Aimé Césaire: Reaching For Freedom

Caroline Popovic profiles one of the Caribbean's most influential writers and politicians, Aimé Césaire of Martinique

  • Aimé Césaire conferring with close friend & political colleague Dr Pierre Aliker (left) and party member Camile Darsieres. Photograph by Marie-Claire Delbé
  • Conferring with close friend and political colleague Dr Pierre Aliker (left) and party member Camile Darsieres. Photograph by Marie-Claire Delbé
  • Aimé Césaire with his university friend, fellow poet Léopold Senghor, President of Senegal 1960-80. Photograph by Marie-Claire Delbé
  • Martinique poet and statesman Aimé Césaire. Photograph by Marie-Claire Delbé
  • Césaire’s favourite relaxation: walking the Tartane coast of Martinique, always in a suit. Photograph by Marie-Claire Delbé
  • The Césaire scrutiny. Photograph by Marie-Claire Delbé
  • The young Césaire and friends in Yugoslavia in the 1930s, where he worked on his best known book

Aimé Césaire, the mayor of Fort-de-France in Martinique, is 81 years old. And he still shows up for work every day.

His office, on the top floor of the massive town hall on Boulevard Charles de Gaulle, is like a church. A large, white rectangular room, it is furnished with rows of grey, fabric-covered folding chairs. An aisle runs down the middle of these seats and stops at a long wooden desk at the end of the room. The desk resembles an altar.

Césaire sits behind this immense slab of wood. He wears a beautifully tailored suit, his perpetual uniform. His white, short-cropped hair contrasts with his very black skin. Without his thick spectacles, his head might be an ebony carving.

I was nervous about meeting him. He dislikes journalists, and after spending two months studying his startling poetry, all I could think about was the colour of my skin. I felt so European.

“Bonjour Monsieur Césaire,” I began, “je m’appelle Caroleen Popovich, je suis…” But I got no further. Césaire launched into Serbo-Croat. My surname reminded him of summers spent on the Dalmatian coast with friends in the 1930s. He had worked there on his masterpiece, Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal (Return to my Native Land). He recalled that one peasant woman was so shocked at the sight of his blackness that she crossed herself and started to pray. She thought he was the devil. He was able to calm her down in fluent Croat.

But, despite my surname, I do not speak the language. Césaire was undeterred. Throughout our interview, as if to stir ancestral memories in me, he translated words and phrases from French to Serbo-Croat. He showed no signs of senility; his mind was as clear as that of a much younger man.

“What will you do when you retire?” I asked finally.

“I don’t have too much time left to live,” he replied. “I would like to write more but I don’t have the strength to do two things any longer. It’s either one or the other. Je n’ai pas la force .”

Then he laughed and showed me to the door.

Aimé Césaire is little known in the English-speaking Caribbean, but in the French Antilles and beyond he is revered as a poet and writer, his books translated into many languages. A militant anti-colonialist in his youth, he was a pioneer of the movement called négritude, which encouraged black people to take pride in their African heritage. He was the first to use the word; négritude spread throughout the French colonies in Africa and the Caribbean, and was embraced by the Black Power movement in America.

“I have a real soul of justice,” he said, “and I cannot forget that my race has been humiliated, oppressed, maltreated and trodden on.” Négritude denounced the assumed superiority of European over other cultures, it insisted that black people accept and embrace their own values and heritage; it pointed to the warmth and humanism of African life instead of the cold, technological materialism of Europe:

Heia for those who have never invented anything

those who never explored anything

those who never tamed anything

those who give themselves up to the essence of all things

free of the desire to tame but familiar with the play of the world …


Aimé Césaire was born in June 1913, when Martinique was a French colony. The average Martiniquan enjoyed few social benefits, and life was tough on the poor. Césaire came from a humble family; his father worked in the island’s customs service, and his mother was a seamstress. He was one of seven children. His home town, Basse-Pointe, lay in the shadow of Martinique’s towering Mont Pelée volcano, which not long before had wiped out the island’s first capital, Saint-Pierre throughout his work, one recurring image is of an explosive force which will give birth to a new order.

In the Martinique of Césaire’s childhood, there was a rough correlation between class and colour: the black majority was of African descent, and above them were a lighter-skinned middle-class and a French expatriate governing class. It was French policy – based on the assumption of European cultural superiority – to “assimilate” a colonial élite; to progress, you had to throw off Africa and put on France. The young Césaire accordingly progressed from the Lycée Schoelcher (named after Martinique’s great opponent of slavery) in Fort-de-France to a scholarship in Paris, where the assimilation process was supposed to be completed.

However, this did not happen. Paris in the early 1930s, as at so many other times, was in an intellectual ferment. Césaire met black African students like Léopold Senghor (later the president of Senegal); he read the new Revue du Monde Noir and the French Communist review Le Nouvel Age, which published Afro-American poetry. He read Marx, Freud, Rimbaud. He helped produce a newsletter called L’Etudiant Noir. Like Senghor, he quickly developed passionate convictions in favour of African heritage and against French assimilation.

