Aimé Césaire was born June 26, 1913, in Basse-Pointe, a small town on the northeast coast of Martinique in the French Caribbean. He attended the Lycée Schoelcher in Martinique, and the Parisian schools Ecole Normale Supérieure and the Lycée Louis-le-Grand.
His books of poetry include Lost Body (George Braziller, 1986), with illustrations by Pablo Picasso, Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry (University of California Press, 1983), and Return to My Native Land (Penguin Books, 1969). He is also a playwright, and has written The Tempest (G. Borchardt, 1968), based on Shakespeare’s play, and A Season at Congo (Grove Press, 1966), among others.
About his work, Jean-Paul Sarte wrote: “A Césaire poem explodes and whirls about itself like a rocket, suns burst forth whirling and exloding like new suns—it perpetually surpasses itself.”
He is also the author of Discourse on Colonialism (Monthly Review Press, 1950), a book of essays which has become a classic text of French political literature and helped establish the literary and ideological movement Negritude, a term Césaire defined as “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.”
As a student he and his friend, Léopold Senghor of Sénégal created L’Etudiant noir, a publication that brought together students of Africa and the West Indies. Later, with his wife, Suzanne Roussi, Césaire co-founded Tropiques, a journal dedicated to American black poetry. Both journals were a stronghold for the ideas of Negritude.
Césaire is a recipient of the International Nâzim Hikmet Poetry Award, the second winner in its history. He served as Mayor of Fort-de-France as a member of the Communist Party, and later quit the party to establish his Martinique Independent Revolution Party. He was deeply involved in the struggle for French West Indian rights and served as the deputy to the French National Assembly. He retired from politics in 1993. Césaire died on April 17, 2008 in Martinique.
A Selected Bibliography
Lost Body (George Braziller, 1986)
Aime Cesaire, The Collected Poetry (University of California Press, 1983)
Non-Vicious Circle (Stanford University Press, 1984)
Cadastre (Third Press, 1973)
Return to My Native Land (Penguin Books, 1969)
State of the Union (Asphodel Book Shop, 1966)
Discourse on Colonialism (Monthly Review Press, 1972)
A Tempest (G. Borchardt, 1985)
The Tragedy of King Christophe (Grove Press, 1969)
A Season in the Congo (Grove Press, 1968)
SOURCE: "Aimé Césaire," in Voices of négritude: The Expression of Black Experience in the Poetry of Senghor, Césaire & Damas, Judson Press, 1970, pp. 53-62.
[in the following essay, Jones discusses the defining characteristics of Césaire's work.]
In her excellent book on Aimé Césaire and his works, in the Poètes d'Aujourd'hui series, Lilyan Kesteloot appraises the extraordinary talent of this Afro-French, West Indian poet as follows:
Je ne vois pas dans I'histoire de la littérature française une personnalité qui ait à ce point intégré des éléments aussi divers que la conscience raciale, la creátion artistique et l'action politique. Je ne vois pas de personnalité aussi puissamment unifiée et à la fois aussi complexe que celle de Césaire. Et c'est là, sans doute, que réside le secret de l'exceptionnelle densité d'une poésie qui s'est, à un degré extrême, chargée de toute la cohérence d'une vie d'homme.1
I do not see in the history of French literature a personality who has so highly integrated such diverse elements as racial consciousness, artistic creation, and political action. I do not see any personality so powerfully unified and at the same time so complex as that of Césaire. And, without doubt, therein resides the secret of the exceptional density of a poetry which has, to an extreme degree, taken on itself all the coherence of a man's life.
Paying eloquent tribute to Césaire's rare poetic gifts in his Préface to Césaire's first major collection, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, the "high priest" of French surrealistic poetry, André Breton, who discovered Césaire during a visit to Martinique, has this to say in that Preface, titled "Un grand poète noir" [To a Great Black Poet]:
Et c'est un noir qui manie la langue française comme il n'est pas aujourd'hui un blanc pour la manier. Et c'est un noir celui qui nous guide aujourd'hui dans l'inexploré, établissant au fur et à mesure, comme en se jouant, les contacts qui nous font avancer sur des étincelles. Et c'est un noir qui est non seulement un noir mais tout l'homme, qui en exprime toutes les interrogations, toutes les angoisses, tous les espoirs et toutes les extases et qui s'imposera de plus en plus à moi comme le prototype de la dignité.
