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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
A poster by Durham Constabulary
news
Arts and Entertainment
books New York Times slammed over summer reading list
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine