Aimé Césaire (1913-2008): Poems and Politics of Négritude

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by Mike Mosher

Upon learning of the death of poet, politican and theorist Aimé Césaire this spring, my first reaction was surprise that he was still alive. In a time of unhappy news from many postcolonial black nations—election disputes in Kenya and Zimbabwe, a food riot in Senegal, xenophobic violence against black refugees in South Africa, continued suffering in Haiti—it was poignant to be reminded of Cesaire’s generation's creativity, triumphs, spiritual strength and optimism.

Along with Léopold Cedar Senghor, fellow poet and later the first president of independent Senegal, Césaire edited the journal Black Student while they attended university in Paris in the 1930s. In that journal they began to formulate lasting concepts of black aesthetics they termed Négritude. French Africa was able to gain political independence from France without bloodshed, and talented Paris-educated students from the colonies, like those two, forged their new nations. Yet Césaire’s Martinique remained a Départment of France, and Césaire represented it in France’s national Assemly for forty-five years, while affirming his staunch anticolonialism.

I pulled out my copy of his great poem Return to My Native Land last spring, for a contextualizing lecture on the international scope of Négritude prior to co-leading a class trip to Dakar. I first encountered the slim Penguin Poets edition right after college, when a constellation of socialist ideas and black conciousness swirled around me. At the time, I was studying with muralist Jon Onye Lockard as he was developing his “African Experience” and “African-American Experience” murals for the Manoogian Student Center at Wayne State University, and these major works are as informed by ideas of Négritude as they were by the artist’s own travels in Africa and the Caribbean. My edition of Return is a translation by John Berger, whose committed art criticism I devoured upon the suggestion of classmate Mike Denning. The book even sported a cover by Pablo Picasso, perhaps Berger's choice, as Berger had written the masterful, penetrating Success and Failure of Picasso; Picasso’s African-influenced artwork viscerally moved me, while his cubism energized my own.

The long poem Return to My Native Land remains a great read, lyrical and sexy, with the glimmering erudition similar to another Caribbean author, Derek Walcott. An American can’t help but hear Whitman and Ginsberg in the cadence too. The 1939 poem was imagined by the 26 year old poet, still in Europe, while he was staying at a friend’s villa in Yugoslavia following his studies. The poem was soon published in the journal Esprit, and the poet went home to Martinique to stay. Césaire wrote of his land as impassionedly as his friend Senghor wrote of black womanhood. The poem is imbued with Martinique‘s topography, the island still marked by the 1906 eruption of Mount Pelée that destroyed the capital St. Pierre and its six thousand inhabitants. The poet adopts different voices, from the revolutionary Hatitan Toussaint in his cell, to the demeaning clichés mouthed by an ugly slave owner or a racist colonial. In the heartfelt admission of someone educated overseas and returned, Césaire articulates his initial revulsion at the rural depradation and physical ugliness of his homeland’s oppressed people. He offers a bitter cheer at his own grandfather's death, for the beaten down and servile old man was finally freed from oppression. Yet by the end of the poem the young poet embraces the old man, his land and his people, and is committed to their liberation struggle.

Césaire looks to Africa for some formal devices, as he repeats the word "death" eleven times like a drumbeat, and the phrase "on their feet" fifteen times near the end of the poem. European ideas that influenced him included Surrealism, and for Césaire, Anticolonialism gave Surrealism a purpose (much as it gave Picasso a political voice for works like "The Dream and Lie of Franco" and the mammoth "Guernica"). But Cesaire had always been a political man, in all senses of the word. He refused to shake the hand of French President Nicholas Sarkozy, because Sarkozy had recently spoken favorably of the French colonialism of the past; something Sarkozy only knew theoretically while Césaire had experienced.

To close the book on the life of Aimé Césaire, a passage chosen from Return to My Native Land at random (and randomness was beloved by surrealists), as portentious as such choices always are:

Roh oh

we sing of posionous flowers
bursting in meadows of fury;
skies of love struck by clots of blood
epileptic mornings; the white
burning of abysmal sands, the sinking
of wrecked ships in the middle of nights rent by
the smell of wild beasts.

What can I do?

I must begin.

Begin what?

The only thing in the world that’s worth beginning;
The End of the World, no less.

Mike Mosher has been a Bad Subject since 1994.

Return to my Native Land, translated by John Berger and and Anna Bostock, with an introduction by Mazisi Kunene. 1969, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK, Penguin Books Ltd.

Copyright © Mike Mosher 2008. Book cover: Pablo Picasso . All rights reserved.

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