Today marks the birth of Aimé Césaire (1913-2008), one of the Caribbean’s most celebrated cultural figures. Born on June 26 in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, Césaire dedicated his life to literature and political engagement, becoming a major advocate of négritude and anticolonial thought.
Césaire moved to Paris to study at the Lycée Louis-le Grand and the École Normale Supérieure, where he demonstrated his exceptional skills as a writer and thinker. As a student, Césaire met many like-minded Caribbean and African intellectuals such as Léon Gontran Damas, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Birago Diop. The founding of their student journal L’Etudiant noir marked the beginning of their intellectual exploration of négritude. In 1937 Césaire married Suzanne Roussi. Two years later, they (with their first son) moved back to Martinique, where he started to work as a teacher at the Lycee Schoelcher. In 1941, the Césaires founded the literary review Tropiques with the help of other Martinican intellectuals. They became outspoken defendants of Martinican identity and pride in African heritage, speaking and writing against cultural alienation and assimilation.
In 1945 Césaire was first elected mayor of Fort-de-France. Also one of the island’s deputies in the French National Assembly, the writer continued working in public service for over 50 years. Among his many political and academic duties, he served in Haiti as cultural attaché, where he also lectured on a variety of topics related to Caribbean history and culture.
A prolific writer, he was an essayist, poet, and playwright. In 1947 Césaire published his famous book-length poem Cahier d’un retour au pays natal [Return to My Native Land], which he began writing in 1936 while he was still a student at the ENS. This work was described by surrealist André Breton as “the greatest lyrical monument of our time.” In 1950 he wrote Discours sur le colonialisme [Discourse on Colonialism], a denunciation of European colonial racism and imperialism, which would become a classic of anti-colonial literature. Other famed works include his essay Toussaint Louverture; La Révolution française et le problème colonial (1960) and his theater pieces, Une Tempête (1969, based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and La Tragédie du roi Christophe (1963). His seminal works in poetry include Armes miraculeuses (1946) and Soleil cou coupé (1948), among many others.
For a brief account (in French) of how Césaire, Senghor, and Damas chose the term “negritude” and photo, see http://lewebpedagogique.com/enlisant/2008/04/17/aime-cesaire/
For complete biography (in French), see http://www.lehman.cuny.edu/ile.en.ile/paroles/cesaire.html
For biography (in English), see http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/cesaire.htm; also see obituary at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/18/books/18cesaire.html