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Aimé Césaire (1913-2008)


Martinican poet, playwright, and politician, one of the most influential authors from the French-speaking Caribbean. Aimé Césaire formulated with Léopold Senghor and Léon Gontian Damas the concept and movement of négritude, defined as "affirmation that one is black and proud of it." Césaire's thoughts about restoring the cultural identity of black Africans were first fully expressed in Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Return to My Native Land), a mixture of poetry and poetic prose. The work celebrated the ancestral homelands of Africa and the Caribbean. It was completed in 1939 but not published in full form until 1947.

my negritude is not a stone
nor a deafness flung against the clamor of the day
my negritude is not a white speck of dead water
on the dead eye of the earth
my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral
it plunges into the red flesh of the soil
it plunges into the blaxing flesh of the sky
my negritude riddles with holes
the dense affliction of its worthy patience.
(from Return to My Native Land by Aimé Césaire, translated by John Berger and Anna Bostok with an introduction by Mazisi Kunene, Penguin Books, 1969, p. 75)

Aimé Césaire was born in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, in the French Caribbean. His father, Fernand Elphège, was educated as teacher, but later worked as a manager of a sugar estate. Eléonore, Césaire's mother, was a seamstress.

In Cahier Césaire described his childhood in a harsh light: "And the bed of planks from which my race has risen, all my race from this bed of planks on its feet of kerosene cases, as if the old bed had elephantiasis, covered with a goat skin, and its dried banana leaves and its rags, the ghost of a mattress that is my grandmother's bed (above the bed in a pot full of oil a candle-end whose flame looks like a fat turnip, and on the side of the pot, in letters of gold: MERCI)."

Although Césaire's family was poor, his parents invested in the education of their children. Several of them completed university degrees. To faciliate the studies of their talented son, they moved Basse Pointe to Fort-de-France, the capital. Among Césaire's classmate at the Lycee Schoelcher in Fort-de-France was Léon Damas, who later contributed to négritude.

Césaire had excellent grades in school. At the age of 18 he went to Paris on a scholarship to continue his education. He attended the Lycée Louis-le Grand, the École Normale Supérieure, and ultimately the Sorbonne, where he studied Latin, Greek, and French literature. Césaire earned several diplomas, including a diplôme d'études supérieures for a dissertation titled Le thème du sud dans la littérature nègre américaine. In 1935 he went to Yugoslavia with Petar Guberina, a fellow student at the Sorbonne. Both Césaire and Guberina were vegetarians; they originally met at a university canteen. ('Aimé Césaire and "Another Face of Europe"' by Anja Jovic Humphrey, MLN, Volume 129, Number 5, December 2014, p. 1117)

While vising Guberina's hometown Šibernik, Césaire learned that on the Adriatic coast of Croatia, there was a small island named Martinska, reminiscent of his own Martinique. This was an inspirational moment. He set about composing Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, which was completed in 1938 and first appeared in the avant-garde magazine Volontés in 1939. At the time of its publication, the epic poem went virtually unnoticed. Césaire and Guberina were reunited by the Kenya-born director Lawrewce Kiiru for a 1990 documentary, Martinska-Martinique.

During his years in Paris Césaire met other Caribbean, West African, and African American students, but the most important acquaintance was Léopold Senghor, a poet and later the first president of independent Senegal. Senghor's Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache (1948) became an important landmark of modern black writing in French. "In meeting Senghor, I met Africa," Césaire said many years later. (Pan-African History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora Since 1787 by Hakim Adi, Marika Sherwood, 2003, p. 21) Césaire and Senghor are considered the founders of the Negritude movement, but they never collaborated on a manifesto explaining its philosophy.

Césaire defined négritude, from the point of view of experience, as "the awareness of being black, the simple acknowledgement of a fact which implies the acceptance of it, a taking charge of one's destiny as a black man, of one's history and culture." (Postcolonial Criticism, edited and introduced by Bart Moore-Gilbert, Gareth Stanton and Willy Maley, 2013, p. 7) The word was first seen in print in the newspaper L'Etudiant noir, founded in Paris by black students, but in general usage it entered after WWII. Senghor took a different, more objective, approach to the concept in his article 'Negritude: A Humanism of the Twentieth Century' (1970), in which he defined négritude as "the sum of the cultural values of the black world." Négritude been criticized of being the expression of an élite, and standing against progress with its associations with myths and primitivism. The younger generation of francophone Caribbean writers have fount it problematic that négritude links race to culture too strongly.

