The Imaginary, Freedom, and Bad Faith in Sartre’s Black Orpheus


When Jean-Paul Sartre wrote Black Orpheus[1] in 1948, continental intellectuals had already become acquainted with his work in Being and Nothingness (1943)[2] and to a lesser extent in The Imaginary (1940).[3] Sartre argues in Black Orpheus that Négritude poetry is a revolutionary act that asserts the objective subjectivity of the colonized and enslaved African peoples through various literary techniques that dialectically oppose, transpose, and synthesize the Manichean dichotomies of whiteness that are subsumed within the white colonizers’ language. With the publication of Black Orpheus in French and English speaking anthologies devoted to the poetry of the Négritude movement, Sartre entered into a political discussion that today can broadly be recognized within Critical Whiteness Studies. In this paper I explore how phenomenological and existentialist concepts in The Imaginary and Being and Nothingness inform Sartre’s perspective in Black Orpheus.

I must make several admissions. I admit that a limitation of this present paper is a lack of depth into the works of prominent Négritude intellectuals, such as Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor. A study of how Sartre’s concepts in Black Orpheus developed due to and in response to the work of Négritude intellectuals would be a significant and important study. Moreover, it would be an equally important and significant study to question Sartre’s reading of these intellectuals and whether and to what extent Eurocentric whiteness is lingering within Sartre’s concepts. In fact, much of Black Orpheus could be criticized for speaking inappropriately and inaccurately for Négritude intellectuals.[4]

However, both of these issues would focus on different questions than what is presently being considered. The present issue considered is Sartre’s application of his earlier concepts to a concrete social and political movement in which people have been oppressed and exploited due to in part being assigned an inferior ontological status. Contemporary Négritude scholars acknowledge that the main point and value of Black Orpheus is in drawing attention to Négritude arguments that deconstruct “through radical critique and counter-construction” the image of “the African invented by Europeans.”[5] In this vein, I wish to focus on Sartre’s challenges to Eurocentric whiteness which also requires understanding how Sartre applies his earlier concepts to his analysis of Négritude. The relevance of this present study is in how Sartre’s concepts may be applied to or critiqued by Critical Whiteness Studies.

Sartre begins Black Orpheus by addressing Eurocentric white people directly. Sartre states:

When you removed the gag that was keeping these black mouths shut, what were you hoping for? That they would sing your praises? Did you think that when they raised themselves up again, you would read adoration in the eyes of these heads that our fathers had forced to bend down to the very ground? Here are black men standing, looking at us, and I hope that you – like me – will feel the shock of being seen. 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 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 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.[6]

This passage is worthy of being quoted in its entirety because of just how philosophically infused it is with Sartrean concepts. I will proceed by looking more closely at this passage as it regards other portions of the essay while simultaneously drawing out Sartrean concepts of the image, bad faith, “the look,” being, negation, responsibility, and freedom. I will do so by beginning my examination with how Sartre conceives of these concepts as relating to the Négritude poet’s construction of the individualist image of African blackness, followed by the poet’s deconstruction of the individualist image of European whiteness, and concluding with the poet’s reconstruction the relational image of African blackness and European whiteness.

Construction of the Image of African Blackness: The Imaginary and Freedom

Throughout Black Orpheus, Sartre speaks of the Négritude poet’s use of the image in order to liberate black imagination.[7] This liberation is correlated to the oppression of the black imagination by the white imagination. Subsumed in this correlation we find individualist and relational images. There are images in which the individual conceives of themselves as they are in themselves. There are also images in which the individual conceives of themselves as they are in relation to “the other.” In this passage, we are given the image of African blackness in relation to European whiteness, and vice versa. We are also given the image of how whiteness conceives of itself and how blackness conceives of itself. In this image, whiteness conceives of itself as an objective truth, the immutable and normative essence of beings, worthy of adoration. Blackness conceives of liberating itself through a process of imagining itself apart from the judgments of the white imagination.

