The death of Aime Cesaire, the Martinique poet recognised as the father of Negritude… …evokes memories of a war against racism fought on the front of the written word. The notion of black as something beautiful and a source of pride was the greatest compliment that Cesaire and Leopold Sedar Sengor, who rose to be Senegalese president, left the black population. They jointly propagated to counter racism and subjugation of black culture in Europe in early 20th Century.
With his mastery of the French language and experience as a writer, Cesaire contested that the French were no better intellectually than their black colleagues.
The Negritude proponents further argued that even as the French assimilated Africans from its colonies, they needed to recognise that they could be as good as the French.
Cesaire and Sengor, while propagating these ideals, echoed other cultural stirrings as Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement. They aspired to translocate Africans in the Diaspora to their original homeland. They thus joined a stream of other thoughts that promoted black pride, such as Langston Hughes (1907-1967) and Claude Mckay’s, who were associated with the Harlem renaissance.
The latter refers to a New York district where African-Americans made a home after the abolition of slavery in the 1920s, leading to a cultural and artistic explosion that glorified Africa.
Besides, the Harlem resistance greatly inspired the Negritude movement that brought black issues to the attention of the mainstream.
“Negritude was really a resistance to the politics of assimilation,” Cesaire once told Haitian poet and essayist Rene Depestre, during a Cultural Congress in Havana, Cuba in 1967.
In his literary work, the poet and playwright attempted to demonstrate the oneness of humanity.
The movement wished to clear negative perceptions that skin colour should divide humanity.
At the height of the Negritude movement, Europe was steeped in its efforts to colonise Africa on the fraudulent assertion that Africans needed “civilising.” Negritude’s principle, therefore, challenged the core of colonialism by restating the uniformity of black-white cultures.
The response to colonialism and oppression was varied – from the militant resistance of the Mau Mau in Kenya to the violence in Algeria.
But Cesaire and Sengor chose the path of the written word to fight the fallacy. The two were black men who had acquired the highest recognition in the French system and had even been accepted as French citizens.
In as much as Negritude ideology sought to portray ‘blackness’ as equal to other races, the movement was criticised by some black scholars mainly stemming from its adoration of European way of life.
The 1986 Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Prof Wole Soyinka, is one such critic. Soyinka argues that Negritude encouraged “self-absorption and affirms one of the central Eurocentric prejudices against Africans which is the dichotomy between European rationalism and African emotionalism.”
“A tiger does not shout its tigritude,” said Soyinka, referring to the movement, “It acts.”
Franz Fanon, author, essayist and theorist who incidentally was also Cesaire’s student at Lycee Victor Schoelcher in the 1940s, similarly rejected Negritude.
Cesaire taught Fanon when he returned to Martinique in 1939 after eight years’ study in France.
In 1948, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a review in which he characterised Negritude as “the polar opposite of colonial racism in a Hegelian dialectic.” He said negritude was “anti-racist racism” which was necessary to the final goal of racial unity.
Negritude was also criticised by some black writers in the 1960s during the height for the clamour for independence in most African countries as “insufficiently militant.”
Keorapetse Kgositsile said Negritude was based too much on “celebrating blackness by means of a white aesthetic”, adding it could not define a perception that would free black people and black art from white misconceptions.
Cesaire’s interests in the racial politics eventually transformed him into a real politician.
Born in Basse-Pointe, Martinique in the Caribbean on June 26, 1913, Cesaire’s brilliance won him a scholarship to study at the prestigious Lycee Victor Schoelcher in Fort-De France at a tender age of 11 years.
He graduated from Schoelcher in 1931, winning distinctions in French, Latin, English and History.
His good performance once again won him another scholarship, which took him to Paris, France to attend Lycee Louis-le-Grand.
In 1935 after passing an entrance exam, he formed a literary journal called “The Black Student” together with Leopold Sedar Sengor and Leon Damas.
This movement was what was metamorphosed into the Negritude movement.
Cesaire wrote in French in 1939 on the ambiguities of Caribbean life and culture in the new world and compared it with his home life in Martinique.
He was elected the mayor of Fort de France in 1945 after he had joined the communist party, a position he held until 2001, except for a short absence between 1983 and 1984.
Besides the mayor’s post, he was elected one among the three Martinique’s deputies to the French National Assembly where he sat from 1946 to 1956.
One ironic pronouncement, however, was Cesaire’s proposal advocating that France absorb Martinique and other French colonies.
His wish came to pass in 1946 when the former French colonies were named overseas departments of France.
The call for absorption was a contradiction of terms for a group that promoted the ideals of African freedom.
It appears Cesaire realised this contradiction and he in 1956 called for Africa’s independence from its European colonial masters.
The reality was that though he was a politician, Cesaire never envisaged political independence from France.
The same was said of Sengor, another Negritude proponent who rose to become Senegal’s President.
Sengor never denounced his French citizenship when he was elected Senegal’s president. He enjoyed dual nationality.
According to Sengor, Negritude would enable blacks under French rule to share as equals at the French table.
Cesaire, who married fellow student Suzanne Roussi in 1937, died at Fort de France Hospital on April 17, at age 94. They had four children.