Césaire married in 1937 Suzanne Roussi, a literature student; they had four sons and two daughters. On the eve of WWII, Césaire moved with his family back to Martinique, where he started to work as a teacher at the Lycee Schoelcher. Among his students were Frantz Fanon and Édouard Glissant. With other intellectuals, Césaire and his wife Suzanne founded the journal Tropiques, which  focused more on poetry and cultural issues than on political matters. "The Martinican revolution will be made in the name of bread, certainly," he declared in 1944 in Tropiques, "but also in the name of air and poetry (which amounts the same thing)." ('Before and Beyond Negritude' by J. Michael Dash, in A History of Literature in the Caribbean: Volume 1: Hispanic and Francophone Regions, edited by A. James Arnold, Julio Rodriguez-Luis, J. Michael Dash, 1994, p. 543)

Between the years 1939 and 1955, Césaire mainly focused on poetry. Noteworthy, he wrote in French, the language of the colonizer, feeling himself incapable of writing in Creole, but instead used distorted language in opposition to the colonial French. Césaire's poems usually concerned with slavery, freedom, and paradise. "I am talking of millions of men who have been skillfully injected with fear, inferiority complexes, trepidation, servility, despair, abasement." (from Discours sur le colonialisme, 1955) Césaire's comrades in the French Communist Party attacked his linguistically difficult works for obscurity.

"Only myth satisfies man in his entirety, his heart, his reason," Césaire declared in an address, 'Poetry and Knowledge,' at a conference held in Haiti in 1941. It was subsequently published in January 1945 in Tropiques. The Provisional French government had sent Césaire to Haiti as a cultural ambassador. In this address he separated poetry from scientific knowledge; it was poetry that would open the field for the greatest dreams of humanity, not science. ('Aimé Césaire, in Poetry in Theory: An Anthology 1900-2000, edited by Jon Cook, 2004, pp.275-287)

Césaire was close with André Breton, who spent the war years in the United States and West Indies during World War II. "In my eyes his emergence," said Breton in his essay 'A Great Black Poet' (1943), "takes on the value of a sign of our times. Thus, defying single-handedly an era in which we appear to be witnessing the general abdication of the mind, in which nothing appears to be created except for the purpose of perfecting the triumph of death, in which art itself threatens to congeal in obsolete schemes, the first revivifying new breath capable of restoring conficence comes from a black. An it is a black who handles the French language in a manner that no white man is capable of today." (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, with an Introduction by André Breton, 2001, p. xii) While visiting the island before arriving in New York, Breton was followed by the secret police. In the United States, the FBI kept a file on him.

Breton encouraged Césaire to use surrealism as a political weapon. These new poems were collected in Les Armes miraculeuses (1946, The Miraculous Weapons), Soliel cou coupe (1948, Beheaded Sun), and Corps perdu (1950, Disembodied / Lost Body). Cahier d'un retour au pays natal was described by Breton in 1944 "the greatest lyrical monument of our time." The work was published by Présence Africaine in 1956, the same year that the French coined the term "tiers monde" (Third World). As a one of the most translated French poems of the century, it contributed substantially to the Third-World consciousness. 

"In Césaire," said Jean-Paul Sartre, "the great surrealist tradition is achieved, takes its definite sense, and destroys itself. Surrealism, a European poetic movement, is stolen from the Europeans by a black who turns it against them." ('Césaire, Aimé,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman, 1975, p. 294) Since the end of the war Césaire divided his time between Paris and Martinique. A member of the Communist Party, Césaire participated in political action and supported the decolonization of the French colonies of Africa. In 1945 Césaire was elected mayor of Fort-de-France, a post he maintained for five decades. He was also one of the island's deputies in the French National Assembly.

Disappointed to government's promises of socioeconomic improvements in Martinique, Césaire ceased to speak after 1950s in parliament and did not publish poetry for some years, but he was active in international forums for the liberation of the Third World. Césaire's surrealist period ended in the 1960.

Césaire resigned from the Communist Party soon after attending the First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists, held at the Sorbonne in September 1956. In his letter to Maurice Thorez, General Secretary of the French Communist Party, he stated that "it is clear that our struggle – the struggle of colonial peoples against colonialism, the struggle of peoples of color against racism – is more complex, or better yet, of a completely different nature than the fight of the French worker against French capitalism, and it cannot in any way be considered a part, a fragment, of that struggle." (translated by Chike Jeffers, Social Text 103, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer 2010)  

In 1958 Césaire founded his own political party, the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais (Martinican Progressive Party), which advocated autonomy for the island. The new generation of activists questioned his political philosophy, accusing him of betraying the independence movement. By the 1960s, PPM had become the island's largest employer and the dominating force on the political scene.

