Friday, March 4, 2011

Senghor vs. Fanon

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.


  1. Colin,

    I think that neither Senghor's nor Fanon's argument is conducive to eliminating racism. I agree with you about the fact that essentialism itself fosters a sense of racism. I also believe that there is no way to preserve the strength of Negritude without perpetuating racial essentialism. I think that in an effort for a racial community to bind themselves together, it will always be the case that they find and play on their strengths because they will want some definitive aspect to separate them from the rest of society.

  2. Colin,

    As usual you have hit upon some pretty great points. I couldn't agree more when you say that essentialism must admit a negative if it is to admit a positive. Even if it could somehow stick to only admitting positives, those positives would lead to equally misrepresented stereotypes among all races (no matter how positive they were).

    Black pride is something I'm not sure I can address as well as essentialism, but I certainly agree it would do Senghor better if he were to focus on history and culture rather than essentialism.

  3. Colin,
    Yes it is impossible to both assert racial essentialism and hope for the end of racism. Senghor hoped to promote pride as a group, but this hope depended on a belief in ingrained qualities which would force us to in turn to accept both the good and the bad opinions about the group based on such “essential qualities”. Such an argument can in no way hope to cause the end of racism, and only serves to perpetuate it.

  4. I agree with all of you. Specifically, I think that no matter what, calling attention to a racial identity, whether it be founded on supposed innate racial qualities or a presumed common heritage, even if only in the most positive sense and used strictly for solidarity, will only further promote racial distinction. At least in this sense, minorities have an option. For if racial identity to ever be disregarded, it is the minorities who must conform.


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