Cesaire: Return to My Native Land

Aime Cesaire's long poem Cahier d'un retour au pays natal, written in France in 1938, is the first creative writing from the African Caribbean to achieve international acclaim. A Martiniquan, Cesaire had gone to France in 1931 to study, & there he met Blacks from other French colonies, most notably the Senegalese poet & politician Leopold Senghor. They published a journal & developed an international perspective on the Black experience which came to be known as Negritude. Cesaire became an intellectual figure of prominance & was for many years the mayor of Martinique's capital Fort-de-France. These four short excerpts begin with a description of his childhood home in a small town at the north of the island. Here is a cry against poverty & history. And here is a recognition of the travails of the diaspora.

At the end of the small hours: life flat on its face, miscarried dreams and nowhere to put them, the river of life listless in its hopeless bed, not rising nor falling, unsure of its flow, lamentably empty, the heavy impartial shadow of boredom creeping over the brightness of a single bird.

At the end of the small hours: another house in a very narrow street smelling very bad, a tiny house which within its entrails of rotten wood shelters rats by the dozen and the gale of my six brothers and sisters, a cruel little house whose implacability panics us at the end of every month, and my strange father nibbled by a single misery whose name I've never known, my father whom an unpredictable witchcraft soothes into sad tenderness or exalts into fierce flames of anger; and my mother whose feet, daily and nightly, pedal, pedal for our never-tiring hunger, I am even woken by those never-tiring feet pedalling by night and the Singer whose teeth rasp into the soft flesh of the night, the Singer which my mother pedals, pedals for our hunger night and day.

At the end of the small hours, my father, my mother, and over them the house which is a shack splitting open with blisters like a peach-tree tormented by blight, and the roof worn thin, mended with bits of paraffin cans, this roof pisses swamps of rust on to the grey sordid stinking mess of straw, and when the wind blows, these ill-matched properties make a strange noise, like the sputter of frying, then like a burning log plunged into water with the smoke from the twigs twisting away....

And the bed of planks on its legs of kerosene drums, a bed with elephantiasis, my grandmother's bed with its goatskin and its dried banana leaves and its rags, a bed with nostalgia as a matress and above it a bowl full of oil, a candle-end with a dancing flame and on the bowl, in golden letters, the word merci.

A disgrace, Paille Street,
a disgusting appendage like the private parts of this town, whose sea of grey-tiled roofs extends to left and to right all along the colonial road; whereas here there are only roofs of straw, stained brown by sea-spray, worn thin by the wind.

Everyone despises Paille Street. It's there that the young people of the town are led astray. It's there that the sea especially dumps its refuse, its dead cats and its dogs. For the street ends on the beach, and the beach is not enough to satisfy the foaming rage of the sea.

A misery, this beach of rotting garbage, the furtive rumps of creatures relieving themselves, and the sand black, dismal, black sand such as you never saw, the sea-scum slides over it, yelping, and the sea hits hard at this beach like a boxer, or rather the sea is a great dog licking and biting the shins of the beach, and in the end the biting dog will surely devour this beach and Paille Street along with it.
. . . . . . . .
I would come to that country, my country, and I would say to it: 'Kiss me without fear....And if I do not know what to say, it is still for you that I speak."

And I would say to it:

'My mouth shall be the mouth of misfortunes which have no mouth, my voice the freedom of those freedoms which break down in the prison-cell of despair.'

And coming, I would say to myself:

'Beware, my body and my soul, beware above all of crossing your arms and assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, because life is not a spectacle, because a sea of sorrows is not a proscenium, because a man who cries out is not a dancing bear.'
. . . . . . . .
These are mine: these few gangrenous thousands who rattle in this calabash of an island. And this too is mine: this archipelago arched with anxiety as though to deny itself, as though she were a mother anxious to protect the tenuous delicacy with which her two Americas are joined; this archipelago whose flanks secrete for Europe the sweet liquid of the Gulf Stream; this archipelago which is one side of the shining passage through which the Equator walks its tightrope to Africa. My island, my non-enclosure, whose bright courage stands at the back of my polynesia; in front, Guadaloupe split in two by its dorsal ridge and as wretched as we ourselves; Haiti where negritude rose to its feet for the first time and said it believed in its own humanity; and the comic little tail of Florida where they are just finishing strangling a Negro; and Africa gigantically caterpillaring as far as the Spanish foot of Europe: the nakedness of Africa where the scythe of Death swings wide.

My name is Bordeaux and Nantes and Liverpool and New York and San Francisco
not a corner of this world but carries my thumb-print and my heel-mark on the backs of skyscrapers and my dirt
in the glitter of jewels!
Who can boast of more than I?

Virginia. Tennessee. Georgia. Alabama.
Monstrous putrefactions of revolts
coming to nothing,
putrid marshes of blood
trumpets ridiculously blocked
Red earth, blood earth, blood brother earth.
. . . . . . . .
For centuries this country repeated that we are brute beasts; that the human heart-beat stops at the gates of the black world; that we are walking manure hideously proffering the promise of tender cane and silky cotton, and they branded us with red-hot irons and we slept in our shit and we were sold in public squares and a yard of English cloth and salted Irish meat were cheaper than us and this country was quiet, calm, saying that the spirit of God was in his acts.

We, vomit of the slave-ship
We, hunted meat of Calabar.
Plug your ears?
We, stuffed to bursting with the swell, with squalls
with inhaled fog!

Forgive me, partner whirlwind!

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