A poet of Black pride

May 6, 2008

The life and work of revolutionary, anti-imperialist poet and playwright Aimé Césaire.

Because, after all, we must resign ourselves to the inevitable and say to ourselves, once for all, that the bourgeoisie is condemned to become every day more snarling, more openly ferocious, more shameless, more summarily barbarous; that it is an implacable law that every decadent class finds itself turned into a receptacle into which there flow all the dirty waters of history; that it is a universal law that before it disappears, every class must first disgrace itself completely, on all fronts, and that it is with their heads buried in the dunghill that dying societies utter their swan songs.
--Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, 1950

POET, PLAYWRIGHT, politician and passionate anti-imperialist Aimé Césaire has died at the grand age of 94, having spanned most of the 20th century and participated in many of its most important historical moments.

Born in the French colony of Martinique in 1913, Césaire was one of the minority of bright young people selected by the French government to become part of the colonial elite: he won a scholarship that took him to Paris for a formal French education.

But far from obediently accepting the dictates of their colonial conditioning, Césaire along with a generation of African and Caribbean students, including Léopold Senghor of Senegal and Léon Damas of French Guiana, instead pioneered a revolutionary critique of colonialism, racism and capitalism that helped ushered in the era of mass national liberation struggles across the colonized world in the 1950s and 1960s.

Coalescing around the journal L'Etudiant Noir (The Black Student) and drawing on major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, Césaire and others developed the theory of Négritude, which rejected the racist Eurocentrism that sanctified empire and reclaimed pre-colonial African cultural heritage.

On his return to Martinique, Césaire continued this project as editor, with his wife Suzanne (Roussy), of the journal Tropiques. He was also a founder of Présence Africaine, which played a significant role in the pan-African cultural movement. His 1950 Discourse on Colonialism powerfully indicts colonialism and exposes the racism and brutality at the heart of capitalism.

He was always a political activist as well as a theorist: He was, for some time, in the French Communist Party, but broke with Stalinism after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Like many former Communists, he turned to reformist politics: He founded the Martinique Progressive Party in 1958, and later affiliated with the French Socialist Party.

He also pioneered the movement that converted Martinique and other French colonies into overseas departments of France (département d'outre mers, or DOMs). He was a representative for Martinique in the French National Assembly and was elected mayor of Fort-de-France, a position he held for an almost unbroken period from 1945 until 2001.

CÉSAIRE IS most famous for his artistic contribution. His celebrated poetic work, Cahier d'un Retour au Pays Natal (Return to My Native Land; written in 1939 and translated into English in 1969), is a breathtaking combination of beautiful figurative invention and anti-colonial polemic. The surrealist André Breton recognized it as a work of genius, and in turn, Césaire increasingly used surrealism in his radical aesthetic.

In the 1960s, he wrote a trilogy of plays: La Tragédie du Roi Christophe (The Tragedy of King Christophe), set in the period following the Haitian revolution, is also a commentary on post-independence dictatorships in the former colonies; Une Saison au Congo (A Season in the Congo) explores the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the anti-colonial leader and first prime minister of the Republic of Congo, who was removed by a coup and assassinated with the blessing of the CIA.

Une Tempête (A Tempest) is an irreverent rewriting of Shakespeare's Tempest, with Caliban, portrayed by colonialist writers as the natural savage, recast as a defiant freedom fighter. The first thing he says is "Uhuru"--the Swahili word for freedom that was an important slogan of the national liberation and Black Power movements--and he rejects his given name in favor of X.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy presided over a state funeral in honor of Césaire and also led the campaign to name Martinique's airport for him. So do rulers try to domesticate freedom fighters, burying their revolutionary politics with boulevards and memorials. Césaire, in fact, in 2005, refused an invitation to meet with Sarkozy on the grounds of his endorsement of colonialism, declaring, "I remain faithful to my beliefs and remain inflexibly anti-colonialist."

The best tribute we can pay this great figure is to read his work, and to continue his struggle against the horrors and injustices of colonial occupation--which are as apparent in Iraq today as in the European colonies of half a century ago.

I look around and wherever there are colonizers and colonized face to face, I see force, brutality, cruelty, sadism, conflict...I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out.
--Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism

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