Monday, 12 May 2008

Aimé Césaire

by Mabogo Percy More

We the living shoulder the historical responsibility of ensuring that the deeds and words of the dead should not fade into oblivion unnoticed. Since the dead (ancestors) will always be there, confronting us directly or far off on the horizons of our being, our duty requires that we accept this responsibility with a clear consciousness. The death of Aimé Césaire - the Martiniquean poet, politician and revolutionary - last week calls on us to carry out the responsibility that we owe the dead.

That Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness exponents were influenced by the Black Power Movement of the Unites States of American comprising of luminous figures such as Kwame Toure (aka Stockely Carmichael) Elridge Cleaver, George Jackson, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, James Cone, Huey Percy Newton, Bobby Seale, etc., is a fact. However, what is normally ignored is that comparative to the African-American influence was another equally strong influence from the Caribbean Islands, Martinique, to be precise.

From this Island two figures stand out: Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon. I mention Césaire first not because he was Fanon’s teacher and mentor and therefore older, but because he, together with Léopold Sedar Senghor who later became the President of Senegal, and Léon Gontran Damas from Guyana, through the Negritude Movement they formed as students in Paris during the early 1930s, were probably the foundational figures and sources of Black Consciousness philosophy and ideology in our country and elsewhere.

Having coined the word “Negritude”, Césaire explained that the movement was not only a resistance to the French politics of assimilation, the attempt to turn a black person into a French with a black skin but more importantly a response to the alienating situation of being-black-in-a-white–antiblack-world

In Césaire’s understanding, therefore, Negritude was not only negatively an intellectual reaction to an alienated black consciousness, a struggle against white racism and its degrading effects but was above all also positively an affirmation of the being of the black person.

Negritude, in his definition, was “a concrete rather than an abstract coming to consciousness” of black people who lived in an atmosphere of rejection and developed not only an inferiority complex but were also ashamed of their blackness. This coming into concrete consciousness in an antiblack world generated one of the most persistent questions among black people: “Who am I”. Half devil or half child as Rudyard Kipling maintained?

What this actually means is that the question of identity becomes a pressing one in an antiblack social context. Thus Negritude also became, fundamentally, a preoccupation with questions of identity and liberation through self consciousness and self-definition. Césaire explained this issue of identity this way: “I have always thought that the black man was searching for his identity. And it has seemed to me that if what we want is to establish this identity, then we must have a concrete consciousness of what we are – that is, of the fact of our lives; that we are black, that we were black and have a history”

In Césaire’s view, racism can neither be transcended by liberal notions of the mere equality of humanity nor by reduction to class consciousness, what is a precondition, however, for any overcoming of racism is the coming to concrete consciousness by Black people.

While Senghor’s Negritude was Africa-centered and much more oriented towards cultural consciousness and a metaphysical element that concentrated on the ontology of the being of the African, Césaire’s Negritude was, by contrast much more existentialist and thus focussed on the consciousness of black people in the context of colonial and racist situations. For him, Negritude was more of a mode of being-black-in-the-world, a consciousness of colour, race and history. In other words, Césaire’s posed the question of black existence through the lens of Negritude.

When asked how the word “Negritude” came about and about their struggle against racism, alienation and dehumanization when they were students in France, Césaire articulated a philosophy whose origins and content reads as if it were a narrative about the origins of SASO and Black Consciousness in Azania three to four decades later: “It was an elementary semantic step; we simply transformed the French adjective for Black… négre, into a noun by adding a suffix, -itude. We adopted the word `négre’ as a term of defiance. It was a defiant name. To some extent it was a reaction of enraged youth. Since there was shame about the word négre, we chose the word négre … we found a violent affirmation in the words négre and négritude.”

The reappropriation of the term black (negro) from its negative connotation to a positive one was articulated in Césaire’s famous epic poem, Return to my Native Land. Damas, a less known third member of the three founders of Negritude, in explaining why the term “Negritude” was coined, echoes Césaire: “The word ‘negritude’…had a very precise meaning in the years 1934-35, namely the fact that the black man was seeking to know himself, that he wanted to become a historical actor and a cultural actor, and not just an object of domination or a consumer of culture… The word ‘negritude’ was coined in the most racism moment of history, and we accepted the word négre as a challenge”

These descriptions of the origin of Negritude as initially a student movement against racism and its effects of alienation, inferiority complex, identity problems, degradation, and unfreedom, together with students’ publications such as La Revue du monde noir (the Review of Black People), Légitime Défense (legitimate Defense), and L’Etudiant noir (The Black Student) bear unmistakably a striking resemblance to the origins and philosophical and ideological orientation of the Black Consciousness movement qua South African Student Organization (SASO) and its various journals such as SASO Newsletter, and Black Viewpoint.

Even though Fanon’s ideas exercised a tremendous influence on the direction and philosophical underpinning of Biko and the Black Consciousness movement, they however gave philosophical substance and content to what Césaire and the Negritude movement had already imparted. Fanon himself later said about Césaire : “ For the fist time a lycée teacher – a man therefore, who was apparently worthy of respect – was seen to announce quite simply to West Indian society ‘that it is fine to and good to be a Negro’” .

Indeed the major lessons Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement acquired from Césaire and Negritude was that a Negritudist has to perform certain functions: First, he or she must educate his or her fellow blacks (conscientize). Second serve as the spokes person of black people, be their voice and never allow white liberals and white leftists to speak on their behalf. Finally, the Negritudist must free black people psychologically and politically.

Césaire’s significance to the thinking of Biko and the Black Consciousness movement, was not only the appropriation of a negative term and its transformation into a positive signification, but also the role he played as a teacher and inspiration to Frantz Fanon and Biko. The latter in his I Write What I Like, for example, invokes the name of Césaire more than three times as an explanatory model for understanding Black Consciousness. Césaire, as Fanon correctly points out, was indeed a man “worthy of respect”!.

We the followers of Césaire in this country are grieving over this man “worthy of respect” who was, so to speak, the unshakable affirmation of black personhood. Someone just dead remains alive. I believe that Césaire still is because it is difficult to say he was. He retains, at the beginning of his absence, a towering presence. The ambiguity of presence in an absence characterizes the death of people who have made an indelible mark in the lives of others.