Friday, April 18, 2008

Poetry and politics

Image source: Reuters

I learned about the poet Aimé Césaire unfortunately late in my life -- during my second stint in grad school (thanks, Sue O'Brien!). Césaire was born in Basse-Pointe, Martinique, in 1913.

Césaire met the Senegalese writer Léopold Sedar Senghor while he was a scholarship student in Paris in the early 1930s. He is credited with creating the concept of négritude. Even as a young student, he understood the power of culture, and began to actively oppose cultural imposition by metropole France on colonized peoples. He did this by starting L'étudiant noir (the black student) in 1932, together with Senghor and the Guyanese Léon-Gontran Damas. In this journal, black writers challenged traditional models of French literature. Knowing how academia functions today, I wonder his faculty put pressure on him to stop or leave. Anyhow, Césaire graduated from the Ecole Normale Superieure.

Césaire returned to Martinique, and became widely known in the late 1930s for his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (notebook of a return to the native land). In Martinique, he taught Frantz Fanon. Obviously, Césaire belonged to that now-nearly-extinct species, the truly courageous engaged academic.

Césaire was mayor of Fort-de-France, Martinique, from 1945 to 2001, and a deputy in the French assembly for Martinique. More radical politicians, who favored independence, saw his role in the departmentalization of the colonies as a compromise. A long-time member of the French Communist Party, he grew disillusioned with Communism after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.

In 2005, Césaire refused to meet Nicolas Sarkozy, then interior minister, because the latter's party had supported a law that would glorify French imperialism in schools. The law was repealed by Chirac's government.

Césaire died on Thursday, at the age of 94, in Martinique. Here's a list of his writings.

No comments: