Writing the Struggle – Césaire’s take on negritude

Aimé Césaire’ is one of the founders of the negritude movement together with Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon-Gontran Damas.
Although he was born to a teacher and a seamstress in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, in the Caribbean, Césaire’ grew up poor.
It was this early experience that shaped his future especially when he father sent him to study in Paris where he met Senghor and Damas.
Recalling his childhood,  Césaire’ who died in 2008 says in his 1936 poem, ‘Cahier d'un retour au pays natal’: “And the bed of planks from which my race has risen, all my race from this bed of planks on its feet of kerosene cases, as if the old bed had elephantiasis, covered with a goat skin, and its dried banana leaves and its rags, the ghost of a mattress that is my grandmother's bed (above the bed in a pot full of oil a candle-end whose flame looks like a fat turnip, and on the side of the pot, in letters of gold.”
The three are known as the les trios pères or the three fathers.
The three met while studying in Paris, France in the 1930s. Césaire’ became a politician in his home country, Martinique; Senghor became the first black president of Senegal while Damas also became a national assembly member for his country, Guyana.
Negritude meant different things to the three men. For Césaire’, negritude is about accepting being black and appreciating the black cultures and histories.
In a speech titled ‘What is Negritude to Me’ delivered during a conference on Negritude, Ethnicity and Afro Cultures in the Americas in Miami in 2007 by Césaire’, he says: “Negritude is not a philosophy. Negritude is not metaphysics. Negritude is not a pretentious conception of the universe. It is a way of living a history within history; the history of a community whose experience is indeed unparalleled with its population deportations, its forced migrations of men and women from one continent to another, the wreckage of slaughtered cultures and remnants of long forgotten beliefs.”
On the beauty of being black, Césaire’ says in The World and Africa: “… no race has a monopoly on beauty, on intelligence, on strength. . . ”
In Culture and Colonisation (1956) Césaire’ says, “Culture is everything. Culture is the way we dress, the way we carry our heads, the way we walk, the way we tie our ties ‑ it is not only the fact of writing books or building houses.”
He also saw in negritude, the chance of not only accepting all the wrongs done on the African and the continent by the colonisers but to ‘redefine’ it.
“For us the problem is not to make a utopian and sterile attempt to repeat the past, but to go beyond. It is not a dead society that we want to revive. We leave that to those who go in for exoticism… It is a new society that we must create, with the help of our brother slaves, a society rich with all the productive power of modern times, warm with all the fraternity of olden days,” he states in a Discourse on Colonialism regarding slavery.
On the other hand, Senghor sought universalism of all Africans based on their biological make-up. For him, negritude was supposed to celebrate African traditional beliefs and spirituality.
Unlike Césaire’, Senghor did not see any reason of dwelling on the past.
Although in his last days Césaire’ turned his negritude beliefs into some form of militancy, Damas’ approach from the start was militant with no room for accepting any European injustice in his quest to defend blackness. In fact, Damas was the enfant terrible of la Négritude. Despite the difference in approach, negritude was generally founded on four pillars: rejection of western domination; black pride; Marxism and literature that reflect African-ness.
• (Next week: an in-depth look into Césaire’s’ complete works)

May 2013
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