This text was originally a public address delivered by Depestre at the January 1968 Cultural Congress in Havana. It was published in that same year by the Moroccan journal Souffles.
If one is interested in following the winding course of Negritude Haiti is the best country in the world to consider at present because, as Aimé Césaire said, “Negritude rose for the first time” in Haiti and because Negritude is now the ideology sustaining the most hideous tyranny in contemporary history. In light of the collective horrors Haitians have experienced, critical examination of Negritude can have profound meaning for oppressed blacks around the world. We know that every ideology, in its representation of reality and the objectives it pursues, tends to give imaginary value to particular social class’s aspirations. Marx called this process of deforming reality “mystification.” In Haiti, when studying the role of Negritude in our national history, pseudo-sociologists like Francois Duvalier have always scrutinized the concept in isolation instead of analyzing it within the context of the history of class relations. In separating the question of race from the economic development and social history of Haiti, and in giving it an absolute and mythical dimension, they have reduced Haitian history to a series of chaotic ethnic conflicts between mulattos and blacks, who from the time of our independence became the reigning oligarchy of the country. On a broader level this is also what happens when one separates racist dogma from the evolution of colonial societies: the history of colonized peoples becomes a series of conflicts between “Blacks” and “Whites.” In the case of Haiti, the question of race, far from being a determining factor in the development of Haitian society, has only led to mystification, which in the consciousness of two competing aristocracies has served to hide the real stakes and motivations of class struggle.
And yet this question of race is a very important social reality in Haiti. We know that Marx, while denying spiritual dogmas a pivotal place in the historical process of a given society retains them as a social reality, so while they cannot change the general course of history, they can modify its shape, pace, circumstances. In its function as a social reality, racial ideology has influenced the unfolding of our national history and, at certain moments of acute crisis, modified the pace and circumstances of class struggle in our country. Since 1946, Haitian society has been in a general state of crisis, primarily because of the U.S. economic domination, and the color question once again occupies center stage on the political and ideological fronts and again ceils the reality of class struggle. Since 1946 people of the black petite bourgeoisie, like Duvalier, have been allied with landholding blacks and “comprador” mulattos. Together they control political power, use the notion of “negritude” demagogically, and have attempted to make the black masses believe that they hold power and that the “Duvalier revolution” is a resounding victory for Negritude. For the past ten years the atrocious acts associated with the Duvalier regime have completely destroyed the falsified image of this myth in the minds of our people. The horrible Duvalier dictatorship has led Haitians to question the ideas they have long had of themselves. In their eyes Haiti is no longer fixed as that mythical figure imprinted in school on the consciousness of every Haitian: Haiti, first Black Republic in modern history, homeland and myth to black men, cradle and “paradise” of Negritude! As a result of their intense suffering, Haitians have realized that power, whether in the hands of blacks, whites, mulattos, or indigenous groups in a semicolonial system, is always a brutal force that dehumanized people and their social and cultural history. For the past ten years as never before Haitians have seen what blacks and mulattos like them are capable of when they defend tooth and nail the interests of a small, privileged minority and a totalizing imperialism. Haitians now realize that the exaltation of any given race is pointless absurdity that always masks violent attacks on the oneness of humankind. Haitians see blacks and mulattos, tyrants, criminals with no shame, obscurantists, Nazis, tontons-macoutes, because they do not have any particular essence; they are bourgeois through and through. And in the era of the terrorist dictatorship of capital, they may be guilty of crimes as heinous as those committed by Hitler in the concentration camps or those perpetrated today by Yankee Pentagon officials in North and South Vietnam. Of course Duvalier’s tyranny provides a monstrous caricature of Negritude, and so one must not throw out the baby with the bloody bathwater and conclude that this concept was destined to lead to an assault on the human condition. As a doctrine, socialism aims to liberate man, but national-socialism was a means of exterminating man. It all depends upon how a dominant class uses an ideology to hide base and selfish ends. Today black bourgeoisies wield their power through neocolonial intrigues and violence in Africa and the Americans, and they have too hastily seized the concept of Negritude as their ideological weapon. They have done so because they know that at one point in history—in the works of such black writers as Jean Price-Mars, W.E.B. Du Bois, Aimé Césaire, Jacques Roumain, Langston Hughes, Claude MacKay, Nicolás Guillén, J.S. Alexis, Cheikh Anta Diop, Frantz Fanon, etc.—this concept expressed very forcefully the double alienation of oppressed blacks. And so, this concept of Negritude belonged to an isolated moment in the history of decolonization, when the brutalized and humiliated black man offered his affective rebuttal to the white colonizer’s thorough disdain. Just as the white colonizer turned his privileged position in the systems of slavery and colonization into an epidermization of his supposed biological superiority, the black man, in his oppressed, pariah condition—of being alienated in one’s own skin—was led along a completely different path to epidermize his lamentable historical situation. In this way, at its best Negritude was a cultural movement through which black African and American intellectuals seized upon the worth and originality of the Negro-African cultures as well as the aesthetic value of the black race and the ability of its peoples to enter into the history that was forcibly denied to them in the colonial adventure. In its most legitimate expression, for instance in the poetry of Césaire, Negritude inspired the realization that the black proletarian is doubly alienated: in the first instance he is alienated like the white proletarian insofar as he provides a labor force traded on the capitalist market; in the second he is alienated because of his black skin, in his epidermic singularity. Negritude was thus the new consciousness of this double alienation and of the historical imperative to move beyond it through revolutionary praxis.
