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Aime Cesaire: Founding father of Negritude

The most influential Francophone Caribbean writer of his generation, Aimé Césaire was one of the founding fathers of Negritude, the black consciousness movement that sought to assert pride in African cultural values to counterbalance the inferior status accorded to them in European colonial thinking.

He was born into a peasant family at Basse-Pointe in the northern part of Martinique in 1913, close to the site of the town of St Pierre, the former capital of Martinique, which had been completely destroyed by a volcanic eruption seven years before his birth. He grew up in a poverty-stricken environment in the wake of this disaster and volcanic imagery pervades his poetry.

For his schooling, he went to Martinique's new capital of Fort-de-France, where he mixed with the assimilated middle classes and emerged as the complex product of a double socialisation. Educated in the French public school system and steeped in the classics of French poetry, he also identified with his island's repressed African culture, sometimes likening himself to the figure of the griot, the oral storyteller who serves as the repository of West African communities' histories and traditions.

Césaire won a scholarship to study in Paris, arriving there in 1931 as an 18-year-old and living there at a time when intellectual debates about African distinctiveness were gathering momentum. Along with the French Guyanese Léon-Gontran Damas and the Senegalese Léopold Sédar Senghor, he launched the magazine L'Etudiant noir ("The Black Student") in 1934. The three young men drew inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance's efforts to promote the richness of African cultural identity and particularly opposed French assimilationist policies.

During these years Césaire began to develop the ideas for his most famous poem, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1939; translated as Return to My Native Land, 1969), the work in which he coined the term "négritude". The surrealist André Breton, who became a good friend of Césaire's after a 1942 visit to Martinique and who helped to introduce his work to Parisian literary circles, called the Cahier "the greatest lyric monument of this time".

Drawing on surrealist techniques, the poem took its inspiration from the Martinican landscape and Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the first phase of the Haitian Revolution, whose biography Césaire would later write (Toussaint Louverture: la révolution française et le problème colonial, published 1960). It asserted a claim to Afro-Caribbean ownership of the archipelago, "which is one of the two sides of the incandescence through which the equator walks its tightrope to Africa". The poem explores the distinctiveness of black cultural identity in a historically grounded manner that prefigures the black consciousness movements of the 1960s, the decade when it became popular in the English-speaking world, thanks to a Penguin translation. Stylistically varied, it moves between impassioned prose outbursts against injustice and a more lyrical mode that celebrates black ancestry.

In 1937 Césaire married another Martinican, Suzanne Roussy, with whom he had six children. They moved back to Martinique, where Césaire became a teacher at the Lycée Schoelcher in Fort-de-France, in 1939. Along with Suzanne and René Ménil he edited the influential review Tropiques, which further developed the ideas of Negritude from 1940 to 1943.

In 1947 he was a co-founder of another highly influential Paris-based journal, Présence Africaine. His classic Discours sur le colonialisme (1950; Discourse on Colonialism, 1972) came out of a speech in which he indicted American imperialism along with older forms of colonialism.

Césaire was elected mayor of Fort-de-France in 1945, a position he was to hold with just one brief interruption until 2001, and he also became a deputy in France's National Assembly, where he served from 1946 until 1956 and again from 1958 until 1993. He dominated Martinican political life in the decades that followed his appointment to these two positions and played a pivotal role in the formation of the policy of départementalisation, which integrated Martinique into metropolitan France as one of a number of newly founded DOMs (départements d'outre mers / overseas departments).

DOM status was intended to end colonialism by giving France's overseas colonies parity with departments in metropolitan France, but with decision-making still centred in Paris, it was subsequently considered highly controversial and many came to feel that it worked to the detriment of Martinique. Césaire was affiliated with the French Communist Party, but left this in 1956 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. He founded the Martinique Progressive Party in 1958 and later allied himself with the Socialist Party in France, supporting Ségolène Royal in the 2007 French elections.

Césaire taught the Martinican psychologist and cultural theorist Franz Fanon, whose more vehemently activist writings extended debates about ways of combating colonialism in the 1960s. He was also a significant influence on another younger contemporary, Edouard Glissant, who moved away from Negritude towards the notion of antillanité, which emphasised the Caribbeanness of Martinican identity.

Increasingly, a later generation of black intellectuals came to feel that Césaire's critique of colonialism was not radical enough and he was also attacked for not writing in French Creole. At the same time the ideas of Negritude came under fire for suggesting that all persons of African descent shared common inherited characteristics. However, unlike Senghor, who argued that African consciousness is innately different from European, since it functions through an intuitive form of thinking in which the analytical faculties are subordinate to the emotional, Césaire saw Negritude as a historical phenomenon that had evolved from commonalities in the post-colonial history of African peoples, particularly the experience of the Atlantic slave ships and plantation slavery.

Césaire's other volumes of poetry include Les Armes miraculeuses ( "Miraculous Weapons", 1946), Le Corps perdu (1950; Disembodied, 1973), a collection with illustrations by Picasso, and Ferrements ("Ironwork", 1960). An English edition of his Collected Poetry was published in 1983. His plays include La Tragédie du roi Christophe (1963; The Tragedy of King Christophe, 1970), another work concerned with aspects of the Haitian Revolution, Une saison au Congo (1967; A Season in the Congo, 1969), which deals with the death of Patrice Lumumba, and Une Tempête (1969; A Tempest, 1985), an adaptation of Shakespeare's play which followed the French psychoanalyst and author Octave Mannoni and the Barbadian novelist George Lamming in using the play's archetypes in a critique of colonialism.

On his death, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, praised Césaire as a "great poet" and a "great humanist", and he is to be honoured with a state funeral on Sunday.

John Thieme

Aimé Fernand Césaire, poet, dramatist and politician: born Basse-Pointe, Martinique 26 June 1913; teacher, Lycée Schoelcher, Fort-de-France, Martinique, 1939-45; mayor of Fort-de-France, 1945-83, 1984-2001; deputy, French National Assembly, representing Martinique 1946-83; married 1937 Suzanne Roussy (died 1968; four sons, two daughters); died Fort-de-France, Martinique 17April 2008.