The work of Aime Césaire (1913-2008) presents political theology with often unimagined planes to traverse. The mixed positionality of his own identity allows for a multi-dimensional analysis of political positioning, identity and anticolonial framing. This essay will uplift Césaire’s anticolonial consciousness, in hopes that new directions in political theology might emerge/surface.
Hailing from Martinique, Césaire was a Francophone Afro-Caribbean author and politician. Césaire highlights his upbringing in Martinique (French Caribbean) through the surrealist poem published as his first book, Return to My Native Land (1939). In a 1967 interview with René Depestre, Césaire described this work as:
an autobiographical book, but at the same time it is a book in which I tried to gain an understanding of myself. In a certain sense it is closer to the truth than a biography. You must remember that it is a young person’s book: I wrote it just after I had finished my studies and had come back to Martinique. These were my first contacts with my country after an absence of ten years, so I really found myself assaulted by a sea of impressions and images. At the same time I felt a deep anguish over the prospects for Martinique.
He mostly resided in Paris for the ten years he was away (1931-1940). While there he attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and the École Normale Supérieure, and he started The Black Student, a literary review, with Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon Damas. With Senghor and Damas, he founded the Negritude movement. Although Césaire was the first of the group to use the term, he did not take sole credit for it; the concept arose from a convergence of thought amongst his peers. It was also with his colleagues/comrades that he fine-tuned the difference between “colorless communism” and Negritude. Colorless communism embraced surrealism and was critical of imperialism, but it did not engage in the work of disalienation (the process of healing internal fissures/dissonance and coming back to one’s self).
Negritude might be more readily acknowledged within theological circles than Césaire himself due to the interplay theology has had with Léopold Senghor’s work. While Senghor’s work is primarily focused on internal/spiritual modes of coming into Black consciousness, primarily located on the plane of the abstract, Césaire was intentional in how he differentiated his use of the term from Senghor. Césaire writes, “. . . if someone asks me what my conception of Negritude is, I answer that above all it is a concrete rather than an abstract coming to consciousness.” Negritude became an influential framework in Pan-African movements across the globe and was particularly useful in the work of decolonizing Africa from the French. Césaire became mayor of Fort-de-France, the capital of Martinique, in 1945. His seminal essay Discourse on Colonialism, published in 1950, is a Third World manifesto. It lays out an anticolonial analysis of western europe and its mythologies. In this text Césaire points to the depth and intractability of colonialism (going beyond postcolonial stances which arrived later than his own work). Further, Discourse ruptures coloniality’s ongoing and reverberating processes and effects. Césaire’s visceral analysis of coloniality within Discourse situates coloniality as a distinctly evil threat to freedom.
Césaire began his work with the French Communist Party in 1945 when he first ran for office in Martinique. In 1956 he resigned. In that same year he penned a scathing critique of the party entitled “Letter to Maurice Thorez” along with two other essays, “Culture and Colonization” and “The Death of the Colonies”. Two years later, in 1958, he founded the Martinican Progressive Party, and in 1960 he published a text stemming from his love for Haiti, Toussaint Louverture: The French Revolution and the Colonial Problem. The remainder of his life’s work was dedicated to governance (making decolonization concrete) and shifting knowledge systems through his poetry and plays.
Césaire names three major influences on his thought:
The first was the French literary influence, through the works of Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Lautreamont and Claudel. The second was Africa . . . as for the third influence, it was the Negro Renaissance Movement in the United States, which did not influence me directly but still created an atmosphere which allowed me to become conscious of the solidarity of the black world.
