The following three chapters comprise an engagement with, and critique of, the political project of Alain Badiou. In many ways, the critique that I offer in these next chapters is not new. Rather, it can be traced back to various debates in philosophy, critical race theory, and decolonial theory. For the purpose of this project, however, I turn to what is one of the most prominent articulations of the kind of critique I offer against Badiou in order to help demonstrate my argument. Namely, I focus on the debate between Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) and Frantz Fanon (1925–61). As noted by Lewis R. Gordon, “Jean-Paul Sartre has explored racial concerns in some of his work of the 1940s and early 1950s, such as Anti-Semite and Jew, Notebooks for an Ethics, The Respectful Prostitute, ‘Black Orpheus,’ and ‘Black Presence’” (1995, 3). The debate discussed below is located most explicitly between Sartre’s “Black Orpheus” (1948) and Fanon’s “The Lived Experience of the Black Man,” chapter 5 of Black Skin, White Masks (1952). As Gordon states, in “Black Orpheus,” “Sartre makes an effort to understand black particularity from the inside. He regards his project in that work as an attempt to explain the specificity of black writers to white readers under the concept of negritude” (1995, 3, emphasis in original). Fanon’s fifth chapter in Black Skin, White Masks responds to “Black Orpheus.” While acknowledging that some aspects of Sartre’s critique of Négritude are not without their merits, Fanon is also critical of the role Sartre allocates to race in his theory of emancipation.1 He also offers an alternative conception of race to Sartre in that text.
The Fanon–Sartre debate focuses on their respective conceptions of the function of Négritude. Generally speaking, “Négritude” is a term coined by the Martinican poet and politician Aimé Césaire (1913–2008) in “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” (1939). According to Nick Nesbitt, there are two competing conceptions of Négritude, one originating from the work of Césaire and the other from Léopold Sédar Senghor (1906–2001), a Senegalese poet, politician, and cultural theorist. Nesbitt writes, “Césaire’s original conception sees the specificity and unity of black existence as a historically developing phenomenon that arose through the highly contingent events of the African slave trade and the New World plantation system. [While, by contrast, Senghor] argues for an unchanging core or essence to black existence” (2005, 193), the latter of whom has ultimately been critiqued for proposing a kind of Black essentialism. However, contra Nesbitt, Clevis B. Headley states that “in misconstruing Senghor’s philosophical project as, among other things, . . . a vulgar biological essentialism . . . critics dismally fail to acknowledge the philosophical impetus by Senghor to capture the basic ontological orientation of an African mode of existence” (2019, 91). Headley offers an articulation of Senghor’s Négritude as “among other things, a critique of colonial and scientific reason, and the imperialistic designs of modern scientific rationality” (100), which are informed by Senghor’s concern with epistemology, ontology, and his reading of Henri Bergson.
While I attend to Senghor’s work in some places, my project pays particular attention to Césaire’s working out of Négritude. As noted by Nesbitt, Césaire “postulates Négritude as self-estrangement, a fact or quality that confronts the black subject as an object. Such a gesture initiates a movement in Césaire’s poem toward a self-consciousness that breaks the bonds of subjugation through a grappling with negativity in the form of self-alienation. Négritude is not the lifeless object society has reduced it to. . . . Instead, it is active, creative, and liberatory” (Nesbitt 2005, 196–97). Central to Césaire’s project is not only the negation of racial stereotypes constructed within an anti-Black society but additionally raising consciousness of the imposition of these stereotypes. In addition, his project seeks to understand how the negation of negative stereotypes can be liberatory. Négritude is thus an example of how a racially marginalized group in society both recognizes their marginalization and seeks to affirm an active, creative, and liberatory conception of race. Additionally, following Nesbitt, “Négritude is thus for Césaire the self-created object that negates the very objectivity of black existence itself—where humans are reduced to pure animal-objects (slaves)—in a becoming-human. . . . In the concept of Négritude, Aimé Césaire produced the material, textual objectification of black self-consciousness, a program for self-understanding and liberation” (197).
Identity Politics and Universality
Before I expand upon the particulars of the Fanon–Sartre debate, I would like to offer an analysis of Badiou’s use, and conceptualization, of Négritude. Badiou invokes racialized religious subjectivities in various texts. For instance, in “‘Anti-Semitism Everywhere’ in France Today” (2013), Badiou and Eric Hazen make reference to Jews by way of various constructions of anti-Semitism that exist in France and globally. Similarly, in “La frustration d’un désir d’Occident ouvre un espace à l’instinct de mort” (2016), an interview that can be roughly translated as “The frustration with Western desire opens up space for the instinct towards death,” Badiou discusses what he conceives of as the conditions that serve to produce “jihadists.” However, in these texts, it is not clear how Badiou conceives of race in particular—that is, race as distinct from religion.2 It is for this reason that I turn my attention to Badiou’s most recent book, Black (2017), in which he provides a more explicit discussion of race.
First, invoking the question Jean Genet poses in The Blacks—“What is a Black? And first of all, what color is he?”—Badiou provides his conceptualization of race and a discussion of the Négritude movement (2017, 91). He states the following: “We so-called Whites of Western Europe had to invent the fact that the majority of Africa’s inhabitants clearly constituted an inferior ‘race,’ condemned to slavery and then to forced labor of colonial occupation simply because this enormous population was ‘black’” (91). First and foremost, it seems that for Badiou race is socially constructed, and that it is constructed by “so-called Whites of Western Europe.” Generally, the presumption in this case is that race was created for the purpose of racism—that is, that race was an invention that served to benefit one group of people at the peril of another. This statement can be understood in two ways. The stronger claim presupposes that race can solely be thought of as being imposed through a hierarchical power structure by the dominant group for the purpose of the continued oppression of the marginalized group. The weaker claim assumes that while race was originally created for the purpose of subordination, it need not continue to be conceptualized that way. Which of these two claims best exemplifies Badiou’s articulation of race? Recalling my previous discussion of Badiou’s statement that race cannot function in a progressive fashion, it would seem that he is proposing the stronger claim of the social construction of race, namely that race can only be thought of as emanating from systems of hierarchy of oppression.
