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Aimé Césaire, poet and pioneer of négritude

Article published on the 2008-04-17 Latest update 2008-04-18 08:47 TU

The poet, playwright and politician Aimé Césaire has died in Martinique at the age of 94. His works included the poem Le cahier d'un retour au pays natal (Return to my native land) and the play La tragédie du roi Christophe (The tragedy of King Christopher). We take a look at his political and artisitic career.

Césaire, whose father was a teacher, was born in Martinique in 1913 but travelled to Paris on a scholarship for his education.

At the Lycée Louis le Grand he met future Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor and Guyanese future writer Léon Gontran Damas and they went on to found a magazine, L'Etudiant Noir (The Black Student), in 1934.

Césaire then studied at the presitigious Ecole normale supérieure, publishing his long poem, Le cahier d'un retour au pays natal, which appeared in English as Return to my native land, in 1939. The poem is a cry of revolt against the contempt for African and black culture that he and his friends encountered.

Presaging post-war black consciousness movements, they coined the term négritude to describe the black pride they hoped to awaken.

In 1939 he and his wife, Suzanne Roussi, returned to Martinique, where he became close to surrealist leader, André Breton, who lived there at the time. He taught at the lycée in Fort-de-France, where future radical author Frantz Fanon was among his students. 

In Paris he had been won over to left-wing ideas and in 1945 he was elected to the French parliament for the Communist Party.

Césaire was one of the drafters of the 1946 law which transformed colonies into departments of France, earning criticism from separatists.

After the repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 , he left the Communist Party and founded the Martinique Progressive Party, continuing to serve in the National Assembly.

When future president Nicolas Sarkozy visited Martinique in 2006, Césaire refused to meet him, facetiously declaring: "But who is this young man? I don't know him."

The refusal was a protest at a law introduced by the ruling UMP which ordered teachers to acknowledge the "positive role" of France abroad, especially in north Africa.