Aimé Césaire World Literature Analysis
While Léopold Senghor, Léon-Gontran Damas, and Aimé Césaire were studying in French colonial schools, they read textbooks that affirmed the superiority of French culture over the native civilizations of the colonized peoples. French colonial authorities arrogantly spoke of “the civilizing mission of France” and of their desire “to assimilate” those in their colonies into the supposedly superior French culture. In Paris, Senghor, Damas, and Césaire met numerous black students and writers from Africa and from various regions of the African diaspora. The term “African diaspora” refers to black people who now live in exile far from Africa as a result of the slave trade that transported their ancestors into slavery in the New World. Senghor, Damas, and Césaire took courses in Paris on African civilizations and learned a great deal about the rich cultures of Africa before the slave trade and the European colonial exploitation of the continent. They also came to realize that colonial powers had created negative images of black people as a means of justifying racism. As well-educated people who had learned to express themselves in fluent French, Senghor, Damas, and Césaire came to believe that it was their responsibility to speak for ordinary black people who needed to appreciate their profound dignity as human beings.
Both Senghor and Damas readily admitted that it was their friend Césaire who invented the term “Négritude.” Césaire argued that “Négritude” meant describing the experience of what it meant to be a black person in literary works that would appeal to readers of all races. Senghor and Césaire had a white friend, Georges Pompidou, who studied with them in Paris and later served as the president of France from 1969 to 1974. Césaire and Senghor would read their poems to each other in order to make sure that these works authentically captured aspects of black culture, and then they would read their poems to Pompidou in order to find out if their poems were of universal appeal. Pompidou was not just an ordinary friend. He also possessed a deep appreciation of French poetry. He introduced Senghor and Césaire to the poetry of Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire and helped his friends realize that great poetry had to have universal appeal to readers. Pompidou’s own acumen as a fine judge of French poetry was shown in his excellent Anthologie de la poésie française (1961), an anthology that is still used in introductory courses on French poetry.
In Return to My Native Land, Césaire illustrates how he combined Négritude with what Senghor later called la civilisation de l’universel (the civilization of the universal). In this long and exquisite poem, Césaire describes how his extended stay in France gave him the time to appreciate the values of his own culture and to realize that he could not be anything other than a proud black man from rural Martinique. He presents this highly autobiographical poem as an illustration of the voyage of self-discovery that all people experience in their lives. This poem helps readers understand the essential difference between what they do and who they are. Although Césaire achieved international fame as a statesman and a writer, he never forgot that he was raised in the impoverished village of Basse-Pointe, where his moral values were formed in his childhood. As a black man, Césaire knew that he could authentically describe the world only from his perspective of a black man. For Senghor, Damas, and Césaire, Négritude enabled them to present positive and authentic images of black culture, while at the same time depicting readers’ universal search for their own values.
First published: 1961 (English translation, 1973)
Type of work: Poetry
A very personal collection of poems, in which Césaire explores the meaning of black culture from different countries in his understanding of the world.
The very title of this book of poems will send readers to a French dictionary because cadastre is an obscure legal term that means a register of land possessions. The French word cadastre translates into English as the equally rare word “cadastre,” which can also be spelled “cadaster.” Once readers have understood the meaning of the title, they begin to realize that Césaire strives to evoke many different places that were important in his life.
He naturally mentions his native island of Martinique in the poem “Ton portrait” (“Your Portrait”), addressed to Martinique. He evokes not the title of “the flower island” that is designed to attract tourists but rather the 1902 cauchemar (nightmare), when the Mount Pelée volcano exploded and killed more than thirty thousand people in the former capital of Saint-Pierre, leaving only one survivor. Martiniquais are still traumatized by this volcanic explosion, and the area around Mount Pelée remains largely abandoned more than a century after this natural disaster. Each afternoon there is a report on Martinique television designed to assure Martiniquais that they do not have to evacuate their homeland within twenty-four hours. During his fifty-six years as the mayor of Fort-de-France, Césaire had to make sure that the city’s emergency services were always prepared for another explosion of this active volcano.
In another poem, “Ode à la Guinée” (“Ode to Guinea”), he evokes the West African country from which so many slaves were taken in chains to Martinique. Césaire “salutes” Guinea, whose screams of suffering still “strike” him. The horrors of slavery were so terrible that they can never disappear from Césaire’s understanding of the world. In a powerful poem,...
(The entire section is 2363 words.)