Aimé Césaire Additional Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Césaire wrote poems, plays, and essays describing the struggles he faced as a black Martinican educated in a Western, French colonial system. He called colonialism morally and spiritually indefensible and blamed it for what he saw as the decline of civilization in the West.

Early Life

Aimé Fernand 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 farmworkers 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 LéonGontran 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 negritude. 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 Return to My Native Land 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.

Life’s Work

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 person’s work, whether it be writing poems or running a city government, embodies his or her 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 negritude to the politically naïve 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. In 1946, he 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 held a deputy’s seat in the French Assembly until 1993, when he retired from the political arena. Concurrent with his exceptionally active political activities, he 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 negritude, 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 1960’s “Black Is Beautiful.” This neologism was created by Césaire, Léopold 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 and a celebration of their unique racial roots. The Western values most antithetical to the values embodied in the idea of negritude 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...

(The entire section is 2694 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Aimé Césaire was born on June 25, 1913, in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, in the French West Indies. Part of a large family, Césaire attended the Lycée Victor Schoelcher in Fort-de-France in 1924 and received a scholarship to study in France in 1931. In the years that immediately followed in Paris, Césaire met many of his major intellectual collaborators, including the future president of Senegal, Senghor, and the French Guianan poet, Damas.

In an environment marked by the popularity of the French Communist Party and the Surrealism of Breton, Césaire, Senghor, and Damas founded the journal L’Étudiant noir in 1934, calling for a “cultural revolution” and declaring themselves against the chains of logic...

(The entire section is 583 words.)


(World Poets and Poetry)

One of several children, Aimé Fernand David Césaire was born on June 26, 1913, in Basse-Pointe, Martinique; his father, Ferdnand, was a comptroller with the revenue service. Most of his childhood was spent in the midst of poverty, and as Césaire grew older, he became acutely aware of the oppressive conditions of the majority of the Martinicans. At the Lycée Schoelcher in Fort-de-France, he excelled in his studies, winning a scholarship to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. Ironically, this sojourn in Paris paved the way for Césaire’s political maturation.

His friendship withLéopold Senghor, whom he met at Louis-le-Grand, was instrumental in changing Césaire’s view of Africa, which would serve time and again as a source of inspiration for him. Once he completed his studies, he returned to Martinique with his wife, Suzanne, whom he had married while he was a student at the École Normale Supérieure. They would have six children.

Césaire’s return to Martinique, a journey he had envisioned in his first poem, was as significant as his departure. He (as well as his wife) enjoyed a brief teaching career (1940-1945) at his former lycée in Fort-de-France. As usual, Césaire left his mark, inspiring his students with his love of poetry and instilling in them an enthusiasm for learning. Like many of his black contemporaries, Césaire took on the dual role of artist and political leader. Elected mayor of Fort-de-France (1945) and deputy to the National Assembly in France (1946), Césaire worked diligently to improve the plight of the Martinicans. During his fourteen years in office in the National Assembly, he was a member of the French Communist Party. He left the party when he perceived its indifference to the particular interests of Martinique.

In 1957, Césaire founded the Martinican Progressive Party (Parti Progressiste Martiniquais), and despite his disillusionment, he never ceased to play an active role in shaping the political life of his homeland. He assumed the presidency of the local “regional council,” but he retired from electoral politics entirely in 1993. Although he did not publish any new poetry after 1982, the collection of his work published in Paris in 1994 by the prestigious Seuil firm was a major event. Césaire died in Fort-de-France, Martinique, on April 17, 2008. Césaire remains the best-known writer of the West Indies.


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Nearly three-quarters of a century after Ezra Pound argued that translation was a valid means of expression for the most serious and inventive of poets, contemporary American writers have finally begun to apply the full power of their imagination to the finest poetry of other cultures and continents. Richard Howard’s rendering of Charles Baudelaire typifies this kind of commitment, following the lead of Robert Fitzgerald, whose 1961 translation of the Odyssey (c. 800 B.C.) is an exemplum of how a classic might be translated into contemporary English, but few poets of the absolute first rank have attempted a full-scale translation of a major contemporary poet. This very ambitious edition features a poet with a unique and...

(The entire section is 2515 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Aimé Césaire (say-ZEHR) was born in abject poverty in Basse-Pointe on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, on June 25, 1913. After primary studies in Basse-Pointe, he earned a scholarship that enabled him to study at the Victor Schoelcher High School in Fort-de-France, where one of his classmates was Léon-Gontran Damas, who became a famous poet and remained Césaire’s close friend until his death in 1978. Victor Schoelcher High School was then the most prestigious high school on Martinique, and it was named for a white Frenchman who helped end slavery on Martinique and in all of the French colonies. Victor Schoelcher remains beloved among Martiniquais; the main library in Fort-de-France is called the Victor Schoelcher...

(The entire section is 881 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Aimé Césaire is generally considered to be among the most important writers of the postcolonial era. His essays, poems, and plays explain clearly the many links between race and the colonial experience in postcolonial countries in Africa and in the black diaspora. Like his friend Léopold Senghor, Césaire realized that he needed to make his vision of race and colonialism appeal to readers of all races and countries so that all readers could learn to accept people with different views, beliefs, and experiences. It is not surprising that Césaire is beloved not just in Martinique and in Africa but also in France, whose august French Academy elected him to membership in October, 2006, the very month in which the French-speaking world celebrated the centennial of the birth of Césaire’s close friend and fellow poet, Senghor.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Aimé Fernand Césaire (say-zehr), once regarded as the most prominent poet of the Caribbean world, was a cofounder (with Léopold Senghor and Léon Damas) of the influential négritude movement, which sought to restore the cultural identity and dignity of colonized Africans in the 1950’s. The second of six children, Aimé Césaire was the son of Fernand Césaire, who held a minor bureaucratic post as a tax inspector, and Marie Hermine, a dressmaker.

While his family’s standard of living was close to that of the rural poor, the level of education of both his father and his paternal grandfather, as well as his father’s status as a functionary, set them apart from most black families in Martinique....

(The entire section is 998 words.)