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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Césaire, la négritude entre politique et poétique

by Rosa Moussaoui

Aimé Césaire : Négritude – between the political and the poetic

Translated Sunday 20 April 2008, by Patrick Bolland

“I am of the race of those who are oppressed.” This conviction testifies to the meanderings of a political journey colliding with the political storms of the 20th century, the very core of Aimé Césaire.

Aimé Césaire: A conscience forged at the start of the 1930s in this young Martinican who left his native land to study at the Louis-le-Grand lycée in Paris, where he met the Senegalise Léopold Sédar Senghor, with whom he would retain a life-long bond. Confronted daily with overt racism in the Paris crowds who made such a success of the Colonial Exhibition at the Vincennes Park on the city’s borders, the young Césaire preferred to protest through the written word rather than tear down walls. In 1934 he founded, with other West Indian, Guyanese and African students, the review “L’Etudiant noir” (“The Black Student”), that became a channel for developing the critique of colonialist ideology and of assimilation that would forge the concept of “négritude” (“blackness”), a cultural and political weapon which would forever mark both the poetry and the struggles of Césaire and his companions.

After the Liberation, Aimé Césaire, supported by the Communists, became mayor of Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, a mandate he would keep until 2001. In 1946 he joined the French Communist Party, a commitment he justified in a party pamphlet in the following terms: “In the world still bearing the wounds of racism, in which the ferocious exploitation of colonial populations is still the reality, the Communist Party incarnates … the right to dignity of all men, without distinction of origin, religion or colour”. Elected a member of the French National Assembly, he became the key figure in gaining Martinique, Guadeloupe and Guyana the Réunion recognition as French “départements”. In 1947, Césaire was one of the founders of the journal “Présence africaine”, that became the channel of expression and discussion for numerous intellectuals from the French colonies. Three years later, it held the First International Congress of Black Writers and Artists.

Anti-colonialism, anti-racism and humanism remained at the heart of his commitment. “Colonialism contains within itself terror”, he wrote in “la Nouvelle Critique” in 1954. “But it also contains, even worse than the screaming of the exploiters, a disregard for human beings, a hatred of men, in a word: racism. However you look at it, you always end up with the same conclusions: colonialism is inseparable from racism.”

As demands for independence increased and with them the question of the cultural alienation of the colonised, Césaire’s relations with the PCF became strained, rupturing in 1956, following the Soviet intervention in Hungary. In a long letter of resignation to Maurice Thorez, the poet, like other communist intellectuals, noted the failure of a system which presented itself as an alternative to capitalism. In the same letter, Césaire referred to the voting of special powers by the French government, headed by Guy Mollet, and strongly criticised the PCF’s choices on the colonial question: “If the aim of progressive politics is to one day grant freedom to colonised peoples, at the minimum the daily actions of progressive parties … must avoid destroying day by day the very bases … of this future freedom.” In 1958, Césaire founded the “Parti progressiste martiniquais”, committed from its conception to demands for autonomy. He remained a member of the French National Assembly from 1958 to 1978, sitting as an independent member, then joined the Socialist benches until 1993. At the Fort-de-France city-hall he left an indelible imprint, particularly in cultural affairs, with the creation of popular art workshops and the Fort-de-France festival.

Up to his dying days, he remained an inquisitive and attentive observer, with his ear to the heart-beats of the world. In the winter of 2005, several months after the adoption of a French Law recognizing the “positive role” of French colonialism, Césaire carried the whole of Martinique with him by refusing to receive Nicolas Sarkozy. A few months later, after part of this law was abrogated, he finally agreed to receive the right-wing UMP candidate for the presidency, who now considered the French colonial record as “a sinister inversion of the denial of the self”. After this meeting, the poet handed Sarkozy his “Discourse on Colonialism”. “And I say that there is an infinite distance from colonialism to civilization”, he had written. “And I also say that, from all the colonial expeditions, from all colonial models that were developed, from all the ministerial missives that were sent to the colonies, one does not find a single human value …”

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