Aimé Césaire produced major works in a wide range of literary forms, including poetry (Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, 1939, 1947, 1956; Memorandum on My Martinique, 1947; also as Return to My Native Land, 1968), history (Toussaint Louverture: La Révolution française et le problème coloniale, 1960), treatises (Discours sur le colonialisme, 1950; Discourse on Colonialism, 1972), speeches (Commemoration du centenaire de l’abolition de l’esclavage: Discours prononces à la Sorbonne le 27 avril 1948, 1948), and numerous essays on poetry, politics, and culture in a wide variety of French, West Indian, and African publications. Césaire delivered a large number of his speeches before the French National Assembly in his capacity as deputy of the Department of Martinique. As a consequence, much of his occasional work (telegrams, letters, interviews) has historical interest in its own right.
As poet, dramatist, politician, historian, and essayist, Aimé Césaire helped transform the French colonial world over a period of more than six decades. His reputation depends chiefly on his lengthy autobiographical poem Return to My Native Land, a passionate indictment of colonialism that the French poet and novelist André Breton hailed as “nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of our time.”
As a virtuoso performance and as a portrayal of the pain and anguish of Martinique’s dispossessed, the poem burst on the literary scene, challenging the image of the French Antilles as the “happy isles” filled with inferior beings and unable to produce writers equal to those of Europe. Representing the culmination of almost a decade of intellectual dialogue among Africans and West Indians within the Parisian student community of the 1930’s, the poem poignantly rejected assimilation for blacks, denounced the domination of the Western powers, and exalted the contributions of the black race. This sense of a unique black consciousness and common heritage—what Césaire himself described as “the awareness of being blacka taking charge of one’s destiny as a black man, of one’s history and culture”—was expressed in the term “negritude,” first coined in the poem itself and later used to describe the movement led by Césaire, the French Guianan poet Léon Damas, and the Senegalese poet and statesman Léopold Senghor.
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Poet, dramatist, and essayist Aimé Césaire (say-ZEHR) is recognized not only for his poetry but also for his political and dramatic works. The first major poem he wrote, Return to My Native Land, set the tone and thematic precedence for his subsequent writings. Tropiques, a cultural magazine of which the poet was one of the principal founders, featured Césaire’s own poems, which were reprinted in the Gallimard edition of Miraculous Weapons in 1946. As well as a vehicle for literary content, the magazine was used to arouse the cultural and political consciousness that would continue to mark Césaire’s personality throughout his life.
Césaire’s poetry attests his exceptional talent as an artist, and his polemical and historical works, Discours sur le colonialisme (1950; Discourse on Colonialism, 1972), born of the poet’s disillusionment with the inferior role Martinique continued to play in its relations with France, and Toussaint Louverture: La Révolution française et le problème coloniale (1960), named after the black hero Toussaint-Louverture, who led the 1802-1803 revolution in Haiti, demonstrate the poet’s effort to assail racism, colonialism, and the cultural alienation of blacks from all sides. He continued to explore the problems of the existence of blacks in the world and African culture, especially the issue of decolonization, in his drama—which is more accessible than his poetry.
His plays include La Tragédie du Roi Christophe (pr. 1963; The Tragedy of King Christophe, 1969), Une Saison au Congo (pb. 1966; A Season in the Congo, 1968), and a reworking of William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (pr. 1611) entitled Une Tempête, d’après “La Tempête” de Shakespeare: Adaptation pour un théâtre nègre (pr., pb. 1969; A Tempest, 1974).
Aimé Césaire’s contribution to literature goes beyond his exceptional use of Surrealist techniques, his extraordinary mastery of the French language, and his attempt to articulate the inhumane effects of racism and colonialism. In 1982, he received the French Grand Prix National de la Poésie. By his example, Césaire helped to give impetus to the first great outpouring of written literature in Africa and the West Indies.
Why is it significant that Aimé Césaire presents both positive and negative images of black characters?
What is the meaning of “Négritude” in the postcolonial era?
Why is it essential to keep talking about race, although such discussions may make certain people uncomfortable?
Is it possible to distinguish one’s personal views of the historical Patrice Lumumba from one’s reaction to the idealistic character presented in A Season in the Congo?
Arnold, A. James. Introduction to Césaire’s Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-82, by Aimé Césaire. Translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. Provides a succinct introduction to Aimé Césaire’s life and work. Offers critical observations that supplement and extend many of the readings in Arnold’s important Modernism and Negritude.
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 negritude and modernism. Highly readable and elegantly written.
Bailey, Marianne Wichmann. The Ritual Theater of Aimé Césaire. Tübingen, Germany: G. Narr, 1992. Analysis of the use of myth and ritual in Aimé Césaire’s writing. Includes bibliography.
Confiant, Raphaël. Aimé Césaire: Une Traversée paradoxale du siècle. Paris: Stock, 1993. Fellow West Indian writer and professor of literature Confiant examines Césaire in literary, cultural, and political context. In French.
Davis, Gregson. Aimé Césaire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. A generally chronological examination of the evolution of Césaire’s poetic and...
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