Aimé Césaire 1913–
(Full name Aimé Fernand Césaire) West Indian poet, dramatist, and essayist.
Césaire is recognized as a major Caribbean poet and dramatist. Best known for his surrealist poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, he is also acknowledged as "The Father of Negritude." Defining negritude as "the affirmation that one is black and proud of it," Césaire urged blacks to reject assimilation into white culture and honor instead their racial heritage, a belief that permeates his poetry and essays.
Césaire was born in 1913 to a poor family on the island of Martinique in the French West Indies. Under the tutelage of his grandmother, he learned to read and write by age four. When he was eleven, he enrolled at Lycée Schoelcher, a leading school in Martinique's capital, Fort-de-France. Upon graduating in 1931, Césaire received a scholarship to study in Paris. While enrolled at the École Normale Supérieure, he, along with Léopold Sedar Senghor and Léon-Goutran Damas, founded L'étudiant noir, a student magazine dedicated to uniting blacks and promoting pride in black culture. Although they produced only five or six issues, his involvement with the magazine was vital to the development of negritude. After the publication of Return to My Native Land in 1939, he returned to Martinique and immersed himself in politics, serving as mayor of Fort-de-France and as a member of the French National Assembly. Césaire has continued to compose poetry as well as drama and essays, but has written less frequently in recent years due to an increasingly busy political career.
Although each of his works has received favorable reviews, none has matched the success of Césaire's first poem, Return to My Native Land. Consisting of three movements and covering sixty-six pages, the poem is considered the original statement on negritude, moreover, it evinces the basic tenets of the acceptance of one's blackness and the rejection of white assimilation. The first movement surveys the demoralizing effects of colonialism on Martinique, the second chronicles Césaire's struggle to
free himself from white culture, and the third celebrates negritude.
As observed by commentators, Césaire's poetic language strongly shows the influence of French surrealists of the 1930s. Like the surrealists, he endeavored to free his writing from the conventions of French literature. Unlike them, however, he infused his poetry with angry images and bitter invectives against Western culture. Some critics see his poetic language as a form of literary violence marked by jarring images and forceful rhythms that assault the reader. Some commentators, in addition to admiring its literary finesse, also praise Return to My Native Land for its universal appeal. The poem speaks to people of all color and nationality, they contend, because Césaire's struggle for self-acceptance is a struggle shared by all people. Today, his concept of negritude forms the foundation for black movements across the world. Whether consciously or unconsciously, many black leaders have adopted Césaire's negritude as their rallying cry.