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Aime Cesaire, 1913-2008, Obituary of the Founder of Negritude

Aime Cesaire, 1913-2008, is credited with founding the Negritude cultural and political movement in the Caribbean.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos Journal of Pan African Studies
joins thousands, and perhaps millions in celebrating the life of Aimé Césaire (1913-2008).

Hence, we are considering featuring some of his work in the next issue. In the meantime, visit a web-site homage to him at [in French], and
review his profile via "Aimé Césaire"in Contemporary
Black Biography. Vol. 48. Thomson Gale, 2005
(reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington
Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.

Aimé Césaire

Also known as: Aime Cesaire, Aime Fernand Cesaire

Birth: June 25, 1913 in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, West
Nationality: Martinician
Occupation: Writer, politician
Source: Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 48. Thomson
Gale, 2005.
Updated: 04/21/2008


The West Indian playwright and politician Aimé Césaire
emerged as one of the leading voices in the Négritude
movement in the 1930s. Searching for a way to unite
the peoples of the African diaspora, Césaire and
future Senegalese President Léopold Sédar Senghor
coined the term "Negritude" while studying in Paris in
the 1930s. It urged people of African descent to
reject the idea of nationalism as well as that of any
white influence upon one's culture, and instead
embrace and celebrate one's African heritage. The
American poet Langston Hughes was one of the first to
adopt it.

The Martinique-born Césaire wrote a number of plays
and poems in his native French, but his best-known
work translated for English-speaking audiences may be
the epic poem Return to My Native Land. Long active in
Martinican politics, he served in the French National
Assembly as a representative of his island nation for
decades; he was also mayor of Fort-de-France, the
capital city. In a 1995 Research in African
Literatures essay, Lilyan Kesteloot called him an
"extraordinary man who has profoundly marked two
generations of African intellectuals and who continues
to stir the students who study him in our schools and

Born on June 25, 1913, in Basse-Pointe, Césaire grew
up in a Martinique that had been a colony of France
since 1635. It grew sugar and tobacco, and had been
the subject of a long battle between the British and
the French for hegemony. Once populated by Carib
Indians, Martinique was a state of enslaved persons
until 1848, and the descendants of those enslaved
emerged as a strong political voice on the island
nation in the twentieth century.

Césaire's political awareness was shaped by his time in Paris, where he arrived in 1931 for further schooling. He fell in with
many other African descendent students from other
French colonies, especially those from Africa, like
Senghor, and was active in the Society for African
Culture. Along with Senghor and Léon Damas, he helped
found L'Étudiant noir, or "The Black Student," a
magazine of Black culture and politics in 1934.

Césaire studied at the Sorbonne and wrote poetry
during his years in Paris. His major work, Return to
My Native Land, was penned as he planned his return to
Martinique. The 1,000-line poem first appeared in an
issue of Volontes in 1939, in the original French, but
it caused a sensation. "Bristling with learned words,
neologisms, and a hypercomplex syntax, it made a
direct hit on the African continent as well as on the
intellectuals in the Antilles, and even those of
anglophone or lusophone [Portuguese-speaking] Africa,"
noted Kesteloot.

Return to My Native Land contained the first-ever use
of the term "Négritude," and the idea incited an
entire generation of post-colonial writers and minds,
in both the Caribbean world and on the African
continent. "The West told us that in order to be
universal we had to start by denying that we were
black," Césaire explained about the concept in an
interview with in a UNESCO Courier writer Annick
Thebia Melsan. "I, on the contrary, said to myself
that the more we were black, the more universal we
would be. It was a totally different approach. It was
not a choice between alternatives, but an effort at

When he returned to Martinique, Césaire taught at a
lycée (school) in Fort-de-France for several years,
and also served as editor of Tropiques, a magazine
that was censored by the French authorities on orders
of the collaborationist Vichy government at a time
when France, still Martinique's colonial master, was
occupied by Nazi Germany. After the end of World War
II, Césaire emerged as a leading political figure and
was elected mayor of Fort-de-France in 1945. The
following year, he won a seat representing Martinique
in the French National Assembly, and was regularly
returned to it by voters.

Initially a member of Martinique's Communist party,
Césaire abandoned the party in 1957 to co-found and
later head the Parti Progressiste Martiniquais (PPM).
The PPM was left-leaning, but did not call for full
independence. Instead it advocated maintaining ties to
France but with self-rule, a plan that Césaire helped
author in the late 1940s. When this plan was adopted,
Martinique shed its colonial status and instead became
an overseas département of France, equal in the
political sphere to storied French areas like
Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur and Bretagne, or Brittany.

The island is one of four overseas départements, and
has a relationship to France similar to that of Puerto
Rico to the United States. It is heavily subsidized by
France, too, giving it a much higher standard of
living than members of some other Caribbean island
nations. "The anomaly of modern-day Martinique is
hence largely Césaire's creation," declared Guardian
writer James Ferguson. "A part of France--and by
extension the European Union--with identical laws,
directives and welfare provisions, it is a subsidised
first-world enclave in the Caribbean, eyed enviously
yet condescendingly by its poorer but independent

Césaire served as mayor of Fort-de-France until 1983,
and in addition to his legislative duties in Paris he
also continued to write. He turned to playwriting in
the late 1950s, and the first of his works for the
stage to be translated and performed in English was
The Tragedy of King Christophe. The work is set in
Haiti and follows the true story of King Henri
Christophe, a hotel employee who led a rebellion in
1806 and became king of a large portion of Haiti. He
ruled as a petty tyrant, and was himself ousted by a
rebellion and committed suicide. Césaire's cautionary
tale, noted an essay on his career as a playwright in
the International Dictionary of Theatre, serves as "an
account of political failure. Christophe's inability
to free his people from the alienation induced by
centuries of colonialism sounds a warning to the
leaders of newly independent Africa."

