In “Excuse My French,” the NYTimes charts the contemporary trajectory of the French language–which now has more than twice as many speakers outside the country as within, many of whom have an ambivalent relationship to the metropolitan. As one Algerian writer put it, he uses French “to tell the French that I am not French.”
And in more local news, in today’s Chronicle you can find a profile I wrote of visiting Haitian scholar Jean Casimir, who is teaching a course this semester with Professor Dubois.
This week’s readings described several statues commemorating the participation of West African soldiers in World War I. Yet another of these memorials stands in downtown Dakar, Senegal, the formal capital of French West Africa. Here are a couple of photos I took of it while studying abroad in Senegal last semester.
The statue is also accompanied these days by a rather jarring poster portraying the Tirailleurs and Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade. Here’s a photo of that:
(if you have trouble reading the text, you can click the photo to enlarge it)
In our explorations of the works of Fanon and Césaire, we have focused primarily on the way these thinkers influenced anti-colonial movements in the francophone world. But these thinkers had a deep influence on thinkers and social justice movements across the rest of the globe as well. Fanon for instance was often cited by the leaders of the American Black Power movement for his ideas on nationalism, and his notions about gaining autonomy through violent struggle became deeply influential to the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.
And then there was South Africa. While colonial empires crumbled in the 1960s, South Africa remained firmly in the hands of its white minority government, which ruled through a vicious system of racial exclusion called “apartheid,” an Afrikaans term for separation. From its inception in 1948, apartheid gave rise to forceful dissent among the 90% of the South African population that the system excluded from political participation.
As South African anti-apartheid activists developed their arguments against the repressive system, they drew upon a global reservoir of work on oppression and colonialism. As a 20 year old in exile in England in the mid 1960s, Thabo Mbeki, who would one day become president of South Africa, “imbib[ed] the Africanist canon” including Aimé Césaire, Marcus Garvery, Malcolm X, and Frantz Fanon, according to his biographer Mark Gevisser. For his girlfriend’s birthday in 1965, Mbeki (apparently not much of a romantic) gave her a volume of African poetry that he inscribed, “The African poet Senghor is undoubtedly the leading negritude poet in Africa. The godfather of them all is Aimé Césaire, the giant.” For Mbeki and other anti-apartheid activists in exile, thinkers like Césaire and Fanon became a lifeline, a connection to an international struggle against racism and injustice.
Meanwhile, back in South Africa the militant black consciousness movement also felt the influence of thinkers like Fanon and Césaire. Steve Biko, the sharply intelligent, charming figurehead of the movement, wrote extensively about “the struggle,” all the time echoing the ideas of his two Martiniquan forefathers. In 1970, for instance, he published an article entitled “Black Souls in White Skins,” a scathing denouncement of the inferiority complex forced upon black South Africans by the apartheid system. And echoing Césaire he wrote, “’black consciousness’ has to be directed to the past, to seek to rewrite the history of the black man and to produce in it the heroes who form the core of the African background.”
It is clear then that the works of francophone anti-colonial writers helped shape the course of a global black politics, and in South Africa helped to sustain a decades-long movement for basic human rights. If anyone else knows of other movements influenced by Fanon and/or Césaire, I would definitely be interested to hear about them. Feel free to post in the comments.
At the bottom of the well of my memory, I touch your face
And draw water to quench my long regret.
You recline royally, elbow on a cushion of clear hillside.
Your bed presses the earth, softening the drums in the wetlands,
Beating your song, and your verse
Is the breath of night and the distant sea.
-Leopold Senghor (“Letter to a Poet: To Aimé Césaire”) **Translated by Melvin Dixon
In the interview with Aimé Césaire that we watched for Thursday’s class, the poet describes the first friend he made when he moved to France as a young man, a “short but well built” fellow with “thick glasses and a gray jacket.” It was Leopold Senghor, a Senegalese man who would soon rack up a dizzying and improbable list of achievements, becoming a world-renowned poet, the first president of Senegal, and the first black member of the Académie Française—a kind of George Washington meets Robert Frost meets W.E.B. Dubois in coastal West Africa.
But that pivotal day in 1931 he, like Césaire, was simply a talented student had come to Paris by way of a French colony to be educated. As young black men in Paris in the 1930s, straddling the strange cultural line between their homelands and metropolitan France, Césaire and Senghor became fast friends. Both were founding writers for L’Etudiant Noir, a newspaper that brought together the writing of students from across the African Diaspora. From amidst this dialogue on the black experience emerged a new idea, that of negritude. At its core, negritude represented a celebration of a transnational black identity in opposition to the racism of French colonialism, and it quickly colored the writing of both Césaire and Senghor.
But like Césaire, Senghor developed aspirations beyond the bounds of poetry. In the aftershock of World War II—a war in which he had fought for the French—Senghor was part of the call for increased autonomy reverberating across the French colonial world and soon became one of Senegal’s first black representatives to the French National Assembly.
This positioned him to become one of the leading political figures in Senegal, and when French West Africa became independent in 1960, he ascended to the role of president (although for his entire life he would remain steadfast in his belief that Senegal and France should remain closely tied). Senghor cut an unlikely figure for a Senegalese head of state. He was a Catholic in a 95% Muslim nation, a member of a minority ethnic group, and a man who had spent much of his adult life in France. But he was also a skilled negotiator and a shrewd political thinker, and he would go on to serve for 20 years before becoming one of the first African politicians to voluntarily cede power to a democratically elected opponent (even if in Senghor’s case it was a hand-chosen successor from within his own political party…but that’s another story).
Anyway, in the context of our study of Césaire, I thought others in the class might like to hear a little about another of the negritude poets to see how Senghor’s life path intersected with—as well as diverged from—his. And Senghor just cuts a fascinating figure in his own right.
Plus, you have to admit, this is a pretty spectacular hat: