The following essay was inspired, in part, by Jean Paul Sartre’s essay titled “Black Orpheus”, which explores the Négritude movement from an existentialist perspective. The essay helped to inspire the 1959 film Orfeu Negro, as well as a more modern remake of it titled Orfeu (a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth set in the favelas, or poor Black neighborhoods of Rio). This last one is the version of the film that I saw, and greatly enjoyed. You may read Sartre’s Black Orpheus here.
I recently had the pleasure of reading Black Orpheus, an essay by Jean Paul Sartre on the literary and philosophical movement known as Négritude. This is a literary, political, philosophical, and art critique movement that emerged in the 1930’s among French-speaking Black intellectuals in Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and later expanded into the Afro-Hispanic Caribbean. There was also a meeting of minds with the Harlem Renaissance intellectuals and artists, so that the movement became multilingual, and it’s still evolving.
The concerns of the movement were very much aligned with the ever-relevant moral, political, and cultural issues related to colonialism and its pervasive psychological effects. The Négritude movement resonated with many colonized peoples and served as a nexus, a space where meetings of minds took place that transcended native languages.
Black Orpheus was written as an introduction to an anthology of essays that ended up being formative for many intellectuals in the Négritude movement, and it injected Marxist and Existentialist opinions into the movement.
Before I delve into my review and my thoughts on Black Orpheus, I wish to note the disclaimer that the text of the essay is tainted by Marxist determinism, yet it remains profoundly insightful in many places. In our last Twentieth message, I talked about how the soul sees and is seen. Sartre starts by framing white privilege in terms of “seeing without being seen”, which in his philosophy implies always being a subject, and never being an object to others.
In our study of the Epicurean soul, we learned that Epicurus thought of it in terms of acting and being acted upon, and I accentuated that this also implies knowing and being known. In Sartre, the way we objectify others is through the gaze. In our social relations we are all defined, in part, by how others see us, and we feel objectified by the gaze (and the speech) of others.
The Négritude conversation starts, appropriately, with the problem of the White gaze upon the Black body, and what its perception does. The first thing I will note is the recognition that the soul is embodied. We are all soul, including body and mind. The second thing is that, while politicized identities like Queerness and–most visibly–Blackness are Platonized, political, useful, and convenient fictions, there are ways in which Blackness is not a Platonic identity. It’s tangible, observable, and has real effects in interactions with others. And so–in Sartrean language–it’s part of the facticity of those who wear Blackness on their bodies.
Négritude and Autarchy
Kujichagulia is the principle of self-determination: “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.”
Becoming self-conscious and awakening requires that we see (objectify) ourselves, becoming both subjects and objects, and only then can we define ourselves. The Négritude movement applies techniques of self-determination by moving from necessity to freedom: Blackness is affirmed not because we can’t escape it, but because it has worth and is liberating. It makes Blackness the center, makes the tropics Ground Zero for its worldview, and relegates white people and Europe to a remote afterthought. Blackness becomes life; whiteness artificiality, removal from nature (at least for those who are not white from birth, but who are forced to imitate whiteness as a result of colonialism). Furthermore, in Négritude, Blacks are writing for an audience made up of other Blacks.
Language is Power
Sartre argues in Black Orpheus that liberating literature for Africans must be poetic, and that prose can’t be used because the French language evolved elsewhere, is too analytical, and can’t express the Black reality and psyche well. There are also the problems of inherent bias: we see examples of how whiteness is associated with innocence and virtue, while Blackness is associated with brokenness or with crime, with being soiled (so that Sartre says that “As soon as (the Black man) opens his mouth, he accuses himself“). Language is power, and Négritude calls for the wielding of power by these “Black Evangelists” to make the French language theirs and make it express the Black reality–so that Sartre says that “to build his truth, (the Black philosopher-artist) must first destroy others’ truth”.
This paradigm of how language gets trapped in power struggles at the mercy of the “gaze” of others is not exclusive to the Négritude movement. We are reminded of the “correction of words” practice that Epicurus referred to in his sermon against empty words, which served utility, accuracy, and clarity. Epicurus taught that this practice happens in all cultures, and that in fact coining and correcting words was the task of intellectuals in the advanced third-stage of language evolution, and was a completely natural process. The first Epicureans coined terms to purge the inherited language from Platonism and with misuses, confusion of values, and inaccuracies. Confucius also had a “correction of words” practice, and the Rastafarians (an Afro-Jamaican religion and a Black liberation theology and philosophy) also have adopted Iyaric speech in order to bend language in a way that short-circuits the many colonial and racist land-mines that exist in the English language. Delving into specific case studies would be a long tangent for this essay, but if this interests you, I invite you to read and study the lyrics of Bob Marley’s songs of freedom, his “redemption songs”.
This insight into how naming is power has a long history in African philosophies and beliefs. The Goddess Isis, for instance, was once able to control the god Ra by learning his “secret” name. Ancient Egyptians had superstitions concerning the magical properties of names, and how they allowed us to have power over something or someone. In truth, there is nothing supernatural about objectifying what we name. It’s in the nature of language to do so.
Another example of how language is power comes from Haiti: in the French language and in Catholicism, Africa is a hell filled with heathens who revere Voodoo spirits (who are demons). However, in Haiti, in the Créole language, and in the religion of Voodoo, the land of the ancestors–their “heaven”–is known as Guinée (a name for their ancestral lands). Heaven looks like Africa, presumably because it’s where we join our ancestors, and the ancestors of Haitians were from Guinea and other parts of West Africa. This subversion of French normalcy in Haiti demonstrates how Négritude exerts its power through poetry, through art, and through language.
A Non-Idealized African History
Here, we must address the temptation inherent in Négritude to idealize history. In some of the early Afro-Caribbean poetry, there was a problem of idealizing African things, stripping the Black soul of the terrors and the injustices that it knew, or perhaps denying or ignoring the role that the cruelty and brutality of some Africans over other Africans had in the slave trade. This perhaps may have served a therapeutic purpose, but it certainly did not serve educational purposes.
One obvious case is the idealizing of African Kingdoms that were built on the backs of slaves (like the Islamic Songhai empire), and of course the idealizing of ancient Egypt (Kemet), whose pyramids must have been built, in part, by slaves, and required huge sacrifices from the laborers. In Puerto Rico’s Négritude movement, Luis Palés Matos’ poetry stands out as a naive idealization of all things Black, including the Congolese queen Tembandumba. This is from Palés’ most celebrated poem, Majestad Negra.
Por la encendida calle antillana
Va Tembandumba de la Quimbamba
–Rumba, macumba, candombe, bámbula—
Entre dos filas de negras caras.
Ante ella un congo–gongo y maraca–
ritma una conga bomba que bamba.
Matos has been celebrated for generations, but has also been criticized. While romanticising Blackness, he exotized it, caricatured it, or reduced it to music, rhythm and superstition. In the poem Majestad Negra, Palés celebrates a historical character, Tembandumba. He does this lyrically and without critique. This is one of his most celebrated poems, however discovering the true biography of the character it celebrates was just as eye-opening for me as it was to learn about some of the more tyrannical biographical details of the emperor and dictator Haile Selassie (who was deified by the Rastas as a Black messiah).
It turns out that the African Queen Tembandumba was a sociopathic ruler of the Yagas, a Bantu people from what is now Angola. Her mother was Mussasa, against whom she rebelled, and declared herself the Queen. After taking power, she led the Yagas into war by demanding that mothers kill their babies and turn their bodies into ointments, mixed with herbs. She then beat her own son to death in a mortar, prepared the ointment and rubbed it against her body, declaring that would make her invulnerable. The women of the tribe immediately imitated her actions with their own children. She eventually found resistance to this practice, and had to resort to the use of male babies captured in war for her magical ointment, which she believed granted her power.
Furthermore, in the actual biography, there is nothing of the dancing, sensual, Black beauty queen that we see in Palés poem. Those who came to see Tembandumba described her as repulsive. She had only one eye, having lost the other one in a battle. According to a 1910 European source, she used to kill her lovers and was eventually poisoned by one of them.
In Tembandumba’s biography we see nothing of the joy of living, or the jubilant celebration of African culture, that we see in the idealized poem Majestad Negra. The real Tembandumba was not beautiful, or virtuous, but a bloody warrior and an evil witch with serious mental health problems.
Know what your problem is? You think that if someone’s an underdog that means they’re the good guy. – a line from the series Expanse, fifth season
The dangers of idealizing African history are very different from the dangers of idealizing the European hegemonic past. People who are wronged by historical events sometimes feel justified in committing comparable retaliatory injustices, and character development requires a healthy self-awareness on our part. And so the challenge for the Négritude movement is to celebrate Blackness while learning from the past, and avoiding naive romanticizing of the past.
