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.
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.
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...
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