This conscious solidarity refers to the desire for, work toward, and coming into a sense of common struggle by Black people around the globe in a manner that does not flatten complex differences in contexts. It is tied to what I think is his most promising contribution: anticolonialism. Here, anticolonialism is the state of demarcation from further colonial modes of infringement. While decolonization carries connotative marks of unraveling one’s connections to coloniality (Mignolo) and delinking from said onto-material connections to the products of colonialism (Wynter), anticolonialism is the refusal to allow for re-linking (internally) and the re-occupying of space (materially, intellectually, or culturally). It is the stance that allows for the maintenance of decolonial praxis against outside forces. Anticolonialism can either preclude decolonization as an epistemology and method, or follow decoloniality as a mode of practice. Anticolonialism precludes decolonization by functioning as the mental/internal grounding, through/from which people imagine new socio-political orientations and move to concretize (and sustain) their untangling from colonial structures. It follows decolonization as the framework employed to combat coloniality (systemically, in spurts, in neighborhoods, in people, etc.). Césaire’s anticolonialism parallels others of his time in that it provides a theoretical framing for the self-determination of people who live together while defending themselves against colonial rule, maintaining their own collective histories, geographies, genetics, and culture. Anticolonialism is not only defensive but offensive, redetermining the boundaries of existence to sever connections to colonialism’s imposed universal. It pursues the agential, value-laden, localized people.
Anticolonialism exists beyond political decolonization as it becomes a disposition whereby decolonized sites (minds, bodies, lands, etc.) engage in the never-ending work of fighting against the tides of colonialism—maintaining an internal mantra of “never again.” Césaire’s anticolonialism seeks to search for and destroy the remnants of colonialism while determining ways to come into consciousness that would allow for defense against external imposition. Anti-colonialism engages in a war for the mind, and its reverberating realities, attentive to the concrete implications of ideas and the complexity and absurdities of life. In that vein, Césaire argues the poet becomes the bearer of the new world. Imagining the potential of this new world, he highlights the interdependence of objects, biologies, and worlds. Simultaneously pointing to their dependence on their environments. In “Poetry and Knowledge” he draws from Aldous Huxley and asserts:
We all think we know what a lion is. A lion is a desert-colored animal with a mane and claws and an expression like Garibaldi’s. But it is also, in Africa, all the neighboring antelopes and zebras, and therefore, indirectly, all the neighboring grass … If there were no antelopes and zebras there would be no lion. When the supply of game runs low, the king of beasts grows thin and mangy; it ceases altogether, and he dies.
He later adds:
Within us, all the ages of mankind. Within us, all humankind. Within us, animal, vegetable, mineral. Mankind is not only mankind. It is universe. Everything happens as though, prior to the secondary scattering of life, there was a knotty primal unity whose gleam poets have homed in on.
Here he suggests that humanity is not simply changed from what we once knew. (I think Christians acknowledge this when speaking of divine incarnation.) Césaire is honing in on an element of existence that places people, along with the entirety of existence, in the very seat of infinity. Human limitations are shattered and we are forced to reckon with our own possibilities. For Césaire, this is not just about the immanent everything/nothing in the human but also about not being human in the ways humanity has so neatly been defined in a taxonomical or even a biblical sense. Concepts of existential interdependence combined with embodied infinity and infinitesimality is a departure from the human. When considered in view of what has historically been understood as human (disembodied consciousness, emotional distance, objective observer, and autonomous agent), Césaire’s notion destroys it. This configuration of existence aligns with concepts of superhumanity/monstrosity. However, one’s willful embrace of superhumanity/monstrosity treks further into the dark corridor of that reality which is outside the bounds of colonial normativity. In Césaire’s view, humanity is not what we are but rather an essential element of the cages of settler colonialism. Something to delink from.
Recent readings of Césaire point to his anticolonial work as deconstructionist, poststructuralist and categorically anti-humanist. His deconstruction predates Derrida, and Zakkiyah Jackson highlights how Césaire’s poststructuralist approach also predates Foucault. Drawing on surrealist influences (such as Andre Breton), he critically analyses and lays waste to notions that uphold the concept of humanity and modes of civilization that continue to center eurocentrism. Césaire presents a more consistent anti-humanist sentiment than what is presented in Wretched of the Earth. While the epistemic violence Fanon inflicts in Wretched of the Earth is undeniably obliterating, he eventually curtails his fervor into a sensible proposition for civilized action—a call for a new “[hu]man”. This might stem from his total independence framework, which is in contrast to Césaire’s support for departmentalization. Total independence creates a subsequent cultural vacuum, uplifting the subject of the new nation, whose construction becomes susceptible to a type of moral high ground in the re-imagining of a civilization. For those unfamiliar, departmentalization attributes equal and independent authority to “departments” within a larger governing/organizational entity for the purpose of interpreting constitutional documents. Departmentalization was intended to allot Martinique political representation equal to that of France—in terms of self-governance.