Second, in Black, Badiou intimates that there is no true or real “black.” This point, which is made evident in a chapter titled “Confusion” (Badiou 2017, 22–24), is made in reference to the color black as it might be applied to a black cloud or a black pencil. These statements taken by themselves might appear meaningless; however, they take on significant meaning within his discussion of humanity as a whole. For instance, in answer to the question proposed by Genet (mentioned above), he answers, “As far as humanity as a whole is concerned, there are actually no colors” (102). Additionally, in Black he states, “Try to really decide what someone’s color is” (102). This is unlike the black panther (the animal not the activist) which is “really black, because his fur, which covers his body from head to toe, is black” (103, emphasis in original).
Grant Farred sheds some light on why Badiou would say that “as far as humanity as a whole is concerned, there are actually no colors.” In “Wretchedness” (2011), a Badiouian analysis of Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Farred attempts to deal with what he calls a “hesitation, equivocation, about how race functions as an element of the political . . . [and a] distrust about how race is deployed as an essentialist political category” (161). This quick account of Fanon by Farred already provides a clear account of the intended relation between race and the political. According to Farred, for Badiou race might appear within a given situation but it cannot be a uniting feature of a revolution. Similarly, Farred draws upon what he called the anticolonial/decolonial dialectic in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. Farred states, “The political allure—and power—of the [Black versus white, Arab versus Infidel] binary must be dispensed with in order to map the trajectory of the peoples through from popular, racially specific (or, indiscriminate) opposition to finer, ideologically rather than racially based political distinctions” (169). The claim that he makes here reasserts the juxtaposition of racially specific political movements on the one hand, and the “finer” ideological movements, subtracted from racially based identifications, on the other. In other words, the implication is that Fanon is calling for a rejection of the role of a group identity for Black people and Black racial consciousness in anticolonial or decolonial struggles in favor of a movement that maintains ideological unifying features, such as liberty, equality, and brotherhood (“for all,” as in the French Revolution). Toward this end, Farred makes a compelling argument by presenting the following statement by Fanon in order to support his point:
The people who in the early days of the struggle had adopted the primitive Manicheanism of the colonizer—Black versus White, Arab versus Infidel—realize en route that some blacks can be whiter than whites, and the prospect of a national flag of independence does not automatically result in certain segments of the population giving up their privileges and their interests. (Fanon 2004, 93)
It would thus seem as though, alongside Farred’s analysis, that Fanon is demonstrating a shift that ought to take place regarding the role race can play in the struggle for Algerian independence. Specifically, insofar as “some blacks can be whiter than whites” in the Algerian Revolution, perhaps one ought to question the role that race can actually play in such an instance. However, the Fanon quote offered above is quickly followed up with the following statement: “The people discover that the iniquitous phenomenon of exploitation can assume a black or an Arab face” (94). The point that Fanon is drawing our attention to is that within any group identity there can be the need for self-critique, and much of The Wretched of the Earth provides a critique of the Black bourgeoisie and the role they play in the anticolonial struggle (or lack of a role, one might say). Similarly, one might also state that just because one is Black and/or a woman does not mean that they cannot perpetuate racist and sexist oppression. Intersectional feminism is one area of research that attempts to make evident that one’s inclusion within a marginalized group does not preclude one from perpetuating any number of forms of prejudice (see hooks 2015; Crenshaw 1993). With that said, the presence of such critique need not negate the relevance or importance of racialized group identities for political movements.
Given Badiou’s conception of race offered above, in which race is a product of white supremacy, one might ask what role race plays in processes of emancipation. There are three points to consider in responding to such a question. First, in Black, Badiou states that in both the Négritude movement and the Black Panther Party, “blacks, vis-à-vis whites, assume total pride in their blackness and can lay claim to their natural superiority” (98–99). But why is it that pride in being Black comes only in relation to whites? The reason, for Badiou, is because racialized identity is thought within a structure of hierarchy and within a dialectic. In this same book, he utilizes two notions of dialectic. In a section of Black titled “The Dialectics of Black,” he states that (a) “black connotes impurity”; (b) “through negation of the negation . . . white connotes purity, including in its most physical form, namely female virginity”; and (c) whiteness is “secondary to the blackness of which it is the conspicuous negation” (38). While in this instance he is referring explicitly to what he claims is the “blackness” of the soul where dark and fatal feelings reside, it ought not be lost that there is already a dialectic between black (impure) and white (pure) whereby black is the negation. The negation of this dialectic results not only in whiteness, but also in purity.3
This structure of the dialectic is useful for understanding Badiou’s discussion of racial identities drawing upon Négritude and the Black Panther Party. Regarding the reclaiming of Black identity in a colonial context by the Négritude movement, Badiou states the following:
Since the whites have called us blacks, why shouldn’t we turn this name against their power? The dialectic of colors is very dense here. Black, a stigmatized category internal to white domination, is reappropriated by its victims as the banner of their revolt. The blacks are thus between two whites: the whites who invented the blacks in order to enslave and segregate them, and the whites who are the target of the blacks’ insurgent independence. (99)
Of importance to note here is that Négritude is thus forever located in relation to whites.