One must not forget that, as a result of racist dogma, the great majority of Whites believed that the black man’s eternal crime (in addition to being of the proletariat) was his skin color. This despicable ideological mystification is still leveraged against Blacks in the United States, South Africa, Rhodesia, etc. The epidermic singularity of blacks or mulattos, instead of being one of the objectively random phenomena at work in the history of humankind, became and evil essence in the consciousness of all the slavers of the world, the sign of the absolute evil of the black man as a social being, the sign and the stigmata of an unassailable inferiority. Metaphysical and aesthetic meaning were given to the skin color of both blacks and whites. And, as if issued by divine right, it was irrevocably decided that only the black man is colored, whereas the “White: basks in the light. As Sartre has said, “the whiteness of his skin was another look, condensed light,” and it was thus the white man’s historical destiny to enlighten the rest of humankind with the luminescent virtues of his white skin. The desire to objectify the black man as a commodity found its rationale and pretext in the long colonial process of epidermizing the historical situation of black peoples. Negritude, in literature and art as well as in ethnology and history, was in its beginnings a legitimate form of revolt against the detestable manifestations of racial ideology in the world. By force, fire, and blood, colonization opened up the floodgates of universal history to the bloody white-black binary in order to hide and justify capitalist exploitation. Negritude postulated the need to move beyond this binary, not through a new mystification, but rather through collective revolutionary praxis. Unfortunately more often than not Negritude is used as a myth that obfuscates the existence of the black bourgeoisie, who, in Haiti as in numerous African countries, formed a dominant class. And just like any class that oppresses another, the black bourgeoisie relies on ideological mystification to hide in the real nature of social relations. Today, for both black and white mystifies, Negritude implies the absurd idea that the black man is endowed with a particular “human nature,” equipped with an essence that belongs to him alone. And so he is called upon, according to writers like Janheinz Jahn, to give to Europe and the West in general “more soul”—of which the West is apparently in great need. For the Senegalese president, the poet Leopold Sedar Senghor, “emotion is black like reason is Greek.” In this way all class contradictions are abstracted, and the black bourgeoisies from Africa and the Americans can, in all confidence and with the good blessings of neocolonialism, freely take advantage of black workers in the name of shared spirituality. That is what we find in the writings of the Belgian essayist Lilyan Kesteloot, who wanted to show “Negritude as being-in-itself”—the permanent and eternal state of a singular essence. Like other European “specialists” working on Negritude, Lilyan Kesteloot locks the Negro man in blackness and the white man in whiteness. She writes, “Understood in this sense, ‘black soul’ belongs to all time and has not been ‘surpassed,’ as maintained by Sartre and others whom he influenced. No more than Slavic soul, Arab soul, or French esprit have been surpassed.” According to this elementary and impudent logic, “Negritude,” far from articulating a revolution leading to dis-alienation and the total decolonization of Africa and the two black Americas, cannot hide the fact that it serves as one of the pillars supporting tricks, traps, and hypocritical neocolonialist actions. Abstracted from the historical context of the revolution in the Third World, and separated arbitrarily from the immediate needs of the global tricontinental struggle of underdeveloped people against imperialism and neocolonialism, Negritude has given rise to an unacceptable “black Zionism.” It has become a way of leading black peoples away from their duty to make revolution.
BLACK ORPHEUS IN THE REVOLUTION
Twenty years ago, when the concept of Negritude was defined by the great Martinican poet Aimé Césaire in his unforgettable Cahier d’un retour au pays natal [Notebook of a Return to the Native Land] and Jean Paul Sartre in his famous essay “Orphee noir [“Black Orpheus”], whenever one turned one’s gaze, one could see this Black Orpheus taking the wind out of the white bourgeoisie’s sails. At that time in Africa “Black Orpheus” was not President of the Republic and did not drive around in a luxury Mercedes-Benz; he did not buy shares in the mines of the Upper Katanga; he did not align himself, over the dead body of Patrice Lumumba, with the most adventuresome speculators in international finance in order to obtain profitable shares. In the past twenty years the waters of the Congo have passes under many bridges, and it is not merely with Aimé Césaire’s poetic lyricism that Negritude has flowed into the sea. Cesaire’s Negritude was expectant patience. It was the necessary irruption of the rebellious consciousness of the oppressed Negro. It was an opening onto the specific requirements for a national liberation movement. Twenty years ago Sartre asked the following question: “What will happen then if he allows himself to be defined by only his objective condition?” Our response to Jean-Paul Sartre: look at Cuba and you will find the answer. Notice how Negritude has integrated the socialist revolution, and how it transcneds itself through historical process of dis-alienation through which whites, blacks, and mulattos are less and less opposed with every passing day and through which the dramatic outcome of their destinies resolve itself in the same obvious human truth: revolution. Not Negritude but rather this very real process of decolonization is alone capable of mobilizing all the energies of underdeveloped people on the three continents. Black Orpheus cannot find his lost Eurydice except through revolution, and in the revolution, which alone can, with the creative force of the people, annihilate all the hells humanity has constructed for itself. The new Black Orpheus will be revolutionary or it will not be.
René Depestre, “The Winding Course of Negritude,” translated from French by Laura Reeck, in Olivia c. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio, Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016). The original French can be read here.