Négritude is the only literature that’s truly revolutionary. – Jean Paul Sartre
Christianity is, of course, complicit in slavery. The doctrines of original sin and of the fall served to convince some Blacks that they were partly to blame for their situation, and that they had committed sins prior to birth. The narrative of redemption, with its hope and with the historical process of abolition of slavery and the continued process of emancipation it initiated, was also echoed in the Black experience. The myths of “the mark of Cain” or “Ham’s curse” are also often cited to justify hatred or abuse of Blacks. It would be interesting (but beyond the scope of this essay) to evaluate the beliefs of Afro-diasporic religions against the beliefs of slavery-supporting Christians, and to see what tangible effects they have had in historical relations between Blacks and their subjugators.
And so, for Black intellectuals who wish to regain a sense of dignity and pride after the holocaust of slavery (which is known as Maafa) and its after-effects, one of the most complicated intellectual tasks is the project of accusing both Christianity and Islam in their role during slavery and colonialism, while avoiding a descent into nihilism. It is here that an interesting cross-breeding of Nietzschean ideas takes place in the Négritude movement, and the myth of Orpheus the lyre player gains relief.
Black people must become lyrical. – Jean Paul Sartre, in Black Orpheus
Nietzsche explored the Apollonian (rational) and Dionysian (irrational) tendencies in the human soul, and he believed that we find meaning in the irrational, the ecstatic, with its madness and all its dangers. Négritude offers a variety of particular and concrete instances of overcoming, as it is associated with many elements (like art, rhythm, music, and trance) that are full of natural, Dionysian vitality, while some Négritude intellectuals have characterized Hellenistic (so-called “white” philosophy) as Apollonian. Black memory is embodied, possessed, illiterate, ecstatic, and lyrical. In dances of the soul, Black memory possesses the body in order to be reconstituted. Black philosophy is, therefore, irrational (and Dionysian), in the sense of being primarily vital, natural. In fact, the Greek character Orpheus was syncretized or merged with Dionysus. To speak of a Black Orpheus is to speak of a Black incarnation of Dionysus.
One of the founding fathers of Négritude was Leopold Senghor (who went on to become the first president of the independent country of Senegal). Informed by these values, he placed great focus on the arts and established cultural policies in Senegal based on Négritude. The healthy and strong sense of national identity and relative stability that his country has enjoyed, unlike some of the other African countries with similar colonial histories, is believed to attest for the health of the soul that Négritude ideas have conferred upon Black people in the post-colonial reality.
Nietzsche saw art as redeeming a meaningless life. Black man’s descent into himself makes Sartre think of the myth of Orpheus, who descends to Hades to save Euridice. Sartre says Négritude poetry is “Orphic”–which is to say: lyrical. He speaks of Black poetry as “words gone mad”, but (just like the Orphic mystery religion) these “words gone mad” provide a sense of transcending, are therapeutic, and may even give paths to redemption and freedom, to overcoming by re-imagining and re-creating oneself.
Lucretius and Nature’s vitality
The poetic and spiritual vitality of Lucretius’ poem is specifically compared favorably to the Négritude movement’s vitality and poetry in page 41 of (the online version of) Black Orpheus (here). We are reminded of Lucretius’ declaration that Nature has no masters, no gods, that it is wild, anarchic, free … Dionysian …
The (white) engineer’s prose is contrasted with the (Black) farmer’s poetry, with the understanding that engineering and prose are rational pursuits, while poetry and farming are irrational, natural, vital.
I wish to add my own commentary here to state that this Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy endorsed by Sartre and others is false, in my view. We know this viscerally as practicing Epicureans, because the entire canon of Epicurus places importance on the irrational (or pre-rational) data furnished by our faculties from nature. So while Epicureanism carries the maturity of the legacy of Hellenistic philosophy, it can be described as partially rational and partially irrational. It’s neither entirely Apollonian, nor fully Dionysian, and anyone arguing that we must elevate one over the other is probably not using the entirety of their faculties.
While Négritude has left a mark in the intellectual lives of many African, colonized, and Afro-diasporic individuals, and while it has provided interesting points of view from which indigenous traditions of art critique, philosophy, and resistance have emerged, its posited tenets are not perfect or fully developed, and deserve continued scrutiny.
I wrote this essay while thinking of the countless hours I’ve spent absolutely enjoying African-inspired literature (I’m currently reading a novel by Octavia Butler, a Nebula- and Hugo-winning Black sci-fi author) and music, and of the 15 % of African ancestry that my DNA test revealed–but we can’t forget that we are still emerging from the Trump regime and the frequent attacks on the bodies of young Black men by cops, the Black Lives Matter protests, and many of the other events that culminated in the frenzies of 2020. Critical discussions of Négritude are as relevant today as they were over 70 years ago, when it was first articulated, and Black Orpheus is still birthing lyrical odes to relief his woes.