The image of blackness or whiteness is consciousness in action.[8] It is an intentional and synthetic act that aims toward an object that is absent through an analogous representative, i.e. an analogon.[9] Consciousness directs itself toward an object, in this case blackness or whiteness, absent in its concrete physical or psychic form in order to make the object present in imagination.[10] The image, as quasi-observation, does not provide any new knowledge regarding blackness or whiteness.[11] It is instead constituted by our embodied experiences of the world, what we know of the world, and what we creatively put into the image.[12] Thus, the image is presented as a spontaneous creation, a lack, and as “nothingness.”[13] Both the poet and the white person in this sense are directing themselves toward the object of African blackness or European whiteness in order to make each the absence-made-present.

The content, or the source of the poet and white person’s image, is the analogon which in turn is comprised of kinaesthetic and affective elements.[14] Words in general can serve as signs that can direct consciousness toward a concrete form.[15] In reading, “the reader is in the presence of the world.[16] Words as signs, however, are different from the images that the poet aims at. The poet’s words do not seek to be signs that emptily refer to objects in the world, but instead the poet’s images are filled with the “presence” of the object aimed at.[17] The poet’s images are filled with blackness and whiteness as experienced in the world.

Thus, literature becomes the poet’s instrument of constructing their image of blackness, because it is only in literature that the “the sphere of objective signification becomes an irreal world.”[18] Only literature can serve as an analogon for the image of blackness and whiteness.[19] The poet uses literature as an analogon for the individualistic and relational images of blackness and whiteness. Blackness and whiteness concretized in embodied, temporal and geographical experiences become the psychic objects that the poet aims for.[20] The image of whiteness is relationally comprised of the lived embodied experiences of the poet through the poet’s knowledge of their own blackness; through embodied experiences with whiteness, “blackness has passed from the immediacy of existence to the meditative state.” [21] In the irreal world, the poet aims at their own blackness which subsequently nihilates and posits the irreal world of whiteness at the same time.

The poet’s imagination creates an irreal world, with an imaginary Africa from which they are descended and at the same time nihilates and posits an imaginary Europe in which they have been entrapped, with each populated by the objects of blackness and whiteness within their thought.[22] The poet’s images of Africa and Europe are a synthesis of physical and psychic aspects, with kinaesthetic and affective aspects.[23] In this irreal world, the poet’s retention (remembrance) and protention (anticipation) constitute a movement of judgment-making in irreal space and time; where objects are located in an indeterminate space, time is fragmented, and both space and time become “absolute qualities” of the objects.[24] The image of blackness becomes imbued with movements and feelings of the imaginary Africa in an irreal space and time; where Sartre sees the poet’s African blackness imagined as a palpitating “silky wing” pressed against the body, “spread throughout him like his searching memory,” like a “betrayed childhood,” like “the swarming of insects and the indivisible simplicity of Nature, like the pure legacy of his ancestors.”[25]

The poet’s feelings are an intentional act which “aims at an object but it aims in its own manner, which is affective.”[26] The poet’s desire is particularly imaginary. Their desire seeks to obtain in the perceptual world what is affectively sought after in the irreal world.[27] The poet’s desire is to reveal their African subjectivity as an objective value freed from the whiteness that entraps their thought in the colonizers’ land and language.[28] The poet’s image of blackness and whiteness, in unreflective consciousness, is “constituted by a certain way of judging and feeling of which we do not become conscious as such but which we apprehend on the intentional object as this or that of its qualities,” which is to say “the function of the image is symbolic.”[29]

