Leopold Senghor (1965) has defined Negritude as “the awareness, defence and development of African cultural values…the sum total of the values of the civilization of the African world.” For Senghor this is not a racial phenomenon, but a cultural one, based primarily on cooperation. He distinguished this cooperation from the collectivist idea we typically associate with Asian cultures by focusing more on a communal perspective. In other words, collectivist cultures may be seen as an aggregate of individuals, but in the truly communal society, whether in the family, the village, or the tribe, there is a connection from the center of each person in their heart (see also Grills, 2002; Senghor, 1971). This is what Senghor believes has always been held in honor in Africa, and it ultimately encourages dialogue with others in Africa (the White Africans, the Arab-Berbers in North Africa) and beyond, so that we can assure peace and build the “Civilization of the Universal.”
Negritude, then, is a part of Africanity. It is made of human warmth. It is democracy quickened by the sense of communion and brotherhood between men. More deeply, in works of art, which are a people’s most authentic expression of itself, it is sense of image and rhythm, sense of symbol and beauty. (pg. 97; Senghor, 1965)
Abiola Irele has discussed the history of Negritude as a literary and ideological movement among Black, French-speaking intellectuals in Africa. It was initially a reaction to, and in opposition to, the colonial oppression of the African people. As such, it has been criticized by some as its own form of racism (see, e.g., Irele, 1981, 2001; Tembo, 1980), or as something unique to intellectuals, as opposed to more common people in Africa. However, as noted above, Negritude is about culture, not race per se. In addition, a small but nonetheless interesting study by Tembo (1980) provided evidence that scores on an African Personality Scale did not differ based on sex, marital status, having been educated in rural or urban schools, or whether they wished to pursue higher education in Africa or England. Irele compared Senghor’s view of Negritude to that of the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre viewed Negritude as a stage in the development of Black consciousness, a stage that would be transcended by the ultimate realization of a human society without racism. In contrast, according to Irele, Senghor’s Negritude is an inner state of Black people. It is a distinctive mode of being, which can be seen in their way of life, and which constitutes their very identity (Irele, 1981). Irele finds value in the concept of Negritude “insofar as it reflects a profound engagement of African minds upon the fundamental question of the African being in history…”
At a time when Africans are trying to experiment with new ideas and institutions, adapt them to their needs in the light of their traditional value systems, there is the need for a sustained belief in oneself, and this belief can be generated and kept alive by an ideology. This has been, and still is, the function of Negritude. (pg. 86; Ghanaian scholar P. A. V. Ansah, cited in Irele, 1981)
Although the concept of Negritude is not without its critics, if one accepts its premise there are important implications for people of the Black diaspora (Irele, 2001). Nigrescence has been described as the process of converting from Negro to Black, i.e., rejecting the deracination imposed by Whites and embracing traditional African values and a Black identity (Parham, 2002; Parham et al., 1999; Tembo, 1980). This process of searching for one’s identity can be very powerful, leading perhaps to a positive self-identity or, at least, serving as a buffer against racism and oppression (Parham & Parham, 2002). For additional information on the importance of identify formation and the development of negative identity, I refer you back to the discussion of negative personality development among Black Americans in the chapter on Erik Erikson. But what triggers this critical search for one’s identity?
For people of African descent in places such as the United States, the process of nigrescence seems to follow four stages: pre-encounter, encounter, immersion-emersion, and internalization (Parham, 2002; Parham et al., 1999). In the pre-encounter stage, the indivdiual views the world from a White frame of reference. They think, act, and behave in ways that devalue and/or deny their Black heritage. Then, however, they encounter personal and/or social events that do not fit with their view of society. Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) described in vivid and shocking detail how he was refused service at a restaurant because he was Black, after he had won the Olympic gold medal in boxing and been given the key to the city by the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky (Ali & Ali, 2004)! The individual then becomes immersed in Black culture. This can be a psychologically tumultuous time. For some, everything of value must reflect some aspect of Black and/or African heritage. They withdraw from contact with other racial/ethnic groups, and strong anti-White attitudes and feelings can emerge. Eventually, however, the individual internalizes their Black identity and becomes more secure. The tension, emotionality, and defensiveness of the previous stage is replaced with a calm and secure demeanor. The individual becomes more open minded, more ideologically flexible, and although Black values move to and remain at the forefront, there is a general trend toward being more pluralistic and nonracist, and anti-White attitudes and feelings decline (Parham et al., 1999; see also Mbalia, 1995).