Aimé Césaire Biography
The West Indian playwright and politician Aimé Césaire emerged as one of the leading voices in the négritude movement in the 1930s. Searching for a way to unite the peoples of the African diaspora, Césaire and future Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor coined the term "negritude" while studying in Paris in the 1930s. It urged blacks to reject the idea of nationalism as well as that of any white influence upon one's culture, and instead embrace and celebrate one's African heritage. The American poet Langston Hughes was one of the first to adopt it.
The Martinique-born Césaire wrote a number of plays and poems in his native French, but his best-known work translated for English-speaking audiences may be the epic poem Return to My Native Land. Long active in Martinican politics, he served in the French National Assembly as a representative of his island nation for decades; he was also mayor of Fort-de-France, the capital city. In a 1995 Research in African Literatures essay, Lilyan Kesteloot called him an "extraordinary man who has profoundly marked two generations of African intellectuals and who continues to stir the students who study him in our schools and universities."
Born on June 25, 1913, in Basse-Pointe, Césaire grew up in a Martinique that had been a colony of France since 1635. It grew sugar and tobacco, and had been the subject of a long battle between the British and the French for hegemony. Once populated by Carib Indians, Martinique was a slave state until 1848, and the descendants of those slaves emerged as a strong political voice on the island nation in the twentieth century. Césaire's political awareness was shaped by his time in Paris, where he arrived in 1931 for further schooling. He fell in with many other black students from other French colonies, especially those from Africa, like Senghor, and was active in the Society for African Culture. Along with Senghor and Léon Damas, he helped found L'Étudiant noir, or "The Black Student," a magazine of black culture and politics in 1934.
Césaire studied at the Sorbonne and wrote poetry during his years in Paris. His major work, Return to My Native Land, was penned as he planned his return to Martinique. The 1,000-line poem first appeared in an issue of Volontes in 1939, in the original French, but it caused a sensation. "Bristling with learned words, neologisms, and a hypercomplex syntax, it made a direct hit on the African continent as well as on the intellectuals in the Antilles, and even those of anglophone or lusophone [Portuguese-speaking] Africa," noted Kesteloot.
Return to My Native Land contained the first-ever use of the term "négritude," and the idea incited an entire generation of post-colonial writers and minds, in both the Caribbean world and on the African continent. "The West told us that in order to be universal we had to start by denying that we were black," Césaire explained about the concept in an interview with in a UNESCO Courier writer Annick Thebia Melsan. "I, on the contrary, said to myself that the more we were black, the more universal we would be. It was a totally different approach. It was not a choice between alternatives, but an effort at reconciliation."
When he returned to Martinique, Césaire taught at a lycée (school) in Fort-de-France for several years, and also served as editor of Tropiques, a magazine that was censored by the French authorities on orders of the collaborationist Vichy government at a time when France, still Martinique's master, was occupied by Nazi Germany. After the end of World War II, Césaire emerged as a leading political figure and was elected mayor of Fort-de-France in 1945. The following year, he won a seat representing Martinique in the French National Assembly, and was regularly returned to it by voters.
Initially a member of Martinique's Communist party, Césaire abandoned the party in 1957 to co-found and later head the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais (PPM). The PPM was left-leaning, but did not call for full independence. Instead it advocated maintaining ties to France but with self-rule, a plan that Césaire helped author in the late 1940s. When this plan was adopted, Martinique shed its colonial status and instead became an overseas département of France, equal in the political sphere to storied French areas like Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur and Bretagne, or Brittany. The island is one of four overseas départements, and has a relationship to France similar to that of Puerto Rico to the United States. It is heavily subsidized by France, too, giving it a much higher standard of living than members of some other Caribbean island nations. "The anomaly of modern-day Martinique is hence largely Césaire's creation," declared Guardian writer James Ferguson. "A part of France—and by extension the European Union—with identical laws, directives and welfare provisions, it is a subsidised first-world enclave in the Caribbean, eyed enviously yet condescendingly by its poorer but independent neighbours."
