I understand there are plans to organize the 3rd Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar late next year. Indications are that the current Senegalese President, Abdoulaye Wade, is spearheading the project. Of course this will, as had the two previous iterations of the festival, provide occasion for amazing events reflecting the rich and diverse cultures of Africa and its Diaspora, as well as intellectual debates on the past, present and future of African peoples, societies and states. But, questions abound. Why does President Wade want to organize this event at this time? What political imperatives? What is the basis for the 3rd Festival? And by the way, does the adjective “Negre” or “Negro” still make sense at the beginning of the 21st century?
Without question, Wade is no Senghor. Which is to say that while Senghor was a major poet, intellectual, and philosopher who helped laid the grounds for one of the most influential political/cultural ideas of the 20th century, Wade has no claim to such profile, which means that where it made sense for Senghor to organize the 1966 Festival to advance his Negritudist ideas, one is at a loss as to what would be the compelling intellectual or philosophical basis for the Third Festival. Even the 1977 Festival in Lagos had the raison d’etre (even though this was not in the official documents!) of celebrating Nigeria’s oil wealth, which is why we remember only its stupendous display rather than its promotion of any particular idea of and about Africanness or blackness. Today’s economic outlook, suggests that Wade’s Senegal cannot even afford to organize a Nigeria-style festival. So the hard question then is: which tradition can Wade seriously and meaningfully revisit? Senghor’s or Obasanjo’s? It is impossible to replicate or improve on either.
Already, there are intense rumors about the politics of the Third Festival and the Dakar Biennale. It appears that the Festival has been conceived as an alternative to the Biennale the origin of which predated the Wade presidency. I am hoping though that there is no truth in this rumor, and that the promoters of the Festival do not imagine that it can be a substitute for the Biennale. The reason is simple. There is no way Senegal or any other country can afford, but also it does not make sense, to organize a recurrent Festival. Except if it decides to develop a watered down, modular, version, which in any case would be a tragedy, a travesty of the work of Senghor.
OK, if President Wade is convinced that his government must organize the Third Festival, there is only one way that it can work; actually two ways. First is to dispense with the “Negre” thing and go for something less so passé. Second, is to not pretend that he has the intellectual heft and background to be the rallying force behind any program that intends to connect with the work of Senghor as a cultural theorist and philosopher. Which means that President Wade will need to pull back a bit and, in addition to providing fiscal and structural resources, convene a committee of reputable scholars and public intellectuals from Senegal and other parts of the continent and the Diaspora to rethink the idea and program that would—through a festival of arts and culture—be relevant to ideas, issues and questions facing the continent and its peoples within and outside.