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Césaire, Aimé

Aimé Césaire

1913-2008

Writer, politician

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 "négritude" 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 the movement in the United States.

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."

Became Politically Active in France

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 MyNative Land, was penned as he planned his return to Martinique. The one-thousand-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 word "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 Annick Thebia Melsan in the UNESCO Courier. "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."

Returned to Martinique and Political Struggle

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 cofound 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. Martinique enjoys a much higher standard of living than many other Caribbean island nations because of heavy subsidies they receive from France. "The anomaly of modern-day Martinique is hence largely Césaire's creation," declared James Ferguson in the Guardian. "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."

In addition to his legislative duties in Paris and his responsibilities as mayor of Fort-de-France, Césaire 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."

At a Glance …

Born Aimé Fernand Césaire on June 25, 1913, in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, West Indies; died on April 17, 2008, in Fort-de-France, Martinique; married Suzanne Roussy (a teacher), July 10, 1937 (died 1966); children: Jacques, Jean-Paul, Francis, Ina, Marc, Michelle. Politics: Parti Progressiste Martiniquais. Education: Attended the École Normale Supérieure, Paris, 1935-39; Sorbonne, University of Paris, licencié és letters, 1936.

Career: Playwright, poet, and essayist. L'Étudiant noir, Paris, founder, with Léopold Senghor and Léon Dames, 1934; Lycée Schoelcher, Fort-de-France, Martinique, teacher, 1939-45; Tropiques, Fort-de-France, editor, 1941-45; member of the two French constituent assemblies, 1945-46; Fort-de-France, mayor, 1945-83 and 1984-2001; French National Assembly, deputy representing Martinique, 1946-56 and 1958-93.

Memberships: Parti Progressiste Martiniquais, founding member; Conseil Régional Martinique, president, 1983-86; Society of African Culture, Paris.

Awards: Laporte Prize, 1960; Viareggio-Versilia Prize for Literature, 1968; Grand Prix National de Poésie, 1982; Commander of the Order of Merit of Cote d'Ivoire, 2002.

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, centered 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.

Remained an Influential Statesman

Césaire retired from the National Assembly in 1993 but remained as Mayor of Fort-de-France for another eight years, his term in that office only interrupted once in the mid-1980s. Even after his political career was over, Césaire was still influential: In 2005 he made headlines by refusing to meet with Nicolas Sarkozy—then France's minister of the interior—because Sarkozy's party supported legislation that lionized France's colonial past. Eventually, the legislation was repealed. Despite the snub, and Césaire's eventual endorsement of a rival during Sarkozy's successful bid for the French presidency, Sarkozy respected Martinique's leading citizen. In 2007, with the president's support, Fort-de-France's airport was renamed for Césaire.

Césaire died in Fort-de-France on April 17, 2008, after being hospitalized for a heart condition. His legacy as the politician who cemented the lasting relationship between France and Martinique sometimes stands in contrast with the anticolonial négritude movement he championed as a poet. Césaire himself seemed untroubled by this duality. Interviewed by Melsan in the UNESCO Courier in 1997, he spoke with the same defiance as when he was a college student in Paris six decades earlier: "One is always in rebellion against something, things that are unacceptable, things I will never accept. That is the inevitable way of the world, probably for everyone…. 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."

Selected writings

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.

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.

Lyric and Dramatic Poetry, 1946-82, translated by Eshleman and Smith, University Press of Virginia, 1990.

Sources

Books

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 betweenWorlds, 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.

Periodicals

Guardian (London), March 13, 1999, p. 10; April 21, 2008.

New York Times, April 22, 2008.

Research in African Literatures, Summer 1995, p. 169, p. 174; Winter 2001, p. 77.

UNESCO Courier, May 1997, p. 4.

—Carol Brennan and Derek Jacques

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Césaire, Aimé

Aimé Césaire

1913

Writer, politician

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 Franceand by extension the European Unionwith 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."

