Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2774
Article abstract: Césaire contributed to the spiritual foundation of a number of Afro-American social, intellectual, and literary movements. His poetry and plays embody the idea of négritude, a word he created, which became the affirmative basis of the idea that one is black and proud of it. Although a renowned poet, playwright, and essayist, he has functioned as an active politician in the government of his native Martinique.
Aimé Césaire was born in 1913 in Basse-Pointe, a town on the northeast coast of the West Indian island of Martinique. Although his family was poor, they were not from the impoverished class of illiterate farm workers that made up the majority of the black population of Martinique. Aimé’s father was a local tax inspector, while his mother contributed to the welfare of the six children by making dresses. Aimé was the second eldest of the children. It was his grandmother, Eugénie, who taught him to read and write French by the time he was four. The family made a concerted effort to imbue their children with French culture and literature; his father read stories to his children, not in Creole, the primary language of black Martinicans, but in French. He particularly favored the prose and poetry of Victor Hugo.
When Aimé was eleven, the family moved to the capital of Martinique, Fort-de-France, where he attended the Lycée Schoelcher. It was during his years at this school that the young Césaire came under the influence of Eugène Revert, a teacher of geography, who introduced his students to the specific richness of the Martinican botanical and geological landscape. Revert also encouraged Césaire to further his education by recommending him for acceptance at a well-known preparatory school in Paris, the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where he readied himself for entrance to the distinguished École Normale Supérieure, also in Paris.
During his time at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, he met and developed a deep friendship with a fellow classmate, Léopold Senghor of Senegal, who later became both the president of that African republic and a highly respected poet. Senghor then collaborated with a friend and fellow poet of Césaire, the French Guianan, Léon-Gontran Damas, in forming a newspaper called L’Étudiant noir (the black student), a publication that brought together young blacks from Africa and the West Indies and created the opportunity for an intercultural mix that eventually gave birth to the concept of négritude. In the group that formed around L’Étudiant noir, Aimé Césaire met a Martinican woman, Suzanne Roussy, whom he married in 1937 and who later helped him create and edit the well-known journal Tropiques.
During his time at the École Normale Supérieure, Césaire was introduced to the literary and anthropological works that would determine the direction of his artistic and political vision: the writing of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Arthur Rimbaud, Stéphane Mallarmé, the Black Poets of the Harlem Renaissance, and the anthropologists Maurice Delafosse and Leo Frobenius. The last two scholars revealed to Césaire that Africa possessed its own highly articulated history, art, and civilization, while one of his professors introduced him to the idea of a black cultural archetype that went beyond geographical borders.
With all these influences brewing within the imagination of the young Césaire, he began in 1936 the poem that was to make him famous throughout the world and upon which his literary reputation was permanently based. The long poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939, 1947; Memorandum of My Martinique, 1947; also known as Return to My Native Land, 1968) documented his spiritual journey from adolescence to adulthood through the various cultural, linguistic, and moral conflicts that he was forced to confront as a black Martinican educated in a Western, French colonial intellectual system. By the time he returned to Martinique after seven years of European schooling, he was already beginning both a literary and a political career that would establish him as one of the greatest black writers of the twentieth century.
Césaire combines a number of seemingly contradictory roles within a single career. All of them, however, stem from his overwhelming conviction that the political is always the personal and that a man’s work, whether it be writing poems or running a city government, embodies his belief system. After earning his degree at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he returned in 1940 to teach languages and literature at his former school, the Lycée Schoelcher. He and his wife founded and edited their own West Indian version of L’Étudiant noir, calling it Tropiques, which helped promulgate the concept of négritude to the politically naive natives of the West Indies. Following World War II, Césaire decided that the only way to help his country improve its economic and political situation was to become an active member of the government. After retiring from teaching, he was sent to Paris as a deputy to the French Assembly, returned to become the mayor of Fort-de-France, and finally founded and became president of his own political party, the Progressive Party of Martinique. He has continued to hold a deputy’s seat in the French Assembly for almost forty years. Concurrent with his exceptionally active political activities, he has also published five major volumes of poetry, four full-length plays, and three major political and historical prose works.
