Aimé David Césaire, a Martinique-born writer and politician, was born on June 26, 1913 in Habitation Eyma. He comes from a family of seven children. Fernand Césaire, his father, is the administrator-manager (tax inspector) of a house in Basse-Pointe, Martinique. Éléonore Hermine, his mother, was a seamstress.
Fernand Césaire, his paternal grandfather, was the first Martiniquan to attend the École Normale Supérieure de Saint-Cloud. The latter was a literature professor at Saint-Pierre High School, and her grandmother, Nini du Lorrain, could read and write, unlike many women of her generation, and would teach her grandchildren at a young age.
Césaire entered the Lycée Louis-le-Grand after finishing his baccalaureate in Fort-de-France, where he took a literary preparatory class before entering the École Normale Supérieure. During this time, he met and became friends with Ousmane Socé Diop, Léon Gontran Damas, and Léopold Sendar Senghor.
In the pages of the newspaper L’Étudiant Noir (English: Black Student), which he also helped launch in 1935, Césaire launched the “Négritude” movement with West Indian, Guyanese, and African students.
He joined the Communist Youth in 1935. He married Suzanne Roussi in 1937, with whom he shared intellectual interests and a love of surrealism. She is equally prolific, albeit unknown, and will be a valuable collaborator in the dissemination of Césaire’s work.
The invention of negritude (1934-1939)
From 1934 on, “Négritude” was one of the most significant victories in the fight against racism and cultural oppression. Aimé Césaire developed this concept in response to the French colonial system’s cultural oppression. On the one hand, it seeks to oppose the French project of cultural assimilation, while on the other, it seeks to promote Africa and its culture, which has been devalued by the racism of colonial ideology.
The genesis of the “return to the native country
Césaire passed the École Normale Supérieure entrance exam in 1935. He went to Croatia for his summer vacation. Because he couldn’t afford to return to Martinique and didn’t have any family in France, his friend Petar Guberina invited him to his home in Croatia, specifically Dalmatia. He will recognize his native Martinique’s name in the name of this island, Martiniska. This shock, he admits, will inspire him to write the long prose poem that will become the ” Cahier d’un retour au pays natal ” (Translate to English: “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land,” published in 1939.
Congress of Philosophy (Haiti)
On May 16, 1944, accompanied by his wife Suzanne Roussi, Aimé Césaire flew to Haiti where he was invited to the Congress of Philosophy in Haiti. His invitation to this congress was due to his reputation, given his influence in the Haitian intellectual environment, which had already been acquired. Henri Seyrig was, at the time, a member of the “Délégation de la France Libre” (Translate to English : Free French delegation) to the United States. He even mentions it in his letter of December 15, 1943, to Governor Georges Louis Ponton.
Insisting on the effects of the “French presence” in the West Indies, Henri Seyrig said: “It seems to me very important that, in this meeting where scholars from different countries are going to be brought into contact with the black world, France should show by a decisive example what our culture has been able to produce in this race.”
His anti-colonialist positions are reinforced by the return of war to the colonies. In May 1945, tens of thousands of Algerians were killed in the massacres of Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata. In November 1946, the city of Haiphong in Vietnam was completely destroyed by bombing by the French navy, the Malagasy insurrection of 1947 was put down in blood and a series of massacres were perpetrated in retaliation on the island’s population in 1987. In 1950, Aimé Césaire published his Discourse on Colonialism. In this speech, he emphasized the close relationship between Nazism and colonialism. He wrote, among other things, the following:
“Yes, it would be worthwhile to study, clinically, in detail, the approach of Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the 20th century that he carries within him a Hitler who ignores himself, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he vituperates him, it is because of a lack of logic [? …] and that basically, what he does not forgive Hitler is not the crime itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man in himself, it is the crime against the white man, it is the humiliation against the white man, and to have applied to Europe colonialist procedures that have been applied so far only to the Arabs of Algeria, to the coolies of the Indies, to the Negroes of Africa […] “.
He joined the PCF in December 1945 to “work on the construction of a system based on the right to dignity of all men without distinction of origin, religion, and color” as he explais in the brochure Why I am a Communist7. In 1947, Césaire created the journal “Présence Africaine” with Alioune Diop.
Aimé Césaire was the deputy of Martinique from 1945 to 1993. He was first elected to participate in the first Constituent Assembly of the Fourth Republic in 1945 and was re-elected for all subsequent legislatures until 1993. This year he did not seek re-election and supported the candidate who was to replace him: Camille Darsières. In addition to his mandate as a deputy, he was elected in 1945 as mayor of Fort-de-France, succeeding Victor Sévère. In 2001, he did not run again and Serge Letchimy succeeded him. During this period, between 1983 and 1986, he held the seat of President of the Regional Council of Martinique.
In 2007, he became honorary president of the « Maison de la Négritude et des Droits de l’Homme ».
On April 9, 2008, he was hospitalized at the Pierre Zobda Quitman University Hospital in Fort-de-France for heart problems. His health condition worsened and he died on the morning of April 17, 2008.
Tribute to Césaire
- The class of 2020-2021 of the École nationale d’administration (France) has taken the name of Aimé Césaire.
- Portrait by Hom Nguyen for the Musée de l’Homme in 2021 on the occasion of the exhibition Portraits of France.
- The 38th graduating class of the Lille IRA is named after Aimé Césaire.
- In 2021, the artist Hom Nguyen will paint his portrait for the Portraits of France exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme.
- In Brussels, a library that specialized in African and Caribbean literature is called Espace Césaire.
- In the television series H, Éric Judor’s character is called Aymé Césaire.
- Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939)
- Discours sur le colonialisme (1950)
- Cadastre (1961)
- La tragédie du Roi Christophe (1963)
- A Season in the Congo (1966, theater)
- Moi, laminaire (1982, poetry)
In retrospect, Aimé Césaire’s political career appears strangely circuitous, contrary to the thought of negritude that he developed elsewhere. By turning an assimilationist, an independentist, and an autonomist (although we do not know exactly what he meant by this), Césaire seems to have been more a follower of the initiatives taken by the metropolitan governments (particularly in terms of decentralization) than a driving force for the emancipation of his people. He will undoubtedly be remembered as the “fundamental Negro” and as one of the great French-speaking poets of the 20th century, but not as a political leader who truly marked his era.