Discours sur le colonialisme (1955), Césaire criticism of European civilization and colonial racism, influenced deeply Frantz Fanon's revolutionary manifesto Black Skin, White Masks (1967), an examination of psychic, cultural and social damages inflicted by colonialism. Césaire paralles the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized with the relationship between Nazis and their victims. "People are astounded, they are angry. They say: "How strange that is. But then it is only Nazism, it wont last." And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves: It is savagery, the supreme savagery, it crowns, it epitomizes the day-to-day savageries; yes, it is Nazism, but before they became its victims, they were its accomplices; that Nazism they tolerated before they succumbed to it, they exonerated it, they closed their eyes to it, they legitimated it because until then it had been employed only against non-European peoples; that Nazism they encouraged, they were responsible for it, and it drips, it seeps, it wells fro every crack in western Christian civilization until it engulfs that civilization in a bloody sea."

Et les chiens se taisaient (1956, And the Dogs Were Silent), a story about the blacks and their humiliation, marked Césaire's transition from poetry to drama. The salvatory hero of the poem, The Rebel, sacrifices his own life by murdering his colonial master. La tragédie du roi Christophe (1963, The Tragedy of King Christophe), the first part of his trilogy of plays, was about an early-19th-century Haitian ruler, Henri Christophe, who faced the task of building a state after independence. 

In Une saison au Congo (1966, A Season in the Congo), the second part of the trilogy, Césaire dealt with the tragedy of Patrice Lumumba and his assassination. Lumumba is portrayed as a poet-leader who inflames the African conscience, but fails to unify his own country.

The trilogy was finished by Une Tempète (1968), a radical rewriting of Shakespeare's play The Tempest. Césaire portrayed Prospero, the white man, as a decadent colonizer; Caliban, the man of instinct, has a black cultural heritage, he rebels for his freedom, but fails and accuses Prospero: "Prospero, you are the master of illusion. / Lying is your trademark." Ariel, a mulatto slave, is pressed between these opposite forces of Caliban and Prospero. Une Tempète was first published in the journal Présence africaine in 1968. Caliban's first word is "Uhuru," which is Swahili for "freedom." "Call me X," says Caliban in the 1969 text, echoing the radical voice of Malcolm X.

In 1993 Césaire retired from politics, but he remained a fervent anticolonialist. A monumntal figure in his native country, his poems were painted on the walls of buildings, found along nature walks, and printed on posters sold in local shops. In 2005 Césaire refused to meet with Nicolas Sarkozy, the minister of the interior at that time, after the government had passed a law that required history teachers to emphasize the "positive role" of French colonialism. Césaire died on April 17, 2008, in Fort-de-France. He received a national funeral. It was attended by then-President Sarkozy and several high-ranking ministers.

For further reading: Engagements with Aimé Césaire: Thinking with Spirits by Jason Allen-Paisant (2024); Modern Odysseys: Cavafy, Woolf, Césaire, and a Poetics of Indirection by Michelle Zerba (2021); Poetics of the Antilles: Poetry, History and Philosophy in the Writings of Perse, Cesaire, Fanon and Glissant by Jean Khalfa (2017); 'Aimé Césaire and "Another Face of Europe"' by Anja Jovic Humphrey, MLN 129 (2014); Re-envisioning Negritude: Historical and Cultural Contexts for Aimé Césaire and Léopold Sédar Senghor by Emma Catherine Thompson Howell (2012); Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon: portraits de décolonisés by Pierre Bouvier (2010); Postcolonial Paradoxes in French Caribbean Writing: Césaire, Glissant, Condé by Jeannie Suk (2001); Modernism & Negritude: The Policies and Poetics of Aime Cesaire by A. James Arnold (1999); Aimé Césaire by Gregson Davies, Abiola Irele (1997); Critical Perspectives on Aimé Césaire, ed. by Thomas Hale (1992); The Ritual Theater of Aime Cesaire: Mythic Structures of the Dramatic Imagination by Marianne Wichmann Bailey (1992); Aimé Césaire by Janis L. Pallister (1991); The Poet's Africa: Africanness in the Poetry of Nicolas Guillen and Aime Cesaire by Josaphat Bekunuru Kubayanda (1990); Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire by A. James Arnold (1981); 'Césaire, Aimé,' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); Aimé Césaire by Susan Frutkin (1973); Aimé Césaire by L. Kesteloot (1962) 