At a Glance

Born on June 25, 1913, in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, West Indies; married Suzanne Roussy (a teacher), July 10, 1937 (died, 1966); children: Jacques, Jean-Paul, Francis, Ina, Marc, Michelle. Education: Attended the École Normale Supérieure, Paris, 1935-39; Sorbonne, University of Paris, licencié és lettres1936. Politics: Parti Progressiste Martiniquais.

Career: Playwright, poet, and essayist; L'Étudiant noir, Paris, founder, with Léopold Senghor and Léon Dames, 1934; Lycée Schoelcher, Fort-de-France, Martinique, teacher, 1939-45; Tropiques, Fort-de-France, editor, 1941-45; member of the two French constituent assemblies, 1945-46; Fort-de-France, mayor, 1945-83; French National Assembly, deputy representing Martinique, 1946-83; Parti Progressiste Martiniquais, founding member, later president.

Memberships: Conseil régional Martinique, president, 1983-86; Society of African Culture, Paris.

Awards: Laporte Prize, 1960; Viareggio-Versilia Prize for Literature, 1968; Grand Prix National de Poésie, 1982; Commander of the Order of Merit of Cote d'Ivoire, 2002.

Addresses: Office c/o La Mairie, 97200 Fort-de-France, Martinique, West Indies.

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 desirepassionatelythat 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."

Selected writings

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.

Sources

Books

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.

Periodicals

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.

On-line

"Aimé Césaire," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (October 12, 2004).

Carol Brennan

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Césaire, Aimé

Aimé Césaire (Aimé Fernand Césaire) (ĕmā´ fĕrnäN´ sāzâr´), 1913–2008, West Indian poet and essayist who wrote in French. After studying in Paris he became concerned with the plight of blacks in what he considered a decadent Western society. With Léopold Senghor and Léon Damas he formulated the concept of négritude, which urged blacks to reject assimilation and cultivate consciousness of their own racial qualities and heritage. Césaire voiced this idea through poetry, collected in such volumes as Les armes miraculeuses (1946) and Ferrements (1960) and in the essay Discours sur le colonialisme (1950, tr. 1972). In addition to his literary output, which comprises poetry, plays, and historical essays on black leaders, Césaire helped Martinique shed the colonialism he abhorred and become (1946) a French overseas department. He held a number of government positions, including that of mayor (1945–83, 1984–2001) of Martinique's capital, Fort-de-France, and also was a member (1946–56, 1958–93) of France's National Assembly.

See his Collected Poetry (tr. 1984); studies by S. Frutkin (1973), A. J. Arnold (1981, repr. 2000), R. L. Scharfman (1987), and G. Davis (1997).

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Césaire, Aimé

CÉsaire, AimÉ

June 26, 1913


The Martinican poet, playwright, essayist, and politician Aimé Césaire emerged as one of the leading voices of the Négritude movement after World War II. Born in BassePointe, in 1931 he was sent to the Louis-le-Grand secondary school in Paris on scholarship to prepare for entrance to the École Normale Supérieure, which he entered in 1935. In March of that year he published an article on "Black Youth and Assimilation" (Négreries: Jeunesse noire et assimilation") in the only surviving issue of L'Étudiant noir. Neither he nor L. S. Senghor used the term Négritude in that ephemeral student paper. The notions of African heritage that would eventually be called Négritude were initially culled from Leo Frobenius's book Kulturgeschichte Afrikas, in French translation La Civilisation africaine (1936), as both Césaire and Senghor later confirmed.

Césaire has had a tortured relationship with black America. In the decade prior to Brown v. Board of Education professors Mercer Cook and Edward A. Jones saw the young intellectual and poet of Négritude as a beacon to the race. (Césaire's thesis on the theme of the South in the work of black American writers received a mention in Cook's Five French Negro Authors in 1943.) From the first Congress of Negro Writers and Artists held in Paris in 1956 to the late 1960s, however, Césaire was held in suspicion by the black elite of the United States. In 1958 John A. Davis of Howard University, who led the U.S. delegation to the Paris conference and who had taken grievous offense at Césaire's depiction of black Americans as a colonized people within their own country, co-edited the volume Africa from the Point of View of American Negro Scholars. Davis assigned to Samuel Allen the difficult task of presenting to integrationists the originality of a poet who was a Marxist, a Communist delegate from Martinique to the French National Assembly from 1946 to 1956, and an atheist. The Black Power movement from the end of the 1960s through the 1970s, which would promote a new radicalized black elitemany of whom had Caribbean connectionsoverturned the view of Césaire held by their elders. From the late 1970s to the present a new generation of university-trained black intellectuals has developed a more sophisticated view of Césaire, which has followed the general trend toward diasporic and postcolonial studies.

