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One of the founding fathers of the Négritude movement in Francophone culture, Aimé Césaire was a pioneering writer and politician who dedicated his life to fighting against the inequities of colonialism. His cultural, political and literary legacy is evident throughout the postcolonial world, but particularly in Martinique, where he has been rightly proclaimed a national hero.
‘Beware, my body and my soul, beware above all of crossing your arms and assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of griefs is not a proscenium, and a man who wails is not a dancing bear’
Notebook of a Return to the Native Land
Aimé Césaire’s canon of works formulates a concept of human dignity and cultural equality which would shape the postcolonial literary landscape. His influence stretched far beyond the shores of his native Martinique and resounded in the works of colonised peoples throughout Africa and the world. His works are amongst the first in the Francophone sphere to ‘write back’ against colonisation, both in its explicit political and economic form, and in its more insidious cultural and social effects. Césaire’s appropriation of the term négritude was a means of celebrating the cultural roots of colonised people and of proclaiming the unity and profundity of black culture, whilst recognising the individuality of black individuals within the wider spectrum of colonial life. As Césaire himself said Négritude was ‘the simple recognition of the fact that one is black, the acceptance of this fact and of our destiny as blacks, of our history and culture’. The formulation of this seemingly simple suggestion, of personal humanity and self-determination, had repercussions throughout the cultural and social sphere in the mid-20th century, particularly in the Francophone world.
‘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’.
Return to My Native Land
Césaire was born in Basse-Pointe in the northern part of Martinique in 1913, in a town haunted by the volcanic eruption which had devastated the island seven years previously. The poverty which pervaded his hometown would be an enduring influence on Césaire throughout his career, as would the imagery of violent destruction which accompanied the volcano. His schooling in the new capital Fort-de-France also left an enduring influence on Césaire’s identity, the duality of which would be explored throughout his later poetry. Finding himself simultaneously drawn to the classical French poetry of his school and the West African oral tradition which pervaded the streets, Césaire experienced the cultural dialectic which defined life for a colonised people.
Césaire won a scholarship to study in Paris and left Martinique in 1931, at age 18. In Paris he would delve into the intellectual and academic fervour of the Left Bank, and engage in the increasing debates over African identity and the self determination of colonised peoples. Together with the Senegalese Léopold Sédar Senghor and the French Guyanese Léon-Gontran Damas he formed L’Etudiant Noir (The Black Student), a magazine which would go on to form the roots of the Negritude movement. He also began work on the poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939;translated as Return to My Native Land, 1969), which would elucidate his conception of black culture for the first time, and would be a foundation stone for postcolonial literature in the Francophone world.
‘All that I would wish
is to answer the universal hunger
the universal thirst
to prescribe this unique race free
to produce from its tight intimacies
the succulence of fruit.
Look. The tree of our hands is for all’.
Return to My Native Land
Return to My Native Land was a powerful statement of intent from Césaire which subverted the colonial conception of black culture, and elucidated a vision of a historical black cultural identity, stretching across the colonial world. Whilst the poem is simultaneously an indignant and forceful protestation, it also allows for moments of lyrical beauty, and for touches of surrealism. Indeed, the surrealist André Breton, whom Césaire befriended in Paris, would call Return to My Native Land ‘the greatest lyric monument of this time’ and it is these intrusions of the surreal which raise the poem above the level of political document to something more ambiguous and profound.
Césaire would formulate his anti-colonial sentiment further in subsequent years, during which he returned to Martinique and took up teaching, before pursuing a career in politics as mayor of Fort-de-France and later deputy in France’s National Assembly. He would be centrally involved in the establishment of départementalisation, which allowed France’s overseas territories more power but which would be criticised for not pushing for further devolution. He was also criticised for not taking his ideal of Négritude further, and for writing in French rather than Creole.
Although these controversies marred his later life, the extent of his influence remained undimmed, and younger disciples such as Franz Fanon (who Césaire personally taught) would take his ideas to new academic and cultural terrain. Upon his death in 2008, his legacy was celebrated throughout the world, and particularly in the Francophone countries where his influence was most acutely felt. His conception of the inherent unity of African experience and his establishment of a terrain for black culture in the Francophone world was a radical piece of literary revolt. Césaire wrote from the position of a colonised self, and located his own identity in the nexus of cultural influences and repressions which this entailed. This complex formulation of identity of colonised people is perhaps expressed most succinctly in his reworking of Caliban’s speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Une Tempête, published in 1969):
‘Prospero, you are the master of illusion.
Lying is your trademark.
And you have lied so much to me
(lied about the world, lied about me)
that you have ended by imposing on me
an image of myself.
underdeveloped, you brand me, inferior,
That is the way you have forced me to see myself
I detest that image! What’s more, it’s a lie!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
and I know myself as well’.
Watch a documentary about Aimé Césaire: