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 Caldwell Taylor  

Aime Fernand Cesaire

"My turn to state an equation: colonization =thingification"
-Aime Cesaire  

Aime Fernand Cesaire, poet, playwright, politician,and Martinique's favourite son for more than six decades, died at the Fort de France Hospital on April 17; he was 94. 

He was born on June 26, 1913, in the rural community of Basse- Pointe, not far from St Pierre, Martinique's old capital city which was devastated in the Mt Pelee eruption of 1902: thirty thousand perished in the  Mt Pelee inferno.   

Aime's parents were ambitious individuals.  They knew that a sound education was the most important vehicle for the upward mobility of blacks in colonial Martinique, so they preached this to Aime and his five siblings. 

Young Aime was a bright boy and he eventually won an educational scholarship that took him to the prestigious Lycee Victor Schoelcher in Fort de France,the Martinican capital, at age 11.

He graduated from Schoelcher in 1931, winning distinctions in French, Latin, English and history. By the time of his graduation Aime had forged an unbreakable bond with one of his Schoelcher classmates, Leon-Gontram Damas (1912-1978),who came to Martinique from Guyane (French Guiana).  

In the year of their graduation, Aime and Leon travelled to France where, with Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal, they would found the Negritude movement; Aime coined the neologism ("negritude") in a piece which appeared in March 1935 issue ofL"Edutiant Noir (The Black Student).           


Negritude was a literary Garveyism. In addition to the ideas of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, the movement was influenced by the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, especially Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and the Jamaican-born poet and novelist Claude McKay (1889-1948).

 "Negritude was really a resistance to the politics of assimilation", said Cesaire to Haitian poet and essayist Rene Depestre, when the two men got talking while attending the 1967 Cultural Congress in Havana, Cuba.

 The heady ideas of Negritude won converts all over the world, but was rejected by Frantz Fanon (1925-61), the Martinican-born psychiatrist and revolutionary theoretican, who was Cesaire's student at Lycee Victor Schoelcher in the 1940s(Ceasire did a stint of teaching when he returned to Martinique in 1939, after spending 8 years in France). There is probably a degree of Oedipal rebellion in Fanon's rejection of Negritude: Cesaire was a father figure to the "sensitive young man" whose biological father died in 1947. Fanon said:   

"I have no wish to be the victim of the Fraud of a black world. My life
should not be devoted to drawing up the balance sheet of Negro values.
There is no white world, there is no white ethic, any more than there is
a white intelligence. There are in every part of the world men who
search. I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for
the meaning of my destiny. I should constantly remind myself
that the real leap consists in
introduction invention into existence.
In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself."

(Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks,1952)  

Fanon's critique is a repudiation of Negritude's racial essentialism. There is no reason to quarrel with this, but Fanon goes on make a somewhat reckless embrace of proletarian internationalism, dismissing the historical experience of Black folk- including double consciousness and double socialization-and, indeed, ignoring Marx himself( Fanon was a Marxist), who said in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852):  

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do
not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances
existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The traditions of all
dead generations weight like a nightmareon the brains of the living".  

Fanon would probably have revised himself if he had the time; he died in December 1961 at the tender age of 36.


Negritude has attracted very many critiques since Fanon's  Black Skin White Mask.

Martinician Rene Menil had Negritude in his crosshairs when he commented: "the Caribbean is neither African, nor Chinese, nor Indian, not even French, but ultimately West Indian".

Edouard Glissant, another of Cesaire's former students, also challenged the "Old Man", rejecting Negritude's embrace of African roots. The father of Antillante (Caribbeaness), Glissant favours rhizome over roots- the horizontal over the vertical.

Cultural theorists Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, have fashioned theories that reject negritude. The Jamaican-born Hall substitutes "roots" with routes. Again, an embrace of the horizontal over the vertical.

The founders of Creolite- Bernabe, Chamoiseau and Confiant- have declared Negritude "an African illusion". Creolite is something of a restatement of Glissant's Antillante.    