Négritude is the central subject that has dominated discussion of Césaire in the United States. Poorly understood and usually reduced to a tag line such as "Black is Beautiful," the word and the concept emerged in Césaire's long poem Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Cahier d'un retour au pays natal), which was first published as a volume in New York by Brentano's in 1947. The poem in its pre-1956 editions demonstrates a fairly clear dialectical structure in which the speaker-hero first describes the sick state of his colonized native land; then, in a long middle section, the speaker makes an Orphic descent into his own and his island's social and psychic history; so as to be reborn in the upward-surging and much shorter final section of the poem. In conclusion, the speaker assumes a messianic leadership role. Césaire's concept of Négritude, unlike that of L. S. Senghor of Senegal with which it is too often confused, is thus a dynamic structure of a lyric and dramatic type that he has sometimes called Pelean (after the name of Martinique's volcano) because of the violent explosive imagery that characterized his poetry from the early 1940s to about 1960. The period from 1941 to 1948 marked Césaire's closest association with the Paris surrealists. The surrealist poetic features of his collections Miraculous Weapons (1946) and Solar Throat Slashed (1948) were so mystifying to American readers used to the style of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen that his treatment of subjects such as lynching elicited no critical reaction. His poem on the brutal killing of young Emmett Till in Mississippi in August 1955 was published in the Paris journal Présence Africaine as "Message sur l'état de l'Union" ("State of the Union Address") in the FebruaryMarch 1956 issue before being collected in Ferrements (Ferraments, 1960). It met the same fate.

The full flower of Césaire's heroic vision of Négritude is to be found in his lyrical oratorio And the Dogs Were Silent (Et les chiens se taisaient), which was first published in English in 1990. In Dogs the sacrificial hero, called The Rebel, undergoes agony and death, which are meant to galvanize the community to collective action. Césaire told an early student of his theater that he had in mind the tragedies of Aeschylus as Nietzsche understood them in The Birth of Tragedy.

During the decade of the 1960s, as African and Afro-Caribbean societiesother than Césaire's own in the French West Indieswere gaining their independence, Césaire published no new poetry and turned to the theater. In his first play written for the stage, The Tragedy of King Christophe (La Tragédie du roi Christophe, 1963), a minor character called Metellus embodies the agonism that characterized the speaker of the Notebook and the hero of Dogs. Unable to come to terms with the needs of political compromise, Metellus is killed by the future leaders of Haiti on the battlefield. This fate quite clearly signifies that Césaire's lyrical Rebel was to be abandoned on the threshold of politics as predominantly black societies emerged across the world. The Haitian Revolution in Césaire's work is usually summed up in a few lines extracted from the Notebook. Toussaint Louverture (1961) preceded The Tragedy of King Christophe by two years and explains many of the choices Césaire made in the events and characters depicted. Toussaint Louverture is divided into three sections, which represent the dialectical movement of history as Césaire then understood it: IThe Insurrection of the White Colonists; IIThe Mulatto Revolt; IIIThe Black Revolution. The revolt of the mulattos was but the antithesis of the white reactionary insurrection; it triggered the only true revolutionary movement, that of the black ethnoclass. Thus, Césaire's dramatic hero had to be Christophe, the black emperor, rather than Dessalines (murdered by his generals), Pétion (a mulatto), or Toussaint (the Rebel who dies sacrificially in a French military prison).