He passed the tough exams of L’Ecole Normale Supérieur in 1935, and in Paris began his first and most famous book, Return to My Native Land. It was written in part at school, during vacations in Yugoslavia and at La Cité Universitaire where he lived after his marriage in 193 7 to Suzanne Roussi, a Martiniquan student of letters (she died in 1967 after bearing him seven children). A summer visit to Martinique in 1936 provided much of the impetus: with his new perspective, he was shocked by the decay, the poverty and hunger.

The Caribbean was ” . . . the hungry West Indies, pitted with smallpox, dynamited with alcohol.” The Martiniquan people were “this desolate crowd under the sun, which has no share in whatever is openly expressed, affirmed, freed in this land. No part in the French Empress Josephine dreaming high above the ‘poor Negro’, nor in the liberator frozen with his liberating gesture in white stone.”

His own home was ” . . . another tiny house stinking in the narrow street, 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 . . . ”


Return to my Native Land was a rigorous anti-colonial statement, passionate, angry, intense, idealistic, humanist. It was published in a Paris magazine in 1939; the outbreak of World War II made sure that the event passed unnoticed. But by 1946 it had attracted critical acclaim. André Breton, one of the leaders of the French surrealist movement, fleeing from Paris to New York via Martinique in 1941, discovered the book and its author, and praised both to the skies. The full text was republished in both Paris and New York in 1947, and in the prestigious journal Présence Africaine in 1956.

Breton wrote that Césaire’s mastery injected French literature with a shot of much needed vigour and vitality. “Cahier,” he said, is “the greatest lyrical monument of our times. Aimé Césaire is preeminently a man whose poetry sings.”

Césaire had returned to Martinique in 1939 to become a popular and successful professor at the Lycée Schoelcher (the young Frantz Fanon was one of his students). He threw himself into a new movement for cultural revival, attacking the policy of assimilation into French culture. He was a gifted speaker, a powerful writer and a controversial figure; Fanon wrote later that, between 1939 and 1945, it became possible for the first time in Martinique not to feel ashamed of being black.

In 1941, Césaire co-founded a journal entitled Revue Tropiques. The islands were an “empty culture”, and Tropiques offered a medium where “Martiniquans could find themselves again.” It showcased the poetry of Césaire and other black writers; Antillean history, natural sciences, folklore, political commentary and tributes to people like Victor Schoelcher were featured. Open letters such as the one written by Césaire in 1944 in response to a statement made by the Bishop of Saint-Pierre and Fort-de-France also appeared. “To listen to you,” the letter said, “the church has clearly taken a position against negro slavery. I say no. For four centuries the church has been very well accommodated by our slavery. If we are free men, it is not because of the church.”

For a while, Tropiques was closed down by the Vichy régime in Martinique for being “revolutionary and treacherous”

Césaire was enjoying his position as a professor, but at the end of the war he was approached by a representative of the French Communist Party and was asked to head their list of candidates in the first mayoral elections after the liberation.

Césaire now describes his overwhelming victory as a complete accident. “I was not really interested. But it was a way to show my leftist sympathy, an intellectual gesture. I was very uncomfortable in Martiniquan society. I considered it false, dominated by petty bourgeois values. I wanted something else. The next thing, they are carrying me all over the crowd. I am elected. If I thought I had a chance, I would have found a thousand good excuses to refuse.”

Three months later, the Communist Party presented Césaire as their candidate for the National Assembly in Paris. “I was elected there too, and I was trapped,” said Césaire. He worked for a new republic in France and for new status for Martinique; he supported legislation which made the island a département of France in 1946 and brought full citizenship with it, and he fought hard to secure the minimum wages, social security and health care that came automatically to mainland French citizens.

Césaire has left his mark on many areas of Martiniquan life. He co-founded and nurtured the influential arts workshop and training centre SERMAC; he was a powerful advocate of closer regional co-operation with Guadeloupe and French Guiana, the French Caribbean territories acting as one. He has been the mayor of Fort-de-France since he was first elected after the war, and from 1983 to 1988 he headed Martinique’s Regional Council. He represented Martinique in Paris until 1993, when he declined re-election after 47 unbroken years.

Césaire remained with the Communists for ten years. He saw Communism, like surrealism and mastery of the French language, as a tool for breaking established patterns of thought and assumptions of European superiority. (Césaire always writes in French; he says that Creole, the lively language of the poor, is an oral language, and formal or abstract ideas are better expressed in French. “I have no problem expressing my Creole temperament in French. I have always done so.)