The scholarship of Guyana's Wilson Harris (1921-) is the antithesis of Negritude: Harris wants to supplant the "dialectics of protest" with a "cross cultural imagination". Speaking of the Caribbean in the course of a 1970 lecture the novelist and philosopher observed:

"In a society which has been shot through by diverse inter-racial features and inter-continental thresholds, we need a philosophy of history which is original to us and yet capable of universal application".

Harris cries out for originality. We are, he says, a New World people, and we ought to use this historical accident to create new ideas and new philosophies.  Above all, says Harris, we must resist the temptation to mimic the Old World, especially its solitudes of race. 

Looking around the Caribbean for homemade philosophies of history, Harris concluded (in 1970) that the Anglophone Caribbean had given birth to just two historians of note: Elsa Goveia (1925-1980), and CLR James (1901-1989).

Guyanese born Goveia was known for her intellectual rigour, a quality that was put on unpretentious display when she rebuked Eric Williams (1911-1981) for his shortcomings in what was Williams' angriest and most polemical work, British Historians and the West Indies. CLR James was the author of Black Jacobins (1938),a founding text of Caribbean historiography.


 Cesaire does not fall with the collapse of negritude, for there were many sides to this great man.

There was the Cesaire who immersed  himself in Martinican and  Third World politics, preaching a passionate anti-colonialism-the stuff that appears in his Discourse on Colonialism, which helped to frame a Third World responses to colonialism and imperialism.

Cesaire joined the Communist party in 1945 and in that same year he was elected mayor of Fort de France. Except for a short break in 1983-1984, Cesaire held the mayor's job from 1945 until 2001.

Also in 1945, Cesaire was elected one of three Martinique deputies to the French National Assembly. He would sit in the National Assembly from 1946-56 (as a communist).  He returned to the National Assembly in 1958; this time on the ticket of the Martinique Progressive Party. Cesaire continued in the National Assembly until 1993.  

As a deputy in the French National Assembly, Cesaire made the case for the France's absorption of Martinique and other French colonies. Absorption came in 1946, when the "former French colonies" became " overseas departments" of France. Cesaire lived to reject departmentalism.  By 1955 he would come out strongly against it. 

In 1956 Cesaire was at the first Congress of Negro Writers and Artists, which was held in Paris, France, from September 19-22. The congress was sponsored by Presence Africaine, an organization Cesaire helped to found in 1947. Franz Fanon and George Lamming were also at the 1956 congress; Lamming delivered a paper on "The Negro Writer and the World".

It bears stating that the historic 1956 congress laid the groundwork for the 1966 first World Festival of Negro Arts (Festival Mondial des Arts Negres) held in Dakar (Senegal) under the patronage of President Leopold Sedar Senghor.

Also in 1956, Cesaire penned his "Letter to Maurice" [ Thorez], the leader of the French Communist Party.  The letter denounced Stalinism and was altogether a statement of Cesaire's disillusionment with communism.  The break with the communists saw Cesaire creating his own Martinique Progressive Party in 1958.

But Cesaire was first and foremost a writer. He completed his epic Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Return to My Native Land)  in  1939. In his 1967 exchange with Rene Despetre, Cesaire described Cahier as an "autobiographical book, but at the same time a book in which I tried to gain an understanding of myself".

He cautioned Depestre: "You must remember that it is a young person's book: I wrote it just after I had finished my studies and had come back to Martinique [in 1939]". He was only 26.   

Depestre , who is the uncle of Michaelle Jean, the Haitian-born Governor-General of Canada, was also a critic of negritude.

Cesaire's early poetry was influenced by Claudel, Lautreamont, Rimbaud and Mallarme. Starting in the forties,he embraced surrealism and its prophets, including Andre Breton who once described Cesaire's Cahier as "the greatest lyrical monument of our time"

Cesaire described surrealism as a "liberating factor that helped him "to summon up unconscious forces".   

And he was a mighty force for liberation.
We pay homage to Aime Cesaire, the poet who gave
lyrical expression to our aspirations, the humanist
who amplified our voice and enhanced our self-concept. 

  April 20,2008


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