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Remembering Aimé Césaire

… when my turn comes into the air
I will raise up a cry so violent
that I will spatter the sky utterly
and by my shredded branches
and by the insolent jet of my solemn wounded bole

I shall command the islands to exist

– from “Lost Body”, by Aimé Césaire, trans. E. Anthony Hurley (via The Caribbean Review of Books)

* * *

Aimé CésaireMartinican poet, politician and consummate West Indian – passed away today at the age of 94. It is not often that politics and poetry go together, but when they do, the West Indies is as fertile an environment as any for the two to coexist. Césaire seamlessly blended his love for language, ideas and writing into his political life, which spanned almost 60 years.

Like many Caribbean intellectuals of the time, he was passionate about redefining his black identity (and that of his countrymen) in the face of colonial stereotypes and was drawn to the Soviet Union as an alternative model for human progress. He reportedly grew disillusioned with Communism, but remained firm in his anti-colonialism stance.

And today, a new generation of West Indians, whose freedoms can be at least partly attributed to the impact of his writings and political accomplishments, honours him…

Many have paid tribute with quotes or excerpts from Césaire's works. In Martinique, le blog de [moi] [Fr] posts an excerpt from Return to my native land (Cahier d'un retour au pays natal). In Trinidad, Nicholas Laughlin quotes a passage from Memorandum on My Martinique, while Antilles, the blog of The Caribbean Review of Books posts an excerpt from Lost Body.

Cap 21 Outre-Mer writes that Césaire was an “icon for a people in their quest for a post-colonial identity,” who will be remembered not only for his poetry, but for his politics:

A côté de son engagement littéraire et culturel, je tiens à saluer également son très fort engagement en politique, où, maire de Fort-de-France pendant 56 ans, Aimé Césaire aura été un exemple pour tous les hommes politiques antillais, l’exemple d’un homme politique qui a toujours gouverné avec grandeur, pour ses idées, pour ses concitoyens, pour son peuple et surtout pour un idéal commun.

C’est un grand homme qui nous quitte aujourd’hui ; la France, l’Outre-Mer, nous lui sommes tous reconnaissants.

Aside from his literary and cultural contributions, I would also like to honor his strong political engagement where, as mayor of Fort-de-France for 56 years, Aimé Césaire was an example for all Antillian politicians, an example of a politician who always governed with greatness for his ideas, for his fellow citizen, for his people and above all for a common purpose.

It is a great man who leaves us today; France, the Overseas Departments, we are all in his debt.

Of course, Césaire's reach extends far beyond his native Martinique or the Caribbean.

Senegalese blogger Souleymane Dieye [Fr] has several posts honoring Césaire, including one with a photograph of the poet during a visit to Senegal.

In a post titled “Our Beloved Césaire” (Notre Césaire aimé), Dieye writes, “Papa poet is a magnificent man. He is glorious. This man of the people gave Martinique back her dignity…” and quotes Senegalese writer and philosopher, Hamidou Dia, who told local media today, “Aimé Césaire gave us back our pride as Africans.”

In Congo-Kinshasa, Forum Realisance writes this tribute:

A mon frère le plus doué, mon maître, la voix de ma conscience et celle de notre éternel combat humain ; c´est bien de peine que tu ne sois plus des nôtres ! Et déjà, devant notre champ de bataille aux duels acharnés, ton départ nous attriste et nous esseule…

Repose en paix, enfant aimé du continent éternel. Puisse nos prières émues et attendries te bercer ce voyage silencieux et sans retour qui est maintenant le tien. Nous ne t´oublierons jamais, car au fond de l´amour chaleureux de tous les femmes et hommes de bonne foi, ta droiture restera légendaire.

To my brilliant brother, my master, the voice of my conscience and of our eternal human struggle; we are grieved you will no longer be among us! Before our bitter battlefield, we are saddened and forsaken by your departure…

Rest in peace, beloved child of the eternal continent. May our prayers and words nourish you in this silent journey which is now yours, and from which there is no return. We will never forget you, because in the warm love of all the men and women of faith, your righteousness will remain legendary.

American bloggers Pierre Joris and Matthew Cheney both mark his passing. Cheney shares this story:

Keith Walker told me a story that I only remember vague details of, but I'll tell what I can of it here. He used it to explain to me when he had fallen in love with Césaire's work himself. He was at school in France, and his roommate had covered the ceiling over his bed with writing — beautiful, stunning, strange words. Keith asked him what it was, and learned that it was lines from Césaire's great poem “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” — his roommate had written those lines above his bed so he would see them just before he fell into sleep and be welcomed by them every morning. Keith was stunned that a poem could have such power for a person, and he sought out Césaire's work (and eventually Césaire himself). He said that in Martinique he went to a political rally that was as much like an interactive poetry reading as it was a political event, and that what really impressed him was that so many ordinary people held this supposedly “difficult” writing so close to their hearts.

Earlier this week in Togo, as the news of Césaire's hospitalization and declining health spread around the world, writer Kangi Alem wondered how best to honor his memory. Alem wasn't too happy that some French politicians have called for Césaire's induction into the Pantheon (as they have other black luminaries):

Bien sûr qu’il va mourir, le poète rebelle, mais bien sûr, à cet âge-là, il ne reste aux poètes qu’à passer à l’immortalité. Pas finir au Panthéon, idée curieuse que certains brandissent ces jours-ci, et qui me paraît fumeuse et inutilement polémique, tant la stature de Césaire, son combat sont aux antipodes de ce type de reconnaissance-là. M’étonnerait d’ailleurs que le poète lui-même fût sensible à cet honneur. Mais trêve de blabla au chevet de l’illustre poète pas encore disparu. Mais il mourra, Césaire, et nous le célébrerons!

