Monday, 21 April 2008

Aimé Fernand David Césaire (1913 to 2008) – A Tribute


"Poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge...What presides over the poem is not the most lucid intelligence, the sharpest sensibility or the subtlest feelings, but experience as a whole.”

(via A Poetics of Anticolonialism)

Photo from AP

The much loved and revered poet, author and politician Aimé Césaire was laid to rest in Martinique in a state funeral yesterday. Arguably mostly renowned for spear-heading the Pan-African and anti-colonial movement by being part of the trio that coined the concept and movement “negritude” (defined as the affirmation that one is black and proud of it) while studying and living in Paris in the 1930s, with his friends Léon Damas (from French Guiana) and Léopold Senghor (the then future president of Senegal) in their joint university publication L’etudiant Noir (The Black Student), a literary review whose goal was to unite students of the Diaspora – from Africa and the West Indies.

In one of his most renowned works, a book-long poem titled Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1947) (Notebook of a return to my native land), Césaire embraced and celebrated the ancestral homelands of Africa and the Caribbean.

ma negritude n’est pas une pierre, sa surdite ruee contre
la clameur du jour
ma negritude n’est pas une taie d’eau morte sur l’il
mort de la terre
ma negritude n’est ni une tour ni une cathedrale
elle plonge dans la chair rouge du sol
elle plonge dans la chair ardente du ciel
elle troue l’accablement opaque de sa droite patience.


my Negritude is not a stone, its deafness dashed against
the clamor of the day
my Negritude is not an opaque spot of dead water
on the dead eye of the earth
my Negritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral
it plunges into the red flesh of the soil
it plunges into the ardent flesh of the sky
it pierces opaque prostration with its upright patience

(via A Slant Truth)

Césaire's unapologetic attack on Eurocentric hegemony and notions of restoring African identity was later elaborated on in Discours sur le Colonialisme (1955) (Discourse on Colonialism), a manifesto which is said to have influenced one of his equally influential students, Frantz Fanon in his revolutionary pontification “Black Skin, White Masks” (1967), which examines the psychological, cultural and social damage inflicted by colonialism. A book on Césaire's collected works is available here.

Excerpt from The Independent orbituary -

The three young men [Césaire, Damas and Senghor] drew inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance's efforts to promote the richness of African cultural identity and particularly opposed French assimilationist policies.
During these years Césaire began to develop the ideas for his most famous poem, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1939; translated as Return to My Native Land, 1969), the work in which he coined the term "négritude". The surrealist André Breton, who became a good friend of Césaire's after a 1942 visit to Martinique and who helped to introduce his work to Parisian literary circles, called the Cahier "the greatest lyric monument of this time".


Drawing on surrealist techniques, the poem took its inspiration from the Martinican landscape and Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the first phase of the Haitian Revolution, whose biography Césaire would later write (Toussaint Louverture: la révolution française et le problème colonial, published 1960). It asserted a claim to Afro-Caribbean ownership of the archipelago, "which is one of the two sides of the incandescence through which the equator walks its tightrope to Africa".

The poem explores the distinctiveness of black cultural identity in a historically grounded manner that prefigures the black consciousness movements of the 1960s, the decade when it became popular in the English-speaking world, thanks to a Penguin translation. Stylistically varied, it moves between impassioned prose outbursts against injustice and a more lyrical mode that celebrates black ancestry.


A noteworthy article on Césaire, his life and his works is published in LIP magazine. Other tributes but to name a few, include Antilles and Global Voices.

Photos published in Le Figaro (via Antilles)


Perhaps the most disconcerting thought upon reflecting on Césaire's works is how relevant they remain today in a post-colonial world.


- Repos dans la paix -

5 comments:

Mwangi said...

I definitely think we are long overdue to have a renaissance of the ideas of the negritude, Afrocentric and pan-African thinkers...though I think we should definitely pull their ideas out of academia and reports and thesis and make them accessible and understandable, and applied by all.

aulelia said...

RIP Cesaire. What an incredible human being who cared about black people.

seinlife said...

I am black and proud! RIP brother!

Sci-culturist said...

@ mwangi: i am a pan-africanist at heart, so it is easy for me to agree with you. however, i also get the feeling that we need to sort out our individual backyards before we proceed. afterall, garbage in = garbage out.

@ aulelia & seinlife: amen and amen! thanks for passing by.

Mwangi said...

@sci: I think whatever garbage we as African people are continually feeding ourselves can be cleared and have its space taken over by Afrocentric and Negritude and Black Consciousness ideas; after all these ideas really speak to our self-interests on sooo many levels.