In a recent photo by Amazighi Moroccan poet and photographer Omar Chennafi, a little boy stares down a German shepherd in the rain-slick streets of Fez. The boy and the dog are dancing playfully, daring one another to strike. Neither figure has his tongue out but there is a taunting between them, in the boy’s taught bitten lip and in the puppy threat of the dog’s burgeoning young teeth. It calls to mind many press images from the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s-1960s, images of hounds and bulldogs being set loose on protesters, of the massive cannon’s arc of water being shot from firehoses. In Chennafi’s picture the man-child and beast are at play. But these are war games, and their practice prepares each for battle. In the dog’s case it is the battle for food and shelter in a society that despises its bread, condemns its filth, so that dog is one of the dirtiest words one Moroccan can sling at another. In the boy’s case, the battle is less definite, but it has one certain outcome: oblivion, shame. He will run through the streets like a little prince until puberty. He will watch the flow and flux of the foreign conqueror through the avenues and alleyways, stand alert to this procession for his whole life: first, in awe, then fascination, then envy, then greed, and eventually, inevitably, with hatred and rage for all that has been stolen from his mighty ancient kingdom at the foreigner’s hands.
In Orphée Noir, his introduction to Leopold Senghor’s edited anthology of young black French poets, Anthologie de la nouvelle poesie nègre et malgash de langue francaise, Jean Paul Sartre makes the radical, courageous move of introducing a collection of black writers to a mainstream French audience, as only he has the eloquence, power, and respect to do. The name of his childhood memoir Le Mots, begins to show us the arc of Sartre’s love affair with the word, and he is so enthralled and enraptured by these young poets of the Carribbean and Africa that he begins speaking to us in their language, providing passages that can be taken, depending on the personal perspective and agenda of the readers, as parts mockery, parts mimicry, parts imitation, parts flattery. His introduction offers not only excerpts’ of the poets’ work, but he tries his own hand at their style.
The poetry of Negritude—a term coined by Cesaire—in ways that will seem corny or trite or saccharine to a 21th century audience, to people who have heard the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar,” the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” or James Brown’s “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” But Sarte’s intended audience could not have had these references. For the white buyers in whose hope the publisher Gallimard lay, there were no words for the black man or his experience. Just one, really, simple, definitional: negre, black. The Frenchman did not, any more than the white American did or does, have any regard whatsoever for the handful of black people who served him daily. He saw their faces as non-faces. They did not appear in the films he saw or the novels he read. He had no cause to consider them as much other than people who did not belong in his home, or who did not have the right to live there as citizens—people who had come from faraway places that his country owned and whose bodies were expendable, exploitable, rich, warm, dirty. This was not quite how the black men saw themselves; they saw themselves first and foremost as people and were continually frustrated by the violent schemes of state and society to enforce their exclusion from the human identity; secondly they saw themselves as one another. They were not as a general rule positioned well enough socio-economically to enjoy regular trips to the cinema, and they may not have been prevented to enter even with crisp franc notes in their hands, so they did not pay so much attention to the lack of images that showed themselves in the media, unless they had achieved the educational level that would have allowed themselves to be frustrated with colonial depictions of Africans abroad and in Europe; secondly they saw themselves in one another, and the systemic economic and social segregation of the day meant that they returned home to communities full of people like them.
The question I pose is this: do Sarte and Senghor mean the same things by their words? Senghor’s “Black Woman” is glorification of black female flesh, likening it to beautiful landscape, valleys and peaks, heaven and paradise, starry night:
Clothed with your colour which is life,
with your form which is beauty!
In your shadow I have grown up; the
gentleness of your hands was laid over my eyes.
And now, high up on the sun-baked
pass, at the heart of summer, at the heart of noon,
I come upon you, my Promised Land,
And your beauty strikes me to the heart
like the flash of an eagle.
Naked woman, dark woman
Firm-fleshed ripe fruit, sombre raptures
of black wine, mouth making lyrical my mouth
Savannah stretching to clear horizons,
savannah shuddering beneath the East Wind’s
Carved tom-tom, taut tom-tom, muttering
under the Conqueror’s fingers
Your solemn contralto voice is the
spiritual song of the Beloved.
Naked woman, dark woman
Oil that no breath ruffles, calm oil on the
athlete’s flanks, on the flanks of the Princes of Mali
Gazelle limbed in Paradise, pearls are stars on the
night of your skin
Delights of the mind, the glinting of red
gold against your watered skin
Under the shadow of your hair, my care
is lightened by the neighbouring suns of your eyes.
Naked woman, black woman,
I sing your beauty that passes, the form
that I fix in the Eternal,
Before jealous fate turn you to ashes to
feed the roots of life.
Sartre, in admiration, writes such sentences as:
For three thousand years the white man has enjoyed the privilege of seeing without being seen; he was only a look—the light from his eyes drew each thing out of the shadow of its birth; the whiteness of his skin was another look, condensed light. The white man—white because he was man, white like daylight, white like truth, white like virtue—lighted up the creation like a torch and unveiled the secret white essence of beings. Today, these black men are looking at us, and our gaze comes back to our own eyes; in their turn, black torches light up the world and our white heads are no more than chinese lanterns swinging in the wind. A black poet–unconcerned with us—whispers to the woman he loves:
Naked woman, black woman:
Dressed in your color which is life…
The answer is that they do and do not. Both glorify the raw sexual potency of the black female form, likening it to natural objects, to paradise, to the sun, moon, and stars, to fruits and flowers. The qualifier between such forms of objectification as the act is committed by both a white man and a black one becomes the distinction between the values of what is black and what is white. What is the value of a white carnation versus a black one? Both are flowers, both emit the same scent, their visual phenomena are conditioned by the ability of the petal to absorb, reflect, and radiate light. So it is the question of light’s identity that is at issue here. Is it present when it is not seen? Do its shadows, or its echoes as heat, indicate its presence or its absence. This question of the originary duality between White and Black, between Africa and Europe, between Master and Slave, is one that has occupied philosophers of the Western canon throughout the ages. Hegel took it up in the dialectics he articulated in his Phenomenology of the Spirit; Derrida devoted his entire opus to deconstructing this binary, and the feeling of marginalizing he could never escape in his life or in his work as an Algerian Jew, a white African, an exile in France, a foreigner without a native tongue. It is one that preoccupies the geo-politics of our era, and has dominated the global schema for as far back as we can remember.
Shall we mourn this everlasting conundrum? Or shall we celebrate its ambiguities and complexities, teasing them to ultimate simplification, to the perplexity of the question, the paradox: gift of Foucault to Derrida, the unresolved question, the mystery—the trace, as Derrida terms it; Plato’s aporia, in which all the unresolvable contradictions between what is and what is not, what is known and what cannot be know, end in one final question, the originary question: why?
—Chantal Lisette Rouson James Alami Chentoufi, January 2014. Washington, D.C.