Aimé Césaire | Resolutely Black | Conversations with Françoise Vergès

 

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Césaires Relevance Today

Reading Césaire today encourages reexamination of the notion of race and the role it has played in French thought. In particular, it encourages a reexamination of the place of le nègre, to use Césaire’s term, in our conception of race. French universalism vehemently rejects any attempt to distinguish groups according to their ethnic and cultural origins. In its very refusal to recognize what makes people different, this universalist position sees itself as charitable. Stripped of distinctions, everyone is equal. But history is stubborn, serving as a constant reminder that ideals often fall short, and that more effort should be spent on understanding what binds individuals together and allows them to live without conflict. Individuals stripped of their identity markers do not come together to build societies. Rather, societies are built by individuals who define themselves through and by their sense of belonging. To say that this runs counter to some social ideal in societies where individuals were deemed inferior and treated as such is laughable. In 1955, ten years after the equal rights law, Michel Leiris observed that in Martinique  and Guadeloupe there remained a “colonial-era economy,” Leiris insisted it was the government’s job to “ensure that Martinican and Guadeloupean people of color, who are now French citizens, are not only equal by law but also in practice.” The challenge for these people was “to find one’s place without blindly adhering to the cultural norms of a distant métropole (whose population and living conditions are markedly distinct) nor resorting back to the antiquated traditions of a culture seen in some respects as national.” Césaire expressed it in these terms: “There are two ways to be forgotten: by being isolated into d a distinct group or by being subsumed under the banner of universalism.” [Letter to Maurice Thorez] He pushed for “invention over imitation” and warned against “confusing an alliance with domination.” Having experienced colonial paternalism from the left and the French communists, Césaire understood that new types of relations needed to be created. His notion of literary “piracy” — urging writers “to steal from language” — can be applied to the political arena: stealing the promises of freedom and equality wile ridding them of their ethnocentric heritage of colonialism and slavery.

When Césaire speaks of a “new humanism,” he doesn’t have in mind, as he himself jokingly put it, “a new religion.” He is more concerned with confronting and interrogating colonial history rather than relegating it to the margins. Césaire’s relevancy for the twenty-first century is perhaps best seen in his Discourse on colonialism and his notion of the “reverse shock.” It is worth citing the passage in question in full:

And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific reverse shock: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers around the racks invent, refine, discuss.
People are surprised, they become indignant. They say: “How strange! But never mind — it’s Nazism, it will pass!” And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, but the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack.

According to Césaire, what characterizes the shock “is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India, and the blacks [les nègres] of Africa.” As studies on structural racism in French society continue to appear, the notion of “reverse shock” can be applied to a larger field of analysis to address the decolonization of knowledge, institutions, and arts in France. These questions are already debated among activist groups, at conferences and in university classrooms. Césaire’s contribution to this vital process of decolonization — which remains, as Frantz Fanon stated, “a historical process,” which is to say, always an act, a practice, a form of thinking, an interrogation — is just that: calling attention to Europe’s inevitable descent into savagery, to the systematic devastation wrought by capitalism, to the close ties between racism and capitalism. If one thing is lacking in Césaire’s work, it is a discussion of how women of color are impacted by this system of racialization. At the same time, this shortcoming doesn’t stand in the way of women of color filling this gap themselves, and, following the lead of the women’s movements in the colonies, many black and brown women in France are doing just that. As for the arts — let’s not forget that Césaire, poet and playwright, was passionate about art — it bears repeating that decolonization begins by unmasking the practices and techniques of erasure that are at play in works of art. This is no easy task. A process of unlearning has to happen before learning can take place, and one must ask with unrelenting curiosity “how,” “who,” “why,” and “for whom.” In the words of the Algerian-French artist Kader Attia, it is a matter of “empowering yourself and building your own space of resistance and then, as much as possible, connecting it with other spaces of resistance … And freeing yourself from the yoke of the official national narrative in order to reclaim your story and write it yourself, laying out your vision of things.” Learning depends on this process of unlearning, on retraining our damaged senses (seeing, listening, touching, smelling), on reacquainting ourselves with silence.

This turn toward colonial history and its contemporary manifestations is key to decolonizing the arts. Centuries of colonization — both pre- and post-dating slavery — have left us with a whole series of racist images, taboos, vocabulary. In postwar France, the moral condemnation of racism created the fiction that racism was henceforth no more than a personal opinion, an attitude springing from a questionable ethical stance. No longer accepting “race” as a category, however, didn’t stand in the way of a full-flung cultural racism, a raceless racism. This racial ideology has a long history that has endured in the minds of many: think of the ant-Semitic representations plaguing Europe since the medieval period, or the stigmatizing representations of black women and men that began to spread in the eighteenth century, or of the journals kept by European travelers where the world was divided between the civilized and the non-civilized, or of human zoos, of colonial literature, of the widespread diffusion of photographic and cinematic imagery that propped up a racist colonial ideology, of misogynist and homophobic imagery, which fed, and continues to feed, widespread beliefs and practices regarding marginalized populations. “No one colonizes innocently, no one colonizes with impunity either; a nation which colonizes, a civilization which justifies colonization — and therefore force — is already a sick civilization, a civilization that is morally diseased, that irresistibly, progressing from one consequence to another, one repudiation to another, calls for its Hitler, I mean its punishment,” Césaire wrote. And yet, despite countless works, studies and dissertations on this long history, decolonizing the French cultural castes is still met with strong opposition. Paul Robeson’s words would have certainly resonated with Césaire: “Even while demonstrating that he is really an equal (and, strangely, the proof must be superior performance!), the Negro must never appear to be challenging white superiority. Climb up if you can — but don’t act ‘uppity’. Always show that you are grateful. (Even if what you have gained has been wrested from unwilling powers, be sure to be grateful lest ‘they’ take it all away.) Above all, do nothing to give them cause to fear you, for then the oppressing hand, which might at times ease up a little, will surely become a fist to knock you down again!”

 


 

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[…]

Françoise Vergès: We’ve talked a lot about your political work, but you always presented yourself first and foremost as a poet. How were you able to bring these two activities together?

Aimé Césaire: I don’t know how I managed to bring them together. This also surprise me. You can’t say I succeeded. Someone recently sent me the Proust Questionnaire and asked me to respond. What questions! It would take a whole book, which is to say a lifetime, to respond. What do I think about men? What do I think about women? What do I think about myself and my character, etc.? Truthfully, I don’t know how to respond. I get my bearings and discover myself in my poetry, probably even more so in the most obscure poems … And who else can discover this but you, you who reads and rereads me, who does me the honor of pursuing me for, dare I say, years? My poetry has all my answers. I like poetry and I reread my own work, I value it. It’s where I am “me.”

Poetry is a form of self-revelation. My poetry certainly contains whatever lies deepest inside my self. Otherwise this “self” remains unknown to me. I only encounter it in my poetry, in poetic imagery.

I inhabit a sacred wound
I inhabit imaginary ancestors
I inhabit an obscure desire
I inhabit a long silence
I inhabit an irremediable thirst
I inhabit a one-thousand-year journey
I Inhabit an abandoned cult
between bulb and bulbil I inhabit the unexploited space
I inhabit not a vein of the basalt
but the rising tide of lava
witch runs at full pitch back up the gulch
to burn all the mosques
I accommodate myself as best I can to this avatar
to an absurdly botched version of paradise
— it is worse than hell —
I inhabit from time to time one of my wounds
each minute I change apartments
and all peace frightens me
whirlwind of fire
ascidium like none other to hold the dust of
wandering worlds
having spat out the volcano my freshwater entrails
I remain with my loaves of words and my secret words and my secret minerals
I inhabit thus a vast thought
but mostly prefer to confine myself
to the littlest of my ideas
or I inhabit a magic formula
but only the first few words
the rest forgotten
I inhabit the ice jam
I inhabit the thaw
I inhabit the face of a great disaster
I inhabit the driest udder
Of the most emaciated flank — the lever of these clouds —
I inhabit the halo of the Cactaceae
I inhabit a herd of goats pulling on the teat
of the most desolate argan tree
to tell you the truth I no longer know my correct address
bathyal or abyssal
I inhabit the hole of an octupus
I fight with the octupus over an octupus hole

brother don’t insist
a mess of kelp
clinging like a parasite
or twining porana-like
it’s all the same
and let the wave toss
and let the sun leech
and let the wind whip
round hill of my nothingness

the atmospheric, no historic pressure
increase immeasurably my plight
even as it changes with beauty my words 

 

 

 

FROM
AIMÉ CÉSAIRE
RESOLUTELY BLACK
CONVERSATIONS WITH FRANÇOIS VERGÈS
TRANSLATED BY MATTHEW B. SMITH
POLITY PRESS, 2020
PHOTOGRAPHS BY BRUNO BOUDJELAL | FRANTZ FANON

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