This brings us to the second point, which is comprised of the “gradual dissolution of the whole black-white dialectic . . . in favor of political universalism” (100). Of course, it comes as no surprise that Badiou is offering a political universalism as the solution to political emancipation. That said, it is the structure for universal emancipation, as well as his conception of universality, that is of concern. Badiou summarizes the transition as follows: “The first revolutionary approach, proud negritude, prepared the ground for the second, namely that, while there are of course different communities, and the black community in particular, they must all have strictly the same rights” (101). In other words, Black power and Black liberation movements were necessary for universal emancipation. That said, we must consider the justification for such a claim.
At this point, Badiou offers a maxim: “We need to establish once and for all that a politics of emancipation has nothing to do with colors—in terms of norms and hierarchies, of course, but also in terms of objectivity” (102). This move to universality is to take cultural differences “one step further” (101). Badiou claims that race does exist and that it impacts people’s lived experiences. However, race has no political import for Badiou. Rather, emancipation requires an indifference to difference, such that particularity is subtracted from the situation in favor of what is universal. Thus race is a moment in the dialectic or the process toward emancipation, but a moment that will ultimately fail to provide the conditions to achieve emancipation. Instead, we must take one step further toward the universal in order to achieve emancipation.
On Sartre and Négritude
As noted in the introduction of this book, Sartre had a significant influence on Badiou’s work. How then does Sartre conceive of race and the Négritude movement? The secondary literature on Sartre provides a possible framework to understand Sartre’s conception of race across various works. For instance, in “Sartre and the Social Construction of Race” (2003), Donna-Dale L. Marcano proposes that there are two models of racialized group membership operating in Sartre’s work, located specifically in Anti-Semite and Jew (1946) and Critique of Dialectical Reason, volume 1 (1960). The first model, located in Anti-Semite and Jew, is described as a model that “bases group constitution and identity on the gaze of the dominant Other, and the second [located in Critique of Dialectical Reason] . . . places the group as a prominent facilitator of history that produces itself in the domain of the Other” (Marcano 2003, 214).4 To be clear, in both of these instances, Sartre is proposing a kind of social constructionist model of race. However, Marcano makes evident that between Sartre’s earlier and later work there is a shift in terms of the agential capacity allocated to marginalized groups.
In Anti-Semite and Jew, Marcano notes that “what we have . . . is a socially constructed idea of the group called the Jews, and the construction of the idea of the Jew occurs through the efforts and gaze of a community, the French community [in postwar France], which sees these ‘others’ as outside its bond of history and nationality” (218). The anti-Semite conceives of an idea of “Jew” and imposes it upon the Jewish people she/he/they meet(s). In such instances, the idea of the Jew is not something that the Jew can escape or refute, instead he/she/they are said to be trapped (218). This position is nicely juxtaposed against what Marcano calls the “‘democrat,’ who rejects the idea of the Jew and recognizes only ‘man’ with universal traits, rebuking any assertion of identity that may persist beyond the individual . . . [furthermore asserting that] there is no Jewish consciousness, no class consciousness, no Negro consciousness” (218). Through the work of Marcano, contra the democrat position that seeks to do away with any particular consciousness altogether, it becomes evident that Sartre maintains a role for identity and consciousness within his political theory.
According to Marcano, Sartre’s earlier conception of racial identity “neglects the ways that groups play a part in the formation of their own identities as well as their agency, in some part, in constituting the group” (220). Doing so also neglects a long and vibrant history of resistance movements against other imposed racial identities. Perhaps for this reason, in Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre extends the conception of group identity he advanced in his earlier work to include the ability for groups to not be solely constituted by the gaze of an external and dominant group but by group members themselves (222). Group members are thus portrayed as able to construct their own self-image over and against a dominant group’s construction of the negative group identity.
In Sartre’s 1961 preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, the author seems to portray a conception of identity that corresponds with the second model articulated by Marcano. In this essay, Sartre describes the conditions that produced the dehumanization of Algerians under French colonial rule (2004b, xlix). French colonialism is the cause of racial inequality in Algeria. At the same time, colonialism also produces the white French identity (xlix). He thus speaks of the various forms of dialectical movement that seem to be operating in the relation between the colonizer and the colonized. For instance, he states that he has written the preface to The Wretched of the Earth “to carry the dialectic through to its conclusion: we, too, peoples of Europe, we are being decolonized: meaning the colonist inside every one of us is surgically extracted in a bloody operation” (lvii). Of the dialectical relation between the colonizer and the colonized, it seems that the last stage of the dialectic is for the colonizer to recognize and renounce (or be removed from) positions of power and dominance over the colonized. He writes: “This last stage of the dialectic [is where] you [white Europeans] condemn this war but you don’t yet dare declare your support for the Algerian fighters” (lxii). The last stage is subsequently sublated into a new history, which he calls the history of man, once white Europeans join the rank of those who are fighting against the colonialists.
One of the implications of the distinction between the two forms of identity Sartre develops pertains to how one ought to think about race as a political identity. In his earlier writings, it would seem that race is an inherently problematic conception. The argument that follows from this point is that because race is socially constructed and solely formed on the basis of the gaze of the dominant subject, race cannot be politically fruitful for the purpose of ending racial oppression. To this end, as Marcano states, “identities are negatively and predominantly determined from the outside and are, as such, unstable and worth dissolving” (2003, 216). However, the second model for group membership draws a different conclusion from Sartre’s reformulation of the construction of identity—that “there is a necessity for group formation and identification, the foundation of which is the basic need of the individual to interact with the environment and with others” (224). In other words, if particularized group identities are formed not merely on the basis of external and oppressive factors then it can be argued that there is something worth preserving in social constructivist conceptions of race.