Selected works:

  • Les Armes miraculeuses, 1946 [The Miraculous Weapons]
  • Et les chiens se taisaient, 1946
  • Cahier d'un retour au pays natal: Memorandum on My Martinique, 1947 (bilingual edition, published in New York; translated by Ivan Goll and Lionel Abel, preface by André Breton) / Return to My Native Land (translated by Emil Snyder, 1968; John Berger and Anna Bostock, 1969) / Notebook of a Return to My Native Land (translated by Mireille Rosello with Annie Pritchard, 1995) / Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (translated and edited by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, 2001) / Journal of a Homecoming: Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (translated by N. Gregson Davis; introduction, commentary, and notes by F. Abiola Irele, 2017)
  • Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, 1947 (published in Paris by Bordas)
  • Soliel cou coupe, 1948 - Solar Throat Slashed: The Unexpurgated 1948 Edition (translated and edited by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman, 2011)  
  • Corps perdu, 1950 [Disembodied / Lost Body]
  • Discours sur le colonialisme, 1955 - Discourse on Colonialism (translated by Joan Pinkham, 1972)
  • Cahier díun retour au pays natal, 1956
  • Et les chiens se taisaient, 1956 - And the Dogs Were Silent (in Aimé Césaire: Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-1982, 1990)
  • Lettre à Maurice Thorez, 1956 - Letter to Maurize Thorez (tr. 1957)
  • Ferrements, 1960 [Ferraments]
  • Cadastre, 1961 (rev. version of Soleil cou coupé and Corps perdu) - Cadastre: Poems (translated by by Emile Snyder and Sanford Upson, 1973)
  • Toussaint Louverture: La révolution française et le problème colonial, 1962
  • La Tragedie du roi Christophe, 1963 - The Tragedy of King Christophe (translated from the French by Ralph Manheim, 1969) / The Tragedy of King Christophe (translated and with an introduction by Paul Breslin and Rachel Ney. 2015)
  • State of the Union, 1966 (translated from the French by Clayton Eshleman & Denis Kelly)
  • Une Saison au Congo, 1966 - A Season in Congo: A Play (translated by Ralph Manheim. 1969)
  • Une Tempete, 1968 (first version, based on Shakespeare's The Tempest)
  • Une Tempête, 1974 - A Tempest: Based on Shakespeare's "The Tempest" - Adaptation for a Black Theater (translated from the French by Richard Miller, 1985)
  • Œuvre historique et politique: discours et communications, 1976
  • Oeuvres Complètes, 1976 ( 3 vols.)
  • Poèmes, 1976
  • Théâtre, 1976
  • Culture and Colonization, 1978 (translated from French with an introd. by Jean Mfoulou)
  • moi, laminaire, 1982 - i, laminaria (in Aimé Césaire: Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-1982, 1990)
  • Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry, 1983 (translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith)
  • Non-Vicious Circle: Twenty Poems of Aime Cesaire, 1984 (translated, with an introduction and commentary by Gregson Davis)
  • Lost Body / Corps Perdu, 1986 (illustrations by Pablo Picasso,  introduction and translation by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith)
  • Lyric and Dramatic Poetry, 1946-82, 1990 (translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith)
  • La Poésie, 1994 (edited by Daniel Maximin and Gilles Carpentier)
  • Aimé Césaire: pour aujourd’hui et pour demain, 1995 (edited by Guy Ossito Midiohouan)
  • Anthologie poétique, 1996 (edited by Roger Toumson)
  • Aimé Césaire: le discours sur la negritude, Miami 1987 = Aimé Césaire: Discourse on Negritude, Miami 1987, 2003
  • Aimé Césaire, rencontre avec un nègre fondamental, 2004 (edited by Patrice Louis)  
  • Nègre je suis, nègre je resterai, 2005 (edited by Françoise Vergès)
    - Resolutely Black: Conversations with Françoise Vergès (translated by Matthew B. Smith, 2021)
  • Original 1939 Notebook of a Return to the Native Land: Bilingual Edition, 2013 (translated and edited by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman)
  • The Complete Poetry of Aimé Césaire: Bilingual Edition, 2017 (translated by A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman)
  • Ecrits politiques, 2018 (vol. 5.; 1988-2008)

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