Aimé Césaire, Martinique Poet and Politician, Dies at 94
A government spokeswoman, Marie Michèle Darsières, said he died at a hospital where he was being treated for heart problems and other ailments.
Mr. Césaire was one of the Caribbean’s most celebrated cultural figures. He was especially revered in his native Martinique, which sent him to the French parliament for nearly half a century and where he was repeatedly elected mayor of Fort-de-France, the capital city.
In Paris in the 1930s he helped found the journal Black Student, which gave birth to the idea of “negritude,” a call to blacks to cultivate pride in their heritage. His 1950 book “Discourse on Colonialism” was considered a classic of French political literature.
Mr. Césaire’s ideas were honored and his death mourned in Africa and France as well as the Caribbean. The office of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France said Mr. Sarkozy would attend Mr. Césaire’s funeral, scheduled for Sunday in Fort-de-France. Students at Lycée Scoelcher, a Martinique high school where Mr. Césaire once taught, honored him in a spontaneous ceremony Thursday.
Mr. Césaire’s best-known works included the essay “Negro I Am, Negro I Will Remain” and the poem “Notes From a Return to the Native Land.”
Born on June 26, 1913, in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, Mr. Césaire attended high school and college in France. In 1937 he married another student from Martinique, Suzanne Roussi, with whom he eventually had four sons and two daughters.
He returned to Martinique during World War II and was mayor of Fort-de-France from 1945 to 2001, except for a break from 1983 to 1984.
Mr. Césaire helped Martinique shed its colonial status in 1946 to become an overseas department of France.
He was affiliated with the French Communist Party early in his career but became disillusioned in the 1950s and founded the Martinique Progressive Party in 1958. He later allied with the Socialist Party in France’s National Assembly, where he served from 1946 to 1956 and from 1958 to 1993.
As the years passed, he remained firm in his views. In 2005 he refused to meet with Mr. Sarkozy, who was then minister of the interior, because of Mr. Sarkozy’s endorsement of a bill citing the “positive role” of colonialism.
“I remain faithful to my beliefs and remain inflexibly anticolonialist,” Mr. Césaire said at the time. The offending language was struck from the bill.
Despite the snub, Mr. Sarkozy last year successfully led a campaign to rename Martinique’s airport in honor of Mr. Césaire. Mr. Césaire eventually met with Mr. Sarkozy in March 2006 but endorsed his Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal, in the 2007 French elections.
Aimé Fernand David Césaire (26 June 1913 – 17 April 2008) was a Francophone and French poet, author and politician from Martinique. He was "one of the founders of the négritude movement in Francophone literature". He wrote such works as Une Tempête, a response to Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, and Discours sur le colonialisme (Discourse on Colonialism), an essay describing the strife between the colonizers and the colonized. His works have been translated into many languages.
Student, educator and poet
Aimé Césaire was born in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, in 1913. He considered himself of Igbo descent from Nigeria, and considered his first name Aimé a retention of an Igbo name. He traveled to Paris to attend the Lycée Louis-le-Grand on an educational scholarship. In Paris, Césaire, who in 1935 passed an entrance exam for theÉcole Normale Supérieure, created, with Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon Damas, the literary review L'Étudiant Noir (The Black Student). In 1936, Césaire began work on his long poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, a vivid and powerful depiction of the ambiguities of Caribbean life and culture in the New World and this upon returning home to Martinique.
Césaire married fellow Martinican student Suzanne Roussi in 1937. Together they moved back to Martinique in 1939 with their young son. Césaire became a teacher at the Lycée Schoelcher in Fort-de-France, where he taught Frantz Fanon and served as an inspiration for, but did not teach, Édouard Glissant. Césaire would become a heavy influence for Fanon as both a mentor and a contemporary throughout Fanon's short life.
World War II
The years of World War II were ones of great intellectual activity for the Césaires. In 1941, Aimé Césaire and Suzanne Roussi founded the literary review Tropiques, with the help of other Martinican intellectuals such as René Ménil and Aristide Maugée, in order to challenge the cultural status quo and alienation that then characterized Martinican identity. Many run-ins with censorship did not deter Césaire from being an outspoken defendant of Martinican identity. He also became close to French surrealist poet André Breton, who spent time in Martinique during the war. (The two had met in 1940, and Breton would champion Cesaire's work.)