“Black Orpheus” seems to be situated between these two models of group-identity formation. This text was written for a poetry anthology that was edited by Leopold Sédar-Senghor, titled Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et la malgache de langue Française (1948), translated as Anthology of New Black and Malagasy Poetry in the French Language. Throughout his essay, Sartre describes Négritude as being beholden to something like a substance that is homogenous and interior to the black man (1948, 47), something akin to a black soul (20). Black poetry thus is an attempt to “reveal the black soul” (20) that serves to awaken the consciousness of the Black man (16). It would thus seem that the goal of Négritude is to promote the raising of consciousness of Black men as racialized subjects. For instance, he states: “The black man is a victim of [the capitalist structure of our society] because he is a black man and insofar as he is a colonized native or a deported African. And since he is oppressed within the confines of his race and because of it, he must first of all become conscious of his race” (18). Négritude becomes a means of resisting and rejecting the kinds of harms that are forced upon Black men because they are Black, the recognition of which is central to the abolishment of racism. Furthermore, he states, “black poetry in the French language is, in our time, the only great revolutionary poetry” and is particularly well situated to do the work of raising consciousness of Black men to the horrors they face (16).
There are two important features of Sartre’s conception of Négritude just described. First, he states that “Négritude is, in essence, poetry” (52), insofar as it “is a shimmer of being and of needing-to-be; it makes you and you make it” (48). There is thus a kind of co-constitution between the creation of Black poetry and the creation of race-conscious Black men. But this is true only through the process of writing itself. For instance, he states: “Césaire’s words do not describe negritude, they do not designate it, they do not copy it from the outside like a painter with a model: they create it; they compose it under our very eyes: henceforth it is a thing that can be observed and learned. . . . He ejects the black soul from himself at the very moment when others are trying to interiorize it” (35). The kind of operation that Sartre is here describing combines a subjective and an objective method. This method is objective to the extent that it pertains to the situation or circumstances that can be determined. For example, one can think of “the objective situation of the proletariat, which can be determined by the circumstances of production or of redistribution of property” (17) and what he elsewhere refers to as “the sociological” situation (17). At the same time, however, he claims “poetry . . . must in some way remain subjective” (17).
Sartre provides a further claim regarding what he calls the subjective–objective method as it pertains to Négritude. He states:
There are only two ways to go about forming racial concepts: either one causes certain subjective characteristics to become objective, or else one tries to interiorize objectively revealed manners of conduct; thus the black man who asserts his negritude by means of a revolutionary movement immediately places himself in the position of having to mediate, either because he wishes to recognize in himself certain objectively established traits of the African civilizations, or because he hopes to discover the Essence of blackness in the well of his heart. (19).
It seems that the conception of “black consciousness” central to the Négritude movement, according to Sartre, presupposes the interiorization (read: subjectivity) of objectively revealed manners of conduct (read: objectivity), or the enactment of revealing (and thus making objective) what is inherently subjective. Objective Négritude is “expressed by the mores, arts, chants and dances of the African populaces” (29)—that is, the “established traits of the African civilizations” (19)—or what otherwise are construed as sociological features or features determined by circumstance. Subjective Négritude comes from finding oneself, from discovering the “Essence of blackness in the well” of the heart (19)—that is, it is a “relation of the self with the self” (20). To exemplify the subjective→objective movement, we can think of Sartre’s description of the creative poetic writing of Césaire as the act of revealing to the world his Black soul in order that others might “find themselves” and accordingly recognize their subjectivity as racialized. Alternatively, exemplifying the objective→subjective movement is the interiorization of Césaire’s Black soul by others. In light of the relation between the subjective and the objective, Sartre calls Négritude “objective poetry” (30) insofar as it fuses together the subjective and objective method outlined above.5 In other words, the objective poetry of the Négritude movement provides the conditions not only for Black subjectivity to be affirmed in objective characteristics but also for objective characteristics to be internalized as Black subjectivity. It is the interplay between self and world and the affirmation of Black identity as subjective and objective that marks this movement as important to Black self-consciousness.
Before we move on to the justifications Sartre provides for why this realization of Black consciousness is necessary, one ought to keep in mind what is implied in Sartre’s discussion of the Black soul. As noted above, there is a kind of homogeneity implicit in his discussion of Négritude. Most especially, he presupposes homogeneity in his description of the essence of Blackness, and the Black soul, as though it is a particular thing that is interior to, or true for all, Black people. Along these same lines, he provides his readers with an account of why the figures of the Négritude movement chose to write in the French language, stating that “having been dispersed to the four corners of the earth by the slave trade, black men have no common language” and thus they must write in French, even if they reject French culture, if they are to gain a large audience (23). However, we should be reminded that all Black men, or all Black people for that matter, did not speak the same language prior to the transatlantic slave trade. As a result, there continues to be a presumption of the homogeneity of all Black people without any recognition of the different languages, cultures, religions, and histories existing in Africa prior to slavery.
