I find it interesting that our two most recent authors, Fanon and Senghor, have had entirely opposite opinions of racial essentialism. To recap, Senghor’s idea of “Negritude” posits an essence for blacks which is intuitive, sensual, and creative. In other words, he argues that blacks have a unique essence, with out which the “civilization of the Universal” would be incomplete. (This is reminiscent of Du Bois’ belief that Blacks have a particular value to add to world history). This essence, according to Senghor, is opposite from the white essence, which is based in reason and objectivity.
Fanon, on the other hand, sees racial essentialism to be the direct cause of the objectification and alienation that he addresses in Black Skin, White Masks. The judgments that are made about a black person because of her race force her to step outside of herself and consider herself as an object in an attempt to discover the reason for these judgments. Of course, it is not surprising that Fanon thinks this way, considering that he is an existentialist. He believes that human existence precedes our essence and that we are, thus, free to create our essence. Hence, racism is such an insult to humanity because it directly restricts the freedom of enormous numbers of people by assigning them an essence that they have no control over.
Both authors believed genuinely that their work was invaluable to the advancement of blacks around the world and to the destruction of racism. It cannot be the case, however, that both Senghor and Fanon are correct; so who do we think is right? Which method is the most conducive to eliminating racism?
In my opinion, racial essentialism, no matter what the intentions are behind it, cannot do anything but perpetuate racism. It gives strength to stereotyping by maintaining that people have innate, racially bound characteristics. For each of the “positive” essences that Senghor ascribes to blacks and whites there is a corollary negative. If we admit the positive then we must admit the negative. Therefore, Fanon’s existentialism seems both more objectively correct than Senghor’s Negritude and far more beneficial to transcending racism.
I do think, however, that Negritude’s focus on black pride is, in reasonable amounts, a great benefit of Senghor’s philosophy. Rather than grounding this pride in “essential” characteristics, though, it would be philosophically responsible to ground it instead in history and culture. In this manner we can preserve the strength of Negritude without perpetuating racial essentialism.