His poetry was praised by Jean-Paul Sartre in Senghor’s anthology Orphée Noir; but it unnerved the Communists. After the success of his first book, Césaire published two collections of his poetry, Les Armes Miraculeuses in 1946 and Soleil cou Coupé two years later. This was followed by the more pessimistic Corps Perdu in 1950 (with drawings by Picasso), which seemed to doubt whether the Caribbean islands would ever exist except as colonial appendages. “Je commanderai aux îles d’exister!” Césaire thundered. The left was losing ground in Paris, and in the French colonies violent rebellion was breaking out. Taunted by the ascendant right, Césaire already felt that the département status he had fought for was merely a new form of colonialism.

Discours sur Colonialisme, which appeared in 1955, was Césaire’s riposte and his most damning work on colonialism. Europe, he wrote, was “indefensible” and accountable to mankind “for the hugest pile of cadavers in history.” For such a crime, “the bourgeoisie is condemned to be more cantankerous each day, more openly ferocious, more denuded of power, more summarily barbaric.” At the end of the book, Césaire warned of the “modern barbarian”, “violent, excessive, squandering, mercantile, bluff, gregarious, stupid, vulgar, chaotic.”

In 1956, on the eve of the Hungarian uprising, Césaire broke away from a Communist Party which he felt was too rigid and paternalistic, reluctant to reassess Stalin after his crimes were exposed by Khruschev, and not enthusiastic about black participation. Immediately, he became the Communists’ bête noire. He was a traitor, a characteristic, it was announced, that he had possessed from the womb. But he publicised his reasons for leaving in his open letter to party chief Maurice Thorez. “What I want is that Marxism and Communism be put to the service of black people, and not black people in the service of Marxism and Communism,” he wrote. “We cannot delegate anyone to think for us, to do our searching, to make our discoveries . . .we cannot accept that anyone at all, be it our best friend, answer for us.

He explained during our interview that what he had believed to be a “Martiniquan movement” turned out to be an extension of the French Communist Party. “It was as if the state of France sent a Prefect to Martinique, they had the same colonial attitude. They told you what to do and how to do it. They even wanted to tell me how to write my poetry.”

In 1958 Césaire formed the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais, the PPM, a leftist party committed to fighting for Martiniquan identity and autonomy and deeply involved in the international revival of black culture.

A new collection of poems, Ferrements (1960), seemed to confirm a new direction, and Césaire started working for the theatre. La Tragédie du Roi Christophe (1963) explored the perils of independence – the visionary Haitian emperor succumbing to isolation and grandeur; this was followed by Une Saison au Congo in 1966, dealing with the destruction of Patrice Lumumba, and Toussaint l‘Ouverture, a novel about the life of the Haitian revolutionary leader.

In 1969 he re-wrote Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. In Césaire’s version, Prospero, a slave master, is convinced that he has saved Caliban, his black chattel. “You could at least thank me for having taught you to speak at all. You, a dumb savage . . . a dumb animal, a beast I educated, trained, dragged up from bestiality that still clings to you.”

And when Prospero is given the opportunity to go home to Italy, Caliban laughs. “You pick up and leave? The hell you will! You make me laugh with your ‘mission’! Your vocation! Your vocation is to hassle me. And that’s why you’ll stay, just like those guys who founded the colonies and who now can’t live anywhere else.” The play underlines the cultural gap between master and servant, and the rich cultural heritage which Caliban possesses and which Prospero cannot begin to recognise or understand.

The English version of Une Tempête was performed in New York in 1991 by the Ubu Repertory Theatre. Césaire’s most recent work, a book of poems entitled Moi, Laminaire, was published in 1982.

Césaire has seen Martinique change from a neglected colonial backwater to a full department of France, with French nationality and a standard of living equal to the mainland. But as a politician he is still hard to place. The right sees him as a pro-independence revolutionary anxious to sever ties with Paris; the left sees him as an over-cautious reformer who would not go all the way and demand a final break.

When Césaire supported departmentalism rather than a complete break with France, his compatriot and former student, the writer Frantz Fanon, accused him of selling out. Real freedom, said Fanon, could only be achieved through full independence. Even his close friend, Léopold Senghor, the president of Senegal and fellow pioneer of négritude, called Césaire “a great poet, but a lousy politician.”

But Césaire made his choice with typical independence of mind and with fierce realism. He had met stiff opposition to full independence from the Martiniquan electorate and even from members of his own party. Nobody wanted to lose the social benefits that France allowed.

He was under no illusion about the compromises to be made in remaining a département of France. “Departmentalisation has taken away the power of the country. When everything is decided in Paris, and often things are imposed by Paris, it is a system in risk of being a tyranny,” wrote Césaire in a document presented to his party in 1958. But no matter what he tried, he never persuaded Martiniquans to support independence.

“You never accomplish everything,” says Césaire. “I want to see Martinique completely independent, but I don’t simply endorse independence as a legal technicality. I don’t want just an independent label underneath which we find ourselves in a situation worse than before, like Haiti. I am interested in finding a form, a mode of life, which will give the Martiniquan people their emancipation.”

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