For the purpose of this book, there are two features of Négritude that Sartre outlines in “Black Orpheus” to which we should turn our attention. I would like to first draw attention to the manner in which he juxtaposes Négritude and the proletariat. The Black man, he claims, should shake off his Négritude and assume “his objective condition” as the proletariat in order to become part of the revolution (52). Despite the interplay between the subjective and the objective described above, ultimately he describes Négritude as “subjective, existential, [and] ethnic” when compared with the “objective, positive, and precise” position of the proletariat (48). Négritude is thus still too particular insofar as it is premised on an ethnicity and what he calls “comprehension” as opposed to the “intellection” of the proletariat position (49). Négritude can thus have a semblance of objectivity, but the proletariat is the truly objective position. The basis of this juxtaposition between the objective proletariat position and the particular/subjective position of Négritude is that the notion of the proletariat alone is capable of ensuring the solidarity of all oppressed persons (49).
Second, Sartre describes Négritude as an “anti-racist racism” (18). This turn of phrase is meant to imply that while, on the one hand, the Négritude movement sought the emancipation of Black people through the realization of Black consciousness, on the other hand, it was still mired in a conception of race that continued to be bound up with racism.6 The dilemma surrounding racism is not merely the manner in which race is used to oppress, but the categorization of race itself in this line of thinking serves to demarcate and differentiate where there ought not be any differentiation. In other words, within this conception of the social constructivist model of race, since race was created for the purpose of oppression, the only way in which to eliminate racism is to do away with race altogether. Or similarly, Négritude remains far too subjective or too particular for the purpose of emancipation. It is for this reason that Sartre turns to “the one who is walking on this ridge between past particularism—which he has just climbed—and future universalism, which will be the twilight of his negritude; he is the one who looks to the end of particularism in order to find the dawn of the universal” (51). Sartre is quick to agree that it is important to abolish racism; however, it is only for the purpose of providing the conditions for the unity of class struggle. As noted by Kathryn Sophia Belle in her critique of “Black Orpheus,” “Once black consciousness is realized, a total rejection of race follows” (Gines 2003, 61). In other words, it is only through the erasure of racial differences that a unity of struggle and revolution becomes possible. Race serves as an obstacle for class struggle.
Sartre thus claims that “Negritude is dialectical . . . it represents ‘going beyond’ a situation defined by free consciences” (1948, 51). Regarding the Black man, “He wishes in no way to dominate the world: he desires the abolition of all kinds of ethnic privileges; he asserts his solidarity with the oppressed of every color. After that, the subjective, existential, ethnic notion of negritude ‘passes,’ as Hegel says, into that which one has of the proletariat: objective, positive, and precise” (48). A “moment of separation or negativity” precedes the moment in which all oppressed peoples can unite in the same struggle toward universal emancipation. Négritude marks this moment of negativity. Similarly, he states:
The notion of race does not mix with the notion of class: the former is concrete and particular; the latter, universal and abstract. . . . In fact, Negritude appears like the up-beat (un-accented beat) of a dialectical progression: the theoretical and practical affirmation of white supremacy is the thesis; the position of Negritude as an antithetical value is the moment of negativity. But this negative moment is not sufficient in itself and these black men who use it know this perfectly well; they know that it aims at preparing the synthesis or realization of the human being in a raceless society. Thus Negritude is for destroying itself, it is a “crossing to” and not an “arrival at,” a means and not an end. (49)
In relation to my previous discussion, Négritude is subjective to the extent that it is dependent upon a notion of race that is concrete and particular. Class struggle is objective to the extent that class is conceived as an abstract and universal category—that is, concerned with the suffering of all. Furthermore, Négritude is constituted on the basis of a negation of white supremacy. While Négritude is antithetical to the affirmation of white supremacy, it too must be negated in order to cross over into universal emancipation. Négritude is thus a moment that precedes the revolution—that is, a moment that is required in order to provide the conditions for it. The implication that follows here is that Négritude is not valued as a movement in and of itself but valued only because of the role that it plays for the proletariat revolution.
Already we can see the ways in which Badiou’s conception of race echoes the work of Sartre. Most notably, for both Sartre and Badiou, race is a product of a social context, but more importantly is limited to this social context. The implication of such an articulation of race, which is situated in their discussion of race and the dialectic, is that the means of overcoming racial oppression is located in the overturning, or sublation, of that particular context. If you want to get rid of racism, then you must get rid of the context in which racism is produced—that is, white supremacy. In addition to this supposition for both Sartre and Badiou is that race itself is insufficient in providing the conditions for a move toward emancipation. Race belongs to the realm of particularity, and only universal conditions can provide the necessary conditions for emancipation. For Sartre, universality takes the form of the proletariat revolution, and for Badiou it takes the form of the event (as discussed in the previous chapter).
Fanon’s Response to Sartre
Fanon’s critique of Sartre’s conception of racialized group identity is located primarily in chapter 5 of Black Skin, White Masks, translated as “The Lived Experience of the Black Man” in the 2008 Philcox translation.7 In “Identity and Agency in Frantz Fanon” (2004), Robert Bernasconi states, “One of Fanon’s objections was that Sartre in ‘Black Orpheus’ had attempted to locate the negritude movement within a dialectic whose ultimate end was a raceless and classless society” (106). Fanon’s critique was not an outright rejection of Sartre’s work. Instead, in various places one can see how Fanon upholds Sartre’s work as a site of reference and positive influence.8 Additionally, one might claim, as Bernasconi does, that Fanon advocates for a kind of raceless society at the end of Black Skin, White Masks. That said, there continues to exist a sizable distinction between the proposed projects and methods employed by each of these figures. Bernasconi suggests that the raceless society Fanon advocates for is “not of the same kind or arrived at in the same way as that proposed by Sartre” (106).
