WOULD AIMÉ CÉSAIRE HAVE BEEN AT THE FOREFRONT OF BLACK LIVES MATTER PROTESTS, HAD HE BEEN ACTIVE IN 2020?
Aimé Césaire’s face graffitied at a skate park in Royan is reminiscent of the arbitrariness of BLM murals seen painted around pretty much every politically engaged city in the UK, France and the US. Think Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Belly Mujinga. How about the enormous yellow letters spelling BLACK LIVES MATTER on the streets of Washington D.C.? They shouldn’t be all around us, but they are, and it’s time for the decolonial intellectual to make a comeback.
Eighty odd years ago, when Césaire first put pen to paper, he probably didn’t think the themes of his poetry would still be haunting us into the present day. 2020, to be precise. The Black Lives Matter movement that reignited as a result of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis effectively hijacked the world stage, telling us “enough is enough.” We’d like to think that Césaire would be proud. Finding ourselves in a modern-day structurally racist society, we can only turn to Césaire’s most famous concept, which he initially evokes in Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. A concept that arose from a studious discussion one late Parisian soirée, Négritude– which, as it turns out, has a lot more in common with BLM than you might think.
THE N WORD
Nothing says sweet re-appropriation like négritude. Debuting in the rather lengthy Cahier in 1939, the concept was developed through the minds of Césaire himself and other West Indian intellectuals such as Senghor and Damas, as an illustration of their collective lived experience as guinea pigs of the French colonial project. The young poet caught the slur nègre in his hands (one that had been hurled at him frequently during his studies in the ever-friendly metropolitan Paris), scrunched it up, reassigned it a fresh new meaning it and sent it back out into the mind of the wartime Parisian intellectual. The concept sought to re-envision Africanness in a positive light and legitimise the power of black intellectuals, artists, authors and thinkers, relinquishing the subservient identity that colonialism had assigned black people in Europe.
“Negridom is standing.” (Césaire: 1939).
Colonialism’s roots go so unthinkably deep that the victory over fascism in Europe post WW2 was merely a win for whites. For black people in Europe such as Césaire and his pals, France’s victory was rather “a bitter reminder that nothing had changed for Black people, and that colonialism was still poisoning Europe as well as the colonies” (Rosello: 1995:31). It’s no wonder that negridom was standing for Césaire. He and other black people were living in a society that benefited only white people and it was time for systematic change. Nearly a century on, we are still waiting.
SARTRE JOINED THE CHAT
There were undoubtedly a few lightbulbs dinging when Jean-Paul Sartre got involved in the efforts of decolonisation. Already somewhat a philosopher of the oppressed, Sartre lapped up the nitty-gritties of the négritude movement and attempted to amplify it in a way that would “promote and lend credibility to the sources” (Jules 2007:267). His theory was complex, but also quite interesting:
Sartre recognised the disparity between the African-Caribbean and the European experience that Césaire was describing. While a European proletariat could be observed and experienced marginal oppression economically, the oppression of black people was (and still is) both objective and subjective. The subjective essentially refers to the psychological experience, one which may be conquered through means of expression such as black poetry and arts, which, for Sartre, “constitute a revolutionary force that challenges European society to address an affirmation of identity and an affirmation of freedom” (Sartre 1948 cited in Jules: 2007:268). Big tick for Césaire. The objective oppression, on the other hand, requires direct political and economic engagement through the means of revolutionary action. Big tick for BLM.
Joining forces with Césaire in the first issue of Présence Africaine in 1947, Sartre’s article named Présence noire built further upon the négritude movement by demanding a real black presence in European intellectual discourse that was based on African and Caribbean contribution to literature, rather than the colonial façade of tokenism. Don’t we all love a bit of tokenism, though? Michael in Lost, Dionne in Clueless, even South Park had their token character, Token. The media’s diversity quotas are performative, as if including one singular black character constitutes diversity and then, well, job done. For Sartre, this took the form of the black students who were accepted to study in prestigious institutions, while in reality this handful of academics were “hostages and symbols intending to expiate the guilt of closed European society that functions in bad faith” (Jules: 2007:268).
Bad faith, or mauvaise foi, indeed. The idea of society functioning as a self-fulfilled prophecy founded the basis of decolonial intellectualism, and in turn has led BLM to pick up where they left off. Both parties have a common aim of cutting the prophecy, saying: ‘enough is enough, why should we accept these oppressed, subservient, token identities that black people are reduced to?’ Césaire and Sartre’s teamwork broadcasted their anti-colonialist message across the print media that they had access to, his Cahier being made accessible to read in Présence Africaine alongside Présence Noire by Sartre.