The key to understanding all of his multifaceted scholar’s activities and production is the concept of négritude, a word that Césaire first used in his revolutionary long poem, Return to My Native Land. The word has come to represent the affirmation that one is black and proud of it, an idea that became in the sixties “Black Is Beautiful.” This neologism was created by Césaire, Senghor, and Damas and referred to blacks who had been dominated and oppressed politically, culturally, and spiritually by Western values. The word expressed a total rejection of assimilation with white culture and urged an exploration into and a celebration of their unique racial roots. The Western values most antithetical to the values embodied in the idea of négritude were rationalism, Christianity, individualism, and technology. Césaire, particularly in his poetry, celebrates the ability of the black soul to participate in the energies of nature and not to control them by technology; he rejects the zeal of the Christian missionaries in their attempt to destroy ancient, pagan rituals. Most important, however, is his dismissal of the Western concept of individualism symbolized by its apotheosis of the hero to a semidivine status. He celebrates, rather, the loss of the individual ego in the collective effort toward a communal idea in which all may participate. In all of his poetry, plays, and prose works, Césaire expresses in varying degrees his loyalty to the tenets of négritude in one form or another.
The first and most influential work written by Césaire is his long poem, Return to My Native Land. It is a classic example of a writer who writes himself into political action by rejecting all the values that he has just spent seven years assimilating in France. He had recently received his degree from France’s most distinguished university, the École Normale Supérieure, had mastered the French language and its literature, yet had also assimilated the techniques and visions of the prevailing European aesthetic movement, Surrealism. Indeed, André Breton, the founder of the Surrealist literary movement, declared that Césaire handled the French language “as no white man can handle it today.” Jean-Paul Sartre theorized that Césaire used the techniques of Surrealism to liberate himself from the stuffy conventions of French literature, while other critics recognize Césaire’s difficult, exuberant wordplay and unorthodox metaphors, mixed with African and Caribbean imagery and history as attempts to forge a new language that can express the violently chaotic nature of the black collective unconscious from which his imagination proceeds.
Three major themes dominate Return to My Native Land and chart the poem’s spiritual journey while simultaneously embodying the principal tenets of négritude. Césaire identifies “suffering” as the primary mode through which blacks experience the world. From the recognition of this suffering, which becomes the agent of his awakening to consciousness, the fictive voice in the poem learns to hate and reject the white world of racism, colonialism, and slavery. The poem concludes with hope not only for black redemption and unity but also for worldwide celebration of the common values of all races. By celebrating his specifically black Martinican heritage, he celebrates the world in all its diversity.
Césaire’s attempt to reject the values of a white, colonial European society led him to a lengthy flirtation with Communism. He and a number of his fellow poet-politicians found that Marxism gave them a revolutionary stance in the same way that Surrealism had given them a modernist perspective and, therefore, an individual voice in expressing the yearnings of their people. Césaire’s famous Lettre à Maurice Thorez (1956; Letter to Maurice Thorez, 1957) announced his break with Communism, finding its goals as incompatible as French colonialism or any other foreign influence in relieving the poverty of his fellow Martinicans. He had returned, in effect, to the same conclusions of his earlier rejection of colonialism as a civilizing force that had been the major theme of his Discours sur le colonialisme (1950; Discourse on Colonialism, 1972). His next important prose work was a biographical and historical study of Toussaint-Louverture, the revolutionary liberator of Haiti, called Toussaint Louverture (1960). From this documentary treatment of Haiti’s earliest hero, Césaire’s attention focused on specific black heroes rather than on theoretical treatises that only the well educated could comprehend, and he began a series of plays that had historical figures as their main characters and who would be recognized by the people of the West Indies.
By the early sixties, Césaire, whose poetry had become virtually inaccessible to the common man, made a conscious effort to reach a larger audience by choosing topics that would be recognizable and, more important, comprehensible both to the people of his own area and to the rest of the world. His choice of famous black figures and his treatment of them in rather straightforward dramatic structures demonstrated his dedication to propounding black causes. His first highly successful play was La Tragédie du Roi Christophe (1963; The Tragedy of King Christopher, 1969), which is the story of the rise of a young slave to the status of self-declared King of Haiti and his subsequent fall. Henri Christophe’s tragic flaw was that once he attains his position of power, he loses sight of his primary reason for driving out the tyrannical French colonials and becomes obsessed with expanding his power base, thus becoming as cruel and greedy as the departed French.