In the midst of his discussion of Sartre’s “Black Orpheus,” Fanon states the following: “So they were countering my irrationality with rationality, my rationality with the ‘true rationality.’ I couldn’t hope to win” (2008, 111). This statement sheds light upon two particularly important moments in his discussion of the lived experience of the Black man. The first juxtaposition, between irrationality and rationality, is made in reference to the negative racialized identity imposed upon the Black man in an anti-Black social context. The second juxtaposition, between rationality and “true” rationality, is made in explicit reference to Sartre’s critique of Négritude as “anti-racist racism” (Sartre 1948, 18). Fanon provides critiques of both of these “countering” moves while affirming the fact of Blackness. Let’s consider each in turn.
First, there are at least two manifestations of the juxtaposition between irrationality and rationality in Black Skin, White Masks. On the most general level, the chapter begins with an account of how a Black man in France is fixed as an object by the white gaze (Fanon 2008, 89), whereby he comes to “experience his being for others” (89): “For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man” (90). The white gaze imposes various negative stereotypes upon the racialized person that are meant to dehumanize him through a process of racialization. In line with the previous discussion regarding racialized identities, the idea here too is that race is constructed by the white gaze. This experience of being “an object among other objects” that Fanon so carefully describes is the process of dehumanization that occurs through the white gaze. One can also see the implications of this in Fanon’s description of what he calls his body schema, the dialectical relation between his body and the world such that he exists as a lived body in the world (90–91). And yet the white gaze imposes upon his body schema a historical–racial schema (91), or an epidermal racial schema (92), that serves to limit and significantly alter how his body’s movements are perceived in an anti-Black world.
In a certain sense, one can see that Fanon’s articulation of the experience of the Black man corresponds to the subject/object dichotomy not uncommon to existentialists like Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. At the same time, however, Fanon draws a further implication from the juxtaposition of the subject (who gazes) and the object (who is gazed upon). One can here think of Fanon’s invocation of “Rhythm!” as a basic element that defines Blackness under the white gaze, or perhaps the “magical black culture” that lies on the other side of rational white culture (102). Herein, the reference to irrationality as juxtaposed against rationality also represents a “phase” of human development (108). The negative identity of irrationality imposed upon the Black man presumes that he is closer to nature, that the Black man by way of the essence of Blackness is stronger or has better rhythm. This “natural essence” of Black people is problematic for two reasons. First and foremost, Fanon has positioned himself against theorists who might equate Blackness with qualities such as rhythm. The emphasis in this instance is that to praise Black people for having good rhythm is to uphold the dichotomy of irrational and rational and to operate toward the exclusion of Black people from the category of those who have rationality and subsequently humanness. With this in mind, Fanon states, “Beware of rhythm, the Mother Earth bond, and that mystic, carnal marriage between man and the cosmos” (104). At the same time, he is quite explicit to state that “what is called the black soul is a construction by white folk” (xvii). Second, this presupposition maintained in the juxtaposition of irrationality (and the natural caricature of the Black man) and rationality fails to recognize the rich history of Black peoples (109).
The second juxtaposition mentioned by Fanon in the above quote—of rationality and true rationality—is of particular importance for understanding Fanon’s critique of Sartre. Regarding this juxtaposition, Fanon states the following: “When I tried to claim my negritude intellectually as a concept, they snatched it away from me. They proved to me that my reasoning was nothing but a phase in the dialectic” (111). His description of Négritude as “my negritude” is not meant to denote that Fanon has developed a robust articulation of Négritude that is distinct from the writings of Césaire or Senghor. Rather, his use of the possessive in this instance is meant to demonstrate his relation to this movement and to themes quite common to Négritude theorists. For instance, in “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land,” Césaire states the following:
My negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against the clamor of day
my negritude is not an opaque spot of dead water over the dead eye of the earth
my negritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral. (2001, 35)9
Here Césaire affirms his possession of Négritude but for the purposes of rejecting previous conceptions of Blackness. Likewise, Fanon has a personal stake in Négritude, and thus also a personal relation to it as a Black man, given that this movement is concerned with the affirmation of the existence of Black peoples. However, perhaps more importantly, he recognizes and emphasizes in this instance that the Négritude movement serves to place him as a Black man in an agential capacity in relation to history.