Though the two intellectuals spread their message where they could, they could have taken a leaf out of generation Z’s book. When BLM took over social media in June last year, there was an unmistakably similar undertone in their convictions. While there weren’t many tweets explicitly referring to négritude, the term’s legacy lived on in the call for Black Excellence. The public were urged to shop at black owned businesses, black artists dominated our timelines and Twitter and Instagram threads took it upon themselves to educate us on some real black history.
The beauty of social media is that anyone can consume. The 280-character limit makes for rapid reading and the nature of the retweet feature means that anyone’s timeline may be intercepted. Présence Africaine was definitely one of a kind, polishing up the colonial nightmare in which the African diaspora found themselves. However, thanks to a rather limited readership and the hefty 50 page spread needed for the Cahier alone, alongside the fact that only seven issues were released between November 1947 and December 1949 (Howlett: 1958:142), the required revolutionary action remained somewhat unattained… until today.
ALL BLACK LIVES MATTER
So, let’s say Césaire was pondering today. Where would we place him in the Black Lives Matter movement? A lot has changed since the glory days of Césaire and his intellectual cohort in Paris, and one value that the BLM movement strives to represent is intersectionality. This is to say that black lives must not be represented in a hegemonic manner, but rather that a plurality of gender, class, disability, sexuality, all exist and require equal action. Some activists asserted that black lives couldn’t possibly matter if we’re not inclusive of black trans lives.
The Cahier has undergone extensive gender analysis over the years and temptation lies in focusing on this binary, macho voice of the people, heroically and independently decolonising them. That said, Kalikoff (1995:493) points out that we should divert our attention elsewhere. Reading a hero into the Cahier overshadows our interpretations of the poem, such as that “the hero is quite simply a comprehensive symbol of human society and the dangers attendant upon such exaggerated expectations” (Okpewho cited in Kalikoff: 1995:493). Though, relatively speaking, Césaire spoke from a privileged position and felt little solidarity with those still suffering in post-colonial Martinique (Rosello: 1995:17), he was aware of the disparities that existed and sparked the movement that strove to address them.
By today’s standards, we would have loved nothing more than to see a movement that explicitly addressed every section of African and Caribbean diaspora, but we need to remember: Césaire, Senghor, Damas, Diop, these intellectuals were the pioneers of the movement. The handful of black students in Europe at the time were only there thanks to the small privilege that got them there, allowing them to share their experiences as post-colonial projects and therefore lay the building blocks for a decolonised society. Building blocks that BLM activists are reassembling today in the name of institutional change that represents each and every black life.
As a final thought, when the statue of notorious slave trader Edward Colston was eventually dismantled in the heat of a BLM protest in Bristol, it was replaced by white artist, Marc Quinn’s sculpture of local black activist, Jenn Reid. Knowing that black art can be a tool in combatting subjective oppression, the use of a white artist depicting blackness sparked debate. He responded by reaffirming his collaboration with Reid and his allyship in supporting the movement. Perhaps we could draw some parallels between Reid and Césaire, and Quinn and Sartre?
Howlett J, 1958. ‘Presence Africaine 1947-1958’, The Journal of African American History, 43(2), pp. 142.
Jules-Rosello B. 2007. ‘Jean-Paul Sartre and the philosophy of négritude: Race, self, and society’, Theory and Society, 36(3), pp. 268.
Kalikoff H, 1995. ‘Gender, Genre and Geography in Aime Cesaire’s “Cahier D’un Retour au Pays Natal”’ Callaloo, 18 (2), pp. 493
Rosello M, 1995, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, Hexham: Bloodaxe.
Source: Wikimedia Commons, May 8 2010, Photo by Barraki
Source: Twitter, May 29 2020, Tweet by user @blurredines
Source: Cosmpolitan, September 1 2020, Getty Images, Photo by Erik McGregor
Source: The Guardian, 15 July 2020, Photo by Instagram User @bricks_magazine
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Irele A, 1965. ‘Negritude of Black Cultural Nationalism’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 3(3) pp.321-348
Sartre J.P., 1964. ‘Black Orpheus’, The Massachusetts Review, 6(1), pp. 13-52