For Fanon, total independence relied upon creating a more civilized society, which would be centered on this new human. In contrast, Césaire’s anti-humanist critique is a lysis of civilization at the point of its uncritical barbarism. Césaire inhabits a stance similar to what Fred Moten refers to as the mania of thinking otherwise. Césaire intentionally inhabits the space understood as crazy, unreal, abandoned, or wild—Black. From the perspective of anticolonialism, colonialism is insane in its ravenous and unquenching expansion via bloodlust. Conversely, anticolonialism is the essence of insanity in the gaze of colonial normativity. Thus explicating the polarizing mental states—both perceive the other as pathological. While Fanon argues for the formation of a new human, Césaire’s anticolonial framework differentiates itself in that humanity no longer makes sense within its field of acceptance/possibility. As the subject of settler colonialism, it becomes a relic or spectre. Simply lingering around. When Fanon returns from his cathartic anti-humanist frenzy through calls for civilized action at the very end of Wretch of the Earth (Fanon 1963, pp. 316), Césaire does not. Césaire maintains his anticolonial, and therefore, anti-humanist stance through much of his poetry and political career. A New York Times article published the day after his death, in 2008, recounts his remarks just three years prior, “I remain faithful to my beliefs and remain inflexibly anticolonialist.”
Césaire maintains this psychic break in order to live through, or into, the anticoloniality that guides the decoloniality of his life’s work. Oddly enough, Césaire advances decolonization through departmentalization. Assimilating in lieu of being assimilated. To some, this may present as a weakness of his framework, but where Fanon opted for complete independence: Algeria also had to start over. Césaire’s option (departmentalization) carved out a localized space in order to break the borders/limits of French rule. This particular type of anticolonial nationalism simultaneously centers craziness/Blackness while infiltrating the borders of the nation state using its understanding of itself against itself. In his case, Césaire’s tactic was to dig further into the trenches of French-ness as a means to becoming more Martinican, a survival tactic to stave off a similar fate to that of Haiti (economic abandonment and indebtedness). Césaire’s departmentalization tactic was focused on reviving, empowering, and valuing local Martinican cultural modes of Black expression. Through survival and political ju-jitsu his anti-human anticolonial approach was meant to advance Martinique’s disalienation. Further, his anti-humanism is evidence of his refusal to center western european epistemologies or sensibilities as a means to construct a different world—from the ontological to the material. In “The Spirit of Surrealism” Michel Jean-Claude highlights the timeless nature of surrealism. How it has existed far into the past beyond its 20th century european emergence. So, when Césaire drew from his surrealist influences to develop deconstructionist thought grounded in the hyper-sensate qualities of his life experiences in Martinique one could argue his French education exposed him to a stream of consciousness (not unique to europe) that gave him words to express what he felt. He used these influences to describe what it felt like to face “the unknown”, or death, all the while being the very thing that represents the same (the unknown/death) for the present eurocentrized reality—Blackness.
When Césaire set aside attempts at civility, recognition, identity, and formality, all that was left for him was a realization that he was African.
Well then, if I apply the surrealist approach to my particular situation, I can summon up these unconscious forces. This, for me, was a call to Africa. I said to myself: it’s true that superficially we are French, we bear the marks of French customs; we have been branded by Cartesian philosophy, by French rhetoric; but if we break with all that, if we plumb the depths, then what we will find is fundamentally black (Interview with René Depestre, 1967).
