A flag of one’s own? Aimé Césaire between poetry and politics
By Gregson Davis
Aimé Césaire (1913 – 2008) has left behind an extraordinary dual legacy as eminent poet and political leader. Several critics have claimed to observe a contradiction between the vehement anti-colonial stance expressed in his writings and his political practice. Criticism has focused on his support for the law of “departmentalization” (which incorporated the French Antilles, along with other overseas territories, as administrative “departments” within the French Republic) and his reluctance to lead his country to political independence. However, this perception of contradiction is misleading. A close reading of his poetic corpus and his published essays, such as the famous Discourse on Colonialism, supports an integrated view of his social thought and political practice.
While Césaire respected the sentiment of “national pride,” he was more deeply committed to the project of restoring “black pride” — an idea that transcends the institution of a modern nation-state. When I interviewed him in Fort-de-France, the city of which he was mayor from 1945 until 1993, the first question he put to me on learning that I was a native of the Caribbean island of Antigua was: “Are Antiguans proud to be black?”
The key to arriving at a holistic view of Césaire’s ideological position is to be found, not only in his espousal of “negritude,” but also in his quest to achieve genuine “decolonization.” By his controversial support of departmental status, Césaire signaled early in his career that true decolonization should embrace not only the political and economic spheres (though he doubted Martinique’s ability to successfully “go it alone,” given the persistence of “neo-colonialist” control of global markets ), but also the domain of cultural values. The leaders of newly created independent African nation-states (such as the Senegalese, Leopold Senghor, his close friend from his student days in Paris; or Sekou Touré of Guinea, whom he celebrated in a lyric poem, “Guinée”) chose to follow the path advocated by Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah in the slogan, “Seek ye first the political kingdom.” Césaire, on the other hand, understood in a very prescient way that “neo-colonialism” meant that economic exploitation invariably persists even after the hoisting of a new national flag.
Decolonization and negritude were inseparable in Césaire’s thinking. Both were ambitious projects for remaking ex-colonial Martinican society by reinstating pride among its people of color. As his signature poem, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (“Journal of a Homecoming,” in my English rendition) discloses, he saw negritude as an ongoing process of resurrecting a positive racial identity for peoples of African descent in the face of the degradation inflicted on them by European colonial powers. In this regard he shared the insight of the historian and political leader, the Trinidadian Eric Williams, that racism in its New World incarnation had been cooked up by the slave owners as a rationalization for enslavement of Africans. He therefore came to regard the Haitian Revolution, in which the slaves of the wealthy colony of Saint-Domingue (as Haiti was called under colonial French rule) successfully wrested power from their masters, as the historic crucible of negritude. As Césaire puts it in an arresting passage in the Journal, Haiti was the place “where for the first time negritude stood up tall and straight and declared that it believed in its humanity.”
For Césaire, then, negritude, as incarnated in the Haitian revolution, involves adopting a rebellious stance against the dehumanization of blacks. This theme is present in several of his plays, such as A Tempest, which explores the psychological complexity of the relationship between colonizer and colonized. In his brilliant recasting of Shakespeare’s play, the monstrous figure of Caliban is transformed into an articulate, subjugated native who plots a successful rebellion against his repressive master, the European Prospero.
Césaire’s dual agenda was, at bottom, “moral” in conception. His consistent goal, as poet and politician, was to promote genuine equality for the blacks of his homeland in the sphere of public policy no less than in social relations.
During his long service as deputy from Martinique to the French parliament, he acted as moral gadfly by making uncompromising “interventions” in order to ensure that the Antilles, as an “overseas department,” received treatment equal to that of the departments in continental France. He continued to play this role even after his official retirement, most famously in his brush with the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy: Césaire publicly rebuked him after he made a notorious remark on the benefits of French colonialism. By an ironic twist of fate, Sarkozy eventually made up for his lapse on the occasion of Césaire’s posthumous canonization in the French Panthéon by delivering a laudatory tribute to the great writer and statesman, in which he declared: “To tell the truth, he never ceased to goad France into examining its conscience.” [My translation.]
When I once asked him in a conversation in the mayor’s office what he thought of the radical independence movement (then centered in the sister island of Guadeloupe), he replied: “The French do not want independence.” Since the blacks of the French Caribbean were citizens of France, he was content to re-affirm the preference of the majority to retain their departmental status. For those who deplore this preference, I offer the following challenge: visit a few of the independent mini-states of the Caribbean archipelago and compare their economic and social progress with that of the Martinique bequeathed by the Césairean gadfly.
Gregson Davis is Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at New York University, where his research focuses on the interpretation of poetic texts in the Greco-Roman as well as Caribbean traditions. He has taught previously at Stanford University, Cornell University, and Duke University. His published work includes a biography of Aimé Césaire (Cambridge University Press, 1997), translations of Césaire’s poetry (Stanford University Press, 1984), and the entry on Césaire in The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, available online at the Oxford African American Studies Center.
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