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Aimé Fernand Césaire (1913-2008): The Clarity of Struggle

And you lied to me so much, about the world, about myself, that you ended up by imposing on me an image of myself:
underdeveloped, in your words, undercompetent
that’s how you made me see myself!
And I hate that image…and it’s false!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
And I also know myself!
And I know that one day
my bare fist, just that,
will be enough to crush your world!

—from Caliban’s last speech in Une Tempète (1968) by Aimé Césaire,
who called his play a “radical” adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

The poet, dramatist, and politician, Aimé Césaire, who died on April 17, aged ninety-four, saw this work, indeed all his work, as a weapon, perhaps best exemplified in Une Tempète. In his introduction to it, Robin G. D. Kelley, wrote “the weapon of poetry may be Césaire’s greatest gift to a world still searching for freedom.”

Césaire was a major twentieth century voice for the dismantling of Western imperialism. Born in Martinique, he joined the anticolonial movement, learned his Marxism, and honed his art as a student in Paris in the 1920s. It was there that, with his friend Léopold Senghor (who would go on to be president of Senegal), he advanced the notion of négritude, “the simple recognition of the fact that one is black, the acceptance of this fact and of our destiny as blacks, of our history and culture.” Négritude became a rallying cry and organizing principle of national liberation movements that led the way to the end of the European colonial system after the Second World War.

It also informed all of Césaire’s literary effort, hailed by Jean Paul Sartre as work “that explodes and whirls about itself like a rocket, suns burst forth whirling and exploding like new suns, it perpetually surpasses itself.” Césaire’s négritude became the underpinning for Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1967). In his book length 1939 poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to The Native Land) Césaire wrote:

…those who have invented neither powder nor compass
those who could harness neither steam nor electricity
those who explored neither the seas nor the sky but those
without whom the earth would not be the earth
gibbosity all the more beneficent as the bare earth even more earth
silo where that which is earthiest about earth ferments and ripens
my negritude is not a stone, its deafness hurled against the clamor of day
my negritude is not a leukoma of dead liquid over the earth’s dead eye
my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral
it takes root in the red flesh of the soil
it takes root in the ardent flesh of the sky
it breaks through opaque prostration with its upright patience

Césaire’s major political work, Discourse on Colonialism (Monthly Review Press, 1972)* remains as critical to anti-imperialist struggles today as when it was first published in French in 1953. In it he sets forth the critical idea that Western imperial culture is constructed on the oppression and humiliation of peoples of color in the third world and that “It is equally necessary to decolonize our minds, our inner life, at the same time we decolonize society.”

Césaire recognized that, partly as a consequence of both the paucity of our knowledge and the poverty of our imagination, the clamber for liberation would be a long one. But he did not despair; instead he noted that often “poetic knowledge is born in the silence of scientific knowledge.” It was certainly true for him in his long life.


* Readers can order the new edition of Discourse on Colonialism with an introduction, “A Poetics of Anticolonialism” by Robin D. G. Kelley,  by calling 1-800-670-9499 or by visiting the store.

John J. Simon has been a book editor and public radio and television producer. He is a director of the Monthly Review Foundation.

2008, Volume 60, Issue 02 (June)
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