AIME: REMEMBERING AIME CESAIRE
"My turn to state an equation:
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
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
Garvey, the movement was
influenced by the writers and artists of the Harlem
(1902-1967) and the Jamaican-born poet and novelist
"Negritude was really a resistance to the politics
of assimilation", said Cesaire to Haitian poet and
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
(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
There is no white
world, there is no white ethic, any more than there
intelligence. There are in every part of the world
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
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):
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
given and transmitted from the past. The traditions
weight like a nightmareon the brains of the
Fanon would probably have revised himself if he had
the time; he died in December 1961 at the tender age
OTHER CRITICS AND CRITIQUES
Negritude has attracted very many critiques since
Fanon's Black Skin White Mask.
had Negritude in his crosshairs when he commented:
"the Caribbean is neither African, nor Chinese, nor
Indian, not even French, but ultimately West
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.
have fashioned theories that reject negritude. The
Jamaican-born Hall substitutes "roots" with routes.
Again, an embrace of the horizontal over the
The founders of
have declared Negritude "an African illusion".
Creolite is something of a restatement of Glissant's
The scholarship of Guyana's
(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
inter-racial features and inter-continental
thresholds, we need a philosophy of history which is
original to us and yet capable of universal
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:
Guyanese born Goveia was known for her intellectual
rigour, a quality that was put on unpretentious
display when she rebuked
(1911-1981) for his shortcomings in what was
Williams' angriest and most polemical work,
the West Indies. CLR
James was the author of
(1938),a founding text of Caribbean historiography.
MUCH MORE THAN NEGRITUDE
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
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
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
the Haitian-born Governor-General of Canada, was
also a critic of negritude.
Cesaire's early poetry was influenced by
Starting in the forties,he embraced surrealism and
its prophets, including
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
And he was a mighty force for liberation.
We pay homage to
Aime Cesaire, the poet who gave
expression to our aspirations, the humanist
who amplified our
voice and enhanced our self-concept.