By Biodun Jeyifo
The Negro is the man who must sit at the back of the bus in Alabama
– Frantz Fanon, “Racism and Culture”
Let Negroes negrify themselves… Let them persist to the point of madness in what they are condemned to be. Negroes, if they change towards us, let it not be out of love but hatred!
– Jean Genet, The Blacks
Jean Genet’s dramatic masterpiece, The Blacks, was first staged in 1959, the year of the Rome Congress. In its philosophical themes and theatrical aesthetics, the play could have been part of the two Congresses. Applying the savage motifs of mastery and servitude in Hegel’s Master-Slave Dialectic (as well as the more phenomenological and purposive Sartrean tropes of being and nothingness) to the propulsive drive of the plot of his play, Genet had extended the critique of racial subjugation and racism to a practice, a revolt that would not only change the world but reorder the nature of things. In its mythemes and ideologemes, this is exactly what Negritude claimed and entrenched as the order of discourse at the two Congresses of Paris and Rome. Thus, on the surface, The Blacks seemed to be ideologically in solidary with Negritude. But nobody could have missed the devastating critique of all claims to a racial essence or mystique in its portrayal of all the avatars of Negritude in the play.
Also written or staged around the same period were two masterpieces of mid-20th century world drama that were uncanny in their echoes of Genet’s play. These were Derek Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain and Wole Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests. Like Genet’s play, both were given their stage outings close to or within half a decade of the first performance of The Blacks, Walcott’s play in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago and the Soyinka play in Lagos, Nigeria. As in The Blacks, both plays place the racial nationalists in revolt, the avenging angels of Negritude, at the center of the plot. And also as in Genet’s play, this is done not without some sympathy, if not for the Negritudists, then for their cause. But ultimately, absurdity and inauthenticity pervade nearly all their words and actions, perhaps more savagely than what we encounter in Genet’s play, particularly in Dream on Monkey Mountain which, on this score, has to be adjudged the most relentlessly anti-negritude literary work of the 20th century and one of the greatest anti-racist plays of our cultural posterity.
These three plays were written or staged close to or within a decade of the two Congresses of Paris and Rome and at a moment in the history of modern revolutions when ideologies of racial and territorial nationalism were already under thoroughgoing critique as being, on their own, truly valid expressions or accretions of revolutionary theory and praxis. At the time, Negritude had already begun to attract its bitter and unforgiving critics, but unlike many other cultural, philosophical and political nationalisms, it still had a considerable currency of discursive and ideological capital. For these reasons, its critics and opponents, especially at the two Congresses, generally allowed that Negritude not only possessed intellectual legitimacy and dignity but also considerable institutional and mobilizational effectiveness as a progressive, even revolutionary movement. After all, the publishing organizations, the scholarly books, the works of literature and the conferences of writers and artists, all were produced by or took place under the aegis of institutions proudly bearing the appellation of Negritude where, in the preceding decades of the late 19th and early to mid-20thcenturies, similar organizations and movements bore the imprimatur of Pan Africanism. Thus, who could have dared to treat the likes of Leopold Senghor, Alioune Diop, Aimé Césaire, Birago Diop and Jacques Stephen Alexis, the leading lights and celebrated champions of Negritude at the Congresses, who could have treated them like the social misfits and besotted soul avengers of racial insults and indignities of Genet’s The Blacks or Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain?
This is not as fatuous a question as it seems to be. Plucked from the carceral “lower depths” of French society in an imprisonment that was for life, Genet was not an initiate of the highest levels of the elites of French society and the Francophone world, even though one of these, Jean-Paul Sartre, was responsible for mobilizing the most prestigious intellectuals of France for the intervention that made the French state itself to release Genet from prison. And even after his release, he continued to live his life and expend his tremendous naysaying revolutionary energy among the rejects and outcasts of the social order, in France itself and in other parts of the world – among the Black Panthers in the US for one instance. All the same, the question is not redundant because in the person of Frantz Fanon and his trope of “the wretched of the earth”, what we might term the “Genet factor” was vibrantly present within the politeness, the gravitas of the presentations and discussions at the Congresses of Paris and Rome.
In my presentation at the opening session of “Revolution 13/13” – which happens to be the 65th anniversary of the ceremonial closing of the Paris Congress of 1956 – among other issues, I will place emphases on the following themes that we might ascribe to Fanon’s inscription of the “Genet factor” into the proceedings of the Congresses:
One – As we have seen in the cases of the impact of plays like Walcott’s Dream on Monkey Mountain in Trinidad and Tobago and Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests in Nigeria, the vigorous disputations over the theory and practice of revolutionary nationalism that took place at the Congresses of Paris and Rome also took place at other national and regional locations of the world. I shall be exploring this categorical worldliness of activist thinkers and “worldly” philosophers that marks a crucial point of departure from the venerable traditions of academic, text-bound philosophers.
Two – Both celebrated and denounced as an “apostle of violence”, Fanon openly admitted the influence on his thought of the works of an avatar of violence in French revolutionary theory and practice like Georges Sorel. At the Congresses, his contributions were inflected with a pervasive attentiveness to the place of violence at many levels of the social order. Like the quote from his speech at the Paris Congress that serves as the epigraph for this outline of my presentation on Wednesday, the reader has to strive hermeneutically to extract the extreme interpellative violence in the assertion that “the Negro is the man who must sit at the back of the bus in Alabama”. But in the context of its actual delivery at the Congress, it was absolutely impossible not to discern the explosive, agonistic difference that this made with the presentations of the likes of Senghor, Richard Wright and even Aimé Césaire. On Wednesday, I will make a considerable extension of this trope into many of the essays and books of Fanon, both before and after the two Congresses.
Three – At the Paris and Rome Congresses, celebrated icons of the French and European literary, philosophical and artistic Left were present as solidary, kindred spirits to the Black African, Caribbean and American delegates. At the Bandung Conference, the presence of Westerners, official and non-official, was either as ceremonial invitees or observers. We shall explore the implications of this for our theme of the “worldliness” of activist thinkers and philosophers. What “world” is being imagined if a significant portion of that world is deemed to be mere observers, especially before or after those doing the imagining assume power in the wake of “successful” national emancipatory projects in the developing world?