Césaire served as mayor of Fort-de-France until 1983, and in addition to his legislative duties in Paris he also continued to write. He turned to playwriting in the late 1950s, and the first of his works for the stage to be translated and performed in English was The Tragedy of King Christophe. The work is set in Haiti and follows the true story of King Henri Christophe, a hotel employee who led a rebellion in 1806 and became king of a large portion of Haiti. He ruled as a petty tyrant, and was himself ousted by a rebellion and committed suicide. Césaire's cautionary tale, noted an essay on his career as a playwright in the International Dictionary of Theatre, serves as "an account of political failure. Christophe's inability to free his people from the alienation induced by centuries of colonialism sounds a warning to the leaders of newly independent Africa."
Césaire's plays have touched upon other political themes from the history of a post-colonial world. A 1968 work, A Season in the Congo, centers around the independence movement and subsequent civil strife involving assassinated Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba. His 1985 play, A Tempest, was adapted from the Shakespeare work and features a cast of leading characters who represent the various classes of a post-colonial, African-heritage political atmosphere.
Césaire retired from politics in 1993 at the age of 80. Four years later, interviewed by the UNESCO Courier's Melsan, he remained committed to the ideals he once detailed in his writings as a college student in Paris. "I desire—passionately—that peoples should exist as peoples, that they should prosper and make their contribution to universal civilization, because the world of colonization and its modern manifestations is a world that crushes, a world of awful silence."
Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (poems), 1947; revised edition 1956; published as Return to My Native Land, translated by John Berger and Anna Bostock, Penguin, 1969.
Corps perdu (poems), with illustrations by Pablo Picasso, 1950; published as Lost Body, translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, Braziller, 1986.
Cadastre (poems), 1961; published as Cadastre, translated by Emile Snyder and Sanford Upson, Third Press, 1973.
La Tragédie du roi Christophe (play; produced in Salzburg, Austria, 1964), 1963; revised edition, 1970; published as The Tragedy of King Christophe, translated by Ralph Manheim, Grove Press, 1970.
Une Saison au Congo (play; produced by the Théâtre Vivant, Brussels, Belgium, 1966), 1966; published as A Season in the Congo, translated by Manheim, Grove Press, 1968.
State of the Union (poems), translated by Eshleman and Denis Kelly, distributed by Asphodel Book Shop, 1966.
Une Tempete: Adaptation pour un théâtre nègre, from The Tempest by Shakespeare (play; produced in Hammamet, Tunisia, 1969), 1969; published as A Tempest, translated by Richard Miller, G. Borchardt, 1985.
Culture and Colonization (nonfiction), University of Yaounde, 1978.
Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-82, translated by Eshleman and Smith, University Press of Virginia, 1990.
Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry, translated by Eshleman and Smith, University of California Press, 1983.
Non-Vicious Circle: Twenty Poems, translated by Gregson Davis, Stanford University Press, 1984.
Arnold, A. James, Modernism and Négritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire, Harvard University Press, 1981.
Davis, Gregson, Aimé Césaire, Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Frutkin, Susan, Aimé Césaire: Black between Worlds, University of Miami, 1973.
International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 2: Playwrights, St. James Press, 1993.
Pallister, Janis L., Aimé Césaire, Twayne, 1991.
Scharfman, Ronnie Leah, Engagement and the Language of the Subject in the Poetry of Aimé Césaire, University of Florida Press, 1987.
Suk, Jeannie, Postcolonial Paradoxes in French Caribbean Writing: Césaire, Glissant, Condé, Clarendon, 2001.
Guardian (London, England), March 13, 1999, p. 10.
Research in African Literatures, Summer 1995, p. 169, p. 174; Winter 2001, p. 77.
UNESCO Courier, May 1997, p. 4.
"Aimé Césaire," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (October 12, 2004).