Césaire Interview

Below are three extracts from an interview Aimé Césaire gave to the Nouvel Observateur in 1994, in my translation. You can read the whole interview here. There is also a good obit in today’s Libération, and one in the New York Times, while on Global Voices Online, Jennifer Brea gathers blog reaction from all over the world.

Aimé Césaire:
The first person I met in Paris was Senghor. Discovering Senghor made me discover Africa. That was a revelation for me. Thus for nearly ten years I hardly saw any of my compatriots. I didn’t leave Senghor or my new African friends. We spent our time reading and thinking together. The same questions haunted us: questions of the black race, of identity, of alienation. We were good students but at no time during our studies did we lose track of those questions. We were passionately scouring the books for arms for our struggle. Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx… we made use of everything. I would for example come across a quote by Hegel: “One must not oppose singularity to universality,” and I would immediately exclaim: “Do you get it Léopold, the more negro we will be, the more universal we will be.” My quest for the black man was both intense and anguished. Senghor says that it is I who invented the word “negritude.” That’s not true. Maybe I was the first to write it, but in fact that word is the outcome of a collective creation.

My temperament is rather explosive. The words had to spurt out. Senghor, on the other hand, was very thoughtful, very much in control of himself. Deep down, he was a black patrician. You must never forget that we Carribeans are descendants of slaves. We are torn creatures. The Carribean condition is pathetic. We have been deceived, oppressed, we’ve had our land and our language forcefully taken from us. That why I felt that need to roar, that fundamental rage and why my poetry is made of revolt, anguish and calls for a reconquest. To reconquer myself, that is my obsession!

It’s true, I was not a surrealist. I did know their works and I was reading everything I could get my hands on: Claudel, Lautréamont, Baudelaire, Fargue, Rimbaud. In fact I found the Carribean surrealists more surrealist than Carribean. And then came my meeting with André Breton and it was love at first sight. But don’t forget that my first true revelation I owe to Senghor. He had given me a continent, Africa. That was fantastic because for a Carribean Africa had always been occulted. In Martinique we have a very popular carnival mask with bull horns called the red Devil. One day in Casamance I saw my Martinican mask walking up the road toward me. Like an idiot, I shouted to me Senegalse neighbor: “You got it too?” He responded: “How do you mean, too? It’s our mask.” In Africa it was the mask of the initiated, the symbol of material and spiritual richness. It was a god in Africa and a devil in Martinique. The god of the victor had become the devil of the vanquished.

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