Return to My Native Land

by Aimé Césaire

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621

Although the central thematic concern of the poem is the importance for the person who lives as the subject of a colonized land to decolonize his or her own mind and sensibility, one of the central paradoxes of the poem is that it is written in French, the language of the colonialists, not in the native Creole of the Martinican population. Indeed, in their brief introduction to Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry (1983), Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith point out the paradox that Césaire, the spokesperson for decolonizing the mind, who was later to become mayor of Fort-de-France, the city on which he focuses in Return to My Native Land, apparently never thought of Creole as a suitable language for his poetry.

Further, the traditions from which the poem seems to borrow are largely the traditions of French literature. Not only does the poem’s rush of bizarre and often grotesque images seem to place it in the context of French Surrealist literature, but, as Eshleman and Smith also note, the images of hardship and misery seem to owe much to such images in the works of Victor Hugo, the great French novelist of the nineteenth century, whose works Césaire read as he was growing up.

A partial resolution of this apparent paradox can be seen through an analogy to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, who were also greatly influential in Césaire’s poetry. The images of people from the whole history of the black race that the narrator includes and identifies with, may remind readers of Langston Hughes’s early poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”; similarly, the ending of the poem, in which he speaks of transcending the binds and confines that have been placed on his people, bears a similarity in tone and spirit to another Langston Hughes poem, “I, Too, Sing America,” which talks of the inevitability of African Americans being included in the mainstream of American life.

Similarly, the type of revolution that Césaire seems to be advocating in this poem is not a revolution that results in the violent overthrow of the past; rather, it is a revolution through inclusion. Toward the end of the poem, the narrator speaks of rallying dances to his side, including the “ it-is-beautiful-good-and-legitimate-to-be-a-nigger-dance, ” as if to say that he wants to celebrate who he and his people are and can be, not dictate who they cannot be or what they should not do.

Shortly thereafter, he says, “bind me with your vast arms to the luminous clay/ bind my black vibration to the very navel of the world/ bind, bind me, bitter brotherhood.” The image of being bound, which earlier implied slavery, has been transformed here into an image of connection to the natural world and to other people. He does not want to forget or forsake his connection to the white-dominated French world. Rather, he wants to have the chance to accept his connection to this world on his own terms, and in a life-affirming way, rather than have the terms of this connection dictated by imposed power structures.

To put this more directly, the task this narrator takes on is the task of defining for himself a concept of his own negritude, starting from the realities that have been imposed on the black population of his native land by white, European colonizers. The fiery optimism of the last section of the poem, with its unqualified lines of acceptance such as “I acceptI accepttotally, without reservation,” is the optimism of someone who has learned he can see beauty and create life even from within the ruins of a system that has defiled the life and beauty of his land and people.

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