Discourse on colonialism

Today marks ten years since Aimé Césaire's death. What would he have thought about the state of the former French colonies today?

Mural of Aimé Césaire in Bangolet, France. Image via Panoramas on Flickr.

Two years ago, I was doing research in Martinique. Not far from my apartment was a centre commercial with a McDonalds, a bakery, and a Carrefour, a French supermarket chain. While picking up groceries one Saturday, I started browsing through the Carrefour newsstand. Alongside the usual fitness, beauty, sports, and news magazines, I was intrigued to find a number of books by Antillean authors, including works by Raphaël Confiant, Maryse Condé, and Édouard Glissant. I also found copies of Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal and Discours sur le colonialisme. This struck me as an entirely appropriate symbol. Césaire was popularly revered, but also captured in the colonial legacy of European capitalism in the Caribbean. I quickly added the books to my basket and headed for the checkout.

I had first read the Discours years earlier in an undergraduate seminar. Each student had to present on one of the assigned books, and I chose Discourse on Colonialism because it was the shortest. I had never heard of it, much less Césaire, but I still remember opening it for the first time on the bus ride home. The language was electric and sarcastic and the anticolonial, anti-racist message was clear and simple. Césaire’s ideas were also remarkably relevant. He castigated the casual complicity of Western bourgeoisie in all forms of violence and oppression around the world. A short presentation turned into a seminar paper, and the more I pulled the at the Césaire thread, the more there seemed to be.

In 2013, I was in Dakar to read through the René Maran papers at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop. A friend told me that there was a street in Dakar named after Césaire. One day after work I wandered north from the university and made my way through the upscale Fann quartier. Sure enough, there was rue Aimé Césaire. It runs parallel to rue Léon-Gontran Damas off the Corniche. Along with Léopold Senghor, Césaire and Damas formed Negritude’s sainted triumvirate.

Yet the streets of Dakar bore other legacies too. The architecture of the rond-points and Le Plateau reflected decades of French occupation, as did the supermarkets (Casino) and telecom companies (Orange). I re-read the Discours while in Dakar, and tried to understand the decolonization that Césaire, Senghor, and others had envisioned.

On another research trip, this time to Paris, I went to the Panthéon to see Césaire’s plaque. It sits alongside similar commemorations for Louis Delgrès, Toussaint Louverture, and Félix Eboué. As I stood in front of the plaque, I overheard the puzzled comments of other tourists as they moved past: “Aimé Césaire? C’est qui ça? Ah, un Martiniquais!” In the tomb of France’s “Great Men,” Césaire’s legacy felt blunted, normalized, and assimilated. Indeed, this was the (intended?) effect of Sarkozy’s 2011 speech in honour of Césaire’s enshrinement. Nevertheless, the words on the plaque, from a 1982 poem, defied recuperation:

J’habite une blessure sacrée
J’habite des ancêtres imaginaires
J’habite un vouloir obscur
J’habite un long silence
J’habite une soif irrémédiable

While in Martinique, I made a pilgrimage to Basse-Pointe, Césaire’s hometown, on the northern tip of the island. Winding through the mountainous roads, under the gaze of Mont Pelée, I caught glimpses of Césaire’s Martinique. In Basse-Pointe, there is a school named for Césaire, but little else in terms of commemoration.

Before leaving the island, I read my Carrefour copy of the Discours. Much like in the Panthéon, Césaire’s words were powerful enough to challenge Carrefour’s capitalist cooptation. Damning colonization and its “antagonistic economies,” Césaire declared: “The decisive actors here are the adventurer and the pirate, the wholesale grocer and the ship owner, the gold digger and the merchant.”

Looking out on a horizon dotted with cargo boats and cruise ships, I tried to imagine what Césaire might write now, ten years after his death, in a Discours sur le néocolonialisme.

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