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Césaire, Aimé (1913–)

Césaire, Aimé (1913–)

Aimé Césaire (b. 25 June 1913), West Indian writer. Born in Martinique, Césaire graduated from the well-known Lycée Victor Schoelcher in Fort-de-France in 1931. He later studied in Paris at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where he met Léopold Sédar Sen-ghor from Senegal and many other young black students from African and Caribbean countries. In 1934 Césaire invented the neologism négritude as an expression of pride in the African cultural heritage. Césaire helped found the black magazine L'étudiant Noir (1934–1936). In 1939, the same year that his now classic epic poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1939; Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) came out in Paris, Césaire returned to Martinique.

During World War II, Césaire worked as a teacher and founded the magazine Tropiques (1941–1945) in order to maintain contact with French-language literature. In spring 1941, the famous surrealist poet André Breton payed Césaire a visit. This historic encounter not only confirmed the strong identification Césaire felt with the antirationalism of the surrealist movement but also inspired Bretón to write a preface to a new edition of the Notebook (1947), in which he described Césaire as the "Great Black Poet." In the meantime, Césaire, who had written about the Haitian hero of independence Toussaint Louverture in his Notebook, undertook a trip to Haiti, where he remained from May to December of 1944.

Although Césaire's poetry is highly regarded, he is better known for his polemical essays and plays. In 1945 he was elected mayor of Fort-de-France and, after denouncing the French Communist Party in 1956, he founded his own independent socialist party, the Martinican Progressive Party, or PPM, two years later. His political ideas are reflected in his essay against colonialism, Discours sur le colonialisme (1950); the letters against communism, Lettres à Maurice Thorez (1956); and a historical interpretation of Toussaint L'Ouverture (1960). In his plays—such as La Tragédie du roi Christophe, Une saison au Congo (1967), and Une tempête (1969)—he concentrates on the problems of newly independent African countries against the background of Caribbean history. He retired from politics in 1993, at the age of 80. In 2002, he received the honor of Commander of the Order of Merit of Cote d'Ivoire.


An extensive biographical and critical overview is provided by two African scholars: Mbawil A Mpaang Ngal, Aimé Césaire: Un homme à la recherche d'une patrie (1975), and Aliko Songolo, Aimé Césaire, un poétique de la découverte (1985). Jean-Claude Bajeux, Antilia retrouvée (1983), compares Césaire's work with the poetry of Claude McKay and Luis Palés Matos from Puerto Rico. Josaphat B. Kubayanda in The Poet's Africa: Africanness in the Poetry of Nicolás Guillén and Aimé Césaire (1990), links Césaire's poetry to the work of the Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén. Also in English is Janis Pallister, Aimé Césaire (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Davis, Gregson. Aimé Cesaire. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Suk, Jeannie. Postcolonial Paradoxes in French Caribbean Writing: Césaire, Glissant, Condé. Oxford: Clarendon, 2001.

Wright, Michelle. Becoming Black. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

                                              Ineke Phaf

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