Of course he will die, this poet-rebel, but of course, at such an age, all that remains for poets is to pass into immortality. I don't mean being inducted into the Panthéon, a strange idea that some are waving around these days, and which seems to me needlessly polemic. Much of Césaire's status, his struggle are 180 degrees away from this type of recognition. I was also astonished that the poet was open to this honor. Let's have a cease-fire of the blabla at the beside of this illustrious poet who has not yet disappeared. But he will die, Césaire, and we will celebrate him!

Alem continues:

Avec sa mort, disparaîtra la dernière figure du trio fondateur de la Négritude, mouvement littéraire et idéologique qui a tant fait couler et nous a tous marqué, artistes et écrivains africains, d’une manière ou d’une autre. Comment dire merci et adieu au poète martiniquais? Sur ce blog, Timba m’a donné l’idée. Et si chacun nous donnait une citation d’un texte d’Aimé Césaire qui l’a marqué? Façon de se souvenir de lui et de parcourir à notre façon son héritage en théâtre, poésie et essai. Adieu, poète, déjà immortel même de ton vivant. (K.A)

With his death disappears the last of the three founding fathers of Negritude, a literary and ideological movement that spread far and touched all of us African artists and writers, one way or another. How do we say thank you to this Martinican poet? On this blog, Timba gave me an idea. And if each of us offers the Aimé Césaire quote or excerpt that has had an impact on us? This would be a way to remember him and to review in our own way his legacy in theater, poetry, and essay. Adieu poet, already immortal even as he lives.

Alem chooses an excerpt from The Tragedy of King Christophe, a play Alem once performed at the Festival d'Avignon about Henri Christophe, a Haitian revolutionary leader who declared himself King of Haiti in 1811 and established a feudal system of lords.

Les mots du Roi Christophe, s’adressant à sa femme inquiète de le voir malmener son peuple, résonnent encore dans ma tête, violents, conjuratoires, inoubliables. Du grand Césaire, du bon Césaire, immanquablement poète même lorsqu’il écrit pour le théâtre.

The words of King Christophe as he speaks to his wife, who watches uneasy as he mistreats his people, still resonate in my head, violent, evocative, unforgettable. Great Césaire, good Césaire, an unforgettable poet, even when he was writing for theater.

Racisme et Histoire: Le Tabou writes:

Aimé Césaire est mort aujourd'hui. J'espère que son héritage ne sera ni sali, ni banni. Monsieur Césaire, votre Humanité reste bien vivante dans mon coeur.

Aimé Césaire died today. I hope his legacy will never be sullied, never shunned. Monsieur Césaire, your Humanity lives on in my heart.

Caribbean Free Radio posted a photograph and just three simple words:

Adieu, Aimé Césaire.

How will you remember him?

Janine Mendes-Franco contributed to this post.

18 comments

  • Thank you, Jen and Janine, for demonstrating through this post the immense impact Césaire has made on people far from his native Martinique. Le poète est mort–vive le poète!

  • Louis-Sylvain

    Gens des Iles Créoles, saurons-nous mettre à profit tout ce que nous lègue ce grand frère, surtout, nous, Créoles de l’Ile Maurice qui savent ce que je veux dire ?

    Adieu frère et MERCI !

  • I have said it before and I will say it again, without people like Cesaire, Fannon, Biko and Malcolm X, I really can’t imagine where my life and my sense of being black, and being African, would be. They brought hope and beauty, real beauty, to this whole experience of being black and for that I forever thank them.

  • My memory of him is Discours sur le colonialisme. He was quite fond of Haitian history and I remember seeing Denis’ rendition of La Tragedie du Roi Christophe in Port Au Prince. He liked the haitian expression “lese grennen”.

  • See also this thoughtful essay on Césaire by the Jamaican writer Geoffrey Philp:

    http://geoffreyphilp.blogspot.com/2008/04/aime-cesaire-online-memorial.html

  • Dear all
    I work for newshour, the flagship news and current affairs programme on the BBC World Service radio. I wanted to have an interview on our programme today looking at the life and impact of Aimé Césaire. I enjoyed your blog and the comments and I was hoping you would email me your phone number and hopefully do an interview with you. Our programme airs at 21:00 UK time tonight, so I hope to hear from you soon. My email is Leana.Hosea@bbc.co.uk or you can call me in the UK on 0044 207 557 1414
    Thank you very much, warm wishes, Leana

  • Wonderful post from a great great great man. We remember him for his strong personality, being strong for all of us.
    We’ll keep his spirit and will do our best to follow his very large footsteps.

  • Mary Emanuel

    “My negritude is not a stone”! With these words, Aime Cesaire enriched the life of a young college student. He affected my psyche in a profound way and I am eternally grateful for his existence.

  • Alice D

    To the people of Martinique my deepest condolences.
    You have lost a great great great man. None matched my any in the world.
    I had the previlege of being in Martinique at his passing. The outpouring of sympathy and love for this great man from people of all walks of life was tremendous.
    To all the people in the world that he touched remember,
    he fought a good fight. May his work live on.

  • Denis Ekpo

    Though an unsentimental African, I have always been moved by the passionate Afrocentricism of Cesaire’s Negritude.Senghor no doubt reaped most of the political benefits of Negritude,but we know that the true founding and organising genius of the Negritude phenomenon was Cesaire. Not surprisingly, in my course on Black literature in French my students more readiliy identify with Cesaire than with Senghor. Cesaire was carved out of an original, hard -to- find- wood from the primeval forest of black consciousness.Adieu le plus grand

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