The image of blackness and whiteness is a symbol for what the imaginer puts into the image. “Imaged comprehension” teaches us nothing about the object itself but it can teach us about what consciousness and one’s thoughts must be so that one imagines and imagines the object as one does.[30] The image is a “presentifier” in that it is “the object of our thought giving itself to consciousness”; it is a “sens” or a “self-referring” “presence” that “‘incarnates’ a totality” of the object “but not in all its parts.”[31] The image of African blackness or European whiteness refers to a totality of affective and kinaesthetic qualities that give the objects a symbolic sense. Whiteness is imagined as Europe, as “cold,” full of “gray crowds,” “the land of exile, colorless” and blackness is imagined as “dazzling Africa,” “of fire and rain”; both make the images of blackness and whiteness fully present through symbolizing a totality of (and thus going beyond the separate) physical and psychic aspects to which the images refer.[32]  The image of blackness and whiteness “makes present a reality which eludes our conceptual and our perceptual awareness.”[33] The poet’s act is a “magical” “incantation destined to make the object of one’s thought, the thing one desires, appear in such a way that one can take possession of it.”[34] It is exactly in this magical sense that Sartre sees the poet as imagining African blackness.

In taking possession of their blackness in an irreal world, the poet is expressing their freedom. Imagining is an unreflective act (in that in imagining one does not reflect upon what one is doing) that takes place within a situation; from a “particular viewpoint from which constitutes the world at the unreflective level.”[35] Understanding the poet’s motivation for taking on the imaginative act reveals aspects of the situation; “the imagining act emerges from and is revelatory of a situation.”[36] The imagining act reveals what consciousness must be in order to imagine; namely, “nihilating, intentional, nonsubstantial, situational, creative, and free.”[37] Unreflective consciousness, in recognizing itself as non-identical with the world, things in the world, and its own past, as well as by intending itself creatively toward an irreal object, expresses its “transcendental freedom”; it moves beyond the world and is the site of human freedom, a possibility beyond one’s human situation.[38]

Deconstruction of the Image of European Whiteness: The Imaginary and Bad Faith

The poet finds themselves in a situation in which they are entrapped in European whiteness. Through a creative synthesis that uses the colonizers’ language to silence the language while simultaneously reducing dichotomous hierarchies into an uneasy mélange, the poet constructs the image of blackness, which subsequently deconstructs the image of whiteness.[39] Sartre argues that it is because the Négritude poet imaginatively constructs the individualistic image of blackness, that they reconstruct the relational images of both blackness and whiteness, while at the same time they deconstruct the individualistic image of whiteness. The image, in this sense, is an act of freedom that transcends the poet’s situation as well as a proclamation of the white person’s responsibility in their bad faith.

While the poet’s act is an imaginative act of revolutionary freedom, the white person’s act is an imaginative act of bad faith. The act of imagination is central for either the move toward freedom or toward bad faith.[40] The imaginary attitude makes possible “the use of various strategies to deceive oneself into believing whatever it is that one wants to believe.”[41] Whiteness as the image of objective truth, worthy of adoration, and the immutable and normative essence of being is an imaginative technique that allows white people “to hide aspects of ourselves from ourselves and each other.”[42] The white person in bad faith is “hiding a displeasing truth or presenting as truth a pleasing truth.”[43] The white person, in order to hide a displeasing truth or present as truth a pleasing truth to themselves, must in their unreflective consciousness know that of which they are hiding or misrepresenting, that is to say “consciousness is fully self-transparent.”[44]

Sartre’s critique of whiteness addresses itself to the white person who fails to go beyond the cultural values associated with their facticity because they are unreflectively locked into their situation; they occupy the image of whiteness from within an unreflective consciousness. Caught unreflectively within the transcendent image of whiteness, within a transcendence that affirms itself as their facticity, they imaginatively misrepresent to themselves truth.[45] It is an image of a whiteness that is not colonizing and oppressing, but instead is something to be adored. It is an image of whiteness as the objective norm from which all values are given. It is the image of whiteness as the immutable and normative essence of all being.