Césaire's plays have touched upon other political
themes from the history of a post-colonial world. A
1968 work, A Season in the Congo, centers around the
independence movement and subsequent civil strife
involving assassinated Congolese leader Patrice
Lumumba. His 1985 play, A Tempest, was adapted from
the Shakespeare work and features a cast of leading
characters who represent the various classes of a
post-colonial, African-heritage political atmosphere.

Césaire retired from politics in 1993 at the age of
80. Four years later, interviewed by the UNESCO
Courier's Melsan, he remained committed to the ideals
he once detailed in his writings as a college student
in Paris. "I desire--passionately--that peoples should
exist as peoples, that they should prosper and make
their contribution to universal civilization, because
the world of colonization and its modern
manifestations is a world that crushes, a world of
awful silence."


Born on June 25, 1913, in Basse-Pointe, Martinique,
West Indies; married Suzanne Roussy (a teacher), July
10, 1937 (died, 1966); children: Jacques, Jean-Paul,
Francis, Ina, Marc, Michelle. April 17, 2008: Cesaire
died on April 17, 2008, in Fort-de-France, Martinique.
He was 94. Source: New York Times,
, April 18, 2008.

Education: Attended the École Normale Supérieure,
Paris, 1935-39; Sorbonne, University of Paris,
licencié és lettres1936.

Politics: Parti Progressiste Martiniquais.

Memberships: Conseil régional Martinique, president,
1983-86; Society of African Culture, Paris.

Addresses: Office--c/o La Mairie, 97200
Fort-de-France, Martinique, West Indies.


Laporte Prize, 1960; Viareggio-Versilia Prize for
Literature, 1968; Grand Prix National de Poésie, 1982;
Commander of the Order of Merit of Cote d'Ivoire,


Playwright, poet, and essayist; L'Étudiant noir,
Paris, founder, with Léopold Senghor and Léon Dames,
1934; Lycée Schoelcher, Fort-de-France, Martinique,
teacher, 1939-45; Tropiques, Fort-de-France, editor,
1941-45; member of the two French constituent
assemblies, 1945-46; Fort-de-France, mayor, 1945-83;
French National Assembly, deputy representing
Martinique, 1946-83; Parti Progressiste Martiniquais,
founding member, later president.


Selected writings

Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (poems), 1947;
revised edition 1956; published as Return to My Native
Land, translated by John Berger and Anna Bostock,
Penguin, 1969.

Corps perdu (poems), with illustrations by Pablo
Picasso, 1950; published as Lost Body, translated by
Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith, Braziller, 1986.

Cadastre (poems), 1961; published as Cadastre,
translated by Emile Snyder and Sanford Upson, Third
Press, 1973.

La Tragédie du roi Christophe (play; produced in
Salzburg, Austria, 1964), 1963; revised edition, 1970;
published as The Tragedy of King Christophe,
translated by Ralph Manheim, Grove Press, 1970.

Une Saison au Congo (play; produced by the Théâtre
Vivant, Brussels, Belgium, 1966), 1966; published as A
Season in the Congo, translated by Manheim, Grove
Press, 1968.

State of the Union (poems), translated by Eshleman and
Denis Kelly, distributed by Asphodel Book Shop, 1966.

Une Tempete: Adaptation pour un théâtre nègre, from
The Tempest by Shakespeare (play; produced in
Hammamet, Tunisia, 1969), 1969; published as A
Tempest, translated by Richard Miller, G. Borchardt,

Culture and Colonization (nonfiction), University of
Yaounde, 1978.

Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946-82, translated by
Eshleman and Smith, University Press of Virginia,

Aimé Césaire: The Collected Poetry, translated by
Eshleman and Smith, University of California Press,

Non-Vicious Circle: Twenty Poems, translated by
Gregson Davis, Stanford University Press, 1984.



Arnold, A. James, Modernism and Négritude: The Poetry
and Poetics of Aimé Césaire, Harvard University Press,

Davis, Gregson, Aimé Césaire, Cambridge University
Press, 1997.

Frutkin, Susan, Aimé Césaire: Black between Worlds,
University of Miami, 1973.

International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 2:
Playwrights, St. James Press, 1993.

Pallister, Janis L., Aimé Césaire, Twayne, 1991.

Scharfman, Ronnie Leah, Engagement and the Language of
the Subject in the Poetry of Aimé Césaire, University
of Florida Press, 1987.

Suk, Jeannie, Postcolonial Paradoxes in French
Caribbean Writing: Césaire, Glissant, Condé,
Clarendon, 2001.


Guardian (London, England), March 13, 1999, p. 10.

Research in African Literatures, Summer 1995, p. 169,
p. 174; Winter 2001, p. 77.
Egungun, Egungun ni t'aiye ati jo! Ancestos, Ancestors come to earth and dance! "I'm sick of the war and the civilization that created it. Let's look to our dreams, and the magical; to the creations of the so-called primitive peoples for new inspirations." - Jaques Vache and Andre Breton "Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone." -John Maynard "You know that in our country there were even matriarchal societies where women were the most important element. On the Bijagos islands they had queens. They were not queens because they were the daughters of kings. They had queens succeeding queens. The religious leaders were women too..." -- Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source, 1973
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