It is perhaps in this way that we can understand the distinction between Fanon’s and Sartre’s articulation of Négritude. For Sartre, the Négritude movement is subjective and particular, and serves to replicate and reinforce racism through its use of racialized identity (as evidenced in his description of it as “anti-racist racism”). In order to achieve universal emancipation, Négritude must be sublated in favor of a more rational or more objective class-consciousness. For Fanon, on the other hand, Négritude is not lacking rationality or objectivity. Recalling a quote above, he states: “They were countering my irrationality with rationality, my rationality with the ‘true rationality’” (2008, 111). He makes explicit that Sartre’s juxtaposition of race consciousness as particular and class-consciousness as universal prioritizes class over race. In this sense, only class-consciousness can be truly rational.10
At issue for Fanon is the manner in which Négritude is situated within a dialectic by Sartre. On this point, Bernasconi states the following: “By locating negritude within a dialectic, he [Sartre] had attempted to render the absolute density of black consciousness relative to the historical role assigned to them” (2004, 107). The conscious awareness of being Black in an anti-Black society is pivotal for both Sartre and Fanon, both of whom discuss the importance of this realization. According to Sartre, however, Black consciousness is one moment in a historical progression that will ultimately be overcome. Fanon rejects the idea that Black consciousness and Négritude “is nothing but a weak stage” that must be negated on the path to a more universal emancipation (Fanon 2008, 116). On this point he states:
The dialectic that introduces necessity as a support for my freedom expels me from myself. It shatters my impulsive position. Still regarding consciousness, black consciousness is immanent in itself. I am not a potentiality of something; I am fully what I am. I do not have to look for the universal. . . . My black consciousness does not claim to be a loss. It is. It merges with itself. (114)
There are various ways in which Fanon affirms Black consciousness throughout this text: “In terms of consciousness, black consciousness claims to be an absolute density, full of itself, a state pre-existent to any opening, to any abolition of the self by desire” (113). Thus Black consciousness is not dependent upon any other kind of consciousness in order to achieve a kind of fulfillment. Rather, Black consciousness offers a new relationality to history and to a people, and not a move away from Blackness itself. In addition, it emphasizes the nature and value of racial identity for continued political resistance to oppression but also in virtue of a long and vibrant history of resistance movements. Accordingly, the thickness, or the density, of this identity and history ought not be collapsed into or erased from any other form of resistance movement. The description of the fullness of Black consciousness offered above comprises some of the positive content of affirming Blackness. As noted by Belle, the presumption that class should be prioritized above race ought to invoke the following question: “Why must the black man strip himself of his blackness for the sake of ‘joining’ the class struggle?” (Gines 2003, 61). Furthermore, why ought we believe that “unity within the class struggle is not possible without erasing racial differences” (61)?
Contra Sartre, Fanon argues that the sublation of Black consciousness in order to achieve true rationality or universality reinforces the presumption that Négritude is irrational, or insufficiently rational, and unable to become universalizable. However, he also claims that the denigration of Black consciousness and Négritude fails to adequately understand the Négritude movement and race consciousness. In reference to Césaire in Toward the African Revolution, Fanon states the following: Césaire, “the faithful bard, would repeat that ‘paint the tree trunk white as you will, the roots below remain black.’ Then it became real that not only the color black was invested with value but black fiction, ideal black, black in the absolute, primitive black, the Negro” (1967, 24).11 Fanon’s reference to Césaire invokes a sense that an erasure of Blackness, or a covering over of Blackness with whiteness, will ultimately fail to get rid of Blackness. Rather, for Fanon, Blackness is imbued with value. One ought not be inattentive to the value that is allocated to Blackness and more so, the goal for Fanon and Césaire is to affirm a positive value associated with Blackness and have that positive value be recognized. The erasure of racial differences fails to recognize and imbue Blackness with that value.
Debates in Négritude Studies
There continues to be debate about the Négritude movement in present-day scholarship that in many ways extends from the work of Fanon and Sartre. In what follows I briefly introduce some of the major figures and contentions surrounding this debate. It should also be noted that the manner in which I have portrayed Négritude in this project is not the dominant interpretation of this movement and, therefore, in this section I briefly situate the texts and figures that are most prominent in my work.
Regarding prominent debates internal to Négritude scholarship, there are those who claim that Négritude is necessarily essentialist. As noted by Headley, “Most if not all criticisms of Négritude in one way or another chastise Négritude for an alleged embrace of essentialism” (2019). The argument that Négritude is essentializing presupposes that the conception of race that operates within this movement can be, in a certain sense, totalizing—that is, that one’s way of being in the world (one’s politics, culture, for instance) is wholly determined by one’s race. An extension of this essentialist argument is the claim that Négritude is merely reactive to a dominant oppressive structure and therefore it cannot be useful for a theory of emancipation. For instance, according to Benetta Jules-Rosette in Black Paris (1998):
Antinégritude negates the essentialist theses of négritude. Taking négritude as its point of departure, antinègritude acknowledges racism and oppression as the roots of a universal problem but denounces négritude as its solution. This antidiscourse contrasts with the complementary discourse of revolutionary writing and contradictory discourses of non-négritude. (244)
In this reading, an anti-Négritude position can, on the one hand, maintain the importance of Négritude for the purpose of recognizing that racism does exist and yet, on the other hand, claim that Négritude does not have the tools necessary in order to upend an oppressive nation-state. Négritude is thus presented as reacting to the dominant oppressive structure but not able to get outside of it. Of the scholars that I discuss in this project, several adhere to this anti-Négritude position, including Badiou’s reading of Négritude (developed in chapters 2 through 4), and, of course, my discussion of Sartre above resonates with this interpretation of Négritude as well.
Furthermore, several scholars also locate Fanon’s interpretation of Négritude as essentialist. For instance, in Creolizing Political Theory (2014), Jane Gordon, on the one hand, conceives of Fanon as quite dependent upon Négritude in developing his political theory. For instances, she states, “Fanon emphasizes how much he needed Negritude; that as he groped after a reason that kept eluding him, it hailed him, offering a bath in the irrational” (71–72). On the other hand, Gordon argues that Fanon’s call for Négritude was momentary, that it was necessary only to the extent that “he had to move through it to face his situation” (93). She notes here the dialectical nature or relationality of Négritude to the conditions of oppression that it sought to upend (72). Similarly, drawing on the work of Pramond Nayar in Frantz Fanon (2013), Headley states:
Fanon famously denounced Négritude as engaged in the worship of ancient African history, and as encouraging the folly of worshipping a mystical African past. Fanon considered this obsessive interest in ancient African history as politically, economically, and culturally misdirected in that this concern was not grounded in the various political, economic, and cultural exigencies of the present. . . . It is clear, however, that Fanon’s reading of Négritude depended upon the act of treating Négritude as a static doctrine in search of a mysterious or nonexistent entity. (2019, 95)
This line of reasoning is distinct from my analysis of Fanon through the works of Bernasconi and Belle. For instance, according to Bernasconi, while “Fanon is widely identified as a critic of the negritude movement, . . . this impression is at best the result of an oversimplification of his rich and complex argument” (2002, 79). It should be noted, however, that Gordon maintains, like Belle and Bernasconi, that Fanon is critiquing Sartre’s analysis of Négritude in “Black Orpheus” insofar as Sartre fails to understand the necessity inherent to Négritude, and yet she also argues that Négritude is a kind of “negation that must ultimately be surpassed” (2014, 93).