The white person fails to see the negation of being and the contingency of their situation. They fail to see that they are “a being which is what it is not and which is not what it is.”[46] They fail to see that consciousness must be “contingent in order that there may be a consciousness rather than an infinity of pure and simple in-itself.”[47] They fail to see themselves as a for-itself; as a being whose existence entails a double negation that disallows them an immutable essence to which normative values are automatically affixed. The nothingness of being at the core of existence for the for-itself is what makes values and freedom possible. They fail to see that “nothing makes values exist – unless it is that freedom which by the same stroke makes me myself exist.”[48] Moreover, “Just as there can be lack in the world only if it comes to the world through a being which is its own lack, so there can be possibility in the world only if it comes through a being which is for itself in its own possibility”[49] Only a being who lacks an immutable and normative essence can have possibility and freedom.[50] As Thomas Flynn explains, “This nonidentity of consciousness with itself is the ontological root of Sartrean freedom just as self-transparency is the source of Sartrean responsibility: each one ‘knows’ what he is doing.”[51] The Eurocentric white people Sartre is addressing fail to see the possibility, freedom, and responsibility in their contingency.[52]

The Eurocentric white person does not seek to create themselves, but instead flees from their freedom to an image of whiteness in which they have been created as an immutable essence, an essence which is the foundation of all earthly normative values. In such a refusal they fail to see that “it is necessary that we make ourselves what we are,” and that this self-creation is a “constant obligation.”[53] Humanity does not exist merely as a thing, as an in-itself with a set essence. We exist as a nothingness, as a “lack of being.”[54] Our existence is one of constant choice in how we are to continuously create ourselves. We cannot choose to not choose to create ourselves. The choice to remain unreflectively locked into an image of whiteness is a choice of how to create oneself. Thus, the image of whiteness these Eurocentric white people choose is a creative act by which they define themselves in bad faith. In that they seek to make themselves an immutable and normative essence through their image of whiteness, they seek to be an in-itself-for-itself; their fundamental project is a desire to be God.[55]

Reconstruction of the Images of African Blackness and European Whiteness: “The Look”

We have up to this point explored how the poet, for Sartre, has constructed the individualistic image of blackness and deconstructed the individualistic image of whiteness. What remains to be explored is how the poet reconstructs the relational images of blackness and whiteness. For Sartre, the poet does this through “the look.” The look is revelatory in two ways. It reveals the other-as-subject while simultaneously revealing myself-as-object. It is a reciprocal relation in which “the revelation of my being-as-object for the Other” also entails that I “must be able to apprehend the presence of his being-as-subject.”[56] While I cannot experience the world as the other does, “my apprehension of the Other in the world as probably being a man refers to my permanent possibility of being-seen-by-him.”[57] The other “is the subject who is revealed to me in that flight of myself toward objectivation.”[58]

Just as we “cannot perceive and imagine simultaneously,” “we cannot perceive the world and at the same time apprehend a look fastened upon us […] because to perceive is to look at, and to apprehend a look […] is to be conscious of being looked at.”[59]  For the Eurocentric white person to apprehend the poet’s look is to break the spell cast by the image of whiteness. Just like the voyeur peering through the keyhole, the Eurocentric white person has historically peered into the embodied experiences of the poet.[60] They have been the subject peering at the other as an object, judging the other, and enjoying the privilege of seeing without being seen. The situation of the voyeur is one in which they have been engrossed in their unreflective consciousness within their situation.[61] They cannot fully apprehend their situation and themselves because they have fled into a form of bad faith.[62] But, when someone comes upon them, sparking their reflective consciousness, drawing them into an awareness of themselves in situation, then they see themselves because somebody sees them; their gaze comes back to their own eyes.[63]

They become an object for the other.[64] They become conscious of themselves as an object to be questioned and judged by the other.[65] In recognizing they are subject to the other’s judgments, they are ashamed.[66] Their shame reveals to them that they are an object to be judged by the other and that their freedom is limited by the freedom of the other who can judge and act upon them.[67] Their possibilities are limited because “every act performed against the Other can on principle be for the other an instrument which will serve him against me.”[68] Sartre wants the Eurocentric white person to see themselves because the poet sees them. He wants them to know that they are being questioned and judged by the poet, and he wants them to feel their freedom limited by the poet’s freedom. This revelation of shame is the shock Sartre wants Eurocentric whites to feel.