The condemnation of the United States and the United Nations for complicity in the death of Patrice Lumumba in Une Saison au Congo (A Season in the Congo, 1965) did not elicit much sympathy from either black or white America. Nor did Césaire's preference for Malcolm X over Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Une Tempête (A Tempest, 1969) improve the playwright's standing in the eyes of the African-American establishment in the aftermath of the assassination of King. (Césaire told interviewers that he had King in mind in rewriting Shakespeare's Ariel and that Malcolm was his model for Caliban.) The elegiac tone of Césaire's final collection of verse, moi, laminaire ( i laminaria, 1982) marked a critical engagement with the heroic pose of the hero of Négritude. It has been neglected by partisans of Afrocentrism, who have invested heavily in a mythic interpretation of Césaire's first phase to the detriment of a full understanding of his work's significance for the black Americas.

See also Afrocentrism; Chamoiseau, Patrick; Dessalines, Jean-Jacques; Haitian Revolution; Négritude; Tous-saint-Louverture

Bibliography

Allen, Samuel. "Tendencies in African Poetry." In Africa from the Point of View of American Negro Scholars, edited by Alioune Diop and John A. Davis, pp. 175198. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1958.

Arnold, A. James. Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Arnold, A. James. "La réception afro-américaine de Césaire: un dialogue difficile aux États-Unis." In Césaire 70, edited by M.aM. Ngal and Martin Steins, pp. 141161. Paris: Silex, 1984.

Arnold, A. James. "Negritude, Then and Now." In A History of Literature in the Caribbean. Vol. 1. Hispanic and Francophone Literature, edited by A. James Arnold, pp. 479484. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1994.

Césaire, Aimé. A Season in the Congo. Translated by Ralph Manheim. New York: Grove Press, 1968.

Césaire, Aimé. The Tragedy of King Christophe. Translated by Ralph Manheim. New York: Grove Press, 1969.

Césaire, Aimé. The Collected Poetry. Translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983 (bilingual edition).

Césaire, Aimé. Lyric and Dramatic Poetry, 19461982. Translated by Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Charlottesville, Va., and London: University Press of Virginia, 1990.

Césaire, Aimé. A Tempest; based on Shakespeare's The TempestAdaptation for a Black Theatre. Translated by Richard Miller. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992 [1985].

Cook, Mercer. Five French Negro Authors. Washington, D.C.: Associated Negro Publishers, 1943.

a. james arnold (2005)

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Césaire, Aimé

Aimé Césaire

BORN: 1913, Basse-Pointe, Martinique, France

NATIONALITY: Trench

GENRE: Drama, poetry, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:
Return to My Native Land (1942)
And the Dogs Were Silent (1956)
The Tragedy of King Christophe (1963)
A Season in the Congo (1966)

A Tempest, Based on Shakespeare's The Tempest—Adaptation for a Black Theatre (1969)

Overview

Martinican author Aimé Césaire is not only responsible for Return to My Native Land (1942), a widely acknowledged masterpiece documenting the twentieth-century colonial condition, but he is also an accomplished playwright. Like his poetry and polemical essays, his plays explore the paradox of black identity under French colonial rule. Césaire's shift to drama in the late 1950s and 1960s allowed him to integrate the modernist and surrealist techniques of his poetry and the polemics of his prose.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Aptitude, Early Ambition Aimé Césaire was born in Basse-Pointe, in the north of the island of Martinique. He was the second of the six children of Fernand Césaire, a minor government official, and his wife, Eléonore, a seamstress. Although the family was poor, Césaire received a good education and showed early aptitude for studies. He first attended the Lycée Schoelcher in Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, and then he received a scholarship to attend the prestigious Lycée Louis le Grand in Paris. There he met a Senegalese student, the future poet and African politician Léopold Senghor. In 1934 Césaire, with Senghor and Guyanan poet Léon Damas, founded the student journal Black Student. This group of black Francophone intellectuals also developed the concept of “Negritude,” the embrace of blackness and Africanness as a counter to a legacy of colonial self-hatred.