In 1947, his book-length poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land), which had first appeared in the Parisian periodical Volontés in 1939 after rejection by a French book publisher, was published. The book mixes poetry and prose to express his thoughts on the cultural identity of black Africans in a colonial setting. Breton contributed a laudatory introduction to this 1947 edition, saying that the "poem is nothing less than the greatest lyrical monument of our times."
In 1945, with the support of the French Communist Party (PCF), Césaire was elected mayor of Fort-de-France and deputy to the French National Assembly for Martinique. He was one of the principal drafters of the 1946 law on departmentalizing former colonies, a role for which independentist politicians have often criticized him.
Like many left intellectuals in France, Césaire looked in the 1930s and 1940s toward the Soviet Union as a source of human progress, virtue, and human rights, but Césaire later grew disillusioned with Communism. In 1956, after the Soviet Union's suppression of the Hungarian revolution, Aimé Césaire announced his resignation from the PCF in a text entitled Lettre à Maurice Thorez. In 1958 he founded the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais.
His writings during this period reflect his passion for civic and social engagement. He wrote Discours sur le colonialisme (Discourse on Colonialism) (1955; English translation 1957), a denunciation of European colonial racism, decadence, and hypocrisy that was republished in the French review Présence Africaine in 1955. In 1960, he published Toussaint Louverture, based on the life of the Haitian revolutionary. In 1969, he published the first version of Une Tempête, a radical adaptation of Shakespeare's play The Tempest for a black audience.
He served as President of the Regional Council of Martinique from 1983 to 1988. He retired from politics in 2001.
In 2006, he refused to meet the leader of the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), Nicolas Sarkozy, then a probable contender for the 2007 presidential election, because the UMP had voted for the February 23, 2005 law asking teachers and textbooks to "acknowledge and recognize in particular the positive role of the French presence abroad, especially in North Africa", a law considered by many as a eulogy to colonialism and French actions during the Algerian War. President Jacques Chirac finally had the controversial law repealed.
On 9 April 2008, Césaire had serious heart troubles and was admitted to Pierre Zobda Quitman hospital in Fort-de-France. He died on 17 April 2008.
Césaire was accorded the honour of a state funeral, held at the Stade de Dillon in Fort-de-France on 20 April. President Nicolas Sarkozy was present but did not make a speech. Pierre Aliker, who served for many years as deputy mayor under Césaire, gave the funeral oration.
Martinique's airport at Le Lamentin was renamed Martinique Aimé Césaire International Airport on 15 January 2007. A national commemoration ceremony was held on 6 April 2011, as a plaque in Aimé Césaire's name was inaugurated in the Panthéon in Paris.
Each year links to its corresponding "[year] in poetry" article for poetry, or "[year] in literature" article for other works:
- 1939: Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, Paris: Volontés, OCLC 213466273.
- 1946: Les armes miraculeuses, Paris: Gallimard, OCLC 248258485.
- 1947: Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, Paris: Bordas, OCLC 369684638.
- 1948: Soleil cou-coupé, Paris: K, OCLC 4325153.
- 1950: Corps perdu, Paris: Fragrance, OCLC 245836847.
- 1960: Ferrements, Paris: Editions du Seuil, OCLC 59034113.
- 1961: Cadastre, Paris: Editions du Seuil, OCLC 252242086.
- 1982: Moi, laminaire, Paris: Editions du Seuil, ISBN 978-2-02-006268-8.
- 1994: Comme un malentendu de salut ..., Paris: Editions du Seuil, ISBN 2-02-021232-3
- 1958: Et les Chiens se taisaient, tragédie: arrangement théâtral. Paris: Présence Africaine; reprint: 1997.
- 1963: La Tragédie du roi Christophe. Paris: Présence Africaine; reprint: 1993; The Tragedy of King Christophe, New York: Grove, 1969.
- 1969: Une Tempête, adapted from The Tempest by William Shakespeare: adaptation pour un théâtre nègre. Paris: Seuil; reprint: 1997; A Tempest, New York: Ubu repertory, 1986.
- 1966: Une Saison au Congo. Paris: Seuil; reprint: 2001; A Season in the Congo, New York, 1968 (a play about Patrice Lumumba).
- "Poésie et connaissance", Tropiques (12), January 1945: 158–70.
- Discours sur le colonialisme, Paris: Présence Africaine, 1955, OCLC 8230845.
- Lettre à Maurice Thorez, Paris: Présence Africaine, 24 October 1956.
- Toussaint Louverture: La Révolution française et le problème colonial, Paris: Club français du livre, 1960, OCLC 263448333.