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Negritude - Philosophy And Practice: Senghor

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Senghor differed from Césaire in both his vision and his practice of negritude; for him, opposing the values of Europe to those of the African world led him to valorize life forces as the essential framework grounding his poetic portraits of African civilization. Arriving in Paris in 1928 on a partial scholarship in literary studies, he studied at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the Sorbonne. It was during this period that he began to be influenced by his discussions with Césaire, Maran, McKay, and the Haitian author and intellectual Dr. Jean Price-Mars. It was around this time that Senghor formed the belief that blacks could benefit by assimilating European culture without severing themselves from their own cultural origins. He promulgated a return to historical and cultural sources through the cultivation of indigenous languages and traditions, and sought to instantiate this value system through the vocabulary, themes, and symbolism of his published poetry. His Hosties noires (Black offerings) and the collection Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (Anthology of new black and Malagasy poetry in French) appeared to mark the centennial of the French abolition of slavery in 1948, joining the already-published collections by Césaire in rehabilitating the perceived "primitive" character of black colonial civilizations.

Senghor's primary themes are alienation and exile, along with a recognition of the central role played by the culture and tradition of his African homeland. The importance of the cultural heritage that he was thus able to describe and define for his fellow blacks cannot be overemphasized. This valorization of a cultural patrimony became a catalyst for black self-realization, demonstrating negritude's capacity to engender pride in authenticity and racial difference. Much more so than did Césaire's, Senghor's writing stressed claims for a particular black emotional and psychological experience, an affective rapport that draws on a specifically African relationship to the forces of the universe that are separate and apart from those of the West. Where the black African perceives and internalizes in a subjective way (the argument goes), relating to external stimuli in primarily emotional terms, the Westerner, in his turn, relates to the world through analysis and reason. This is not to claim a monopoly on either category for either group, in his view. While not denying the rational power of blacks or the emotive capacities of whites, Senghor does see very real differences in temperament and worldview that determine the ways in which certain cultures view and relate to the world. As limited and reductionist as this argument might seem today, it extended an elaborate and perhaps necessary ontology to the concept of negritude, providing an enabling framework for literally hundreds of African and Caribbean writers to express their vision of their own cultural and historical experience well into the 1960s.

Negritude, then, was in a certain sense a product of its time; despite its own claims to the contrary, its primary shortcoming was perhaps that it drew unconsciously on the binaries of the colonial era. It opened the way for a flood of creative black expression, but it would in time be superseded by alternative approaches to, and theories of, black identity. Critiques that would be leveled at negritude by Frantz Fanon, the Martinican intellectual, and Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian novelist and Nobel laureate, among others, would center on the concept's racial grounding and its implicit essentialisms, contradictions, and limitations. Given the widely varying social and historical situations involved in the development of black culture, any theory that sought to contextualize and mediate this development needed to be deracialized. By moving away from a race-based analysis of culture to one that reflects the range of influences inflecting black historical reality, the differing cultural expressions of black people could be taken into account, catalyzed, and valorized. The theories of Césaire and Senghor would in time give way to those of Glissant and Bernabé, Chamoiseau, and Confiant, among others, acknowledging the opening up of the categories of race and culture whose binary, colonially driven structures established the boundaries of blackness even as they sought to endow them with value and meaning.


Arnold, A. James. Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

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

Cailler, Bernadette. Proposition poétique: une lecture de l'oeuvre d'Aimé Césaire. Sherbrooke, Que.: Naaman, 1976.

Confiant, Raphaël. Aimé Césaire: une traversée paradoxale du siècle. Paris: Stock, 1993.

Davis, Gregson. Aimé Césaire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Eshleman, Clayton, and Annette Smith, trans. Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Popeau, Jean Baptiste. Dialogues of Negritude: An Analysis of the Cultural Context of Black Writing. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2003.

Richardson, Michael. Refusal of the Shadow: Surrealism and the Caribbean. Translated by Krzysztof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson. London: Verso, 1996.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. "Orphée noir." In Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue francaise. Edited by Léopold Sédar Senghor. Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1948.

Scharfman, Ronnie. Engagement and the Language of the Subject in the Poetry of Aimé Césaire. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1987.

Senghor, Léopold Sédar. Négritude et humanisme. Paris: Seuil, 1964.

Taylor, Patrick. The Narrative of Liberation: Perspectives on Afro-Caribbean Literature, Popular Culture, and Politics. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.

H. Adlai Murdoch

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