If I have been successful in linking Sartre’s phenomenology and existentialism to his analysis of Négritude in Black Orpheus, then numerous questions arise. Do Sartre’s concepts have value today for social and political discussions of race, particularly critiques of whiteness? Does Sartre himself fall into the voyeuristic position of the Eurocentric white person in his analysis? If so, how does this affect his theories? Could Sartre’s concepts be useful for an ethics that takes into account race? What is the relation of Black Orpheus as understood in this way to Sartre’s later works? While I suspect that Sartre’s concepts do have relevance for social and political discussions on race, even though Sartre may fall into the voyeuristic position, obviously much more study would be required to make these arguments.

[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” trans. John MacCombie in The Massachusetts Review Vol. 6, No. 1 (Autumn, 1964 – Winter, 1965), pp. 13-52

[2] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1984)

[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary (New York: Routledge, 2004)

[4] Souleymane Bachir Diagne, “Négritude,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016), ed. Edward N. Zalta,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” p. 13

[7] Ibid. p. 20; 28; 32

[8] Thomas R. Flynn, “The Role of the Image in Sartre’s Aesthetic,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 33, No. 4 (Summer, 1975), p. 432 and Jean-Paul Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 7; 20

[9] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 9

[10] Ibid. p. 19

[11] Ibid. p. 84

[12] Ibid.

[13] Flynn, “The Role of the Image in Sartre’s Aesthetic,” p. 432; Jonathan Webber, “Philosophical Introduction,” in The Imaginary, p. xxiv

[14] Ibid. p. 434

[15] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 21

[16] Ibid. 64

[17] Ibid. 84

[18] Ibid. 64

[19] Ibid. p. 84

[20] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” p. 15; 18; 20-21

[21] Ibid. p. 20

[22] Ibid. p. 21

[23] Flynn, “The Role of the Image in Sartre’s Aesthetic,” p. 434

[24] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 64; 79; 127, 132; Flynn, “The Role of the Image in Sartre’s Aesthetic,” p. 433

[25] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” p. 21

[26] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 69

[27] Ibid. p. 71

[28] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” p. 19-20; 23; 29-30; 48

[29] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 97

[30] Ibid. p. 101

[31] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 105; Flynn pp. 436-437

[32] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” pp. 20-21

[33] Flynn, “The Role of the Image in Sartre’s Aesthetic,” p. 437

[34] Sartre, The Imaginary, p. 125

[35] Flynn, “The Role of the Image in Sartre’s Aesthetic,” p. 438

[36] Ibid. p. 439

[37] Flynn, “The Role of the Image in Sartre’s Aesthetic,” p. 439

[38] Ibid. pp. 439-440

[39] Sartre, “Black Orpheus,” pp. 23-28

[40] Webber, p. xxv

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.  xxv-xxvi

[43] Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 89

[44] Ibid.; Thomas R. Flynn, “L’imagination Au Pouvoir: The Evolution of Sartre’s Political and Social Thought,” Political Theory, Vol. 7, No. 2 (May 1979), p. 159

[45] Sartre, Being and Nothingness, pp. 98-99

[46] Ibid. p. 100

[47] Ibid. p. 130

[48]Ibid. p. 145

[49] Ibid. p. 150

[50] Ibid. p. 152

[51] Flynn, L’imagination Au Pouvoir: The Evolution of Sartre’s Political and Social Thought,” p. 160

[52] Sartre, p. 129

[53] Ibid. p. 101

[54] Ibid. pp. 125-126; 134

[55] Ibid. p. 735

[56] Ibid. pp. 344-345

[57] Ibid. p. 345

[58] Ibid. p. 345

[59] Ibid. p. 347

[60] Ironically, Sartre could be accused of doing this very thing in his analysis of Négritude poetry. However, Sartre does open up himself to be looked at in return.

[61] Ibid. p. 348

[62] Ibid. p. 348-349

[63] Ibid. p. 349

[64] Ibid.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid. p. 350

[67] Ibid. p. 351

[68] Ibid. 354

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