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote is noted for its humor, its social satire, and its psychological analysis. Here are some other works with similar traits:

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), a novel by Mark Twain. An enterprising Southern boy rises to wealth and high society through a series of unlikely adventures.

A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), a novel by John Kennedy Toole. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, this novel follows Ignatius Reilly, a thirty-year-old man who still lives with his mother, as he seeks a job in 1960s New Orleans.

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), a novel by Henry Fielding. This comic classic chronicles the adventures and misadventures of a well-intentioned but unwise orphan, Tom Jones, after he is banished from his guardian's estate.

The Idiot (1868), a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Prince Myshkin embodies innocence, but when he is caught up with a rich merchant's son obsessed with a woman, tragedy ensues.

Madame Bovary (1857), a novel by Gustave Flaubert. Emma Bovary's romantic imagination and longing for an aristocratic life lead to adultery and her downfall.

In 1935 Cesaire entered the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. During this time he traveled to Dalmatia and began work on his Return to My Native Land. He eventually passed the agrégation des lettres, the national competitive examination that leads to a career in teaching. In 1937 he married fellow Martinican student Suzanne Rossi. Their son, Jacques, the first of Césaire's four sons and two daughters, was born in 1938. In 1939 Cesaire and Suzanne returned to Martinique to take up teaching positions at Lycée Schoelcher. In 1939 Césaire

published his first version of Return to My Native Land. The long autobiographical poem has since become one of the best-known French poems of the twentieth century.

Active Anticolonialism Césaire and his wife returned to the Caribbean as World War II began. Although Martinique was far removed from Europe, as a French territory it suffered economically from a German blockade, then later from censorship imposed by a representative of the Vichy government—the interim French regime that cooperated with Nazi Germany in order to prevent total German occupation of France. Césaire became increasingly critical of the Vichy government and established himself as a political voice in Martinique. In 1941 he and Suzanne founded the anticolonialist journal Tropics to promote Martinican culture; he was able to publish the journal in spite of the censors. That year Césaire received a visit from the founder of surrealism, André Breton, who had read Césaire's poetry and crossed the Atlantic to try to convince him to join his movement. Under the influence of surrealism, Césaire wrote his second collection of poetry, Miraculous Arms (1946), and later Sun Cut Throat (1948).

French Communism Césaire became active in regional politics and was elected mayor of Fort-de-France and deputy to the Constituent National Assembly on French Communist Party ticket in 1945. He then successfully fought to have Martinique and Guadeloupe recognized as overseas departments of France, which, as scholar Janis Pallister explains, the Communists believed would give the islands greater power within the political system. Dividing his time between Paris and Martinique, in 1947 he became cofounder of another journal, African Presence, which published the works of black Francophone writers.

Politics and Poetry During the 1950s and 1960s, Césaire remained active in both politics and literature. He turned his attention to the African diaspora—the spread of African peoples throughout the New World due to the slave trade—in his poetry collection Lost Body (1950) and wrote several important political essays, including “Discourse on Colonialism” (1950) and “Letter to Maurice Thorez” (1956), the latter of which explains his break with the Communist Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary. In 1957 he founded the Martinique Progressive Party, and in 1959 he participated in the Second Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in Rome. While maintaining his duties as the elected deputy from Martinique to the French National Assembly in Paris, he wrote two collections of poetry on Africa and the slave experience, Iron Chains (1960) and Cadastre (1961).

Leaving Communism, Entering Theater The year that Césaire left the Communist Party coincides with his earliest experiment in drama, And the Dogs Were Silent (1956). He had turned to theater in an effort to make his literary themes more accessible. The play is adapted from a long poem of the same title that appeared at the end of Miraculous Arms, and clearly marks Césaire's transition from poetry to theater. Described by Césaire as a “lyric oratorio,” according to scholar Clive Davis, the play features the surrealism of his poetry and is difficult to stage. It was aired as a radio drama in France, but unlike later plays, has not enjoyed revivals. Nevertheless, it was an important precursor to Césaire's later theatrical works.

