» POETRY & THE POLITICAL IMAGINATION: Aimé Césaire, Negritude & Surrealism

by Robin D. G. Kelley



“The Jungle” – Wifredo Lam

Aimé Césaire demolishes the old maxim that poets make terrible politicians. Known in the world of letters as the progenitor of Negritude (the first diasporic “black pride” movement), a major voice of Surrealism, and one of the great French poets, Césaire is equally revered for his role in modern anticolonial and Pan-African movements. While it might appear that the poet and politician operated in separate spheres, Césaire’s life and work demonstrate that poetry can be the motor of political imagination, a potent weapon in any movement that claims freedom as its primary goal.


Born on June 25, 1913, in the small town of Basse-Pointe, Martinique, Césaire and his five siblings were raised by their mother, who was a dressmaker, and their father, who held a post as the local tax inspector. Although their father was well-educated and they shared the cultural sensibilities of the petite bourgeoisie, the Césaires nonetheless lived close to the edge of rural poverty. Aimé turned out to be a brilliant, precocious student and at age 11 was admitted to the Lycée Schoelcher in Fort-de-France.

Upon graduation in 1931, he moved to Paris and enrolled in the Lycée Louis-le-Grand to prepare for the grueling entrance exams to the École Normale Supérieure (a high-level teachers’ training college). There he met a number of like-minded intellectuals, most notably the Senegalese intellectual Léopold Sédar Senghor. Among other things, they began to study African history and culture, particularly the writings of German ethnologist Leo Frobenius, whose The Voice of Africa provided a powerful defense of Africa’s cultural and intellectual contributions to the world.

The twosome, along with Césaire’s childhood friend, poet Léon-Gontran Damas, launched a journal called L’Étudiant Noir (The Black Student). In its March 1935 issue, Césaire published a passionate tract against assimilation in which he first coined the term “Negritude.” It is more than ironic that at the moment Césaire’s piece appeared, he was hard at work absorbing as much knowledge about French and European humanities as possible in preparation for his entrance exams for École Normale Supérieure. The exams took their toll, for sure, though the psychic and emotional costs of having to imbibe the very culture Césaire publicly rejected must have exacerbated an already exhausting regimen.

After completing his exams during the summer of 1935, he took a short vacation to Yugoslavia with a fellow student. While visiting the Adriatic coast, Césaire was overcome with memories of home after seeing a small island from a distance. Moved, he stayed up half the night working on a long poem about the Martinique of his youth—the land, the people, the majesty of the place. The next morning when he inquired about the little island, he was told it was called Martinska. A magical chance encounter, to say the least; the words he penned that moonlit night were the beginnings of what would subsequently become his most famous poem of all: “Cahier d’un Retour au Pays Natal” (“Notebook of a Return to My Native Land”).

figural aporia / la calebasse d’une île

He did subsequently return to his native land in the early 1940s, shortly after Cahier was published, and he was joined by his wife Suzanne Roussy, a fellow Martinican student with whom he had worked on L’Étudiant Noir. They both took teaching posts in Fort-de-France and, along with other intellectuals such as René Ménil, Lucie Thésée, and Aristide Maugée, launched a journal called Tropiques in 1941. Its appearance coincided with the fall of France to the fascist Vichy regime, which consequently put the colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Guiana under Vichy rule and shattered any illusions Césaire and his comrades might have harbored about color-blind French brotherhood. The racism and authoritarianism of the regime was blatant and direct. Vichy officials censored and interdicted all literature they deemed subversive, thus forcing Tropiques‘ editors to camouflage their publication as a journal of West Indian folklore.

Yet, despite the repressions and the ruses, Tropiques survived the war as a major voice for Surrealism and a critical forum for the evolution of a sophisticated anticolonial stance as well as a vision of a postcolonial future. The Césaires and their fellow editors promoted a vision of freedom that drew on modernism and a deep appreciation for precolonial African modes of thought and practice; this vision drew on Surrealism as the strategy for revolution of the mind and on Marxism for revolution of the productive forces. It was an effort to carve out a position independent of all of these forces—a kind of merging of Negritude, Marxism, and Surrealism.