According to Headley and Bernasconi, however, the argument that Négritude endorses or presupposes an essentialist platform is often given for the purpose of dismissing it as an area of research or analysis. That said, the essentialist critique of Négritude results from a failure to recognize the conceptions of pluralism, dynamism, and universality that operate in the work of Césaire. My concern here is to demonstrate that Négritude should not be dismissed for these reasons. There are thus various scholars that offer critiques of these anti-Négritude arguments and, furthermore, who claim that there is more to Négritude than is being developed in these anti-Négritude arguments.
The vein of Négritude scholarship that I have introduced in this chapter can be understood as emerging from the desire to further develop an analysis of Négritude. In addition, it often adheres to at least one of the following positions: (1) Négritude is anti-essentialist and pluralistic rather than essentialist and totalizing, or (2) Négritude is a creative practice rather than a merely reactive process.
Regarding the anti-essentialist portrayal of Négritude, one can turn to Donna V. Jones’s The Racial Discourses of Life Philosophy: Négritude, Vitalism, and Modernity (2010) in which she argues the following: “That Césaire insists on the plural form of black (negre) suggests already the distance from an essentialist and reductionist idea of blackness” (164). Similarly, one could turn to Souleymane Bachir Diagne’s African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson and the Idea of Negritude (2011) and his description of Senghor, stating: “Everyone must be mixed in their own way” (186). Gregson Davis’s Aimé Césaire (1997) also offers a study of Césaire’s Notebook whereby Black identity is described both as an activity and as plural.
Regarding the portrayal of Négritude as a creative process, Jones states, “While negation and critique imply the determinate negation of given or inherited identities, they proceeded for Césaire only upon a prior affirmation of fundamental African selves . . . fundamental in terms of the retrieval of real, living heritage against a false tradition in which social roles are given as things, and fundamentally true to lived experience beneath concepts and reason” (2010, 170). Jones is emphasizing that one of the goals of Négritude is to recenter blackness, emphasizing the importance of the affirmation of positive difference first and foremost, before negative determination (171).
Jones, Diagne, and Davis represent just some of the present-day Négritude scholars who coincide with my analysis of Négritude that is developed through the works of Belle and Bernasconi above.
The debate between Fanon and Sartre is important for this project for several reasons. First, as noted above, Badiou’s theorization of race closely maps on to Sartre’s view. Namely, I argue that Badiou proposes a theory of emancipation that attempts to sublate particular identities such as race for the purpose of universal emancipation. This correlation is evident in Badiou’s discussion of Négritude. Moreover, I propose that this connection is evident in the first chapter of this book—through a discussion of Badiou’s politics formulated as an “indifference to difference”—and by way of his rejection of race as a political category, a claim that I develop in chapter 4. As a result of his logic of political emancipation and the continual disavowal of categories of difference, for Badiou, race is not a legitimate site for political emancipation.
The conception of race articulated by Wynter that I defend at the close of this book is an extension of the positive conception of race offered in the Belle/Bernasconi interpretation of Fanon. Specifically, in “Ethno and Socio Poetics” (1976), Wynter draws a distinction between race as a negative category that needs to be negated and rejected, on the one hand, and assertions that this method of overcoming negative conceptions of racial categorizations is only possible by way of a positive conception of race that is dynamic and self-constituting, on the other. She demonstrates this theorization of race in conversation with Césaire and through an articulation of the Négritude movement. Furthermore, like Césaire, she argues for a pluralistic theory of emancipation that reflects the view wherein race and class function alongside each other.
A central concern for me at this juncture is the role that the valuation of Blackness plays in these series of debates between Fanon and Sartre, within Négritude scholarship generally, and between Sartre and Badiou. While this chapter has, in one sense, served to set the stage for what will be my more explicit critique of Badiou in the following chapter, there is also a sense in which my critique of Badiou is infused in the sections above. For instance, I have argued that, like Sartre and against Fanon, Badiou locates race consciousness within a dialectic, a position that must be negated. As a result, universal emancipation is dependent upon the overcoming of race consciousness, and furthermore of the category of race itself, because of its inherent tie to white supremacy. I have also argued that for Badiou there is a tension between race and emancipation, wherein the former places a limit upon the latter.
That said, in order to complete this part of my argument, it is imperative that I make evident two particular moves. First, given Marx’s influence on several figures in this book (notably, Badiou, Sartre, Fanon, and Césaire), it is important to locate my argument in relation to not only scholarship on Marx but also scholarship that addresses the relation between race and class. Doing so will allow me to expand upon the juxtaposition that Sartre, and Badiou, mark between these two categories. Second, it is also important to make evident some of the ways that Blackness is valued, and the implications of these valuations. For this reason, in the chapter that follows, I address these kinds of valuations in my discussion of positive and negative conceptions of race, which is situated in relation to critical race theory in the United States. As a result of this extended argument, chapters 2 and 3 can, and should, be read as inherently linked, while also doing the necessary work of situating my argument in a series of already contested debates.