to meet the moment. This argument, however, does not excuse such essentialism but rather seeks to understand it in a different light. There are good arguments to be made for the fact that Senghor believed them rather than simply used them rhetorically, as is being suggested here. This notwithstanding, seeing the essentialism as strategic should make room for the reclamation of Negritude in our time.

Central to my proposal is that we should reclaim Negritude for African political theology through a focus on the poetic vision of the movement. This is especially so given that Negritude was a poetic movement, that is, a movement whose vision was largely captured in poetry. As a poetic movement, its visions of the future continue to beckon us to actions aimed at realizing them. It is true that Senghor’s actual politics left much to be desired and a study that focuses on his work cannot escape from the fact of the brutality of his politics as president of Senegal. However, placed within the context of negritude as a poetic movement, the meaning of Senghor is more than his political life. His meaning may be captured more profoundly in his poetry than in his political life. His poetry opens horizons through which we may imagine the future not only of Africa but also of the world.

In my book Senghor’s Eucharist, I focus on Senghor’s poetry collection called Black Hosts as a starting point for understanding his political theology. I argue that Black Hosts is a Eucharistic theology that calls for the reclamation of the Eucharist for the remaking of the world. Black Hosts counters a profaned Eucharist, a Eucharist that has sacrificed the bodies of Africans in the modern world. Senghor seeks to redeem this profaned Eucharist that is the site of exploitation and dehumanization so that it may become a site of communion. Thus, in Black Hosts Senghor controversially presents sacrificed African bodies and resources as intended to redeem the world, just as the suffering of Christ is wont to do. I argue that, though problematic, this presentation of Africans that equates them with Christ revalorizes African lives and reimagines the deadly Eucharist that has characterized the relations between Africa and the west and, in fact, the rest of the world. Black Hosts not only thinks African political theology within a global context but also places Africa within the context of the sufferings of Black people around the world, thus expanding the vision of African political theology. By placing the travails of Africans within he context of the Black world and seeing the redemption of the world as possible only through the redemption of Africa, Black Hosts presents Negritude as creating an expansive vision that grounds but at the same time transcends Blackness, expanding the vision of African political theology and anticipated the recent call to write the world from Africa. Its poetic vision demonstrates the continued relevance of Negritude and establishes Senghor as a significant African political theologian who is yet to be recognized.

Annotated Bibliography

Sylvia Washington Bâ. The Concept of Negritude in the Poetry of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.

This book is one of the most comprehensive introductions to the concept of Negritude in Senghor’s poetry. The preface of the book was written by Senghor himself and he was quite laudatory of the author. The first part of the book provides the philosophical and literary context of Senghor’s poetry while the second part contains some translated poems.

Jacques Louis Hymans. Léopold Sédar Senghor: An Intellectual Biography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1971.

This book focuses on the intellectual influences on Senghor, charting how Senghor made use of the various ideas and movements of his time. The book alerts us to the fact that Senghor’s work was largely synthetic, drawing from a vast array of sources and putting them to his own ends.

Léopold Sédar Senghor. Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malagache de la langue Française. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1948.

This is a critical text not only because it is foundational to the popularization of Negritude but also because it contains Jean-Paul Sartre’s preface, “Orpheus Noir”, that marked the beginnings of serious critiques of Negritude. It contains poems from luminaries of the movement such as Aimé Césaire and Léon-Gontran Damas. The work remains untranslated.

Léopold Sédar Senghor. The Collected Poetry. Translated with an Introduction by Melvin Dixon. Charlottesville and London: The University Press of Virginia, 1991.

This is the most comprehensive collection and translation of Senghor’s poems. It contains “Black Hosts”, which is the focus of my upcoming book. The first part is made of the English translation and the second part is the original French version of the poems. Have the translation and the original version in one book makes it easy to compare the translation with the original. The author interviewed Senghor in the process of translation thus ensuring that it met Senghor’s approval.

Cheikh Thiam. Return to the Kingdom of Childhood: Re-envisioning the Legacy and Philosophical Relevance of Negritude. Columbus, Ohio: The Ohio State University Press, 2014.

This is one of the most important recent rethinking of Negritude as a philosophical movement that centers African thought. It focuses on a central idea in Senghor’s thought, the idea of the Kingdom of Childhood that has been given various interpretations.

T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting. Negritude Women. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002.

While the story of Negritude often centers men, this book begins to correct that narrative by focusing on the women who made significant contributions to the development of the movement. It includes not only a description of these women’s work but some of their original writings.

Janet G. Vaillant. Black, French, and African. A Life of Léopold Sédar Senghor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Even though this book was written about twenty years before Senghor’s death, it is perhaps one of the most comprehensive biographies of the man. It provides significant details relevant in understanding the various influences on his life and thought.

[1]While Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Léon-Gotram Damas are often credited with founding the Negritude movement, the background of the movement has been traced to the Black experience in the United States and to the work of women such as Jane and Paulette Nardal and Suzanne Césaire. See T. Dean Sharpley-Whiting, Negritude Women (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002) and Annette K. Joseph-Gabriel, Reimagining Liberation: How Black Women Transformed Citizenship in the French Empire (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2020).

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