Although And the Dogs Were Silent is a political play, its commentary remains largely on the level of allegory and is deliberately obscure. In contrast, Césaire's next dramatic efforts, the plays he calls his “political triptych,” comment more directly on specific historical situations of the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the context of postcolonial nationhood, leadership, and identity. The first of these plays, The Tragedy of King Christophe (1963) is also the first of Césaire's plays to be written expressly for the theater. It was directed by the avant-gardist Jean-Marie Serreau, who, as Davis reports, “master-minded the premiére production at the Salzburg festival” in 1964 “and subsequently took it to the Théâtre de l'Odéon in Paris.” Césaire's relationships with French left-wing intellectuals and artists Michel Leiris and Pablo Picasso helped the play circumvent bureaucratic obstacles, and it was a huge success.

In The Tragedy of King Christophe Césaire provides an ironic commentary on postcolonial leadership, beginning a commentary that he develops further in A Season

in the Congo (1966). This second play of Césaire's political triptych recounts the rise, fall, and assassination of Congolese political leader Patrice Lumumba and the Congo's declaration of independence from Belgian colonial rule. The play's topical nature—including the Congo's rise to independence as Zaire under the leadership of Lumumba, and its neocolonial subjection under an ambitious but corrupt leader—affected its production history: As Davis reports, the Belgian authorities tried to suppress the production of the play, which was first staged in Brussels. Césaire's supporters among the intellectuals of Paris intervened and, according to Davis, “succeeded in circumventing these obstacles.” When the play was staged in Paris under the direction of Serreau, Davis claims that it “provoked unease” among the “educated Zairian population.”

Celebrated Author and Activist After 1970 Césaire published the third play of the political triptych, another volume of poetry, I, Laminary (1982), and several more political and historical essays. In 1982 French president François Mitterrand appointed him president of the regional council for the French Overseas Departments, a position that allowed him to encourage the economic and cultural development of his native Martinique. In 1993 he retired from national political life in Paris to Fort-de-France, Martinique, which acknowledged the island's debt to a great champion of its liberation and culture with a municipal celebration of his ninetieth birthday in 2003.

Works in Literary Context

Embracing African Culture and Rejecting Colonialism Césaire's writing consistently investigates the personal and public themes of black social and political culture. His poetry and plays work to honor the black race and defend its solidarity. In his autobiographical poem, Return to My Native Land, Césaire rejects European culture, accepting his African and Caribbean roots. Juxtaposing historical data, descriptions of nature, and dream imagery, he praises the contributions of the black race to world civilization. In what he describes as his “triptych” of plays, The Tragedy of King Christophe 1963), A Season in the Congo (1965), and A Tempest (1969), Césaire again explores a series of related themes, especially the efforts of blacks—whether in Africa, the United States, or the Caribbean—to resist the powers of colonial domination.

His plays in particular oscillate between lyricism, realism, and allegory, manipulating the conventions of the theater to provide a general political commentary on racism, colonialism, and decolonization in the specific context of recurring themes: anger against colonial power; the painful memories of slavery and the middle passage; placing the West Indies within a global pan-African context; and the impossible situation of black political leadership in the age of decolonization. Hilary Okam of Yale French Studies further maintains that “it is clear from [Cesaire's] use of symbols and imagery, that despite years of alienation and acculturation he has continued to live in the concrete reality of his Negro-subjectivity.”

Influences Locales, events, attitudes, writers, and writing helped shape Césaire's work. At theÉcole Normale Supérieure in Paris Césaire began his lifelong study of American black writers, especially the Harlem Renaissance poets. With Senghor, Césaire read and discussed the ethnologist Leo Frobenius's History of African Culture (1933). With the 1941 visit from founding surrealist André Breton, Césaire not only developed a style influenced by surrealism but wrote essays such as “Poetry and Knowledge” (1945) espousing the surrealist principle of poetry as a means of liberating subconscious truth.

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Césaire's famous contemporaries include:

Édouard Glissant (1928–): Martinican writer who worked to help establish a unique Caribbean identity for people of African descent.