As the essays and poems in Tropiques demonstrate, both Césaires contributed profoundly to the development of Surrealist thought and practice. For Aimé Césaire, in particular, Surrealism was an extension of his search for a new black subjectivity, which he had sought in Negritude. “This, for me, was a call to Africa. I said to myself: it’s true that superficially we are French, we bear the marks of French customs; we have been branded by Cartesian philosophy, by French rhetoric; but if we break with all that, if we plumb the depths, then what we will find is fundamentally black.” Thus throughout the 1940s, he maintained his ties with both Surrealism and Negritude, serving as a founding editor of the journal Présence Africaine while continuing to be published in Surrealist publications such as Le Surrealisme en 1947, an exhibit catalog edited by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp. Indeed, some of his best known Surrealist works appeared in two poetry collections from that era, Les Armes Miraculeuses (Miraculous Weapons) in 1946, Soleil cou Coupé (Beheaded Sun) in 1948, and Corps Perdu (Lost Body) in 1950, which contained 32 engravings by Pablo Picasso.

By the end of the war, Césaire became more directly involved in politics, joining the Communist Party and successfully running for mayor of Fort-de-France and deputy to the French National Assembly under the Communist ticket. His main concern, however, was not proletarian revolution but the colonial question. In 1946, he succeeded in getting the National Assembly to pass a law changing the status of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Guiana, and Réunion from colonies to “departments” within the French Republic. He believed that the assimilation of the old colonies into the republic would guarantee equal rights, but this turned out not to be the case. In the end, French officials were sent to the colonies in greater numbers, often displacing some of the local black Martinican bureaucrats. It was a painful lesson for Césaire, one that powerfully molded his first and perhaps most important nonfiction book, Discourse on Colonialism.

First published in 1950, Discourse on Colonialism is indisputably one of the key contributions to a wave of anticolonial literature produced during the postwar period—works that include W.E.B. Du Bois’s Color and Democracy (1945) and The World and Africa (1947), Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952), George Padmore’s Pan-Africanism or Communism?: The Coming Struggle for Africa (1956), Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized (1957), and Richard Wright’s White Man, Listen!(1957). As with much of the radical literature produced during this epoch, Discourse places the colonial question front and center. In fine Hegelian fashion, Césaire argues that colonialism works to “decivilize” the colonizer: Torture, violence, race hatred, and immorality constitute a dead weight on the so-called civilized, pulling the master class deeper and deeper into the abyss of barbarism. The instruments of colonial power rely on barbaric, brutal violence and intimidation, and the end result is the degradation of Europe itself.

Discourse, then, has a double-edged meaning: It is Césaire’s discourse on the material and spiritual havoc created by colonialism, and it is also a critique of colonial discourse. Anticipating the explosion of work we now call “postcolonial studies,” Césaire reveals how the circulation of colonial ideology—an ideology of racial and cultural hierarchy—is as essential to colonial rule as the police and the use of forced labor. Furthermore, as a product of the post-World War II period, Discourse goes one step further by drawing a direct link between the logic of colonialism and the rise of fascism. He provocatively points out that Europeans tolerated “Nazism before it was inflicted on them…because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack.”

The political implications for Césaire were that colonialism had to be overthrown and a new culture had to replace it, one that embraced non-Western traditions while also embracing the best that modernity had to offer. He outlined this argument in a paper titled “Culture and Colonization,” delivered at the First International Congress of Negro Writers and Artists in September 1956. Ultimately, Césaire’s insistence that colonialism and racism were the fundamental problems facing the modern world could not be reconciled with the Communist position that promoting proletarian revolution should take precedence over all other struggles.

One month later, Césaire penned his famous “Letter to Maurice Thorez, Secretary General of the French Communist Party,” tendering his resignation from the party. Arguing that people of color need to exercise self-determination, he warned against treating the “colonial question…as a subsidiary part of some more important global matter.” Racism, in other words, cannot be subordinate to the class struggle. If following the Communist Party “pillages our most vivifying friendships, wastes the bond that weds us to other West Indian islands, the tie that makes us Africa’s child, then I say communism has served us ill in having us swap a living brotherhood for what looks to have the features of the coldest of all chill abstractions.”

Césaire, like his former student Frantz Fanon, was now convinced that only Third World revolt could pave the way for a new society. He had practically given up on Europe and the old humanism and its claims of universality, opting instead to redefine the “universal” in a way that did not privilege Europe. “I have a different idea of a universal,” Césaire explained to his former Communist comrades. “It is of a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particulars there are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all.”

