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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.

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)." Césaire's family was poor, but 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. Amog 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. In 1935 he went to Yugoslavia with Peter Guberina, a student at Sorbonne and a pioneer of structural linguistics.

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 1937 Césaire married Suzanne Roussi; they had four sons and two daughters. Two years later 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. In Haiti, where the Provisional French government sent him as a cultural ambassador, Césaire lectured on French poetry. His first play, La tragédie du roi Christophe (1963, The Tragedy of King Christophe), drew on one of Haiti's earliest leaders, Henri Christophe.

During World War II Césaire was close with André Breton, who spent the war years in the United States and West Indies. Breton encouraged Césaire to use surrealism as a political weapon. These 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 "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), and contributed substantially to the Third-World consciousness.

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. He co-founded with his wife Suzanne and other Martinican intellectuals the cultural journal Tropiques, in which he published his early poetry. In 1945 Césaire was elected mayor of Fort-de-France and he was one of the island's deputies in the French National Assembly. Césaire resigned from the Communist Party in 1956 and depicted this decision in Lettre à Maurice Thorez (1956, Letter to Maurize Thorez). In 1958 he founded the Martinican Progressive Party.

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

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. In the 1950s he began to write more accessibly, but his international reputation was not established until towards the end of the fifties.

Césaire criticism of European civilization and colonial racism in Discours sur le colonialisme (1955) 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, the first part of his trilogy, 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. In the play Lumumba is 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, and in 2005 he refused to meet with Nicolas Sarkozy, the minister of the interior at that time. Césaire died on April 17, 2008, in Fort-de-France.

For further reading: 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); 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)
  • 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)
  • 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)

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