Józef Garliński (1913–2005): Polish historian, he was known for his popular books on World War II, including such best sellers as Fighting Auschwitz (1974).

Frantz Fanon (1925–1961): Martinican psychiatrist and author known for his studies of the effects of colonialism.

Langston Hughes (1902–1967): American poet who was one of the key figures in the Harlem Renaissance; he has been recognized as America's favorite poet in a survey by the Academy of American Poets.

Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977): American civil rights leader, she was an influential voting rights activist who was instrumental as a facilitator of Mississippi's Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and later as the Vice-Chairperson of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Mahalia Jackson (1912–1972): American gospel singer, she was regarded the best of the genre and considered the Queen of Gospel.

Works in Critical Context

Early criticism was appropriately directed at Césaire's poetry and on his personal investment as a black French anticolonialist in search of true identity. Hilary Okam of Yale French Studies contends that “Césaire's poetic idiosyncrasies, especially his search for and use of uncommon

vocabulary, are symptomatic of his own mental agony in the search for an exact definition of himself and, by extension, of his people and their common situation and destiny.” A poetic work demonstrating this is his first and best-regarded Return to My Native Land:

Return to My Native Land (1942) The concerns found in Return to My Native Land ultimately transcend the personal or racial, addressing liberation and self-awareness in universal terms. Critic Judith Gleason calls the work “a masterpiece of cultural relevance, every bit as ‘important’ as [T. S. Eliot's] The Waste Land,” and concludes that “its remarkable virtuosity will ensure its eloquence long after the struggle for human dignity has ceased to be viewed in racial terms.” André Breton, writing in What Is Surrealism?, also sees larger issues at stake in the poem. “What, in my eyes, renders this protest invaluable,” Breton states, “is that it continually transcends the anguish which for a black man is inseparable from the lot of blacks in modern society, and unites with the protest of every poet, artist and thinker worthy of the name … to embrace the entire intolerable though amendable condition created for man by this society.”

Writing in the CLA Journal, Ruth J. S. Simmons concludes that although Césaire's poetry is personal, he speaks from a perspective shared by many other blacks. “Poetry has been for him,” Simmons explains, “an important vehicle of personal growth and self-revelation, [but] it has also been an important expression of the will and personality of a people&#2026;. [It is] impossible to consider the work of Césaire outside of the context of the poet's personal vision and definition of his art. He defines his past as African, his present as Antillean and his condition as one of having been exploited…. To remove Césaire from this context is to ignore what he was and still is as a man and as a poet.”

Césaire's plays have garnered as much international acclaim as his poetry. Serge Gavronsky stated in New York Times Book Review that “in the [1960s, Césaire] was … the leading black dramatist writing in French.” Clive Wake, critic for the Times Literary Supplement, remarked that Césaire's plays have “greatly widened [his] audience and perhaps tempted them to read the poetry.” Again touching upon political themes from the history of a postcolonial world, one such play of interest is A Tempest:

A Tempest, Based on Shakespeare's The Tempest—Adaptation for a Black Theatre (1969) The title page of A Tempest announces its revisionary relationship with William Shakespeare's play The Tempest. The title also advertises the overturning of what Janis Pallister calls the “master-slave dynamic” of that play: Césaire keeps his promise and revises, racializes, and politicizes the relationships Shakespeare creates among Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban. His use of the phrase “black theater” is significant in its claim for a black transnational identity. A Tempest makes reference to the postcolonial relations of the French Caribbean and the métropole, the postcolonial struggles of Africa, and the struggles of the Black Power and civil rights movements in the United States.

A scholar for International Dictionary of Theatre summarizes the larger essence of Césaire's dramatic works:

Contemporaneity is one of the great strengths of Césaire's theatre. But the contemporary is ephemeral. Even the traumas of decolonization will fade from the collective memory, if they have not already done so. Those of Césaire's plays which deal exclusively with this period of history will, perhaps, have less appeal for a broad public, despite the fact that they are accessible and attractive as theatre. A Tempest, which addresses the broader and more enduring question of cultural relativity, may consequently prove to be Césaire's most durable play.

