The birth of negritude

James Ferguson reads much into Aime Cesaire’s Notebook of a Return to My Native Land


When does a piece of writing become a classic? Perhaps never more definitively so than when it appears on Oxford University’s syllabus. This academic year, hundreds of first-year French students will have no option but to read and write essays about Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, a 30-page poem by Martinique’s Aimé Césaire. The Oxford dons who selected the poem for academic canonisation will not have overlooked the irony that it was intended as a revolutionary attack on the elitist, western concept of culture that the university so perfectly symbolises.

The Notebook was first published 60 years ago next year. Its author was a 22-year old black student in Paris, who had come from the then French Caribbean colony of Martinique to study at one of the prestigious grandes écoles. The son of financially modest parents from a village on the island’s rugged north coast, Césaire had been bright enough to win a place at Fort-de-France’s Lycée Schoelcher and then a scholarship to Paris.

It was a big step for a Martiniquan schoolboy, but Césaire was no ordinary student. In the cultural ferment of the 1930s, the French capital swarmed with intellectuals, movements and “isms”. Those that attracted the young Césaire were Marxism, surrealism and anti-colonialism, a heady mix of radical ideas which each contributed to his growing hostility to “official” culture. From these influences and from contacts with African and black American intellectuals evolved Césaire’s concept of négritude.

Eurocentric culture, argued Césaire and his circle, had always denigrated black civilisation, claiming a monopoly of intellectual achievement. This racist tradition could not be broken by black writers imitating European models, but rather by finding their own authentic voice. Négritude was thus the idea that the culturally dispossessed could reclaim their own identity through celebrating what was specifically black and African. In a precursor of the 1960s Black is Beautiful slogan, Césaire demanded that the French word nègre should be freed of its pejorative connotations and become a badge of pride.

In 1939 the Notebook first appeared in an obscure Parisian avant-garde journal. It passed unnoticed. By then, the return to the native land was in any case under way as Césaire went home to Martinique to teach at the Lycée Schoelcher. There, together with his wife Suzanne and others, he was instrumental in producing a journal, Tropiques, which continued to publish radical poetry and literary theory.

According to literary legend, Césaire’s great break occurred in 1941 when André Breton, the self-styled “pope of surrealism”, and a group of Parisian intellectuals disembarked at Fort-de-France en route to the USA and escape from German-occupied France. Breton was at first irritated by his enforced stay on the French island and was impatient to move on to the metropolis of New York. But idly leafing through a copy of Tropiques one day, Breton claims to have transfixed by the sheer energy and originality of a piece of poetry he found — the Notebook. It was, he said, “the greatest lyrical monument of all times”.

Once the war was over, Breton was influential in having a new edition of the poem published in Paris. Its success was phenomenal and Césaire became a celebrated name in intellectual circles. At home, too, his fame was rising by the day. In the 1945 elections, he was elected on the French Communist Party ticket not only as a deputy to the French National Assembly but as Mayor of Fort-de-France.

For the next half century Aimé Césaire dominated Martiniquan politics. The island’s constitutional transformation from colony into “overseas department” of France is considered to have been largely his work, and although this has angered advocates of complete independence, there is little doubt that Césaire’s vision of Martinique’s relationship with France has ensured its people’s relative prosperity. In 1956 he parted company with the Communist Party to form his own Progressive Martiniquan Party, which remains popular to this day with its emphasis on local autonomy within the attachment to France. Recently retired from politics, “Papa” Césaire has been a political father figure to several generations of Martiniquans, even if he has attracted strong criticism from pro-independence thinkers.

Sixty years on, how well has the Notebook stood the test of time? It is not a comfortable or relaxing read, it has to be said, but then this was entirely what Césaire intended. He wanted his poem to shock, not merely in its tone and imagery, but equally in its iconoclastic use of language itself. In this respect, it remains as challenging as ever, with its accumulation of disturbing images and incongruous phrases. The poem begins with a far-from-exotic evocation of Fort-de-France, a place of squalor and alienation:

Look at it, everyday, it grazes further on the tide of its tiled corridors, prudish shutters, slimy Yards, dripping paintwork. And petty hushed scandals, petty silenced shames and petty immense hatreds knead bumps and holes in the narrow streets where the gutter grimaces longitudinally among turds

he claustrophobic confines of Martinique rapidly give way to a more universal vision, encompassing the history of slavery and the resulting modern-day black Diaspora. The symbolism is often obscure, the use of language willfully jarring, but gradually a recognisable structure of meaning begins to emerge. On the one hand stands the historic debasement of black people and black culture, symbolised by the slave-driver’s whip and the lynch mob. On the other, the defiant celebration of blackness, of the poet’s African ancestry, of the irrational lyricism that négritude celebrates as an antidote to European rationalism. Finally comes the understanding that:

no race holds a monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength

and there is room for all at the rendez-vous of conquest

The Notebook is ably translated and annotated by Mireille Rosello in a recent bilingual edition. It situates the poem in its cultural context and explores its considerable strengths and flaws. What emerges is a formidable work of the imagination, which, Oxford notwithstanding, fully merits the adjective “classic”.

James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers)