Discourse on Colonialism


Aimé Césaire

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Discourse on Colonialism Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Aimé Césaire's Discourse on Colonialism. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Aimé Césaire

Poet and politician Aimé Césaire was born to working-class parents on the Caribbean island of Martinique, a French colony, where he excelled in school from an early age. This won him a scholarship to study in Paris, where he entered the prestigious École Normale Supérieure and befriended Léopold Sédar Senghor, an African student and poet who later became the celebrated first president of Senegal. In an attempt to assert the voices of students from France’s overseas colonies and denounce the pervasive racism he experienced in Paris, Césaire started a journal called L’Étudiant Noir (The Black Student). Its contributors included Senghor and Suzanne Roussi, another student from Martinique, who ended up marrying Césaire in 1937. Two years later, they returned to Martinique, where both of them taught at the prestigious Lycée Schœlcher, wrote prolifically in their spare time, and founded and edited the influential literary magazine Tropiques during World War II. The Césaires and the circle of intellectuals and acquaintances that formed around them used Tropiques to advance a Pan-African Marxist philosophy called Négritude and explore the implications of surrealist techniques in writing and art. Césaire’s first major work, the Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (Cahier d’un retour au pays natal), brought him to international prominence around the same time (although he had first published it years earlier, in 1939). As a teacher, Césaire also helped inspire Martinique’s two other most famous writers: the psychiatrist and activist Frantz Fanon and the literary critic Édouard Glissant. In 1945, hoping to help Martinique achieve independence or greater autonomy within the French colonial empire, Césaire decided to seek political office and was elected mayor of Fort-de-France, Martinique’s capital and largest city. During this time, he drafted a controversial law that helped Martinique receive the status of a department (which is similar to a state or province) but also solidified French control over the island. He initially associated with the French Communist Party, and it was during this period that he wrote the Discourse on Colonialism (1950). However, Césaire soon left the Communist Party, and in 1958 he founded the alternative Martinican Progressive Party. For the next half-century, Césaire continued to serve as Fort-de-France’s mayor and took on a variety of other political roles in Martinique and France, all while continuing to write plays, essays, and numerous volumes of poetry. Even after his retirement in 2001, he remained politically active (notably, by protesting a 2005 law that required French schools to teach about the so-called “positive values” of French colonialism). Césaire died of heart failure in 2008, but he remains a beloved and influential in Martinique as well as throughout France.
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Historical Context of Discourse on Colonialism

Aimé Césaire wrote the Discourse on Colonialism at a pivotal time in world history: World War II had recently ended, and much of the world remained shocked at the horrors perpetrated by the Nazi regime. At the same time, the victors of World War II continued to run global empires and commit crimes against humanity in their colonies. This contradiction was what principally motivated Césaire to denounce European and American colonialism in the Discourse. This colonialism extended back to the 15th century, when Portuguese merchants began establishing a string of trading ports around the globe and Spanish invaders (led by Christopher Columbus) landed in the Americas and began enslaving native peoples. This sparked the first wave of colonialism, during which European empires focused their energies on the Americas. However, starting with the United States and Haiti, most of these American states won independence in the 18th and 19th centuries. (However, this does not mean there are no longer any colonies in the Americas: France maintains control of Aimé Césaire’s native Martinique, among others, and the United States continues to control Puerto Rico.) Great Britain began consolidating its control over India in the 18th century, but the second major wave of European colonialism did not pick up until 1870, when the nations of Western Europe began competing to see who could conquer the most land in Africa and throughout Asia. However, World War I marked a crucial turning point in European colonialism. Not only was most of the world already divided up, but the Allied Powers re-divided German and Ottoman territory among themselves, and soldiers from colonized countries who fought for the governments who colonized them began pursuing independence for their own nations. After World War II, with the foundation of the United Nations, global attitudes began to firmly turn against colonialism, even though European empires had never been larger. The second and larger wave of decolonization was propelled by the coordinated global movement of “Non-Aligned” or “Third World” countries who remained neutral in the Cold War. Césaire’s call for global revolution must be understood in the context of this process of decolonization, which began with the independence of Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Over the following decade, the first few independence fights, like the immense popular movement in British India, managed to prove successful. However, when Césaire wrote the Discourse on Colonialism in 1950, most of the colonized world’s work still lay ahead of it. Essentially all of Africa remained colonized, and European empires were bitterly committed to keeping their colonies. Of course, Césaire focused his energies on the French empire, which reinvaded Vietnam and slaughtered independence protestors in Algeria and Madagascar in the few years between the end of World War II and the first publication of the Discourse on Colonialism. When North Vietnam secured its independence in 1954, a hugely important independence movement was growing in Algeria, which fought a bitter independence war that it eventually won in 1962. Having already granted independence to Morocco and Tunisia, France was weakened and essentially left without an empire. However, while some historians argue that the French empire formally ended with the independence of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu in 1980, others note that it essentially continues today, both through France’s informal control over its former colonies (especially in Africa) and through its direct rule of colonies like Césaire’s native Martinique—which is officially a department of France—and numerous Pacific island territories like New Caledonia, which completely lack autonomy.

Other Books Related to Discourse on Colonialism

Although Aimé Césaire is arguably best remembered for the Discourse on Colonialism, the vast majority of his output consisted of poetry and plays. These include his other most famous work, the long poem Notebook of a Return to the Native Land (1939), a surrealist meditation on identity and belonging inspired by his move back from Paris to Martinique, and the 1969 play Une Tempête (or A Tempest), which reinterprets Shakespeare’s The Tempest through the lens of colonialism and slavery. His poetry is compiled in English as Aimé Césaire, The Collected Poetry (1982, trans. Eshleman and Smith), and his other plays include The Tragedy of King Cristophe (1963) and A Season in the Congo (1966), which dramatize anticolonial politics in Haiti and the Congo, respectively. Other important works by Césaire include the 1962 Toussaint Louverture, a biography of the Haitian independence leader, and the 1987 speech Discourse on Négritude, which was something of a sequel to the Discourse on Colonialism. As a teacher and editor, Césaire also influenced the next generation of Martinican intellectuals. The famous psychiatrist and activist Frantz Fanon, whose Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and The Wretched of the Earth (1961) remain cornerstones of anticolonial literature, was Césaire’s student and lifelong critic. Césaire also helped inspire the prominent writer Édouard Glissant, whose numerous novels include The Fourth Century (2001) and many of whose essays are collected in the Poetics of Relation (1997) and Caribbean Discourse (1999). Prominent contemporary writers from Martinique include Patrick Chamoiseau, whose most famous novel is the award-winning Texaco (1992), and Raphaël Confiant, whose novels include the recent Grand Café Martinique (2020). These two novelists partnered with the prominent Martinican literary critic Jean Bernabé on the volume In Praise of Creoleness (1993). Césaire’s contemporaries and fellow theorists of Négritude included his friend Léopold Sédar Senghor, who is best remembered as the president of Senegal but who salso wrote numerous books of poetry such as the Éthiopiques (1956), French Guyanese writer Léon Damas, whose most famous book of poetry is Pigments (1937), and the white French surrealist writer André Breton, who remains best known for novels like Nadja (1928) and various Surrealist Manifestoes. Finally, the work of Aimé Césaire’s wife and colleague, Suzanne Césaire, is often overlooked but also played an important part in the Négritude movement. In English, some of her work is collected in The Great Camouflage: Writings of Dissent (ed. Maximin, trans. Walker).
Key Facts about Discourse on Colonialism
  • Full Title: Discourse on Colonialism (Discours sur le colonialisme)
  • When Written: 1950
  • Where Written: Fort-de-France, Martinique
  • When Published: 1950
  • Literary Period: Contemporary French literature, postcolonial literature
  • Genre: Political essay, anticolonial theory, Marxist theory
  • Setting: N/A
  • Climax: Césaire calls for a global anticolonial, anti-bourgeois revolution
  • Antagonist: European colonialism, the European bourgeoisie, academics and the “civilizing mission”
  • Point of View: First-person

Extra Credit for Discourse on Colonialism

(In)Dependence for Martinique? Although he called for an international anti-bourgeois and anticolonial revolution in the Discourse on Colonialism, Césaire also famously helped write a bill that helped his native Martinique become a formal department (an entity like a state or a province) of France, rather than an independent country. Some of his followers and students, including Frantz Fanon, were deeply critical of this approach, which they viewed as equivalent to selling out to the oppressor and sacrificing the possibility of political self-determination. Into the 21st century, scholars and Martinicans continue to debate why Césaire chose to advocate for departmentalization over independence and whether his choice was consistent or contradictory with his stance in the Discourse on Colonialism.