Césaire went on to found the Martinican Progressive Party and serve as mayor of Fort-de-France for the next two-and-a-half decades, and he continued to write. In 1960, he published Ferrements, a collection of 48 poems about black liberation and new possibilities created by independence. Using the metaphor of transforming slavery’s chains into metal armor, Césaire saw the future of Africa and the diaspora as a phoenix rising. A year later he released Cadastre, which included previous poems from Soleil cou Coupé and Corps Perdu. Whereas Africa was rising (with the exception of places still under white minority rule), Europe here is depicted as a land of petrifaction and rot.

The themes of colonialism and postcolonialism dominated Césaire’s work during the 1960s, so much so that he increasingly turned to history in order to explore the problems and prospects of anticolonial revolution. In 1961, he published his second major work of nonfiction: Toussaint L’Ouverture: La Révolution Française et le Problème Colonial (Toussaint L’Ouverture: The French Revolution and the Problem of Colonialism). Césaire tried to show that the French Revolution failed as much as the Haitian Revolution to achieve true liberty. Toussaint not only wanted to destroy slavery on the island of Saint Domingue but wanted to turn these ex-slaves into efficient producers for a world market, to bring his country into the modern world as citizens of the French empire. While the revolution successfully fulfilled the first goal, his dream of a modern Haiti joining a French commonwealth as equal partners was an abysmal failure. That dream died with him in a cold jail cell in Napoleon’s France.

Unlike other critics, Césaire argued that Toussaint’s failure lay not so much in his ambition or his ideas as in his overreliance on the military to solve social, political, and economic problems. His critique of Toussaint carried with it a veiled critique of military dictators emerging in postcolonial Africa and Latin America—a critique made explicit in his 1963 play, La Tragedie du Roi Christophe (The Tragedy of King Christophe). While grounded in Césaire’s reading of Haitian history, it was also a critique of François Duvalier, Haiti’s ruler from 1957 through 1971. It explores the many dimensions of postcolonial corruption, depicting Christophe as a deeply flawed but well-meaning tyrant exploiting the black masses trapped on the island. Césaire’s next play, Un Saison au Congo (A Season in the Congo) (1965), about Patrice Lumumba and the struggle for independence in the Congo, went one step further, suggesting that only revolution and the violent overthrow of these dictatorships could bring about any real change.

In his final exploration of colonialism, Césaire retreated from modern history and turned to Shakespeare as his vehicle. His 1969 adaptation of The Tempest (Une Tempête) explored the relationship between Prospero the colonizer and his colonial subjects, Caliban and Ariel. Caliban rebels outright, whereas Ariel attempts to appeal to Prospero’s moral conscience. Caliban is eventually crushed when he attempts to become his own master, but not before figuring out that Prospero’s domination and claims to superiority are based on lies. Caliban’s final speech could have come straight from Césaire’s mouth, or the mouths of the radical black intelligentsia produced by colonial education:

Prospero, you are the master of illusion.
Lying is your trademark.
And you have lied so much to me
(lied about the world, lied about me)
that you have ended by imposing on me
an image of myself.
Underdeveloped, you brand me, inferior,
that’s the way you have forced me to see myself.
I detest that image! What’s more, it’s a lie!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
and I know myself as well.

During the course of the next three decades, Césaire continued to write but moved away from the epic hero and the problems of the colonial encounter. The Surrealism that had always undergirded his work resurfaced more explicitly in his 1976 collection Noria as well as his last play, Moi, Laminaire (1982), both of which explored language and reveled in the ambiguous, dreamlike characteristics of the unconscious.

The weapon of poetry may be Césaire’s greatest gift to a modern world still searching for freedom. As one of the last truly great “universalists” of the 20th century, he has had a hand in shaping or critiquing many of the major ideologies and movements of the modern world—Marxism, nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and fascism, among others. All of these ideas are rooted in notions of progress, all are products of modernity, and all fall short when it comes to envisioning a genuinely emancipatory future. Césaire must have known this, which is why more than half a century ago he wrote: “Poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge.”

Robin D. G. Kelley is the author of Yo Mama’s Dysfunktional! and Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class. This article is adapted from a longer article, and is published here as part of the extended online release of Tipping the Sacred Cow – The Best of LiP: Informed Revolt.


2 thoughts on “» POETRY & THE POLITICAL IMAGINATION: Aimé Césaire, Negritude & Surrealism

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