BY James Fleuriot, 10:51am January 27, 2023,

The complicated legacy of Aimé Césaire, inventor of “Négritude” and a fervent defender of black identity

Photo: Aimé Césaire. Source: Toward Freedom

Aimé David Césaire, writer and politician of Martinique origin, was born on June 26, 1913 in Habitation Eyma. He is part of a family of seven children. His father, Fernand Césaire, is administrator-manager (tax inspector, to be more precise) of a house in Basse-Pointe, Martinique. His mother, Éléonore Hermine, was a seamstress. His paternal grandfather, also called Fernand Césaire, was the first Martiniquan to attend the École Normale Supérieure de Saint-Cloud. The latter was a professor of literature at the high school in Saint-Pierre; and her grandmother, Nini du Lorrain, unlike many women of her generation, could read and write, skills that she would teach her grandchildren very early on.

After obtaining his baccalaureate in Fort-de-France, Césaire entered the Lycée Louis-le-Grand where he completed a literary preparatory class before entering the École Normale Supérieure. During this time, he met Ousmane Socé Diop, Léon Gontran Damas, and Léopold Sendar Senghor, with whom he became friends.

Césaire launched the movement of the “Négritude” in the pages of the newspaper L’Étudiant Noir (English : Black Student), which he also helped launch in 1935, with West Indian, Guyanese, and African students.

In 1935, he joined the Communist Youth. In 1937, he married Suzanne Roussi, with whom he shared intellectual interests and a passion for surrealism. Equally prolific, although unknown, she will be a valuable collaborator for the dissemination of the work of Césaire.

The invention of negritude (1934-1939)

From 1934 onwards, “Négritude” was one of the greatest successes in the fight against racism and cultural oppression. Aimé Césaire forged this concept in reaction to the cultural oppression of the French colonial system. It aims to reject the French project of cultural assimilation on the one hand, and to promote Africa and its culture, devalued by the racism of colonial ideology, on the other.

The genesis of the “return to the native country

In 1935, Césaire passed the entrance exam to the École normale supérieure. For the summer vacation, he left for Croatia. As he could not afford to return to Martinique and had no family in France, his friend Petar Guberina invited him to his home in Croatia, in Dalmatia to be precise. It is in the name of this island, named Martiniska, that he will recognize that of his native Martinique. This shock will produce in him, he will confide, the desire to write this long poem in prose which will become the « Cahier d’un retour au pays natal »,  (Translate to English : “Notebook of a return to the native country”, published in 1939.

Congress of Philosophy (Haiti)

On May 16, 1944, accompanied by his wife Suzanne Roussi, Aimé Césaire flew to Haiti where he was invited to the Congress of Philosophy in Haiti. His invitation to this congress was due to his reputation, given his influence in the Haitian intellectual environment, which had already been acquired. Henri Seyrig was, at the time, a member of the “Délégation de la France Libre” (Translate to English : Free French delegation) to the United States. He even mentions it in his letter of December 15, 1943, to Governor Georges Louis Ponton.

Insisting on the effects of the “French presence” in the West Indies, Henri Seyrig said: “It seems to me very important that, in this meeting where scholars from different countries are going to be brought into contact with the black world, France should show by a decisive example what our culture has been able to produce in this race.”

His Convictions

His anti-colonialist positions are reinforced by the return of war to the colonies. In May 1945, tens of thousands of Algerians were killed in the massacres of Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata. In November 1946, the city of Haiphong in Vietnam was completely destroyed by bombing by the French navy, the Malagasy insurrection of 1947 was put down in blood and a series of massacres were perpetrated in retaliation on the island’s population in 1987. In 1950, Aimé Césaire published his Discourse on Colonialism. In this speech, he emphasized the close relationship between Nazism and colonialism. He wrote, among other things, the following:

“Yes, it would be worthwhile to study, clinically, in detail, the approach of Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the 20th century that he carries within him a Hitler who ignores himself, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he vituperates him, it is because of a lack of logic [? …] and that basically, what he does not forgive Hitler is not the crime itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man in himself, it is the crime against the white man, it is the humiliation against the white man, and to have applied to Europe colonialist procedures that have been applied so far only to the Arabs of Algeria, to the coolies of the Indies, to the Negroes of Africa […] “.

He joined the PCF in December 1945 to “work on the construction of a system based on the right to dignity of all men without distinction of origin, religion, and color” as he explais in the brochure Why I am a Communist7. In 1947, Césaire created the journal “Présence Africaine” with Alioune Diop.

Political Career

Aimé Césaire was the deputy of Martinique from 1945 to 1993. He was first elected to participate in the first Constituent Assembly of the Fourth Republic in 1945 and was re-elected for all subsequent legislatures until 1993. This year he did not seek re-election and supported the candidate who was to replace him: Camille Darsières. In addition to his mandate as a deputy, he was elected in 1945 as mayor of Fort-de-France, succeeding Victor Sévère. In 2001, he did not run again and Serge Letchimy succeeded him. During this period, between 1983 and 1986, he held the seat of President of the Regional Council of Martinique.

In 2007, he became honorary president of the « Maison de la Négritude et des Droits de l’Homme ».

His Death

On April 9, 2008, he was hospitalized at the Pierre Zobda Quitman University Hospital in Fort-de-France for heart problems. His health condition worsened and he died on the morning of April 17, 2008.

Tribute to Césaire

  • The class of 2020-2021 of the École nationale d’administration (France) has taken the name of Aimé Césaire.
  • Portrait by Hom Nguyen for the Musée de l’Homme in 2021 on the occasion of the exhibition Portraits of France.
  • The 38th graduating class of the Lille IRA is named after Aimé Césaire.
  • In 2021, the artist Hom Nguyen will paint his portrait for the Portraits of France exhibition at the Musée de l’Homme.
  • In Brussels, a library that specialized in African and Caribbean literature is called Espace Césaire.
  • In the television series H, Éric Judor’s character is called Aymé Césaire.

Main Works

  • Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1939)
  • Discours sur le colonialisme (1950)
  • Cadastre (1961)
  • La tragédie du Roi Christophe (1963)
  • A Season in the Congo (1966, theater)
  • Moi, laminaire (1982, poetry)


In retrospect, Aimé Césaire’s political career appears strangely circuitous, contrary to the thought of negritude that he developed elsewhere. By turning an assimilationist, an independentist, and an autonomist (although we do not know exactly what he meant by this), Césaire seems to have been more a follower of the initiatives taken by the metropolitan governments (particularly in terms of decentralization) than a driving force for the emancipation of his people. He will undoubtedly be remembered as the “fundamental Negro” and as one of the great French-speaking poets of the 20th century, but not as a political leader who truly marked his era.

Last Edited by:Sandra Appiah Updated: January 27, 2023


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