According to the aforementioned conversation between Césaire and Depestre, this realization was the return. Disalienation allowed for a return to himself in a way that made him conscious of himself and those around him who shared not only similar experiences, but genealogy and cultural lineage. Yet, in that same interview he claims that “everyone has [their] own Negritude. There has been too much theorizing about Negritude. I have tried not to overdo it, out of a sense of modesty.” More specifically, this was his coming to consciousness, his return to himself. By no means does he prescribe this way of identifying or coming to being for anyone else. He appreciates the multiple modes/notes of Black, or African, existence in his ability to name Negritude as being attached to a multitude of possibilities. Aware of the differences between Antillean Negritude versus African Negritude, he reflects, “It was simply that in Paris . . . there were a few dozen Negroes of diverse origins. There were Africans, like Senghor, Guianans, Haitians, North Americans, Antilleans, etc. This was very important for me.” An awareness and acceptance of those pluralities allows for Black multiplicity, and therefore a multiplicity of Negritude, to exist.
Various iterations of political theology, or politically oriented theology, revolve around (Schmitt), are in response to (Gutierrez), seek to deconstruct (Lightsey or Crockett), or even function as a means to destroy (Kwok) humanism. But humanism cannot be destroyed without destroying the human. Declaring the value of one’s own humanity, the humanity of one’s people, the humanity of any people, or even embracing the kind of humanity that sits outside white supremacist molds of humanity does not approach the anti-humanism, tied to anticolonialism, offered by Césaire. There is much at stake for anti-humanist renderings of theological discourse, namely both theology and the human. But there is also much to be gained by holding such a risky position. Freedom. Or, the other side of this. . . that is not over yonder.
When white supremacy functions as a defining feature of humanity, and when white supremacy is reinscribed in humanism’s new iterations (transhumanism, posthumanism, metahumanism, etc.), it is imperative that political theologians consider new modes of existence which do violence, and uphold said violence, to the perpetually iterative conceptions of humanity. Césaire presents us with an opportunity to rename ourselves. His poetry invites us into new and limitless states of interdependent embodied existence. Here, live dissection of the human becomes a portal to these realities as we continue our search for something else.
Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. New York: NYU Press. 2001.
Originally Published in 1950, this essay explores the logical implications of colonialism on societies perpetuating it. For Césaire, these societies are “dying societies”, “a one-way road to Hitler”. As such they cannibalize themselves and their fate is inevitable. More recent editions of the essay include additional essays and an interview that expound on the original, and provide added perspective on his life’s work.
Césaire, Aimé. “Culture and Colonization.” Social Text 28, no. 2 (103) (2010): 127-144.
This essay was initially released in 1956 by Présence Africaine. It provides a critique of what is acceptably considered culture. It looks into white supremacist modes of power hacking that exist to hoard power in its coffers. It also asks for previous conceptions of Black male leadership to be set aside and allow for a new collective to arise that brings something more authentic, something different and original into reality. In this essay he also spends time analyzing the idea that colonized people will return to their pre-colonial state.
Césaire, Aimé. “Poetry and Knowledge.” Sulfur 5 (1982): 17.
This poem explores the diametric relationship between scientific knowledge and poetry. It juxtaposes the two as entryways into realities. Although science is presented as a means toward the exploration of curiosity it functions in a linear and prescriptive fashion. In contrast, poetry opens to worlds of proximity, meaning, and possibility. Still, the oppositional nature of the two demonstrates a paradox in knowledge where one singularity of meaning is deemed false and the multiplicity of existence is more likely the case.
Césaire, Aimé. Return to My Native Land. Brooklyn: Archipelago Books. 2014.
This book-length poem is a surrealist account of Césaire’s coming into awareness of himself. In this text Césaire wrestled with what he discovered to be the state of Martinique upon his return from France after ten years. Having completed his education and joining with fellow comrades in struggle, Césaire is forced to reconcile what he thought he knew of his home with what he came to observe. It is a gripping whirlwind of surrealist reflections and experiential renderings.
Wilder, Gary. Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World. Duke University Press, 2015.
Gary Wilder offers a historical reading of Césaire and Senghor’s praxis of self-determination without sovereignty. The description of Wilder’s text reads “Refusing to reduce colonial emancipation to national independence, they regarded decolonization as an opportunity to remake the world.” As such, this text is a conversation on decoloniality, the future and the embodiment of such perspectives through the lives of these two figures.