“Negritude with Attitude”
By Astrid Wendlandt
PARIS (Reuters) – French Caribbean poet Aime Cesaire,founding father of the “negritude” movement that celebrated black consciousness, died of heart problems April 17, in his native Martinique.
Cesaire, 94, was mayor of the island’s main city Fort-de-France for more than half a century.
His writings offered insight into how France imposed its culture on its citizens of different origins in the early part of the 20th Century.
In 2005, Cesaire refused to meet then French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (now French president) over concerns that Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party had pushed for a law which proposed to recognize the colonial rule. The law was eventually repealed.
The Negritude movement, which was influenced by “attitudes and philosophies” of the Harlem Renaissance writers Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, James Weldon Johnson, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen, was founded by Cesaire, Leon-Gontran Damas , a poet from, French Guyana and African intellectual Leopold Senghor– later President of Senegal. In 1934 they published “The Black Student” to encourage people to develop a black identity.The Caribbean writer rose to fame with his “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land,” written in the late 1930s, in which he says “my negritude is neither tower nor cathedral, it plunges into the red flesh of the soil.”
His poems expressed the degradation of black people in the Caribbean and describe the rediscovery of an African sense of self. In his “Discourse on Colonialism,” first published in 1950, Cesaire compared the relationship between the colonizer and colonized with the Nazis and their victims.
He was a mentor to fellow Martinican author Frantz Fanon, and their anti-colonial writings were a major influence in the heady intellectual climate of the 1960s and 1970s in France.
The negritude movement was a counterpart to the Black Pride movement in the United States, though it has been criticized for not being radical enough.
Cesaire was also a friend of the French surrealist poet Andre Breton who had encouraged him to become a major voice of Surrealism.
Cesaire’s anti-colonial rhetoric did not prevent him from having a long-lasting political career.
After becoming mayor of Fort-de-France in 1945 at the age of 32, he was elected deputy of parliament a year later, a post he held until the early 1990s.
A graduate of the prestigious French Ecole Normale Superieure — unusual for a black Martinican in the 1930s.
Cesaire was born in 1913 in the small town of Basse-Pointe in Martinique. He married Suzanne Roussi in 1937, a gifted writer in her own right, with whom he had six children.