A black man it is who masters the French language as no white man can today. A black man it is who guides us today through unexplored lands building as he goes the contacts that will make us progress on sparks. A black man it is who embodies not simply the black race but all mankind, its queries and anxieties, its hopes and ecstasies and who will remain for me the symbol of dignity.2
Just who is this black poet who has elicited such flattering appraisals from persons best equipped to appreciate his genius? To understand Césaire's complexities and the magnitude of his anger, we are reminded by his biographer that one must understand the island which gave birth to him: Martinique, in the French West Indies, where dazzling luxury and wealth on the part of the few (whites) are in sharp contrast with the abject poverty of the masses (blacks)—where hunger, disease, and ignorance stalk the land—where former slavery and present-day exploitation have combined to crush the black masses of the population. This is especially true of Martinique, where Aimé Césaire was born in 1913, "… a miniature house which lodges in its guts of rotten wood dozens of rats, as well as the turbulence of my six brothers and sisters, a tiny cruel house whose intransigence infuriates the last days of the month …"… une maison minuscule qui abrite en ses entrailles de bois pourri des dizaines de rats et la turbulence de mes six frères et soeurs, une petite maison cruelle dont l'intransigeance affole nos fins de mois …").3 His family was, however, in the "middle" (moyen) on the scale of local wretchedness, his father being, for a time at least, an "employee of the lower-echelon government" (petit fonctionnaire) in the town of Basse-Pointe.
Even worse than the material poverty afflicting the island was the spiritual and moral bankruptcy resulting from years of domination and exploitation: the complete resignation, loss of the will to resist, and the despair and constant fear of hunger, unemployment, and the like. Moreover, a color elite had developed among non-whites, which further aggravated the real blacks.
Thanks to native intelligence, industry, and promise, Césaire was to be sent to France to pursue his secondary and higher education. The former was acquired at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, in Paris, where he met and began his lifelong friendship with Léopold Senghor. He then attended the Sorbonne and the École normale supérieure, the teacher-training school where to be admitted is an enviable distinction. Like Senghor, he graduated from both and was agrégé in literature. It was while Césaire was at the École normale supérieure, in 1935-1936, that this writer met him and introduced him to Sterling Brown via his poetic collection, Southern Road. Some years later, Césaire was to become mayor of Fort-de-France, capital of Martinique. After entering politics, he was elected delegate (délégué) to the Assemblée nationale in Paris; and in 1946, like Senghor, he was a member of the Assemblée constituante which framed the Constitution for the Fourth Republic in France (1946-1958).
Césaire's bitterness attracted him to the Communist party, a recognized political party in France's multi-party set-up, which he later abandoned. Ultimately, his ardent Communist activities made him somewhat unpopular among literary circles in France, where he still lives with his wife and daughter and continues to write.
A co-founder of L'Étudiant Noir in Paris, Césaire was also one of a group of Communist and surrealist West Indian students who founded in 1932 a magazine known as Légitime Défense.
Thus this black poet who, in the eyes of another great poet, possesses qualities of soul and genius which brought the two men together in a deep and abiding friendship also possesses a universality of interest and appeal which makes him the voice not only of his native Martinique but of all mankind. Indeed, Césaire's song is a social lament which elicits a ready response from all those who suffer from social, economic, and political injustices.
First of all, Césaire is a poet: he is essentially a singer of songs. His native sense of rhythm and his power to transform into poetry the commonest and even the ugliest aspects of life make of him a truly great poet. To quote André Breton again:
… la poésie de Césaire, comme toute grande poésie et tout grand art, vaut au plus haut point par le pouvoir de transmutation, qu'elle met en oeuvre et qui consiste, à partir des matériaux les plus déconsidérés, parmi lesquels il faut compter les laideurs et les servitudes mêmes, à produire on sait assez que ce n'est plus l'or la pierre philosophale mais bien la liberte.
Césaire's poetry, like any great poetry or art, draws its supreme value from its power of transmutation which consists in taking the most discredited materials, among which daily squalor and constraints, and ultimately producing neither gold nor the philosopher's stone any longer but freedom itself.4
Césaire's poetry, whose rhythm is suggestive of the weird and mysterious beat of the tom-tom, is replete with the exotic and luxuriant beauty inspired by the flora and fauna of the tropics. It excels in colorful and vivid imagery.
Behind the exquisite beauty of Césaire's verse there is a profound and prophetic meditation on the social injustices of which his people, especially in Martinique, are victims. The bard of Martinique sings of the wretchedness of colonial peoples and bemoans their exploitation by a handful of European parasites, who, frequently in defiance of the law, set themselves up as cruel, inhuman masters of an unhappy people forced to resign themselves to a status of virtual slavery. He sings of the evils of this system of colonization as they manifest themselves in the daily life and activities of his native island—in poverty, miserable housing, poor health, ignorance, superstition, and prejudice. He sings of "… the hungry West Indies, pitted with smallpox, dynamited with alcohol, stranded in the mud of this bay, in the dirt of this city sinisterly stranded" ("… les Antilles qui ont faim, les Antilles grêlées de petite vérole, les Antilles dynamitèes d'alcool, èchouès dans...