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Here are a few works by writers who have also succeeded in exploring identity in the context of political oppression and/or racism:

The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (1992), a nonfiction work by Peter Hopkirk. This survey closely considers the “great game” played between czarist Russia and Victorian England for supremacy in central Asia.

Midnight's Children (1981), a novel by Salman Rushdie. The focused story of an Indian protagonist, born with 1,001 others on August 15, 1947, (India's Independence Day) amid magic realism and political turmoil.

Things Fall Apart (1959), a novel by Chinua Achebe. This novel depicts the story of colonialism and its invasive and destructive impact on Nigerian tribal culture.

This Earth of Mankind (1991), a novel by Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Indonesian political dissident and novelist Toer offers an intriguing story of love and colonialism in turn-of-the-century Java.

Responses to Literature

  1. Césaire's poetry is a mix of modernism and surrealism. What surrealistic characteristics can you identify in his poems? Compare his first work, Return to My Native Land, with one of his follow-up works. Is there a difference in the surrealist characteristics between the two? Explain.
  2. One characteristic of Césaire's work involves the anger aimed at colonialism. Africans were frustrated with the inconsistencies, the clashing of ideals, the hypocrisies. Africans were unnerved by colonial efforts to assimilate them. As Césaire defined it, “We
  3. didn't know what Africa was. Europeans despised everything about Africa, and in France people spoke of a civilized world and a barbarian world. The barbarian world was Africa…. Therefore, the best thing one could do with an African was to assimilate him: the idea was to turn him into a Frenchman with black skin.” Research colonialist assimilation of Africans. What areas of African life—education, religion, home and family—were impacted? How was African identity affected? What was nationalism? What were the motives behind assimilation efforts? Was conversion successful? What is Africa's place in the world today? If a group chooses to survey colonialism, each individual might take on a different aspect of colonialism and report back in order to better understand the history and concepts of colonialism.
  4. For Native Americans from the 1900s through the 1960s involved coercive assimilation by the U.S. government. Many Native Americans experienced identity crises “due to the differences between cultures, values, and expectations of their tribal traditions and those of mainstream American social and educational systems,” says scholar Michael Tlanusta Garret. For Africans, colonialism had a similar dreadful effect. In a group effort, research the two cultures and the government movements that changed them. How are they similar? What did the white culture want from them? What life changes did each have in common? How did each respond to the invasion of governments? Who resisted? Who protested?

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Arnold, Albert James. Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Breton, André. What Is Surrealism? Selected Poems. Ed. F. Rosemont. London: Pluto Press, 1978.

“Aimé (Fernand) Césaire.” International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 2: Playwrights. Detroit: St. James Press, 1993.

Davis, Gregson. Aimé Césaire. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Pallister, Janis L. Aimé Césaire. New York: Twayne, 1991.

Periodicals

CLA Journal, 22 (1978): 31–45, Marc-A. Christophe, “Totalitarianism and Authoritarianism in Aimé Césaire's La Tragédie du roi Christophe;” (December 1986), Ruth J. Simmons review.

Comparative Literature Studies, 13 (September 1976): 240–53, Charlotte Brow, “The Meaning of Caliban in Black Literature Today.”

French Review, 46 (May 1973): 1101–1106, Hervé Fuyet and others, “Décolonisation et classes socials dans La Tragédie du roi Christophe.”

Negro Digest, (May 1968): 53–61, Judith Gleason, “An Introduction to the Poetry of Aimé Césaire.”

New York Times Book Review (February 19, 1984): 14, Serge Gavronsky review.

Times Literary Supplement (July 19, 1985), Clive Wake review.

Yale French Studies, no. 46 (1971): 41–7; no. 53 (1976) Hilary Okam review.

Web sites

Books and Writers. Aimé Césaire (1913–). Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/cesaire.htm.

Ritz, Brooke. Postcolonial Studies at Emory: Aimé Césaire. Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://www.english.emory.edu/Bahri/Cesaire.html. Last updated Spring 2009.

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http://apastyle.apa.org/

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