Césaire’s next play, Une Saison au Congo (1966; A Season in the Congo, 1968), treats the tragic career of the revolutionary leader Patrice Lumumba, the first president of the Republic of the Congo. His earlier ambitious dreams for his people collapsed into power struggles among competing black leaders and led to his assassination in 1961 in spite of heroic efforts by the United Nations. By the late 1960’s, a number of literary critics declared Césaire the leading black dramatist writing in French. Both these plays are highly crafted, impeccably executed literary works that entertain audiences while at the same time registering their political points with subtlety, wit, and exquisite poetic language. His last play of this period, Une Tempête (1969; The Tempest, 1974), is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play. In this play, Césaire uses Prospero as the white, colonial conqueror, or the “man of reason.” Caliban becomes a metaphor for the black man, the instinctual, nature-loving slave, or victim of Prospero. Ariel becomes in this political allegory the mulatto, or man of science, a combination of the European and black sensibilities but equally repressed by the rationalistic Prospero.
After the writing and production of these three highly acclaimed plays of the 1960’s, Césaire devoted himself to his political duties and responsibilities as the mayor of Fort-de-France and, more important, his role as deputy in the French National Assembly for Martinique for nearly forty years. As a result, he has spent much of his time in Paris, attending to his civic responsibilities as a participant in the governance of France and its international interests. He has also been reelected many times to head his own political party, the Progressive Party of Martinique.
Besides being an outstanding poet, playwright, and political figure, Aimé Césaire made a major contribution to the worldwide black movement in that he is recognized as one of its most honored spiritual leaders. He began to assume that spiritual leadership role with the publication of Return to My Native Land. In this poem, certainly one of the major long poems of the twentieth century, he charts the spiritual journey of a colonial black man through the abstractions of Western civilization to his return to the spiritual and instinctual sustenance of his native Martinique. Because of his concern for the welfare of his suffering people, he turned to a more accessible literary format and wrote three plays which eschew the former Surreal intellectuality and instead realistically document the tragic destinies of two actual black historical figures: Henri Christophe and Patrice Lumumba. Concurrent with both his poetic and dramatic productions is a consistent barrage of brilliantly scathing prose works condemning the pernicious effects of slavery, racism, and, most important, colonialism.
Some scholars of the Afro-American movement view Césaire’s career as not within the mainstream of either American or African social transformation. While they include him as a major literary and spiritual leader, he is viewed by some as torn between the claims of his black identity and those of his French heritage. He is, obviously, committed to the French parliamentary system, having served as its Martinican deputy for almost forty years, and has never advocated any kind of revolutionary overthrow of any government in the West Indies or Africa. His writings demonstrate that he sees himself as heir to the great French intellectual poets, philosophers, and statesmen. To the dismay of more radical black leaders, he appears to believe in the humanistic principles inherent in the French political and social heritage. Though these ideas may appear paradoxical, they are not mutually exclusive, although they do seem to preclude him from ever being viewed as a serious revolutionary, activist leader. More than any of his literary or political achievements, Césaire will be most remembered and honored for his invention of the term négritude and his first use of it in one of the country’s most compelling poems.
Arnold, A. James. Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. This work is certainly the definitive study of Césaire’s poetry and its relationship to both négritude and modernism. Highly readable and elegantly written.
Frutkin, Susan. Aimé Césaire: Black Between Worlds. Coral Gables, Fla.: Center for Advanced International Studies, University of Miami, 1973. A short but clearly written document on Césaire’s career. Frutkin covers the biographical, both actual and intellectual, in a thoroughly convincing manner. While pointing out Césaire’s undeniable contribution to various Afro-American movements, she places him accurately between the two worlds of his French heritage and his black identity.
Gleason, Judith. “An Introduction to the Poetry of Aimé Césaire.” Negro Digest 19 (January, 1970): 12-19, 64-65. An outstanding article showing Césaire’s poetry and plays as documenting the spiritual dislocation of the black people but done within the specific boundaries of his native Martinique. An excellent guide through some of the more perplexing poems.
Kennedy, Ellen Conroy, ed. The Negritude Poets. New York: Viking Press, 1975. An excellent collection of translations of French poetry written by black writers from the Caribbean, Africa, and the Indian Ocean area. Kennedy’s preface to Césaire’s work serves as an informative introduction to his work, his career, and his literary significance. Although purists may wince, her abridgment and summary of Return to My Native Land might make Césaire’s difficult work more accessible to the beginner.
Okam, Hilary. “Aspects of Imagery and Symbolism in the Poetry of Aimé Césaire.” Yale French Studies 53 (1976): 175-196. Okam’s lengthy article discusses the difficulties of Césaire’s language, especially his poetic idiosyncrasies and sometimes complex syntax. One of the best literary analyses of the poetry.